„My feelings toward Hungary were less detached. I confess that I regarded and still regard that Turanian tribe with acute distaste. Like their cousins the Turks, they had destroyed much and created nothing. Budapest was a false city devoid of any autochthonous reality. For centuries the Magyars had oppressed their subject nationalities. The hour of liberation and retribution was at hand.” – wrote British diplomat Harold Nicolson – in 1919 –, who played a major role when the Trianon-borders were drawn.
My fellow compatriots,
What did this diplomat know about Hungary? About St Stephen founding the state, about the wisdom in our first king’s admonitions, about the valiance of St Ladislaus, about the heroism of János Hunyadi, about the world acclaimed victory at Nándorfehérvár?
What did he know about the Renaissance court of King Matthias, about his library unrivalled in Europe and the codices it contained, about the giants of the reform age, our freedom fight in 1848, or the economic boom, the scientific achievements of the half a century before World War I?
Nicholson knew precious little of all this. Yet – as a diplomat, party to the decision – he still fundamentally influenced the future of Hungarians.
Hungary mourned – on 4 June - one hundred years ago today. Budapest was also draped in black. Flags were flown at half-mast. Newspapers were published with black mourning borders. Most of the shops, schools and offices remained closed. Buses and trams were halted. Bells tolled in the capital and everywhere in Hungary. Hungarians observed five minutes of silence.
Not a single Hungarian could come to terms with the loss, the humiliation, the codified illegality.
Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory in 1920. Her population shrunk from 18 to 7 and a half million. More than three million Hungarians found themselves outside of the borders. Romania was given land that itself was larger than what was left of Hungary. The majority of our wheat fields, 90 percent of our forests, two thirds of our railway networks were given to neighbouring countries.
Less mention is made of the economic development that Trianon halted. We know from our elementary school studies about the role played by István Széchenyi in building the first cylinder mill in Budapest. It is a lesser known fact that 60 years later, at the turn of the century, Budapest was the largest mill center of Europe. Only Minneapolis in the United States surpassed it globally.
We do not usually talk about the dynamic development of the Hungarian machinery industry. This, despite the fact that we have every reason to be proud. The first locomotive manufactured in Hungary came off the line in 1873 and 27 years later the one thousandth unit rolled out of the factory.
Within 30-40 years, Hungary was able to produce any equipment and machinery needed in agriculture.
World leading electric industry. Dynamic urban and railway infrastructure development. Public and private buildings lending a true metropolitan atmosphere to Budapest. Only London preceded the Budapest underground in Europe. The Parliament building was inaugurated in 1904.
Beside the losses suffered by the country and the halted economic development, we should also talk about the direct losses suffered by the people.
Several waves of atrocities swept across Hungary between 1918 and 1920. There was no decision yet in Trianon, the new borders were not yet drawn, but a “post-war war” was ravaging the Carpathian-basin. Initially it was only the rampage of the “free corps”, the looted granaries, the burning palaces, ethnically or socially motivated violence. Later the brutality of the occupying Czech, Romanian and Serbian units.
Salvos, arbitrary violence, looting, the defilement of women. Hundreds of thousands of people forced to flee. Those staying behind being deprived of their work, their jobs and their means of living. People losing their land, their houses and their belongings. Terror, fear, humiliation, settlements torn apart.
When talking about Trianon today, it is the fourth successive generation posing the same questions: Could the world war have been prevented? Who was responsible for what? Why was the Trianon dictate so utterly unjust on Hungary?
Many of the historians studying the era, share the opinion that – although the leader of every country spoke about peace – in reality everybody was preparing for war at the beginning of the 20th century.
The decline of the Ottoman Empire, the political vacuum created on the Balkans, the expansion of tsarist Russia, the intensification of the Pan-Slav idea, the growing strength of Germany, revanchism in France because of losing Alsace-Lorraine, the growing autonomy demands of ethnic minorities were all pointing in this direction.
After the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy wagered that its conflict with Serbia would remain local and be limited to the Balkans at the most.
This was supported by the European experiences of the previous 50 years. Vienna thought, that Germany’s stance regarding the Monarchy will keep Russia away. Saint Petersburg thought that the Russian mobilization will prompt the Monarchy to retreat. Berlin believed that England will remain neutral and this will keep France away.
