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A bridge that nobody crosses: history and myth regarding 1918–20 in Hungary and Romania 

An interview with historians Marius Turda and Ferenc Laczó. Interviewers: Csaba Tibor Tóth and Gáspár Papp.

June 25, 2020 - Csaba Tibor Tóth Ferenc Laczó Gáspár Papp Marius Turda - Interviews

Demonstration against "Trianon" in Budapest. Photo: FORTEPAN/ALBUM009

As was to be expected, the 100th anniversary of the Trianon Treaty has been mired in conflict and revealed many deep-seated political divisions. Beyond renewed fears regarding the revival of Hungarian revisionism, there has also been a demand on the left to re-examine the collapse of Austria-Hungary. The signing of the Trianon Peace Treaty in 1920 has implications that go way beyond the case of Hungary. Certainly, the treaties that were signed near Paris following the First World War reshaped power relations. At the same time, the “victorious powers” have cherished ideological myths comparable to those that were cultivated in Hungary.

Ahead of the 100th anniversary of the treaty’s signing, Mérce has conducted a joint interview with Marius Turda, professor at Oxford Brookes University and Ferenc Laczó, assistant professor at Maastricht University, both experts on the history of Hungary and the East-Central European region. The interview discusses the significance of what happened a hundred years ago and analyses the power of myths.

MÉRCE: The 100th anniversary of the Trianon Peace Treaty has become a significant event in Hungary. Since the establishment of the Orbán regime, commemorations have revolved around June 4th, the date of the signing of the treaty. How and why did “Trianon” come to replace the memory of the founding of the First Hungarian Republic in 1918?

FERENC LACZÓ: There was widespread political will in Hungary to overwrite the memory of the 1918 republic already at the time of the signing of the peace treaty. The fall of the Republic of Councils, which had been engaged in parallel wars of national-territorial defence in 1919, was followed by a rather peculiar restoration. With Miklós Horthy’s election as Regent of Hungary, the kingdom was symbolically restored. However, the newly independent state crucially did not possess the majority of the territory once governed by the former kingdom. Due to this, those coming to power in 1919–20 – who, ironically enough, did so with the support of the Entente powers, particularly France – promulgated a plan of restoration fixated on the past. They were looking for ways to realise their plan of restoration beyond the symbolic through territorial expansion.

This meant that the dominant political culture of Hungary – in contrast, for instance, to the Austrian Republic, which declared a clear historical break with the former monarchy and embarked on a new beginning – continued to employ many of the stylistic preferences of the old empire. This ‘kingdom without a king’ did not aim to restore the multi-ethnic empire with its main seat in Vienna, but only the kingdom of Saint Stephen with its borders that had supposedly existed for a thousand years. I am tempted to refer to this goal as effectively ruling over an empire as a nation-state. I ought to note that this was a widely shared ambition at the time. Just look at the cases of Germany and Italy, as well as the world empires with their national cores in Western Europe, who also followed this broader pattern. It is true that Hungarian revisionists formulated more realistic goals than complete territorial restoration, just as it is correct to state that even their more modest goals were connected to ideas of national superiority.

As the goal of border revisions came to replace the emphasis on an already accomplished independence, the republic of 1918 was turned into a scapegoat, as if Mihály Károlyi’s rather modest political talents would have almost single-handedly annulled Hungarian imperial dreams. Károlyi was a pro-independence politician who had been in power just for a few months when many of the former empire’s minorities were in the process of secession. There was certainly a good amount of political motivation behind this scapegoating, but we might also detect here a psychological reaction to protect one’s self-image and sense of self-worth. After all, vocal opponents of the dictated peace were brought to power by the very powers they deeply resented and, more particularly, precisely that country, Romania, which gained the largest amount of territory from Hungary at the end of WWI. These two factors must have played a decisive role in making the right-wing proponents of restoration create an alternative history. They chose to label the short-lived regime of 1918 and the Republic of Councils of 1919 as the chief culprits behind the injustices of the peace treaty.

