History lesson: Hungarians and the outbreak of World War I

One of the readers of Hungarian Spectrum got into a heated debate about the Treaty of Trianon and Hungary’s role in the war that Hungary, along with Austria, lost. He argued that the conduct of foreign policy was in the hands of the Austrians and thus Hungary was dragged into the war against its will.

I promised at that point that I would write something about the topic because it is becoming evident that a fair number of Hungarians, old and young alike, have a very distorted view of Hungarian history.

So, let’s start with the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Ministry. Between 1867 and 1918 there were thirteen Austro-Hungarian foreign ministers out of whom six were Hungarian nationals: Gyula Andrássy, József Szlávy, Gusztáv Kálnoky, István Burián (twice), and Gyula Andrássy, Jr. As for the staff of the ministry, naturally in the first couple of decades of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy Hungarians were in the great minority but by 1914 they were well represented. And finally, the declaration of war could be vetoed by the Hungarian prime minister. István Tisza, somewhat reluctantly, endorsed the move. So, let’s not pretend that Hungary was an innocent victim of Austrian power games.

I mentioned during this debate that years ago I wrote an article about the war enthusiasm of Hungarian poets and writers. Let me add that these writers were not faithful conservative adherents of the status quo. No, on the contrary. They were so-called “progressive writers,” people who gathered around the famous periodical, Nyugat (West).

The whole population suddenly became one in condemning Serbia and looking forward to a “cleansing” war. The monarchy, long beset by ethnic conflicts, showed a remarkable transformation. Czechs and Germans buried the hatchet and enthusiastically cheered their emperor. The Hungarians, who suddenly forgot all their grievances against Vienna, energetically sang the the formerly despised Austrian national anthem and marched together with Slovaks, Croats, and Romanians. Only the Serbs were subdued, fearful, and quietly antagonistic. In every city there were spontaneous, cheerful demonstrations and the enthusiasm was contagious.

The most famous English war poet Rupert Brooke, in his well known poem “Peace,” captured his generation’s feelings of liberation from the shackles of inactivity when he talked about awakening from “sleeping” and expressed his joy at the thought of escaping from “a world grown old and cold and weary.”

The Hungarian Gyula Juhász used almost identical language: “Wondrous days! Our soul which almost perished/In sterile and sickly peace is found again,/Oh, long gone is the mournful, listless and idle spirit/The disdainful, almost foreign Budapest.” Or here are a few lines from Dezső Kosztolányi: “Today’s man–grown up in a hothouse, pale, and sipping tea–greets this healthy brutality enthusiastically. Let the storm come and sweep out our salons. Let us confess that there is a lot of trash in them and that what gets destroyed is no great loss…. Who feels sorry for the old culture? May the change, the new, the bloody dough which will leaven the future be blessed.”

Or here is Zsigmond Móricz, the greatest Hungarian prose writer of the interwar period. According to him, the pre-war years were a time of “cursed tranquility and cancerous peace.” He was convinced that “decrepit Europe, like the aged Phoenix reborn in fire, must be rejuvenated” as a result of the war. Móricz in his short stories written at the time often talked about the vitality the war gave to people. His Hungarian peasants, whether in the trenches or in marching columns, are full of life; they are invigorated: “the boys are just shaking of joy.” Going into battle, according to one of his characters, is “sheer pleasure because at least one knows there what he is doing”; moreover, all this is done during “a beautiful spring which was never more beautiful.”


Ready to fight

The Hungarian writers’ support of the war had in addition to the above mentioned benefits seemingly firmer, more political foundations than their misguided belief in their own redemption and the universal yearning for change. For years, political critics charged, Austria-Hungary’s foreign policy had been timid and the monarchy’s statesmen on the defensive. And for years, Serbia, with Russia’s assistance, had been systematically trying to undermine the Dual Monarchy. The mistrust, indeed hatred, of Serbia was widespread. Even Endre Ady, before he realized that a conflict between Serbia and the monarchy would lead to a world-wide confrontation, was prepared to support a local war which, if won, would not only preserve but revitalize the monarchy’s standing in world affairs. In “Torony az éjszakában” (Steeple in the night), he wrote: “Perhaps tomorrow, washed in blood,/Our godly guardian, the steeple/Will glitter,/The Word of the martial past rumbles:/We shall die or triumph.”

