As soon as I returned I made my report to the Prime Minister. We had not taken any minutes of the Marienbad meetings as this was only done when some tangible results might be expected, which was not the case with preliminary talks. However, as is the usual diplomatic practice, after each phase of the discussions I would immediately dictate to my chef de cabinet, Lajos Rudnay, a word-by-word account of what had just been said between myself and Beneš; and this account was used to give a clear picture of our talks in my report.

I also gave my account to Admiral Horthy even though at that time he did not intervene in the handling of foreign affairs in the way he was to do in later years. He trusted our judgement, particularly that of Bethlen.

Bethlen heard my report with pleasure. It was, he said, an encouraging start and we should carry on in the same fashion. However, we would have to proceed with great caution and take trouble to prepare Hungarian public opinion slowly. It was certain that Hungarian political circles would not take kindly to the realisation that the country should give up of her own free will as much of her ancient possessions as the Treaty of Trianon would wrest from us, even if we were to receive in return some territory populated by Hungarians. So legalistic was Hungarian thinking that few people would give any thought to practical gain but would blame us instead for failing to press for our just rights. Such a reaction could bring down the government, although this would not be the worst result for our country, which would in fact be the stopping of that political process we believed to be the best for the nation’s future.

Count Miklós Bánffy in 1936

He was quite right, and indeed when I talked to various political leaders, for the first time in my experience of foreign affairs, I found myself faced with that legalistic approach and that unreal and impractical way of thinking that I had only known previously from the debates in parliament under the Dual Monarchy. Even at that time, as I have written elsewhere, this attitude had poisoned public opinion and caused much trouble for us.

Then, of course, we had still been an integral part of a great power, and most people believed – myself included – that, even if the peace of Europe were to be threatened by such issues as difficulties in the Balkans or the French desire for revenge, the world would be saved from war by the careful balance preserved by the Great Powers and by the wisdom of their cabinets. This is what had happened at the time of the Agadir crisis, of the annexation of Bosnia, and when the Balkan war broke out. Hungarians always imagined themselves to be in this reassuring position and so were never really interested in foreign affairs. As regards military matters, only those that affected our relations with Austria and with the ruler were real to them. No one stopped to think of our army as a defensive wall against countries beyond our borders, or that the Dual Monarchy’s surest power lay in the strength and readiness of its forces in Europe and that it was because of this power that Hungarians remained masters in their own country. Again no one remembered that, numerically speaking, Hungary was a small nation and that, since the understanding with Austria brought about in 1867, Hungary’s ancient liberties had only been maintained in so far as she remained a part of the greater Austro-Hungarian Empire. Were this bastion to fall then it was inevitable that Hungary would stand defenceless in the event of world conflict.

Hungarian public opinion never thought about such matters and certainly did not trouble itself to try to understand them. The only “foreign” country for most people was Austria, but even here no one was much interested in what was going on or what political factions were at war with one another. No one considered the real power structure in Austrian society, for the only matters considered worthy of interest were legalistic aspects of relations with, and opposition to, the King-Emperor. This was the Hungarians’ supreme preoccupation.

It was a strange way of thinking. For the entire middle classes the only real problems were those of internal politics. Only these would rouse them, and these alone could provoke riots. In the coffee-houses perhaps some sales clerks or junior tax-collectors would sit discussing the finer points of international law and commerce, and would quarrel bitterly, as in other countries, about abstruse issues of interest only to legal specialists, but no one else bothered with such matters.

All this was characteristic of the years before the war, and I only mention it now because this legal hair-splitting found its way into the public’s conception of foreign politics and was to bedevil the handling of our foreign affairs.

This attitude must be discussed, because it is central to understanding how such a feeling was born and therefore why the Hungarians chose a road that would lead to their country’s undoing.

I shall have to approach the subject in a wide circle, even if it seems to lead me somewhat to stray from the main purpose of this book. I feel, however, that it is best to do it here because in what follows we shall meet this strange legalistic approach again and again; and I shall start by tracing first its historical origins and then its later development.

I am convinced that, just as Freud has attributed many of our adult emotions and actions to some long-forgotten happenings in our childhood, so the reactions and passions of nations today have their origins in their history. The manner in which nations react to world movements is determined by the historical past which long ago established their ruling habits of thought. The childhood of nations lies in the experiences of previous generations, and it is these experiences that have gradually and slowly over many years, shaped and formed the national spirit. Great men of their day – Gábor Bethlen, Ferenc Rákóczi, Lajos Kossuth1 – had a profound influence on the development of national ways of thinking, and our attitudes today would be incomprehensible if we did not take this into consideration, just as Napoleon, Bismarck and Lenin have left their indelible stamp on the characters and attitudes of the Frenchmen, Germans and Russians who have come after them.