The state collapse and dissolution of order at the end of WWI, occupations and territorial losses, political polarisation and the strengthening of right-wing radicalism were practically simultaneous processes that mutually strengthened each other between 1918 and 1920. The authoritarian right would soon consolidate what came to be called the Horthy regime in Hungary, which – while nominally promoting national unity – denounced “internal enemies” within the left and liberal camps. At the same time, representatives of Hungarian liberalism and the left were also opposed to the terms of the peace and its consequences – even as their regrets and aims were motivated by different factors than those on the authoritarian right.

MARIUS TURDA: I would like to add a couple of comments. I think that one of the main reasons why Hungarian political culture – even more forcefully now than perhaps twenty years ago – has built a stronger symbolic tradition around 1920 and Trianon than 1918 and Károlyi Mihály’s first democratic republic is that of redemption. What Trianon offers, as clearly understood by Orbán Viktor, is a prism through which to re-claim Hungary’s greatness in the region. The commemoration of Trianon has the possibility to turn a nightmare into a dream, and nations live off dreams.

In November 1918, Hungary was proclaimed a népköztársaság, literally a people’s republic, and many including Mihály Károlyi and Oszkár Jászi thought of it as a new political project encompassing all of Hungary’s peoples (népek). However, the Croats, Romanians, the Serbs and the Slovaks thought otherwise. All these peoples’ successor states celebrate 1918 as their moment of state foundation. This leaves 1920 to the Hungarians, who turned it into the central reference point of their national mythology in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

In Romania, December 1st has been established as the date for celebrations related to national unification, which indeed refers back to 1918. How are the Hungarian–Romanian War that followed and 1920 remembered in the country? Are they also considered watersheds in Romania?

MT: The Romanian–Hungarian War of 1919 and the Romanian army’s occupation of Budapest are events that have not been forgotten. Images of that war are widely circulated alongside fantasies of national righteousness. Scholarly speaking the entire episode is more glossed over than seriously discussed and analysed, although recently there has been an attempt to redress this issue, most notably by Manuel Mireanu.

In 2009 an exhibition was organised in Bucharest in order to present the war to the general public. The narrative which ran through it centred on anti-communism and Romania’s success in halting the growth of Bolshevism in Central Europe and possibly further. Both 1919 and 1920 are, however, essentially seen as confirmations of 1918. By eliminating references to the Romanian–Hungarian War, as well as to the role played by the Entente in using Romania as a bulwark against communism, the achievements following the end of WWI could be construed as continuous and uninterrupted. This helps to create a teleological narrative of nation building.

It seems to me that 1918 and 1920 are two pillars of a bridge, both real and symbolic, separating Romanian and Hungarian historical narratives. There have not been many attempts to cross this bridge by either side. Whilst a proper historical reconciliation should allow for free movement across this bridge, we should ultimately aim to remove the structure altogether.

FL: It is indeed remarkable how little attention has been devoted to the 1919 war in Hungary. Scholarly attention has started to increase only in very recent years. The trauma of the nationalist right – their sense of injustice and humiliation – would presumably become only more acute if the Romanian military occupation was remembered more. There does not seem to be a real demand for that.

I believe that it is not altogether mistaken to remember the last century as one in which a longer and more costly war between Hungary and Romania somewhat surprisingly – and obviously very fortunately – failed to materialise. In a context of prolonged nationalist rivalry, it seems rather ironic that both national narratives encounter difficulties in truly integrating this most significant exception, i.e. the war between them in 1919.

From the point of view of historical scholarship, this indeed looks anomalous. With a view to memory politics, we should probably call it fortunate. I fear that the potentially controversial debates surrounding this war and the violence that accompanied it would prove to be even more harsh and counter-productive than the nationalist sentiment we see today surrounding June 4th and Trianon.

Taken at Alba Iulia on Dec 1st 1918 where the Union of Transylvania with Romania was declared by an Assembly. Photo: Virtual Museum Of The Union

The period prior to 1914 seems to be remembered in significantly different ways in Hungary than in the other successor states. Hungarian historiography tends to refer to the decades before 1914 as a liberal epoch, whereas Romanian historiography prefers to emphasise national oppression when discussing the same period and regime. How did these images come about and what has made them so powerful in their respective contexts?

