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The defence system of the Hungarian Royal Army in the Eastern Carpathians
The defence system of the Hungarian Royal Army in the Eastern Carpathians : A SHORT REVIEW OF THE HISTORICAL-GEOGRAPHIC POLICY


  2008.01.07. 16:41

The military geographical description of one or other region is very important from the point of view of the particular country. Whether of defensive or offensive character, military land operations always take place on the terrain.

Exact and detailed knowledge and analysis of the possible theatres of war have always been an essential factor of the military policy of the different countries and ages, and so will it be in the future too.  The preparation of the scene of war must already be prepared during peacetime.  Beside their peacetime tasks, the road network, the railways, the structure of settlements must also serve the defence of a country.  In the course of history each nation had the ambition that the settlements of its country should be bordered by natural obstacles – rivers, lakes, seas, mountains, swamps.  Such frontiers offered safety against possible invaders.

The territory of Hungary was more or less that of the Carpathian basin up to the end of World War I.  Our ancestors had already done their best by the 10th century after the Hungarian Land Conquest that the frontiers of the country should run on defensible, natural lines.  In this way the eastern and southeastern frontiers of the country had been stabilised on the ranges of the Carpathian Basin and remained so for about thousand years.  It is not an exaggeration when we speak about “Millennial Frontiers”.  Between the two World Wars Hungarian foreign policy did its best to regain these frontiers of the country.5

The military-geopolitical examination of the territory of Hungary produces two significant and almost unique facts for us.  The first of these facts is the orographical unity of the country.  The Carpathian Basin is surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains, from Bratislava (Pozsony) down to Orsova.  The country is distinctly separated from the Czech-Moravian Basin, from the Polish and Ukrainian Plain, from Moldavia and Vallachia.  As geographic researches show the Lajta-Mountains and the Rosalie-Mountains also belong to the Carpathian Mountains.  The Kőszeg-Rohonci mountainous district is a geological remnant of a mountain range which was once in the centre of the Carpathian Basin and did not belong to the Alps.  So orographical unity can be seen from the Dráva river across the Carpathians to the Danube river.6  The other fact is the hydrographical unity of the country, which is a consequence of the orographical unity.  There are no rivers which flow into Hungary from foreign territory, and only a few insignificant rivers run out of the country between Bratislava (Pozsony) and Orsova, in other words, between the northern and southern gates of the Danube.

The strategic significance of the above-described facts is that the invaders of Hungary had to climb up to the ridges of the Carpathian Basin first, and only after could they begin their operations to gain ground downward.  The new Hungarian frontiers after the Trianon Treaty show just the opposite of these lost advantages.  Then, from the strategic point of view, our neighbouring enemies had two significant advantages: they were on the tops of the mountains, at the river-heads, and we should have had to fight upwards to reach the Carpathian Mountains had we had to force them out of our homeland.   The riverbeds running inside the country are also natural ways of communications so invasions became possible against such a Hungary which was pressed back into its inner defensive lines from all geographic directions due to this disadvantageous position.  This disadvantage decreased somewhat in 1940 but it was still only a dream for Hungary to get back the natural frontiers of the Carpathian Basin.

