15 July 2019

The Phoenix Land – Part II


Chapter Two


On the afternoon I accepted the post of foreign minister only one decision was made: that we must at once make contact with the newly-created states and try to establish friendly relations. My guiding principle was that even though the Great Powers would decide the all-important terms of the peace treaty, our problems with our neighbours would only be resolved by agreement between ourselves. This would still be true even if we succeeded in getting into closer touch with one or more of those Great Powers. Such contact would only have its effect on major issues, and it would be unthinkable even to try and involve their interest in run-of-the-mill petty grievances. Our daily existence required that we made common cause with at least one of our new neighbours in a way agreeable to both parties. At that time it was clear that, with some obvious exceptions, this should not prove too difficult. No matter what border changes might be effected, our peoples would always have to live next to each other and, apart from being linked by the geology of the former Hungary and its existing water-power system, all these peoples were still economically independent.

Our relations with Austria were straightforward enough, although it was true that the question of the Burgenland would soon have to be discussed. The Treaty of Saint-Germain had shaved off a narrow strip of land on the borders of the Sopron, Zala and Vas Counties and handed it over to Austria. This decision was quite meaningless, for it affected only 4,020 square kilometres of land, just a few miles wide and a hundred kilometres long. It was an absurdity, as there was no railway line and no main road crossing the area: one could only travel there on foot, stepping out of it every now and then, since every stream and every mountain ridge traversed it crosswise. It had no name, but like a foundling had to have one invented for it, so the good Austrians called it the “Burgenland” after the string of border fortresses constructed along its length by successive Hungarian kings during the Middle Ages as a defence against marauding Germans. Its cession to Austria was perhaps one of the silliest decisions to be incorporated in the various Versailles treaties, but, like all the rest, it had to be signed without demur at Trianon.

It was due to be handed over to Austria at the end of August 1921. At this time it seemed no more than a distant storm cloud on the western horizon, and we still hoped that it might be avoided, perhaps in return for some economic concessions. After all, it consisted of little more than forestland, of which Austria already had plenty. This was not a mere pipedream, for many highly-placed Austrians felt the same way, realising that it would be senseless to antagonise their former comrades-in-arms for the sake of such a small piece of territory which, in any case, would still be dependent on Hungary for its food supplies.

Relations with Yugoslavia were tense. The Serbs were still in occupation of the whole of the County of Baranya, although, as they were entitled only to that part south of Mohács between the Danube and the Drava, the rest would have to be returned to us. This they were reluctant to do, mainly because of the coalmines around Pécs. As a result, they tried to influence the local inhabitants to proclaim a “Republic of Baranya” with the intention of then getting this new “republic” to write to the Council of Ambassadors demanding to be incorporated in the new Yugoslavia. Unfortunately for them, the good people of Baranya refused to cooperate, and the plan failed.

Our relations with Yugoslavia were also poisoned by the expulsion of many thousands of Hungarian families and the rough treatment meted out to them.

With Romania, matters were even worse. Painful memories of the occupation of Budapest were still fresh in our minds. When they withdrew, and even before this occurred, the Romanian troops removed almost the entire rolling stock of the railways, factories were dismantled and their machinery looted, as well as thousands of telephones and all of the farm animals from the Great Plain. And it was not only from the State lands and those of the great landowners that everything was stolen, but they also removed every last calf, indeed every animal they could find, from thousands of small farmers. Only south of Gyoma were the peasants able to save some part of their stock.

This was not generally known at the time, and I have never since seen it written about. This is why I now tell the story of what I saw with my own eyes.

At the beginning of November 1919, just after the Romanian armies had withdrawn, I had occasion to visit Nagykígyós.1 There were no trains since the wagons and locomotives had all been looted – but I managed to get there by a contraption known as a railcar, which was simply an old taxi equipped with iron wheels to fit the track. Until I reached Gyoma I did not see a single animal, not even poultry. In some places I saw farming folk – men and women – doing their best to hoe fields that had been left fallow: at others they were standing forlornly about, helpless beside the unploughed fields. Beyond Gyoma everything was different. They were ploughing away with horses, and even oxen; and here and there one could see a few hens clustered around the farmhouses. I asked in Nagykígyós why this was, and they told me that, south of the desolate area I had noticed, the Romanian general Mosoiu had been in command and that he had not only forbidden all looting but had also punished it severely.