Everybody was wrong.
The Hungarian Prime Minister István Tisza was initially against entering the war. He thought that a concurrent war against the Russians, the Serbs and the Romanians would not leave enough troops to protect Transylvania. A probable victory would tip the delicate ethnic balance of the Monarchy. After two weeks of wrangling, Vienna convinced Tisza, who at the Ministerial Council meeting deciding on the war only insisted that the Monarchy should issue a statement, that it did not intend to annex Serbian territories.
The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy declared war on Serbia, Hungary became a warring party. Soon the war developed into a world war. After four years of fighting, Hungary – as a losing party – could not escape serious punishment. Why?
After the German blitzkrieg strategy proved to be a fiasco and the war was consuming more and more resources, the Entente and the Central Powers insisted that countries, which had remained “neutral” up until then, should join the war. However, bringing the neutrals – Italy and Romania – into war was only possible if they satisfied territorial demands of these countries, which was only feasible at the price of the complete military collapse of the enemy. Italy entered into the war on the side of England and France in the hope of getting South-Tirol, Istria, a part of Dalmatia and some parts of the Ottoman Empire as well as the hope of expanding its African colonies. The Entente – already in 1916 – promised Bukovina, Transylvania and a substantial part of East-Hungary to Romania.
By today it is more of a historic peculiarity that – on 7 May 1918 – two years after entering into war, Romania signed a peace with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. This also came at a price. The recognition of the Union of Bessarabia with Romania that was declared earlier.
However, six months later – by when Germany had in essence capitulated – Romania decided to disregard the peace treaty and entered into war again on the side of the Entente powers in the hope of acquiring the territories they wanted earlier.
By 1918, the fate of three monarchies was sealed – the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and tsarist Russia – which had in earlier centuries fundamentally decided the state of power play in Europe.
France – after its earlier ally fell out – was in need of new alliances, in order to balance the weight of Germany. Furthermore a buffer zone was indispensable in order to prevent the expansion of the Bolsheviks.
This new alliance also came at a price. The winning powers forced the defeated parties, mainly Hungary to pay this price.
In his admonitions, Saint Stephen warns his son to not punish or condemn anyone immoderately.
Five countries finished World War I on the side of the defeated. Let us compare the extent of the punishment meted out on Germany and Hungary. While Germany lost 13%, Hungary lost 67%, that is two-third of its territory. While close to 4% of Germany’s population found itself under the jurisdiction of another country, in the case of Hungary, almost 60% of the population was impacted.
Let us also record a few other facts. Hungary was only invited to the peace talks with one year delay; until then the country was not able articulate its position and its arguments during the drafting of the treaty conditions. The Council of Foreign Ministers dedicated only one single session to discussing the Hungarian borders. They approved the report of the two preparative committees without any tangible debate. (This is why characters, like Nicholson quoted at the beginning of the speech could play such a significant role.) The Wilsonian principles on self-determination were only applied to the detriment of Hungary. By the time the Hungarian delegation arrived in Paris, US President Wilson had not only turned his back on his principles, but also the negotiations, the US party was represented at the hearings by their ambassador to Paris. Albert Apponyi, the leader of the Hungarian delegation was given one single occasion to speak. There was no possibility to debate, to share arguments, to presents documents for public scrutiny.
The fate of Hungary was not decided in 1920. It happened much earlier. At disingenuous behind the scene talks. Unprepared politicians, political desperados, self-proclaimed prophets, paid agents, biased, partially corrupted experts, journalists tainted with anti-Hungarian bias all worked together to create what we call the Trianon peace dictate today.
One hundred years on, we have every right to ask the question: Did Trianon bring peace? No, the carnage continued two decades later. Did it help the economic development of the Central and Eastern-European region? No. Did it help reduce the ethnic tension in the region? No. The decision turned a multinational country in several multinational countries. Thereby sowing the seeds of further strife. Furthermore, it was unable to prevent the expansion of German national socialism or Russian Bolshevism.
In his memoirs of the war, Churchill wrote the following: „… There is not one of these peoples or provinces that constituted the Empire of the Habsburgs to whom gaining their independence has not brought the tortures which ancient poets and theologians had reserved for the damned.”
