It is just twenty years since Hungary was forced to sign the Treaty of Trianon. In this treaty the Hungarians had been branded as war criminals even though none of us had wanted war until we were dragged into it by foreign powers who forced us into battle and the death and annihilation of our country. It was to be the same twenty years later.
Today we are once more surrounded by ruins, worse ruins now than before because the land in which we lived has been laid waste by war as if trampled over by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Our cities and villages are all in ruins; our economy and our agriculture are destroyed. Hundreds of thousands have been made homeless.
Everything that we worked so hard to achieve after Trianon and which we had built up over the first ten years of struggle, all the fruits of our self-sacrifice, care and dogged determination, have now been taken from us.
The annihilation that the second catastrophe Fate has brought down upon us is infinitely worse than the first.
Even to think about it is beyond bearing: terrible to contemplate what led up to it all, terrible to know that all our efforts to rebuild were for nothing.
For someone like myself, who was one of those who worked so hard for the rehabilitation of our country after the First World War, all that is now left is to ponder on the past and recall something of what actually happened. After a long life this is the only treasure I still possess. And yet, in a way, I do have another treasure in the experience of politics, which I acquired – sometimes as an active participant although mostly as a passive one – over the last fifty years. Although much still remains, even this will die with me. I have made no notes and have never kept a diary. Countless documents, letters and memoranda which I did keep have now been either burnt or dispersed. I only have what is in my mind, and that only until I cross the river of life. Once the crossing has been made, even that will vanish as well. It is uncertain how long I have, but the end cannot be far away. It was these thoughts that have made me start these memoirs. I want to describe what I know of those events, both at home and abroad, which led the Hungarians from Trianon firstly to the Vienna Awards of 2 September 1938 and 30 August 1940, and finally to that fatal road to ultimate disaster. I wish to tell what I myself did, because only he who has really achieved something has the right to judge. I want to explain the reasons why and also to describe some of the people who have played a decisive part in the shaping of our history. I want too to look critically at the conduct of our affairs and to look at it particularly from a foreign point of view because since 1900, when I had a diplomatic post in Berlin, although I have (twice) been both a member of parliament and a prefect, this has also been my own.
Of course everything I put down today will be somewhat sketchy, partly because to go into full detail would require many volumes and also because it would take years to write. And at my age, although I now have plenty of free time, I cannot see myself undertaking such a task.
All the same, I can still put down some of the essentials as well as some of the conclusions that, by learning from the past, we should now be drawing from it all. Perhaps in some way this work of mine may prove useful to my countrymen even though I have always been all too aware of the truth I once put into the mouth of one Fortéjos Deák Boldizsár, a character in one of my books, where I made him say: “Perhaps this story can bear witness, if not for the many then for a few, that it is with sorrow that I have experienced with my own writings that it is rare indeed for a man to take the written word to heart and become any the wiser for it.” Yet I feel impelled to set down what I remember, if not to help others then at least to serve as proof of our feelings at the time and the zeal with which we tried to rebuild our country. Perhaps also my tale of one man’s experiences will serve as a useful source to someone in the future wishing to study what happened to Hungary twenty-five years ago.
The Treaty of Trianon was signed on 4 June 1920, and, as I recall, was ratified by the National Assembly in Budapest toward the end of August. In his heart no Hungarian ever really accepted the terms that had been forced upon us.
From a political point of view Hungary had been obliged to choose between two opposing attitudes. The first was that of acceptance, both officially and publicly, of the treaty’s terms: the second, which is what soon became generally adopted, was to look upon the document as something only signed under duress, to deny its validity and to demand its revision. This amounted to a hard-line “No! No! Never!”
Faced with the terms of the Treaty of Frankfurt, which brought to an end the Franco-Prussian War, the French had adopted the first course even though they thought in 1871 just as we did in 1920. In his heart no Frenchman was ever resigned to peace terms that tore the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine from the heartland of France. Nevertheless, when the treaty had been signed, the order had been given: “Y penser toujours, n’en parler jamais” – “Think of it always, speak of it never!” Everyone, not only the officers of state but the entire press and the public, every last man, in groups or individually, upheld this principle for forty-three years. And what an admirable principle it proved to be, giving to all an inner strength and discipline, keeping alive a profound patriotism in everyone’s hearts, existing in the blood as true and natural as mother’s milk. There was no need to feed this patriotic feeling with slogans, for these would have been superfluous. Such a feeling is not eroded by silence for without words it still works in the heart towards that never-spoken but never-changing goal. Truly great is the nation that can do this.
