21 January 2020

A Nation Dismembered –The 1920 Trianon Treaty in Hungarian Poetry

"[…] between three to three and a half million Hungarians woke up the next morning to find themselves in a new, different, and mostly hostile nation with a distinctive new national language, history, and – quite often – a new state religion. […] Families were cut apart, children separated from their schools, villages and towns arbitrarily divided as new borders became implemented. Some people found themselves in three different countries within their lifetime, although they never moved from their native village."

 

We do still exist!
Árpád Farkas 
 

[I]t is possible that there is no other memory than the memory of wounds.
Czesław Miłosz

 

Most of us in the West are aware of only one of Hungary’s two major 20th-century historical events: that of the 1956 Revolution against the Communist police state that captured the hearts and minds of the West. The violent crushing of the 56 Revolution by Russian tanks and troops horrified those watching. Western countries welcomed ’56 refugees and a student revolutionary – probably killed by the Russians – became Time magazine’sMan of the Year”.

No such attention or acclaim accrued, however, to the other event that proved even more significant in its consequences, the 1920 First World War peace treaty. Signed at the Trianon Palace, Versailles, France, this treaty changed modern Hungary forever. It occasioned what one Hungarian poet called “the national heart attack” (Géza Szőcs, “Resurrection”) as the victorious nations dismembered Hungary giving two thirds of its territory to neighbouring countries in various-sized chunks. The result was that between three to three and a half million Hungarians woke up the next morning to find themselves in a new, different, and mostly hostile nation with a distinctive new national language, history, and – quite often – a new state religion.1

If this traumatic severing remains to this day virtually unknown in the West, in Hungary this “rip[ping] apart … of historic Hungary” (Alajos Kannás) became its never-to-be-forgotten 20th-century wound. Families were cut apart, children separated from their schools, villages and towns arbitrarily divided as new borders became implemented. Some people found themselves in three different countries within their lifetime, although they never moved from their native village. Because of the partial restorations of the country’s ancient territory in 1938 and 1941, and then the Trianon borders’ full re-establishment in Paris in 1947, further Soviet gains followed in the North-East, and the result is a continuing trauma enhanced by new dramatic turns – truly more than enough for a nation to digest.

It is imperative for those of us in the West to remind ourselves continually that those large groups of minority Hungarians now found in the neighbouring countries did not result from emigration from somewhere else but from a political act over which they had no control. It is as if after the War with Mexico all the US territory east of the Mississippi overnight belonged to Mexico and all communications, books, education, official notices, newspapers, radio and future films, TV and so on, were now in Spanish. Or, if all of England south of the River Thames including half the city of London were to be arbitrarily awarded to (say) France with French now the official national language. Hungarians in a minority in what was formally their own country descended from those who had lived there for centuries and in many cases for a thousand years or more.

Hungary, then, measured by the pace of historical time, had no chance to recover from the trauma of its dismemberment by way of any natural self-healing process. The tempests of the 20th century never settled, and the nation received some sympathy but little political help or moral support from the international community. Even those in the remaining, truncated Hungary were not permitted to mourn the loss of people and territory except in the first two decades after the Trianon Treaty. Certainly not during the half century after the Second World War when the Russian-backed 1948 Communist coup overthrew the democratically elected Hungarian government, leading quickly to a Communist dictatorship and police state that lasted until 1990. During those Communist decades people were not allowed to mention the dismemberment since with the exception of Austria every one of the countries receiving Hungarian territory and population after the First World War had now come under the aegis of “Proletarian Internationalism” and as such they were parts of a “brotherhood of comrades” and not to be criticised. If any official mention was made of the consequences of the World Wars, they were interpreted as a just punishment for the crimes of Hungary, “the most guilty nation” – in a fabricated Communist terminology that went against the facts of history, yet survives in pockets of thinking to this day.

All this left Hungary not only severely broken in its national wealth and its economic integrity, but also mentally and psychologically damaged. There had been no time until 1991, when the last Soviet soldier left the country, for the nation to absorb the trauma caused by its losses and so begin the self-healing – to face and evaluate those losses in a process that could easily take a century or more under any circumstances. When the United States, for instance, suffered its national trauma of the American Civil War 1861–1865, a hundred years would pass before the nation had absorbed enough of the pain and loss to begin to deal with slavery, the root cause of the war and to attempt to overcome the racism, distorted history, and blatant economic, social and personal discrimination that were its legacy and that of segregation – the effective substitute for slavery in the post-Civil War era. While the present centenary of the Trianon tragedy might at last offer an open dialogue on the causes and consequences of trauma in the new democracies – most of them new members of the European Union – there is little trace exhibited of intra-national or supra-national re-thinking, except among professional historians. No doubt there are somewhat eased conditions in the Carpathian Basin, wherever European Union membership has made transparent state borders. Still, neither the Union nor its members keep ethnic rights as high on the agenda as some of its fundamental documents declare.