These influences work both ways. The leader is never quite immune from the attitudes of his day even though it is his personality that leaves a stamp upon his times and those that follow and which defines the direction and ideals which, for many years to come will guide the aspirations, the emotions and, if you will, the spirit of the people. This is so important that it should only be with the deepest sense of responsibility that anyone should venture upon trying to be a nation’s leader. Such a man’s virtues and faults can have their effects for centuries to come.

I believe that the tragedy of Hungary’s present situation cannot be understood if we do not look carefully at our history. The key to today lies in the struggles and torments, battles, sins and omissions of the past.

I would like to present a short survey of the last few centuries of Hungarian history to show how the political attitudes of today have developed.


The story of Hungary’s troubles really began at Mohács.2 This disaster and the following Turkish conquest divided the country into three parts. In the conquered territory all Hungarian political life came to a stop and the land was ruled by pashas, begues and spahoglans. The nobles fled to the north, to the west or eastwards to Transylvania. The country people and the serfs mostly stayed where they were, for they had no part to play and nothing to do except try to stay alive.

The western and northern regions of the country came under Habsburg rule, and this part of the land kept the name and constitution of the kingdom of Hungary. On paper, it still figured as a country independent in its own right and owing allegiance only to its king. In reality, Hungary was little different from the other provinces owned by the Austrian monarchy. These too had their own constitutions from the beginning of the 17th century. The rights and powers of the Czech, Austrian and the Tyrolean peoples differed only slightly from those of the Hungarians. Each had the power to raise taxes and make laws, and the Czechs even had their own king.3 Nevertheless, they had in reality only the character of provinces under a common ruler, since the direction of nearly all affairs remained in the hands of that ruler and all important decisions regarding the economy or the army were made by him.

In those days the relationship between king and country was much the same in many other countries of Europe. The difference was that in countries like France and Spain the ruling monarch identified himself only with the interests of his own country, whereas the Habsburg emperor, having so many diverse countries under his sway, was bound to have as many diverse interests. The Habsburg hegemony had largely been acquired through inheritance and was only held together by the dynasty to which these multifarious territories owed their allegiance.

In countries where there was a national monarch, the fact that the subjects’ powers were limited to having a hand in law-making and tax-raising was not necessarily a disadvantage, since a national monarch, like a benevolent father providing for his family, would work to make his country prosper and so deepen the nation’s pride in itself. It was also in the monarch’s own interest to do so, since his power and prestige depended on that of the country he ruled. With it he rose or sank. The unity of the French and Spanish kingdoms was cemented because their ruling monarchs were truly national, whereas parliamentary government had been known to be the opponent rather than the promoter of such unity.

But the sway of the Austrian Habsburgs was very different. Since the 13th century the rulers of Austria had also been emperors of the Holy Roman Empire. This title had been invented so as to postulate a single ruler of the whole world, as it was then known, and its holder was the greatest feudal lord in Europe and also the worldly leader of the Roman Catholic Church, just as the pope was its spiritual leader. It was the Habsburgs’ ambition truly to realise this intention, although only the Ottonians and, for a short time, Charles V, attained it.

Nevertheless, the dream floated continually before the eyes of successive Habsburg monarchs; and the many different countries over which they ruled were expected to serve the same goal, each according to its geographical position and capacity to contribute to the common ideal. Moravia, the Czech people and the two Austrias – Styria and Carinthia – furnished recruits to the army, silver and iron. Tyrol was the gateway to Italy, while the lands in Alsace and Flanders formed a defensive rampart against the French, much as the narrow strip of the kingdom of Hungary did against the Turks. Although gold from Hungarian mines was an important asset, the real value of Hungary to the emperor was that the country was like the outworks of a castle stronghold from which the main walls and the gates could be defended, where the enemy could be held at bay, where forces gathered before a sortie and where they re-grouped after a defeat. It was where defensive skirmishes took place, and if men were killed there it did not greatly matter, for it was more important to hold the inner castle. For the Habsburgs the inner castle was Vienna and the hereditary lands. Hungary was used by the emperor to defend this stronghold and, from the beginning of the 16th century until well into the 18th century, this was Hungary’s only value for the dynasty.

It was for this reason that the growth, development and well-being of little Hungary was of small interest to the man who was Hungary’s king; for between the ruler and the ruled there did not, and could not, exist that paternal relationship which tied a native monarch to his people. The Hungarian gentry felt this strongly when, after Mohács, they chose a Hungarian king, and unfortunately it was with him that Hungary’s tragic future was to start; for King John I (János Szapolyai) was too weak in every respect to achieve what was expected of him.