By adopting this policy the France of the Third Republic was enabled not only to avoid any friction with her immediate neighbours to the east but also to acquire Tunis and Morocco and peacefully build a colonial empire in Africa reaching almost as far as the Equator. This could never have been achieved in the face of English disapproval if Germany had not remained passively helpful. It is possible that Wilhelmstrasse fully believed that the lesson of Sedan ruled out any possible future retaliation by France. And they certainly felt that allowing France to occupy herself in grabbing new colonial territories in Africa would tie down her armies and provide a useful new object for any chauvinistic ambitions she might still have.
No doubt, the open defiance shown by what was left of Hungarian people after the partition enforced by the Treaty of Trianon told the world of our unrelenting opposition. However, it would have been better for our country if we could have followed the example of France.
It was obvious that in the foreseeable future nothing would change what had been decided at Trianon, and that many years would pass before some radical changes in Europe would make it possible for a revision of terms even to be mentioned. Until such time came, obdurate refusal to accept the situation would mean isolation for Hungary and with it much harm and little possibility of progress. The treaty terms had left many questions unresolved. The letter written by Millerand, the French prime minister, to the Hungarian delegate at the conference left the consideration of revising the frontiers dependent upon unspecified future conditions, thus leaving the door open to later discussion. Furthermore, although the terms affecting the status of ethnic minorities were sketchy and unclear, they nevertheless gave Hungary a moral right to try to alleviate the social conditions of Hungarians now living outside the country’s new borders. If a favourable atmosphere could be induced this would entail negotiations with Hungary’s new neighbours and, from an economic point of view, could bring great advantages.
In the first year after the treaty’s ratification all political life in Hungary was devoted to creating order at home and bringing an end to the White Terror1 that had threatened to destabilise the newborn state.
The administration destroyed by the revolution had first to be reconstituted for better or worse, as circumstances permitted. The state finances had to be put in order so that the machinery of government could function. There were also many problems concerning the membership of parliament, which now consisted for the most part of men with no political schooling or experience and delegates of the National Smallholders’ Party led by Nagyatádi Szabó. These were divided into small cliques who voted either from sheer well-meaning ignorance or for personal gain, or even from emotion aroused by political slogans. Most of the ministers’ time was taken up in coping with unnecessary bickering in parliamentary debates, leaving them little opportunity for serious planning. As a result, for a whole year no decision was taken regarding what should be the country’s official foreign policy. Although on the very day the treaty was signed the president of the National Assembly declared that it “contained moral and material impossibilities and that no one can be bound by impossibilities”, and although delegates from the newly separated provinces produced a petition addressed to “all the countries of the world” in which they swore to work to rejoin the mother country, these were all only individual opinions and protests and were never official decisions of policy by the government of Hungary; nor did they influence the future behaviour of the majority.
That this was so was proved by Prime Minister Pál Teleki when he contacted Beneš, the prime minister of Czechoslovakia, with whom he initiated the first discussions with representatives of one of the newly-created neighbouring states. These were held at Bruck, where Hungary was represented by Teleki and his foreign minister, Gusztáv Gratz, and although no tangible decisions were taken at least the meeting was held in a friendly atmosphere and ended with a promise to meet again.
Such was the political state of Hungary as regards both internal and external affairs. What was to come was still uncertain.
Then came King Karl’s first putsch, which turned out to be an adventure fit only as a subject for operetta.
The king travelled through Austria in disguise and entered Hungary with a false passport, arriving at Szombathely, where he drove to the archbishop’s palace. As it happened, József Vass, the minister of education, chanced to be there while Teleki was not far away, staying at Antal Sigray’s house at Ivánc where he had gone for a brief Easter holiday. He was at once informed by telephone.
Poor King Karl had arrived full of hope. For months he had been visited at the small castle of Prangins on Lake Geneva (offered to him as a refuge by the Swiss government) by a band of eager adventurers representing all sorts of diverse interests, business and political. Many of these had hopes of arranging the sale of the Habsburg jewels, an enterprise that promised great rewards as they were known to include the “Florentiner Ei”, the huge egg-shaped diamond of the Medicis. This band of opportunists brought with them hopeful and wonderful news, mainly from Paris, for at Prangins nothing else would bring the promise of money.
