TRIANON: A NATION’S TRAGEDY – PART II

As we have seen, Romania re-entered the war, in its final days, on the Allied side. It was present and recognised as an ally at the Paris Peace Conference. But were the territorial promises made in 1916 still valid? The Romanian Prime Minister Brătianu maintained that they were. On the other hand, Clemenceau and Lloyd George held that they were not. Romania, they argued, had left the war and signed a separate peace treaty with the Central Powers, thereby rendering the 1916 agreement invalid. The United States was not a party to the Treaty of Bucharest, in any case, and had no obligation to accept its provisions. Moreover, President Wilson’s aversion to secret treaties was well-known. Had he not said in his Fourteen Points that he favoured “open covenants, openly arrived at”? The 1916 Treaty of Bucharest hardly met these elevated criteria. Interwar Hungarian public opinion – traumatised by the loss of Transylvania – firmly believed that Romania’s success in Paris was simply a product of cunning and guile. These qualities were certainly abundantly present at the conference but were hardly unique to the Romanian delegation. Then there were the myths about the supposed role played by the glamorous Queen Marie of Romania in persuading the Big Four to favour the Romanian point of view. The queen did visit Paris during the conference and met with leading politicians. No one could fail to be impressed by her presence, her charm and her linguistic abilities, but her visit had little effect on the final drawing of the Romanian borders. In actual fact, the Romanian delegation was not particularly popular with Allied politicians, largely because of Brătianu’s often needlessly aggressive tactics in promoting Romania’s demands. The queen’s visit became an irritant to many, including President Wilson. He invited her to lunch at the Ritz where she turned up with no less than ten uninvited guests! In fact, Romania did not get all that she wanted. The territorial promises of 1916 were ignored and the Tisza River frontier was not granted. The multi-ethnic Banat was divided between Romania and Yugoslavia, to the chagrin of both. In the end, the new Hungarian–Romanian frontier established by the Peace Conference divided the eastern fringes of the Great Hungarian Plain between the two countries. The line cut straight through compact Hungarian ethnic territory leaving several hundred thousand Hungarians under Romanian rule. The largely Hungarian cities of Szatmárnémeti (Satu Mare) and Nagyvárad (Oradea) – the latter only fourteen kilometres east of the new line – were also incorporated into Romania. The new border was not established without dissension within the Romanian frontier committee. American experts proposed a line which was closer to the ethnic frontier and would have run some 20 to 50 kilometres east of the present border, leaving most Hungarians in the area within Hungary. The Italian delegation was even more generous. It suggested a line running some 100 kilometres east of the present border almost to the Royal Pass, the historic line dividing Hungary proper from Transylvania. It was an elegant solution on paper, but would have entailed the incorporation of tens of thousands of Romanians into Hungary. Finally a Franco-British proposal was adopted which rejected both the American and Italian proposals and established the present border, ignoring ethnic considerations in favour of providing economic and military advantages for Romania. So far as Transylvania was concerned, it was simply assumed it would be part of Romania, although a few words of concern were occasionally expressed about the fate of the compact Hungarian – Székely – group in eastern Transylvania, but to little practical effect. The territories eventually assigned to Romania from the old Hungarian kingdom contained a population of which roughly 45 per cent was not Romanian. The minority clauses inserted in all treaties were supposedly meant to protect them. Brătianu obstinately refused to accept these until intense Allied pressure eventually forced him to do so. Romania’s success in Paris had ultimately little to do with Queen Marie’s charm or the astute effectiveness of its delegation, or even its occasionally well-founded ethnic claims. Quite simply, the Allies, France in particular, needed Romania. The Russian Civil War had taken a turn for the worse for the Whites. The Red Army seemed to be advancing on all fronts, and Romania, together with Poland, were the only ones in a position to halt an eventual Bolshevik push to the west. The establishment of a Communist regime in Budapest at the end of March also helped to increase Romania’s importance to the Allies. But, in the long term, Romania was a vital link in the vast chain of French-oriented states destined to keep both Germany and Bolshevik Russia in check. This is why it had to be strengthened both economically and militarily, whether this was in accord with ethnic principles or not. By early May 1919 the Treaty of Trianon was more or less complete. Harold Nicholson’s diary conveys the atmosphere at the meeting of the Supreme Council where the truncation of old Hungary was approved: “They begin with Transylvania, and after some insults flung like tennis balls between Tardieu and Lansing, Hungary loses her South. Then Czechoslovakia, and while flies drone in and out of an open window, Hungary loses her North and her East. Then the frontier with Austria, which is maintained intact. Then the Yugoslav frontier where the committee’s report (is accepted) without change. Then tea and macaroons.”