This proved a most interesting truth: namely how decisive can be the will of a strong commander, and that, given goodwill and energetic leadership, the mob can just as easily be led to good as to evil.

From the Romanian point of view, the looting of the Hungarian countryside in 1919 was a significant political error. This was the one moment in history when a true cornerstone for peace could have been laid between the peoples of Hungary and Romania. Hungary had joyfully welcomed the invading Romanian armies as liberators and, if the Romanians had accepted that role and refrained from looting and destruction, their behaviour would have gone so far towards healing the centuries-old rift between the two nations that mutual goodwill and brotherly understanding might in time have finally been achieved.

In the first days of the occupation, and as soon as I heard about the looting, I went to see Dr János Erdélyi, who had just been appointed governor of Budapest and who was living in Hungária Hotel. I also called upon Mr Diamandi, at Gellért Hotel I fancy, who was the Romanian diplomat appointed as liaison officer with the army, told him what I felt and asked him to telegraph my views to Bucharest. I also wanted to reach Gödöllő, where Crown Prince Carol of Romania was rumoured to be staying, but failed to obtain the necessary permission. The wire was sent, but a few days later a negative answer was received from Prime Minister Brătianu. This was shown to me by Erdélyi. It declared that “Romania cannot be built otherwise, only in this way”, which was their way of saying: “only with loot from Hungary”.

And so the systematic looting grew worse and ever more all-embracing. The museums and the Royal Palace were protected by the American Colonel Bandholtz, but he could not defend the factories or the country’s agricultural heritage. The mood of the Hungarians turned swiftly to hatred; and so the psychological moment passed and was irretrievably lost. This was a terrible pity, for in many ways a country’s foreign policy will depend on the mood of its people, while material considerations are dwarfed in comparison. This has been especially true in modern times when international relations are no longer arranged by the cool objectivity of diplomats but rather the passions and hatreds of the crowd. These events were clear proof of that.

It was at this time, when the deep resentment of the Hungarians over the Romanian occupation had reduced relations between the two countries to their most explosive, that the situation was made even worse by the expulsion of more than a hundred thousand Hungarians from Transylvania. In their foolhardy ignorance of local facts, the authors of the peace treaty had linked automatic citizenship of the newly created or newly enlarged neighbouring states with a notion of “residency” as opposed to domicile. The result, in Transylvania at least, was that countless clerks, teachers, professors, shopkeepers and craftsmen who for decades had lived and worked and acquired property in the towns or districts that had been transferred to Romania now found themselves deprived of civil rights and destitute. Under the pre-war Hungarian administration, no such notion of “residency” had existed except for those who wanted to play some part in the local administration and who needed to prove their eligibility. In addition, many people found themselves deprived of their heritage because, although born in Transylvania, they had spent much of their lives elsewhere and so did not figure on the residence lists. These were all expelled from the land of their birth and pushed across the border.

There was something else that added to the numbers of those expelled. In the early summer of 1919, apparently because Budapest was then under Communist rule, Maniu decreed that all salaried officials in Transylvania, which everyone knew was soon to be ceded to Romania under the forthcoming peace treaty, must swear allegiance to their new state. At this time there was still no treaty concerning these former Hungarian territories, and even though the so-called “London Protocol” had promised Transylvania to Romania, there was as yet no legal document establishing the change of sovereignty. If the Romanians had wished to provoke non-cooperation they could not, knowing the Hungarians’ inbred respect for legality, have found a better way of doing it. Unanimously, all those affected by the new ruling declared they would swear nothing until the peace treaty had itself been signed and ratified. And so it happened that university and high school professors, teachers, and civil servants at all levels suddenly found themselves ordered to leave the country, sometimes with barely twenty-four hours’ notice. In this way, countless men and women born in Transylvania were forced to flee with their families, leaving behind their homes and all they possessed. Only if they had complied with Maniu’s technically illegal decree would they have kept the right to stay in their native land.

