The road to Trianon, 1848-1918

A professor of mine once told me that his worst lectures were on topics he knew most about. He got lost in the details. He gave his most successful lectures when, as a young assistant professor, he was assigned to teach European history from the fall of the Roman Empire to 1945! That's by way of a caveat. I'm afraid that I will be less than lucid because I know too much about this period, but I'll try my best. 

The multi-national character of the Kingdom of Hungary didn't pose serious problems until the early nineteenth century when modern nationalism reached the area. The first nationality group to get the bug was the Hungarian. The leading politicians of the Era of Reform, besides demanding modernization and striving for democratic changes, also pushed for more and more rights for the Hungarian nation within the Habsburg Empire. Although the 1848-49 revolution didn't start off as a war of independence, it ended as such.

Within the Kingdom of Hungary other national groups–Croats, Slovaks, and Romanians–although lagging somewhat chronologically, were also affected by nationalism. Hungarian nationalism was directed against Austria, while the non-Hungarians' demands could only have been satisfied at the expense of the Hungarians who believed that they were the sole group within the country with the ability for "state building." And if it depended on them, the Hungarian political elite would have preferred an independent Hungary territorially intact.

The problem with these goals was that independence and territorial integrity were incompatible. This was something most Hungarians refused to acknowledge, although the problem became quite apparent already during the 1848-49 revolutionary period when nationality conflicts within the country came to the surface. It is very possible that if Hungary had managed to win against the Austrian and Russian forces in 1849 and had thus been able to achieve the much desired goal of independence, soon enough it would have fallen apart under its own weight. At this point the Hungarians were a minority in the Kingdom of Hungary.

The Compromise of 1867 (the dual monarchy in which Hungary achieved home rule) was the best deal Hungary could have gotten from Vienna. But over the next fifty years Hungarian politics still centered around Hungary's relations with Vienna. In fact, there was even a Party of Independence that at least on paper strove for total independence. While the constitutional struggle between the Hungarians and the Crown was taking place, the nationality situation was becoming a serious issue. In 1868 the Hungarian parliament enacted a very enlightened nationality law; the problem was that in practice it was blissfully ignored. Meanwhile the number of Hungarian speakers was growing steadily. The magic 50% level was reached by 1900; in 1910, at the time of the last census on the basis of which decisions in Paris were reached, it was 54.4%. 

Although there were attempts to forcibly assimilate non-Hungarians, my opinion is that most of the increase in Hungarian speakers came as a result of economic growth and, with it, urbanization. For example, about 300,000 Slovaks moved to Budapest seeking work in the bustling capital. But one didn't have to go that far in order to become assimilated in a generation or so. Bigger cities in today's Slovakia (then called the Uplands) were also places where a change of nationality took place on a massive scale. The assimilation of Romanians was sluggish, partly because of religious differences and a very high birth rate.

So, what could the Hungarian ruling classes do under these circumstances if they wanted to keep their country intact? The majority of the people simply refused to face the problem. Moreover, they were convinced that the nationalities had no legitimate grounds for complaint. They refused to consider the existence of any discrimination against non-Hungarians. According to these people everything was just fine as it was. They figured that with the passing of time more and more non-Hungarians would have a burning desire to become Hungarians because, after all, being a Hungarian was decidedly better than being a Slovak or a Romanian. Sooner or later the Hungarians would have a large majority and all would be well.

There were very few people, really just a handful, like Oszkár Jászi, who thought that some kind of understanding with the nationalities was necessary. What he had in mind was "cultural autonomy" for the nationalities, very much along the lines of Otto Bauer's ideas. The Hungarian ruling class condemned Jászi. He was considered to be a traitor who was enabling the demise of historic Hungary. Jászi, of course, was sure that his ideas, once implemented, would help to preserve the country's territorial integrity.

