“The imposition of Communism on all the Soviet-occupied countries put an end to all schemes for federation or even customs union. Lip service was paid to the “brotherhood” of the so-called socialist countries, but it was a false front which hid but did not eliminate national antagonisms. Even after the collapse of Communism general and genuine reconciliation did not occur, especially not in the depths of societies.”

We all know that two World Wars were caused to a large degree by territorial, colonial, naval and economic disputes between the Great Powers of Europe, but the quarrels of the smaller states had their share in their conflicts. Learning from the follies committed and determined never to repeat them, solid institutions were established after 1945: the Council of Europe, NATO and the Common Market growing into the European Union. By the end of the 1940s the spirit of reconciliation had suffused practically all the peoples inhabiting the western part of Europe and had come to prevail. During the Second World War conditions were ripe for reconciliation in the eastern half of our continent, as shown by the agreement of a confederation between the Polish and the Czech governments-in-exile, or the various plans by Hungarians, the Slovak Hodža and others for post-war federations, but Stalin’s baneful influence forestalled all that after 1944. The imposition of Communism on all the Soviet-occupied countries put an end to all schemes for federation or even customs union. Lip service was paid to the “brotherhood” of the so-called socialist countries, but it was a false front which hid but did not eliminate national antagonisms. Even after the collapse of Communism general and genuine reconciliation did not occur, especially not in the depths of societies. In a short essay one can only briefly survey the reasons for that, but at the same time it is important to contemplate how to overcome the mutual prejudices between the peoples of Central Europe.

The national idea (“nationalism”) became the dominant ideology of the 19th century, and in the 20th it led to the break-up of the multinational Russian, Ottoman and Habsburg Empires. The end of the Great War introduced a new historical era in the whole of Europe, but in Central and Eastern Europe (including Germany) the end of the old order was far more visible and radical. Many crowns fell; new, independent countries came into being, with new but hotly debated borders. Universal suffrage – even for women – became widespread, and some kind of social welfare was also introduced in most countries.

At the end of the First World War the aim of all new-born European nations was claimed to have been achieved – thanks to the victorious West, which promised independence to the peoples of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire, and – after the collapse of the empire of the Czars – even to some of Russia’s subject peoples, notably the Poles. The Finns and the Baltic nations established their independent states through war against the “Reds”, while the Ukrainian and Caucasian nationalists were defeated by the Bolsheviks. There were high hopes all over Europe that for the first time in history peace would be fair and lasting. President Wilson’s 14 Points and the equally important pledges delivered on 11 February, 1918 in his address to Congress inspired most Europeans:

[P]eoples and provinces are not to be bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty as if they were mere chattels and pawns in a game, even the great game, now forever discredited, of the balance of power; […] every territorial settlement involved in this war must be made in the interest and for the benefit of the populations concerned, and not as a part of any mere adjustment or compromise of claims amongst rival states; […] all well-defined national aspirations shall be accorded the utmost satisfaction that can be accorded them without introducing new or perpetuating old elements of discord and antagonism that would be likely in time to break the peace of Europe and consequently of the world.

What a beautiful vision, but also a remarkably realistic foresight! The year 1918 is the birthday of new, re-emerged, or grossly enlarged independent states. For most of them it was then as well as today reason for happiness and celebration. In most cases nationalism defeated Bolshevism, except in Russia and Ukraine, where the “Reds” promised land for the peasants and that prospect trumped all other perspectives. More social justice was a universal demand throughout Europe; it was even stronger in defeated Hungary, which had been lagging behind it that respect, and, consequently, had a brief encounter with Bolshevism. Eventually various types of authoritarian regimes came to prevail, with the help of nationalism. It started in Hungary, as a reaction to the Hungarian Soviet Republic; it was followed by Mussolini in Italy, then Bulgaria, Austria, Yugoslavia and Germany, also Romania. In all those cases the peace treaty, regarded by most citizens as unfair and even humiliating, had an important role. The populations of the countries defeated in the war apart from the territorial losses had also to bear the moral and financial burden of “war guilt”: the peace treaties of 1920 stated that sole responsibility for the World War rested with the losers, therefore they were to pay large amounts of war reparations.

