History, as is so often repeated, is generally written by the victors. Sometimes, though, the victors are defeated and the suppressed voices of those the victors had intended to cast on the scrapheap of history are heard again. This does not mean the rewriting of the past, an exercise in falsification, but accepting the diversity of how the past is understood and how different eras see their pasts differently.
Secondly, memoir literature must be understood on its own terms. Crucially, it is written within the moral assumptions of its own time, not ours. To repeat L. P. Hartley’s oft-quoted sentence, “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. What the author of a memoir regarded as self-evident modes of feeling and perception are not ours and, given the inevitable psychological remoteness involved, we have to make an effort of interpretation that can go counter to our own assumptions, to our own baggage. If we fail to read the view of the past as seen by contemporaries on their terms, we readily fall into the trap of projecting our moral values onto that past and thereby misjudge it. The temptation to do so is very strong, especially if there is a political or cultural agenda lurking in our assessments.
The Communist rulers of Hungary did this consciously and deliberately, for they were seeking actively to rewrite the past for their own ends. The residues of these rewritings have not disappeared. There are far too many who paint the past in the darkest hues possible in order to secure their own values in the present. The Hungarian past, not least the interwar period, is widely seen in overwhelmingly negative terms and the actors of that time are written off as fools or knaves, the latter mostly.
Therein lies the significance of the memoirs of Vilmos Nagybaczoni Nagy. They cast a light different from the one insisted on by Communist historians on Hungary’s role in the Second World War. And because the memoirs were written immediately after the events – first published in 1947 and then republished in 1986 – they have an authenticity and immediacy that the best of memoir literature provides.
What is clear from this account is that Nagybaczoni was well aware of the dilemmas confronting Hungary before and during the War. This demands an analysis and will establish a context in which to place the memoir. Basically the dilemma is that of the small state at risk from the machinations of more powerful international actors and the consequent limits to agency. In the case of Hungary, the dilemma was made more acute by “the loss of empire” syndrome, the Treaty of Trianon of June 1920, by which pre-1914 Hungary lost two thirds of its territory and around a third of its indubitably Hungarian population, to which can be added the approximately 6–7 million non-Hungarians. This was an acute trauma, a defeat for the pre-1914 ruling elite, and a perpetual reminder of the radical reduction in the country’s room for manoeuvre.
Furthermore, the end of the First World War was followed by around a year of political chaos (1918–1919) during which incompetent leftwing governments sought to find a way out of the mess and ended up creating an ever larger one. The 133-day Hungarian Soviet Republic was finally put down by the Romanian Armed Forces, whose military intervention was justified as the defeat of Communism and, equally, by the spirit of revanche for the defeat of Romania during the War itself. The occupation of the country by the Romanian Army (from August 1919 to March 1920) and the depredations that accompanied it only added to the sense of trauma and humiliation.
Before 1914 Hungary was broadly confident of its modernity – still visible in Budapest’s architecture – and its particular sense of the future. That future was wholly destroyed by the War and its consequences. During the War, Hungarian casualties numbered around 800,000 while after Trianon, a substantial number of Hungarians (over 300,000 according to estimates) opted to leave for Hungary rather than live in one or other of the successor states; some were also expelled. The integration of these refugees, not least the members of the state administration dismissed by the successor states, took a long time and also added to the trauma. In all, the chaos added up to a collapse – political, economic, social and cultural.
Not surprisingly in the circumstances, the year of chaos effectively destroyed the chances of a social transformation, such as was introduced in neighbouring Austria, and ensured that the pre-1914 elite would return to power as the only elite with the necessary political skills and experience. This meant that the pre- 1914 social order changed only marginally and remained hierarchical.
Much has been written – mostly negatively – about the backward-looking, “reactionary” character of this elite. This view (favoured by the left) seriously distorts the situation and misstates the problem of consolidation after the year of chaos and the trauma of Trianon. Hungary’s political system after Trianon placed stability and security at its centre. The confidence of the pre-1914 period was gone, but it was the only elite with the political skills to re-establish a viable system. This system preserved some of the elements of the pre-1914 order under the aegis of Admiral Horthy as Regent. The monarchy remained in being, constitutionally speaking, but there was no agreement as to who the monarch should be; gradually the issue slipped off the agenda. In practice, the system was put together above all by István Bethlen, the Prime Minister from 1921 to 1931; it was semi-consensual and semi-authoritarian. And there was striking contrast between the modernity of Budapest and the pre- or semi-modernity of the countryside.
