VERITAS Research Institute for History and Archives

Losing World War I paved the road to Trianon. By September 1918, while the war was still ongoing, the political leadership had recognized that Hungary would end up on the losing side, so they began preparing for the eventual peace negotiations. Under the direction of Count Pál Teleki, Zsigmond Bátky, Aurél Littke and Manó Kogutowitz, a map was drawn (nowadays referred to as the “Red Map”) showing Hungary’s ethnographic, political and economic relations based on 1910 census data.

Every attempt by the  government of Count Mihály Károlyi, who had come to power on October 31st, 1918, and the subsequent government led by Dénes Berinkey to receive an invitation to the peace conference failed. Earlier avowals of “Entente friendship” and being “antiwar” had not been enough.

The leaders of the Hungarian Soviet Republic also tried to procure an invitation, and despite its factual leader Béla Kun’s announcement that Hungary did not stand by the principle of territorial integrity, no invitation was forthcoming. The wait ended in December 1919, by which time the greater part of Hungarian territory was under occupation by Romanian, Czechoslovak and Serbian troops, and there was no way of knowing how long it would last.

To clarify the uncertainty in Hungary and hear the Hungarians’ side, the victors sent British diplomat George Russell Clerk to Budapest in October 1919. Following his talks with the Hungarians, Clerk was left with the impression that the Hungarians generally wished to work together with the Allies. In his opinion, the Hungarians had begun to see the mistake they had made, the responsibility for which they believed had belonged to Austrian policymaking. The Hungarians wanted to prove their good intentions, but if denied the opportunity would be forced – following Austria’s lead – into closer ties with Germany.

On December 1st, 1919, prompted by Clerk’s assessment, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau finally called on the Hungarian government (which by then was led by Károly Huszár, had been formed in accordance to the demands of the Entente and in which every significant Hungarian political party was represented) to send delegates to Paris. The invitation led to heated debate in cabinet meetings held on December 2nd and 8th, 1919, which were attended, in addition to the ministers, by Count Albert Apponyi, Count Pál Teleki, Count István Bethlen and Vice Admiral Miklós Horthy, Commander of the National Army. It was finally agreed that a delegation should not be sent until January 1920 in the hopes that the various conflicting interests among the victors could lead to increased friction and the possibility of decompensation in the region. Count Apponyi indicated he was privy to information that an attack would be launched by Russian General Anton Denikin against Romania in March 1920, which could work in Hungary’s favor. Miklós Horthy assessed the situation more realistically. He believed any delay was dangerous from Hungary’s perspective and declared that “[Hungary] must stay loyal to the Entente, for it would be a highly mistaken political decision to pick a fight with the Entente, which I believe is not only a strong player today, but will remain so into the future.”

Hungary wished to tie its presence at the peace conference to certain preconditions, including the withdrawal of Romanian troops from the Trans-Tisza region of Hungary and the investigation of atrocities committed by them. The Hungarians, however, received no reply. In the end, it was decided that a Hungarian delegation would participate in the peace conference.

At the start of the following year, on January 5th, 1920, the train carrying the large delegation led by Count Albert Apponyi departed for Paris, where it would speak on behalf of Hungarian interests. Albert Apponyi briefly summarized the delegation’s task thusly: “Our insistence on maintaining territorial integrity will essentially be served by negotiations with the Entente Great Powers. We will explain to them that we have, on the basis of both historical law and natural law, a right to insist. Moreover, we are willing to recognize the sentiment taken hold among the peoples of the world during the course of the war, which is that the people alone should determine their own destiny. Thus, on the basis of this Wilsonian principle, we suggest the holding of referendums. If these two propositions, our insistence for territorial integrity and calling for referendums, are worth fighting for, then we must persevere on their behalves at the negotiations and do everything in our power to defend our truth.”

Referring to the upcoming negotiations, he also opined that “there will be scarce opportunity to debate, and the entire so-called negotiations will consist of our exchanging notes with the supreme council”. Count Apponyi knew whereof he spoke!