In their hundreds they arrived at the frontiers; and there the Hungarian government denied them entry because the now bankrupt country could neither find a place for them nor provide for their keep. Their fate was terrible. Sometimes they were forced to stay for weeks camping at the frontier until the Hungarian state took pity on them and let them in, whereupon they became squatters on the outskirts of Budapest, living in abandoned railway wagons which had been left in disused sidings, or in now empty barracks. Many spent years in these appalling conditions until the Refugee Bureau, which had been formed to solve this problem, was finally able to restore to them the dignity of somewhere decent to live.

Of all the state employees, only the railway workers were spared this fate, for they were better organised than the others and were also realists who did not bother with legalistic quibbles, like those of the educated middle-class. Sensibly, they took their new oath of allegiance and so were able to stay in their homes and continue to earn their daily bread and provide for their families.

This awareness of the sufferings of all those Hungarians expelled from their homes poisoned Hungarian public opinion. Almost every refugee had relatives or friends in what still remained of Hungary after Trianon. Everywhere one heard tales of atrocities, some no doubt exaggerated; but they all added to a climate of opinion that made it impossible for Hungarian politicians to make any approach to the Romanians.

Feeling towards Czechoslovakia was less strong than it was towards the other two countries that were later to form the “Little Entente”.

It was true that refugees also came from there, but in much smaller numbers; Czech troops had not ravaged Hungarian farmland, and memories were still fresh of the days when the Red Army under Stromfeld and Julier swept the Czechs from Northern Hungary. Although it was not much spoken of, this did much to restore the diminished self-esteem of the Hungarians. In addition the Czech administration, most of whose officials had been trained under the admirable Austrian system, handled the situation according to the accepted European principles. The new head of state, Professor Masaryk, wanted to respect not only the letter but also the spirit behind the terms governing the treatment of ethnic minorities. In this he was not universally successful and indeed found himself occasionally frustrated by various statistical or administrative stratagems beyond his control. Nevertheless, it was certain that far fewer complaints came from the Hungarian minorities in Slovakia than did from those in our eastern and southern neighbours.

It was the realities of this situation which had made it possible, when the Teleki government took office at the beginning of 1921, for approaches to be made to Beneš – although, as it turned out, without any positive result.

It was this experience that prompted me, as soon as I took office as foreign minister, to resume the interrupted negotiations with Prague. Since it was I who had initiated this approach, and as the more recently appointed foreign minister of our two countries, it was natural that I should be the one who made the first move. After an exchange of telegrams it was agreed that we should meet at Marienbad in the first days of May.

My first action was to study the records of the Bruck talks, which cleared up two issues for me.

The first was the revision of the new borders; the second, the question of the Burgenland. These negotiations had not arrived at any final decision, and so one could only deduce that not only was revision of the new borders still possible but also the price Hungary would have to pay would be a political contract by which Hungary “voluntarily” agreed to renounce some 26,600 square kilometres of her former territory.

As regards the Burgenland, it seemed that Prague had quite different ideas from those incorporated within the draft of the peace treaty. To begin with, she was not at all pleased that Germanic Austria should increase her territory in this way, and secondly it seemed likely that the new Czechoslovakia had the notion of creating some kind of corridor between the northern and the southern Slavs. This had not taken the form of any concrete proposition, but the intention was there.

