Hungarian foreign policy in the wake of World War I

The war was lost but Hungary became independent. Yet even Mihály Károlyi, who was after all the head of the Party of Independence, admitted in his memoirs written in the early 1920s that they were somewhat shortsighted when they rejoiced over the collapse of the dual monarchy and greeted the severance of ties with Austria with great enthusiasm. Even before Austria became a republic, Hungary considered itself to be an independent state; in early November the Hungarian government began establishing its own foreign ministry.

The rejoicing didn't last long. Foreign armies immediately began occupying territories belonging to the Kingdom and later the Republic of Hungary. Initially without but later with the permission of the Great Powers, more and more territories were occupied by the Czech, Romanian, and Serbian armies. Prime Minister Károlyi was in an unenviable position. He had no direct access to the policy makers of the Entente and could complain only to low-level diplomatic and military officials residing in Vienna and later in Budapest. His complaints about the illegal occupations were not received sympathetically. Further and further demands were made and the Hungarian government obliged.

Lately Károlyi has been savagely attacked by the extreme right, which blames him for the severe territorial losses suffered in the Treaty of Trianon. If Károlyi can be criticized for anything, it was his trust in the Wilsonian principle of self-determination of nations. He mistakenly thought that the implementation of this principle would be done through a series of plebiscites. Theoretically such a solution sounded attractive, but implementing it would have posed almost insurmountable difficulties. Moreover when Woodrow Wilson came up with his idea about this new world order he himself most likely had no idea about how such a reorganization of the former Austro-Hungarian Monarchy would be implemented. Perhaps he didn't realize the very complicated ethnic patterns in the region.

Károlyi thought that as long as Hungary followed the "instructions" of the Great Powers, "justice" would prevail. Trying to stop the invading armies would have been difficult in the first place. Hungarian army units were made up of different nationalities, and it was unlikely that Romanian units would fight against the invading Romanians or Serbs against Serbs. Moreover, everybody was sick and tired of war, was happy to have survived, and had only one desire–to go home. Getting these people back in the army to fight again would have been a very difficult task though not impossible as we will see later.

The Károlyi period (October 31, 1918 to March 21, 1919) was spent in futile diplomatic efforts at stopping the onslaught, and therefore there wasn't very much time to come up with coherent ideas concerning a future foreign policy orientation. Károlyi himself was attracted to an understanding with Czechoslovakia because he considered the Czech politicians to be committed to democracy. However, he also sent out feelers to the Italians. There were people in his cabinet who suggested an understanding with the Serbs, mostly because there were territorial conflicts between Romania and Serbia by that time.

After the fall of the Republic and the establishment of the Hungarian Soviet Republic the idea of saving the country's territorial integrity remained alive. Béla Kun and his fellow communists thought that the solution to Hungary's problem lay in world revolution. Nation states would disappear and internationalism would triumph. Moreover, perhaps Soviet Russia would be able to come to Hungary's aid militarily. The communist leadership immediately began building the Hungarian Red Army. The military leadership came from old military personnel who for patriotic reasons were ready to lead even a Red Army. In early May 1919 the Hungarian Red Army began an offensive against the Czech forces. By the end of May Hungarians occupied Losonc (Lučenec) and Rimaszombat (Rimavská Sobota) and in June the Red Army occupied Kassa (Košice) and Selmecbánya (Banská Štiavnica).

At this point the Czech politicians asked for military help from the Great Powers, but instead the Entente leaders sent a communique to Budapest in which they offered a deal: if Hungary withdraws from the north, they will force the Romanian forces that had already reached the Tisza River to withdraw. Kun agreed; the Hungarians withdrew but the Romanians didn't.

The Soviet regime was quite popular when it showed a willingness to fight, but its support dwindled after the military withdrawal from the north. The final blow was that, although an attempt was made to fight the Romanian forces, it wasn't as successful as the campaign against the Czechoslovak forces. The Romanians crossed the Tisza River and began their march toward the Hungarian capital. Béla Kun and his fellow communist leaders fled to Austria. By August 1, 1919, the communist experiment in Hungary was over.

The rest of 1919 is so complicated a story that I will not even try to say anything about it. It was a time when the Entente Powers refused to recognize a government that was not a coalition of all political forces. And negotiations for such a government stalled for months. Budapest by that time was under Romanian occupation, and the Romanian government indirectly put out feelers for some kind of political understanding between Romania and Hungary. There was a small group of Hungarian politicians, mostly from Transylvania, who were in favor of rapprochement. After all, the greatest number of Hungarians lived in territories that would most likely end up on the Romanian side. Perhaps as many as two million. However, there was another group that wouldn't hear of any kind of negotiations with Romania or any of the neighbors. They were certain that Hungary's fate depended on the good will of the Great Powers. Every time there were secret negotiations with high-level Romanian diplomats sent to Budapest for the purpose of coming to some kind of understanding with the Hungarian government, the anti-Romanian forces ran to the local representatives of the Great Powers in Budapest. Especially the American military representative, General Harry Hill Bandholtz, who despised the Romanians.

Another group of people, including Márton Lovászi, foreign minister for a short while, was in favor of a Yugoslav orientation. In fact he even sent a representative to Belgrade to negotiate. In these new right-wing governments there was no one who would have opted for a rapprochement with Czechoslovakia. Actually, the feeling was mutual. Edvard Beneš didn't want anything to do with Hungary either and in fact as early as January 1920 was endeavoring to create a circle of hostile countries, later called the Little Entente, against Hungary. At this point neither Yugoslavia nor Romania was ready to join him. Beneš was moved to action by his discovery that the French had initiated secret negotiations with Hungary because certain people in the French foreign ministry came to the conclusion that the creation of Czechoslovakia was a mistake.

