The city of Budapest stretches along both sides of the Danube River and consists of Pest on the east bank and Buda on the west bank. During the siege, there was heavy fighting for virtually every building. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were trapped in the city, unable to leave. They soon were caught in the cross fire without food and bereft of essential services, such as electricity. The siege of Budapest lasted 108 days, and for 52 of those days, the defending Germans were completely surrounded.
In September 1944, Soviet troops invaded Hungary from Romania. The Hungarian government was then desperately trying to leave the war, and on 28 September, representatives of Hungarian Regent Miklós Horthy de Nagybánya were dispatched to Moscow. There, they signed a preliminary armistice agreement on 11 October, which Horthy announced publicly four days later. This step led to the German army's occupation of Budapest. The Germans forced Horthy to appoint Ferenc Szálasi, head of the German Arrow Cross (Fascist) Party, as "Leader of the Nation" by using his son as a hostage.
SS-Obergruppenführer Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch commanded the German defense of Budapest. He had at his disposal the 8th and 22nd SS Cavalry Divisions and elements of the 13th Panzer Division, the 60th Panzergrenadier Division, and the 271st Volksgrenadier Division. Some units of the Hungarian army under General Iván Hindy fought alongside the Germans. Altogether, the defenders numbered some 92,000 men. Adolf Hitler ordered that Budapest and Hungary be held at all costs. He needed Hungary for its agriculture and industry but also as a location from which to mount a future counterattack in the Carpathian Basin.
Josef Stalin's goal was to drive Hungary from the Axis alliance and introduce a Soviet-style political and social system as soon as possible. His plan to expand the Soviet sphere of interest was threatened by a British proposal to send forces to the Adriatic in autumn 1944 and from there perhaps move against the Carpathian Basin. Stalin was determined to forestall any British presence in the area, and on 28 October 1944, he ordered the capture of Budapest. He did not anticipate a lengthy battle for the city.
The Soviet 2nd Ukrainian Front (army group), commanded by General of the Army Rodion Y. Malinovsky, and the 3rd Ukrainian Front, commanded by Marshal of the Soviet Union Fedor I. Tolbukhin, now converged on the Hungarian capital. In all, the Soviets committed some 157,000 men, including a Romanian contingent, to the operation. Red Army troops first reached the east bank of the city (Pest) on 3 November 1944, but operations then halted. Following several unsuccessful attempts, Soviet forces completed the encirclement of the city on 25 December. On 1 January 1945, the Soviets took the first buildings in Pest proper, and by 18 January, they had all of Pest under their control. Many civilians and defending army units escaped across the Danube to the Buda side, but before the evacuation was completed, all the bridges over the Danube connecting the two halves of the city were blown. Meanwhile, on 24 December 1944, fighting had begun in Buda on the west bank.
General Pfeffer-Wildenbruch wanted to break out with his forces on 28 December when the Soviet encirclement was still loose, but Hitler strongly opposed this and ordered his troops to stand fast. Hitler did attempt to relieve the German garrison, however. The first effort was made in early January 1945 by SS-Obergruppenführer Herbert Gille's IV SS Panzer Corps from Komárno, about 30 miles west of Budapest, but the attempt was unsuccessful. Gille then tried again from the vicinity of Lake Balaton to the southwest, but got no closer than 15 miles from the city.
Intense fighting continued, meanwhile, between German and Soviet forces in a small area of Buda, only some 3 miles by 4 miles in size. On 11 February 1945, Pfeffer-Wildenbruch authorized his remaining men to break out of the city westward through the Buda Hills to join up with other German troops just outside the Soviet encirclement. Only some 800 of these men succeeded. The Soviets declared Buda secure on 13 February. Pfeffer-Wildenbruch was among those captured and remained a prisoner in the Soviet Union until 1955. The fighting is estimated to have claimed the lives of 60,000 German troops. The Soviets lost 72,000 confirmed dead, with another 80,000 missing. Some 105,000 Hungarians, mostly civilians, were also dead. Among survivors of the siege were some 100,000 Jews who had managed to escape Arrow Cross roundups. The last German army units did not leave Hungary until 4 April 1945.
Anna Boros-McGee and Spencer C. Tucker
Gasparovich, László. A rettegés ötven napja: Budapest ostroma és a kitörési kísérlet (50 days of fear: The siege of Budapest and the attempt to break it). Debrecen, Hungary: Hajj and Fiai, 1999.; Gosztonyi, Péter. "Budapest felszabadítása vagy elfoglalása?" (The liberation or the occupation of Budapest?) Árgus 11 (February 2000): 43–44.; Ziemke, Earl F. Stalingrad to Berlin: The German Defeat in the East. Washington, DC: Center of Military History, 1984.