The geopolitical significance of the Great Hungarian Plain is prominent among the regions of the Carpathian Basin.  This territory lies in the centre of the country; Transdanubia and the Upper Hungarian Highlands surround it in a wide arch.  The Great Hungarian Plain can only be attacked by the enemy after he has occupied the other regions of the country.  The Great Hungarian Plain is in a dominant central position.  The attraction of the Great Hungarian Plain is the consequence of the perfect natural unity of the Carpathian Basin.  That is why this territory  influences the whole country.  All the rivers flow towards the Hungarian Plain, so all natural routes go in its direction.  That is why it is a central region both from the hydrographical and communicational points of view.  The Great Plain connects the otherwise separate Transylvania, Transdanubia and Upper Northern Hungary with one another.  But its dominating role can only be realised if all territories inside the Carpathian Basin are part of the same country.  For this reason, Hungary represented a natural unity which would suffer irreparable loss even if only a small piece of the country was torn off.  Generally speaking, the penetration of an alien power into any region of Hungary kept the economic, political and military forces of the country on an even  higher level of tension than expected, if we take into account the extension of the territory of the country.  The indisputable geopolitical condition of holding the Great Hungarian Plain firmly in hand was that the mountainous surrounding areas should not be in alien hands.  The strategic significance of the possession of these mountainous areas is also indisputable.   In World War I the primary strategic aim of the Russians was to break through the Carpathian Mountains and to occupy the Great Hungarian Plain.  If they could have done so, then capturing Budapest and Vienna would have been an easy task for them.  The further Russian targets: helping the Serbians on the Balkan Peninsula, getting out to the warm seas, capturing the Dardanelles, could have provided chances only if the Great Hungarian Plain had been in their hands. This region is not only a direct link between the neighbouring regions of the country but also a corridor.   Those parts of the Great Hungarian Plain torn off Hungary by the Trianon Treaty became useful for our new neighbours, and not only from the agricultural point of view.  The fact that Ungvár, Munkács and Beregszász were given to the Czechs produced immediate links between Czechoslovakia and Roumania.

Even if the Great Hungarian Plain is protected by the surrounding mountains, it has three sensitive points.  The northeastern Carpathian mountain ranges create a partition wall between the Plain and Podolia, but there the mountain ranges are much narrower than elsewhere around Hungary and they are also more easily passable.  The second sensitive point is in the South, where the Great Hungarian Plain is bordered by alien territories.  The Turkish conquerors led their campaigns against our homeland through this open gap, between Báziás and Szabács.  Hungary could have never been neutral towards any great power which held the Balkan Peninsula in its possession because this situation was always extraordinarily dangerous for the country in the course of our history.

The third sensitive point is in the western frontier-region of the Danube river, flowing via Bratislava (Pozsony), Győr and Komárom.  The ancient route of German expansion has led towards the Balkan Peninsula here for centuries.  This was already the military road of the Germans during the period of the Árpád kings and later too, when our wars of independence were going on.  Pointing out these three weak points of the Great Hungarian Plain was always among the basic conclusions of the Hungarian strategic and geopolicy.  There was always pressure on these three crucial lines of communication.  Our attention was always directed to one or the other of these directions for centuries, but there were times too when we had to pay attention to all of them.

The Germans had already invaded our homeland in the frontier region of Transdanubia and through the Northwestern Hungarian Plain under the ruling of our first king, Stephen the Saint (1000-1038).  This territory became a theatre of war many times because of the aggressive intentions of the German Emperors, and later, due to the Turkish conquest of Hungary and their operational plans against Vienna.

The geopolitical pressure was the strongest from the directions of the Czech-Moravian Basin and of the valley of the Wisla river in Upper Northwestern Hungary.  The main defence line of these two directions did not run in the part of the mountains immediately surrounding the Great Hungarian Plain but the in the upper mountain regions with the passes leading across the frontier of the country, and also in the upper valleys of the Vág and Hernád rivers.  Anyway, the number of invasions led against Hungary was fewest from these particular directions in the course of our history.  Upper Northern Hungary is also significant in respect of economic policy.  The manufacturing industry of the towns located westward of the Tisza region permanently lack raw materials (wood, iron, copper etc) originating from Upper Northern Hungary.  This part of Hungary has a close economic interrelationship with the Great Hungarian Plain.  Upper Northern Hungary is in need of victuals if it cannot exchange goods with the plain.  The two regions had the closest possible contact even before the Trianon Treaty.  Transylvania and the Subcarpathian Region were farther from the Great Hungarian Plain than Upper Northern Hungary.  The firm possession of Upper Northern Hungary was the basic condition for the defence of both Hungarian plains.