No doubt these people felt that the monarchy was threatened; despite Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia, they were convinced that this was a defensive war. Ignotus, one of the editors of Nyugat, set the tone for the Hungarian intellectual elite in an August 1 editorial entitled “War.” “This war,” he wrote, “had to be; without it, we would have ended up like Turkey.” Zoltán Ambrus, a writer and theater critic, put it this way: “the question was to be or not to be.” Even Mihály Babits, who was among the skeptics in 1914-1915, was initially confident that the war was defensive in nature.

These Hungarian intellectuals also viewed themselves as the defenders of traditional western liberties in the face of Russia’s decision to enter the conflict. The Hungarian fear of Russia reached pathological proportions by 1914, and this fear was not altogether unwarranted. After all, the Tsarist regime inspired little confidence even in the Entente countries. Gyula Juhász wrote: “Always woefully glorious name:/Magyar, today new splendor is yours/Once more you defend the millions of great nations/By defending your own fatherland!” Or here are a few lines from Zsigmond Móricz: “The work of the Hungarians, forever and ever, a thousand-year-old task: to stand before the sea of the East … in order for other, happier nations of Fate to turn the wheels of Culture.”

I could continue to give examples of the incredible patriotism and war enthusiasm that gripped Hungary. I should add that this enthusiasm, as the war dragged on and on, turned to opposition and disillusionment. But by then, it was too late. And finally, let’s not blame someone else for the country’s leaders and the people’s mistakes.

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Thanks, Éva, very interesting.
This is not a part of Hungarian history I have read much about, so I would be interested on your views as to Hungary’s motivation for taking part in the war.
My understanding is that it was really Austria’s war, and her interests in resolving the ‘Serbian problem’ (and presumably annexing Serbia to the Empire) were the prime motivation.
But, bearing in mind the political geography of the time, with Serbia being a neighbour of Hungary, not Austria, and with the large population of Slavs in southern Hungary, it would be Hungary that would have the most to gain (or lose) from the conflict.
Was this a significant factor (either way) in Hungary’s enthusiasm for the war, or did Hungarians of the time genuinely think of themselves as Austro-Hungarians, and therefore see it as ‘their’ war?
I find it difficult to believe that, less than 70 years after fighting for their independence, Hungarians now thought of themselves so much citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as to want to get involved in an ‘Austrian’ war.
Also, could you expand on why Tisza was reluctant for Hungary to get involved? Thanks.


I also thought to have read earlier that Tisza was very reluctant to go to war. Trying to check that quickly led me to a wikipedia page about Tisza in German, which includes a quote of an Austrian general about his surprise that Hungarians from some point started to claim to have been against the war, which the general found to stand in contrast to his memory.

Eva S. Balogh

To Paul and everybody else interested. According to the 1910 census Hungary’s population without Croatia was 18,265 million. The number of Serbs was 500,000 but they lived next to the Serbian-Hungarian border. And these Serbs’ sympathy was for Serbia and Serbian nationalism wasn’t any less intense then than nowadays.
The Hungarian point of view was the following: “You, Serbs, asked for asylum in 1690 while escaping from the Turks. We granted that asylum and now you want to take our land.
So, there was a lot of anti-Serbian feeling in Hungary in those days and that’s why most Hungarians felt that it was a defensive war although it was Austria-Hungary that attacked Serbia. They felt truly threatened.
Why was Tisza hesitant? Because he knew, as so many other Hungarian politicians didn’t, that Hungary’s situation because of its multi-national composition was precarious. He was afraid that either the nationalities would break away during a long war or that Austria-Hungary would lose the war and with the defeat would come the breakup. It turned out that the monarchy’s people held together for four solid years but once the defeat came, the non-Magyars went their merry ways.

sackhoes contributor

I suspect that the almost 50 years of Dual Monarchy has developed a certain amount of support for the House of Habsburg (as opposed to Austria), who in many ways tried their best to present themselves as being above the multiple nations in the Monarchy. It was somewhat similiar to the “personal union” that held England, SCotland and Wales together, through the person of the monarch. Thus an attack on the Crown Prince of Franz Joseph was viewed as an affront to Huntarians, who viewed Ferenc Jozsef as their own king. Of course there was strong support for independence from Austria, but overall, I believe the Kingdon of Hungary supported the dual monarchy. Perhaps Eva Balogh can comment on that…


Thanks Eva for this interesting article. And well said, especially the last sentence. Viewing oneself (one’s own nation) only as victim and being unable to take responsibility is an expression of weakness.


