“Hungary’s greedy and opportunistic neighbours – Romania, Czecho-Slovakia, Yugoslavia, and even Austria – finished carving up pre-war borders only when they got as much as they thought possible, taking full advantage of major power leniency stretched to the maximum. Then having exhausted their ability to expand, they reluctantly abandoned further land surgery.”

Any number of peoples can lay sad claim to national suffering. And some, sadder still, can pick more than one day or event in their history to remember tearfully. Hungarians lament 29 August 1526, the Battle of Mohács and 13 August 1849, the end of the War of Independence. If, however, forced to choose one moment in time above all others marred by calumny and national humiliation it is surely 4 June 1920. Contemporary Hungarian newspapers outlined that day in black bunting to express indignation and mourning after the signing of the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary’s settlement with the victors at the end of the First World War. Thereafter flags were flown at half mast until 1938. Now approaching a century since the signing, Trianon remains synonymous in the Hungarian vocabulary with the worst possible and treacherous betrayal imaginable. According to Ignác Romsics, “Hungary truly was dismembered, or ‘mutilated’”.1 Echoing the sentiment, Paul Lendvai wrote that “since the partition of Poland, no other country was treated by the Great Powers so mercilessly and so unjustly as historical Hungary”.2 Miklós Zeidler described the onerous treaty attributable to “fate, treason, injustice, misleading, malevolence, intentional falsification of conditions and vengeance”.3

The immediate roots of Trianon are intertwined in the lengthy, often acrimonious, negotiations among the victors of the Great War – primarily France, Britain, the United States and Italy – at the one-time hunting lodge of French royalty near Paris at Versailles. 2019 marks the centennial anniversary of the Treaty of Versailles, the peace settlement – first prepared for Germany – that emerged from the travails of the so-called Great War, Europe’s plunge into chaos between 1914 and 1918. For Hungary the ultimate outcome, delayed until 1920, was particularly unpleasant. Admittedly the armistice and negotiations for peace were welcome from the standpoint of bringing a losing cause to an end and promising relief to the long-suffering civilian population. But the terms of settlement were bound to be determined by powers either unfamiliar with Hungary or downright hostile and itching to take advantage of a nearly prostrate nation.

The most likely source of anything close to sympathy or understanding, at least in theory, might be found in the United States. President Woodrow Wilson’s peace objectives, commonly known as the Fourteen Points, provided the illusion of an acceptable, perhaps even generous, settlement. But in the tangled cobweb of national interests, resolutely maintained by the decision-makers of each nation involved, Hungary’s hopes were too fragile to survive the lengthy conference at Versailles. In general, France and Britain sought to cage German expansion; Italy lobbied for territorial acquisitions, while the United States seemed naively surprised to be caught in the middle of arguments with wartime allies. 28 delegations representing the Allied and Associated Powers vied to grab whatever scraps of the spoils might be available. Meanwhile, Hungary had few, if any, advocates to counter a host of enemies in the victors’ camp.

Initially, however, there was a brief glimmer of hope for Budapest. Although slim in detail the tenth of Wilson’s points pledged that “[t]he peoples of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity of autonomous development”.4 Therein was an implied promise of Magyar autonomy, which was the preferred reading on the banks of the Danube. But there were other, more troubling possible interpretations. Multiple claims for self-government favoured the minority populations of Central Europe, especially if the Allies kept agreements rewarded when soliciting wartime alliances to counter the Central Powers. When American planning for the post-war took shape as early as September 1917, the president commissioned “The Inquiry” which envisioned an Austria–Hungary “in which the Czechs and Croats have the political power to which their numbers entitle them”.5 What that might mean was jumbled when the polyglot empire fractured into the separate countries of Austria and Hungary, acknowledged by the Hungarian Parliament on 31 October 1918.

