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.”
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.