As I recall, I started out on 6 May. It was interesting but painful to travel along the River Vág, through the Kisalföld Plain. I had often visited this part of the country in my youth, as many of my relations and a lot of friends lived in the region. So many old memories came to me then. At Galánta,2 at the parliamentary elections in 1902, I had gone with Mihály Esterházy to support him as he canvassed the electors. We travelled from village to village in a long cavalcade of cars. János Hock came with us, having agreed to speak in the districts where there were Hungarian villages. He was paid a substantial fee and, as he was an accomplished speaker – a star performer, as they would say today – he was extremely useful and earned every penny he was paid. About one third of the electorate in this district was made up of Hungarians and these were all staunch supporters of the 1848 Party.3 There were some villages where it seemed likely we would be welcomed only with cudgels, and others, quiet and sleepy, where it was difficult even to start addressing the people. We would be greeted with catcalls as soon as we ascended the wooden plank-stands that were to serve as platforms for the speakers. Then some local bigwig would stand up and declare that here they were all true-blue supporters of the Independence Party and away with us as no one wanted to hear what we had to say. Then came the miracle. Hock would utter a few words about Hungarian hospitality and mutual understanding: he argued with nobody, but whenever he was able to get out these few words everyone started to listen. During his speech he would often single out some member of the audience that, with his remarkable perception, he had realised was not very popular in that locality, make a joke or two at his expense, and soon had the entire audience in splits. After that his oratory took wings, and when he had come to an end all the villagers would cheer, and our departure would be like a triumphal march. We only failed in those villages where Hock could not get out those few magic words. There were only one or two, for as a speaker he was a real artist. The opposing candidate was called Kormos,4 and Hock would make amusing jokes about this in each village with unfailing dexterity and wit. And the proof of his skill was that he would invent different jokes for each village so that we, his companions, should not get bored by repetition of the same speeches.

This memory in particular tied me to Galánta, but there was no corner of the Kisalföld Plain which did not hold its special souvenirs for me.

Surány5 – where surely there used to be the best partridge-shooting in the world, and where the carriages which were used by the guns carried watermelons to quench their thirst. Diószeg where I once had to get out of the train at 20 degrees below zero and hire a sled to reach my cousins’ house at Ciffer.6 On the way the snowdrifts were so deep that we had to get out more than ten times to shovel away the snow. The driver had a sensible sheepskin cap, but I had only brought a light hat suitable for shooting and nearly lost my ears from frostbite. Cseklész, Vedrőd, Galgóc, Vörösvár and Szomolány – there were sweet memories buried everywhere around me that came to life only when we passed by or I sensed their nearness, as the express train rushed on its way across the fertile plain.

Now everything seemed incandescent. I was surrounded by the lavishness of spring, the cornfields, smooth and rich; the great spreads of sugar beet planted in long, moss-coloured rows; the alfalfa fields already richly burgeoning into leaf. Apple trees in bloom. It was a bitter feeling, for we had lost it all. Then we arrived at Zsolna. It was here that six years before I had seen those long lines of military trains, where they had waited, often for days, filled with strapping young Hungarian soldiers until they were carried off to battle and death. This place too had its memories, and most painful they were.7

In Marienbad we stayed in a luxury hotel, and I recall wondering if it was the one to which King Edward VII would come every year at the beginning of the century when he was spinning the webs of the Entente cordiale with Clemenceau and Izvolsky, the then foreign minister of Russia, and where he smoothed over the differences between England and Russia and he planned, no doubt along with others, the encirclement of the Central Powers.

Of course, King Edward had been there in the high season, in August when swarms of elegantly-clad guests came to the spa to bathe away their accumulated fat. Now, in May, the resort was almost empty. The countryside is lovely, hilly and covered with pine forests, all well cared for and in that impeccable order imposed by the Austrian system of forestry management: a system taken over by the Czechs and impeccably maintained. There were no fallen trees to be seen, no dried-up or dead trees, crooked and hollow. Every pine was healthy and towered straight as an arrow. The forest started where the hotel garden ended, and we could walk in it for hours, as in a park.

