On 29 April 2020, the President of Romania, Klaus Iohannis (a Transylvanian Saxon, i.e. German, by birth) came up with the charge that the Social Democratic Party of Romania was ready “to give Transylvania away to the Hungarians”. The accusation would be considered ridiculous if it were not coming from such high quarters and were not a sign that the long shadow of the 1920 peace treaty continues to poison Hungarian–Romanian relations.


Thanks to two American professors, Donald E. Morse and Paul D. Mayle non-Hungarian readers of the January 2020 issue of this journal have become familiar with the extremely harsh terms of the peace treaty dictated to Hungary a hundred years ago. Its impact on the Hungarian mind is self-evident. But a foreigner must still wonder why the junior partner of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, itself the junior partner of the German-Habsburg Alliance concluded in 1879, was treated so unfairly by the peacemakers of 1919–1920. While Germany lost 15 per cent of its pre-war territory, inhabited mainly by non-Germans, Hungary lost two thirds, including well over three million Hungarians. Flouting the declared principle of national self-determination compact blocs of Hungarians were transferred to newly created or enlarged states. That threw the apple of Eris into Central Europe.

The historical Kingdom of Hungary did not acquire millions of non-Hungarian nationals through conquest. During centuries of defensive wars against the Ottoman invaders the country lost at least a third of its population, which transformed vast parts of its east and south into a wasteland. In the 18th century the Habsburg rulers invited and settled millions of immigrants, colonists, changing Hungary, the 1000-year-old kingdom of the Magyars or Hungarians, into a multinational state. In 1910 roughly half of the population was Croat, Romanian, German, Slovak, Serb, Rusyn, or Ukrainian. After the 1867 settlement with the dynasty those “nationalities” were accorded rights to use their language and had their autonomous Churches but were not recognised as distinct nations to be granted “home rule”, territorial self-government. According to the financial and educational census the minorities were represented only by a dozen or so members in the Parliament in Budapest. During the Great War, in order to counter the 1917 social revolution in Russia (partly induced by Germany) the Entente Powers promised Austria–Hungary’s nationalities independence with generously drawn borders. No wonder that in the last days of October 1918, when the totally exhausted Monarchy gave up the fight and requested an armistice based on President Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the Austrian half broke into national units, while the Croats, the Romanians of Transylvania (who made up 56 per cent of the population of the territory they claimed), and the Slovaks declared their separation from Hungary. Serbia invaded and occupied southern Hungary up to Pécs and Baja, two towns well inside today’s Hungary. By the end of 1918 the Supreme Council of the victorious powers authorised Hungary’s neighbours to occupy the territories they claimed, in anticipation of the peace terms the preliminary peace conference was expected to set. Hungary’s new, revolutionary and democratic-minded government led by Count Mihály Károlyi put their hopes in the American president’s principle of self-determination and did not try to put up military resistance to the advancing armies of the neighbours. Anyway, the Hungarian troops returning from the Italian front were in total disarray and dissolution, in little shape to continue fighting.

