27 April 2020

Hungarians everywhere will no doubt be aware of the upcoming one hundredth anniversary of the Trianon Treaty, which was signed on 4 June 1920.

The Treaty led to the dismemberment of the country and some would argue it and the associated Versailles Treaty would eventually be used as a factor in the events that led up to the outbreak of war in 1939.

For many years, the circumstances of Trianon were hugely overshadowed by the historical and political debates surrounding the much better know Versailles Treaty.  Historical revision of Trianon was notable by its absence.  Today, this is less the case: historians have taken a greater interest in the so-called ‘Eastern Front’ in the Great War and the subsequent politics of the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  It seems certain that this interest will continue.

Yet this curiosity and revision needs to be reinforced in historical depth and expanded through a much wider historical perspective.  This is not historical revision with a modern political angle but rather a determined effort to explain why many believe that the Trianon Treaty was a travesty, to learn of what it said about those who participated in its gestation and the what were to become the future consequences, perhaps unforeseen at the time.  It is also a platform for Anglo-Saxon Historians to assault the historical archives – much of it in Hungarian – in order to determine if a more nuanced Hungarian position can be developed and for young Hungarian historians to do likewise with ‘Entente’ sources, in order to better understand the state of mind of the government officials whose opinions, analysis and recommendations led to such a poor treaty. 

Even a cursory reading of the existing historical works will indicate where to look for answers.  One obvious place to look is amongst the officials responsible for developing the Treaty’s provisions.  For example the ranks of British officialdom contained many mandarins who were simply anti-Hungarian, such as the eminent historian Seton-Watson who viewed Budapest in the light of its ‘abhorrent’ treatment of minorities or another soon to be famous historian, Lewis Namier (1), who did much to squash considerations of residual Austro-Hungarian interests, especially linked to Poland, a factor that would clearly impact events in Galicia.  Namier in particular saw many of the events at that time in eastern and central Europe through an anti-Catholic prism brought on by his appreciation of Austro-Hungarian and Polish politics.  Others in British officialdom viewed him and his interests as being unduly influenced by his support of Zionism.  A recipe for official policy confusion no doubt.

Historians should also be encouraged to think of Trianon in terms of the maelstrom of conflict and violence arising from the Russian revolution and the attempts at independence and statehood for the likes of Poland, Ukraine and Czechoslovakia.  It shouldn’t be forgotten that Britain, the USA and France in particular where heavily engaged in trying to influence the outcome of many of these conflicts.  Assessing Trianon and its’ future shape, absent consideration of these circumstances on the ground and its impact on policy, will not provide a holistic appreciation. 

Similarly, a failure to address the systems that underpinned great power diplomacy at that time – the proclivity for ‘secret treaties’ and a realpolitik that favoured partitions and land swaps – will prevent you from understanding the decisions and calculations of a transfer of Transylvania to Romania or Adriatic ports to Italy as a reward for participation in the war. Despite President Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the hope for a freshness in international relations, the diplomatic system that failed to prevent the first world war, was the very same system that not only failed at Trianon but also went on to fail again with the League of Nations, Abyssinia, Manchuria, the Sudeten Crisis and Munich.  Should not more attention to this facet of Trianon be investigated?

Of course it would be strange if historians were not to grapple with the Hungarian perspective on Trianon and the negotiations leading up to it.  There would be much value in a study of the failure of Hungarian statecraft in the lead up to Trianon.  Indeed, one could argue that it was a failure of the political classes, with the elite of Budapest so lacking in situational awareness at that time, that all sides in political discourse failed to appreciate that Kun Bela’s two short days of negotiations with the Allies representative, General Smuts, could only be a harbinger of doom.  It is inescapable that the Kun regime not only failed to appreciate and defend Hungarian interests at the time but also misunderstood the interests of the Allied Powers.  Had he done so, Hungary might have been better prepared for France’s encouragement of Romania to invade.  It was unfortunate that Kun’s Bolshevik republicanism and internal brutality – much in keeping with other Bolshevik movements in the region – did much to prevent the Hungarian state from acting in its own interests during the Trianon period.  The consequences of the Kun regime alone in terms of post Austro-Hungarian fragmentation and national development remains to be closed.

Years after the signing of Trianon, its vindictive and crass nature became ever more evident.  It blew a hole in American foreign policy idealism, which had been already holed under the water by the United State’s refusal to join the League of Nations.  Where was the self-determination for minorities in Hungary’s case?  It was also a festering sore in European politics in the interwar years and has tainted Hungarian politics ever since.  

Could it have been different?  Young historian should seek to answer that question.  Trianon was a piece of shoddy diplomacy based on a failed system and crafted by subjective and unqualified officials.  In the words of former British diplomat and historian of Hungary, Sir Bryan Cartledge, Trianon was “a dark and discreditable chapter in the history of international diplomacy”.

A hundred years on, Hungarians should fully appreciate the circumstances that led to the demise of the Kingdom of St. Stephen.  It needs to be better appreciated than it is now and what better way than encouraging young historians to see it as a rich seem of history for the curious and professional historian.

(1) D. W. Hayton: Conservative revolutionary – The Lives of Lewis Namer Manchester University Press, 2019 ISBN 978 0 7190 8603 8