For well over six decades the origins of the Second World War have remained an enduring topic of debate amongst historians of the twentieth century. Given the legacy of the Second World War, and its status as one of the most iconic and defining moments of the twentieth century, it is for good reason that such debate still abounds. As historian Robert Boyce and Joseph A. Maiolo state, ‘the consequences of the Second World War will continue to be felt well into this century and beyond’.1 They point to its direct effects on the urban landscapes of Europe and Japan; scientific, medical and technological advancement; information gathering; the formation of influential institutions such as the World Bank, United Nations and the International Monetary Fund; changes in military tactics and strategy and countless reverberations in literature, art and film.2 The end of the war also witnessed a shift in geo-political power, the Cold War and the end of the end of ‘Europe’s long imperial, economic and cultural predominance’, with the horrors of the Holocaust also leading to dramatic changes in Middle Eastern political and religious affairs. 3
However, as Boyce and Maiolo point out, it is difficult to escape the ‘mythology’ of the Second World War.4 And Gordon Martel argues that, ‘The Second World War, its symbols and personalities, continue to grip the modern imagination’.5 For instance, in light of former American president George W. Bush’s fight against terrorism and the ‘axis of evil’, it is all too easy to condense the origins of the Second World War down to the agency of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany’s aggression at the end of 1930 alongside the other ‘have not’ imperial powers of Italy and Japan.6 From the first histories written just after the end of the war, to the several histories and television programmes that are still produced, triumphalist narratives of the Second World War are presented detailing the heroic actions of Allied victors in the defence of democracy against the throes of an evil fascist Axis advance, bent on the destruction of democratic values and freedoms. Without a doubt there is an element of truth in such accounts; however, the factors that led to the origins of the Second World War were much more complex, nuanced and less flattering to Allied forces than is often portrayed.
The origins of the Second World War possess deep historical roots that complicate any clear and concise historical understanding of its outbreak. For instance, A.J.P. Taylor (1906-1990), in his ground-breaking and, at the time, extremely controversial scholarship, The Origins of the Second World War published in 1961, was among the first to question such flattering portrayals of Allied nations. Taylor instead pointed out that British and French declaration of war on Nazi Germany had less to do with morality and the defence of democracy and freedom, as it did with long-standing concerns over European balance of power politics.7 Taylor was also among the first to point to the Treaty of Versailles and the aftermath of the First World War (1914-1918), focusing as much on British and French foreign policy as the actions of Hitler and the Nazi Party in relation to the emergence of the Second World War.
Following on from the arguments of Taylor, historians such as Richard Overy point to the importance of European imperial ambitions and shifting balances of power throughout the nineteenth century. Overy states that, ‘The war was fought in the end as a contest for political power, the culmination of that long and unstable period of empire building which began in the middle of the nineteenth-century’.8 In Overy’s estimation, Allied forces were not innocent victims fighting off an evil Axis regime, but helped to exacerbate tensions by struggling over economic and political control of vast portions of the globe. In particular, British and French imperial endeavours and global economic and political hegemony throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries fuelled such tensions and rivalry. In this case, Britain and France (as well as the United States, although not discussed at length in this essay) were not simply heroic nations rescuing the world from tyranny and oppression, but share, in part, culpability for the outbreak of the war in 1939, and its spread throughout the world by 1941. While Britain and France might not have been the immediate aggressors, their tight control over world trade — especially in the case of Britain — and ferocity in maintaining their respective empires and status as global superpowers, were important factors in the origins of the Second World War.
Historians Peter Jackson and Williamson Murray argue that France and Britain respectively, given an intense desire to maintain both empire and their superpower status, missed several opportunities to possibly stave off world war through diplomatic and military force.9 While there are several examples that demonstrate this point, this essay will focus specifically on the case of Hungary and its Prime Minister Pál Teleki (1874-1941). It will argue that both Britain and France, because of their pre-occupation with preserving their own geo-political power and presumptions about Hungarian alliance based on the First World War, missed the opportunity to communicate with Teleki more effectively and pull Hungary into the Allied camp prior to 1941, thus possibly averting or at least halting Nazi Germany’s rapid advance and consolidation of Central and Eastern Europe.