But the new countries emerging out of the ruins of the Empires were a far cry from being genuine nation states. They were all born with a birth defect: a large number of national minorities. The ethnic mixture of Central and South-Eastern Europe made it next to impossible to draw ethnic borders. As Charles Seymour of the “Inquiry”, the American body of experts commissioned to prepare the United States government’s programme for peace stated just before the Paris Peace Conference, “the frontiers proposed are unsatisfactory as the international boundaries of sovereign states. It has been found impossible to discover such lines, which would be at the same time just and practical. An example of the injustice that would result may be instanced in the fact that a third of the area and population of the Czecho-Slovak state would be alien to that nationality. Another lies in placing a quarter of the Magyars under foreign domination […]. Obviously many of these difficulties would disappear if the boundaries were to be drawn with the purpose of separating not independent nations, but component portions of a federalised state.”1 But at the end of the war all the peoples of Central Europe rejected the idea of a federation, and the victors already had their plans how to align the new, independent states in the post-war setup. Strategic and economic considerations awarding some and punishing other nations loaded “the new Europe” with millions of unhappy and hostile national minorities. Those minorities made up almost a third of the population of the territory between the Germans and the Russians. According to the first census one finds the following composition:

Czechoslovakia: 14.7 million, 50.5% Czech, 15.7% Slovak, 22.5% German, 5.5% Hungarian (Hungarian-speaking Jews excluded), 3.5% Rusyn. Romania (which increased threefold): 16 million, 72% Romanian, 9.1% Hungarian, 4.5% German, 4.2% Ukrainian and Rusyn.
Yugoslavia: 12 million, 47.7% Serb, 23.3% Croat, 8.5% Slovenian, 5.5% Albanian, 3.9% Hungarian, 3.4% Macedonian.

Poland: 27 million, 64% Polish, 16% Ukrainian, 11% Jews, 5% Belorussian and Russian, 4% German.

Hungary: 8 million, 89.5% Hungarian, 6.9% German. Austria: 6 million, all German.

Bulgaria: 4.5 million, 81% Bulgarian, 10% Turk.

Thus for thirty million self-determination was a false slogan, they were victims of what they considered unfairly drawn borders. The peacemaking Great Powers indeed could have done a far better job by honestly applying Wilson’s principles, as a minimum they should have prescribed plebiscites for all the areas claimed by two or more countries. Where they were held, in Lower Silesia and Carinthia, the result favoured the defeated nations – that is why they were not held everywhere, e.g. in the territories detached from Hungary. (In that case the exception was the area around Sopron in Western Hungary, where the referendum was obtained thanks to an armed uprising.)

The powers who dictated the peace at least tried to mitigate the consequences of the rash, one-sided decisions by demanding all the new Central European states to sign a special treaty for the protection of their national minorities. A most important passage from the treaty signed by Czechoslovakia:

All Czecho-Slovak nationals shall be equal before the law and shall enjoy the same civil and political rights without distinction as to race, language or religion. Adequate facilities shall be given to Czecho-Slovak nationals of non-Czech speech for the use of their language, either orally or in writing, before the courts. In the public educational system […] adequate facilities for ensuring that the instruction shall be given to the children of such Czecho-Slovak nationals through the medium of their own language. Minorities shall be assured an equitable share in the enjoyment and application of the sums which may be provided out of public funds under the State, municipal or other budget, for educational, religious or charitable purposes.2

Identical stipulations were to be found in the Treaties signed by Poland, Romania, the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and Hungary. The newly created League of Nations was assigned the task to guarantee all the provisions of the new European order.

Instead of trying to placate and to win over their minorities by a fair application of the beautiful Constitutions and the Minority Protection Treaties, practically all the states in the eastern half of Europe mistreated them to various extents: a land reform was carried out to their detriment, repressive measures (expulsions, denial of citizenship, prohibition of minority institutions and press, etc.) were introduced, enacted minority rights were not kept, and there were efforts at assimilating the minorities through the schools. To quote the sons of one of the makers of the New Europe, R. W. Seton-Watson, in their very fair and balanced book: “In each of the new states there prevailed a narrow official nationalism”, and the repressive policies used against national, religious and political minorities led to perpetual internal and external divisions and conflicts. “This state of generalised and mutual hostility provided opportunities for any great power intent on disturbing the peace.”3 Instead of finding their common interests the “small, unstable caricatures of modern states” (terms used by the Cambridge political scientist F. H. Hinsley) were looking for great-power patrons for the maintenance or for the overthrowing of the new order.