Thank you, Éva. Your articles help me to understand more about Hungary.
It seems like across Europe, war (at the start of World War I) was regarded from a romantic point of view, as an adventure that was going to bring glory for the gallant young men who enlisted to defend their country. I remember to have read accounts (if I remember correctly, one of them was Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday) where that illusion at the beginning was simply no longer as time went by.
Unrelated to the subject, would you happen to recommend any source about women in Hungarian history, especially in World War 2?


What is fascinating to me is the patriotism toward the Monarchy and not the Hungarian Kingdom. Last Saturday people were proudly carrying signs about the 1116 year old Hungary.
Why didn’t we try to side with Serbs instead and try to break away from the Austrian empire? After all we had lost a freedom fight in 1848 (which is still one of the biggest national holidays) that finally lead to the Compromise in 1867 which was felt like coercion for most of the Hungarians. It seems like we liked the Austrian dominance.
According to Jaroslav Hasek and Svejk the good soldier the same enthusiasm was felt in Bohemia, in Prague. Actually according to Svejk the Turks shot the Lord Archduke, but this is a long story …
See? That’s why I want the Habsburgs back.


@Muttley: To dominate Serbs and the rest, alongside Vienna, may have been seen as better than to be dominated, alongside Serbs and the rest, by Vienna. My recollection is that forced acculturation – insistence on Magyar-language education and administration – in the territories now known as Slovakia and Serbia had characterised the first decade of the last century. Whatever Vienna thought of these measures carried out from Budapest, Austrian statesmen did not impede them; its policy with respect to the Amtssprache was parallel (and indeed, as with English in what are now Pakistan and India, to have a single language of government helps an empire to cohere). Budapest was perhaps in its own eyes on what the French would call a mission civilisatrice. This would not conduce to a view of “culturally inferior” Serbs as allies rather than as tools.


@ And finally, let’s not blame someone else for the country’s leaders and the people’s mistakes.
Professor Balogh (and others), do you happen to know how history (and this particular era) is taught to Hungarian children today? If at all? Is there a Hungarian AJP Taylor?
If there is a general feeling of victimhood still prevalent in Hungary (as opposed to a German feeling of being ‘betroffen’), that Hungary was ‘dragged into a war against its will’ and will now forever suffer Trianon, then what ideology is this serving?
I’m very curious, as this seems to be particularly ingrained into the Hungarian psyche.


Saying the Austrian foreign ministry had some ethnic Hungarians does not prove anything. They were serving at the pleasure of the Austrian power structure and the Emperor.
This is like counting the Jewish people in the American foreign ministry and saying that the US foreign policy is Israel controlled. Many US foreing ministers were jews as well. Does this mean that Israel controls the foreign policy of the US?
No! It is still the US foregin policy not the Israeli one.
The same case applies here.
The Emperor personally decided to go to war because his heir was slain. I find it odd that the Archduke or the Emperor is not even mentioned a single time in the above writing.
“the declaration of war could be vetoed by the Hungarian prime minister. István Tisza, somewhat reluctantly, endorsed the move. ”
This was a formality, ceremonial role, not a real veto power. If he were to actually use it he would have been removed or assasinated.
You know, like he was actually assasinated later.
History is not as one sided you seem to see it.

Eva S. Balogh

guest736:”This was a formality, ceremonial role, not a real veto power. If he [Tisza] were to actually use it he would have been removed or assasinated.”
You must be kidding!! Who would have assassinated him? Some hired hand of the Hofburg?


Here in the US we have no idea who is Jewish in the government (see the joke about Khrushchev and the Jews in the Boston Philharmonics).
You may have misread the post. It touches on the Hungarian sentiment regarding the war. We seemed to be very eager to punish the rogue, inferior, already Magyarized Serbs.