The Paris Peace Conference, as was recounted in the January issue by Paul D. Mayle, legalised most of the conquest by the neighbours of Hungary, proving that possession is nine tenths of the law. The borders drawn were based on strategic, economic and transportation considerations rather than national or ethnic ones. The result was that for the millions of ethnic Hungarians suddenly stranded from their co-nationals Hungary became a foreign country, separated by a strict border control and customs regime. Visiting relatives and close friends now required a passport and a visa. The economic and monetary unity of Central Europe was replaced by tariff walls and separate currencies. While there was an increasingly influential group in Britain who advocated this new, fragmented Central Europe, others saw its dangers. In my recent essay on borders (in the March issue) I quoted the American expert of the Inquiry (the group assigned by President Wilson with the task of preparing fair terms for peace) Professor Charles Seymour, who warned that “the frontiers proposed are unsatisfactory as the international boundaries of sovereign states. It has been found impossible to discover such lines, which would be at the same time just and practical.”1 Leo Amery, an adviser to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, went further in his memorandum and pointed out that “the various nationalities of Central Europe are so interlocked, and their racial [i.e. ethnic] frontiers are so unsuitable as the frontiers of really independent sovereign states, that the only satisfactory and permanent working policy for them lies in their incorporation in a non-national superstate”.2 There was a special problem in dividing the territory of historical Hungary according to the ethnic composition of the country: most towns had an overwhelmingly Hungarian population, with a German minority, while the surrounding villages were often inhabited by Romanian or Slovak peasants. E.g. in 1910 the total population of Kolozsvár (today Cluj-Napoca in Romania) was 83.4 per cent Hungarian, 12.4 per cent Romanian and 4.8 per cent other (Saxon-German, Jewish, Armenian, etc.). Nearby there were both purely Hungarian and purely Romanian villages. Kassa (today Košice in Slovakia) then had 75.4 per cent Hungarian, 14.8 per cent Slovak and 7.2 per cent German inhabitants, the country south of it was inhabited mainly by Hungarians, north of it by Slovaks – so it was assigned to Czechoslovakia… Only the ethnicity of the villages mattered for the peacemakers, that of the towns was disregarded. If plebiscites had been held many ceded areas would have opted for Hungary; that is why the request of the Hungarian peace delegation for asking the preference of the population was turned down.

Unfair and impractical as the new borders were, what added to the grievance of the Hungarians was that the governments of the “successor states” of the erstwhile Monarchy completely disregarded their own pledges that they had accepted and signed in the Minority Protection Treaties. The clauses prescribed “equality irrespective of race, language or religion”, and the right for the national minorities to use their language in the courts and in their own schools – all supported from the national budget. But the successor states defined themselves as nation states from the very start, despite the fact that Czechs formed only 50 per cent of Czechoslovakia, Romanians 69 per cent of Romania, Serbs 48 per cent of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Their constitutions, political institutions and legislation hardly took note of the minorities. Most members of the old civil service were replaced and often expelled by the new authorities, even before the peace treaty was signed. Thus close to half a million Hungarians were compelled to escape to what became known as “rump Hungary”. Radical land reforms ensued. A very large part of the properties of the Hungarians, whether aristocrats, independent farmers or communities including those of the Catholic and Protestant Churches were confiscated, with nominal compensation.

(The Romanian population of Transylvania was Eastern Orthodox or Greek Catholic; those Churches enjoyed the generous support of the new state.) Discrimination in contracts and economic activities in general prevailed in all the states with large national minorities. In such circumstances the loyalty of minority citizens was understandably lacking.

The only remedy the Hungarians on both sides of the new borders could think of was the revision of the borders – hopefully through the good offices of the League of Nations. Its Covenant made it possible. The evidently unfair and impractical borders and the failure of Hungary’s neighbours to observe minority rights would have justified that. Finally, between 1938 and 1941 most territories with a Hungarian majority were indeed returned to Hungary, but, alas, not by international arbitration based on plebiscites but through “Diktat” by Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Britain and France declined to participate in the so-called Vienna Awards. Hungary’s hard choice in the Second World War was either to become an ally of Germany or to stand up against Hitler and suffer the fate of Poland.3 In March 1944, in order to prevent Hungary’s secretly prepared defection, Nazi Germany invaded and occupied its nominal ally. The ensuing deportation of over half a million of Hungary’s Jewish population to the death camp of Auschwitz (shamefully with the participation of Hungary’s Quisling-type government) depleted the number of the Hungarians detached in the 1920 peace treaty further: 240 thousand of the deported and murdered ones came from the territories re-annexed by Hungary with Germany’s help.

As was feared by all Hungarians, the peace signed with Hungary in 1947, again in Paris, meant the return to the Trianon borders. Although during the war both the State Department and the Foreign Office envisaged borders closer to the national composition of the Carpathian Basin, and at the peace conference the US, the UK and even France proposed at least the revision of the 1920 border with Romania, Stalin insisted on rewarding Hungary’s neighbours, despite the fact that both Slovakia and Romania was a far more enthusiastic and faithful supporter of Nazi Germany during the war than Hungary. Between 1945 and 1948 almost two hundred thousand Hungarians were expelled from or massacred in the territories re-annexed by the neighbours.

