Ally Addison explores the Treaty of Trianon, and its effects on the last 100 years.
“As soon as the emperor says goodnight, we’ll break up into a hundred pieces.” The words of Count Chojnicki, a character from Joseph Roth’s most famous novel Radetzky March, could not have been more true. With the conclusion of the First World War, the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart, marking an abrupt end to the short-lived dual monarchy. Just over a year later, an agreement was made between Hungary and the Entente powers which redrew the map of Europe for ever. It was called the Treaty of Trianon.
It is June 1920, and at the grand Trianon palace outside Paris, hundreds of diplomats gather to decide on the fate of Hungary. The few Hungarian representatives complain that the Entente powers do not appreciate the delicate web of ethnicities and cultures that made up the now deceased empire.
The French, working closely with their Romanian allies, decide that it is safer to create a ring of allied states in order to contain Hungarian power. Sympathy for the Hungarian cause is minimal due to their allegiance with Germany during the War.
After four months of negotiation, the Hungarians sign the treaty under mounting pressure. With the establishment of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, as well as the incorporation of large swathes of Transylvania into the Kingdom of Romania, Hungary loses approximately two-thirds of its pre- war territory, along with around sixty-percent of its population. The economic impact will be equally harsh — the Hungarians lose much of their infrastructure together with access to the Adriatic Sea at Fiume.
Last month marked the treaty’s centenary. Not a squeak from the main British news outlets. Admittedly, commemorations were quieter this year due to coronavirus restrictions. But I suspect that there is a deeper cause for this negligence. Namely that, outside of the countries that it directly affected, the treaty has faded into obscurity.
Yet the legacy of the Trianon treaty is as alive as ever. In Hungary, the Fidesz Party, led by the Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has routinely evoked the treaty in order to solidify its support base among Hungarian nationalists. Earlier this year, Orban got into trouble for a Facebook post in which he showed himself in front of a globe depicting Europe prior to the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Croatian president interpreted it as a direct provocation.
Orban has also underlined the treaty as a symbol of Hungarian suffering at the hands of outside powers. For a long time, Orban has elicited criticism for his rejection of EU immigration policy. But by using the Treaty of Trianon as an historical example of how Western Europe has bullied Hungary into courses of action contrary to the wishes of the Hungarian people, he has bolstered his popularity back home.
He is not alone in his sentiments about the treaty. According to the Trianon 100 research group, eighty-five percent of Hungarians consider the treaty to be the greatest national tragedy. Seventy-seven percent believe that Hungary never recovered from it.
Daniel Bartha, of the Budapest based Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy (CEID), remarked that ”Every family has a family member who either had to leave their home and move to [the new] Hungary, or was separated for decades, or still lives in another country and has their own story of being a secondary citizen of those countries.” This narrative of suffering and injustice is exactly that which the Fidesz party uses to rally its supporters. Peter Kreko, director of the Political Capital think tank, stated that “Fidesz completely monopolises the words ‘nation’ and national politics”.
According to Thomas Lorman, a specialist in Central European history at UCL, remembrance of the treaty is shrouded in myth. Claims that the treaty was the nation’s greatest tragedy are trumped up, a product of the era of post-truth which we live in. The more that Orban’s government propagates the notion of a national trauma, the more the Hungarians convince themselves that all of Hungary’s current problems can be explained by the punishing terms of the Trianon treaty.
It is not just on the Hungarian side that it has been resurfaced. The Romanian president, Klaus Iohannis, has stirred up tension by establishing a national commemoration day, celebrating the territory that Romania gained from the Kingdom of Hungary thanks to the treaty. He has also accused the opposition party, the PSD, of supporting autonomy for the Szekely Land, a territory inhabited mostly by a sub-group of Hungarians — and the subject of numerous controversies.
In order to find out more about how the treaty remains a relevant event to this day, I got in contact with a selection of St. Andrews students who grew up in some of the countries that the treaty impacted.
A Romanian student I contacted grew up in the city of Oradea in northern Transylvania, where there is still a substantial Hungarian minority. She told me that many words in the local dialect are borrowed from Hungarian, while the cuisine draws heavily from Hungarian influences. Some areas of Romania, like the aforementioned Szekely Land, even boast a Hungarian majority.
Nestled deep in the Transylvanian Alps, Szekely Land has long been a point of contention between Romania and Hungary. A local party, the Hungarian Civic Party, has even called for autonomy for the region. Orban’s Citizenship Law in 2011 poured fuel on the fire by allowing any Hungarian speaker living within the former Kingdom of Hungary the right to claim Hungarian citizenship.
The same student noted that even some Romanians believe they have reason to resent the outcome of the treaty. At school she was taught that “there was even more territory under Romanian occupation that was stolen and never reclaimed. Such as part of the western Banat region and northern Maramures.”
For the Czechs and Slovaks, the treaty is remembered primarily as a harbinger of independence. A perfect example of one man’s loss is another man’s gain.
One Slovak conveyed that for a long time Hungarian ultra-nationalists in Slovakia dreamed of a return to Greater Hungary, when what is now Slovakia was an integral part of the Kingdom of Hungary, fielding large numbers of ethnic Hungarians. He added that “on the Slovak side, the Slovak National Party exploited this sentiment that Hungary wants the southern part of Slovak territory… as a major campaign topic right up until 2012.”
Another Slovak student informed me about the Most-Híd party, an inter-ethnic group that tries to bridge the gap between the Slovak majority and the Hungarian minority. Although the party has made it clear that its aims are anything but nationalistic, it showcases the ensuing problem of ethnic integration left over by the Treaty of Trianon. He added, “I don’t think Hungarian irredentism is a threat anymore, but who knows what the future has in store for us.”
The same student also told me that the Trianon treaty, and the history surrounding it, continues to be a major topic in the classroom. Schoolchildren in Slovakia are taught that, throughout recent history, the Hungarians were the main oppressors of the Slovak people. That is, until the treaty brought about the creation of Czechoslovakia.
One Czech student discussed the significance of the newly-established Czechoslovak state, which, prior to the Great Depression, boasted one of the strongest economies in Europe. What the Hungarians lost in terms of infrastructure and trade, Czechoslovakia gained. For example, between seventy and eighty percent of the industrial production in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire was concentrated in the new state.
It was also strongly democratic and outward-looking. The minister of foreign affairs, Eduard Benes, for example, was a champion of democracy in Central Europe, supporting Czechoslovakia’s entry into the League of Nations at a time when neighbouring countries including Germany were sliding into authoritarianism. The success of the Czechoslovaks can only have made the pain of dismemberment more acute for the Hungarians.
Not all Hungarians are so embittered by the hundred year-old treaty. A Hungarian student I spoke to explained that there is still a strong political divide between the social classes, with the
wealthier, liberal Hungarians largely renouncing nationalism in favour of European integration. For them, it is just a historical thing, “something to be forgotten”.
In poorer areas of Hungary, on the other hand, support for the Fidesz party is strong, and nationalist stickers can still be found on many people’s cars evoking the tragedy at Trianon. The danger is that Orban could use this divide to strengthen ultra-nationalism in his country. By painting the liberals as traitors to their country, he is sharpening nationalist sentiment among his supporters.
The question of how the legacy of the treaty can be put to rest still remains. The challenge for Hungary’s liberal and socialist parties is to reinforce their message of tolerance, whilst avoiding sounding anti-patriotic. The power of history over the present is being nourished by lies and revisionism. For the time being, the wounds remain open.