The Hungarian treaty was not yet complete, however, one further adjustment had to be made, and it would not be in Hungary’s favour; in February 1919 Beneš laid a somewhat perplexing proposal before the conference. He suggested the creation of a corridor separating Austria from Hungary which would have the purpose of dividing the two former partners in the Habsburg Monarchy while enabling the two new Slavic national states, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, to establish a common border. The proposed corridor would have been carved out of the part of western Hungary adjoining Austria. The idea was rejected as unworkable by experts and politicians alike. Beneš was politely asked to drop it. His friend, Harold Nicholson, was more direct, “C’est une bêtise”, he told Beneš, “n’en parlons plus”. That seemed to be the end of it, but not quite. On 11 May a German–Austrian delegation arrived in Paris, led by Dr Karl Renner, the new republic’s Socialist Chancellor, to sign the Treaty of Saint-Germain. The German–Austrian delegation presented its objections to the treaty and painted a grim picture of its economic consequences, especially for Vienna, a city of over two million inhabitants. Arguing that western Hungary was the former imperial capital’s “kitchen garden” it laid claim to a band of Hungarian territory which roughly corresponded to Beneš’s discarded corridor proposal. There were the usual – somewhat shaky – historical arguments: the border, between the two countries, claimed the Austrian delegation, was not a historical one but simply a convenient administrative line without any particular significance. A claim, which even a cursory glance at a history book could easily disprove. More serious were the ethnic arguments advanced by the Austrians. Nearly three quarters of the inhabitants were German-speaking, though they had been Hungarian subjects for centuries and were governed by Hungarian laws.

As if all of the above were not enough, Renner added the “menace of Bolshevism” argument. Hungary was ruled by a Communist government whose soldiers and officials were terrorising the German inhabitants of the border areas. The latter might rise up against the Communists, in which case Austria would be compelled to intervene. On the other hand, according to Renner, the existing border was far too close to Vienna and the industrial town of Wiener Neustadt, where workers were already radicalised, making them vulnerable to Bolshevik agitation coming from Hungary. These were arguments calculated to impress the Peace Conference, already concerned by the spread of Bolshevism and by its sudden appearance in Central Europe. Austria had many friends on the British, French and American delegations – though certainly not on the Italian one. Most were concerned by the plight of Vienna, and the need to ensure its food supply was paramount in their minds. The ethnic argument counted for much and the fear of Bolshevism was also an important consideration. From the French and British viewpoint, it was essential to make Austria both stable and economically viable in order to decrease the attraction of union with Germany. Taking all of these factors into account, the Peace Conference decided to award the west Hungarian corridor together with the city of Sopron (Oedenburg) to Austria. This territorial change was incorporated into the treaty of Saint-Germain. The German-Austrian Republic signed the treaty in September 1919. This was one of the more grotesque decisions of the Peace Conference. It was surely a case unique in modern history where one enemy state was rewarded with territory taken from another – its former partner in a now defunct empire. Both Austria and Hungary were accused by wartime propaganda of being responsible for the outbreak of war. If that were the case, then perhaps Hungary’s guilt was a shade less than Austria’s, for its Prime Minister, Count Tisza, had – at least initially – opposed the sending of the fatal ultimatum to Serbia. No leading Austrian politician of the time is on record as having taken the same position. The treaty was now ostensibly ready for acceptance and signature by the Hungarians. There was, alas, no one to send a delegation. Hungary was in turmoil. By February, President Károlyi realised that his policy of blind faith in Allied good intentions had yielded nothing but failure. His approaches had been rebuffed. In fact his country was increasingly treated like some contested territory in Africa, ripe for redistribution among various colonial powers. Károlyi now decided to take a stand. The Romanian Army was marching relentlessly westward. Its commanding general proclaimed that he would push on to the Tisza and the Danube. (Károlyi could not know, of course, what anger this caused in Paris and what anxiety in Belgrade.) The new Hungarian Army was being recruited slowly, it was disorganised and was not a reliable instrument of warfare. Károlyi, however, did have one reliable and battle-ready division to rely on. This was the celebrated Székely Division composed of volunteers from the Székely areas of Transylvania and commanded by a competent Czech-born officer of the Imperial and Royal Army. The division was stationed east of Szatmárnémeti (Satu Mare) in order to block any further Romanian advance into ethnic Hungarian territory.