By 1948 Communism was firmly imposed on the eastern part of Central Europe. Although Marxist ideology promised “internationalism” and the end of all types of national oppression, Stalin’s Romanian and Czechoslovakian stooges adopted nationalist policies in Communist guise. The lot of the national minorities was double oppression: discrimination based on language and identity was added to the lack of all political rights affecting the whole population. Nationalisation and collectivisation of land also deprived the minorities of private property rights, making everybody totally dependent on the government. The persecution of the Churches abolished their institutional and spiritual support. Rapid and artificial industrialisation and urbanisation led to drastic changes in the ethnic composition of the regions inhabited by the minorities, especially in the towns. That was a sort of systematic and clearly deliberate ethnic cleansing. Propaganda spoke about fraternity between the national majority and the minority and denounced “bourgeois nationalism”, but most of the political and Church leaders of the minorities were tried on trumped-up charges, imprisoned, executed or put into concentration camps. The barely disguised aim was the gradual elimination of the national minorities through the closing of the schools teaching in minority languages, relocating and dispersing the minorities, and eventually assimilating them. That was the very opposite of the tendencies seen in the West after the Second World War: the “ethnic renaissance”, the revival of almost forgotten national groups like the Catalans, Basques, Corsicans, and the successful drive of the German Austrians in South Tyrol for territorial autonomy.


The plight of the national minorities throughout the Soviet bloc compelled the Western democracies to realise that minority rights are parts of human rights in general. The Helsinki Final Act and its follow-up conferences paid increasing attention to the abuse of the non-Russians in the Soviet Union (the state described by Robert Conquest as the nation-killer), the Hungarians in Ceauşescu’s Romania and Husák’s Czechoslovakia, and the Albanians in Yugoslavia. With the fall of the European Communist dominoes in 1989–1990 it was a general assumption, not only among Hungarians, that the Western pattern of toleration and minority rights would prevail and internationally binding norms would be adopted, probably within the CSCE, the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

We, Hungarians, who played a pioneering role in the political changes, were very optimistic in 1990 that the oppression of the Hungarians in Romania and Czechoslovakia would come to an end, since democracy is incompatible with discrimination based on ethnic identity, language or religion. The Hungarian minorities immediately formed their own parties, restored or strengthened their schools, and established their own free press. But the promise soon gave way to disappointment. Freedom allowed the nationalism of the national majorities to revive and become loud. Full bilingualism was not allowed even in the areas with a clear Hungarian majority, and the administrative reorganisation of the countries completely disregarded the national-ethnic distribution. Centralisation trumped the calls for decentralisation, and the demand for territorial (not ethnic!) autonomy was condemned as “separatism”. The guardian of democracy, the Council of Europe passed a few conventions for the protection of the languages and rights of “persons belonging to national minorities”, but fell short of unequivocally endorsing group rights, the collective identity of the historical minorities. Those minorities are very different from the immigrant communities: they came into being not by crossing state borders, but it was the borders that had crossed them.

The more than two million Hungarians, who have survived a hundred years of hostile treatment, are determined to stick to their Hungarian mother tongue and identity. They, like many other people, do not identify nationality with the existing states but rather with language, culture and traditions. They refuse to be considered Hungarian-speaking Romanians, Slovaks, Serbs, Ukrainians etc. They want to be treated the same way as the French Canadians or the Südtiroler Austro-Germans, i.e. citizens who form a distinct group with special rights within the state. They are fully aware that a change in borders is no longer a possibility. Not merely due to the aversion of practically all the states to the idea, but also as a result of the considerable change in the national composition of the territories detached from Hungary in 1920. Fortunately, however, there is a realistic alternative to pushing the borders to and fro: changing the nature of the borders.

The erstwhile Common Market of the six has grown into the organisation of the European Union of 27 members, ensuring the free movement of people, goods, services and capital within its area. Most members are party to the Schengen Agreement that abolished all passport and other types of border control at their mutual borders. That guarantees unimpeded personal as well as economic contact between Hungary and its co-nationals in the neighbouring states, helping both the maintenance of their Hungarian identity and closer contacts and understanding between the various peoples living in Central Europe. Decentralisation and local autonomy are the key words as guarantees for the future of the Hungarian and other national minorities.

