The Arrow Cross Party (Hungarian: Nyilaskeresztes Párt – Hungarista Mozgalom, literally "Arrow Cross Party-Hungarist Movement") was a Far-right pro-German anti-Semitic national socialist party led by Ferenc Szálasi which ruled Hungary from October 15, 1944 to January 1945. During its short rule, ten to fifteen thousand Jews were murdered outright, and 80,000 Jews, including many women, children and elderly were deported from Hungary to their deaths. After the war, Szálasi and other Arrow Cross leaders were tried as war criminals by Hungarian courts.
The party was founded by Szálasi in 1935 as the Party of National Will but was outlawed two years later. The party had its origins in the political philosophy of pro-German extremists such as Gyula Gombos, who famously coined the term 'national socialism' in the 1920s. It was reconstituted in 1939 as the Arrow Cross Party, said to be modelled fairly explicitly on the Nazi Party of Germany but the truth is that Szálasi often and harshly criticized the Nazi regime of Germany. Its iconography was clearly inspired by that of the Nazis; the Arrow Cross emblem was an ancient symbol of the Magyar tribes who settled Hungary, thereby representing the racial purity of the Hungarians in much the same way that the Nazi swastika was supposed to allude to the racial purity of the Aryans.
The roots of Arrow Cross influence can be traced to the outburst of anti-Jewish feeling that followed the Communist putsch and brief rule in Hungary in the spring and summer of 1919. Many of the Communist leaders, including Bela Kun and Tibor Szamuely, were Jews, and the failed and murderous policies of the Hungarian Soviet Republic came to be associated in the minds of many Hungarians with a "Jewish-Bolshevist conspiracy."
After the Red Terror was crushed in August 1919, conservatives under the leadership of Admiral Miklos Horthy took control of the nation. Many Hungarian military officers took part in the counter-reprisals known as the White Terror - some of that violence was directed at Jews, simply because they were Jewish. Though the White Guard was officially suppressed, many of its fiercest members went underground and formed the core membership of a spreading nationalist and anti-Jewish movement.
During the 1930s, the Arrow Cross gradually began to dominate Budapest's working class district, defeating the Social Democrats. (It should be noted, that the Social Democrats did not really contest elections effectively; they had had to make a pact with the conservative Horthyite regime in order to prevent the abolition of their party.)
The Arrow Cross subscribed to the Nazi ideology of "master races" which, in Szálasi's view, included the Hungarians and Germans, and it also supported the concept of an order based on the power of the strongest – what Szálasi called a "brutally realistic étatism". However, its espousal of territorial claims under the banner of a "Greater Hungary" and Hungarian values (which Szálasi labelled "Hungarizmus" or "Hungarianism") clashed with Nazi ambitions in central Europe, delaying by several years Hitler's endorsement of the party.
The German Foreign Office instead endorsed the pro-German Hungarian National Socialist Party, which had support among German minorities. Before World War II, the Arrow Cross were not proponents of the racial antisemitism of the Nazis, but utilized traditional stereotypes and prejudices to gain votes among voters both in Budapest and the countryside. However, the constant bickering among these diverse fascist groups prevented the Arrow Cross Party from gaining even more support and power. The Arrow Cross obtained most of its support from a disparate coalition of military officers, soldiers, nationalists, and agricultural workers. It was only one of a number of similar openly fascist factions in Hungary, but was by far the most prominent, having developed an effective system of recruitment. When it contested the May 1939 elections - the only ones in which it stood - the party won more than 25 % of the vote and 30 seats in the Hungarian Parliament. This was only a superficially impressive result; the majority of Hungarians were not permitted to vote. It did, however, become one of the most powerful parties in Hungary. But the Horthy leadership banned the Arrow Cross on the outbreak of World War II, forcing it to operate underground.
In 1944, the Arrow Cross Party's fortunes were abruptly reversed after Adolf Hitler lost patience with the reluctance of Horthy and his moderate prime minister, Miklos Kállay, to fully toe the Nazi line. In March 1944, the Germans invaded and officially occupied Hungary; Kállay fled and was replaced by the Nazi proxy, Döme Sztójay. One of Sztójay's first acts was to legalize the Arrow Cross.
