Our author, Dóra Hegedüs discusses what she feels is a sensitive and controversial topic for her home country, Hungary, the Treaty of Trianon. The treaty is in its centenarian year.
Being a Hungarian citizen, I cannot think of a more sensitive, controversial topic in my home country’s modern history than the Treaty of Trianon. It was signed 100 years ago, on 4th June 1920, as part of the treaty series concluding World War I. Consequently, the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart, Hungary lost 2/3 of its territory as well as inhabitants, prompting the creation of numerous ethnic Hungarian enclaves in all surrounding countries (the largest ones in Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania and Serbia). Without giving the faintest impression of exonerating Hungary – which was affiliated with the defeated Central Powers – it should be acknowledged that Trianon left a permanent scar on the country’s national pride, failed to settle ethnic conflicts in Central and Eastern Europe, further inflated jingoistic nationalist sentiments, and helped to cultivate a fruitful breeding ground for Europe’s worst tragedy, World War II.
It is difficult to write anything forward-looking, constructive, and re-conciliatory about the issue. Nevertheless, I would still like to propose three simple recommendations that perhaps could counter propagandistic nationalist slogans on all sides.
Recommendation 1: This will be an obvious platitude. Yet, politicians of all countries involved – who sometimes have total control of shaping the collective understanding of Trianon – tend to forget about it. Let’s try to comprehend each other’s experience in history.
Pre-Trianon times Hungary in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, used to be a multi-ethnic, diverse kingdom. These population maps provide a detailed visual representation of ethnicities and their territorial spread out before WWI: from 1910 – the map key translation is available in the endnotes[i]; from 1911 – in English, covering the entire Monarchy. Mirroring the needs of a fragmented, multifarious country, the legislation called “Rights of Nationalities” of 1868 guaranteed that proliferous nationalities living in the territory of Hungary could conduct most of their official affairs, judiciary matters and schooling in their own language.
The above legislation sounds progressive; however, it could not prevent the Hungarian government from violating some terms and conditions. A classic example of “Magyarisation”, the so called Lex Apponyi made Hungarian a compulsory subject in all schools, where teaching was conducted in a different language. If the pupils did not achieve a desired level of fluency, teachers could be put under investigation, and in some severe cases the entire school could be closed. At Trianon ethnic minorities were vying for national self-determination, which in fact is an honourable cause.
Nonetheless, countries surrounding Hungary by no means were guided solely by righteous principles, but also by retaliation and greed propelled by territorial gains. Were all their demands granted, they would have inflicted an absolute catastrophe, an existential threat to Hungary. Therefore, the Treaty of Trianon is apparently a lesser of two evils. Although, it is poor consolation to more than three million people who identified as Hungarian and became ethnic minority groups abroad, facing hateful discrimination.
One of the eeriest chapters of eliminating Hungarian heritage and forced assimilation – the so called destruction of Hungarian villages – happened during the Ceausescu era. Under the aegis of systematisation, thousands were shifted from small villages (deemed to be inefficient) to urbanised Soviet-style tower blocks. The beautiful architecture left behind by village people were eliminated; and the forcedly abandoned areas were converted into large agricultural aggregates. Whether it was meant to affect Hungarian and German ethnic minority villages or not, it does not change the fact that ethnic minority villages were disproportionately exposed to devastation.
Two things must be noted: Ceausescu was not the direct product of Trianon, and Hungary was on the wrong, despicable side of history also during World War II, perpetrating further repercussions for ethnic Hungarians abroad (e.g.: the Beneš decrees[ii] in then Czechoslovakia). Regardless, those who were subject to ethnic discrimination still pinpoint Trianon as the main culprit, which was responsible for codifying their minority status.
Despite the mutual grievances, Romanians, Slovaks, Hungarians, Serbs and all the neighbouring peoples live peacefully side by side each other, as they have done so throughout history. Furthermore, these countries are determined to foment amicable relations. Why is it necessary then to acknowledge each other’s past grievances? The one thing that needs to be repaired is the toxic collective imagination or if you prefer myth of Trianon, which on the one hand is conceived as a well-deserved victory, making the majority population entitled to assimilate ethnic minorities; and on the other hand, in Hungary it evokes the long lost “glorious past” and quasi-colonialist feelings of reclaiming what is ours.