The Transylvania question and conflict with Romania over the region was of central concern to Hungary during this period, and coloured its relations with both Germany and Britain and France. As noted above, given the old Kingdom of Hungary and the Austro-Hungarian alliance were dismantled at the end of the First World War, politicians in Britain and France — obsessed with maintaining their tenuous grasp of control over empire and Europe — wrote Hungary off as an Axis power determined to regain territory lost through the 1920 Treaty of Trianon. However, despite initial declarations of aligning with Axis powers and anti-Semitic policies, Teleki was sympathetic to the Allied cause.10 Throughout his reign as Prime Minister, Teleki was intent on keeping Hungary neutral, even orchestrating the Treaty of Eternal Friendship with Yugoslavia.11 Therefore it was possible, if Britain and France had made greater attempts at diplomacy, to bring Hungary into the Allied camp prior to 1941, and provide Teleki with support to stave off Nazi advance and the Hungarian Nazi Arrow Cross Party, both of which he vehemently opposed.12 However, without support from Britain or France, Teleki had no choice but to allow the Nazi’s to use Hungary as a platform through which to invade Yugoslavia and carry out Hitler’s resurrection of the old ideology of Mitteleeuropa.13 As a sign of his conviction against Nazi advance and Hungary’s subsequent alliance with the Axis powers, Teleki committed suicide on 3 April 1941, three days before Hitler’s ‘Operation Punishment’ that devastated the of city Belgrade.14 After Teleki’s suicide, the Regent Miklós Horthy appointed László Bárdossy Prime Minister, who immediately resumed right wing Hungarian ambitions to re-acquire territory lost from the 1920 Treaty of Trianon by seizing the Voivodina region and allowing Hitler’s forces to march freely through Hungary.15 This act was viewed as a clear indication of Hungary’s alliance with the Axis powers, with British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, declaring that such actions and reversal of the Treaty of Eternal Friendship with Yugoslavia had brought ‘an eternal shame on Hungary’.16
The fact that Teleki went as far as committing suicide demonstrates the possibility of a missed opportunity for Britain and France to pull Hungary into the Allied camp prior to 1941. If Britain and France had not assumed Hungary — given the old alliances and dismemberment of the Kingdom of Hungary after the First World War — would automatically join forces with Hitler, and paid greater attention to smaller, generally neutral states in Central and Eastern Europe, it might have been possible to orchestrate a more effective defensive strategy against Hitler’s Mitteleeuropa designs. More importantly, as this essay argues, it was Britain and France’s intense focus on maintaining their own political and economic power, and less so on the supposed ‘moral’ reasons — the defence of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ — for declaring war on Nazi Germany that they missed the opportunity to pull Hungary into the allied camp and bolster Teleki’s opposition to the Arrow Cross Party and Hitler’s invasion of Yugoslavia. While such ‘alternate’ or ‘counterfactual’ history generally poses a significant set of problems, the historical evidence in this case points to the possibility that Hungary might have joined the Allied camp prior to 1941, thus changing the scope and duration of the war.
To make these arguments, this essay will first briefly examine Hungarian history in order to better contextualise the events leading up to 1941, followed by a more detailed analysis of the inter-war period and the actions of Teleki just prior to his suicide 3 April 1941. Next, a closer examination of the debates surrounding the origins of the Second World War will be investigated, with a particular focus on Britain, France and policies of so called ‘appeasement’. Finally, Teleki and the Hungarian government just prior to 1941 will be analysed, and the missed possibility of Hungary joining the Allied camp prior to the invasion of Yugoslavia on 6 April 1941.
II. From the Kingdom of Hungary and Austria-Hungary to Hungary (1538-1920)
In order to better situate Britain and France’s approach to Hungary during the Second Word War, it is a useful exercise to better contextualise Hungary, briefly, within its long history. The old Kingdom of Hungary was situated in Central Europe and was composed of what are now currently the countries of Hungary and Slovakia, and parts of Romania, the Ukraine, Serbia and Austria.17 Prior to the First World War, the Kingdom of Hungary had existed for nearly 1000 years. Hungarian conquest in the tenth century spearheaded by Stephen I of the Christian Árpád dynasty marked the establishment of the first political infrastructure in 998. But with successive waves of Mongol attacks, the Árpád dynasty ended with Andrew III and was replaced by the rule of the Anjou’s, Sigismund’s and Hunyandi dynasties.18 With the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the Kingdom of Hungary fell under constant pressure and control; however, with the coming the Catholic Hapsburg Kingdom, a ‘condominium’ of rule emerged between the Ottoman and Hapsburg Empires.19 A battle for total control over the region inevitably ensued between the two, with the result that by the end of the seventeenth century the Hapsburg Empire had consolidated rule over the region.20 The Peace of Westphalia (1648), which concluded the Thirty Years’ War, had further strengthened Hapsburg rule of Royal Hungary.21 While the Ottomans had been repulsed, Hungarians still resisted complete subordination