By 1942 the dust of the Great War settled enough for the Department of State to release the first of thirteen volumes containing minutes of conference meetings and related correspondence.6 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt commissioned the work to glean the Versailles negotiations as an aid for the anticipated peacemaking efforts to follow the Second World War. By that time Versailles had a specifically German application with no thought of the additional treaties spawned to deal with all the defeated nations. The collection detailed the hurdles in implementing the 1919 armistice to be followed hopefully by a just and lasting peace. Given the many obstacles, most significantly the conflicting national interests of the major powers, the tasks of peacemaking were monumental. The course of subsequent European events seemed responsible for ushering in violence of such a nature to prove the war to end wars spawned the peace to end peace. While Versailles alone was not responsible for the outbreak of European conflict after a shaky two-decade interlude, it nevertheless made the resumption of warfare more likely than not. Without question there were lessons that could have been extracted. That they were not adequate to preserve peace is another story.

From the outset, the victorious powers were so focused on trying to decide what to do about Germany that everything else was shifted to the back burner, indeed, for all intents and purposes, nearly brushed off the proverbial stove. Partners in the losing cause – Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire – waited month after month for word about their fate while the German treaty held precedence. After lengthy and sometimes heated deliberations, long after the Armistice signed on 11 November 1918, the Germans received the terms on 2 May 1919, accompanied by the consensual fear that Germany would baulk or outright refuse to submit. For their part, as desirous as the decision-makers of the Allied and Associated Powers may have been to ensure that Germany was sufficiently manacled to prevent any future disturbance, they feared what it might cost to enforce peace terms and were handicapped in fashioning a formula that might guarantee acceptance of their wishes.

With good reason Germany held centre stage, generally if unfairly regarded as the primary instigator of the war and the heart of the enemy powers and, as such, the greatest potential threat to future peace. Germany hogged the limelight so long that the other defeated nations were at a considerable disadvantage as they waited for a resolution in which they had no direct representation and little recourse except to yield to decisions of the Supreme Council of the Allied and Associated Powers or seek revision of the terms. Even after the Germans reluctantly signed their treaty at centre stage on 28 June 1919, lasting peace remained an elusive goal as German acquiescence was neither immediate nor unconditional. Things would have been much different had the Germans and their allies simply submitted without reservations, but failure to gain unconditional compliance likely would require additional military action. Succinctly put, the war bled all participants, the victors as well as the vanquished, even those marginally involved, more than enough to discourage any serious thought about resorting to force.

And the end of the war was anything but tidy. According to textbooks dependent upon simplistic and misleading bookends to designate human events, wars begin and end at a specific time, day, month and year such as the oft-quoted sentiment that the guns of the Great War fell silent on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. But like a poorly tuned gasoline engine shutting down, there were trailing discharges until silence prevailed. On the battlefield plans often go awry, a phenomenon known as friction, and the armistice and peace plans suffered the same problem. What the victors may have imagined or hoped was, to a great extent, not so easily accomplished. For instance, German leaders stalled when implementing the terms of armistice and then fought the peace terms thus delaying the ultimate outcome. On 13 May 1919, German bishops appealed to a higher power and “begged the Holy Father to intervene in order to have the conditions of peace mitigated”.7 In a revealing bid Count Karl Christian von Brockdorff-Rantzau, head of the German delegation summoned to Paris, first appealed to French Premier Georges Clemenceau, affirming the “agreed principles,” a nod towards the Fourteen Points. At the same time the count reserved Germany’s right “to set forth the conditions which, in its opinion, are in contradiction with the intentions of the Allied and Associated Governments”.8 Not exactly full and complete acquiescence by any stretch of imagination. Afterwards in response to the actual terms Brockdorff-Rantzau fumed: “We were aghast when we read in that document the demands made upon us by the victorious violence of our enemies.”9 In tandem with Brockdorff-Rantzau’s displeasure, the German delegation at Paris, while lamenting response time was “so short that it was impossible to treat all the questions exhaustively”, nevertheless presented a detailed counter-argument opposing the peace terms.10 Included in the lengthy complaint, the German delegation reminded the victors of a German plan for a League of Nations. They agreed “in general” to favour protection of small nationalities, and pleaded that “the treaties which were in force before the outbreak of war between the contracting parties enter again, in principle, into force with the ratification of the Peace Treaty”.11 In short, and not surprisingly, the German leaders dragged their feet as long as possible to delay, if not sidetrack, the Versailles peace treaty. Reluctant, conditional acceptance included German wailing that the demands were unrealistic and that the terms were not consistent with the Fourteen Points. At every juncture the Germans desperately searched for any possible loophole. German pleading that Versailles was Diktat – delivered as if a sentence rendered by an unforgiving court with no appeal – rings hollow. But German complaints soured the negotiation process.