The last question we have to ask is: Was the Trianon decision just? The fact that we Hungarians consider it unjust is understandable. But what do others think about this?
Years later, Harold Nicholson, who I quoted at the beginning of my speech, who could hardly be accused of pro-Hungarian sentiments wrote the following: „The Committee on Romanian claims (...) thought only in terms of Transylvania, the Committee on Czech claims concentrated upon the southern frontier of Slovakia…these two separate Committees had between them imposed upon Hungary a loss of territory and population which when combined was very serious indeed.
Had the work been concentrated in the hands of a ‘Hungarian’ Committee not only would a wider area of frontier been open for the give and take of discussion, but it would have been seen that the total cessions imposed would place more Magyars under alien rule than was consonant with the doctrine of self-determination.”
But we could also quote British Prime Minister, Lloyd George at the time: „There will never be peace in South Eastern Europe if every little state now coming into being is to have a large Magyar irrendenta within its borders. I would therefore take as a guiding principle of the peace that as far as is humanly possible the different races should be allocated to their motherlands and this human criterion should have precedence over considerations of strategy or economics or communications…”
Finally let us quote the Francois Mitterand, the Socialist President of France who said the following in 1992: “All the peace treaties of this century, especially the ones after the Great War of 1914-1918, starting with the Versailles Treaty, but also that of 1945 and those that followed were all unjust peace treaties which always negated historic, geographical, intellectual or ethnic realities in order to cater for the glory or the power desires or direct interests of the winner. The drama of the next war was always coded into the provisions of the previous peace treaties.”
Distinguished Commemorating Audience,
I could also quote Ady, Attila József or Kosztolányi about all that happened before and after Trianon. Gyula Juhász, Babits, Karinthy. Krúdy, Móricz, Reményik. Kós Károly, Antal Szerb, Márai. We could dedicate a separate commemorative session to the pain they felt because of this injustice.
Yet, I will not quote from them, but instead I will bring a few lines from Arnold Ruttkay, who was born after the Trianon dictate and fled to Australia in 1948:
„What more do they want…?
Weren’t all the seals on the peace document,
the ancient land given for free enough….?
Wasn’t the border drawn hastily
in the backyard by the raspberry bushes enough?
Weren’t the removed street signs,
the rewritten maps and the fallen statues enough…?
The mother tongue has gone into hiding a long time ago,
Only to be whispered behind closed windows.
The old school has closed,
the song has faded,
the bell tower no longer stands and
memories shiver with fear.”
On the one hundredth anniversary it is also fit that we should inspect ourselves.
The tragic situation of Hungary between the end of the World War and the Trianon decision was only aggravated by the catastrophic blunders of the country’s political leadership. During this barely two-year period conservative incompetence, liberal inaptitude and Bolshevik utopia all came together.
Procrastination, vain hopes, unfounded hopes for cultural dominance and historic deeds made it impossible to assert interests on an uneven playing field. Where were the intelligence reports about the background talks and deals of the Entente and later Little Entente countries at the turn of 1918-19? Where was the elementary instinct of self-defence to reorganize the military and protect the borders? Where was the diplomatic background work, personal experiences, the presentation of our arguments to have the ethnic borders respected?
It took more than political blindness to think that it was going to be enough to take a principled stance against profiteers and booty hunting efforts, to not see what kind of political and economic deals were made in the background. Seriously irresponsible behaviour.
Mihály Károlyi could have done at least one thing: to keep the military together and to create a strong law enforcement. This could have been protection against the Czech and Romanian incursions into the country. It could also have been an opportunity to isolate the communists.
Could timely, perseverant and tenacious political and diplomatic lobbying have helped to reduce the losses, in light of the fact that Apponyi’s performance – when everything was already decided – managed to capture the interest of the British Prime Minister and to inspire feelings of sympathy in the Italian Prime Minister?
A war lost, the chaos caused by two revolutions. The grave socio-economic consequences of Trianon. A state on the verge of bankruptcy.
But the nation wanted to live. Reconstruction of the country had to begin.