FL: The less radical supporters of the rightist-authoritarian regime in Hungary preferred to see themselves as conservatives of a Christian-national persuasion. The regime indeed pursued the conservation of pre-war conditions in various areas. I refer to areas such as restricted voting rights and the refusal to implement significant land reform. At the same time, the establishment aimed to distance itself from the perceived liberalism of those years. Right-wingers condemned the liberalism of the Habsburg Empire, not least since they believed it could be held directly responsible for Trianon. According to such national-authoritarian reasoning, Hungary’s nationalities were granted rights instead of a more forceful politics of assimilation and then “went on to abuse those rights in their own interests.”

This interpretation of “the path to Trianon” had grave consequences during WWII, the so-called years of Hungarian re-annexation. Any real plan to meaningfully integrate the national minorities reassigned to Hungary between 1938 and 1941 was overruled by suspicion, discrimination and open violence. The Hungarian ambition to shift the borders contained a rational core that might have achieved consensual support. However, the Hungarian state expanded beyond its ethnic borders while pursuing narrow ethnic policies. I would argue that the authoritarian-rightist regime became heavily complicit in the kind of practices between 1938 and 1945 for which it had legitimately critiqued its rivals after 1920.

To address the second part of the question, national oppression in the Habsburg Empire was first prominently critiqued by national liberals who aimed to oppose both imperial centralisation and linguistic Germanisation. In the case of Hungary, the roots of such resistance go back all the way to the 1780s, the decade of Joseph II’s rule. A similar logic was also used by the social democrats, whose reformist ideas frequently pictured the empire as a Völkerkerker, a prison of nations.

Many view the Habsburg Empire as a multicultural space with a rather reliable legal order that in certain respects was a precursor to the EU’s current arrangements. I believe that any realistic historical assessment has to reflect the duality between a liberal state and national oppression, especially when it comes to the Kingdom of Hungary after 1867. The Hungarian liberal state that emerged with the Compromise of that year aimed to protect the rights of its subjects and simultaneously encourage Hungarian nation-building. This second aspect particularly supported plans of assimilation regarding minority groups that represented around half of the kingdom’s population.

The decades under the Dual Monarchy are known as the period when European nationalism underwent a great transformation. Whereas mid-century liberal nationalists were still predominant among those propagating the national cause, nationalists around 1900 already relied on the power of state institutions to indoctrinate their fellow citizens, as well as assimilate or suppress other national groups living in what was meant to be their exclusive territory. The political meaning and function of nationalism had changed across Europe already before WWI. This was a process of transformation which Hungarians were much less likely to perceive and take seriously compared to members of the kingdom’s various nationalities. This was because they were not directly or negatively impacted by it.

It might be worth adding that when it comes to our region the balance between nation-building and basic liberal principles was only re-established at the end of the twentieth century. This followed numerous crimes and tragedies committed in the name of “national homogenisation.” The Hungarian minority communities that were established after the end of WWI tended to be on the receiving end of this brutal process. Their relatively successful survival throughout the twentieth century might be said to be remarkable in light of this wider history. We can recall the more violent and tragic histories of Jews and Germans in Romania, Turks in Bulgaria, Germans in Poland and Czechoslovakia, Bosniaks in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Serbs in Croatia, etc.

MT: It is somehow ironic, I suppose, that at the end of the nineteenth century it was liberals in the Romanian Kingdom who provided much of the ammunition used by the Romanians in Hungary (Transylvania and the Banat) to describe the Hungarian state as an oppressor of ethnic minorities. By the early twentieth century, even the most devoted of the Hungarian liberals accepted that the transformation of Hungary into a ‘Switzerland of the East,’ which would grant all minorities equal political rights, was more of a heuristic device than any programmatic political goal (Realpolitik). Gradually liberal-inclusive nationalism turned into assimilationism. This saw the creation of a ‘civilisational role’ for Hungarians, as well as the growth of ideas of national superiority in relation to Romanians, Ruthenes, Slovaks and so on. The saying “Tót nem ember” (roughly: Slovaks are not human) was not only a Hungarian proverb, but also an accepted antagonistic expression. This type of language encouraged Hungarians to look upon the Romanian or Slovak peasantry, for example, with contempt and to ascribe to them a common, uniform set of, largely negative, attributes.