The Horthy order allowed a good deal of latitude to the expression of various opinions, as long as the system itself was not threatened. Elections were indeed held to ensure the hegemony of the ruling party and these were neither fully free nor fair, but there was competition and parliamentary debates were real enough. By the criteria of the 1920s, the system worked adequately to secure the power of the elite and, equally, to offer some space for alternatives. But it had an Achilles heel, the peasantry, which the country’s economy could not really integrate fully. The problem of rural poverty, of the landless peasantry, smallholders and dwarfholders could not be resolved without industrialisation and the country lacked the capital resources to achieve this. Besides, with consolidation as the primary aim, the elites preferred a rather static model of rule – unsurprisingly in the circumstances. It should be added that the competence of the technical intelligentsia and the professional classes was good and in many fields outstanding.
Under the terms of Trianon, Hungary was permitted only a very small army of 35,000, no armour, no heavy weaponry, no air force. This added to the sense of insecurity, given that the client states constructed by France – the “Little Entente” – had their own anti-Hungarian perspectives, their own rather more sizeable armies. To this can be added the presence of sizeable Hungarian minorities in the successor states whose attitude to their new citizenship was mixed and whose loyalty was generally questioned by the new rulers. In effect, the country was all but surrounded by ill-disposed, hostile neighbours, which meant that it would need a patron from beyond the region. All the successor states had gained territory from Hungary and had thereby acquired ethnic Hungarian minorities. This created a security problem for the successor states and meant that they necessarily saw Hungary itself as hostile, bent on reacquiring what it had lost. The Western powers, France above all, which had created this vicious circle, never cared about the security issues that would ensue. Everyone was the loser.
This dilemma was well understood by much of the post-1918 elite. It was a severe constraint on action, but it left some room for manoeuvre. Over time, Italy came to play the role of patron with the 1927 accord with Rome. After the 1929 economic crisis and the rise of Hitler, Germany took over. This posed a problem for the elite. Most of them had little time for the radical solutions adopted by Nazism, but there was also a strong pro-German faction. This tension endured and was one of the markers of interwar Hungarian politics. Clearly, small states had a much more restricted freedom of action and had to align themselves with one or other more powerful state and that affected domestic politics too. The difficulty for the Hungarian elite was that none of the potential patrons was particularly interested in the key Hungarian issue – the injustice of Trianon and the insecurity that came with it. If anything, France and to a lesser extent Britain were content to see Hungary on a leash; any attachment to the Soviet Union was obviously out of question given the country’s experience with the Communist experiment in 1919; Weimar Germany was not interested, which left Italy as the only player, albeit the newly launched Fascist system under Mussolini was unattractive to the conservatism of the dominant elites.
The 1930s economic crisis then hit the country very hard. The massive shrinkage of the international market left the economy in a poor state. In any case, Hungary was far too heavily dependent on agriculture – up to two fifths of the GDP and over half of the population – and remained capital-poor. The structure of the agricultural sector was dominated by underfunded large estates, the latifundia, and it lost many of its export markets due to the crash. There was some small sector production, but this too suffered from capital shortage and technological backwardness. The outcome was an insoluble peasant problem. The country was described, with only some exaggeration, as the land of “three million beggars”.
By 1932 the conservative elite associated with Horthy and Bethlen effectively found itself incapable of dealing with the crisis of growing social discontent, the short-lived government of Gyula Károlyi resigned and in 1932, Gyula Gömbös, a contested figure if ever there was one, took over as Prime Minister. Gömbös was a radical-right figure with a military background, but he recognised that the strategy of stability that was followed in the post-Trianon years had become exhausted. Broadly, he sought to revitalise the country by launching his National Work Programme which aimed at the modernisation and rationalisation of the public sphere. This included social reforms and attention to the peasantry. He was also successful in rejuvenating the army with the retirement of 22 senior officers in 1935. In foreign policy, Gömbös launched various openings, the net effect of which was to move the country closer to Germany; he was not alone at the time in admiring the dynamism of Nazism, whether in Hungary or elsewhere. All the same, the alignment was not total and there remained some choices. Not least, the conservative elite around Bethlen, together with the Smallholders and Social Democrats, were less than delighted with this course and opposed it.
