100 Years ago, Hungary was Sentenced to Death
Yet, we survived and flourish, against all odds
When the Great War started on July 28th, 1914, the Kingdom of Hungary had been a fixture of the political map of Europe for over ten centuries. Like any other European state, her boundaries fluctuated over time, but apart from the period of the Ottoman yoke it had always incorporated the entire Carpathian Basin – the core lands of the Hungarian crown. Even as the Habsburgs sat in their capital of Vienna, they ruled Hungary not as Holy Roman emperors or later Austrian emperors, but as kings and queens of Hungary. The Hungarian Magna Charta (called Aranybulla) issued in 1222 established the basis of Hungarian constitutionalism, one of the oldest in the continent.
Hungarians fought for Christendom and for national survival for over 300 years in the 14-17th centuries against one of the greatest empires of that time. We bled, but the Ottomans could never defeat or occupy completely the Hungarian Kingdom. For 150 years Buda (now Budapest, capital of Hungary) along with about 80% of modern Hungary was under Ottoman rule. But we kept on fighting, against all odds and with the help of many European Christian nations, the Ottomans were finally defeated.
Following the Ottoman times, for over two centuries Hungarians fought for liberty and national independence. Although defeated by the Habsburg and the Russian Empires in 1848/49, the desire for freedom, national independence and republican values became deeply ingrained in Hungarians, it became the essence of Hungarian DNA and made Hungarians highly sensitive to injustice, foreign domination, threat of the loss of sovereignty. One of the greatest manifestations of this aspect of our national character was the uprising in 1956 against the mightiest military power on Earth, the Soviet Union. Once again, against all odds, we fought and although we were defeated, the damage we caused to the Soviets’ image was fatal. And while they collapsed, we, Hungarians stand.
The First World War changed the course of Hungary’s history. As part of the Austria-Hungary, we ended up on the losing side of this European civilizational civil war. After more than four years of meaningless slaughter that submerged the European nations in blood, the entire continent ended up transformed, traumatized and reeling from the shock of lives sacrificed, wealth irredeemably lost and infrastructure wiped out. But the ensuing peace treaty left Hungary marred like no other country in Europe.
The Paris Peace Conference was hardly an overall success and it is widely seen as a major contributing factor to the rise of fascism and the subsequent Second World War, leading the deaths of about 50 million people. Mostly Europeans. The desire for revenge and punishment combined with shortsightedness led to abandoning the centuries old reliance on the balance of power in favor of national self-determination (which the victors did not apply when it conflicted with their own interests) and collective security (a concept that ultimately failed) as the foundation of the new European order. With hindsight, Versailles was a tragic mistake that dozens of millions of Europeans had to pay for with their lives a mere two decades later, but also in the 90s during the Balkan Wars. The invention of the multi-ethnic Yugoslavia with a collection of about 8 ethnic groups – a state that had never existed before – was also one of the great novelties of the victors. A characteristic not dissimilar from the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Monarchy which treaties at Versailles tore apart exactly because of its multi-ethnicity, and all this happened on the Balkans, the most unstable region of the Continent. Her bloody collapse was coded into her birth.
The Hungarian Kingdom, being on the losing side of the World War, also became the victim of this short-sighted, fatuous, and greedy treaties. The new European order was superficial, unnatural, weak, unjust and was ultimately destined to fall into pieces. New allies for the proud and mighty French and British Empires had to be established and strengthened in Central Europe, but as the lands were limited and thus all the thirst for lands, rivers, mines, infrastructure and wealth for the new Little Entente countries (i.e. the newly created Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania) had to be satisfied from the body of the Hungarian Kingdom. Forbearance and fairness were unknown notions during the weeks of the creation of the new borders. (Ultimately it is power and interest which dictates the terms, not principles.)
The peace treaty signed in the Grand Trianon Palace in Versailles on June 4th, 1920, deprived Hungary of 72% of its land area and 64% of its population, 92 cities, most of its road and railway infrastructure, every salt-, silver- and gold mine, 97 percent of its pine forests. GDP shrunk to 38 percent compared to 1914. More than 100.000 square kilometres were given to Romania, more than it was left for Hungary. Despite the general understanding that the Great War was lost and the realization that the principle of national self-determination would mean major changes to Hungary’s borders no one expected such brutal terms.
It was especially difficult to explain how self-determination squared with over 1/3rd of Hungarians becoming separated from the mother country as two million of them lived right next to the newly-drawn borders. More than 20 important towns and cities with about 80% or higher share of Hungarian population lay within 60 kms from the lines the French and British drew as the new borders of Hungary. But these cities were important for the new states either because of access to river, railway infrastructure, for industrial reasons or simply because of strategic considerations. The application of the often-cited principle of self-determination was thrown into the dustbin along with the legitimate requests of the Hungarian representatives to hold referendums for the millions who still wished to remain in a state they and their forefathers called home for over a millennium. Of course, in the name of the new European order, such claims were dismissed. The same way the British and the French raped Africa and the Middle East, they raped Central Europe as well. Power and geopolitics came first, lives, rights and justice did not matter. It did not cause them sleepless nights either.
The Trianon Treaty was absurd, unjust, and unprecedented in “civilized” history dictated by once civilized nations acting in the must uncivilized manner. It was unacceptable, a death sentence for Hungary. The victors left millions of Hungarians with no choice but to rise up against this with all they had. This then forced Hungary to side with the revisionist powers of Europe in the two decades to come. That should not have come as surprise at all, it was a natural consequence of the terms imposed on Hungary. And as a result of these dire and reckless terms, Hungary along with other European nations paid again a great price.
Today, on June 4th, we mark 100 years since the signing of the Treaty of Trianon, mercifully in much more prosperous and peaceful circumstances. But for Hungarians, this anniversary nevertheless is and will remain one of sorrow and solemn contemplation. 100 years ago, our nation was torn apart. And this is not only history, but living memory for us Hungarians. Hungary is still the only country in Europe which borders her own former lands. Hungarians are still one of the largest minorities in Europe (2.5-3 million in neighboring countries). And while we have seen sincere apologies for the sins which were committed during the Second World War by many nations, we have never witnessed any official apologies from either the French or the British or the Italians or the neighboring countries for their actions and decision they forced on Hungary and which ruined the life of millions and which ultimately cost the life of many hundreds of thousands a few decades later.
They deem the rape of a great nation mere history, as if this would have happened anyway, as if it was destiny, as it if was business as usual, as it if was normal. No, it was not, it isn’t, and it will not ever become normal.
And if a well-educated citizen from a Western country asks why we Hungarians are so sensitive to unfairness, injustice, threats to our sovereignty, foreign dictates and boastful western lectures on democracy and rule of law, than we say, read our history and what your ancestors have done to our nation, study what they have done with millions of Hungarians. It is ultimately the West that made us Hungarians what we are now. But we are not the monster as many attempt to portray us. We just understand history and we had a profound experience of the results when our fate is decided by others in the name of shady principles.
The West owns an apology to Hungary and the millions who still live in countries (also member states of the European Union) as second-class citizens, where they have no access to proper education, public services and fair representation. If Western Europe is ready to stand up for these millions, they may gain the right to lecture us on fairness, equality and ultimately rule of law. But there is no sign of that at all.
We, Hungarians seem to be abandoned in this fight yet again. But nevertheless, Hungarians living in the Carpathian Basin for more than 1100 years have started to accept that this is our fate and this is our destiny. To remain and continue our fight for survival. And against all odds, we ultimately survive. As we have always done.