Beneš arrived on his special train. He was a small and insignificant-looking man. His whey-coloured eyes had an unusual sheen and were always watchful, like those of a fox. He spoke pleasantly enough but patronisingly, with more than a touch of condescension, as people who have more than their fair share of good luck so often do. Although Beneš must have spoken German, for his country was still part of Austria when he went to school, our discussions were held in French. He was possessed of a highly accomplished political vocabulary since he had, on Masaryk’s recommendation, been accepted as a student at the Académie des Sciences Politiques in Paris, where he had obtained his diploma. In spite of his perfect mastery of the French language he was sometimes difficult to understand because at that time, and indeed all the years I was in contact with him, he had a very strong Czech accent. I never heard if this disappeared later.

We discussed by what means we could reduce the tension between our two countries and whether we could find a common platform that would enable us to act together in all the questions concerning the Danube Basin. I outlined a plan that involved cooperation by the three countries of Czechoslovakia, Austria and Hungary, which in Central Europe still formed a bastion of the western way of life: a link which, in my opinion, was a good enough reason for all three to understand one another. Knowing how vain Beneš was, I made it clear that in this triumvirate the leading role would be his.

As to the Burgenland, it seemed to me that Hungary could settle this directly with Austria, and so that question could come later. Firstly, I suggested that we should get things clear between ourselves. I said that as far as Czechoslovakia and Hungary were concerned there seemed to be two highly important unsolved issues and that, if these were not first settled, Hungarian public opinion would not accept any further rapprochement between our two countries… and the government would fall. The first was the future of Hungarian minority groups in Slovakia; the second, the modification of the new Czech–Hungarian border as redrawn by the Treaty of Trianon. It would be vital in this context not only to wipe out the most unjust and unacceptable aspects of the proposed borderlines – such as those at Balassagyarmat, where the Hungarian town’s vineyards now found themselves in Czechoslovakia, and Sátoraljaújhely, where the border ran between the town and its railway station – but also to take into consideration which districts spoke what language.

As it happened, Hungarian public opinion had not been as outraged by the Hungarian minority’s loss of civil rights in the new Czechoslovakia as it had been by what had been perpetrated by the governments of Yugoslavia and Romania. It was for this reason that I based the need for revision of the frontiers on ethnic grounds alone.

I did not emphasise this, not only because the frontier questions had first come up at Bruck but also because I had some good reasons of my own for hoping that we might obtain some profit from reopening the question of the Czechoslovak border.

While in London in January 1920 I had seen hung in the window of the Geographical Society in the Strand a large map bearing the title “The Eastern Europe of the Future”, and on it the Czech–Hungarian border clearly showed the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in Hungarian hands. It seemed certain that what this map showed had come from official sources in Paris, all the more so since Constantinople and the surrounding country on the Bosporus was shown as belonging to the League of Nations, which the newspapers of the day had reported as being the official Allied proposal and which indeed had been incorporated in the first draft of the Treaty of Saint-Germain. This, however, when presented to the Turks for their signature, met with such a blank refusal from Kemal Ataturk that the matter had to be held over for the Treaty of Lausanne, when the territory was left in Turkish hands.

I wanted to buy this map as proof of official intentions, but the shop had been closed and when, after a few days, I was able to return, I was told that that map had been withdrawn and its sale forbidden! An English friend gave me the explanation. The map had originally been drawn in the spring of 1919; when, a little later, the short-lived Communist regime took power in Budapest the highest councils of the Big Five decided that the foothills of the Carpathians could not be left in Hungarian hands lest they offer a route to Western Europe for the Soviets. Accordingly they should be re-awarded to Czechoslovakia.

My other private reason was based on some information that I had from a man in contact with the English delegation to the commission charged with preparing the terms of the various treaties. This was particularly relevant to my present talks with Beneš. I had been told that before the committee started work on defining the borders of the new Czechoslovakia, the French foreign minister Berthelot had said to Beneš: “Demandez beaucoup” – “Ask a lot!” Berthelot and Beneš had been fellow students at the Académie des Sciences Politiques and had always been good friends. As a result, Beneš asked for as much as possible, basing his policy on the idea that whatever he asked for was likely to be reduced and because his old friend had said “Demandez beaucoup” so as to give him room to manoeuvre. Accordingly, he had drawn a line from which he could easily withdraw without giving away anything of true value to his country. This is how so many districts with a preponderant Hungarian population had found themselves on the Czech side of the frontier, for which the Big Five had given their unquestioning approval. And so Masaryk and Beneš had obtained far more than they had originally hoped for.