Furthermore, it seems probable that a few well-meaning and loyal Habsburg supporters also sent encouraging reports from Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava, Brünn and Prague – perhaps also from Zagreb – all of which King Karl believed to be true. He really did believe that everywhere hearts were throbbing with loyal eagerness and that he had only to appear to be instantly reinstated upon the throne he had abandoned. This would be the Hungarian throne and, once restored there, the Dual Monarchy would again be his, and he would return to Vienna as emperor on the shoulders of the Hungarians. And if not actually on their shoulders, at least at the head of a Hungarian army; for even he knew well enough that Renner’s Austria was hardly aching for his return.
For King Karl himself it was self-evident and completely natural to assume that, once restored, not Budapest but Vienna would be the Imperial capital once again, and that he would return to the Hofburg and Schönbrunn, the ancient seats of the Habsburg-Lorraine family. This, at least, was his goal and the ultimate object of his dreams.
Naturally, Vienna was not mentioned by him in Szombathely. There he spoke only of his “beloved Hungarians”, and it was evident that he first wanted to secure a foothold in little Hungary. To this end, his hopes were centred on Admiral Horthy for the simple reason that just before he became Regent, Horthy had sent a letter to him at Prangins. Although when abdicating the king had absolved everyone from their oaths of allegiance to him, Horthy had written that he considered his assumption of the position as Regent as a necessary but essentially temporary arrangement, and that as soon as circumstances permitted and he could do it without endangering the welfare of the nation, he himself would resign and return the supreme power to the rightful sovereign.
It was this confidence that had prompted King Karl’s return. He understood, he said, that everything had been arranged and that one of his agents – probably the man who called himself Belmonte and who had been awarded a title of nobility by the king – had brought him the encouraging news that his restoration would be favourably regarded by the victorious powers, and so all was well, was it not? He paced up and down the room and, although he could speak excellent Hungarian, he was now so excited and in such good humour that he spoke only in German.
All he seemed to want now was advice on how best to reward Horthy in a manner worthy of him. “Shall I give him a dukedom? Yes, that would do admirably. Glauben die Herren – do you think, my lords, he would like that? Or should I give him the Grand Cross of the Order of Maria Theresa? Yes! That would be even better. I brought it with me. You all agree he’ll be overjoyed? Nicht war das wird ihn freuen, dass muss ihn freuen – He’ll be overjoyed, won’t he? He must be overjoyed.”
And he went on like this for some time, speaking of nothing else. Teleki, József Vass and Mikes, Bishop of Szombathely, listened to him in amazement. He never once asked how he was regarded by public opinion, nor what was the view of the majority of the people, or even that of the parliament of long-suffering Hungary. Clearly none of this seemed important to him, so convinced was he that his arrival was joyfully awaited.
The next day the party set off for Budapest in two cars, Karl in the first and Teleki in the second. Because of some mechanical trouble the second car was left behind on the way, and so King Karl arrived in the capital alone. It was about noon.
First he stopped at the prime minister’s office in the fortress of Buda and there hurriedly washed his hands at the fountain in the courtyard before crossing to the Royal Palace. Horthy had just sat down to lunch when he was called from the table by an aide-de-camp who announced that the king had arrived and was waiting for him in the study. Horthy, of course, rushed there at once.
Their talk lasted some two hours, and it seems that Karl repeated all the things he had been saying to the ministers in Szombathely about the news he had heard from Paris and how everything was ready for his return. He then put the insignia of the Grand Cross of the Order of Maria Theresa on the table in front of Horthy, presumably as a gesture of encouragement. The Regent, however, pushed it to one side and started to explain the realities of the situation. What his actual words were I do not know, but it is certain that he made it clear that to attempt a restoration would be an insane adventure. The Great Powers were sure to object, while the newly independent states would mobilise immediately and threaten armed intervention. Invasion would follow with the inevitable risk of a further division of the country, this time even worse than the first. He probably also went so far as to say that public opinion did not look kindly on the idea of welcoming as their ruler a sovereign who had abandoned his post barely a year and a half before. Horthy must have spoken wisely and well, for the result was that Karl got back into his car and returned to Szombathely. It had been agreed that he would return at once to Switzerland and that every effort would be made to keep the whole excursion a secret.