to Hapsburg rule via Rákóczi’s II War for Independence (1703–1711). The fight for independence failed, but it did lessen the strangle hold of Austrian control over the Hungarian Kingdom. From 1711, with the reign of Hapsburg King Charles the II, the Austrians ruled the region with little resistance until the revolutions that swept Europe in 1848.22 Ultimately, the 1848 revolution failed to give the Kingdom of Hungary complete independence given Russian support to supress the uprising.23 However, after the Austro-Prussian War ended in 1866, the Austrian Empire was absorbed into Prussia (soon to be the consolidated nation-state of Germany) and relinquished its role as the leading power in the region. This led to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, which granted Hungary autonomous status, but still not complete independence. Through this compromise, the Kingdom of Hungary was joined in a dual-monarchy with Austria, the Austro-Hungarian Empire.24
With the outbreak of the First World War, the details of which will not be discussed detail here25, Hungary, as part of the Auto-Hungarian Alliance, suffered substantial losses after the war via the Treaty of Trianon, losing over 70 per cent of its pre-war territory and 60 per cent of its population.26 Those countries that stood to gain the most from the Kingdom of Hungary’s break up following the First World War included Romania, Czechoslovakia, and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, given these regions were already populated by ethnic Romanians, Slovaks and South Slavs. In addition, the Kingdom of Hungary was disbanded, as well as its alliance with Austria, becoming the newly established state of Hungary. The new state, like Germany, had to pay war substantial war reparations; and the Hungarian delegation signed the treaty under protest on 4 June 1920 at the Grand Trianon Palace in Versailles, France.27 Such was the dismay of the Hungarian people that they shouted the slogan ‘Trianon nem nem shon!’ (Trianon, no, no, never!). Besides the austere reparations of the Treaty, Hungary’s neighbours, or ‘Little Entente’ of Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, received little to no penalties or restrictions of any form, further alienating Hungary from its Eastern and Central European neighbours during the inter-war period.
With the rearmament of Germany and the aggressive imperialism of Italy and Japan, beginning with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and Italy’s somewhat fumbled attempt at controlling Ethiopia in 1936, right wing Hungarian leaders became more assertive in their demands to regain much of the territory lost during the Treaty of Trianon. In addition, Hungary was developing its own far right Nazi faction, the Arrow Cross Party, which was sympathetic and ready to pledge allegiance to Hitler and Nazi Germany.28 As Eby states, Hungarian fascism was ‘waiting for the charisma of a Hitler or Mussolini’, who appeared in the form of Ferenc Szálasi.29 However, the Regent, Miklós Horthy, was neither prepared nor willing to concede control and acquiescence to Hitler. While he was, like many top Hungarian leaders, desirous of regaining the territory lost in the Treaty of Trianon, he was not willing to sacrifice Hungary’s geo-political position with the West in order to satisfy the increasing threats and demands of Hitler.30 According to Eby, Horty appointed Teleki ‘to bolster his countries sagging image with the West’.
Teleki was a world famous geographer, academic and staunch opponent to Hitler and the Arrow Cross Party, and upon taking up his premiership, immediately began to ‘confiscate its funds and arrested some its more obstreperous followers’.31 However, by the time Teleki had assumed the position of Prime Minister, Britain and France had already, in many ways, cornered themselves diplomatically and politically by pursuing so-called policies of appeasement. Such policies, as is commonly believed, were not simply driven fear of Nazi Germany and the Axis allies — as, prior to 1939, Nazi Germany, like Britain and France, were just as ill equipped to embark on a campaign of total war. Rather, Britain and France’s overriding concern was preserving the peaceful balance of European power and a passive East Asia that allowed the emergence of both their nineteenth century empires, and would allow their continued preservation given their already overstretched empire and global commitments.
III. Hungary and the Origins of the Second World War
When the depression, originating in the United States in 1929, had swept through Europe precipitating the three ‘great shocks’ of China invading Manchuria, Germany aggressively rearming and Italy invading Ethiopia, Britain, North America, and other major powers increasingly became closed and autarkic economies.32 Britain, after the Ottawa Conference of 1931 had finally realized conservative dreams of a system of imperial preference that restricted trade largely to its Dominions — Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa — as well as its several crown colonies and protectorates.33 Likewise, France dug in, and invested their energy into maintaining their empire, although in a rather different manner to that of the British, and dictated by the notion of the ‘citizen’.34 The consequences of British and French concern over the safety of their imperial possessions had the consequence of:
The ‘have not’ powers [in this case Germany, Italy and Japan] asserting their own right to empire. The world economic crisis thus had the effect of sharpening conflicts over markets and raw materials, undermining economic co-operation, and arousing once again dreams of imperial conquest.