The main importance of the Subcarpathian Region lay in its role in frontier defence.  That territory was less important from the point of view of population and economics.  Wider river valleys follow each other in Upper Northern Hungary; and there is a huge, precious inner basin in Transylvania.  However, in the Subcarpathian Region land cultivation is possible only in narrow valleys, and apart from the precious salt-mines there were hardly any minerals hidden in the mountains.  Only the extensive forests had real value.  This region was strongly dependent on the Great Hungarian Plain from the agricultural point of view, and it could only give much less valuable goods in exchange.  The industry of the towns could not develop to such a high degree compared with that of the other mountainous regions of the country.  Poverty had its influence on the population too.

In spite of all these facts, the Subcarpathian Region was considered a region of great geopolitical significance because it was a first class frontier-region.  Tearing it away from the natural unity of the country would have caused serious danger to Hungary.  The geographical and topographic situation gave significance to the Subcarpathian Territory as a frontier region.  Upper Northwestern Hungary stretches almost to Budapest, Gyöngyös, Miskolc and Tokaj.  Its width is almost 200 kilometres.  Transylvania is more than 300 kilometres wide, beginning from the alpine region of Gyergyó and Csík down to the plain: to Nagyvárad, Arad, Báziás.  But the width of Northeastern Upper Hungary between the Subcarpathian Region and Homonna, Huszt is only 70-80 kilometres.  So the depth against a breakthrough is significantly less here.  The enemy, invading the country from Galicia, has to advance only a short way in order to reach the great Hungarian Plain.  Because all of this, it was precisely that region of Hungary which it was obligatory to defend against storming.  Crossing this part of the Carpathians is also easier.  5 railway lines, 9 high roads, and 12 not so well maintained roads lead across the mountains from the Uzsoki Pass to the Borsai Pass.  Many defiles and depressions divide the ridges and create favourable possibilities for passing from the communications-technical point of view.

Severe dangers have threatened our homeland from this direction in the course of our thousand-year history.  The Polish and Russian contacts of our kings urged the Hungarian armies to march through these passes sometimes with peaceful, sometimes with aggressive intentions.  The Mongolian invasion in 1241 made the leaders of the Hungary realise that the northeastern frontier region of the country could not be regarded as very safe.  In 1722, after the division of Poland, Galicia came into the possession of Austria.  This fact had many advantages and disadvantages for Hungary.  The advantage was that Galicia became the strategic foreground of the country.  Such foregrounds increase the safety of the frontiers significantly from a strategic point of view.  This fact provided such a long term sense of safety and tranquillity that the later disadvantage derived precisely from it.   The importance of the Subcarpathian Region fell into oblivion, the exaggerated illusion of safety was not even dispelled by the Russian invasion in 1849.  Only the bloody Carpathian battles of World War I directed the attention to that fact that the ways of the invasions led from the valleys of the Vistula, Bug and Dniester rivers towards the Great Hungarian Plain and then further, towards Western Europe or towards the Balkan Peninsula across the Carpathian Mountains.

From a geographical point of view Transylvania is a natural entity in itself.  It lies further from the centre of the Carpathian Basin than any other region of the country.  The inner basin is surrounded by mountains.  Some distances by road: Budapest-Sepsiszentgyörgy 814 kilometres; Budapest-Gyergyószentmiklós 692 kilometres; Budapest-Marosvásárhely 618 kilometres; Budapest-Beszterce 514 kilometres; Budapest-Kolozsvár 445 kilometres.  Because of these large distances from the centre certain centrifugal influences appeared.  This was the geographical origin of the temporary independence of Transylvania as a state in the 16th -17th centuries.  But the geographical reason was not enough in itself: Transylvania became an independent state only when the Turks had conquered the Great Hungarian Plain in the middle of the 16th century and cut off the eastern regions of Hungary from the western ones.  But in spite of the geographical and historical reasons the independence of Transylvania is unnatural from the point of view of the universal life of the Carpathian basin.  All other geographical, economic etc. reasons mitigate against this independence.  The valley lines and rivers of Transylvania point towards the centre of Hungary.  The region is dependent on the agriculture of the Great Hungarian Plain, which is exactly where Transylvanian goods can be sold at the highest possible price.  The contact is also essential for the Great Hungarian Plain, especially for its territories beyond the Tisza river with Transylvania.