Of course the secret was not kept. By the afternoon of the same day all Budapest knew it and, as was their habit, the good people of Budapest at once made a joke of it. They said that one of the Regent’s aides-de-camp with the unusual name of Magosházi,2 was heard to say in a thick Hungarian accent as he escorted the king down the palace staircase: “Majestät, das war überflüssig” – “This was unnecessary, your Majesty!”
The remaining details of the intended putsch were not in the least humorous. Karl stubbornly refused to go further than Szombathely. He had promised to leave Hungary, but now he did not want to go, no doubt fearful of the scene his wife would make if he returned empty-handed, for it was well-known that Queen Zita could be a dragon when roused. Karl therefore had to invent excuses for his departure, excuses that would account for his lack of success. Accordingly, he announced that he had caught cold in the open car and was now forced to keep his bed. The principal ministers – Teleki, Bethlen and Apponyi – rushed to Szombathely to reason with him, as the situation was becoming dangerous.
Already on the afternoon of his arrival the Great Powers had sent a protest to Budapest and, while Karl lingered at Szombathely, increasingly menacing messages arrived daily demanding that the ex-king should leave Hungary at once. But when he finally agreed to leave further difficulties arose. The Swiss government refused to accept him. They were angry that Karl had broken his imperial word, for when that hospitable country had given him a warm welcome in 1918 it had made only one condition, which was that if the king wished to leave Switzerland he must first notify the government in Bern. Karl had made light of this and furthermore the “court” at Prangins, explaining why he had not been seen on his customary walk, had lied and said that he was ill in bed. And this was not all. The Socialists in Austria declared that they would not permit their former emperor to pass through Austrian territory, while the railways threatened to go on strike if this was allowed. Eventually, after much pressure from the Great Powers all was settled and Karl, under the auspices of the western allies, was escorted out of Szombathely, and Hungary was rid of the dangers this childish prank might have provoked.
As it was, the Teleki government was forced to resign.
On the afternoon this happened I heard the news that Horthy had asked István Bethlen to form a new cabinet. Bethlen had been head of the Refugee Bureau since its creation a year before. This had been the first official position he had ever accepted even though from the first years of the century until 1918 he had been a member of parliament, belonging to the Apponyi Party. His word carried a certain weight, although he had always remained a backbencher. Although he spoke in the House only rarely he was known for the seriousness and objectivity of what he had to say; and because he scrupulously avoided rant and bombast he was fundamentally different from the demagogues by which he was surrounded. Tisza, at the end of his term as prime minister, had wanted to strengthen his government by the inclusion of some opposition members and offered him a portfolio – and later, if I remember correctly, so did Esterházy – but Bethlen would never accept. The same thing happened again when Horthy wanted him to be prime minister: firstly when the Károly Huszár and later the Sándor Simonyi- Semadam governments resigned. On both of these occasions Bethlen replied that the time was not yet ripe. […]
For István Bethlen this time came in the spring of 1921.
It was a well-chosen moment, and for the next ten years he controlled the destiny of Hungary until, by his own choice, he relinquished power much to the disappointment of the majority and the chagrin of parliament. During those ten years he found himself having to cope with many a dire crisis that would have taxed the powers of lesser men. A month after accepting office he was faced with the dispute over the rape of the Burgenland, and then came King Karl’s second putsch. This was a far cry from the light-opera farce of the first, for it was aggravated not only by dissention in the army and a revolt by the gendarmerie but also by the threat of armed intervention from abroad. Then came the affair of the forged French francs3 to be followed by scarcity of jobs and the steep rise in wheat prices. All of these problems would have defeated a man of lesser calibre. In the world crisis of 1931 he resigned, too tired to fight yet another battle.
Bethlen and I were linked by a long-standing personal friendship that had originated in our childhood. Later he married a close relative of mine. From the autumn of 1919 he had lived close to us, and I often used to lunch or dine at his house. Our opinions were the same on most matters and so, when faced with any special political problem, he would usually discuss it with me. Because of this, I found it quite natural that he should telephone me in the afternoon he accepted office, assuming that he wanted to discuss some aspects of his new responsibilities. So when it appeared that he was asking me to be his minister for foreign affairs it came as a complete surprise.
