Lest we forget, we ought to talk about the 95th anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty between the victorious Entente powers and by then independent Hungary, which seems to be one of the pet projects of the Orbán government. On June 4, 1920, the territories that Hungary lost after World War I had long been in the possession of the successor states. In fact, certain areas that were to remain on the Hungarian side of the border were still under foreign occupation on that day.
Hungarians at the time and for some time afterwards simply didn’t understand what had happened to them and why. They never really grasped the fact that without the Habsburg Monarchy there could be no such thing as an independent Hungary with its historical borders intact. They had to choose, and in a way they did. The Habsburg Monarchy, with its multinational and multicultural population held together by a supranational monarch, could have developed into a kind of European Union on a smaller scale, but nationalism, especially Hungarian nationalism, worked against such an outcome.
Ever since the sixteenth century Hungarians had an ambivalent attitude towards the Habsburgs. In fact, almost four hundred years were spent in greater or smaller wars and uprisings against Vienna. There were times when Hungarian politicians, in their anti-Habsburg hatred, were even ready to side with the Turks to prevent the “liberation” of the country by the western forces. In this instance, using today’s political parlance, we would say that Hungary, instead of choosing the west, opted for the east. But can you imagine what would have happened to Hungary if the Turks with their corrupt administration had stayed in Hungary until the early nineteenth century? Compare the economic and social development of Hungary and Serbia at the outbreak of World War I and you will see the difference.
At the moment something similar is going on with Viktor Orbán’s war of independence against Brussels. In fact, a few years back he compared Vienna and Brussels when he mentioned an eighteenth-century Habsburg administrative office that was the symbol of Austrian oppression of Hungary at the time. Just as some Hungarian nationalists resisted any influence coming from Vienna and beyond, Viktor Orbán is doing the same by looking upon the liberal European Union as a kind of modern-day Habsburg Empire whose goal is to destroy the Hungarians and deprive them of their independence.
As soon as an arrangement was worked out between the moderate Hungarian political elite and the crown and Hungary received wide-ranging autonomy, an opposition party with varying names over time came into being that was against the 1867 arrangement and wanted total independence. These Hungarian nationalists did their best to create a “nation state” within the historical borders of the Kingdom of Hungary. The “nation state” did arrive after 1918, but not exactly in the way the country’s political leaders imagined it. The Habsburg Monarchy disappeared, and in its place small “nation states” with large ethnic minorities were created. Hungary, because of the very generous borders favoring the successor states, remained almost exclusively Hungarian. These countries remained weak and without the support of the great powers, and they fell prey to eventual Soviet and German aggression.
As Péter Techet, a young, talented right-of-center newspaperman and legal scholar, pointed out, the Hungarian political elite before 1918 when it stood against Vienna also opposed the liberal politics of the Austrian part of the Dual Monarchy. Once they were alone in their own country, they exhibited the ultra-conservative and on occasion far-right politics that stood in stark contrast to the multicultural and supranational policies of Vienna.
According to Techet, those people who today put Greater Hungary stickers on their cars are actually, although I assume unwittingly, for “the Habsburg Empire, its diversification, its European nature,” what Hungary was in those days. On the other hand, “those who defend Hungary’s sovereignty, who are against European unity, who incite against immigrants and against minorities within the borders, these people should be happy with their present homogeneous Hungarian nation state. So, they can celebrate the Trianon decision. Hungary became a small, insignificant, poor country of no account, but at least it is theirs,” claims Techet. It is a rather singular view, but not without merit. It is certainly thought provoking.
Surely, it would require a complete re-evaluation of Hungarian history for ordinary Hungarians to realize that total independence and territorial integrity were mutually incompatible and that it was thus in Hungary’s interest to cooperate with Vienna and with the other nationalities that made up the Monarchy. Instead, Hungarians, especially after 1945, removed practically all statues and street names that in any way reminded people of the four-hundred-year coexistence with Austria. As for textbooks, the benefits of the Dual Monarchy are scarcely mentioned.
The Hungarian nationalism that had been tempered somewhat since World War II is now being rekindled by Viktor Orbán, who knows full well what a potent force nationalism can be. C. A. Macartney, the conservative British historian of Hungary, said somewhere in one of his many writings on the Horthy regime that the Hungarian governments of the interwar period had to conduct an irredentist foreign policy because otherwise no Hungarian government could have survived given public sentiment. I disagree. The governments of the interwar period seized every opportunity to rouse public ire against Trianon. This attitude contributed to the Hungarian government’s eventual cooperation with Germany.
Something like that is going on today. Declaring June 4 a day of remembrance of the signing of the treaty has revived the kind of public outcry (however limited in scope) that was present only in the interwar period. By now there is a National Trianon Society in addition to several local chapters. An incredible number of horrendous Trianon memorials have been erected. One older one, The Statue of Hungarian Suffering by Emile Guillaume, a 1932 gift of Viscount Rothermere who was a zealous supporter of Hungarian revisionism, was restored during the first Orbán government and stands in Debrecen. It was here that the National Trianon Society held its memorial gathering on Thursday where the speaker, who happens to be a high school history teacher, claimed that textbooks don’t spend enough time on Trianon which was, after all, the greatest tragedy in the history of Hungary.
This Hungarian wallowing in the country’s past grievances obviously irritates some of the neighbors. Titus Corlățean, former Romanian foreign minister, suggested that perhaps June 4th should also be a Romanian holiday, when the Romanian flag would be displayed on public buildings. Public television and radio stations should broadcast informational material on the significance of the date. In the foreign minister’s opinion, “the rewriting of history and the repeated assertion of revisionist views in the European Union nowadays are unacceptable.” I agree, but the remedy is not to declare an anti-Trianon day of remembrance. One day, after Orbán is gone, a new government can decide what to do with it. Perhaps it can simply be forgotten. Just as the socialist-liberal governments forgot to renew the old Horthyist Corvin Chain revived by the Orbán government or refused to enforce the language law that regulated foreign words on store fronts and shop windows. As it is, public interest in the whole idea of the Day of National Cohesion converges on zero.