For seven months, from 11 November 1918 until 28 June 1919, Germany held the centre of attention. In theory, the treaty forged for Germany would serve as the template for the remaining treaties with Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. General provisions would then be supplemented by specific articles laying out the territorial adjustments desired by the victors. The defeated should simply accept their terms, gracefully and humbly bow to the inevitable, and just move on. Such illusions had very short life. Even as the defeated waited for the Paris peace mill to ponderously grind out the German treaty, a number of troubling problems threatened to stall negotiations. In the case of Hungary in particular, major and intractable issues significantly compounded the cost of having thrown in her lot with Germany.

One obstacle was Hungary’s brief, but particularly ill-timed, Bolshevik experiment in the form of Béla Kun’s successful bid to supplant Mihály Károlyi’s government. The latter was clearly unequal to the overwhelming challenges confronting Hungary’s post-war government. Chaos, blockade of the Danube River, looming punishment for complicity with the losing side, external pressures from the Czechs and outright Romanian expansion, together with the failure to secure an acceptable peace – such difficulties combined to create an unsolvable Rubik’s puzzle.

Though brief, the Hungarian Soviet Republic, from 21 March to 1 August 1919, coincided with Allied distaste and downright hatred of the Bolshevik government in Russia, conflated with fear that the coup in Hungary was an ominous sign of the spread of Bolshevism elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Bad enough that Lenin took the Russians out of the war and that Trotsky published secret treaties exposing Allied promises designed to maintain the Eastern Front. With the dread and angst stirred by the spectre of Communism in 1919, anti-Bolshevism was a primary negative force at Versailles. The second Russian revolution of 1917 spoke loud and clear to the decision-makers and seemed to threaten the capitalist foundations shared by the great powers. Lenin’s system confronted the established order in no uncertain terms and, in the short run, promised to grow in the chaos and deprivation that followed in the Great War’s train. As early as December 1918, there were fears that Austrians and Hungarians were “watching with fear and trembling the approach of the Bolsheviks and with the ever increasing tendency towards Bolshevism which is especially making itself felt in Hungary”.12 And when dire predictions came true, Kun was described as a man of vitality and shrewdness, unimpressive in personality, nevertheless “a force to be reckoned with,” and most damning, “personally devoted to Lenin”.13 Arthur Balfour, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, characterised Kun as a thief.14 Around the conference table at Versailles, Kun was generally deemed unreliable as well as untruthful when the Hungarians protested in response to Czech and Romanian incursions but then took every opportunity to counter-attack and advance. American Under-Secretary of State Frank Lloyd Polk proposed a regime change to “organize a democratic Government at Budapest or it would be impossible to sign peace with Hungary”.15 President Wilson opined that the Bolsheviks controlled little more than the capital and thus did not represent the country as a whole, implying a change of government should demonstrate the will of the people which certainly would be more amenable to Allied interests.16 Not until the Bolshevik government fell from power in early August of 1919 could Hungary hope to gain traction in Paris. By then it was too late.

A second deterrent to Hungarian interests arose because beginning with the 19th century whenever repressed minorities or peoples experience a positive reversal of fortunes, the seemingly irresistible temptation is to assume the new role as overlords and seek revenge to assuage accumulated grievances, real and imagined. If not a universal principle of human nature, the tribal phenomenon became more acutely established in European practice. The rising nationalism placed nation-building on a new footing in 19th-century Central Europe, and this epochal change created new ethnic allegiances in the former Hungarian Kingdom, then Habsburg Empire. Hungarians, for example, were not unfamiliar with lengthy years of repression and foreign occupation at the hands of Muslim Turks. But, when given the opportunity, Magyar leaders, like others suddenly relieved of the yoke, had attempted a spiritual unification in the name of a medieval idea of Hungaria – which now came to be called “Magyarisation”, and was regarded as an attempt of assimilation by Romanians, Slovaks, Serbs and Croats. The outcome of the most recent hostilities turned the cycle and clanged the death knell for any Hungarian dreams of cultural unity in Central Europe. Undoubtedly the results would have been the same even if Hungarian leadership had gone against the grain of human nature and regarded native minorities any differently. Rapacious neighbours seized the opportunity to take advantage of war-end chaos and claimed to speak on behalf of Hungary’s minorities, in actuality the excuse for land grab.