I hate to be skeptical, but in my opinion neither the conservatives' assimilation policy nor Jászi's ideas of cultural autonomy could have saved historic Hungary. Sooner or later the desire of the nationalities to have their own independent states or join their fellow Romanians or Serbs outside of Hungary's borders would have resulted in some kind of Trianon. Perhaps a peaceful Trianon, but it would have been the end of Greater Hungary. There are examples elsewhere in the region. For instance, in the last few years we have witnessed the dissolution of the neighboring multi-national Yugoslavia where it seemed that the nationalities lived side by side in harmony for fifty years. Or consider the states that were formed after the collapse of the Russian/Soviet empires.

Of course, it would have been better from the Hungarian point of view if the collapse had come as late as possible and not after a lost war. If it had been a negotiated settlement between Hungarians and their non-Hungarian-speaking fellow citizens. Unfortunately, the end came after a lost war and the terms were not negotiated.

But once it happened, what would have been the best tactic for a much smaller Hungary with large Hungarian minorities in three countries: Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia? This is the question we have to pose and perhaps try to answer tomorrow.

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Paul
Guest

Pour petrol on trolls, light match, stand back…

Paul
Guest
But seriously… Not only a very comprehensive and fair summary of the history leading up to Trianon (especially given the constraints of a blog post), but (for me at least) an interesting new perspective. The idea that it was not the act of separation that was the key, but the timing of it. I’ve read a great deal around this topic (as much as you can in English, at least) and thought I had a pretty fair grasp of the situation, but I’d never thought to look at it in that way. Although Trianon is normally seen in Hungary as being grossly unjust, it is the fact that it happened at all that is usually perceived as the great injustice, not that it happened the way it did, with Hungary in no position to negotiate. It makes one wonder how the modern day politics of this would play, if the latter view was the more common one? Incidentally, a question I have long wanted to ask – had Kossuth been more aware of, and sympathetic to, the ‘minority’ nationalities, could he have resisted the Austrians and Russians more effectively (i.e. with the other nationalities on his side)? I know that… Read more »
Öcsi
Guest

Eva wrote:”There were very few people, really just a handful, like Oszkár Jászi, who thought that some kind of understanding with the nationalities was necessary. What he had in mind was “cultural autonomy” for the nationalities, very much along the lines of Otto Bauer’s ideas. The Hungarian ruling class condemned Jászi. He was considered to be a traitor who was enabling the demise of historic Hungary. Jászi, of course, was sure that his ideas, once implemented, would help to preserve the country’s territorial integrity.
I hate to be skeptical, but in my opinion neither the conservatives’ assimilation policy nor Jászi’s ideas of cultural autonomy could have saved historic Hungary. Sooner or later the desire of the nationalities to have their own independent states or join their fellow Romanians or Serbs outside of Hungary’s borders would have resulted in some kind of Trianon.”
I think you’re sceptical of Jászi’s idea of cultural autonomy because of hindsight.
We know what happened because his ideas weren’t adopted. Unfortunately we don’t know what would have happened if his ideas were implemented.

Jacob
Guest

“There are examples elsewhere in the region. For instance, in the last few years we have witnessed the dissolution of the neighboring multi-national Yugoslavia where it seemed that the nationalities lived side by side in harmony for fifty years.”
What??? You might now a lot about Trianon, but you have a great deal of knowledge to learn about the Tito-Milosevic Yugoslavia… OMG, side by side in harmony…

Rigó Jancsi
Guest

@ Jacob: Éva wrote “…were it seemed…”, no word that it was like this and that she believed this. To the outside world, it seemed to be a good neighbourhood of nations. We all know now that it wasn’t after all.

roli
Guest

Yes, Jacob is completely right.As the roots of Yougoslavia split one can not find in 20th century. Similarly reasons for Trianon can not been found only in 19th century(at all not in 20th century)..And simply these reasons are extreme persecution of minorities {if not even genocides} from the small and middle hungarien aristocracy…

Upper land voice
Guest

Closing Slovak schools during “hungarisation” period before the 1st WW, ban on newspapers in Slovak language etc etc is till today very strong and bitter image of the period. What I like in this article is the argument about economic development and assimilation. Future and speed of disintegration of Hungary (even if no war and Trianon) would have pretty much depended on the economic performance of the country. Birth of Czechoslovakia was actually economic disaster for Slovak lands, all economy was centered to Budapest and in the liberal capitalism of Czechoslovakia Slovak industry almost collapsed in direct competition with the Czechs in situation of lost Hungarian market. So for economic elites in Slovakia or Romania the idea of staying in some form of confederation was not unimaginable, but given the Hungarian nationalism, i m afraid there was no space for compromise.