Gömbös died in 1936, but his mobilising, reform policies were not entirely successful. Above all, both he and the conservatives were increasingly challenged by various radical right movements. The emergence of the Hungarian variant of Nazism, the Arrow Cross, created a serious problem for the adherents of stability and the moderate right alike. In any case, as Gömbös’s successors were to discover, Germany’s growing political and economic dominance meant a growing constraint on what the country could do.
For the elites, whether conservative or right-radical and to some extent even the relatively weak Social Democrats, the question of Trianon and border revision was central. There was agreement on this revision being peaceful, but there was division on whether Hungary should aim for total revision – everything back – or only the indubitably Hungarian-inhabited areas. Revision necessarily brought the country closer to Germany and Italy, given that neither was satisfied with the Paris Peace Settlement.
The year 1938 was a turning point. With the Anschluß, Germany had become a direct neighbour and the Munich agreement created an opportunity to satisfy the revisionist claim against the disintegrating Czechoslovakia by reattaching the overwhelmingly Hungarian-inhabited strip of southern Slovakia. Germany and Italy were the midwives of this agreement, the First Vienna Award, but Hitler regarded Hungary as a troublesome, not altogether reliable semi-satellite. Much the same applied to the Second Vienna Award, when around two-fifths of Transylvania was returned to Hungary from Romania. In the interim, Hungary reoccupied Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia and, following Germany’s attack on Yugoslavia in 1941, the Bácska (Bačka) region of the Vojvodina.
Hungary was able to remain neutral during this period, though closely attached to the Axis, but that ended when the town and airport of Kassa (Košice) were bombed (26 June 1941). Horthy decided that the Soviet Union was responsible and entered the War. (Who was actually responsible remains a mystery. The least implausible theory is that Soviet planes bombed Kassa in error, intending to attack the nearby Eperjes [Prešov] in Slovakia instead.) Hungary’s participation in the War lasted until 1945, but after the destruction of the Second Hungarian Army at Voronezh in January 1943, it was barely an active role. The story ended with the Red Army invading Hungary in 1944, the siege of Budapest, far-reaching devastation and a collapse as deep-seated as the one after 1918. It is against this background that Nagybaczoni’s career and memoirs are to be understood.
Nagybaczoni was born in 1884 in Transylvania, his family was of rather poor lower nobility and Calvinist. He received his education at the Ludovika (Budapest) and Vienna military academies, fought on the Serbian and Russian fronts in the First World War and remained in military service after Trianon, reaching the rank of colonel in 1925. He wrote regularly on military strategy and tactics and was promoted to Major General (vezérőrnagy) in 1934, to Lieutenant General (altábornagy) in 1937, and was commander of the Budapest army corps in 1938.
It was in this function that he took part in the military occupation of southern Slovakia and, as commander-in-chief of the First Hungarian Army, of northern Transylvania. This was evidently a distinguished career, but Nagybaczoni had his opponents, among them Henrik Werth, Chief of Staff, who succeeded in having Nagybaczoni sent into retirement in 1941. Werth was strongly pro-German, and was of the view that Germany could not lose the War and objected to those, Nagybaczoni among them, who harboured doubts on this score.
Indeed, as he makes evident in the memoir, Nagybaczoni was of the view that war would be a disaster for Hungary. There was a clear rivalry between the two senior soldiers. Werth, however, lost the contest and with the coming to office of the Kállay government in 1942, Nagybaczoni was appointed Minister of Defence. Kállay recognised that the German war was doomed and he pursued a semi- neutral policy, in the hope that after the War, this would gain recognition and Hungary would not be as badly treated as after 1918. This was illusory, of course, given the determination of the Allies to wage a war of unconditional surrender. And Kállay’s policies brought Hungary increasingly into Hitler’s bad books, which culminated in the German occupation of the country in March 1944.
