Eminence grise: Ferenc Chorin Jr.

What does it take to build a whole industrial empire and then gamble it in a lethal poker game played with an SS murderer where the survival is at stake? You can find out more about the eminence grise of Hungarian industry and politics, Ferenc Chorin Jr. here.

Ferenc Chorin Jr.

Ferenc Chorin Jr.


In the shadow of a father
Ferenc Chorin Jr., arguably the most influential figure in the financial and economic life of interwar Hungary was born in Budapest in 1879 as the only son of Ferenc Chorin Sr., a finance professional himself. The ambitious young man aspired to follow in his father’s footsteps. He threw himself right into the political life of the Law School of the Budapest university and became a central figure of the Reform Party. This was a group of largely Jewish youth from a bourgeois background, an opponent of the National Party, the Christian middle class formation. The Reform Party won the 1897 university election of the University Association, the central student organization. This fuelled anger among students, and not unlike in other European universities of the time, anger and conflicts often resulted in physical violence in the years to come. Chorin took his share, along with his friend and to be brother-in-law Móric Kornfled in these skirmishes.
He passed all his exams with high grades, and thus graduated with royal honor. The award, a ring, was handed over by the Emperor of Austria and Hungarian King, Franz Joseph himself. This had a profound effect on the 23-year-old young graduate, who otherwise voiced ferocious anti-Habsburg rants throughout his student years and with his peers even smashed the shop windows of Austrian companies.
The young Chorin attempted to enter politics right after his graduation but failed at the 1901 elections. Still following in his father’s footsteps, he began practicing law. Later, he was elected to the board of the Salgótarján Quarries Ltd (SQ) a company led by his father. Chorin Sr. gradually handed over management responsibilities to his son, who had become the managing director of the company in March 1919, a single day before the introduction of the Communist dictatorship.

Decades of influence
Similarly to the business empire of the Hatvany-Deutsch’s, SQ also suffered heavy damages due to the Commune and the territorial losses after WWI. Not before this did Chorin Jr. step out of his father’s shadow and held on to and reorganized the company. The right wing and deeply antisemitic regime of Regent Horthy was fledgling in 1919-1920 and was forced to come to a compromise with Jewish financiers and industrialists - as their network, skills and financial resources were vital to the country’s post-war reconstruction. Ferenc Chorin became an icon of this compromise. True, in order to achieve it, Chorin had to convert to Christianity on 30 May 1919, sixteen years after his father had done the same.
He became the vice president of the National Association of Industrialists in 1926, president in 1932 and a member of the upper house in 1928. By marrying Daisy, the daughter of industry tycoon Manfréd Weiss in 1921 his influence grew further. The concentration of industrial and financial capital thanks to the marriage was of a magnitude unheard of before. The Chorin companies were added to the holding that had come to exist in 1913 by the marriage of Móric Kornfeld and Marianne Weisz. Financial considerations most probably played a role in the marriage of the 42 year old groom and the 26 year old bride. Nevertheless, their daughter, Daisy had recollections of her parents’ marriage as “love at its best, one filled with affection and respect”. Manfréd Weisz died in 1922 and Chorin, the most able of his generation gradually took over the management roles of the holding. The first wave of the Great Depression hit Hungary in the early 1930s. The government set up the so called “Commission 33”, a quasi-government that introduced necessary austerity measures. Ferenc Chorin was a member of this commission. It is safe to say that Chorin had a vital role in both the booming years of the late 1920s and the management of the economic crisis in the early 1930s.
Chorin had good personal contacts to some of the most important figures of the political elite, among them Prime Minister István Bethlen (1921–1931) and Regent Miklós Horthy. Hunting and horse races, the traditional pastimes of the ruling class were alien to Chorin, the literature and art enthusiast Jewish bourgeois. Nevertheless, Chorin wisely chose to take part in these events thereby solidifying his social network. He co-owned a racehorse with Horthy’s brother and also had been renting an 8,000 acre hunting ground with István Bethlen since 1933. Although he never fired a shot, he was able to provide financial support to the indebted former Prime Minister.