Unfortunately, both Britain and France viewed their economic and political power through the lens of their empires, when in fact their imperial possessions were not only a source of great contempt to the likes of Germany, Italy and Japan, but also a drain on their economies and security. To adequately defend them, meant neglecting several vulnerable areas of Central and Eastern Europe that desperately required their support against Nazi Germany’s aggression. Britain and France, rather than focus on establishing closer ties with Central and Eastern Europe, devoted significant resources and manpower to defending empires that were sadly already in steep decline prior to the war.
Therefore, when it came to matters of Central and Eastern Europe, Britain and France, overly concerned with the maintenance if their global empires, generally looked no further than the ‘Little Entente’ of Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia.35 As Hitler pushed more aggressively into the region he considered the ‘birth-right’ of the German people based on the old ideologies of Mitteleuropa, which, according to Overy, the ‘initial stage called for a Pan-German solution — union with Austria the incorporation of the German speaking areas of Czechoslovakia and Poland’; and had ‘together with the economic and political subordination of the rump Czech and Polish states, Hungary and the remaining states of south-east Europe’.36
Given the bulk of Britain and France’s attention was directed towards maintaining their global empires, both countries, especially Britain, pursued policies infamously known as ‘appeasement’. While many commentators have portrayed appeasement as sign of weakness on the part of Britain and France to effectively deal with Nazi Germany, in reality such policies had more to do with maintaining the balance of power that was tilted their favour.37 It was only when Hitler threatened, once and for all, this balance of power, that the two countries declared war on Germany. For this reason, the situation in the Balkans and Central Europe was simply regarded as a region that belonged to German interests, and therefore little headway could be made into persuading British and French leaders to support such as countries as Hungary to oppose Hitler. Therefore, throughout the 1930s British and French influence, especially in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary declined in relation to Germany. For instance, by 1938 Germany supplied roughly 29 per cent of the exports to the region, while Britain and France combined supplied less than 24 per cent.38
For all intents and purposes Central and Eastern Europe were left to their own devices, despite their possible willingness to work with the Allies in halting the Nazi onslaught and ideology of Mitteleeuropa. As noted above, ‘The war [for Britain and France especially] was fought in the end as a conquest for political power’.39 In this case, minor satellites of Central and Eastern Europe, hoping to join the allied camp, or at least remain neutral as was the case with Hungary, were victims of a larger power struggle between the great powers, and were, for all intents and purposes, and despite their willingness to work with Britain and France, left to their own devices.
IV. Pál Teleki and Hungary Positions in the War
When Teleki assumed the role of Prime Minster of Hungary in 1939, he did not agree in the slightest with Hitler’s methods. According to Verres, ‘Hitler for his part did not trust Teleki: in a speech in April 1939, outlining his strategic plans, he declared that Hungary was not a trustworthy all’.40 In further opposition to Hitler, Teleki declined to send Hungarian troops to assist Hitler in his planned invasion of Poland, which infuriated Hitler.41 However, Teleki’s commitment not to let Hungary become embroiled in a conflict with the West was tainted. He would still visit Berlin to confirm that if a world conflict did emerge, Hungary would side with Axis powers; and in a similar display of allegiance — at least on the surface — he passed the Second Jewish Law through parliament.42 By 1940, after Hitler had invaded Norway, Holland, Belgium and Luxemborg, Teleki, at this point, ‘was so pessimistic about the future that he made plans to establish a government in exile in the event of a German takeover in Hungary’.43 Without Allied support, Teleki was forced to concede control to Szálasi as head of the right wing party; and was forced by Hitler to sign the Tripartite Act in hopes that Hungary would remain neutral and not serve as a platform for Hitler’s invasion of Yugoslavia.44 In a desperate attempt to confirm his commitment to preventing Hitler’s invasion of Yugoslavia via Hungary, Teleki orchestrated the Treaty of Eternal Friendship in hope that it would rally support against the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia in both Hungary and Yugoslavia. In fact, the treaty worked, and pro Ally supporters overthrew the Nazi supporters in Yugoslavia. Rather than send further support and assistance to the small and less powerful satellite state, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill simple opined that the outcome was ‘joyous and good news’.45