  

THE POETS AND TRIANON

 

The Irish writer, Tom MacIntyre once defined a writer as someone who has been hurt by life and lived to sing about it a definition that applies all too aptly to generations of post-1920 Hungarian writers who have never forgotten and can never forget the pain inflicted on their country by the Trianon Treaty. It is often difficult for outsiders to understand why the pain over such losses is still so strong today, a hundred years after the severing. Apart from the destruction of the country and the denial or silencing of the grief during the decades under Communism, reconciliation and rebuilding life has been made even more arduous because of the discrimination against the ethnic minorities in the recipient countries. Despite guarantees given in the treaties ending the First World War that the Hungarian population trapped behind those new political borders would be able to keep their language and culture, reality proved different. Those measures taken against the Hungarian minority varied in intensity and degree in the beneficiary countries and at different times, but cultural autonomy, basic collective rights, such as the right to education in the mother tongue, were simply not or only partially granted. Hungarian schools were increasingly turned into schools of the new country’s language, old Hungarian universities “merged” with those of the new ruling nation, which meant gradually closing down or at least shrinking Hungarian education to bare essentials.2

Following the principle that the Habsburg rulers had advocated of taking away the past of a people in order that they should lose their national identity and thus disappear as an entity, both in Communist Hungary and even more in the recipient countries history was rewritten, even to the extent of confiscating church archives and museum contents. Or in some places in the successor states some of them non-existent before 1919 – names on gravestones were chiselled off and then changed into non-Hungarian names in order to annihilate evidence of the older Hungarian presence. Hungarian place names were wiped off maps and for years it was a crime to as much as mention the old names in a newspaper. Nor was it allowed to use the minority’s language in institutions or for public services. All this became the norm, instead of the promised Hungarian cultural autonomy.

After 1920 poets, who found themselves overnight in another country or in a shrunken Hungary, true to their unique tradition as guardians of Hungarian history and values honed during the Ottoman occupation and Habsburg rule of the 16th– 17th centuries and beyond, faced the daunting task of keeping alive Hungarian identity, culture, and even language in a now-hostile setting. Stemming from their time-honoured mission, it is, with few exceptions, the major writers of the last 100 years who all felt an urgent need to speak about the Trianon wound. The leading poets of this anthology, such as Endre Ady, Mihály Babits, Gyula Juhász, Árpád Tóth, Dezső Kosztolányi, Gyula Illyés, Attila József, Jenő Dsida, Sándor Reményik, Sándor Kányádi, Sándor Csoóri, Árpád Farkas, Géza Szőcs and András Ferenc Kovács, would feature in any representative collection of 20th and early-21st-century Hungarian poetry. This anthology chronicles those poets’ hundred-year efforts along with their reflections on this national trauma and the mental re-working both within and outside the remaining core Hungary. The long time span, the entire intervening century, is also explained by the failure of the recipient countries to grant sufficient communal rights to their ethnic minorities from 1920 to the present.

A Nation Dismembered, like the original Hungarian Szétszaggatott ország. Trianon a magyar költészetben [A Dismembered Country. Trianon in Hungarian Poetry], the basis of this book edited by Zoltán Bíró and published for a Hungarian audience, begins with poems preceding the actual political verdicts at Trianon. As Bíró points out in his Preface, Endre Ady’s “Hail the Victors” foresees in 1918 both the tragic consequences of the war and the victors’ ensuing humiliation of the Hungarians. A few other poems from 1919 and early 1920 also anticipate dire results from the vengeance of the Entente and Little Entente countries.