Hungary’s greedy and opportunistic neighbours – Romania, Czecho-Slovakia, Yugoslavia, and even Austria – finished carving up pre-war borders only when they got as much as they thought possible, taking full advantage of major power leniency stretched to the maximum. Then having exhausted their ability to expand, they reluctantly abandoned further land surgery. Czecho-Slovakia and Yugoslavia, both newly minted entities, appealed to Wilson’s principle of self-determination even as Romania occupied Transylvania – and more. The result was akin to gang muggery, leaving open wounds, unhealed to the present day as Hungary was essentially eviscerated. All of the members of the Central Powers, of course, were punished severely for their role in the war, but Hungary inarguably most of all.

Even before the armistice Hungary was the centre of attention for those anxious to seize a chunk of the country. After throwing their lot in with the victorious allies and capitalising on the epic adventures of the Czech Legion, which was first stranded on the wrong side of the battle lines then extricated from Russian soil, the Czechs combined with Slovaks to create the Republic of Czecho-Slovakia and enjoyed a place, however minor, at the table. Dr Edvard Beneš, Minister of Foreign Affairs, forcefully argued the case for expanding the borders of the new nation at the expense of Hungary. He conceded when questioned on 5 February 1919, that “a considerable Hungarian population” would find themselves under new sovereignty but excused the change because he claimed the “Slovaks had been particularly oppressed, and even Kossuth had said that the Slovaks could not be granted the franchise. Magyars freely said that the Slovaks were not men.”17 At this point Beneš was halfway home because already “it was generally agreed that the claim to Slovakia presented no difficulties and that the only points requiring elucidation referred to the frontiers of Hungary”.18 Matters were still unresolved in May with M. Laroche, Chief of the European Section of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who proposed that “only 855,000 Hungarians instead of 1,300,000 would become subjects of Czecho-Slovakia” as Beneš added that “no less than 638,000 Slovaks would be left in Hungary”.19

This figure might be exaggerated, but the number was considerable, and might be regarded as a guarantee for the good treatment of the Hungarian minority in Czechoslovakia. Whenever Hungarian weakness and unsettled borders coincided to provide opportunity, Czech and Slovak forces pushed forward until exhaustion set in and then Hungarians counter-attacked while both sides accused the other of bad faith and treachery to the collective dismay of the Big Four. Somewhat late in the game, the Czech delegation pleaded ignorance about exceeding their brief, while Ion I. C. Brătianu, Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, “remarked that the line was for the first time brought to his notice” even as Czech Premier Karel Kramář agreed in principle to the Council’s decisions with some alteration, in other words, accepting frontiers with additional concessions as Czech ambition edged ever closer to the Danube.20 Wily negotiators know that agreement in principle is diplomatic language shorthand for: “Rather than turn down your offer, our acceptance is really conditional and much more in our favour.” Czech leadership took advantage of the ambiguity to press their case. While Czech and Slovak desires were not completely fulfilled when wrangling finally came to an end, Hungary was significantly diminished.

In retrospect, the policy of self-determination was bound to encounter a veritable briar patch in Central Europe which in the early 20th century was a crazy quilt of multiple peoples and tribes. At best Czecho-Slovakia and Yugoslavia were awkward attempts at national union. If the principle of self-determination was taken to its logical conclusion – well, there was no logical conclusion, otherwise Central Europe would have looked even more bewildering than Germany prior to unification – at the time national unification was nothing more than imagination. When the vivisection was finally over, Hungary was a remnant of her former self with roughly one third of the historical territory and population – an island with no access to the seas and surrounded by hostile neighbours.