Leo
Guest
In a way it was bad luck for the Hungarians to inherit a mediaeval supra-national empire in an age of national awakening. To fulfil their dream of national independence they should have given up the idea of empire, and this they could not and would not do. Therefore the Compromise of 1867 between Austria and Hungary was a misconception, doomed to failure. After 1867 the now independent Hungarian ruling class had limited options to solve the conflicting national aspirations. Or they could make concessions, leading eventually to a peaceful disintegration of ´historic Hungary´. Or they could try to maintain hegemony, which would, one way or another, result in a violent end. Any other solution is difficult to imagine. Nor Kossuths “Danube-federation”, nor Jazsi´s “Hungarian Switzerland” would ever have satisfied the nationalists – on both sides. Such an approach of the problem might however have made some peaceful solution possible that could have been more balanced than ´Trianon´ would prove to be. While we may be critical towards the Hungarian nationalists, we should not forget how difficult it was for the west-European countries to part with their colonial empires after 1945. The main difference of course is that here decolonisation was,… Read more »
Joseph Simon
Guest

Even before Trianon, there were historical forces adverse to Hungary. Serbia was a client state of Russia whose interest was to undermine Austria-Hungary. Using today’s terminology, Serbia was a terrorist state encouraged by Czarist Russia. Unfortunately in l9l4 the West sided with the terrorists. True, the Hungarian ruling classes were hopelessly bad statesmen. But then show me a country that willingly parted with its ‘greatness’. It took two world wars before Britain accepted her status as a ‘little England’.

Member

I would like to suggest to anyone who is interested in the very “local” history of the “End of the Hungarian Rule in Transylvania” to read the following piece from the Hungarian Electronic Library (MEK)
http://mek.oszk.hu/03400/03407/html/439.html
and subsequently here http://mek.niif.hu/03400/03407/html/440.html
THe above is from the History of Transylvania, Volume III.
From 1830 to 1919 All the credits can be found here:
http://mek.niif.hu/03400/03407/html/342.html

Julie
Guest

There’s a series of novels by Miklos Banffy (Transylvanian Trilogy) that go through this in great detail. I admit I had a hard time following some of it, but overall they make Trianon, or something like it, seem inevitable.
I know Banffy was active in national politics in the early 20th century so I’ve figured his depiction is reasonably accurate. Has anyone else read these novels?

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Upper Land Voice: All very good points. With the Slovaks perhaps some kind of deal could have been reached. But with the Serbs and the Romanians I doubt it.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Rigo Jancsi: “Jacob: Éva wrote “…where it seemed…”, no word that it was like this and that she believed this.”
Indeed “it seemed” are the two crucial words.

Guest

Thanks, Eva and all posters, for the remarks and these insights – still the main problem seems to me that some or many (?) Hungarians of today can’t accept the situation after Trianon – unlike Germany where you won’t find any discussion on Versailles – except in extreme right wing circles …

GW
Guest
Wolfi, the problem is not Trianon per se, but the inevitable conflicts created by the emergence of national identities in a region that was ethnically, linguistically and religiously heterogeneous. Drawing borders in such an environment is a necessarily messy business; Trianon was not the optimal solution but it was at least a solution that satisfied the condition that each new state created would have a single ethnic majority. Even today, there is lingering lack of recognition by the Austrians of Hungarian national interests and aspirations, and by the Hungarians of the national interests and aspirations of non-Hungarians within their former borders. The Trianon borders had the disadvantage of creating Hungarian minorities within neighboring countries, a situation with its own potential for grievances. The recognition of these interests is the minimal prerequisite to a satisfactory solution, and while it is fair to say that of the present neighboring states Romania and Slovakia have political structures which institutionalize the interests of their Hungarian minorities, this is not the case in either Serbia or Ukraine and there is precious little recognition on the part of the present Hungarian government that the ethnic Hungarians abroad may be both good ethnic Hungarians and are legitimately… Read more »
Kirsten
Guest

@Wolfi: But perhaps it should not be forgotten that the lives and the money spent by the western Allies to make Germans realise this point is without comparison. Hungary was assigned to the Soviet bloc after the war, which did certainly not provide democratic re-education.