Talking about Drava-Save region, there the frontier of the Carpathian basin begins not at the Drava river, but at the Save river.  The larger part of the so-called military frontier district was in that region.  The concept of such a military frontier district was good and purposeful from a strategic point of view.  It faced a disciplined and militarily organised population with the Turkish threat.  But from the point of view of the Hungarian people this concept had a great disadvantage, because the given territory was almost torn off the body of the country.  There were times when it was handled as an independent province.  The Austrian Empire settled alien nationalities on those lands.  Croatian and Serb units were stationed alongside the Save river up to Zimony, and Roumanian frontier guard regiments were stationed from Zimony to Bukovina, with the exception of the Székely frontier guard district.

The territory of the Hungarian Kingdom before the Trianon Treaty created a perfect natural and economic unity, and a homogenous state was established on this territory. Only a few countries of Europe – England, Spain, Italy and France - had completely or predominantly natural frontiers.  The special geographical feature of historical Hungary was that its frontiers were homogenous because the country was surrounded by mountains and the basin-form of the country made the geopolitical congregating stronger here than in any other country.  If we compare the sea as borderline with the wooded mountain ranges in the same defensive function, we can see that the second type has just as strong a separating effect as the first one.  But if we take into account the geopolitical pressure on both kinds of borders then we find that the mountainous frontier zone is more valuable.  In the course of technical development, the geopolitical pressure on the seacoast frontier lines increases in direct proportion to their length.  Mountains can only be captured with more difficulty, roads have to be found or built across them first.  But it is easy to block or destroy the roads.  That is why the geopolitical pressure on the mountains does not increase in direct proportion to the extension of the area.  On the contrary, it is in inverse ratio with the division and height of the mountain ranges and with the degree of the construction of the defence.7

The mountain ranges surrounding our country had already inspired our ancestors to construct fortifications during the early centuries.  The so-called Hungarian “gyepű”, the most ancient natural borderland in Europe, was created by the establishment of earthworks, wooden barricades, dams, by narrowing the defiles (passes).  The Byzantine Empire, the Karolingian Empire and later the Holy Roman Empire, (the Germans) using the classic Roman traditions tried to extend their territories alongside the rivers.  Our ancestors purposely established the frontier-zone of the country in the mountains surrounding Hungary.  The only reason why a frontier zone had to be developed alongside rivers in the South-west, in the Save-Lower Danube region, is that there was no solid, uninterrupted mountain range.   If the frontier zone had not been established alongside the rivers, the state frontier would have had to be placed on capes and separated by wide valleys.

The frontier of the state was not identical with the ethnical frontier-line of Hungary.  Ethnical border-lines develop in areas where different languages meet on large territories, where neighbouring peoples and territories closely depend on one another and cannot be torn apart.  State frontiers can only also be ethnic borders at such places where natural obstacles block communications between different populations.  Such natural obstacles are the Pyrenean Mountains between Spain and France.

At the beginning of the 20th century geopolitics was still a new and not completely developed or systematised branch of science.  According to contemporary interpretation geopolitics is closely related to political geography but the latter is to a larger extent geography and geopolitics is to a larger extent politics: political geography researches the area inside the frontiers of a certain state, defined by the political activity; and geopolitics analyse the life of a state influenced by its all-round geographic situation.  The subject of political geography is singular, the subject of geopolitics is plural in numbers.  The first branch of science deals with one national state, the subjects of the second one are the interrelations of states in a larger part of the continent.

5 The First Viennese Settlement gave back to Hungary territories which fell into line with the borders of the Hungarian ethnical block in 1938.  The Northern frontiers did not become much more defensible.  The reoccupation of the Subcarpathian Territories was the first such step which gave back a part of the Millenial Frontiers to Hungary.  The recovered part increased further after the Second Viennese Settlement, in 1940.

6 István Kovátsay: Hadászat és geopolitika. (Strategy and geopolicy). MKSZ 1943, 6. 443-451.

7 MKSZ. 1943. 6., 245.

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