Of all of Hungary’s tormentors, the Romanian government took fullest advantage of its weakened rival. In sum, the pattern was straightforward, if crushingly brutal from the Hungarian perspective: Bucharest would loudly express Romania’s desperate needs, which were at least to some extent justified; remind the victors of the promises made during the war to seduce Romania to join the Allies; advance as quickly as possible ever westward, looting, ignoring Allied remonstrances then pretending to agree to withdraw; claiming that actions were completely justified and endorsed by the allies; changing the subject if necessary and complaining that response, let alone acquiescence, was not possible at the moment due to governmental upheaval; dawdling followed by delay and finally withdrawing only when there was basically nothing left to sack. Romania had maintained neutrality until 27 August 1918, entered the war in the wake of Allied pledges of reward, particularly the acquisition of Transylvania at the successful conclusion of the contest, and eventually sought to extort an armistice with Hungary separate from Allied control. The American State Department had perceived as early as late November 1918, that the Romanian appetite was voracious, and Bucharest fully lived up to the billing.21

Not content just with Transylvania, Romanian forces stopped major military operations only when they had occupied Budapest despite the decision of the Powers on 30 May 1918, denying a Bucharest proposal to march on the Hungarian capital.22 Heedless of sentiments in Paris, Romania proceeded to pillage and strip Budapest. On 8 August 1919, President Wilson vented to Secretary of State Robert Lansing that Romania was misbehaving “in a perfectly outrageous manner” and wondered if it was time to warn the Romanians who had far exceeded their license that the Big Four would “not only not support but shall oppose every claim of theirs to territory or sovereignty anywhere if they continue their present course of outlawry”.23 On 3 September 1919, the Romanian delegation explained that “by the occupation of Budapest and the destruction of Bolshevism”, Romania had “rendered a great service to the general cause”.24

But Romanian dominance over the Great Hungarian Plain was not part of the Allied vision for Central Europe and Bucharest was warned to withdraw. The Allied problem was that military action was not feasible so the only recourse was to appeal to the power of persuasion. Eventually bending to increasingly strident protests, Romanian troops agreed to withdraw on 9 November from Budapest eastward to the Theiss or Tisza River line. This was interpreted differently in both Bucharest and Paris. The deadline was extended first to 8 December and then to sometime in March, stretching withdrawal to the last possible limit. The foot-dragging and intransigence frustrated Lloyd George who criticised the Romanians in session on 20 January 1920:

This evacuation has always been retarded on account of various difficulties. We are told today that if it cannot be carried out more quickly it is for want of means of transport. The […] army of occupation has, however, been able to find the means of transport to transfer […] the cattle and agricultural implements requisitioned by her.25

And when Clemenceau continued to press Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexandru Vaida-Voevod and finally extracted lip service to evacuation “in the shortest possible time”, the Frenchman retorted: “You say so but we have been awaiting your evacuation for months.”26 Whether due to the distance removed from the Allied leaders’ displeasure or the success of an aggressive stratagem, Romania reaped the lion’s share of the territorial spoils and at last edged back.

As Czecho-Slovakia and Romania greedily swallowed huge bites of Hungarian territory, the Serbs and Croats chipped at the edges of Hungary. For example, on 31 January 1919, M. Vesnitch, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary, said that “Serbia had no pretentions to the whole of the Banat. Serbia merely claimed that part to which she had a right on ethnological grounds.”27 The region in question was ethnically mixed and pulled in three directions – towards Romania, Serbia and Hungary.

The Serb proposal conveniently overlooked the fact that there was no reasonable formula for parcelling territory on an ethnological basis since even an individual Central European village was typically composed of three to six major ethnic groups, not to mention the quilt-like maps created by sizeable clusters of ethnicities. As a footnote, the Allied practice of promising territorial concessions to shift the wartime balance of power may have seemed necessary when the Allies were waging war with victory in the balance, but using ethnology as a settlement tool was inevitably fraught with difficulty, and the outcome was particularly problematic for Hungary. But the Allies had made promises to the Serbs to undermine the Ottoman Empire’s ability to fight. Likewise, the Croats stood to gain based on Allied pledges. The Croat story was complicated by the insistence that Croatia was a distinct state before its absorption and should re-emerge from the Hungarian Empire intact. A further complication was that Italy coveted the Adriatic port of Fiume.28 Other than Fiume the Italian delegation showed little interest in Hungarian affairs. As it turned out, the initial beneficiary of Serb and Croat expansion was the hotchpotch union of Yugoslavia, itself a fragment of the defeated Ottoman Empire.