Against Hitler
Chorin invested all his material and political resources against the Nazi menace from the middle of the 1930s. With Móric Kornfeld he established the paper Magyar Nemzet, which became the most important medium of the anti-Nazi, Western affiliated readership. Together with Bethlen he was a member of a closed and influential group that continuously put pressure on Horthy and the successive Hungarian governments to stay as far away from Hitler’s Germany as possible. Although Chorin did not achieve much success in convincing Prime Minister Béla Imrédy (1938-1939) to turn towards the Western Allies instead of the extreme right, he proved to be more successful with Miklós Kállay (1942-1944).
Chorin’s personal situation worsened as Nazi influence grew. In 1941 his Jewish descent and anti-German sentiments forced him to resign from the presidency of the National Association of Industrialists and the vice-presidency of the Hungarian Commercial Bank of Pest. He was however allowed to keep his membership in the Upper House and control rights over the business interests of the Weiss-Chorin-Kornfeld empire. He therefore remained one of the most influential persons, which resulted in a rather contradictory situation. Chorin was a member of the elite of a country rapidly drifting to the right, and at the same time he also was its foe. This traditionally pro Government conservative politician began to fund opposition movements and papers. The tycoon who had converted to Christianity two decades before generously supported Jews who fled to Hungary from Nazi occupied territories. Chorin, the head of Weiss Manfréd Works, a major supplier of the Hitler-allied Hungarian army cried out when warned about Allied air forces’ imminent bombing his factories "if only I could already see it happening”.
The Chorins were all in possession of valid Swiss visas throughout the war years, yet, they chose not to leave the country. Giving up the fight and fleeing were no options for the head of the family. The most prominent anti-Nazi politicians of the time (e.g. Bethlen or Minister of the Interior Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer) and businesspeople (Chorin and Móric Kornfeld) gathered in Chorin’s castle in Derekegyház. The meeting took place in February 1944, only some weeks before the German occupation of the country. They adopted an informal political agenda, according to which Horthy turned to Hitler and requested the withdrawal of Hungarian troops from the war front - all this to no avail of course. The Germans were surprisingly well informed of the details of the Derekegyháza meeting, which explains why Chorin was among the first persons to be arrested when the Germans occupied the country on 19 March 1944.

Your factory or your life

Although he managed to escape in the morning on the day of occupation, few days later the Gestapo learnt of his whereabouts. He was seriously beaten up and taken to a concentration camp in Austria. The economic emissary of SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, SS Lieutenant-Colonel Kurt Becher, who had established his Budapest headquarters in Chorin’s Andrássy Road villa got him out and back to Budapest. Becher’s mission in Budapest was to confiscate and make available to the SS in Hungary as much wealth as possible. At this point, in April 1944 Becher was interrogating about the economic possibilities this 65-year-old industrialist, who, tortured and ill, had just been released from a concentration camp – in his own living room. Chorin however prevailed once again and managed to retain control over the events. He came up with successive proposals in the coming days and finally managed to agree with Becher on transferring the control over Weiss Manfréd Works to the SS in return for his family’s freedom to leave the country. The transaction angered the Hungarian government, which aspired to acquire the company themselves. Whatever harmonious the collaboration may have been between the German occupiers and the Hungarian puppet government in disenfranchising, looting and finally deporting the Jews, they often fought over the prey, especially over Weiss Manfréd Works. The SS easily overturned Hungarian attempts to acquire the company. While the looters were battling over the prey, Chorin left the country and according to the agreement, went to Portugal with his family.

In exile

Chorin wanted to return to Hungary after the war. However, the Communist takeover prevented him. Industrialists like him were not only despised by the extreme right, but as “exploitative capitalists”, by the extreme left just as well. The Communists wanted to try him before court, but this plan was later abandoned. All his property remaining in Hungary was confiscated. Weiss Manfréd Works was seized again, this time by the Commuinists, who renamed the plant after the dictator, Mátyás Rákosi. Chorin’s sense of business and organizational skills did not abandon him however in exile either. He established booming enterprises and got actively involved in émigré politics. Hungarian Americans opposed to the Communist regime set up the National Committee, a parliament-in-exile. Chorin, of course, became a member. He soon became a central figure in émigré circles. Just as in Budapest, his household became an institution in New York. Emigrant Hungarians in need of social networks, jobs or simply shelter were frequent visitors in his 1000 Park Avenue apartment. He praised the 1956 revolution and was disappointed and outraged by its suppression. The 80-year-old Chorin held banners high and marched along with many others in protest in front of the Soviet Consulate. Ferenc Chorin never returned to Hungary. He died in New York in 1964.