And then there was Transylvania. To contemporary eyes the peculiar situation of that province was not yet clear, except that in the fifteen years of ineffective struggle against the Turks that followed the defeat of Mohács it was accepted that for the time being Transylvania could not be rescued from the Turks.

The reality of the situation was finally expressed by Friar George in 1542 in the Agreement of Gyalu which postulated, in effect, that direct rule by the king of Hungary would only be accorded when that king should prove stronger than the Turks, but not before.

This decision showed sound political judgement. The Turkish Empire was all-powerful to the east and south, in the Havasalföld [Valachia] and Moldavia, while to the west were the newly conquered lands. Transylvania was thus poised as if between the jaws of a giant pair of pincers, ready to be crushed. Between the kingdom of Hungary and the province there was only a narrow strip of unconquered land along the Erdős Kárpátok [the Carpathian Forests], and the only road followed the Upper Tisza and the Lower Szamos rivers. Therefore there was no alternative to autonomy for the province, both for political and geographic reasons. The fact that, despite geographical position and political necessity, it was still possible to build up, however modestly, a flourishing Hungarian way of life, was due to other and deeper reasons.

At the time of the Árpád kings4 Transylvania had been a separately governed province. More important, however, was the fact that in the hundred years after 1437 a spiritual fusion between the three ethnic groups that constituted the people had grown and developed into a real sense of mutual dependence and self-protection. That this sense of mutual interest and help for one another was only rarely manifested in the first fifty years of Transylvania’s autonomy – and even on occasion briefly deteriorated into mutual hostility – proved nothing, for brothers often have their disagreements. What was important was that the feeling of solidarity was at the very core of Transylvania’s survival as an entity of its own. At this time that part of Hungary under Habsburg rule had no national cohesion at all. The region beyond the Danube was merely a string of border fortresses. In the north it was much the same, while other parts of the country remained under Turkish domination. Only in Transylvania did a living form of national consciousness develop under the sway of a truly national ruler.

The mansion complex under restoration from the massive damage caused by the retreating Wehrmacht in 1945 due to Bánffy’s anti-Nazi stance. Bonchida (Bonțida, Romania), 2010s. Photo by Géza Entz
The Bánffys’ estate centre (17th–20th centuries) and residence of Miklós Bánffy in Bonchida (Bonțida, Romania) in the 1930s

Contact was retained with the kingdom of Hungary and at the same time Turkish suzerainty was acknowledged, with the result that Transylvania obtained from the Porte far greater autonomy than was experienced by Moldavia or the Havasalföld, where the rulers had been nominated by Istanbul.

In Europe a new era of absolutism dawned after the Peace of Westphalia.5 Constitutional government ceased to exist and was replaced by the absolute power of the ruler, and this brought with it a pronounced improvement in statesmanship, a new respect for the national interest, a keener appreciation of the need for sound economic policy, the development of industry and the exploitation of customs levies. Commerce was developed and experiments made with taxation policies. At this time countries where the national monarch had absolute power achieved real progress from the stagnation of the past.

The Habsburgs also tried the absolutist approach, and this worked well in their hereditary lands. Now was the beginning of the industrial prosperity of the Czechs, for there the tax burden was extended to include the nobility and the clergy. The dynasty here achieved its undoubted autocracy without difficulty, since Bohemia had no constitution since the Battle of the White Mountain (1620).6 Here, as in the hereditary lands, the Habsburgs imposed direct rule from Vienna, and so effective was the wide influence and power of the court that the transition to absolutism was achieved without opposition, since popular opinion saw nothing but advantages to be gained from the victory of state power over the diverse interests of class and race. Clearly this meant the simplification of government, the unification of the laws and increased security for all. The imperial government was Germanic, and most of the territories, or at least their governing classes, were Germanic too. In this way every vital force was on the side of the court. Members of the nobility were drawn to leading posts in the national administration, the clergy were united by the re-imposition of Catholicism, while the petty nobility, the middle classes and the leaders of industry found themselves united by a common interest in supporting the system. Harmony was thus achieved between the policies of the ruler and the interests of the ruled.

But in Hungary this harmony could never be realised, for the simple reason that harmony between the monarch and people could only be built upon mutual confidence, and here confidence was lacking on both sides.

The emperor was unable to forget that while he was engaged in the fierce battles of the Thirty Years’ War, and even before this when he was defending his power in Western Europe, his Hungarian subjects had not only failed to come to his aid but had also on numerous occasions sided with his enemies, be they Turks, Swedes, French, or even Transylvanians. The insurrections led by Bocskai, Bethlen and Rákóczi7 were supported by the whole kingdom to the point that few Hungarians stood by the legal ruler.