Transylvanian Romanian nationalists, in turn, questioned the validity of the “Magyar unitary state” and “Magyar unitary nation” concepts. The continuous description of pre-1918 Hungary as an oppressor of minorities has encouraged the rejection of multiple historical narratives. In the case of Romanian historiography, more specifically, the role played by this description in shaping the texture of historical writing, alongside that of forced Magyarisation, is significant. After more than a century, this idea continues to galvanise the Romanian historical tradition.

Conceptions of national territory and natural frontiers predated 1918–20 by several decades. As Romanian historian Lucian Boia has remarked, Hungarians conceived of their country as a natural entity between mountains whereas Romanians thought of their country as being between the waters (rivers and the Black Sea). Such ideas and myths also appear to have played a large role in both countries in more recent decades. Would you say that the years 1918–20 and their impact ought to be explored with regard to geographical myths and their impact on memory politics?

MT: The representation of any country identifies it politically, linguistically, religiously but also geographically, as coterminous with the people’s homeland. That natural homeland often changed for the Hungarians until they settled in the Carpathian Basin in the 9th century. Whilst for the Romanians it only began to take shape during the Enlightenment and mostly due to Romanticism. The very idea of Romania, defined by 19th century romantic nationalism as the spiritual home of all Romanians, and of Transylvania, regarded as the “cradle of Românism,” travels across historical space unhindered by any theory surrounding the concept of ‘natural frontiers.’ Of course, this is not to say that the theory of geographical determinism as such is not significant in relation to these discussions.

Romanian nationalists, just as their Hungarian counterparts, developed an all-encompassing history of their respective nation, one which established connections between the nation’s past, present and future through historical progress and continuity. A new interpretation of national history was therefore proposed, one that established an organic connection between the nation and its geographical and ontological space. Theories of geographical determinism found their way into both Romanian and Hungarian historical writing (the Carpathian as a ‘spine,’ uniting two halves guarded by the river Nistru in the east and by the river Tisza in the west, in the case of Romania, or the enclosed universe of the Carpathian Basin, or Kárpát-medence, in the case of Hungary, respectively). These attempts to prove historical continuity within a defined geographical space have often defined claims of ethno-political and historical legitimacy in both countries.

To this day, rigidly adhering to the nationalist conviction that the existence of the nation depends upon its natural territory is central to any discussion of the rearrangements following the end of WWI. The blurring of boundaries between the national and the natural is made ontological by means of repeated discussions surrounding a collective identity (Romanian or Hungarian). This helped to create rich symbolic geographies within the confines of this part of East-Central Europe.

FL: We might hear about it less but the nationalisation of geography as a scholarly discourse has in fact been as powerful a process in modern times as the nationalisation of history writing. Practically all trained historians today are aware that the professional study of history as it emerged in the 19th century helped to legitimatise political projects. History writing was also embedded in the process of nation-building and frequently displayed national biases. This is despite the fact that some fellow historians of ours might still consider these laudable traditions. It is often less discussed that basic terms in geography, such as the Carpathian Basin, have also been part and parcel of Hungarian nationalistic programs. Viewed in this light, it is unsurprising that Romanians rarely use the aforementioned expression – they prefer to speak of the Pannonian Plain.

The Hungarian–Romanian border prior to 1918–20 used to run through mostly mountainous areas but such regions began well south of the Hungarian–Serbian border. According to the geographical logic of a basin, the city of Kragujevac, located in the middle of Serbia today, should also be depicted as part of the same area whereas Poprad in mountainous northern Slovakia could well be excluded. Hungarians tend to perceive this question the other way round. For them, Poprad is part of the Carpathian Basin while Kragujevac is not. Historical-political visions have clearly had a major impact on beliefs that claim to be scholarly or neutral.

Romanians celebrate in Brașov, 1905. Photo: FORTEPAN/ALBUM007

When it comes to the new borders and state administrations, Hungarian public opinion has recently turned to questions of everyday life and the stories of common men and women. What is behind this shift in interest? How notable is such a turn in the case of Romania?

FL: Historians have indeed shifted their attention to social and cultural history in recent decades. On the 100th anniversary of the Trianon treaty prominent historians – such as Balázs Ablonczy or Gábor Egry, both heading multiannual research projects – have explored the social impact of transition from one state to another. This was a process that lasted for years and was at times rather difficult and painful.