Knowing all this, I hoped for an important revision of the border, not quite as much as Hungary was to receive from the first Vienna Award of 1939 but close to it.

Beneš did not go quite so far as to envisage the return to Hungary of Losonc or Komárom, but it was made clear that a prerequisite to revision was that Hungary should sign a mutually agreed document accepting the award to Czechoslovakia of those other parts of the Slovensko that were not now under discussion.

This, of course, was self-evident, for it was on this assumption that our talks were based; and if we wanted to maintain normal, indeed friendly, relations with any neighbour it could never be on the basis of an intransigent refusal on our part to accept established fact.

Accordingly, my position was simply that we Hungarians would accept the major distribution of territory and renounce our claims, provided always that in return we would receive back enough of our former lands that Hungarian public opinion would consider the talks to have been a success. Without this we would have achieved nothing; and the essential truth of this statement was at once accepted by Beneš.

We also spoke of the region’s economy, but this was of minor importance compared with the revision of the frontier.

All of these discussions were held in a most friendly atmosphere, and when we parted I felt that we had at least come closer to solving the major problems. This was confirmed to me by Tahy, our ambassador in Prague, who assured us, after being in contact with Masaryk, that the president was prepared to go even further than his more cautious foreign minister.

I therefore went home satisfied, not bothered by the fact that we were still a long way from actually revising the frontier. It was always so, at the beginning of any diplomatic discussions, for one must not imagine that the practice of diplomacy in any way resembled working in some mysterious devil’s kitchen. In fact, it is far more like the cattle market; the seller demands a high price, the buyer offers something lower: the seller praises his livestock, and the buyer makes unflattering comments on its quality. After much discussion and argument both sides agree to a price midway between their first positions. That Beneš had accepted the principle of frontier revision was, in the circumstances, a decisive step towards solving the problem.

We had to change trains in Prague, and before the evening express left I had time to buy a most beautiful ham in one of the fine butcher’s shops. It was good Bohemian ham – real ham at last – and I was so happy because such a thing had long been unobtainable in Budapest. I wrapped it carefully and pondered with whom I would share this delicacy.

Alas, it was very warm in the sleeper and it was not long before the ham began to smell. It had to be thrown out as soon as I reached home.

It was like an omen, prophesying that everything I thought I had achieved in Marienbad was to suffer the same fate as my cherished ham.

And so it turned out: although not at once.

(Excerpts edited by Hungarian Review from Miklós Bánffy, The Phoenix Land: The Memoirs of Count Miklós Bánffy. Translated by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen. London: Arcadia Books, 2011.)




1 Where Bánffy owned some farmland.

2 The ancestral palace of the Esterházys at Galánta seems to be one of the models for the fictional castle of “Jablanka”, which figures extensively in the second and third volumes of The Writing on the Wall. One of Miklós Bánffy’s great-grandmothers was Ágnes Esterházy.

3 The 1848 Party was formed by supporters of the 1848 uprising in Hungary that fought against the absolute rule of the Habsburgs and domination by Austria.

4 Meaning “Sooty” in Hungarian.

5 The shooting at Surány was famous and has been described by Bánffy in an important scene set at ‘Jablanka’ in the trilogy.

6 Miklós Bánffy had cousins in almost every part of the country just north of the Great Hungarian Plain.

7 There is an echo of this sad memory in the closing pages of They Were Divided, the third volume of The Writing on the Wall, when Bálint Abády watches a batch of enthusiastic young recruits singing happily as they march off to their own destruction.

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