As Defence Minister (1942–1943) Nagybaczoni was responsible for various moves to improve the condition of the Hungarian armed forces, and above all, he was determined to end the inhuman treatment of Jews. One of the anti-Jewish measures introduced in 1939–1941 was that Jews could not serve in the regular armed forces, but were required to do labour service (munkaszolgálat). This service was coercive, those serving were unarmed, and the guards regularly treated Jews with marked inhumanity. It should be added that those obliged to do coercive labour service included non-Jews, so-called “unreliable elements”, Communists, Roma, members of ethnic minorities, but the majority, several hundred thousand, were Jewish.
Nagybaczoni tried, and to some extent succeeded, in diminishing this brutality, but the extent of anti-Semitism in military and civilian circles was deeply rooted. His measures generated growing opposition among the rightwing radicals of the pro-German elements and they succeeded in forcing him into retirement in 1943. On 15 October 1944, with the collapse of the Horthy system, the Arrow Cross seized power and a day later, they arrested Nagybaczoni, imprisoned him, and moved him to Germany as the front was disintegrating in 1945. He was only able to return to Hungary well after the end of the War, after which he wrote this memoir.
His tribulations were not over. The Communist regime regarded him as a class enemy, stripped him of his pension and his work as a gardener. But chance intervened. Petru Groza, the then Romanian Head of State, had been a classmate of Nagybaczoni’s at the Szászváros (Orăştie) Secondary School, they graduated together, and Groza invited him to the 50th anniversary of the graduating class. Nagybaczoni replied that he had neither the money nor the passport and Groza then intervened with Rákosi, the Communist leader, who allowed Nagybaczoni to take part and the authorities gradually lifted the restrictions that they had imposed on him. In 1965, his actions to improve the treatment of Jewish forced labourers during the War were recognised by Israel and he was awarded the title of “righteous among nations”. Nagybaczoni died in 1976 at the age of 92.
Two thoughts can be added to these memoirs. One of these is that Nagybaczoni’s life was characterised by professionalism and a fundamental decency. As a serving soldier, he accepted that his duties were military and not political, whether he accepted the views of the political leadership or not, but only up to a given point. While he recognised that Hungary’s situation left it and him with few choices, within those constraints he acted as thoughtfully as was possible to mitigate human suffering and to minimise damage.
The second thought that comes to mind is that while the interwar elites of Hungary were far from flawless, they were not the consummate villains depicted by the Communist period. Some certainly were, notably the hard-line, pro-German anti-Semites, but the majority of the elite sought to sustain a degree of moderation and propriety. That elite was swept away by the Second World War and their successors did what they could to blacken their predecessors. But history is not carved in stone and today we can or, at any rate have the capacity to, adopt a different, more nuanced understanding of the past. After all, the current elites will also be judged by their successors. So when making judgements of the past, it is always worth doing so with care and moderation. I am certain that Nagybaczoni would have endorsed this and would have done so firmly and rigorously. That was his character.
AFTERTHOUGHTS: THE LONG SHADOW OF TRIANON
The question that arises from all this concerns the nature and quality of the Hungarian state that Nagybaczoni found himself in. He was self-evidently committed to Hungary and, despite his Transylvanian birth, he would not have been at all welcome in the new Romanian state; indeed, he might well have been treated as a war criminal.
The Hungarian state that came into being with the end of the First World War can justly be described as traumatised by a series of cumulative caesuras that made coming to terms with itself a near-impossible task. The country declared its full independence, as mentioned earlier, on 17 October 1918, though maintaining the Habsburg monarch in a personal union. The republic was proclaimed on 16 November, and the monarchy was restored on 1 March 1920. It is noteworthy that none of these dates has any resonance in the Hungarian collective memory. Whereas most of the states of Central Europe celebrated their centenary of independence in 2018, Hungary did not. The implication is that this independence is or was charged with ambivalence and was attained at an intolerably high price.
