New Great War Episode: The Habsburg Restoration Coups of 1921

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

It’s April 1921, and post-war Hungary has once again been destabilized. This time, the former Austrian Emperor and King of Hungary returns to take back the throne not once, but twice: it’s the Habsburg Royal Coups.

Since the armistice of 1918, Hungary had been shaken by a series of political upheavals. There was a democratic revolution, a Bolshevik revolution, and a losing war against three neighbours, before an authoritarian regime and new Kingdom were established in 1920. Soon after, the Treaty of Trianon made Hungary’s new borders official. These made the new Kingdom one-third the size of the old, and it did not have a King. So in 1921, the former Habsburg King of Hungary and Emperor of Austria decided the time was right to return and claim his throne. In this episode, we’ll cover both Royal Coup attempts in Hungary, and it all happened 100 years ago.

Until the end of the Great War in1918, the Kingdom of Hungary had been a self-governing part of Austria-Hungary. The emperor of Austria-Hungary also held the separate title King of Hungary. Karl I, Emperor of Austria-Hungary was the last Habsburg to wear the Hungarian crown as Karl IV, King of Hungary. When his empire and kingdom collapsed in late 1918, Karl promised to give up his constitutional powers, but he did not officially abdicate the throne of Austria or Hungary. In 1919, the new Republic of Austria forced him to leave the country, so he ended up in exile in Switzerland. But he never gave up hope that one day he would be able to return and reclaim his role as monarch in Hungary:

“So long as God grants me the strength to do my duty, I will not renounce the throne of Hungary, to which my coronation oath binds me. I will keep intact the rights which have descended to me as wearer of the Holy Crown, and I am ever prepared to fulfil the obligations which I have assumed. It is my deepest conviction that thus only can I adequately uphold the great traditions and the abiding interests of the Hungarian nation. (...) I emphatically maintain the rights which the Constitution has entrusted to me as the apostolic King, crowned with the crown of Saint Stephen.” (Zeidler, 282)

In early 1921, events in Hungary seemed to offer Karl another chance. Once the Hungarian right-wing nationalist movement had taken control in 1920, they declared Hungary was again a monarchy. But since there was no King, the government was run by former Austro-Hungarian Admiral Miklos Horthy, who served as regent. Horthy held immense power: he could dissolve parliament, appoint ministers, and he was in command of the army.

But the country he led was in turmoil. His own forces had engaged in the White Terror and anti-Semitic violence against their fellow citizens, and he had been forced to sign the Treaty of Trianon which gave up most of pre-1918 Hungary’s territory to its neighbours. And Horthy was still only the regent, not the king – so in theory if there were a King, Horthy would have to give up his powers.

In November 1919, Horthy initiated a meeting with Karl to try to convince the former king not to come back to Budapest. Horthy argued that a restoration at the time was impossible, and if attempted might even put Hungary’s existence as a sovereign nation in danger. This was because Britain and Italy, and the neighbouring countries of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were strongly opposed to Karl’s return.

In fact, just a few months after that conversation, the Allied Conference of Ambassadors stated that any attempt of Karl, or any other Habsburg would be a danger to international peace and would not be tolerated. The neighbouring states especially feared that if Karl returned, Hungary might renew its claims on their territory before a peace treaty could be signed. In fact Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania were in the process of forming the “Little Entente” alliance to protect their gains. Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Edvard Benes later summed up their position:

“Hungary had become the center of reactionary monarchistic movement which, with the restauration of the Habsburgs as its motto, aimed at overthrowing the new order of things in Central Europe and […] the security of Europe as a whole. The aristocratic and military elements, together with the reactionary middle class, saw in the recall of the Hapsburg dynasty to the Hungarian throne a means of evading the consequences of the defeat they had suffered and the obligations arising from the treaties of peace.” (Benes Little Entente, p. 68)

Even Austria was against the idea, since it was set to receive territory from the old Hungarian Kingdom as well, and there were violent clashes between Hungarians and German-Austrians in the disputed region of Burgenland.

So Karl wanted to be King of Hungary again, but the Hungarian government was against him, as well as a long list of others. But he did have some support, including amongst Hungarians.

After 1918, Karl still had a political power base in Austria and Hungary. There were many different monarchist and revisionist groups who supported him, and they’ve generally been referred to together as the “Karlists.” In Austria, the Karlists were quite weak, so there was no real hope of turning public opinion against the ruling social democrats. But in Hungary things were more promising. For one thing, there was a legal loophole since the Hungarian government had never passed a public law confirming that he was no longer King. That meant technically he could still claim to be Karl IV of Hungary.