In international historiography, there has been a marked ambition to broaden the temporal horizons during the 100th anniversary of WWI. The research projects led by Robert Gerwarth, among others, have focused on the waves of violence following 1918 – we might say Gerwarth and his colleagues have looked as to why demobilisation and deradicalisation failed at the time. They prefer to speak of a ‘Greater War’ that lasted all the way until approximately 1923.

Now the successor states of the Habsburg Empire are of particular interest when it comes to concerns surrounding the transition between states and political violence after 1918. I would argue that historians writing about our region are working in line with broader international trends at the moment. These trends explore history – beyond the more conventional focus on decision makers – also from below and in a more inclusive manner.

MT: Romanian historiography is continually changing and adopting new interpretations. But at the level of public discourse and political decisions there is a notable convergence with historiographic traditions developed during the 1980s and 1990s. New generations of historians are well trained in gender history, oral history, history from below, social history, etc. However, the master narratives of Romanian historiography have not changed that significantly in the past 30 years. Ideas of national belonging and territory continue to contribute to a teleological interpretation of history. This is a point of view that not only places the nation at the centre of a historical continuum, but also blurs the distinction between the individual, the ethnic community and the state. However, there are also encouraging signs that historians in Cluj and Bucharest are now keen to work with a comparative theoretical framework and new methodologies, so that they can unveil different histories and stories about the past and critically examine them. Of course, this includes WWI and its aftermath.

Ethnographic map of the countries of the Hungarian Holy Crown based on the data of the 1880 census. Photo: wikimedia.org

How leftist movements were impacted remains an underexplored aspect of post-WWI transformations. Hungarian researchers at least tend to be aware that the social democratic movement aimed to appeal to the various nationality groups, particularly through its fight for universal suffrage and trade union rights. How did the role of social democracy change in Transylvania after the province’s annexation by the Kingdom of Romania? More generally, how did the new nation-state system impact the chances and fortunes of social democracy?

MT: Alas, not much survived of that leftist ethos after 1918 in Transylvania. However, its lingering presence was not completely extinguished amongst neither the Hungarians, now reorganised more along linguistic and religious lines, nor amongst the Romanians, who were eager to embark on a nation-building project. The social questions and the issue of workers’ empowerment were central to many local and regional initiatives and in the main cities in Transylvania and the Banat one could observe how certain socialist and social democratic ideas were re-embedded in the workers clubs and organisations. This includes trade unions in Cluj and Timisoara. During the interwar period, tremendous efforts were made by the Hungarians in Transylvania and the Banat to articulate a new ethnic contract with the Romanian state. This effort also took a great amount of inspiration from the social democratic legacy of the pre-1918 period.

FL: When it comes to our region, there were two chief ambitions behind the treaties: the intention to create a new system of democratic nation-states and the geopolitical goal of simultaneously weakening and containing Germany and Bolshevik Russia. On the short term, neither of these ambitions proved successful. Democracy soon collapsed in almost all of the newly created or enlarged – and typically multi-ethnic – nation-states and the capitals of East-Central Europe were unable to resist the neighbouring great powers. The expansionism of these powers, especially that of Nazi Germany, was bound to lead to a clash between them, as well as existential challenges for the states that lay in the middle. It is clear that both of these developments impacted the chances of social democracy in a markedly negative manner.

The nation-states created at the end of WWI nonetheless survived the age of extremes. In 1989, they received a second chance to democratise and resist imperial threats by means of close cooperation with each other. A hundred years after 1920, the circumstances and the broader international environment are much more conducive to the pursuit of these goals. However, much remains to be done when it comes to democratisation and more earnest cooperation within our region.

Originally published in Hungarian on Mérce on June 4th, 2020. The interview was conducted in English and Hungarian. The English version was prepared by Ferenc Laczó.

Ferenc Laczó is assistant professor in European history at Maastricht University and, most recently, co-editor (with Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič) of The Legacy of Division. East and West after 1989 (CEU Press-Eurozine, 2020)

Marius Turda is Professor of History at Oxford Brookes University. His most recent books include Teleology and Modernity (2019); Religion, Evolution and Heredity (2019); Historicizing Race (2018; Romanian translation 2019). He lives in London.

Gáspár Papp and Csaba Tibor Tóth are editors with Mérce


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