Even Austria profited at Hungary’s expense. The Austrians objected on the basis, they said, of principle and harboured the novel argument that their country was “an entirely new state, born of the dissolution of the Monarchy, created after the armistice”, and had “not in fact ever been at war with the Allied and Associated Powers”, leading to the conclusion that Austria should not be treated as an enemy.29 One can only imagine the impact of such a revolution in international diplomacy and peacemaking had the Allies even entertained such a precedent: the resolution of future wars could presumably be reduced to the victors simply making new countries out of former enemies and wiping the slate clean. Of course it was noteworthy that the Allies ignored the fact that Vienna was responsible for the ultimatum and subsequent decision to invade Serbia for alleged complicity in the assassination of the heir apparent to the Habsburg throne which set off the intricate series of events that precipitated the war in the first place. And all that was pinned to a preventable tragedy; the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife should never have paraded through the streets of Sarajevo, a decision both insensitive and inflammatory. Nevertheless, the ostensible cause of the war was never held to Austrian account. Indeed, the infamous war guilt clause of the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919 was worded so that Germany took the brunt even though others were included in the indictment: according to Article 231, “Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies”.30 Naturally, none of Germany’s former allies rushed forward to share the burden of responsibility. In any event the Austrians got nowhere with the idea that dissolution of the empire let them off the hook, and Vienna was left with a much reduced, landlocked country. The empire, formerly presiding over 270,000 square miles with a population of roughly 51 million, was shaved to 32,000 square miles and six million subjects. But the Austrians still emerged with a prize, perhaps because they accepted their situation with less theatre than the Germans and maybe because the Allies feared doing anything that might nudge the Austrians to seek post-war union with Germany. On 25 August 1919, the “Allied and Associated Powers considered that it was just to attach to Austria the districts of western Hungary which are inhabited by a German mass and the agricultural products of which form an important element in supplying Vienna and other centres”.31 Austria’s gain of Burgenland was Hungary’s loss.

For the most part, Budapest was too far removed from the power table in Versailles, both geographically and otherwise, to expect any hint of salvation. The Wilson Papers are quite revealing at this point. Lloyd George on rare occasion nodded in the direction of justice as he perhaps perceived it – perturbed when Romanian intransigence continued to defy Paris, for example, he quipped: “It is necessary that our justice be impartial. We have taken a decision […] we must hold them responsible.”32 But he was less interested in fairness for Hungary and more inclined to take issue with a small power daring to flout Allied directions. For his part, Wilson may have had good intentions when he informed his committee of analysis, “The Inquiry”, in 1918 that the United States “was the only nation which was absolutely disinterested […]. He emphasized the fact that our only question throughout would be – is it just – and said he thought that question would be embarrassing to some of the allies.”33 But perceived expediency outweighed everything else when he acknowledged in 1919 that “we have recognised the Czecho-Slovaks and the national aspirations of the Yugo-Slavs, and have thereby created obligations of honour toward them”.34

Clemenceau did not seem much concerned with justice per se, unless France benefitted, arguing that Hungarians had been “resolute enemies” and their leaders “among those responsible for the war”.35 The Italian head of delegation Orlando never championed anything approaching impartial justice and narrowly focused almost entirely on the disposition of Fiume and Italy’s bid to acquire the Adriatic port. Colonel Edward Mandell House, President Wilson’s closest confidant and sometime substitute at the conference table, recorded in his diary for 20 April 1919 that Orlando’s drama failed to gain sympathy and that the Italian “finally broke down and wept copiously”.36 When all else failed, the Italian leader ill-advisedly chose to temporarily leave Paris in the forlorn hope that the Big Three would be impelled to beg his return. Pleading was not forthcoming, nor was Fiume. As for the rest of the players at Versailles, the overwhelming majority could be listed as either villains in the piece or opportunists of one kind or another. In short, Hungary had no champion.