On their side, the Hungarians could not forget that their own king seemed to hold them in small consideration, neither honouring his promises nor providing for their defence – or only doing so in a derisory fashion – and that consequently between the capture of Buda by the Turks (1541) and its liberation (1686) their country had declined into a state of decay. The imperial government seemed not only incompetent but also unscrupulous in everything that concerned the well-being of Hungary, and this was compounded by the undoubted fact that in this government the last word came always from foreigners.

After the defeat of the Turks at the battle of St Gothard (1686)8 a twenty-year peace treaty was signed with the Ottoman empire but, instead of profiting by this success, the Hungarian king left the Turks in control of a large part of Hungarian territory so as to have a free hand in his western wars, thereby once again breaking the promise to which he owed his throne, namely to defend the country.

Not only did he fail to exploit this victory over the Turks but he also used it to abolish Hungary’s constitution. Gathering a Diet together was a slow and complicated business: how much quicker and more modern was a system of absolutism by which government was effected by decree. So this is what Vienna did. The last vestige of the Diet’s control, the voting of the taxes, was also bypassed by placing the maintenance of the armed forces stationed in the country on the shoulders of each territory. The Diet did not have to meet for that: a simple decree sufficed – this city or county had to pay this or that sum. Who needed a Diet for that?

Cities became poorer. Entire villages faced destitution, and their populations moved to the Turkish-occupied territories to escape the blackmail imposed by Flemish, Serb or German mercenaries. The re-imposition of Roman Catholicism was also achieved by force, especially where the majority had long been Protestant.

The castles of the nobility were garrisoned by foreign troops. There was no place for Hungarians in the central government, where everything was decided by Czechs and Germans. Sometimes it would happen that the voices of the native palatine, chief justice or treasurer would be heard, but they had no authority in the Council. Every decision taken was based upon whether or not it was to the advantage of the hereditary Habsburg lands and whether their defence or economy would benefit.

More and more conspiracies provoked more and more unrest, usually punished by confiscation of property. Many of those who suffered in this way took refuge in Poland, Transylvania or with the Turks; and when war was declared between the empire and France, there was open rebellion in Hungary led by Thököly.

The billiard room in Miklós Bánffy’s mansion in Bonchida (Bonțida, Romania), 1935

This was the state of relations between the king and his Hungarian people when, after a few years, the war of liberation from the Turks was started with the formation of a new Holy League by the Pope, the emperor, the king of Poland and the Venetian Republic.9


Liberation from Turkish domination proved to be a new turning point in Hungarian history, for it had a decisive effect upon the development of the role of Hungary in relation to the Habsburg monarchy.

It was here that the standpoint of the leading Hungarians proved crucial, for they found themselves not on the side of the liberators but on that of the Turks; and in this their example was freely followed by the mass of the people.

Why Thököly remained in hiding with his Turkish allies was understandable, for the position and power he had gained had been through insurrection against Vienna. Although many of the grievances which had led to his uprising had been settled by the meeting of the Diet in 1681 – a moment when he could have made his peace with Vienna –, one can sympathise with his reluctance to abandon a patron to whom he had owed his previous success. He was not a man to change allegiance from one day to the next.

Less understandable was the attitude then adopted by the men of Transylvania. Mihály Apaffy and his all-powerful chancellor Teleki had no such moral obligations, and both hated Thököly; yet they adopted a similar attitude to his. It was possible they were inspired by a spirit of rivalry, for the last thing they wanted was that a kuruc [Name given to soldiers and sympathisers taking part in the anti-Habsburg insurrections in the 17th and 18th centuries.] king should be on better terms with the Porte than they. So they remained on the Turkish side even though they had witnessed the terrible defeat of the Grand Vizier before the walls of Vienna and the humiliation inflicted upon his army. They even persevered in this when Buda had already been liberated and Thököly had fled. It was almost as if they had been hypnotised by the power of the Turkish hegemony.

Teleki, however, to save his own skin, secretly made his own peace with Vienna, although he still reiterated his allegiance to the Porte in council and in the Diet. Worse than this, he then proved sufficiently two-faced publicly to denounce Miklós Bethlen, who had proposed that Transylvania should now join the liberating power.