Thus there were two choices for Hungary: either try to make a deal with Romania or Yugoslavia or rely on the good will of one of the Great Powers. Since British foreign policy had pretty well decided that Great Britain wouldn't get involved in the region and the United States withdrew into splendid isolation, only France remained as a possible ally. But the French dalliance with Hungary was short lived and in the end Hungary remained abandoned and isolated. Hungary's most natural ally in my opinion would have been Romania, but the opportunity was missed.


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Interesting stuff, Éva, but I’m particularly intrigued by your last point – that “Hungary’s most natural ally in my opinion would have been Romania”.
Could you expand upon this please?
Everything I’ve read has left me with the impression that Romania was actually Hungary’s greatest threat (although perhaps this is history in hindsight?).
Left to their own devices, I’m sure they would have moved the new border considerably further west. In at least one history, there’s a claim that they wanted the border to run so that Debrecen would have been Romanian.
And, while I’m at it, how did Austria get away with expanding their territory? Apparently the only instance, at least in recent European history, of a defeated country actually gaining territory!


Éva, thank you very much for writing it from that perspective. I think that in the eyes of the other nations in the Empire, with the Compromise in 1867 Hungary lost its status of an oppressed nation. (Trialism was not introduced.) That was probably not the interpretation of the “Party of Independence” but the principle of “self-determination” actually applied may perhaps be understood as “self-determination of the formerly oppressed”, to which a nation that gave the empire half of the name could not be counted. (Some kind of “revenge” for the Compromise…)

Odin's lost eye

Just a thought. Part of the price for Romania’s joining the ‘Western powers’ against the ‘Central powers’ -Germany etc- was that they would acquire the 4 eastern provinces (what ever they were) of Hungary

Eva S. Balogh

Addition to Odin’s remarks. Without going into the details which territories were promised in exchange for declaring war on the Central Powers, they had been far greater than actually Romania received at the end. The Romanians claimed the whole of Banat that eventually was given to Serbia. The border between Romania and Hungary would have been somewhere at the line of the Tisza River.
However, there was a caveat in that treaty. The treaty’s stipulations became null and void if Romania signed a separate peace. In 1918, after even Bucharest was occupied by the Germans, Romania signed a separate peace (The Treaty of Bucharest of 1918). So, a couple of days before the war ended Romania declared war again in order to be able to be among the victors. The Great Powers overlooked this fact mostly because the Romanians lost about 100,000 people in their short war against the Central Powers.

Eva S. Balogh
Paul: “Interesting stuff, Éva, but I’m particularly intrigued by your last point – that “Hungary’s most natural ally in my opinion would have been Romania”. Could you expand upon this please?” I already mentioned that it made sense from the Hungarian point of view to have friendly relations with the country which had the largest Hungarian minority. Second, the Hungarian and Romanian language groups are sitting in a great sea of Slavic speakers from Poland to Greece. Pan-Slavism was always feared by these two countries. The fear that somehow the “Slavic brothers” would try to gobble up these two strangers. Third, the Romanian royal house was of German origin and for many years Romania was conducting a pro-German, pro-Austro-Hungarian foreign policy. Fourth, although Transylvania had a Romanian majority, Transylvanian Romanian culture, political as well as literary or artistic, was different from that of the Regat (the old kingdom). Thus Transylvania could be a kind of bridge between Budapest and Bucharest. The Romanians who approached the Hungarian politicians in Budapest were talking about forming a Romanian-Hungarian dual monarchy with the Romanian king as head of state. They also wanted to exclude the Great Powers to some extent from decisions concerning the… Read more »

Some good points there, Éva, but I’m not entirely convinced.
I take your ‘strangers’ surrounded by Slavs point, but in no other way can the Hungarian and Romanian languages be said to have much in common.
There’s also the question of how Hungary saw itself – essentially as the easternmost part of the west. Whereas Romania was regarded an eastern land of barbarians. Even Transylvania, revered as it was/is as the ‘heart’ of Hungarian folk culture, language, etc, was (is) thought of as a pretty backward place.
And, as you say, the fact that the Romanians seemed to take every opportunity to invade Hungary wouldn’t exactly have helped anyone trying to push a pro-Romanian viewpoint.
Hungarians could (and did) cope with playing second-fiddle to a country they secretly looked up to and envied, but no way could they have seriously contemplated a similar arrangement with a country they looked down upon.
(But I’m not a historian, so go easy on me!)

Le Meow

“In 1918, after even Bucharest was occupied by the Germans, Romania signed a separate peace (The Treaty of Bucharest of 1918).”
Eva, the treaty of Bucharest was not signed by King Ferdinand, which means that it was not valid – at least not in Romania. This is why it was not a problem (legally) to have it denounced by Marghiloman five months later.

Eva S. Balogh

Le Meow: “Eva, the treaty of Bucharest was not signed by King Ferdinand, which means that it was not valid – at least not in Romania.”
The whole question of the Treaty of Bucharest of 1918 is still problematic. If it wasn’t valid because Ferdinand refused to sign it, why did Romania declare war against the Central Powers again? Most likely because by international law it was considered to be valid.


Corect is “Kingdom Hungary and Croatia”