Unexpected though this was, it came as a logical consequence of the work I had been doing in the previous two years. As I have written elsewhere I went abroad in December 1918, with the full knowledge of Mihály Károlyi, on a mission for István Bethlen, then head of the Szekler National Council, to try to work towards obtaining for Hungary a more favourable and just peace treaty than seemed likely to be our lot at the time. I spent some six months at The Hague, and when I returned I was sent off again, this time as an official representative of the Hungarian government. In January 1920 I found myself sent to London at the same time as Apponyi and Bethlen were dispatched to Paris as the Hungarian representatives at the peace conference.
Once in London I was able to make a number of useful contacts within influential political circles and managed to win some of them over to our view that a punitive and unfair treaty with Hungary was in no one’s interests. Among these men was Lord Asquith, the former prime minister, and I look back with gratitude to the goodwill and understanding of Lord Bryce, Robert Cecil, Lord Newton and Montague, to the help of Mr Bowie, chief secretary of the Unitarian and Presbyterian churches, and to Webster McDonald, one of the leaders of the Scottish Presbyterian church. I also made contact with the Socialist Party. I received energetic support from the Unitarian and Presbyterian leaders and also from Sir Lucian Wolf, principal secretary of World Jewry, who himself wrote proposals for settling the problem of the ethnic minorities and which were entirely his own idea. Despite the fact I was still technically an “enemy alien”, I was received by the recently appointed foreign minister, Lord Hardinge, who accepted from me various memoranda concerning these and other problems.
I was able also to gather some support in the City, the centre of all business in the British Empire, as a result of my bringing from Hungary the power to negotiate concessions to drill for oil on Hungarian soil. My talks in the City were mainly with the chairman of Anglo-Persian Oil, Lord Snowden, and his agency. For me, this entailed much hard study for I had no business experience and knew nothing about the exploitation of oil deposits. Somehow I managed to master enough of the subject to be able to discuss the matter with some degree of sense. Frederick Picker, who came with me as an oil expert, was my mentor and as a result we became great friends. In the autumn of 1920 we were able to settle the details of an oil-drilling contract with Anglo-Persian, and on my second visit an agreement was signed with the Hungarian government.
The contract was for drilling in the district of Somogy-Zala where oil actually was discovered later at Lispe. Unfortunately, the Anglo-Persian exploratory drills found nothing, and the contract was allowed to lapse. I write “unfortunately” because had English capital remained invested in Hungary it might well have been of much help in our handling of foreign affairs.
This was a very exhausting time for me especially, as János Pelényi, later our ambassador in Washington and for many years a most helpful colleague who had come to London with me from Holland, was sent shortly afterwards to America. I then found that everything had fallen on my shoulders.
Only those who have tried it will know what it is like to find oneself alone, the unofficial envoy of a small country that has just lost a war, in the still hostile capital of the victor. To get anyone even to speak to me entailed endless hard work, attention to detail and, above all, tact.
Here I must pay a tribute to a most gracious lady who really deserves to have been mentioned before all others. From the day I arrived in England I never met a cleverer nor a more enthusiastic supporter of all things Hungarian than Rose Wertheimstein, the Hungarian-born wife of Charles Rothschild. Her help was invaluable as for many years she had held a unique position in London. This was doubly true at the time of my visit since, as a result of her husband’s illness, she was running the affairs of the Rothschild Bank herself. Then, and later, we could always depend on her help in any matter concerning Hungary.
In her house I almost felt I was breathing the air of my own home; and the lion’s share in any success I may have achieved in my mission was thanks to her advice and help and to her mediation on my behalf. She died just as the clouds of war were once more gathering over Europe, and so these few words of mine must be my epitaph for her. The tears form in my eyes every time I think of her.