There is no need here to recall in any detail what happened to the brave new post-First World War world between 1938 and 1945. War, occupation, partition, absorption in the Nazi or Soviet Empire, mass murders leading to genocide was the fate of the Europeans. But all through the horrors there was a hope that the long coveted peaceful and just world order would emerge from the ashes. The Atlantic Charter adopted by the United States and Great Britain and endorsed also by the Soviet Union held out such a promise. All decent people drew inspiration from its tenets:

[N]o territorial aggrandisement; no territorial changes made against the wishes of the people (i.e. self-determination); restoration of self-government to those deprived of it; reduction of trade restrictions; global cooperation to secure better economic and social conditions for all; freedom from fear and want; freedom of the seas; abandonment of the use of force, the disarmament of aggressor nations.

Today there is a common but mistaken belief that the very same Great Powers betrayed those lofty aims at the Yalta Conference. That notion should be categorically refuted: the adoption of “The Declaration on Liberated Europe” proclaimed “the right of all people to choose the form of government under which they will live”. Of course we know that the Soviet Union did not for a moment take that pledge seriously and in the following months and years imposed Communism on all the countries its armed forces liberated and occupied. The Soviet Bloc included Poland, too, the country which resisted Nazi Germany most heroically all through the war. But the Soviet Union is not solely responsible for the new peace treaties which were sadly also a far cry from creating fair borders. What made the new world order worse than that of the 1920s was that by 1947 Hitler and Stalin had managed to reduce the proportion of the national minorities of Central and Eastern Europe considerably by genocide and mass expulsions (called transfers) from 30 to about 10 per cent of the overall population, and any legal obligation for their protection was dropped. The emphasis on human rights (never kept in the Soviet Bloc) could not compensate for the lack of any international convention for helping the minorities in their fight for survival. In the Communist-dominated countries the national minorities became the subjects of double oppression: in addition to the general denial of basic political rights they lost their communal properties, were not allowed to form political parties, to have organisations and newspapers representing their interests, while industrialisation and urbanisation radically changed the ethnic composition of the regions inhabited by minorities. Religion, often the last refuge of the minorities, was also suppressed and persecuted. The Baltic States were reincorporated into the Soviet Union; they became victims of ethnic cleansing and Soviet colonisation. Winston Churchill was fully justified in the first volume of his seminal The Second World War, The Gathering Storm: “There is not one of the peoples or provinces that constituted the Empire of the Habsburgs [one should add the Empire of the Romanovs, too] to whom gaining their independence has not brought the tortures which ancient poets and theologians had reserved for the damned.”

With “annus mirabilis”, the ending of the Cold War and the fall of the Communist dominoes in Europe in 1989, there was a chance to overcome frozen old or fresh new antagonisms between the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe. In the moment of bliss and solidarity a Christmas Manifesto was issued by one of the Hungarian parties which played a leading role in the change of the regime.

Now, in our hands we have a great opportunity to put an end to the conflicts that traditionally turned the peoples of this region against each other. Today, in Eastern Europe all swear by freedom of conscience, civil liberties, democracy, a free economy, the observance of human rights and self-determination. […] In past centuries, the peoples of East-Central Europe could never stand together on the same side. Today, history offers us a unique opportunity for such a unity.4

Almost thirty years later it is too early to say if those hopes have been fulfilled or not.