There was also an influential group of pro-Habsburg Hungarian noblemen, which included prominent figures like diplomats Gusztáv Gratz and Albert Apponyi, and parliamentarian István Rakovszky. These men owed their wealth and influence to the House of Habsburg and eventually saw their interests represented in parliament by the anti-socialist Christian National Union Party. The party drew support from the Catholic church, former army officers, and intellectuals who mostly identified with Austro-German culture. Officer Anton Lehar later explained his position: „I viewed the return of the rule of law and the king as an integrated part of our laws, as the only was to save Hungary from chaos. Meanwhile Horthy and his people had scarcely a thought of letting the power they’d so easily gained slip away – not even for the legitimate King!“ (Lehar 171)

The main anti-Karlist party was the Small Farmer’s Party, which was based in rural eastern Hungary. They were also anti-socialist, and mostly supported Horthy’s conservative approach to the question of restoration. Horthy and Prime Minister Pal Teleki tried to mediate between the Christian Nationals and Small Farmers, but the question of Habsburg restoration seemed impossible to resolve in parliament.

The tension only increased when Hungary was forced to sign the Treaty of Trianon in June 1920, which formally ended the war and confirmed the new borders in Central Europe. Karl sent Horthy a strongly worded letter, in which he once more declared himself the rightful King of Hungary, based on the law and divine right. He also claimed France would support him, though this claim is questionable. On the one hand, the French foreign office made repeated statements that they would not support the return of the Habsburgs in any shape or form. But Karl, his wife Zita, and many of his confidants repeatedly mentioned behind the scenes “gentleman’s agreements” with influential figures like Foreign Minister Aristide Briand.

Despite the letter, Horthy still refused to accept Karl’s return. He later recalled telling Karl that the timing was not yet right:

“We all […] would like to see the Crown of St. Stephen resplendent in its former glory. But before this restoration can be achieved, immense tasks of external and internal consolidation must be performed. Anyone who at the present juncture brings the question of the restoration of the monarchy to the fore will be doing a disservice to the peace of the country, will be hampering reconstruction and will be putting obstacles in the way of our resumption of relations with foreign powers.” Horthy 140

So Karl had significant support in Hungary and believed that Horthy eventually wanted him back. So he agreed to wait and began to make preparations for a triumphant return.

Throughout 1920, Karl tried several times to enter Hungary using false passports, but each attempt failed.

On March 24th 1921, Karl tried again – in disguise and carrying a Spanish passport provided by a Portuguese confidant. He left Switzerland, entered France, and traveled to Vienna by night train. From there, a car drove him to a Hungarian border town – and that’s where his problems began. Karl wanted to meet Horthy on that day, but he had kept his plans so secret that not even his closest associates knew anything. He had sent a telegramme, but it never arrived and so nothing had been prepared: crucially, loyal army officers had not been informed either. Karl decided to press on to Budapest anyway to meet with Horthy.

Since it was Easter, he expected that most politicians would not be in the capital and he might be able to sneak an alternate government into place before his opponents could react. Some government ministers did have sympathies, but worried about the lack of a plan. Nonetheless, Karl arrived in Budapest and met with Horthy.

Karl never really disclosed much of what happened in that meeting. He again pressed his case for the throne and claimed French support. He also told Horthy not to worry about foreign intervention as the French would protect him. Horthy later wrote about what happened next:

“To clarify the situation, I proposed to His Majesty that Briand should be asked, through the French High Commissioner in Budapest, whether he would be prepared to guarantee Hungary French support in the name of the Allies should the Succession States turn on what was left of our country. […] “Should Briand accept the responsibility, I shall gladly restore your hereditary rights to Your Majesty,” I declared. “Should the answer be unfavourable, I shall have to beg Your Majesty to leave the country immediately before your presence here becomes generally known.” (Horthy memoirs 143)

Little else is known of the meeting, though Horthy did suggest that Karl try to conquer Vienna with Lehar’s loyal troops. Karl left Budapest but stayed in Hungary for another week, but tensions began to rise when his presence became known. Diplomats from Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia began to put pressure on Horthy, telling him that they might take action if Karl did not leave the country – the Yugoslavs even threatened to mobilize their army. The Little Entente also pressured the British and French, who again declared their opposition as well.

The Hungarian government was now desperate to get Karl out, and Horthy requested Lehar take the would-be king across the border. Hungarian security forces began to gather around the town in which Karl was staying, and his closest confidants began to lose hope. Karl finally agreed to leave, but not before he wrote a manifesto stating his case for the newspapers. On April 5th, escorted by a group of armed Entente officers, Karl and his entourage boarded a train heading west, and just two weeks after leaving Switzerland he found himself in Swiss exile again.

So Karl had tried and failed to reclaim the Hungarian throne in March and April 1921. Once he left, Hungary’s situation became even more unstable.

The king’s return had thrown Hungary’s politics into a crisis. The Karlists blamed foreign pressure for the controversy, while the anti-Karlists blamed Karl, and said that his appearance was an attempted coup that could have ruined the country. Things were so bad that Prime Minister Teleki resigned and parliament was dissolved. A new government was formed under Prime Minister Istvan Bethlen, who was no friend of Karl’s and was a staunch supporter of Horthy. Other ministers who had Karlist sympathies were now excluded from government.