During the Spring and Summer of 1944, more than 400,000 Jews were herded into centralized ghettos and then deported from the Hungarian countryside to death camps by the Nazis, with the willing help of the Hungarian Interior Ministry and its gendarmerie (the csendorség) - both of whose members had close links to the Arrow Cross. The Jews of Budapest were concentrated into so-called Yellow Star Houses, approximately 2,000 single-building mini-ghettos identified by a yellow Star of David over the entrance. In August 1944, before deportations from Budapest began, Horthy used what influence he had to stop the deportations and force the radical anti-Semites out of the government. As the summer progressed, and the Allied and Soviet armies closed in on central Europe, the ability of the Nazis to devote attention to Hungary's "Jewish Solution" waned.
On October 15, 1944 Horthy lost his battle of wills with the fascists. When he negotiated a cease-fire with the Soviets and announced that Hungarian troops should lay down their arms, the Arrow Cross saw their chance. Horthy was forced to resign and sent into "protective custody" in Germany. With Nazi approval, the Arrow Cross Party seized Budapest. Szálasi was declared prime minister and "nation leader."
The Arrow Cross rule was short-lived and brutal. In fewer than three months, death squads killed as many as 38,000 Hungarians, 15,000 of them Jews. Arrow Cross officers helped Adolf Eichmann re-activate the deportation proceedings from which the Jews of Budapest had thus far been spared, sending some 80,000 Jews out of the city on slave labor details. Quickly-formed battalions raided the Yellow Star Houses and combed the streets, hunting down Jews claimed to be partisans and saboteurs since Jews attacked Arrow Cross squads at least 6-8 times using gunfire. These approx. 200 Jews were taken to the bridges crossing the Danube. There the Jews were shot, and their bodies borne away by the waters of the river.
Soviet and Romanian forces were already fighting in Hungary even before Szálasi's takeover. Red Army troops reached the outskirts of the city in December 1944, and the siege action known as the Battle of Budapest began - though frequently claimed, there is no proof that the Arrow Cross members and the Germans conspired to destroy the Budapest ghetto. Days before he fled the city, Arrow Cross Interior Minister Gabor Vájna commanded that streets and squares named for Jews be renamed.
As control of the city's institutions began to decay, the Arrow Cross trained their guns on the most helpless possible targets: patients in the beds of the city's two Jewish hospitals on Maros Street and Bethlen Square, and residents in the Jewish poorhouse on Alma Road. As order collapsed, Arrow Cross members continually sought to raid the ghettos and Jewish concentration buildings; the majority of Budapest's Jews were only saved by fearless and heroic efforts on the part of a handful of Jewish leaders and foreign diplomats, most famously Swede Raoul Wallenberg, Swiss Consul Carl Lutz, and Spanish legate Jorge Perlasca. Szálasi knew that the documents used by these diplomats to save Jews were invalid according to international law, but he allowed them to use those papers.
The Arrow Cross government effectively fell at the end of January, when the Soviet Army took Pest and the fascist forces retreated across the Danube to Buda. Szálasi escaped Budapest on December 11, taking with him the Hungarian royal crown; Arrow Cross members and German forces continued to fight a rear-guard action in the far west of Hungary until the end of the war in April 1945.
After the war, many of the Arrow Cross leaders were captured and tried for war crimes. In the first months of post-war adjudication, no fewer than 6,200 indictments for murder were served against Arrow Cross men.
Many Arrow Cross officials, including Szálasi himself, were executed.
The ideology of the Arrow Cross has resurfaced to some extent in recent years, with the Neo-Fascist Hungarian Welfare Association prominent in reviving Szálasi's "Hungarizmus" through its monthly magazine, Magyartudat ("Hungarian Awareness"). However, it is very much a fringe element of modern Hungarian politics.
In 2006 a former high ranking member of the Arrow Cross party named Lajos Polgar was found to be living in Melbourne, Australia. Polgar was accused of war crimes, but the case was later dropped and Polgar died of natural causes in July that year.