We, the leaders and the peoples who participated in the historic changes, believed in the “New World Order” proclaimed by President George H. Bush after the Gulf War in 1991. Anticipating it, as Foreign Minister of Hungary, I addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 1990. I expressed my conviction that thanks to the new attitude of the Soviet Union under the presidency of M. Gorbachev the high principles of the UN would now prevail as there will be no veto blocking the common efforts to keep international order. Many people hoped that “the leopard was changing its spots”, that Russia would also become a normal democracy. In Hungary we expected a radical change in the treatment of national minorities as well; we believed that a new, enlightened attitude towards the close to three million Hungarians, detached by the 1920 and 1947 Peace Treaties, would accompany the democratic transformation of the countries neighbouring us. We counted on the positive western examples like the status of South Tyrol, the Aland Islands or Schleswig to be emulated. The Copenhagen Recommendations of the CSCE adopted in 1990 and the subsequent creation of the post of “High Commissioner on (unfortunately but tellingly not for) National Minorities”, and even more the attitude and the conventions adopted by the Council of Europe offered hope. Membership in the European Community and in NATO – the common aim of all the so-called new democracies – was made conditional on guaranteeing the rule of law and democracy and the observation of the rights of national minorities. Regionalism, decentralisation, subsidiarity were words full of promise. While loudly welcoming the great changes, there were fears in the West that freedom might allow old national tensions to surface. Fortunately most governments were sensible and learned enough from history not to repeat the follies of their predecessors. Instead of the renewal of the inter-war “Little Entente” the Visegrád Cooperation pioneered by József Antall and founded in 1991, set the regional tone. The prospect of membership in NATO and the European Union required all the countries of Central Europe to settle their differences and observe human rights, including the rights of the national minorities. Although the latter condition was not fully met they became one another’s ally and economic partner. Those left out, Serbia and Macedonia are on the way to membership. The extension of the Schengen border control system will consolidate the close relationship of one-time adversaries.

But is the new Europe composed of “nation states”? In the early 1990s the Yugoslav, Soviet and Czechoslovak federations broke up – the first amid a horrible war, the two others – thank God – peacefully. But the disintegration did not lead to more homogeneous states, commanding the loyalty and dedication of all the citizens. On the contrary, in the Balkans and in the post-Soviet space millions of new national minorities were created. 25 million Russians found themselves outside the borders of the Russian Federation (which continued to include millions of non-Russians), while hundreds of thousands of Albanians, Serbs, Croats, Hungarians and Romanians are minorities in the successor states of Yugoslavia. The new political map did not ease the situation (and mistreatment) of 2.5 million Hungarians cut off from their once homeland by the 1920 Treaty, neither that of the Poles in Lithuania and Belarus. German, Lithuanian, Slovak, Bulgarian, Greek, Turkish and other national minorities add to the complexity of the issue. (Some of the minorities passed from one citizenship to another several times in a lifetime – like the Hungarians in Subcarpathia [or Transcarpathia as seen from Kiev].) The international media and political leaders pay very little attention to the disadvantageous position of historical minorities, who did not cross borders to become a minority but who were crossed over by the new borders. Internal and international legislation provides modest rights for most of these minorities and could theoretically eliminate the tensions resulting from the all too frequent intolerance of the majority national group. It is high time to realise that most countries in Central and Eastern Europe are multinational, and that usually ethnicity, religion and language are the source of primary loyalty, not citizenship. The present Western ideal, an integrated multiethnic society, where the majority national group does not aim at undermining the position and reducing the size of the national minorities, has little appeal here, at least not among the majority national groups. In the eastern half of Europe the state has traditionally not been neutral in matters concerning language and culture, it rather served as a tool for the harassment of the national minorities, in the futile hope that the ethnically heterogeneous population can be “homogenised”, assimilated, and thus the nominal nation states would become real nation states.

These countries are not melting pots; attempts to turn this region into a melting pot can transform it into a powder keg, as older and most recent history amply testifies. In my opinion the idea of the exclusive nation state is not in line with modern democracy. The only way to create homogeneous nation states would be through exchanges of population or territory on a vast scale, involving tens of millions of people, at enormous financial cost and causing untold human sufferings. A variant of this is the practice of “ethnic cleansing” whose hideousness could be observed in the 1990s in the occupied parts of Croatia and in Bosnia, and today in Myanmar. (But the planned deal between Kosovo and Serbia, a swap of territories inhabited by their mutual minorities is promising.) So it follows that the only real solution for the thirty odd million people who form national minorities in the states of Central and Eastern Europe today (including the close to ten million Russians in Ukraine) is to introduce regionalism, genuine self-government. Where the minorities are more dispersed they could still enjoy the institutions of cultural autonomy following the pattern of the various denominations: the Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran and Jewish churches enjoy autonomy in every European country.