The EU speaks so much about values, but why is it mute on the lack of sufficient rights for the national minorities? Why is the OSCE High Commissioner On National Minorities not For the minorities? The Helsinki Final Act ensured that concern for human (and national minority) rights is not unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of a state. The international community is rightly an advocate for Roma rights, but ending discrimination and intolerance towards national minorities is far easier than lifting millions of Roma from poverty and prejudice. If the EU politely passes the issue of the minorities to the OSCE or the Council of Europe then we face the familiar problem of lack of means for enforcing the existing – admittedly rather mild – conventions and recommendations. The EU should indeed be built on states with satisfied national minorities. The Minority Safe Pack, a proposal of regional development funds for minority areas, signed by more than a million EU citizens last year, should be closely followed into implementation by EU authorities.

In my view the way to peace, cooperation and prosperity in Europe is to be found in allowing each historical, autochthonous national group some type of self-government, in another words autonomy. In many cases this autonomy can have a territorial basis, but the majority nations tend to oppose it vehemently. There is an alternative solution, the voluntary association of the individual members of the minority into a corporate body, like the various denominations, the Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran and Jewish Churches are organised in every European country. In the 1900s that very idea was taken up by two Austrians, Karl Renner and Otto Bauer, using the term “cultural autonomy”. What is essential is an arrangement where the state encourages broad rights in language use and it empowers local administration, where it is decentralised and is made up of smaller regional units based on geography, traditions and ethnic/national composition, where the population of those units can decide over their own affairs and receive a due proportion of the taxes paid by the citizens.

Following the great political changes 30 years ago the EU and NATO had great influence over all the countries that aspired for membership in those organisations. That influence could have been used to induce governments to guarantee the rights and interests of the national minorities through decentralisation or “devolution”. European integration was envisaged to go hand-in-hand with regionalism. But apparently a Hungarian region in Romania and in Slovakia is still anathema for the majorities there, as shown by the recent outburst of President Iohannis of Romania. The idea of the exclusive nation state is not in line with modern democracy. The only way to create homogenous nation states would be through exchanges of population on a vast scale, involving tens of millions of people, at enormous financial costs and causing untold human sufferings. A variant of this is the practice of “ethnic cleansing” whose hideousness could be observed in Bosnia and in Kosovo. The real solution for the 30–40 million people who form national minorities in the states of Central and Eastern Europe is to introduce decentralisation, various forms of genuine local and regional self-government. An all-European code safeguarding the rights of minorities would be most helpful. Much work has already been done. The CSCE conference on the human dimension, held in Copenhagen in 1990, has broken much ground. The Council of Europe and its experts have also conducted serious studies and came up with excellent solutions, like the Charter of Regional and Minority Languages, or the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

Both Hungary and the Hungarian communities in the surrounding states can insist on what is obvious and cannot be refused: the unimpeded use of language and display of national symbols (a flag and a coat of arms, national songs), education in the mother tongue until the age of eighteen, and participation in the decisions that affect them. The proportionate and fair share of EU support should go to them, especially since the regions they live in are usually lagging behind in development. Fortunately today Hungary and its neighbours are (or hopefully soon will be) members of the Euro-Atlantic institutions. If Hungary shows solidarity with the other members then it can expect solidarity from them for the rights of the Hungarian minorities. The Hungarian political parties of the Carpathian Basin can agree on that and should act jointly. That is not a purely Hungarian interest. Peace, cooperation and prosperity is a common European cause.


1 National Archives, Washington, DC, RG 256. Inquiry Doc. 514.

2 “The Austro-Hungarian Problem”, Memorandum by L. S. Amery, 20 Oct. 1918. Public Record Office, London, Foreign Office, 371/3136/17223.

3 See my essay “Hungary in the Second World War: Tragic Blunders or Destiny”. Hungarian Review, Vol. V, No. 2, March 2014, 7–21; in an enlarged version in July 1944. Deportation of the Jews of Budapest Foiled. Ed. Géza Jeszenszky, Reno, NV: Helena History Press LLC, 2018, 65–101.

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