An exhibition at the Budapest institute and Museum of Military History showcases Hungarian Legionnaire memorabilia, paying tribute to those brave Hungarians who set out to serve in one of the harshest special forces units in Europe.
THOUSANDS OF HUNGARIANS have joined the French Foreign Legion in its almost two centuries, in hopes of fame and fortune. This has ironically made the military organization one of the pillars of cultural bilateral exchange, as shown by an exhibition recently launched in Budapest and paying tribute to those brave Hungarians who set out to serve in one of the harshest special forces units in Europe, displaying uniforms, flags, and other personal memorabilia. “The Budapest Institute and Museum of Military History is the first museum in Hungary dedicating such an exhibition to these extraordinary troops, focusing on Hungarian volunteers who signed up to be soldiers, builders and peacemakers of this armed force,” Director General József Holló told Diplomacy and Trade. “In Hungary, the French Foreign Legion has become so popular that its name reaches far beyond military experts.” The French Foreign Legion was also one of the favorite themes of Hungarian writer Jenõ Rejtõ (1905 –1943, knows as ‘P. Howard’).
Rejtõ joined the Legion himself, but soon dropped out, focusing instead on countless books parodying the subject, like ‘The Three Musketeers in Africa’ and ‘The Hidden Legion’. According to the Director General, a total of 4,000 Hungarians have served in the Legion since it was formed 173 years ago, which makes Hungary the 10th largest troop contributor. “During my visit to the French Legion, I was told by Captain Louis Pissot that he considers Hungarian troops to be among the best. One of the most outstanding was Gyula Matus, who served 22 years and donated his gear to the exhibition.”
The French Foreign Legion or ‘Legion Etrangere’ is an elite unit within the French Army established in 1831. It was created as a unit for foreign volunteers, who were forbidden to enlist in the French Army after the July Revolution in 1830. It was primarily used to protect and expand the French colonial empire during the 19th century. The Legion has survived three republics, one empire, two World Wars, the rise and fall of mass conscript armies, the dismantling of the French colonial empire and, finally, the French loss of the Legion’s birthplace, Algeria. The Legion is composed primarily, in its enlisted ranks today, of foreigners. As its men come from different countries with different cultures, the so-called ‘esprit de corps’ is a widely accepted solution to mold them into working as a team. Consequently, training is often described as not only physically challenging, but also extremely psychologically stressful.
An ideal Legionnaire
The Legion’s ranks historically were filled with enlistees from countries which were undergoing some sort of crisis. While no serious studies were made of the motives for enlistment, it seems likely that many recruits were simply transient foreigners who found themselves in France and out of work. In recent generations, however, many of those joining have come from middle-class backgrounds. In the past, the Legion had a reputation for attracting criminals on the run and would-be mercenaries. In recent years, however, admission has been restricted much more severely, and background checks are done on all applicants. According to Director General Holló, the Legionnaire is seldom a spotless individual, but never a criminal.
“Generally speaking, convicted felons are prohibited from joining the service,” Holló notes. They have to be ready to give all they have, even their life, which is the state of mind binding the Legionnaires together. He explains their unrivaled cohesion is sealed with discipline, solidarity and respect for traditions. Legionnaires who enlist are compelled to change their names in order to allow people who want to ‘restart’ their lives. After one year of service, Legionnaires can regularize their situation under their true identity. After serving in the Legion for three years, a Legionnaire of foreign nationality can ask for French nationality, like Pál Nagybocsai Sárközy, French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s father, who signed up for five years as the Russians entered Hungary in 1944 and was sent for training to Sidi Bel Abbes, in Algeria. Upon returning to civil life in Marseille, he acquired citizenship and his name was officially changed to Paul Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa. Also, a soldier who becomes injured during a battle for France can apply for French citizenship under a provision known as “French by spilled blood.” A Legionnaire is clothed, fed and medically cared for and his pay will depend upon his rank, qualifications and time of service, on top of which special bonuses could be approximately EUR 1,000 per month, depending on his mission. After 15 years of service a Legionnaire is entitled to a retirement pension payable even in foreign countries.
Museum of Military History
(Budapest District one, Tóth Árpád sétány 40)
The museum opened to the public in 1937, and was restored after World War II. It is situated in a former municipal army barrack, and has a sprawling collection of over 50,000 firearms, machine guns, and other military equipment. The flag collection holds 5,000 pieces and its ‘numismatic collection’ up to 28,000 orders, medals and badges. Its regiment flag of the’Fifth Hussar Regiment’ is considered to be one of the most significant artifacts of the museum,donated by King George of England. Also important, is the sabre of General Lajos Damjanich, the gala sabre of György Klapka, and the 'attila' coat of Ernõ Kiss, from the 1848-49 Hungarian War of Independence.