The first section of this English-language anthology, “A Scream from the Poets of Hungary”, includes those poems fearful of the coming Treaty, and then the immediate reactions to what became a peace dictatum. The bafflement and shock at the dismemberment erupt in “screams / unheard” (Dezső Kosztolányi, “A Scream…”) – to feeling completely lost in this newly partitioned and now-unfamiliar world. Kosztolányi spoke for many when he wrote “I loiter like a ghost alone / Through the night” (“Rhapsody”). He felt life was over as he ruefully described himself as “a spent Hungarian at thirty-four” (“Native Land”). Other poets recorded their disappointment and anger at the peace conference itself where even the declared “ethnic principle” to be used in drawing the new borders along with Hungary’s pleas to be heard had been ignored. Unable to present any alternative proposals, many justifiably felt the nation had been betrayed or as one poet put it, and he spoke for thousands, “crucified / On our betrayed nation’s cruel cross” (Gábor Oláh). The situation appeared unreal. No wonder people felt like they were “in a daze” (Attila József) and when they recognised the finality of what had happened, felt powerless to undo the burdens of history. Despite all of these and other negative feelings, the overwhelming majority of those now caught in the Big Powers’ net had “no desire to move from home” no matter what its new political designation might now be (Gyula Somogyváry, “The Hungarian ‘Our Father’”), since geographic or “historic Hungary” had been the Hungarians’ home for centuries. Staying put but in a new country often as its largest ethnic minority would, however, prove difficult.

The mixture of sometimes conflicting feelings and attitudes evident in the next section Any Way You Can”, could be attributed to the alternating of hopes that some justice could be done with despair over what appeared to be an intractable situation in the decades between the two World Wars. Authorities in the new successor states missed their chance to make real efforts to create fair multiethnic and multilingual societies on a working model, such as the Swiss one, for instance. They behaved not like historical partners or hosts with centuries of a shared past, but more like vengeful victors building false facades of nationally homogenous states in the face of ethnic realities. Many poems in this chapter are then written by poets who remained in their ancient homelands now outside Hungarian borders. Thus, Sándor Reményik’s “The Church and the School” captures the overwhelming importance of retaining, maintaining and defending the Hungarian language and education in the face of an almost ubiquitous assault. To the frequently asked question of how to survive, often the only available answer is offered in another Reményik poem:

  

With Christ-like effort that wrenches the gut, 

Then with spite, ready to spurt,

With a strangled phrase, a swallowed word 

[…]

That handful of humus, too small for your tomb

[…]

[D]efend it tooth and nail, 

With demonic rage and raging joy –

Any way you can… 

(“Any Way You Can”)



Time
and again these poems mirror the “pain too raw to hide” (Jenő Dsida, “Psalmus Hungaricus”). Metaphoric images abound, such as a tree cut down and taken from the forest then confined to a home as a Christmas tree so the arbitrary transfer of land appears as a swapping of “infinity” for “[a] narrow room” (Reményik, “The Christmas Tree”). National and personal pride demands that one “stand up defiant” like the solitary Székely
3 pine in László Tompa’s poem and “look the times straight in the eye”.

The rest of the anthology is organised, unlike the Hungarian edition of Antológia, not chronologically but thematically by the editors for an English-speaking audience. Also, in accordance with the belief that Hungarian literature and culture make up one whole with, of course, all its regional and generational differences, the poems are not grouped or divided according to the new political borders.

The section,Shards of a Lost Homeland”, for example, concentrates on the long-term effects of the actual severing of parts of the country as reflected in poetry across a century, in the form of entreaties, supplications, frightening visions and quiet contemplations. “Shards of a lost homeland / crunching under my feet / in the dirt, all nails and bones / and splinters of scaffolds”, laments Sándor Csoóri (“Nails and Bones”), while Sándor Kányádi is depressed to see the skeletal props of a once teeming peasant life: “empty mangers, empty stalls / christmas here no longer calls” (“Behind God’s Back”). Károly Jung observes his Hungarian compatriots in Tito’s Yugoslavia leaving their ancient lands for the West, and notes that “once departed, they no longer visit”. The acknowledgement of desolation, despair and grief, however, runs frequently hand-in-hand with protest and realising the necessity of making the Promethean effort to go on with living a normal quotidian life. After admitting such despair Árpád Farkas pictures Hungarians falling “face-first on the litter of leaves [but] still going on … going further and further … so as to save this grievous dominion / breath by steady breath” (“On the Litter of Leaves”).

For Gizella Hervay the situation is, however, more like falling “naked into a bomb-crater” covered with “barbed wire … sunless” with your body smothered by “the rubble of brick … Only in imagination can you get home / on the torn-up, wounded roads of familiar faces” (“Banished Rainbow”). For Transylvanian Hungarian poets like her, the severe Romanian retaliations – imprisonment and forced labour camps after trumped-up charges – against the Hungarian ethnic group after the 1956 anti-Soviet Revolution further exacerbated their existential situation in metaphysical terms, too.