That this would not have been easily achieved is clear, for the oppression of the previous decades, the inquisition and religious persecutions were still fresh in everyone’s memories. The Austrian armies, composed of Flemings, Germans and Prussians, tormented the people no less than had the Turks. Yet if on the king’s side there had been a commander like the soldier and poet Zrínyi, or like the great Palatine, Miklós Esterházy,10 or even better if at the head of Transylvanian affairs had stood statesmen of the quality of Gábor Bethlen or of the much earlier Friar George, things would have taken a different turn. These men, with their highly developed political sense, would have grasped that the western coalition represented a far more powerful force than had ever previously been brought to combat the power of the Ottomans, and they would have seen that this was the moment when they could – and indeed should – have broken with the Porte and so put Transylvania at the head of the Hungarian offensive against the Turkish Empire. There is little doubt that Apaffy and Teleki could then have achieved this, just as Zsigmond Báthory, facing far stronger opposition, had done a century before.

But this historical opportunity was missed, and in the event the majority of the Hungarian people – some still in the Turkish camp and not many more on the side of the liberators – as well as the Transylvanians, remained passive spectators while their Habsburg king with his foreign mercenaries liberated the country. Hungarian help was largely limited to furnishing some light cavalry patrols and some auxiliary troops.

These circumstances had a fatal effect on later developments.

The government in Vienna – not without reason – decided that as it was their troops that had brought about the liberation of Hungary, so the country was theirs to dispose of as they wished.

The constitution was maintained, but for form’s sake alone, only to be invoked if necessary, and everything was decided by the central government in Vienna without any reference to Hungarian opinion. Even so, the Palatine, Pál Esterházy, did his best to establish a government with jurisdiction only within the borders of Hungary (including the re-conquered territories), but which would have control over the two most important national responsibilities: defence and economic development.

He had no chance of succeeding, since the government in Vienna held a very different view of how things should be done in Hungary. In no way would it consider relinquishing control of the armed forces, nor was it prepared to give any power to the Hungarians, whom it had never trusted before and now, after the proof of Apaffy’s and Thököly’s allegiance to the Turks, trusted even less. This was retaliation for Apaffy’s sin of omission. If a sizeable Hungarian force with a Transylvanian leader had helped in chasing out the Ottomans, Transylvania and the Hungarians might have had their say in establishing a new order in the kingdom. As it was, they were excluded, and direct rule from Vienna was immediately imposed.

In these circumstances it was natural that the country felt it could defend itself only by strict insistence on the rule of law. The Hungarians’ sole shields against the forces of absolutism were found to reside in the ancient laws of the country and in the king’s coronation oath. These were the only defences left to them. In this they were not mistaken. The central government was to find itself in need of help from the Hungarian people, as, for example, when scared by the widespread growth of unrest in 1681, or when their cooperation was essential, as in matters of succession to the throne. It was such occasions as these, when a new oath or proclamation was to be made – even if it was not to last for long – that proved to the nation the strength and importance of adherence to its constitution and how important it was that they should not allow it to be changed in any way. It became deeply ingrained in the national conscience that if they should permit any modification, any alloy to be inserted – even were it only in respect of some ancient patriotic feeling – then the Tripartitum, that tightly stretched chain, would fall to pieces the day even one small link was allowed to fall from it. It stood as read that one of the most important factors in this defensive battle with Vienna was the understanding that, as both Emperor Leopold and his sons were deeply religious men, they could be trusted not to break their oath.

The city mansion of the Bánffys in the main square of Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca, Romania), designed by Johann Eberhard Blaumann and built in 1774–1786

The conviction that the written word always triumphed in the end became the cornerstone of Hungarian political thinking.

During the 18th century this feeling became ever stronger, while other political realities paled beside it. The earlier insurrections led by Bocskai, Bethlen and György Rákóczi had been started in defence of the national constitution, and they had resulted in the re-establishment of the ancient Hungarian laws. It was the same with Thököly and Ferenc Rákóczi. That those first successes in re-establishing the common law of the land were in great measure due to the Thirty Years’ War and later to the war between Austria and France – and that these victories were brought about by the political realities following the peace treaty of Szatmár and the assembly of the Diet at Sopron – may have been grasped by the leaders of the day but was never understood by the Hungarian people.

The same could be said of the Diet’s successes in 1790 even though Emperor Joseph II had already found himself obliged to withdraw many of his decrees. At this time, although the stubborn resistance of the counties had carried some weight, the deciding factors had been economic chaos and the problems of foreign policy. The loss of the Belgian provinces, the unsuccessful war with Turkey and the growing tension with Prussia broke the will of the dying emperor. His successor, Leopold II, found it necessary to re-establish national government in Hungary but only so as to have a free hand to make order in the growing confusion of the empire. The revolutionary ideas percolating from France posed little threat to Hungary but were spreading their poison in the Belgian and Italian provinces as well as those that bordered the Rhine. This threat of revolution and its possible effects were clear enough to Leopold who, as Grand Duke of Tuscany, had ruled as an enlightened reformer with methods very different from those of his older brother. But now, although as King of Hungary he might formerly have followed his brother’s less enlightened example, he promptly offered plans of reform to the Hungarian Diet and allowed the old popular constitution to be restored without demanding any changes at all.