Using the example of the US not having a foreign policy dictated by Israel is quite possibly the maddest argument I have ever heard!
The US clearly has a pro-Israel foreign policy – it’s political death in the US not to be seen to strongly support Israel (remember Obama struggling with this?). Although admittedly this is as much to do with pressure from right-wing ‘Christians’, as Israeli/Zionist lobbying.
As for “The Emperor personally decided to go to war because his heir was slain” – where did you learn your history? The assassination was clearly a pretext for a declaration of war on Serbia that the Austrians had been long contemplating. And they weren’t going to take no (or rather, yes) for an answer.
“History is not as one sided you seem to see it.” Indeed it isn’t.

The pro-Israel policy has nothing to do with Jewish conspiracy, an invention of Anti-Semitics. Sad to read these arguments here. If the U.S. didn’t support Israel and the young Israel State not so brave and successful, the whole Jewish population would have already been slaughtered by the Arabian league, who declared war on Israel and invaded Israel at the very first moment of its existence. The Arabs who lived in Palestine region asked the British mandate to prevent Jewish refugees from Europe to enter the region and a ship full of Jews fleeing from Hilter’s Europe couldn’t anchor and was forced by the British, under the pressure of Arabian forces, to float on the open see and was bombed and sunk by mistake by a Soviet warship. While I disagree with the right winger among the Christians I also disagree with the left wingers, both of them are full of their own ideology and never consider historic facts and the real needs of other people. As for Svejt and Hasek it is great literature but I think it is meant to be satirical, just think of the Feldkurat Katz and the “Simulants” in the Army hospital. I am also reading… Read more »

P.S. the U.S. during the war was also less altruistic. The uncle of a lady I know didn’t get into the “Quote” for immigration to the U.S. and had to stay in East Europe, his wife and disabled child were sent to the Gas chamber he died in KZ Mauthausen. Also Switzerland only let in the rich and the successful Jews. But I won’t write here too much about them, it is just because someone mentioned Israel above. The article is about Hungary not Israel, what I want to make clear is that Israel has a right to exist. Sorry for off-topic.


@LT I mentioned Hasek because I think this should be the way to look at history. Svejk is definitely satirical but it’s based on real life experience. The Czechs were also poised to defend the Monarchy and they really had no beef as nation with the Serbs.
What’s the best translation of this (from Svejk)?
“Nem minden magyar tehet róla, hogy magyar.”
“Not all Hungarians can help it to be Hungarian” ?


@Mutt Damon, thanks, I don’t know much about the WWI and the article of Eva is very informative. And sorry for off-topic again but here is a wonderful film of Svejk:


Yes , Schweijk (that’s the usual German transcription) is a fantastic figure!
Last year we saw on Hungarian tv parts of some series/film -although I did not understand all of the Hungarian translation (I’m German …) I was almost ROFL …
PS: My (Hungarian) wife was ROFL too …
And on the other hand, there were other authors of course like Karl Kraus who had a lot of very relevant things to write, as I remember his “Der Untergang der Menschheit”, he was really prophetic!

I think that the opinions of Czechs varied a bit. There were those who were dedicated to the Empire and in particular to the Emperor (nearly to the last day) but there were other ideas around, for instance a Great Slav Empire under the leadership of Russia and his tsar or some other Slavonic cooperation. (That makes a difference to the Hungarian approach, which doubts that there is any ‘natural’ partner for Hungary.) But there were also people such as Masaryk and Benes with an orientation towards the West, which ultimately led them to think about independence and organise support for it. I think Hungary was ambivalent about independence because it was not sure that Hungary as an independent state could defend all areas belonging to the kingdom. The “options available” also determined how the ideas about the war evolved later, some Czechs and Slovaks earlier fighting for the Empire became part of the Czechoslovak Legions fighting against the Empire on a number of fronts, which were then so decisive to count Czechoslovakia as an “ally”. But I think in Czech general historical knowledge it is also believed that Czechs and Slovaks fought for the Empire “reluctantly” and with great… Read more »
I love Hungary
Really excellent post, Eva. I argue elsewhere, that my oustider’s opinion- having lived off and on in the country since 1995- is that the real, fundamental flaw in the Hungarian electorate, is its denial of its far-right past. The real danger is that those who don’t remember their history are condemned to repeat it. I am by no means an expert, but am an avid hobbyist when it comes to studying 20th century Hungarian history. In my humble opinion these three things should no longer be denied, if Hungarians are not to repeat the failures of their Facist past: – by the time of WW I the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a classic case of the “tail wagging the dog”. While I believe Wilson and Churchill were right in their views on Triannon- the European powers had legitimate grounds for their desire to “cut Hungary down to size” at the time. Hungary was a realtive, Nationalist hotbead at the time. – moving torwards the next war, Horthy remains somewhat enigmatic for me. My personal opinion was that his policy was to attempt to stall until he could identify the winning side to join. – No matter what Horthy may have believed,… Read more »

This is the second time I read here that it was a Hungarian who coined the term “National Socialism”.
The term ‘National Socialism’ was coined by a French, Maurice Barres,was it not?