Pete H.
Guest

Could someone clarify for me what “Historical Hungary” means. I had one person claim that the borders of historical Hungary remained the same for 1000 years before Trianon. I know that is that true. But, it is a term that is thrown around a lot and I’d like to know how historians define it.

Pete H.
Guest

Meant to say “I know that is not true.”

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Pete H.: I happen to have a historical atlas (published in Hungary during the Kádár period). I will scan a few maps of Hungary from it from different centuries and then we will be a little smarter.

Pete H.
Guest

Thanks Eva, looking forward to what you find out.

Member

wolfi: “Hungarians of today can’t accept the situation after Trianon – unlike Germany where you won’t find any discussion on Versailles – except in extreme right wing circles …”
Makes you wonder…
I do understand the Hungarian minorities across the border. We all know that they had it very bad for the last decades. At the same time I am wondering if Transylvania would of ended up with Hungary, how other ethnic minorities would be treated since the changes.
Kirsten: “But perhaps it should not be forgotten that the lives and the money spent by the western Allies to make Germans realise this point is without comparison. Hungary was assigned to the Soviet bloc after the war, which did certainly not provide democratic re-education.”
That is true for West Germany but not for the East after the WWII. East Germans certainly were not happy with the solution imposed on them. It would be interesting to see what East Germans think now.

Paul
Guest

‘Joseph Simon’: “It took two world wars before Britain accepted her status as a ‘little England’.”
Good to see your history is almost as good as your geography…

Jano
Guest

“While we may be critical towards the Hungarian nationalists, we should not forget how difficult it was for the west-European countries to part with their colonial empires after 1945. The main difference of course is that here decolonisation was, after the initial strains, quickly accepted and even greeted. Trianon wasn´t.”
Also, think about the French reaction to loosing Elsass-Lothringen (because that is a more or less contemporary one). If you understand that, you understand the Hungarian reaction as well. I think there is no proud nation in the world that would react otherwise. I just started to play with the thought what would happen if the US lost it’s southern parts to Mexico, knowing the ever growing ratio of latino minorities there (I know the situation is different, but just imagine the reaction)
“Indeed “it seemed” are the two crucial words.” – And who did it seem to like that?:)

Paul
Guest

Jano, that comparison would make some sense if the USA had expanded to take over latino occupied lands, and the non-latino population of the USA had only recently managed to make up 50% of the total population (always assuming that this was a genuine census figure and not distorted by latinos claiming to be non-latino on their census forms, of course).
But, as none of this is the case, it makes no sense at all.

An
Guest

@Jano: What are you talking about? Mexico lost like half of its territory to the US in the Mexican-American war in the mid-19th century (New Mexico, California, etc.).
Still, I am not aware that Mexicans would spend their time moaning over their loss, unlike Hungarians.

Paul
Guest

There’s fantastic scope for mad comparisons with the US here!
France and Spain at least should have huge grievences. Not to mention Britain (we was robbed!). And even Holland could get upset about New Amsterdam having its name changed.
Then, as An points out, there’s Mexico, which lost what became the two biggest states in the USA. And we haven’t even mentioned the pre-Columbus native population.
Even Russia might feel it was swindled out of Alaska!
This is classic ‘Jospeh Simon’ mad comparisons with the USA territory – where is he?!

Paul
Guest

Come to that, where’s my favourite troll tonight? With a thread of this nature, I would have expected ‘Kevin’ to be all over it, spitting venom and calling people liars.
You never can rely on Fidesz.

John G
Guest

Paul, give it a rest!

Paul
Guest

They do, I will, John.

John G
Guest

Obviously you are not familiar with the Hungarian addage: Okos enged, Szamar szenved.

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