In this way the great things that were happening in Europe played a decisive part in the development of Hungary’s political destiny. The country’s subsequent successes, disasters, movements and sins of omission cannot be understood unless this is fully understood too.

This was hardly noticed either by the average Hungarian or by the national historians. They saw only that the written law was ultimately successful, and the lesson they learned from this was that nothing was stronger than the law.

The 1848 crisis and its solution in 1867 seemed to prove the same argument, and even Ferenc Deák11 constantly referred to the law as existing in 1848 in his 1867 negotiations. For him this was the most sensible tactic, as he was dealing with an emperor anxious to secure his throne by winning the sympathy of the Hungarian people. The signatories to the 1867 agreement knew this well, even if the Hungarian public grasped neither this nor the fact that there would have been no negotiations if Austria had not just lost two wars, one in 1859 and the other in 1866, both of which had gravely shaken her economy as well as diminishing her standing with the other Great Powers.

Hungarians still saw only the triumph of law over violence, and this is the origin of all dependence on legalistic thought in Hungary.

And national historians continued to interpret the story of Hungary from 1867 to the end of the century from the same point of view.

In human terms it is not difficult to sympathise with those historians who had themselves lived through the era of absolute despotism and witnessed the never-ending executions and imprisonments of the oppressive Bach regime.12 Their entire lives had been lived with these memories, as had those whose only experiences of being harassed by the Austrian police had taken place in their childhood. Here is an example. It happened to my father in 1850.

My grandparents had a house in Pest in what was later called Széchenyi Square. There was a narrow strip of garden by the house where my father, then aged seven, often played. He wore a grey linen suit with braids instead of buttons, and he was extremely proud of it thinking it very Hungarian indeed. A passing policeman caught sight of the boy and as he too thought the suit Hungarian, took out a pair of scissors and threatened to cut off the offending braids. My father ran away, the policeman ran after him. Luckily the door of the house was not far away, and my father was nimble enough to dash up the stairs before the officer of the law could catch him. All the same the catchpole yelled after him: “Rebellhund! Sau-magyar!” – “Rebel dog! Hungarian swine!” Even in old age my father would swell up with anger as he told the tale.

Other children must have had similar experiences, and so it is natural that the generation of historians who had seen what had happened in Hungary after 1867 would tend to write in extreme terms, praising anyone who opposed the rule of Vienna and casting the blame for the failures of patriotic heroes not on the shifting balance of European power but rather on intrigue and treason. Eminent and sensible men, good Hungarians all of them, such as Palatine Miklós Esterházy, Péter Pázmány, General János Pálffy, Ferenc Széchenyi, and György Festetics – realists who understood when it was fruitless to fight the decrees of Vienna – were either ignored or vilified. Those of them who, after the failure of a struggle against the government in Vienna found themselves obliged to accept the situation and do what they could to salvage what still remained to them, were branded as traitors. This is why Sándor Károlyi was called a traitor for coming to such an agreement with Pálffy in the peace of Szatmár in which there was no possibility of retaliation, while in contrast Rákóczi, had he so wished, could have remained in the country and retained all his possessions. This is why Görgey was also called a traitor even though it was obvious that Kossuth, while himself fleeing abroad, had appointed him governor at a time when the military situation was hopeless. Surrounded and with his army cut to shreds, Görgey had no alternative but to surrender. His decision to give himself up to the Russians and not to the Austrians showed that he hoped the Russians would treat as prisoners of war the Hungarian soldiers who had been fighting for their freedom. In this he was not mistaken, and it was not his fault that they were later handed over to Haynau by order of the tsar. Nevertheless, history has branded Görgey a traitor and so he has remained to this day.

It was this sort of biased history that was taught to generations of Hungarian youth: to teachers, professors and country schoolmasters. In this way Hungarian thought was saturated with a historical creed that was both false and incomplete, and reinforced the popular conviction that reliance could only be placed in the law.

All this had a further deleterious effect on Hungarian political thought.

