The Breakout’s backers often try to endow it with some sense. They claim its participants were trying to defend Europe from the Red Army. That is false. By Breakout time, Western Europe was already in Western hands. The neutral countries relied on no such defence. The German army and Hungary’s puppet Arrow-Cross regime solely defended the interests of Nazi Germany. But if the Breakout did not, the siege of Budapest certainly contributed to lengthening the war and curbing the westward advance of the Red Army. There is no knowing what results there would have been if the Soviet sphere had stretched 100 or 500 km further west. This approach is backed by arguments that this would have outstretched the absorption abilities of the Soviet army. Certainly occupation by the Soviet Union was worse than by the US, Britain or France. But all these arguments are quite irrelevant from the Hungarian point of view. Hungary gained no longer or shorter benefit from a protraction of the siege of its capital.
The Breakout was certainly carried out against the express orders of Hitler, who several times banned the commander of Budapest from such a breakout. This was because he saw that if a breakout succeeded, it would at best save some lives, but the heavy arms would all be lost. To Hitler, every day Budapest’s defenders remained in place had more value than their lives.
This argument was advanced by Karl-Pfeffer Wildenbruch, German commander-in-chief of the Budapest forces. What he truly believed is clear from what he did: gave up the struggle at the first possible moment. Altogether 3,155,000 German soldiers clearly fell into Soviet captivity and were registered as having done so. Of these 1,959,000 eventually returned to Germany. The number dying or killed before registration is put at about half a million. While fewer than 10% of those captured in 1941 outlived it, the proportion in 1945 was over 80%.
In general survival rates dropped radically if soldiers were taken prisoner during fighting or in an overwrought state. Those of Budapest’s German defenders likeliest to survive were ones who stayed behind at the start or made no move. Even General Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch survived to return home. He died in 1971 in his own house, having broken his skull falling downstairs.
The men who took part in the Breakout scored a marked physical and psychological achievement. Their subjective, individual heroism was system-free. Yet the attribute “hero” is not value-free. It always ties in with an assumed goal or assumption inseparable from the commemoration. One approach is to see heroes to commemorate on all sides in a war. But does such commemoration have to enunciate the good the commemorable act did? Also worth asking is the reason why those commemorated did what posterity is rating as heroism.
Still, the main aim of those involved in warfare is to survive it, while the aim of the state sending them to war is not their survival, but a political goal it wishes to gain. The siege of Budapest cannot be commemorated irrespectively of the policies that Ferenc Szálasi, Adolf Hitler or Josef Stalin sought to accomplish.
Nor is posterity tied by how it recalls an event of decades before. Yet it matters, if it is a standpoint for the commemoration to mark the interests and ideas that people wish to recall, that the vast majority of the men involved had no wish to take part in the war. They did not wish to forgo their families, nor their families to forgo them. They were not out for any heroism that orphaned their children and widowed their wives. Most, as they fought, were led not by high ideals, but by a desire to survive. That too is reason enough for ensuring their achievements are never forgotten.