On 3 March 1919 Károlyi travelled to Szatmárnémeti, accompanied by his attractive young wife. They received a tumultuous welcome. Girls in beribboned national dress curtsied as they handed the presidential couple enormous bouquets of flowers. There was a march-past by the Székely Division. Károlyi gave an impassioned speech, “No!”, he declared, “I will never sign any treaty which entails the break-up of Hungary!” He promised to stop any further incursions by force, if necessary. It was, alas, a case of too little too late. He would never be able to fulfil his promises; his days in office were numbered. Károlyi’s once considerable popularity had by now completely evaporated. He had been unable to save the integrity of the country, over two thirds of which was now occupied by foreign soldiers who were determined to stay. The economy was in shambles; the increasing shortage of coal crippled Hungary’s relatively advanced transportation system. There was a shortage of food in the capital and a decreasing supply throughout the country. Budapest was filled with refugees from the occupied territories – eventually there would be over 300,000 of them – living in the most appalling conditions. Demobbed soldiers unable to re-integrate into society roamed the streets, ready to join any radical movement promising the establishment of a new social order.

Among the latter were the Communists, mostly ex Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war in Russia who had converted to Bolshevism after 1917. A small group returned to Hungary in November 1918, led by Béla Kun, a 31-year-old former Socialist who had met Lenin and was now given the task of spreading the revolution in Central Europe. Given the hopeless situation in Budapest, radicalising the masses was not particularly difficult. Many Socialists, on the left wing of the party, began to sympathise with and then support the fledgling Communist Party. Károlyi’s fall was, in the end, precipitated not by domestic, but by international politics. On 20 March, less than three weeks after his enthusiastic reception in Szatmárnémeti, Károlyi was handed a note from the Paris Peace Conference by Lt. Colonel Ferdinand Vix, the Allied Military Representative in Budapest. It stipulated the creation of a neutral zone between the Hungarian and Romanian armies. The Hungarians were ordered to withdraw roughly 50 kilometres west of the positions they currently occupied to a point just west of the city of Debrecen. Károlyi by now had enough experience in dealing with Parisian chicanery to realise that he was being fooled again: eventually, either the eastern or the western lines of the neutral zone were bound to become the definitive border between Hungary and Romania. (In fact, it would run straight down the middle.) The ultimatum, for that is what it was, had to be accepted within thirty hours. Károlyi refused. He had decided to resign and hand power over to a purely Socialist government. However, while the president waited in a salon of the royal palace, with only his wife and sister beside him, events had already escaped his control. At a late night meeting, the Socialists – with a few abstentions – had decided to merge with the Communists and proclaim the dictatorship of the proletariat. A state of siege was immediately declared. Though in a minority, the Communists were calling the shots and Béla Kun soon emerged as the leading figure of the new regime. There followed a headlong rush to realise the full Bolshevik programme. The Republic of Councils in Hungary, as it was soon to be called, nationalised all landed property above a certain size – but did not distribute it among the landless. The creation of a prosperous class of small farmers was not part of Marxist ideology. All large industries and mines were nationalised, as were banks and much private property. A belligerent anti-religious campaign was also part of the package. A Red Army was immediately formed on the Soviet model, composed of militant workers, while various red guards and the dreaded leather-jacketed “Lenin Boys” were deemed enough to keep the bourgeoisie in their place, at least for the time being.