Without exception, every leader of popular protest failed in his mission. These men were tragic heroes, but they achieved nothing: and so for us they had something akin to the Jewish ideal of the Messiah who would suffer for the sins of others. This may seem beautiful in religious terms, but it can be unrewarding when it comes to politics because the role models are not men who have achieved anything for their country but rather those who have become martyrs in the attempt. In the public eye the glory lay in their misfortunes. Bocskai, Gábor Bethlen and György Rákóczi were not popular figures even though they stood for freedom of religion as the very foundation of Hungary’s constitutional life and spent their lives defending it. Even István Széchenyi has never been loved – however much may be written about him, and despite the fact that in Buda and Pest he built the Chain Bridge and the Academy; tamed the Vaskapu (the Iron Gates); brought under control the flow of the rivers and revitalised navigation on the Danube; that it was he who so reorganised the breeding of horses as to be the real creator of the Hungarian bloodstock industry; he who was the first to liberate his serfs; and who was sufficiently farsighted to predict the adversities that, within a few months, would bring ruin to the country. What Ferenc Deák actually did is now often forgotten even though it was he who, in 1867, obtained for Hungary more independence than it had known since the Habsburgs had inherited the throne. The popular names are Thököly, and even more so Ferenc Rákóczi and Kossuth, whose policies led only to disaster: the first on the plains of Majtény and the second at Világos. Although it is beautiful and praiseworthy for a nation to remember and revere its heroes, from the point of view of political understanding it can only do harm to forget that the real basis of national prosperity lies in realistic and creative work that is successful.

The courtyard façade of the Bánffys’ city mansion in the main square of Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca, Romania), designed by Johann Eberhard Blaumann and built in 1774–1786

A further disservice to the nation was inflicted by the lopsided rendering of our history as taught by those historians of the past century who followed the lead of Thaly, the self-appointed court chronicler to Rákóczi.

According to them, the downfall of their heroes was not brought about by the military might of the Habsburg army – previously occupied elsewhere but now free to bring its full force against the Hungarian uprising due to the improved situation in other parts of Europe – but was really caused by either a lack of conviction and confidence on the part of their followers or by treason. This argument took it as self-evident that in reality the Hungarian people were naturally so strong that their victory in war was certain unless they were betrayed. The historical truth that, despite its courage, Hungary was such a small country numerically that it could never ultimately prevail against the strength of the Germanic Austrian Empire escaped their notice. Led by Jenő Rákosi, a whole school of Hungarian sages taught and thought in terms of twenty million Hungarians and a realm that stretched “from the Carpathians to the Adriatic”.

It is easy to comprehend how this view became so popular, for it fed the national vanity and that tendency to exaggeration to which Hungarians have always been so inclined.

The generation before the First World War grew up with this teaching, and because it was taught in all the schools it soon became accepted as patriotic dogma. Those who praised it were patriotic; those who dared express doubts were not. Public opinion degenerated to the point where no one would accept the smallest criticism of the idealised popular heroes and became incensed if anyone spoke of them realistically. Typical of this attitude is what happened when an eminent historian of the new school wrote truthfully about the flight of Rákóczi. Such a storm broke out that the students broke into the bookshops, seized all copies of the offending works, made a bonfire of them in the marketplace and burned the lot. This occurred everywhere, not just in one or two cities.

I have described this particular aspect of Hungarian public opinion in such detail because without having fully grasped what people thought it is almost impossible to understand later events. The Hungarian conviction that the law is stronger than anything else and will always ultimately be victorious will be with us throughout everything I have to tell.

This sympathy for the theory of martyrdom, which is so flattering to the national consciousness, and the fact that unsuccessful venture, rather than political success, will always win the heart of the people – who, as they say in England, always loves the underdog – had some surprising effects. King Karl’s return at Easter, which to every thinking mind only proved his childish thoughtlessness, had its partisans. “Look!” they said. “Our king loves Hungary! How wonderful! How nice he is!” That Hungary would only have meant for him a springboard from which he would leap towards Vienna, that his restoration in Budapest would have brought about a new invasion and the destruction of what remained of our small country, was never even considered by those who now discovered their royalist sympathies. Before King Karl’s first putsch most of these people had never given a thought to him or supported the Habsburgs. Until then most people who still wanted a monarchy only thought in terms of the policy of Admiral Horthy, although there were others who dabbled in the idea of selecting some member of the Italian royal family or even Prince Teck, the Queen of England’s brother and a descendant, on the female line, of a Rhédey Prince of Transylvania.13

There was, perhaps, slightly more reason to think of this last personage than of any member of the House of Savoy. While in London I met a man called Felbermann, who busied himself promoting the cause of Prince Teck. He was a pleasant well-meaning little man who hailed originally from the Erzsébet Quarter of Budapest. He had lived for many years in London and there acquired a fortune and taken British citizenship. He had also become friendly with the Teck family and written a book about them and their connections with Hungary. He gave me a finely bound copy of this.14

I believe that it was due to his influence that Prince Teck visited Hungary with his wife some time at the end of 1920 or the beginning of 1921. It seems likely that Felbermann had suggested to Teck that he should show himself there and that, if the Hungarians – whose enthusiasms were lightly given – should take to him then would it not be better to sit on the throne of a small country than to live in London on an empty purse? Naturally he was made much of in Budapest, for even a semi-royal prince was a rare bird for us in those days. We gave him an excellent supper in the ground-floor hall of the National Kaszinó Club, with many flowers, gleaming silver, fine food and fine wines – very fine wines and plenty of them.