First, there were the War losses, the humiliation of having lost the War and the approximately one million dead, wounded and missing during the fighting. Demobilised soldiers returned in no particular order and found the country beset by severe shortages. Prisoners of war began to trickle back gradually. For some, from Russia, this would take years. The state was poorly equipped to make any provision for them. To these human losses can be added the roughly 150,000 who died from the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918–1919.
Then, the War effort had placed serious strains on both the economy and the state administration. Hungary was in any case the most backward part of Austria– Hungary and had faced a shortage of capital and entrepreneurial skills even before 1914. The wholly unequal distribution of land – the latifundia run sub-optimally – meant that the returning soldiers, mostly of peasant stock, had every cause for complaint. This basically meant that Hungary would remain beset by capital shortages and that squeezing consumption to finance industrialisation (as Taiwan and South Korea managed after the Second World War) was not an option. The result was rural poverty, inequality, few available avenues for upward mobility, discontent and a peasant population that was vulnerable to radical mobilisation, not really caring whether this came from the left or the right.
As Pál Hatos has described in his excellent “The Accursed Republic” (Az elátkozott köztársaság), the immediate return of several hundred thousand demobbed soldiers led to a collapse of order and a veritable peasant uprising. The elite that had led Hungary during the War threw in the towel and accepted that a new republican system would be launched. This new elite resembled the old, in as much as it drew heavily on the aristocracy, Mihály Károlyi himself obviously, as well as the radical left.
The new republican order failed miserably, a failure that was accentuated by the elite’s utter inability to recognise that with the defeat, historical Hungary was finished and that the non-Magyar population would secede. Their second failure was to misperceive the War aims of the Entente and to believe that Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points applied to them and to Hungarians. There was a kind of obstinate credulousness in the elite, in insisting that the Entente would treat defeated Hungary even-handedly and not favour the newly fledged members of the Entente – Czechoslovakia, the South Slav kingdom and Romania.
They were proved disastrously mistaken in believing that the Entente would even listen to their arguments about the approximately three million Magyars who were being transferred to the successor states without their consent. The reality that these non-consensual citizens (subjects?) would prove to be an irritant in the new, ethnically organised states did not trouble either the successor states or their Western patrons. These new minorities could, it was thought, be integrated, assimilated or suppressed. It took a long time to recognise that an ethnically conscious population that had undergone some experience of modernity (in their mother tongue) would remain attached to that culture and not exchange it to any significant degree.
If the October–November 1918 Republic was a dismal failure, what followed, the 133-day Hungarian Soviet Republic, turned out to be even worse. The new leaders sought to impose their radical solutions immediately and intransigently, they regarded questioning or criticism as treason (they were persuaded that history was on their side, after all, Lenin had said as much). Béla Kun’s attempt to re-establish a Communist Greater Hungary had some initial military success, but alarmed the Entente, which then gave the green light to the successor states to intervene, meaning to invade Hungary. The Romanian Army broke the Hungarian Red Army with comparative ease, captured Budapest on 3–4 August 1919 and proceeded to occupy almost the entire territory of Hungary, leaving Budapest in November and eastern Hungary, the lands east of the Tisza, only in March 1920. One of Romania’s war aims was the establishment of the Tisza as the country’s western frontier, a topos that still resurfaces in the 21st century. This absurd claim was too much even for the Entente and the Romanian Army was ordered to evacuate Hungary. This it did, leaving behind considerable chaos, and a memory of numerous summary executions and depredations.
The end of the occupation meant that the question of what kind of political system Hungary should have returned to the agenda. There was a brief attempt to set up a Social Democrat government, but the Romanians quickly put a stop to that and eventually handed over power to the conservative elite led by Admiral Horthy, presumably at the behest of the Entente, which did take over and gradually re- established a degree of order. During the 1919 Soviet period, the Red Terror claimed numerous victims; the White Terror that followed claimed even more.
But Horthy’s government had a further caesura to undergo, the signing of the peace treaty with the Entente. Most of the terms were already agreed by the latter in 1919, hence there were no substantive negotiations before the actual signing of the Treaty of Trianon on 4 June 1920. This meant – as noted – the loss of around two thirds of the territory of historical Hungary and some 13 million people, of whom around three million were indisputably ethnic Hungarians. The dual loss of territory and population was a profound shock which was to overshadow Hungarian politics until 1945.
