On June 4th, 2020, exactly one hundred years to the day that the Treaty of Trianon was signed, Gábor Tóth of vasarnap.hu, a Hungarian news portal that looks at the events of the day from a Christian perspective, sat down with Sándor Szakály to discuss Trianon and its impact on Hungary today. The interview has been translated in its entirety below.
Historians like to say that a certain amount of time must pass before we can have a proper understanding of an era and its issues. To the extent that this is true, how would you describe Hungarian historiography’s understanding of Trianon?
In my opinion, there are few new findings related to Trianon. On the other hand, the opportunity exists to take existing sources and interpret them from various perspectives. The most common question in connection to Trianon is why was Hungary so severely punished? Some historians mention the nationalities policy of Dualist Hungary while others talk of a conspiracy between various powers. In my opinion, Trianon and the drastic redrawing of borders were primarily driven by Hungary’s defeat in the First World War, for the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy surely would not have collapsed in peacetime. There certainly would have been various domestic changes, but those would have been part of a normal developmental process. The war, however, radically changed and accelerated things.
We must also talk about the ethnic minorities living within Hungary, some of whom had states outside of Hungary’s borders (for example, the Kingdom of Romania and the Kingdom of Serbia) and wished to unify with their national brethren beyond the Kingdom of Hungary, despite the fact that they had never lived together. Many of them held the notion that it would be appropriate to consolidate.
I believe that historians should analyze these perspectives more thoroughly.
There is also no consensus opinion among Hungarian historians on which perspective or approach is soundest in explaining Trianon.
That Hungary lost the war is, sadly, indisputable. And the consequences of that defeat in the Great War were Hungary’s dismemberment and becoming a rump state.
Numerous historical narratives exist to explain Trianon. According to one popular argument, there was significant hatred of Hungarians among the victors. How sound is that premise?
Opinions differ on the question. My understanding is that we cannot talk about clear-cut hatred of Hungarians in the case of Trianon. Of course we have all heard the unfounded story about Georges Clemenceau hating us Hungarians because his daughter-in-law was of Hungarian descent. (At the same time, I do not claim that he was fond of Hungary or Hungarians either.) Instead of hearsay explanations, however, we need to hammer home the fact that the decision served the interests of the Great Powers and was not made on an emotional basis.
Several decision makers on the winning side believed that the ethnic minorities – along with significant amounts of territory – had to be “detached” from the Kingdom of Hungary. On the basis of the 1910 census, if we exclude Croatia, only 54 percent of Hungary’s population considered itself as Hungarian or spoke Hungarian as its mother tongue.
So one of the primary objectives was to destroy the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy?
Not initially. The plan to smash the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy had not yet been hatched when the United States entered the war.
By the end of the war, however, the victorious side had determined that there was no longer a need for the Monarchy, which had functioned as a balance in the heart of Europe between Czarist Russia and the German Empire. By the end of the war, the former had, for all intents and purposes, collapsed while the latter had ceased to exist in its earlier form.
We must also mention Edvard Beneš and Tomáš Masaryk, who did their utmost to persuade the Entente Powers that the Monarchy was a superfluous state. Romanian and Serbian politicians also echoed their sentiments. If we consider that the Romanians had been promised everything east of the Tisza River in the secretive Treaty of Bucharest, the Hungarian-Romanian border that Trianon established actually benefitted Hungary.
They also made the case that with the dissolution of the Monarchy, ethnic states would be established in the region. Of course this was absolutely false. Out of the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, which had been Europe’s largest geographical state, came several much smaller multiethnic states. There were many ways to describe the Kingdom of Romania, the Czechoslovak Republic or the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later called the Kingdom of Yugoslavia), but “homogeneous nation state” was not one of them.
How would you describe the situation of the Hungarians who ended up on the other side of the new borders?
Living in minority status translated into great, great hardship for everyone. In terms of both culture and economics, Hungarians suffered greatly in the lost territories, the effects of which are still felt today.
We must not forget that the land reforms carried out in the neighboring countries primarily impacted Hungarians, with the Hungarian landed gentry especially hard hit.
While Hungarians suffered significant losses of property, they nonetheless maintained some possibility to engage in political life. In other words, their political rights were not yet as severely truncated as they would be after 1945. Let’s consider the Beneš decrees, which at their core stripped the Czechoslovakian Hungarians of all their rights. In 1944-45, retaliatory actions targeting the Hungarian population in Yugoslavia were carried out by Josip Tito’s partisans. Numerous atrocities were also committed against the Transylvanian Hungarians in Romania.
To summarize, in comparison to 1920, we can say that the situation of the Hungarians living in the neighboring countries deteriorated drastically after 1945.
Another indicator of how bad it was was the rate of depopulation and assimilation in those territories. We can see that Hungarian depopulation really took off after 1945 in comparison to the Interwar Era. I consider this trend, which began at that time, to be very dangerous and worrisome. We must support, with all our effort, every endeavor that helps our brethren prosper on their ancestral land.
It is often said that a shared history and a shared future are the things that can bind a people together. What can Hungarians, irrespective of whether they live in Hungary or the lost territories, do to build a shared future?
The answer to the question also depends on what the Hungarians in the neighboring countries decide. Being Hungarian as a minority in another country is different from being a Hungarian in Hungary. I think the most important thing for them would be the right to use their own language and the possibility to attend school and to worship in their own language. These are capable of binding a community. Parents and grandparents should also bear in mind that if they give up their identity, then they are lost to the community.
If for whatever reason they decide to enroll their children into a non-Hungarian school, they will be lost to the broader Hungarian world sooner or later.
It is not difficult to admit. If few children attend Hungarian schools, then the state will eventually dissolve those schools. This impact can also be felt in higher education, where faculties with Hungarian as the language of instruction are slowly disappearing. Actions must be taken and not just talked about in order to show positive examples and to create opportunities for Hungarian survival. It is very difficult to give wise advice from Hungary on what to do in order to carry on and survive the impact of Trianon, whose consequences will still be felt in the future. However, one thing is for certain:
We must make our Hungarian brethren living in the neighboring countries aware that we stand by them and that we are in it together.