Horthy and Bethlen were anxious to calm the situation, since they worried that another restoration attempt might lead to invasion and partition of the country. But Karl was not ready to give up. Some of his supporters, like Anton Lehar, felt that the next time they could only succeed if they used force. Lehar claimed he could gather several thousand loyal troops in Western Hungary if Karl tried again – and these included units like the Gyula-Ostenburg Battalion, a paramilitary force that had been involved in the White Terror.

The Karlists, however, were running out of time. The border settlement with Austria would deprive them of part of their base in Western Hungary, and Hungary’s other neighbours were strengthening their alliance. In June 1921, the Little Entente between Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia became official, which meant the three countries were committed to acting together in a future conflict with Hungary. If the Karlists were going to act, it had to be soon. Karl himself was also impatient, and had lost faith in Horthy’s promises and now viewed the regent as illegitimate.

On October 21st, the Second Royal coup began. This time Karl flew from Switzerland to Hungary in a small plane, and went to Sopron to meet up with loyal forces. Once again his supporters lacked information, which delayed the start of the operation. Lehar was dismayed that Karl refused to wait until they could be better organized, but the king insisted that with French support there was no need for secrecy. A provisional government was formed with Rakovszky as Prime Minister. Word spread quickly that Karl had arrived, and Horthy was aware by the 22nd. The army was put on alert, and the cabinet released a statement condemning Karl’s presence. The Little Entente reacted immediately: Yugoslavia mobilized, and Czechoslovakia demanded that the Hungarian army be put under the control of the Allies.

Meanwhile, the Karlist train was moving toward Budapest. The men were upbeat about their chances, and small crowds of loyalists greeted them at each station. Rakovszky telephoned Bethlen, and demanded that Horthy give up his power, but the two competing Prime Ministers failed to reach any kind of agreement and the train rolled on. That evening, one of Horthy’s ministers actually boarded the train and gave Karl a letter from Horthy. The regent wrote that Karl would plunge the country into civil war and provoke an invasion by the Little Entente if he persisted. Karl was unmoved, and ignored the letter.

The Karlist forces arrived on the outskirts of Budapest, which was defended only by its modest garrison and groups of volunteers. Bethlen was prepared to evacuate the government, but the expected Karlist attack never came. Karl had the advantage of numbers, but his forces were stopped because of confusion. Orders were given and then retracted, and some Karl’s associates accused some of the officers of treason and incompetence. Bethlen gained valuable time when one of Karl’s officers, General Pál Hegedűs, switched sides and provided government forces with intelligence from within the Karlist camp. In the midst of the confusion, a few skirmishes broke out. Anton Lehar recalled the events: „Surprisingly, we were received by gunfire. Artillery also fired some warning shots of harmless shrapnel overhead. His Majesty personally led an attempt at a ceasefire but this failed. I wanted to put it all on the line and give the order to attack. Surely, we would be able to bring the uncertain officers over to our side when they saw the King. But His Majesty ordered us to cease fire.” (Lehar 224)

Karl’s forces began to melt away, going over to the government side or simply disbanding themselves. By the 24th, the coup was over. The Karlists were disarmed, and the king was forced to agree to fully abdicate. Until then, he and his wife were taken into custody.

While the coup was going on, the Little Entente continued to pressure Horthy, but their ambitions were to some extent curbed by the Allies, who were satisfied with Karl’s planned abdication. On November 1st Allied troops escorted Karl and his wife Zita out of Hungary for the last time, and they were taken on a British ship to their final exile on the island of Madeira. Five months later, on April 1st, 1922 the last Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary died of pneumonia.

The Habsburg coup attempts of 1921 showed just how fragile post-war Central Europe was, even though three years had passed since the end of the Great War. Hungary was deeply divided on whether it would stay a monarchy or become a republic, and between those who still felt loyalty to the old Habsburg dynasty, and those who looked to the new authoritarian Regent Horthy. Karl’s failure can also be seen as the final chapter for those in Central Europe who wanted to revise the new order with a partial return to the old. In Hungary and elsewhere, those who were unhappy would turn to newer and more radical ideas.


  • Benes, Eduard. “The Little Entente,” in Foreign Affairs , Sep. 15, 1922, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Sep. 15, 1922), pp. 66-72
  • Brook-Shepherd, Gordon: Um Krone und Reich. Die Tragödie des letzten Habsburgerkaisers.
  • Sakmyster, Thomas. Miklos Horthy. Ungarn 1918-1944 (Steinbauer, 2006)
  • Lehar, Anton: Erinnerungen Gegenrevolution und Restaurationsversuch in Ungarn 1918 - 1921
  • Takacs, Peter: On Stateform of Hungary between 1920 and 1944: Applicability of the Term „Monarchy without a King”.
  • Teleki, Paul: The Evolution of Hungary and its place in European History.
  • Zeidler, Miklos: Charles IV’s attempted returns to the Hungarian throne.


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