The recovery of some of the territory and people between 1938 and 1940 was followed by their renewed loss after 1945. The trauma of Trianon could certainly have been eased had the ethnically Magyar population been given the choice of staying with Hungary or with the successor states, but this was never an option, neither in 1920 nor between 1945 and 1947 (the date of the Paris Peace Treaty that ended the Second World War belligerency). And with the defeat and destruction of 1944–1945, the historical elite was utterly discredited. Its policy of reversing Trianon disappeared with it, and territorial revisionism has had no significant purchase in Hungarian national consciousness ever since.
Horthy basically reinstituted a shrunken version of the system that had existed before 1914. It was a pluralist system run by a hegemonic party – the government party – with a public administration that functioned tolerably in the urban areas, but left the countryside more or less untouched. There was a schooling system, most of the population was literate, but much of the rural population was at or just above subsistence level, with little chance of escape.
Given the composition of the elite, the pre-1914 aristocracy, land reform was inconceivable and, it should be added, would not have solved the peasant problem, as the rural population exceeded the amount of land that could be distributed and farmed efficiently. Nor could industry be developed to absorb the surplus rural population, given the unavailability of investment capital and skills. What this meant was that a sizeable section of the approximately three-million- strong peasantry was pre-political and lacked the forms of knowledge needed for modernity, let alone the civic skills required for democracy.
But what it did have, and this was true of the entire population, was a strong sense of the national self, of Hungarian nationhood and to a degree of Trianon itself. Indeed, it is hard to see how the country could have held together without this sense of national consciousness, even if this national self had a weak belief in agency at the individual level, an acceptance of hierarchy (together with resistance to hierarchy) and pessimism about collective agency. After all, Hungary had been denied agency at Trianon and the somewhat flawed concept of Hungarian modernity, including a sense of a civilising mission in the Danube valley (borrowed from France), had disintegrated.
Then, the Hungary that emerged after Trianon was a non-consensual state, in as much as the massive loss of territory was traumatising and not accepted by the elites and much of political society. There was, however, agreement that the regaining of territory would have to be secured legally, which brought up the question of how this might happen. It was well understood in Budapest that no state would voluntarily hand over territory which it regarded as its own. This necessarily meant pressure from a stronger outside power, given that the League of Nations was incapable of doing anything of the kind. It goes without saying, that Hungary’s neighbours were well aware of all this, meaning that throughout the interwar period, there was a severe security problem in Central Europe. And none of the parties had an interest in resolving it.
Finally, the nature of the hegemonic international system was heavily weighted against the losers of the World War. Not only were they treated as losers, but they were expected to construct and sustain democratic systems in circumstances when both the international and domestic factors were pointing in the opposite direction. The newly established League of Nations (1920) was supposed to resolve the inevitable conflicts that arise when a sizeable number of states operate in a geographically constricted area (Europe), but in practice it was dominated by the interests of the great powers of the winning side.
Thus France ran its own system of client states in Central Europe, the Little Entente, the explicit purpose of which was to ensure that Hungary, Austria and Germany would remain in a subordinate position and thereby guarantee the security of France’s clients only. The proposition that security might be mutual existed only at the verbal level. In this context, while Germany – given its size – could never be fully isolated, Hungary could and was, leaving Budapest with very few options for building its own security.
The opening towards Italy, which saw itself as having emerged from the War without adequate compensation, was a partial answer, as Italy proved ready to play a role as patron. But this hardly meant the integration of Hungary into a European system on equal terms; indeed, it continued to be seen as a destabilising factor, given its revisionism, its territorial claims on all its neighbours. As far as international systems were concerned, it is worth adding that Germany took over Italy’s role in the 1930s, with dire consequences, then Hungary was forcibly integrated into the Soviet system and thereafter into the Western system. NATO and EU accession gave Hungary a new system to the rules of which it could accede, but over time, found itself at odds with Brussels on a number of issues, above all on the question of the distribution of power between the EU and its member states.