Dialogues: Parallels and Contrasts” (section 4) offers a few pairs of poems on the same or similar subjects in dialogue with each other that illustrate in part the growing anguish at the loss of hope and energy over the years. “Bathing the Horses”, for instance by László Tompa (1932) emphasises steadfastness as the two Székely young men will “stand here forever – so Imre’s holding it tight, / While Áron, for his part Áron’s not letting himself go!”, whereas sixty years later Árpád Farkas concludes his “Epilogue to ‘Bathing the Horses’” (1991) with “Áron still holds it tight, but Imre, / Imre, he lets himself go more and more”. The fateful image of Atlantis sinking or sunken organises with similarly tragic notes the otherwise very different poems by Sándor Reményik from Transylvania (now in Romania) and decades later one by Sándor Gál from Upper Hungary (now in Slovakia). Another kind of parallel is drawn between the plight of Transylvanian Hungarians and Louis Armstrong both treated as second-class citizens in the deeply ironic “Echoes to the Blues” by István Ferenczes.

The last section, “‘Homeland in the Heights’ and in the Depth” borrows its title from the opening poem by Gyula Illyés and focuses on a variety of views from the immediate to the contemporary, on what might be salvaged with the help of language, culture and spirit and in the hope of rebuilding a nation and a homeland in the emotional and spiritual realms that would transcend current physical borders since the physical had been cut apart. A nation lives in its language so to be deprived of it means being denied access to their innermost being – their literature, history, tradition, music and the list goes on and on. Hungarians take great pride in their language, which as a non-Indo-European language is unique in Europe, and, which is a language especially capable of rich expression as has been noted by many English translators of its poetry. The famous hymn-like poem, A Wreath” by Illyés, who felt equally at home writing in Hungarian and French, conveys the deep love, respect and loyalty to the mother tongue, “my beloved, ever-nurturing mother”:


Language of fertile smiles, 

of bright tears shared in secret,

language of loyalty, lingo

of never-surrendered faith, password of hope, language

of freedom, briefly snatched freedom, behind-the-prison-

guard’s-back-freedom...


In this very modern poem Illyés proudly identifies his mother tongue as the language of the losers and victims of that terrible low point of holocausts and mass murders, the 20th century, speaking in the name of sufferers from a vantage point of a quasi-Christian compassion:

 

language of the Kassa black marketeer, the Bucharest servant girl, 

the Beirut whore, all calling 

for mother.


Sándor Kányádi insists also that poets must gather in every word from the immense vocabulary of the Hungarian language since from

 

the preserved,

existing word we can

again bring forth

the very first wheat stalk,

if we are not allowed to live

upon the Word anymore. 

(“Into Noah’s Ark”)


Although world events conspired to prevent the complete overcoming of the trauma of Hungarian loss and dislocation caused by the treaty ending the First World War, nevertheless during the intervening century there have been noticeable improvements both in institutions and individual communication between Hungarians of the core country and those in many of the recipient countries. In addition, the many battles Hungarians had to fight as a new minority population including the all-important one to retain their language, has led to their greatly increased confidence in their ability to persevere, to effect some significant changes. Parallel to such trends among those nations in the European Union has been not the erasure of the physical borders between countries but their transformation so they have in effect become transparent resulting in an almost seamless transition from one country to another. That transparency has made communication between Hungarians living on the two sides of the borders a great deal easier.

A Nation Dismembered includes poems by poets who decades ago envisioned such cursory borders that could be transcended. Ádám Makkai’s “One Day We Shall Create”, for example, was written in 1958 after he fled Hungary in ’56 and composed against the sordid reality of Romania’s violent reaction to the Hungarian 1956 Revolution – “all this mottled misery”. Makkai’s poem playfully projects “one day” in the far distant future, when Transylvania will be transformed into “an Eastern Switzerland with three mother tongues … three banners”. This will be “the triumph of the mind / over hatred, doom, and superstition” when the poet himself will become “the New World Ambassador / to [Transylvania] this tiny country’s forlorn fairy throne”. While the ending may seem a playful fantasy, the model of Switzerland’s multilingual country does offer a genuine would-be alternative to the current situation.

The anthology’s concluding sequence of seven poems, My Native Land” by the scholar poet Mihály Babits offers not a fantastic vision but one embracing a way of thinking that could be adopted by any Hungarian, in orienting oneself to the harsh reality of dismemberment. Babits, like Illyés, became another great internationalist Hungarian poet, and also like Illyés, was deeply patriotic, while espousing reconciliation. His grand soaring vision begins with the house where he was born then exfoliates outward much like a zoom camera recording a film as the focus shifts from the house to the town where it is located, to the country, then to Europe and the whole world to return finally back to “the little house, where [he] was born”. This impressively constructed poetic sequence declares for Hungarians in whatever neighbouring country they might now find themselves that “It was your homeland, and so it remains, / And your deep love is witness to the fact”. While others may be fighting and “slaughter each other” those who share this love also share his vision of
 
 

Binding a living network of the lands 

Into a single soul, a single people, . . .