As a result of my time in London, and of the firsthand knowledge of English foreign policy I was then able to obtain, I found nothing but cordiality in Anglo- Hungarian relations; and this feeling endured all the time I was foreign minister. Nothing, however, could change the harsh conditions that had been written into the peace treaty. Even so the propaganda we were able to make seems to have filled our enemies with some apprehension. Tilea, the last envoy sent by King Carol of Romania to London, wrote in his recent autobiography that it was my propaganda which had made necessary the visit to London at that time by the Romanian prime minister, Vaida-Voivod. To read this many years later gave me great pleasure, for the most flattering appreciation can be gleaned from what our enemies write about us. While in London I was unable to get in touch with our delegates to the peace conference in Paris. They were kept in strict seclusion at Neuilly, and communication with them was only possible on the few occasions when I found some trustworthy traveller who would take my reports to Budapest, whence they were forwarded to Neuilly. In fact, I was only able to do this twice, for confidential reports could not be entrusted to amateurs because of the great risk of their going astray. Also I was able only to summarise my discussions with the politicians in England without mentioning their names, since if ever these were indiscreetly leaked I would find every door closed against me. Because of this, it was only my discussions with the church leaders that could be reported in full, and so it soon became vitally important that I should go to Paris myself. The French authorities treated me with far more rigour than their English counterparts. I was able only to get permission for a few hours’ stopover between the arrival of the Calais express in Paris and the departure of the Trans-European the same evening. That I was able to get in touch with Bethlen during this brief time I had to thank my good friend Andor Adorján, who was then living in Paris with his French wife and editing, I seem to recall, some works of lithography. Even though it is hardly pertinent to the tale I have to tell, I feel impelled to describe this meeting in some detail because its circumstances turned out to be so hilarious. It was the most absurd anecdote of my entire diplomatic life.
I arrived in Paris about noon and found Adorján waiting to meet me on the platform. As we drove to the Hotel Continental he outlined his plan.
All the delegates to the peace conference were forbidden to come into the centre of Paris and were not allowed to contact anyone apart from their own colleagues.4 They were, however, allowed to walk in the Bois de Boulogne. And so it was arranged that Bethlen and I should meet there, at three in the afternoon, on a prearranged bench half-hidden in a thicket. It was easy to keep watch on the paths leading to this bench, so if any unknown person was seen approaching, someone would whistle a warning and we would have time to separate. Adorján and Pál Teleki agreed to be our watchdogs; and all seemed fine and dandy. It was now that a malicious Fate intervened. Adorján and his wife gave me a sumptuous lunch in the hotel. They knew from the time we had spent together at The Hague in 1919 that I was very fond of oysters and, to my great joy, had ordered a couple of dozen. Stupidly I forgot that oysters should really only be eaten in the cold weather of winter and not in a warm April. The pink-coloured Marennes looked a little suspicious, but I ate a few so as not to offend my host. Afterwards we went to the Adorjáns’ flat, and we had barely arrived when I began to feel so sick I nearly fainted. Even a small volcano was nothing compared to me at that moment and, as it seemed impossible for me to go on to the Bois de Boulogne, Adorján drove off by himself to warn Bethlen that I would not be coming. Hardly had he left than I began to feel better, so I decided to follow him. Luckily his wife knew where we were to meet, and so we boarded a taxi and set off. Perhaps it was the jolting of the taxicab that started me off again, but whatever it was we had to stop twice to obey the commands of my internal volcano. Somehow, thank God, we arrived in time.
Teleki and Adorján took up their sentry-posts and, sitting on the bench, I began my report. It was like a theatrical farce. “Robert Cecil thinks…” I would start and then, “Sorry!” as I jumped up to embrace the nearest tree. Then I would start again, “Mr Bowie, chief secretary of the Unitarian Church, promised that… Sorry!” and off to the tree again. This went on for an hour and a half, but in spite of it all I managed to relate everything I had to say and also receive Bethlen’s messages for Budapest.
That evening I was well enough to board the train and by the time I arrived home I was quite fit again. It seemed that having to deliver this fatal report had saved me from the worst effects of oyster poisoning from which people have been known to die.
When I accepted the portfolio of foreign minister I had no detailed programme ready, for, as I have already mentioned, the offer came as a complete surprise. As it happened, this was no great matter at a time when little Hungary was like an orphan standing forlornly in a corner of Europe, friendless and surrounded by enemies. It was then an open question as to which great power might be won over, and indeed, whether anyone could be won over at all. All we could do was to wait until matters settled down, for at that time the conquering nations formed a united front antagonistic to Hungary. That this was so was clear enough at the meetings of the Council of Ambassadors in Paris. Much time would have to pass before any of them could be induced to act without consulting the others.