Historical causation is always difficult to establish, hence it would be going too far to draw a direct line from the cumulative traumas of 1918–1920 to the present, even adding those of 1944–1945 (first German, then Soviet occupation, and the far-reaching physical destruction), the imposition of Communist power and the coercive transformation of social, economic and political structures, and the Revolution of 1956 that ended in failure.
The pre-1945 concept of the Hungarian state was heavily invested in the recovery of lost territory and structured state independence around this objective. The shattering defeat of 1944–1945 buried this concept and showed how contingent that independent statehood was and, indeed, could be lost – as in fact it was with the gradual arrival of Soviet control, in place by 1948. Hence in 1956, during the Revolution, not only was neutrality of the state one of the declared aims of the Imre Nagy government, but at the popular level, the slogan of “Russians go home!” (Ruszkik haza!) had widespread resonance. Point 14 of the demands of the revolutionaries included the use of the national coat of arms of 1849 (instead of the hammer and wheat-sheaf introduced by the Communists), a military uniform in accordance with the national traditions and that 15 March, the anniversary of the 1848 revolution, be declared a holiday.
The clear inference is that Hungarian statehood was now seen as a value with which society identified, the reunification with the trans-frontier communities had been taken off the political agenda and Hungarian society had come to terms with itself within the Trianon frontiers. After 1989, the dilemma of independent sovereign statehood and how to structure it became a matter of the international system into which Hungary was to be integrated. There was never any doubt that this would be NATO and the EU.
Nevertheless, one can see a certain continuity in the Hungarian story, which helps to explain the sensitivity of one tradition, that of the national conservative centre– right, which is suspicious of external interference in the national state’s agency, and equally, the rejection of this by the left which believes that Hungary’s only viable future is the acceptance of subalternity, of the demands of the hegemonic international system, given that attempts at autonomous agency have resulted in failure. The outcome of these irreconcilable definitions of the Hungarian national self is a polarisation that, at this time, cannot be bridged. But what is unquestionable is that a Hungarian national identity exists, and is sustained by its own myth-symbol complex and memory regimes and will not disappear. This identity is closely linked to Hungary’s statehood and in that sense has changed from the attitudes of 1918–1920. There is an acceptance of the Trianon frontiers and, equally, that the transfrontier Hungarians are spiritually and in everyday contacts linked to Hungary, but have different cultural and political trajectories, even when the latter have recently won the right to dual Hungarian citizenship.
A part of the problem is that language confuses as much as it clarifies. Statehood, nationhood are thoroughly mingled in the Hungarian case, a mixing that is the legacy of Trianon. In that respect, a certain ambivalence about the limits of statehood and nationhood exists. The transfer of three million ethnic Hungarians who were acutely conscious of their relationship to the Hungarian state has sustained this ambiguity and ambivalence. In what way is the Hungarian identity of a transfrontier Hungarian to be assessed and by whom? These questions remain open. The connection between Hungarian society in Hungary and the transfrontier Hungarians was officially buried during the Communist period, but it never disappeared from popular consciousness, not least by reason of the ambiguity.
The link was transmitted by family, individual and other memory systems, like literature and the myth-symbol complex. Thus the post-1945 expulsion of circa 95,000 ethnic Hungarians from Slovakia was a part of the secret knowledge of those affected, though never acknowledged publicly. It was a form of knowledge that went against the grain of Communist internationalism. Overall, the population of Hungary was never fully disconnected from their transfrontier ethnic kin. After 1989, this issue became a major divide between right and left; indeed, one of the founding narratives of the Hungarian right is that it cares for all Hungarians, regardless of the state in which they live (Antall proclaimed himself the Prime Minister of 15 million Hungarians). The left defined itself against this, and in the referendum of 2004, it campaigned against the transfrontier Hungarians having anything to do with Hungary. It is in this sense that state independence is still marked by ambivalence, because the relationship between statehood and nationhood is unresolved and, for that matter, cannot be resolved given the structural factors. This is the long shadow of Trianon.
Note: The first part of this essay is reprinted, with some revisions, as a Foreword to Fateful Years 1938–1945, the memoirs of General and Minister of Defence Vilmos Nagybaczoni Nagy (Helena History Press, 2017).