Recommendation 2: Leaders in Hungary as well as in all neighbouring countries should immediately stop using Trianon and the question of Hungarian ethnic minorities for fostering their political goals.
This recommendation is not a call for erasing Trianon or Hungarian ethnic minority rights from public discussions. Much rather, it targets “how” or “how not to” address such topics instead of “whether” to speak about them at all.
A few weeks preceding the Trianon centenary, the autonomy of Szekerland (Transylvania, Romania, mostly populated by ethnic Hungarians) became yet again a source of political turmoil. A proposal offering administrative autonomy to the region tacitly passed in the Chamber of Deputies without debate, because Romanian parliamentary procedures allow draft bills to pass to the next legislative stage if they have not been discussed within 45 days. Delays due to the coronavirus pandemic created a window of opportunity, and the autonomy bill had to be presented for vote in the Senate.
Administrative autonomy is not an ominous nemesis, provided countless EU members have autonomous regions. Still, the autonomy of Szekerland is interpreted and illustrated wrongly as an attempt to break the unity of Romania, and as a violation of the Treaty of Trianon. Hence the debate turned into a full-blown political competition of “who is more anti-Hungarian” between the National Liberal Party (PNL – in minority government), and its most powerful opponent: the Socialist Democratic Party (PSD). At the zenith of overzealous accusations aiming to snatch right-wing votes stood the speech of President Klaus Iohannis (PNL) – ironically of ethnic German origins –, which he commenced with greeting PSD members in Hungarian, as a wanton, deliberate means of embarrassing the Socialists.
This type of non-inclusive rhetoric is a spiteful legacy of Trianon, which can attract political support up until the toxic myth is alive. For sure it will not take the wind out of Viktor Orbán’s populist sail, who equally loves appealing to the Hungarian diaspora for extra votes, nor will it make Hungarians feel more at home in Romania. At least the relevant Romanian authorities acted rapidly in response to the President’s speech, and he was heavily fined by the National Council for Combating Discrimination (CNCD).
Do secessionist fears have solid grounding? Nobody, not even the most right-wing, chauvinistic Hungarian patriots would ever believe that the Treaty of Trianon could be reversed. Nevertheless, shrewd, sneaky, subliminal messages, like the one hidden in the Hungarian PM’s 6th May Facebook post can rightfully fuel widespread indignation in countries with a significant Hungarian diaspora: Viktor Orbán wished good luck for students taking high school history final exams (A-levels), with a map of pre-Trianon Hungary.
Furthermore, the Hungarian PM has worked hard on confiscating the topic of Trianon, about which only the governing Fidesz party and its acolytes can speak with integrity, validity, and veracity. Informed debates have been made impossible, left-wing opposition politicians en masse and “great powers ready to exploit Hungary” are blamed blatantly for everything, which conspicuously fits the general government rhetoric of communicating contemporary challenges. It’s a vicious circle, a self-fulfilling prophecy that feeds the myth of Trianon.
How can we possibly reshape political dialogues and transform them into something less resentful, and more conciliatory? The address of Igor Matovič to commemorate the centenary could be a feasible first step to leave behind the Trianon myth. He also greeted his audience in Hungarian (Sziasztok, kedves barátaim! – Welcome, my dear friends!), adding that he hoped his pronunciation was as proper as the ethnic Hungarian spokeswoman’s, who had previously announced the Prime Minister on stage, obviously in Slovakian.
This symbolic act already conveys the key message of the entire speech: we should rejoice in plurality and diversity; Slovakia should not view the Hungarian diaspora as a menacing vice; and we should celebrate our shared leaders, successes and intertwined, common regional history, which has much more grounding than the dark chapters of the 20th century. Through and through, Matovič remained aware of the issue of discrimination, hence he also called for an initiative to find mutually sufficient solutions. However, most importantly he did not fall into the trap of celebrating Trianon as an ultimate, well-deserved victory that served justice.