First to bend to Allied terms were the Germans who yielded and signed the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919. The Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye for Austria followed on 10 September 1919. Bulgaria’s turn came on 17 November 1919, with the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine. Five months later was Hungary’s Day of Judgement on 4 June 1920. The Treaty of Trianon was the last of the direct descendants of the Versailles Peace Conference. The Ottoman Empire was subject to dismantlement by the Treaty of Sèvres on 10 August 1920, but the Turks declared independence from the moribund empire, contested the terms in heated negotiations and eventually reaped less harsh terms in the Treaty of Lausanne, 24 July 1923. In truth, all of the defeated powers found the peace terms harsh, vindictive and unjust.

However odious the process, Hungarian leadership could hardly have failed to appreciate that punishment for being on the losing side was inevitable. And, at least in the rear view mirror of history, it was naive to suppose Wilson’s idealistic plan could completely satisfy any of the nations involved. In the first place, the terms were much too general and ambiguous. Far too many vested and conflicting interests clamoured for attention. While Hungarians could claim victimisation, the past complaints of minorities made it unlikely any but Magyars would call for unity, not that any different approach would have guaranteed success. In sum, Hungary experienced an absurd storm of vengeance and punishment – opportunistic neighbours, major powers focused on punishing the losers while simultaneously trying to avoid future conflicts, and the unfortunate timing of Béla Kun’s short-lived Bolshevik government – all conspired to the ultimate detriment of Hungary. When Winston Churchill, summarising the peace settlement with Germany, wrote that “[h]istory will characterise all these transactions as insane”, he overlooked the greater truth that the legacy of Versailles was a flawed resolution that troubled all of the defeated nations, not just Germany.37 And for Hungary Trianon was more than travesty – it was tragedy.


1 Romsics, Ignác. “The Trianon Peace Treaty in Hungarian Historiography and Political Thinking”. In Hungary’s Historical Legacies: Studies in Honor of Steven Bela Vardy. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2000, 90.

2 Lendvai, Paul. The Hungarians. A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat. Trans. by Ann Major, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003, 374.

3 Zeidler, Miklós. “Ideas on Territorial Revision in Hungary 1920–1945”. Trans. by Thomas J. and Helen DeKornfeld. Edited by Peter Pastor and Ivan Sanders, CHSP Hungarian Studies Series. Wayne, NJ: Center for Hungarian Studies and Publications, 2007, 2.

4 Papers of Woodrow Wilson. Edited by Arthur S. Link. Vol. 68. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1966–1993, 45 (1984), 537.

5 “Memorandum on the Context of the Inquiry, Undated [circa 15 Dec 1917; Inquiry Document 885]”. In US Department of State, Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States. 1919. The Paris Peace Conference. 13 vols. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1942–1947, I, 33.

6 The Paris Peace Conference, 13 vols.; Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 69 vols.

7 “Pietro Cardinal Gasparri to Edward Mandell House, 13 May 1919”, Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 59, 118.

8 “Brockdorff-Rantzau to Clemenceau, 13 May 1919”, Notes of Mtng in Wilson’s House, Place des États-Unis, 22 May 1919, 11:45 a.m., Paris Peace Conference, V, 817–818.

9 “Count Karl Christian von Brockdorff-Rantzau to Clemenceau, 29 May 1919”, Papers of Woodrow Wilson 59, 579.

10 “Observations of the German Delegation on the Conditions of Peace, 29 May 1919”, Paris Peace Conference, VI, 799.

11 Paris Peace Conference, VI, 823; 873.

12 “Memorandum, A. W. Dulles, 30 December 1918”, Paris Peace Conf. 8611.00/14, Paris Peace Conference, II, 483.

13 “Professor Philip M. Brown to Professor A. C. Coolidge, Budapest, 10 Apr. 1919, No. 29. Subject: Political Situation”, Paris Peace Conference, XII, 432.

14 “Notes of a Mtng of Heads of Delegations of the Five Powers Held in M. Pichon’s Room at Quai d’Orsay, Paris, 9 Jul. 1919, 3:30 p.m.”, Paris Peace Conference, VII, 61.

15 “Notes of Mtng of Heads of Delegations of Five Great Powers Held in M. Pichon’s Room at Quai d’Orsay, 3 Nov. 1919, 10 a.m.”, Paris Peace Conference, VIII, 911.