The Pact on European Stability signed in 1995 envisaged the settling of all bilateral problems between the European states and guaranteeing the rights of the national minorities in bilateral treaties. Those were to be the two pillars of stability in the eastern half of Europe. By reconfirming the borders and pledging good-neighbourly relations one of the pillars became strong. The other pillar, strictly observed minority rights, has remained unfinished. Unfortunately the process of guaranteeing minority rights has slowed down; practically it has stopped. The Charter on Minority and Regional Languages of the Council of Europe as well as its Framework Convention on National Minorities were promising but quite a few countries disregard the conventions they had signed and ratified. The new school law in Ukraine is clearly a breach of international obligations. I am convinced that the emphasis on minority rights must gather new momentum if European integration continues and deepens.

For peace and general reconciliation in Europe the European Union is essential. No one should fear that nations, national culture, let alone languages would disappear in the integration. In the European Parliament everybody is entitled to use her or his language. The free movement of people, many finding employment in a foreign country does not mean that ties to the home country, to family and friends there are being severed. Cheap travel and electronic communication helps people preserve their original identity, or acquire dual, sometimes even triple identity. More and more children are born from mixed marriages and are brought up bilingual. One should not forget that in the Cold War we were separated from one another not by one but by many Iron Curtains. It was 1989 which pulled down the Berlin Wall and many other constraints including the visa requirement imposed on the Europeans after the First World War.

In October 1918 Leo Amery, then an adviser to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, with remarkable foresight, spoke out against the division of Central Europe in a memorandum. “The various nationalities of Central Europe are so interlocked, and their racial frontiers are so unsuitable as the frontiers of really independent sovereign states, that the only satisfactory and permanent working policy for them lies in their incorporation in a non-national superstate.”5 Can we call the European Union a superstate or is it a voluntary association of largely sovereign states? It is not and it should not be a loose free-trade zone of so-called nation states. The existence of national and newer minorities refute that Europe consists of nation states. Europe should remain the home of many nations, languages and cultures, united by common values and not separated by impenetrable borders, as in the past. The older European generation learned that. It is a common duty to show it to the younger ones that Europe should not go back in history. Because reverting to past nationalism means conflict and war.

The developments of 75 years in Western Europe, the reconciliation of the nations and countries after the Second World War offer a model to be followed sincerely in the eastern half of the continent too. Economic integration followed by political, the “four liberties” of the European Union, the Schengen system of free movement of peoples is the solution to the border and minority problems, eliminating “the apple of Eris”, discord, which the First World War and the peace treaties tossed into the midst of Europe a hundred years ago.


1 Charles Seymour, “Epitome of Reports on Just and Practical Boundaries Within Austria–Hungary for Czecho-Slovaks, Yugo-Slavs, Rumanians, Poles, Ruthenians, Magyars”, undated [around the end of 1918], NA RG 256. Inquiry Doc. 514.

2 Ferenc Eiler – Dagmar Hájková et al., Czech and Hungarian Minority Policy in Central Europe 1918– 1938. Praha: Masaykuv Ústav-MTA-ENKI, 2009. 176–177.

3 Hugh and Christopher Seton-Watson, The Making of a New Europe: R. W. Seton-Watson and the Last Years of Austria–Hungary. London, 1981. 435.

4 Christmas Manifesto issued by the Hungarian Democratic Forum. In my possession.

5 “The Austro-Hungarian Problem”, Memorandum by L. S. Amery, 20 October 1918. Public Record Office, London, Foreign Office, 371/3136/17223. There is a balanced and articulated collection of essays by outstanding Hungarian historians in Romsics, Ignác and Király, Béla K. (eds.), Geopolitics in the Danube Region, Hungarian Reconciliation Efforts, 1848–1998. Budapest: CEU Press, 1999. I addressed the issue of reconciliation between Hungary and its neighbours in many of my talks and articles published in several languages, and in my book on Hungary’s neighbourhood policy during the years of the regime change, Kísérlet a trianoni trauma orvoslására. Magyarország szomszédsági politikája a rendszerváltozás éveiben [An attempt at remedying the Trianon trauma. Hungary’s neighbourhood policy in the years of the regime change]. Budapest: Osiris Kiadó, 2016.

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