Recommendation 3: Let’s re-imagine our communities! Why on earth should anyone have to be forced to own a singular identity?
I was inspired to write this article by my favourite TEDx talk of all times (English subtitles are available in the settings), from an ethnic Hungarian, Slovak-born, massively talented actress: Alexandra Borbély. Her collection of witty, cunning, thought-provoking anecdotes about her upbringing and professional development, via her charming mode of presentation, glossily switching between standard Hungarian, Hungarian with Palóc[iii] accent, and Slovakian, is a fantastic illustration of embracing multiple identities. Although, at the same time it is also a heart-wretching manifestation of painful struggles springing from being different. I would highly recommend everyone to watch the entire talk, for now, here is an extract of Alexandra’s story.
Alexandra was born to an ethnic Hungarian family in Slovakia, and at the age of 5 she already mastered both languages with excellent fluency. Neither the nativist impulses from local Slovaks, nor her family’s constant hints to distance herself from Slovakians could prevent Alexandra from embracing both cultures. She equally had Slovak and Hungarian friends, she equally admired Slav and Hungarian movies, and at school she regularly attended both Slovak and Hugarian competitions of poem recital. Unfortunately, speaking multiple languages (Slovak, Hungarian and the Palóc dialect) as well as nurturing a composite, diverse identity have not always filled her with a sense of pride and privilege, but much rather with shame, alienation, and never really belonging to anywhere.
Alexandra’s talent shimmered through early on at the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest, but she has never been granted with any prestigious national awards, because she was a Slovak citizen. Of course being trained in Hungary meant that her work was equally unrecognised in Slovakia. Unfortunately, dual nationality is not permitted in Slovakia, and the only possible solution: dropping the Slovakian citizenship for a Hungarian one, was out of question for her. She stayed unrecognised until 2017, when she won the European Actress award at the European Film Awards for her exquisite performance in On Body and Soul, a captivating artistic creation by Director Ildikó Enyedi.
Alexandra’s fantastic success story is heavily imbrued with the odious legacy of Trianon, which implies that certain nations are born to hate each other. Ethnically homogenous nation states are artificial, obnoxious, imagined creations; an impossible, abhorrent fantasy that never existed in Europe, let alone in Central Europe during pre-Trianon times. Territorial rearrangement, gains and losses may result in zero-sum games, that inevitably produce winners who rejoice, and losers who understandably reel from wounds; however, culturally this really does not have to be the case. Although, past experience proves otherwise.
The way forward should be elevating ourselves from these trivial cultural and political tit-for-tats, through recognising the value of almost omnipresent diversity and centuries of cohabitation; as well as keeping up honest, informed discussions about the effects and legacy of Trianon without enforcing a collective, singular interpretation. Central and Eastern European countries have way more in common than against each other.
Cover photo: Flickr, Community Archives, Public Domain
[i] Magyar – Hungarian, Román – Romanian, Német – German, Szlovák (tót) – Slovakian, Horvát – Croatian, Szerb – Serbian, Rutén – Ruthenian, Szlovén – Slovenian, Cseh – Czech, Lengyel – Polish, Olasz – Italian, Bolgár – Bulgarian, Lakatlan terület – Uninhabited territories, Cigány – Romany, Gypsy
[ii] A collection of laws presented by Edvard Beneš, President of Czechoslovakia that served the denazification of the country post-WWII. In practice many ethnic German and Hungarian families, even those who had nothing to do with Nazism and had lived for centuries on the territory of then Czechoslovakia, were deprived of their lands, properties and citizenship.
[iii] Palóc is a sub-group of Hungarians in North-East Hungary and Southern Slovakia with an easily distinguishable dialect, distinct vocabulary, and many peculiar costumes as well as customs. Fun fact: all my grandparents are from the Palóc region and unconsciously I incorporate quite a lot of palóc words in my daily speech… that I have not realised until some friends drew my attention to the fact that I use “non-existing” phrases.