16 “Notes of Mtng in Wilson’s House, Place des États-Unis, 30 Apr. 1919, 4 p.m.”, Paris Peace Conference, V, 369.

17 “Sec’s Notes of Conversation in M. Pichon’s Room, 5 Feb. 1919, 3:00”, Paris Peace Conference, III, 885.

18 “Sec’s Notes, 5 Feb. 1919”, Paris Peace Conference, III, 883.

19 “Sec’s Notes of Mtng of Foreign Ministers, 8 May 1919”, Paris Peace Conference, IV, 676.

20 “Appendix. Report of the Council of Foreign Ministers. 11 Jun. 1919, 10 a.m.”, Paris Peace Conference, VI, 318.

21 “Charge in Denmark (Grant-Smith) to Sec of State, 28 Nov. 1918”, Paris Peace Conference, II, 393. Summary of report in the Danish press.

22 “Smith to Sec of State, 28 Nov. 1918”, Paris Peace Conference, Vol. II, 393; “Notes of a Mtng held in M. Pichon’s Room, Quai d’Orsay, 31 May 1919, 5:30 p.m, Appendix. Council of the Principle Allied and Associated Powers”, Paris Peace Conference, VI, 133.

23 “Wilson to Robert Lansing, 8 Aug. 1919”, Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 62, 235–236.

24 “Notes of Mtng of Heads of Delegations of Five Great Powers Held in M. Pichon’s Room at Quai d’Orsay, 4 Sept. 1919, Romanian Delegation to Clemenceau, 3 Sept. 1919”, Paris Peace Conference, VIII, 110.

25 “Notes of Mtng of Heads of Delegations of Five Great Powers Held in M. Pichon’s Room at Quai d’Orsay, 20 Jan. 1919, 10:30 a.m.”, Paris Peace Conference, IX, 912.

26 “Mtng of Heads of Delegations, 20 Jan. 1919”, Paris Peace Conference, IX, 916.

27 “Sec’s Notes of Conversation in M. Pichon’s Room, 31 Jan. 1919”, Paris Peace Conference, III, 823.

28 “Notes of a Mtng of Ministers of Foreign Affairs Held at the Quai d’Orsay, Paris, on Sat. 10 Jan. 1920”, Paris Peace Conference, IX, 957.

29 “Notes, Heads of Delegations of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers, 25 Aug. 1919, 3:30 p.m., Draft of Covering Letter to Chairman of Austrian Delegation of Allied and Associated Powers Reply, 25 Aug. 1919”, Paris Peace Conference, VII, 860.

30 Versailles Peace Treaty, Part VIII, Sec. 1. Avalon Project,

31 “Reply to Remarks of Austrian Delegation of the Conditions of Peace. Frontier with Hungary. Notes of a Mtng of Heads of Delegations of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers in M. Pichon’s Room, 25 Aug. 1919”, Paris Peace Conference, VII, 866; raised on 17 Jun., “Mantoux’s Notes of Mtng of Council of Ten, 17 Jun. 1919, Noon”, Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 60, 643.

32 “Mantoux’s Notes of Mtng of Council of Four, 16 Jun. 1919”, Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 61, 206.

33 “William Christian Bullitt Diary, 9 [10] Dec. 1918”, Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 53, 351.

34 “Wilson to James Cardinal Gibbons, 18 Oct. 1919”, Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 51, 374.

35 “Mantoux’s Notes of 2 Mtngs of Council of Four, 25 Mar. 1919, 11 a.m.”, Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 56, 254.

36 “Colonel House Diary, 20 Apr. 1919”, Papers of Woodrow Wilson, 57, 527.

37 Churchill, Winston. The Gathering Storm. New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1961, c1948, 9.

Most recent

Newsletter signup

Like it ? Share it !

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pocket
Share on email



Winston Churchill had no doubts about the importance of studying history: ‘In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.’ This includes its subset, leadership in war. Great war leaders, as


“But obligations are reciprocal. Those who gained at Trianon have obligations as well. Their obligation is to shape countries with an absolute minimum of injustice so that they can ask


“The extremely influential pan-Slavic movement and the idea of dismantling Austria–Hungary emerged in Cleveland and Pittsburgh after a long period of Germanization in the nineteenth century, while the quasi-declaration of