István Bethlen’s government was left to do the work. English historian Bryan Cartledge described Bethlen – who was a member of the Hungarian delegation in Paris – with the following words: “…the absence of talent was striking in the post-war period, István Bethlen was the only man of talent, who could efficiently represent Hungary on the European political stage.
He learned his lesson well as a junior member of the delegation at the Paris peace conference. Later he was also able to efficiently apply everything that he learned.”
During his first year in office, István Bethlen, who became head of the Hungarian government in 1921 had the National Assembly pass a law, which dethroned the Habsburgs. Organized a referendum in Sopron, reducing the size of the population ceded to Austria by 55 thousand. Worked authoritatively to create the conditions for political stability first and economic recovery later. Reduced the international isolation of Hungary. Managed to secure a loan with the help of the League of Nations to relaunch the economy. Introduced customs tariffs to protect the Hungarian market.
The result exceeded all expectations. From 1925 onwards the government registered budget surplus every year and could significantly increase the money spent on education and public health. This provided the financial foundations for Klebelsberg’s far-reaching education and cultural policy. By 1929, industrial production exceeded the 1913 figure by 12 percent. It was not the fault of Hungary or the Hungarian people that the global economic crisis halted this momentum.
One hundred years have passed. Filled with pain, further losses and a lot of lessons learned. Since World War II, Hungary has been repeatedly accused of wanting to change the borders, disregarding the fact that when an opportunity presented itself, Hungary never submitted any territorial demands against her neighbours. No claims were made after the fall of the Ceauşescu-regime, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, or the demise of the Soviet Union, the birth of Ukraine or the break-up of Czechoslovakia.
We give respect to our neighbours, but we ask them that they respect us and the Hungarians living in their countries.
We give respect to the ethnic communities living in Hungary and would like them to look on us with respect.
We have to work for each other and not against one another. What the major powers spoiled, we should rectify. If we can do this, then we can lift the curse of Trianon.
But let us be clear and unequivocal. We will not be party to any cover-ups, any falsification of history and the disowning of Hungarians living outside of the mother country. We will be partners in honest dialogue, in making use of historic opportunities, in strengthening the Hungarian-Hungarian bonds, as well as the ones between Hungarians and other nationalities. Nobody can deny us the right to work to ensure that the spiritual borders of the nation remain unchanged, if the geographical ones have changed.
For 10 years now, this day – 4 June – is called the Day of National Belonging.
During the past 10 years we have worked to finally build where so many decades in the past were only about destruction. We worked to fill with content the noble idea of national policy and to forge closer bonds between fellow Hungarians through the process of simplified naturalization. To support the small Hungarian communities across the borders, just as much as we support larger institutional networks. To provide training and grants in order to develop the competitiveness of Hungarian businesses abroad, to renew church and community spaces.
For 10 years we have been working to provide social assistance, scholarships and support for Hungarian schools in order to provide perspectives, where education and jobs are needed primarily to keep young Hungarians in place. To rectify, to save our shared values that have started to go into decline, to renovate our tormented memorials. To secure common funds for common objectives.
All those who will act like this in the future will not only look to what we used to have but will also see everything that we have now. The graduating class of the János Selye High School in Komárom. The children and the staff at the houses of Saint Francis Foundation in Déva. The young people singing in Hungarian at the Saint Michael Children’s Home in Rát. The students of the II. Ferenc Rákóczi Teacher Training College in Beregszász. The children of the kindergarten in Nagykapos. The young talents of the Újvidék Art Academy. The young people gathering around the Three heap Altar in Csíksomlyó.
Within 10 years the National Assembly has tripled the funds available to promote national belonging. Thank God, the work of 10 years has come to fruition by today.
Count István Széchenyi closed his treatise „ Credit” with the words: “Many people believe that Hungary belongs to the past, but I believe firmly that Hungary is not a part of the past but the future."
Speaking in the parliamentary debate on accepting the Trianon dictates, Albert Apponyi alluded to Széchenyi and encouraged members of the National Assembly with these words: “Hungary is not a part of the past but the future!”
One hundred years on, after two world wars, tormented by Trianon and economic crises, after more than four decades of a communist-socialist detour, a defeated revolution and several times being on the verge of collapse, we are here, we are alive. Having trust in the future we can say: the Hungarian nation is not a thing of the past but of the future.