 

Even if they go into exile or happily embrace Europe and the whole world, or remain in whichever country may now include their portion of ancient Hungary, the poet admonishes them, “[y]ou’ll carry a whole country with you still” including “that small town / Ay, and the little house, where you were born”. Readers might assume that the “My Native Land” sequence with its vision of reconciliation that transcends the poet’s immediate experience summed up as “these stifling ruins” was written recently. Yet, Babits’ grand vision was conceived in 1925 only a few years after the Trianon tragedy – thirteen years before Illyés’ “Homeland in the Heights” where in the upside-down world of dismembered Hungary, and the imminent Nazi threat, acceptance of the terrible reality confers authority and even a certain power:
 

if I stand nowhere, I still can be 

At home, at the heart of what I see,

Even if my world is shown

Like a fata morgana, upside-down. 

(Illyés, “Homeland in the Heights”)


This last section features a range of poets including several contemporary ones, such as Géza Szőcs who in “This Is Already the Resurrection” pictures a utopian
 
 

all Hungarian Parliament,

Existing through history and time, [that]

Waits for you to ask leave to speak and vote in it.


There are, however, many poets from across the century, such as Illyés, Kányádi, Bartis, Mezey, Farkas and Szőcs himself who have already spoken in that Parliament and acknowledging the terrible dismembering of one hundred years ago, have voted with new or renewed Hungarian confidence to assert their Hungarian identity. In “The Good Lord Osmosis”, Árpád Farkas after chronicling the oozing away of hope in “the Miracle of Miracles”, may have given up on protesting and trying to bargain for a better future yet refuses to be quiet insisting that

 

we do still exist! We partake of this feast,

and even if liver-spots should checker my body 

we still do breathe! We are alive!


Similarly, in Tunnels in the Snow” Farkas sees his homeland buried, choking as Hungarianslearnto be silent”. The snow becomes symbolic as it works to freeze “faithful intention[s]” and “fragile dream[s]” as “the villages’ slow panting / is turning white, is gasping”. Against this acknowledgment of the way things are and are likely to be in the future, Farkas projects a picture of an imaginary better world where there are “tunnels in the snow” of this “choking” oppression. In this different world Hungarians throw off the “shivering mind” and make those “tunnels in the snow” by everyone coming together to create “millions of paths” joining “each other”. In such community the no longer silent people become free to speak their mind and heart as the “heavenly cottonballs / drop out of our mouths”. This new condition calls for a celebration with real Hungarian music and dance. Not “the music … played by the bands of frost”, but traditional, uniquely Hungarian songs along with the traditional signature folk dance both of which have long been recognised as cultural metaphors for authentic Hungarian identity:

 

let the feet cheer up for a stomping dance, 

and let the Song melt the halls 

large as the world around us. 

(Árpád Farkas, “Tunnels in the Snow”)


Such almost impossible-to-imagine scenarios reflect that modicum of hope Hungarians still possess.

  

CONCLUSION: A NATION DISMEMBERED

 

The 1920 Peace Treaty – that “national [Hungarian] heart attack” – ending the First World War signed at the Trianon Palace, Versailles, France forever changed modern Hungary and its people – both those remaining in the now-shrunken country and those millions caught behind the new borders. How those Hungarians reacted, how they fought to survive under these new circumstances, how they suffered, how they kept their Hungarian identity and values, and how they envisioned a future for themselves and their children forms the core of A Nation Dismembered.

This remarkable collection by Hungary’s major poets, available for the first time in contemporary translations into English demonstrates that for one hundred years these poets, as their predecessors had before them under equally terrible circumstances, articulated those national values that had to be preserved as they defined what it meant and what it means to be a Hungarian whether inside or outside the present political borders.

 

  

Notes:

 

1 Trianon divided Hungary into five portions: those transferring to Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia and Austria, plus the remainder of rump Hungary. Today the transferred portions belong to no fewer than seven nations: Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. (Croatia is a special case, since it was always formally a separate nation, united with Hungary strictly in the person of the king.)

2 For a more detailed description see especially the last several pages of Gyula Illyés’ “In Answer to Herder and Ady” in this anthology.

3 Székely (in English Szekler) is the name of the particular Hungarian ethnic group inhabiting the core of Transylvania. 
 




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