–the real, fundamental flaw in the Hungarian electorate, is its denial of its far-right past.
From my external point, a Romanian, the “fundamental flaw” of the Hungarians is a pervasive, obsessive, and unwarranted sense of being a misunderstood victim.
It’s a mental trap which, once you got into into it, it is hard too see how will ever get out. If one adopts such a view, it makes one slide in a sort of autistic-closed within”, self-sealed-worldview.
As Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi recently explained : “The world will never understand our pains and spiritual wounds.”
Well, they do but they regard them as being nothing special, pains common to the history of all nations (many of whom have seen even worse) and see your particular way to deal with them as being the problem.
You can find a treatment here

I love Hungary: I think you overdo a bit. I also believe that the self-image of Hungarians as a nation is still strongly influenced by ideas from the 19th century including all those medieval myths, but this is not the only image available. More modern ideas have been around – but perhaps not on the right wing. After Trianon it was particularly difficult to modernise this self-image, and during Communism the modernisation of the society was partial at best. So currently there appears to be the first chance for such modernisation of the self-image, and I believe that this is what the current conflict is about. The conservatives have not been able to define a more modern ‘conservative’ or right-wing programme; and it might be specifically complicated as they have to accept Trianon and Small Hungary in some way. Apparently this has not yet been possible for them. ‘Conservative’ means believing in Greater Hungary and that it cannot be renounced. The antisemitism is part and parcel of this 19th century Central European thinking. I am afraid not that prevalent anymore in the other countries in the region mainly because the Jewish communities are so small (I hope I am too… Read more »
Paul (the original one!)
Paul (the original one!)

“The pro-Israel policy has nothing to do with Jewish conspiracy”.
Where on earth did I claim that it did?
The only conspiracy relevant to this discussion is the lazy assumption by many Hungarians (including members of my own family) that there IS a ‘Jewish conspiracy’. There clearly isn’t.
But to go from that to the statement that the US’s pro-Israel policy is not the result of strong right-wing ‘Christian’ and Zionist/Israeli lobbies, is to exist on another planet.
If you doubt this, I suggest you read ‘The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy’ by Mearsheimer and Walt. Not for their politics, or their analysis, but for the sheer weight of evidence they uncover.

Paul (the original one!)
Paul (the original one!)
“during Communism the modernisation of the society was partial at best” A key point, Kirsten. In fact I would argue that, not only was it partial at best, but the fact that Hungary was once again suffering under the dominance of another power, actually reinforced many of these post-Trianon feelings. Hungary emerged in 1990, not just without having digested the lessons of WWII, but with its feelings of injustice deepened further – and having been in historical ‘suspended animation’ for 45 years . Although historically the Ottoman invasion and occupation was ‘where it all went wrong’, for many people, because of the ‘Golden Years’ which preceded WWI, the really critical point was Trianon. That is the great injustice they blame all Hungary’s subsequent problems on. And to those who say it was a hundred years ago, in the Hungarian soul it isn’t. In the brief period between the two wars, Trianon never became history, it remained a very live issue. Such were the feelings of injustice, especially over the loss of so many communities just over the new borders, that to the majority Trianon was an obvious error, just waiting to be corrected. And, of course, ‘corrected’ it was (at… Read more »
I love Hungary

@ Kirsten, the problem I am referring to with regards to the Hungarian voter has nothing to do with the 19th Century.
It has more to do with Hungary’s denial of it’s basically Facist 20th Century.
The fact is, Hungary in the 20th Century was Facist unless either the Communists or now, the “West” (in the current century)prevented it from being so.
Reality sucks. But if you deny it, it bites.

I love Hungary

@ Kormos, some “credit” Gömbös with coining the term ” National Socialism”.
If he didn’t, we are splitting hairs.