However, according to Verres, when Hitler received word of the Yugoslavian resistance, he was irate, and he gave ‘immediate orders to attack Yugoslavia’; and he ‘informed Döme Sztójai, the Hungarian ambassador in Berlin, that he recognized Hungary’s claims to her former territories in Yugoslavia and, in return, expected to receive Hungary’s permission to allow German troops to pass through Hungary on their way to Yugoslavia.46 In this case, ‘Hitler knew full well that Hungary was still hoping to establish ties with the Allies; and he ‘wanted to force Hungary to be involved in the attack on Yugoslavia and thus destroy her credibility with the Allies’.47 Teleki nonetheless fought hard to keep Hungary neutral, and sent desperate messages to London and Washington to convince the Allies of Hungary’s intention to keep the terms of the of the Treaty of Eternal Friendship and remain neutral.48 Such was his conviction that he ‘declared his intention to refrain from participating in an occupation of Yugoslavia unless that country’s government disintegrated to the point of endangering the lives of its Hungarian minority’.49
For the most part, Teleki’s efforts fell on deaf ears in Britain and France, whose politicians and military leaders were desperately scrambling to consolidate their own overstretched imperial territories. Therefore, on 3 April 1941, with Nazi Germany advance and invasion of Yugoslavia imminent, Teleki committed suicide.50 It was an action that shocked and saddened Hungarian allied supporters, and opened the door for Hungary’s right wing Nazi Arrow Party to assume control and allow the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia and the destruction of its Jewish population. The action, condemned by Britain and France, established once and for all in their minds that Hungary was firmly with the Axis camp and therefore an enemy of ‘freedom and democracy’. Churchill, in a rather cold and blunt statement, referred to Teleki’s suicide as ‘a sacrifice to absolve himself and his people from guilt in the German attack on Yugoslavia’.51
The origins of the Second World War, as this essay has demonstrated, are complex and not as straightforward as some commentators and historians would like to believe. Starting with the revisionist work of the great British historian A.J.P. Taylor, the intricate geo-political and European balances of power were more fully explored in relation to the outbreak of the Second World War. Taylore demonstrated, in many ways, that Britain and France, as well as the United States, held as much responsibility in causing its outbreak of war as did the extreme, and initially small, and somewhat inconsequential Nazi Party that emerged in the early part of the 1920s in Germany. However, given Britain’s and France’s overriding concerns with maintaining their large, and expensive empires — that were, in retrospect, foolishly deemed a primary source of their global and economic power during the inter-war period —‘have not’ nations such as Germany, Japan and Italy were able to rise to prominence and more aggressively pursue their own imperial agendas. Rather than focus on the threat these powers posed to world stability and peace, Britain and France continued to doggedly maintain policies of appeasement in hopes that their rivals would cease their aggressive imperial ambitions. In doing so, both countries, during the latter part of the 1930s, missed opportunities to pull minor satellite countries into the orbit of the allied camp.
Britain and France rather naively assumed that such regions would fall passively under the remit of Nazi Germany, and that this would satisfy the appetite of Hitler’s quest for power. However, as this essay has demonstrated, this did not occur. Hitler aggressively pursued the old ideology of Mitteleuropea with hopes of extending Germany’s control worldwide. Had Britain and France dropped their preoccupation with maintaining their geo-political power, and realised the extent of Hitler’s ambitions, and his insatiable appetite for power, perhaps, they might have been able to build a more solid bulwark against Nazi designs in Central Europe. In the case of this essay, Hungary represents one such nation, given the sympathies of its Prime Minister, Teleki, who would have readily sided with the Allied camp in hopes of receiving substantial Allied military support to prevent Hitler’s advance through Hungary and invasion of Yugoslavia. However, overstretched in trying to maintain and secure already decaying empires, Britain and France missed such opportunities, and therefore the possibility of ending the war in Europe before it spread to world war by 1941.
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11. Kennedy, p. and Talbot, I, ‘Apeeasement’, in Gordon Martel (ed.), The Origins of the Second World War Reconsidered 2nd Ed. (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 116-134.
12. Williamson Murray, ‘Britain’, Boyce, R and Maiolo, J.A. ‘Introduction: The Debate Continues’, in Boyce, R and Maiolo, J.A. (eds), The Origins of World War Two: The Debate Continues (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003), pp. 111-34.
13. Richard Overy, Origins of the Second World War 3rd Ed. (Edinburgh: Pearson Education Limited, 2008).
14. A.J.P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1961).
15. Miklós Molnár, A Concise History of Hungary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
16. Peter F. Sugar et al., A History of Hungary (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990).
17. Samuel R. Williamson, Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War (London: MacMillan, 1991).
18. Thomas, The French Empire Between the Wars: Imperialism, Politics and Society (Manchester University Press, 2007).
19. Tilkovszky, L. ‘The Late Inter-War Year and World War II’, in Peter F. Sugar et al., A History of Hungary (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990)., pp. 339-355.
20. Verres, L.L. CLEAR THE LINE: Hungary’s Struggle to Leave the Axis During the Second World War (Cleveland OH: Prospero Publications).
21. Zara S. Zeiner, Britain and The Origins of the First World War (London: MacMillan, 1977)