Culture / Development

Hungary since the Treaty of Trianon: an overview

Founded in 896 A.D. at the heart of Europe, Hungary is one of the oldest countries on the European continent. Sadly, many remain unaware of Hungary’s location on a world map and often forget the name of its capital: Budapest. The Hungarian heritage can be traced back to Magyar, a language based on a dialect spoken by the Huns and therefore excluded from Indo-European language groups such as Celtic, Germanic, and Slavonic. More than one third of Hungarian speakers live outside of the country. Contrary to common misconception, this is not due to a gigantic emigration wave but is a post First World War phenomenon which directly affected the economic, cultural and political development of Hungary and its neighbouring countries: The Treaty of Trianon. Let’s take a look at how this changed the historical and political developments of the country.

 The Treaty of Trianon was a peace agreement signed in the Castle of Versailles in 1920 which put an official end to World War I between the Allies and the Kingdom of Hungary. The Treaty granted Hungary independent status and with it, the autonomy it had formerly been denied as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. One of the Treaty’s main aims was to dissolve the Central European superpower which had strong political affiliations with Germany. Its weakening was supposed to prevent the German Reich from rising to power yet again or from gaining substantial influence in the future.

Strangely enough, it was precisely the adoption of the weakening strategy which resulted in outrage for Hungarians everywhere, as it split off the kingdom’s territory to its surrounding countries. Consequently the country was left as a landlocked state of 35,936 sq mi or an equivalent of 28% of its original size (345,411 square kilometres) which made up pre-war Hungary. Five of the pre-Trianon Hungarian largest cities were absorbed by surrounding countries like Romania, Slovakia and Croatia. This resulted in a shrinking of the population from around 20.9 million to only 7.6 million. The worst consequence of this Hungarian division was the redrawing of new borders with utmost disregard for the historical, cultural, geographic and even economic aspects of the region. Some sources argue that the French and Romanian politicians present at the signing of the treaty used falsified maps with questionable information regarding the demographic and ethnic situation of the bordering areas. The manipulated documents show a considerable percentage of Hungarians as having Romanian ethnicity, data used at the time to justify the large amount of land given to Hungary’s territorial neighbour. More than one third of Hungarian speakers found themselves outside the borders of what was once their home country.

The division of nearly three quarters of the Hungarian Kingdom and the moving of nearly one third of their landsmen caused great bitterness to the inhabitants.  It became the central topic of political discussions, novels, poetry and art during the respective era. In one of the most famous poems[1] of the time, József Attila writes:

 When the time comes – the graves will open up
When the time comes – the Magyar will get on his feet
When the time comes – we will be strong,
Wait, my brothers, we will be there, we won’t give!

            … 

We will run howling like the ocean’s flood
We will fight until the last drop of blood and the Hungarian border will stand
in complete unison, just like it did not too long ago
And our star will coruscate in the sky again.)

The Hungarians felt an urge to reclaim what had once been theirs, and perceived the treaty as an outrageous theft to the nation. The title of József Attila‘s poem ‘Nem, nem, soha!’ (No, no, never!), became the rallying cry of the Hungarian public, a quest for justice which persisted for decades. The country’s official flags were lowered for a period of 18 years from 1920 onwards, with the explicit purpose of displaying the bitterness and shame felt by the Magyar people. Hungary regarded itself as the victim in this context and did not hesitate to share its opinion in the form of propagandistic symbolism. The contemporary poster depicts the map of Hungary being chopped into parts by a butcher, a violent symbol aiming to represent the victimization of the country and the ruthlessness of the Allies.

Did anyone benefit from the Treaty in the end? Some did indeed. The primary countries which benefitted were the Kingdom of Romania, Czechoslovakia, the Croats and the Serbs. Their territories and population quotas increased by a significant amount which triggered economics booms in the long-term. As for Hungary, the territorial and population decrease of 60% led to a collapse of the kingdom’s political and economic stability. Having lost its only sea port, Rijeka, the country was left in a land lock with fatal consequences for Hungary’s import and export strategy. The infrastructural access, namely through railways and road networks, were cut off through the new distribution of land. Entire trading routes were thus left abandoned. In addition, the country lost all its strategic military connections and was left with a force that barely managed to defend the country.

To this day, Hungary and its surrounding countries (Romania in particular who was given the biggest land parts of the pre-Trianon kingdom) remain affected by the Treaty on cultural and political levels. Modern Hungarian communities still live in a radius of about 13 miles around the Romanian-Hungarian border and form the largest minority in the country. For decades, these minorities have been marginalized the Romanian government and deprived of their privilege to pass on their cultural heritage. Government funding for Hungarian schools saw massive cuts which left these minorities desperate to save their linguistic heritage. A renowned problematic area is Erdély, where one intercultural problem is succeeded by the next. Erdély has consequently become the focus of the media over the past couple of years. Hungarians in the region have been seeking cultural autonomy but the outcome remains short of success. Despite sharing the longest border in Europe, the intensity of Romanian-Hungarian antagonism is hardly comparable to its European counterparts.

Hungary’s economic situation has not changed much since Trianon and the modern borders of the country largely remain the same, as defined by 1920 Treaty (except for three villages that were transferred from Hungarian to Czechoslovakian territory). Today, Hungary counts as one of the poorest countries in Europe. The Budapest Times describes the living standards as ‘third world’, whereby ‘every third Hungarian is threatened by poverty and social segregation’[2]. The number of poor people in the country has increased by more than 100 000 since 2014 and children in particular are drastically affected by such standards. From a country which once had been a world power almost twice greater than that of the UK today has become one of the least significant and ignored nations Europe. The rare attention it receives from the media is almost entirely due to the right-wing government currently led by Fidesz which has been working its way against freedom of speech since its inauguration in 2010. Many will be surprised to find that Hungary celebrated its 10 year anniversary as member of the European Union this year. A look back over the past decade shows very little has changed. The one constant element since the First World War is found in the remnants of a strong sense of Hungarian pride in their national heritage.

Laura Seemann

University of Oxford

[1] ‘Nem, nem, soha!’ – József Attila (1922)

[2] Budapest Times, June 2014

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2 thoughts on “Hungary since the Treaty of Trianon: an overview

  1. Interesting article but strongly biased. It would be good to underline that not all of the lands of the pre-1914 “Kingdom of Hungary” were ethnically Hungarian to the same extent. Large parts of modern Croatia, for instance, were almost totally Slavic. Despite that fact, they were an object of the argessive “hungarization” by the nationalist policy of Budapest. Of course, not because Hungarians were “bad” but because that was the spirit of that times. Anyway it would be nice to mention also about the other side of the coin.

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  2. Also, it is a huge exaggeration to say that Hungary counts as one of the poorests countries in Europe. Look at Macedonia, Moldova, Kosovo, Albania or Ukraine. It is one of the poorest but only in the EU. Just another niggle…

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