Count István Bethlen, another member of the delegation, had said the following at the abovementioned cabinet meeting of December 8th, 1919: “The endeavors of the peace delegation in Paris will be a pretense so that we may refer later to all of our presented objections that never found a receptive audience, and so it is that we see our fate lying in our own hands.”

The members of the Hungarian peace delegation were inhospitably welcomed upon arriving in Paris. Their accommodation was the Château de Madrid, a mid-category hotel, in Neuilly, where they were practically under house arrest.    

Apponyi’s “prophecy” came true. On January 15th, 1920, the Hungarian delegation was handed the conditions of peace, to which they hardly had twenty-hour hours to prepare a response. On January 16th, Count Albert Apponyi gave his widely acclaimed address / counterstatement in French, followed by summarized versions in English and Italian. Highlighting some of the things he said: “The arguments we make in the interests of our former land, Historic Hungary, will not be compelling enough in your eyes (Author’s note: Apponyi’s assessment was correct.), so we recommend asking the people who will be impacted (Author’s note: They were not asked.).”

Apponyi went on more emphatically: “We refer to President Wilson’s eloquently formulated and excellent principle, by which no part of the population of any state can be placed, like cattle, under the jurisdiction of a foreign government without its permission. On behalf of this great idea, which otherwise is an axiom of common sense and public morality, we demand referendums in those areas of our country that you wish to take from us. I declare that we will accept the results of the referendums no matter what they might be.”

Apponyi’s speech appeared to engender sympathy for Hungary among a few of the leaders of the conference, but no substantive changes were made in the end. The earlier formulated conditions of peace remained.

On January 18th, most of the members of the Hungarian peace delegation traveled home from Paris. They briefed the cabinet and Miklós Horthy, Commander of the National Army. Count Pál Teleki, who had also traveled home, referred to the draft of the peace plan thusly: “Nothing can justify how the borders have been altered. Ethnic Hungarian communities that are compact and completely interdependent on the Hungarians of the Great Plain have been ripped away from us. I am talking about the towns of Pozsony, Komárom, Kassa, Nagyvárad, Szabadka and Arad. These new borders are nothing but strategic borders that leave us completely defenseless.”

Despite everything, most of the cabinet meeting participants believed the conditions could not be rejected. During the National Assembly session held on May 26th, Count Apponyi declared, “Not signing the treaty, which is without a doubt the just decision, would be, from an ethical perspective and in terms of national mood, and my mood as well, the most fitting action, but would put us at odds with the entire world... Not signing would mean putting everything at risk: the nation’s greatest treasures, our national rebirth and our hopes of ever reacquiring what we have lost. It is too great a risk to take.”

Having returned from Paris in the meantime, Count István Bethlen and Count Imre Csáky also held a similar view. Finally, after much debate, the decision was made to accept the conditions of peace. Minister of Welfare and Labor Ágost Benárd and Extraordinary Ambassador and Authorized Minister Alfréd Drasche–Lázár were chosen as signatories. At 4:30 in the afternoon on June 4th, 1920, the Treaty of Trianon was signed, and what remained of Hungary fell into mourning.

Hungary ended up losing – excluding Croatia – approximately two-thirds of her territory and nearly one-third of her ethnic Hungarian / native Hungarian-speaking population. Wholly Hungarian territories were handed over to foreign states, and a former European power was transformed into a small country. Hungary was stripped of the greater part of her mineral resources, the overwhelming majority of her forests and her railway infrastructure. Moreover, Hungary was allowed to maintain a diminished fighting force made up of only 35 thousand men, which in a best-case scenario, would have been capable of repelling an invading army for no more than one or two days.

Despite the denial of the victors, Hungary was judged based on the principle of Vae victis, the Latin phrase so often repeated throughout history, meaning “woe to the vanquished”. By ending the Great War – nowadays more commonly referred to as World War I – in this manner, the seeds of a new war were sown. For it is an eternal(?) truth: An unjust peace (Is there such a thing as a just one?) loses validity if there is a shift in the balance of power among the signatories and international relations desire its modification. All of us – victors and vanquished alike – should take that truth into consideration in respect to the tragedy that befell Hungary one hundred years ago and whose impact we feel still today.

by Sándor Szakály