All the same, there were signs that some countries might be prepared to act independently where their own commercial interests were concerned. For example, it was certain that the signing of the contract with Anglo-Persian Oil was effected with the knowledge of the British Foreign Office, and this had been brought about by Hungarian initiative. Some months after I had returned to England an important commercial proposition was received from France. It was linked to some political proposals and was brought to us by Dr Halmos, a businessman prominent in French commercial circles who had delivered the Millerand letter and who was therefore already known to us. Dr “Almosz”, as the French pronounced his name5 was a friend of Loucheur. His proposition was that the Hungarian State Railways should be leased to a French commercial company that would undertake to repair and put them in good working order if the Hungarian government would grant a long enough lease. The political quid pro quo was that, in return for this concession, France would take Hungary’s side in all international disputes and would support her interests.
The offer was put forward by Gyula Andrássy, and our discussions, if I remember correctly after all these years, were attended by Pál Teleki, Bethlen, Nagyatádi Szabó and, I fancy, Apponyi. At that time France, under the premiership of Poincaré, was the Allied power most interested in Europe. Italy’s attention was concentrated on her newly acquired foreign possessions and her uneasy relations with Yugoslavia, and so any question unrelated to these two preoccupations held little interest for her. It was also significant that foreign business in France had always been dictated by her foreign policy, far more than was the case in England. It had always been so. French investment in the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal, and more recently in the Russian loans, had all been financed at the demand of the Quai d’Orsay, sometimes involving great losses. It was therefore clear that the proposed contract with the Hungarian State Railways (Magyar Államvasutak – MÁV) was not only a business proposition but also had a political purpose.
It was a difficult question. For the Hungarian government to allow the direction of the national transport system to be handed over to the representatives of a foreign power required very serious consideration. It had not to be forgotten that when a state as small and weak as Hungary made a deal with a powerful foreign power then the agreement would always be one-sided no matter what the terms of the contract might specify. In the event of disagreement the stronger party would always get its own way. Nevertheless I was personally in favour of the idea as I believed that the commercial enterprise would find itself obliged to work to the advantage of Hungary if only to safeguard its profits. Furthermore, knowing the French and their many great qualities – mainly courage and a sense of honour – as well as their faults – vanity and greed – I felt that if they were treated rightly they could be guided to follow a correct path. Later on the Hungarians did lease not only the state railways but also the entire state economy so as to obtain a loan from the League of Nations and, as far as I know, no harm came of it. So, provided the text of the agreement was unexceptional, I proposed that we accept the proposition. I am sure that it would have given us a great advantage in our handling of foreign affairs and, at the very least, would have meant an early end to the desolate state of the Hungarian economy.
However the meeting decided the other way.
There was a long discussion, dominated by the most legalistic of our politicians who argued that a sovereign power could not abrogate, even temporarily, control over the running of its trains. They based their opposition almost entirely upon this one point.
It may be that they were right. It is certain that such a contract could only be successful if handled with great tact and if the lesser power understood and was able to take advantage of the psychology of the greater. If not, only trouble would ensue. With my upbringing largely influenced by French culture I was hopeful then; but today I cannot tell if I was right in that assumption. There is no way of telling and, in any case, no reason to waste words on what never happened. To speculate on what might have been is a futile exercise if the ultimate results of commission or omission are not later made clear. As it was, the Hungarian railways were soon enough running as before; and so all one can say today is that, if we had had the protection of France, our relations with our new neighbours would probably have been different from what they subsequently were without it.
(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 The White Terror was a disgraceful chapter in Hungarian history when in 1919 officer units of the new national army, soon to come under the command of Admiral Horthy, carried out a series of arbitrary acts of violence in revenge of the terror of the defeated Communist regime. Prime Minister Pál Teleki forcefully terminated this campaign.
2 Meaning “Tall House”, this sounds somewhat ludicrous to Hungarian ears.
3 In 1925 it was discovered that a huge quantity of forged French francs had been printed inside the Military Cartographic Institute. Deeply implicated, and finally found guilty of planning the fraud was Prince Lajos Windischgrätz, a prominent member of the Legitimist Party, who admitted responsibility but later claimed he had done this solely to protect the prime minister and other highly placed personages. His disingenuous apologia for this and other somewhat dubious activities are to be found in his autobiographical Helden und Halunken, which was translated into English as My Adventures and Misadventures (London, 1965).
4 This ban applied only to delegates from the defeated nations.
5 To Hungarian ears his name sounded like the Magyar word for “sleepy”, but in fact meaning “dreamer”.