After the supper several of us, all men, sat round the prince. He was a tall handsome man, florid of complexion, with a small fair moustache: the type they call in England a “military man” – which always means good-looking but does not necessarily suggest the possession of brains. The conversation turned to the guest’s Hungarian forebears, and one of us asked the prince if he possessed any work of art or weapon that had belonged to his ancestor, Prince Rhédey. “Oh yes I have”, he replied. “I inherited his sword.” Someone must have whispered in his ear that I collected old Hungarian weapons, for he then said, not to me but to the general company: “I wonder what it can be worth? I have no use for it and would gladly sell it.”15 Poor Prince! He was always short of money. His debts had more than once been paid by his sister, the queen, and so it was understandable that, after drinking a substantial quantity of heavy wine, he might think of peddling his great-grandfather’s sword in Hungary. However, it hardly sounded encouraging from the lips of one who might become a candidate for the throne. He was promptly nicknamed “Prince Tök” – “Prince Pumpkin” – and this was the sole result of his visit to Hungary.

After King Karl’s escapade to Szombathely no other pretender to the throne of Hungary was ever considered or even mentioned. This was when the legitimist movement had its beginnings, even if only with a number of aristocrats, some leaders of the Catholic Church, a few Jewish bankers and those officers of the old combined Austro-Hungarian Army whose most cherished memories were of their youth in the Imperial capital.

Miklós Bánffy’s costume design for Weber’s Oberon at the Opera House

But for those events now about to confront us in the summer of 1921 this sudden recrudescence of legitimist feeling did fatal and irreparable damage, for this was the moment when we had to face the cruellest condition imposed upon us by the Treaty of Trianon: namely the surrender to Austria, our former ally and comrade in arms, of a part of our sovereign territory [Burgenland].

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 Three of Hungary’s most revered patriots.

2 On 29 August 1526 King Louis II of Hungary was defeated by the forces of the Sultan Suleyman I. The king and the greater part of the Hungarian army lost their lives in the battle; and, although the Turks briefly retreated, by 1541 the area they controlled reached as far as Buda.

3 From the mid-17th century in the person of the emperor of Austria.

4 King Stephen I, who founded the Árpád dynasty in 996, was the first monarch of a united Hungary. The Árpáds’ rule lasted for some three hundred years. Many of the noble families of Hungary and Transylvania claim descent from the Árpád kings.

5 The two treaties of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 brought an end to the Thirty Years’ War, which had devastated Central Europe in the first half of the 17th century.

6 In fact, following the defeat and expulsion of the independent King Frederick, husband of the Winter Queen, Elizabeth Stuart, sister of England’s Charles I, Bohemia was incorporated into the Habsburg domains, and a new and stricter constitution was imposed in 1627.

7 The complications of the struggle against the Habsburgs at the time when Hungary was also menaced by the Turks are described in full in History of Transylvania, issued by the Budapest Akadémiai Kiadó in 1994.

8 In western Hungary near the Austrian border.

9 This happened in 1684, the king of Poland being John III Sobieski. The first Holy League had been proposed by the Pope in 1569 and ratified by Spain, the Papacy and Venice in the summer of 1571, just four months before the decisive defeat of the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto.

10 Count Miklós Esterházy was Palatine when, in 1627–1628, he discussed with Archbishop Péter Pázmány the prospect of launching a war against the Porte from Transylvania.

11 Ferenc Deák’s period of influence was the troubled times of the 1848 Revolution that led, finally, to the 1867 compromise, incorporating many of the principles of Hungarian independence which he had declared to be essential and unchangeable.

12 Baron von Bach became effective ruler of Hungary after the suppression of the 1848 Revolution by the Habsburgs. The terror his rule inspired was only brought to an end in 1867.

13 There seems to be some confusion here. A note in the Hungarian edition states that this Prince Teck was a brother of Queen Mary who had once been proposed as a husband for one of Archduke Joseph’s daughters. This is clearly unlikely since both brothers had been married years before the war. They had given up their German titles in 1917 when the elder was created Marquis of Cambridge and the younger Earl of Athlone. Lord Cambridge’s son was not married until 1923 and was no longer entitled to call himself Prince Teck. Lord Athlone had no son. Who then was this Prince Teck?

14 The House of Teck by Louis Felbermann (London 1911).

15 These lines appear in English in Bánffy’s text.

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