Those who could afford it, fled to Vienna or Switzerland before the borders closed. Though the traditional political elite was stunned by the rapidity of the changes, there was also a wait-and-see attitude within a part of the middle class. Kun, like Károlyi, refused to accept the Vix note. The Bolshevik armies, increasingly victorious in the Civil War, were marching relentlessly westward. Could salvation come from the east when it had been refused from the west? Would Lenin triumph over Wilson and Clemenceau? Would the unity of old Hungary be restored – paradoxically – under Communist auspices? These were the pipe dreams spun in the coffee houses of Budapest – at least in the ones that were still open. Reality was somewhat different. The Bolshevik forces were still far away, while the large and battle-trained Romanian Army was close. The Communist seizure of power in Budapest caused consternation in Paris. General Jan Christian Smuts, the old Boer war hero, was hastily dispatched to meet with Kun and sound him out. Smuts dropped vague hints about possible Allied recognition of the new government. After spending two days in a railway carriage, he left as quickly as he had arrived. Nothing much happened as a result, but Kun regarded Smuts’s visit as a great personal triumph. After all, no such high-ranking representative of the Peace Conference had ever bothered to meet with Károlyi. In fact, Kun and his associates had made a pretty dismal impression on Smuts and the Allies were now generally determined to get rid of him. Czechoslovak and Romanian forces were to aid in bringing this about. The Czechoslovaks had long before crossed the demarcation line and occupied areas which the Peace Conference had already more or less decided to leave within Hungary. The Romanian Army entered the neutral zone established only a few weeks before and was pressing westward. Kun decided to fight back. The hastily established Red Army, consisting largely of industrial workers, was ably led by professional officers of the old Austro-Hungarian Army. It managed to drive the Czechoslovak forces out of much of central Slovakia and then pushed on to retake Miskolc, Kassa (Košice), Eperjes (Presov) and the picturesque old town of Bártfa (Bardejov) on the Polish border. An East Slovak Council Republic was hastily proclaimed – on 16 June 1919 – from the balcony of the town hall in Eperjes with Kun in attendance. Though a Czech Communist was named president, control of the new “republic” remained firmly in Hungarian hands. The Allies, caught off guard by the speed and extent of the Hungarian advance, ordered Kun to remove his forces, at once, to beyond the December 1918 demarcation line. In return, the Romanians would be told to stop their advance and evacuate some of the territories they already occupied. Kun complied and withdrew his forces from Slovakia, as requested, but the Romanian Army did not stop its advance. Most of July 1919 was to be dominated by what was essentially a war between Hungary and Romania. Kun’s regime was in no position to win this struggle. The withdrawal from Slovakia weakened Kun’s position domestically, while the professional officers who had been the architects of the Hungarian advance either resigned or hastened to join the new National Army, set up by the counter-revolutionary government in Szeged. Given the overwhelming superiority of the Romanian Army in both men and materiel the defeat of the Hungarian Red Army was inevitable. On 30 July 1919 the Romanians crossed the Tisza River and were advancing in the direction of Budapest. The following day, Kun and his revolutionary government resigned and headed for Vienna. A hapless moderate Socialist – Gyula Peidl – was left behind to hold the fort.

Now what? Peidl’s “Trade Union Government”, was pushed aside after only a couple of days in office, by an adventurous character named István Friedrich, a former supporter of Károlyi, now converted to the right. A new government was formed; it included two generals and an anti-Semitic Budapest dentist named András Csilléry, who had been Friedrich’s chief partner in the coup. The popular field commander of the war, Field-Marshal Archduke Joseph, from the Hungarian branch of the family, was called upon to act as regent. He was to hold his high office for less than two weeks before Allied pressure forced him to resign on 23 August. Even though Friedrich was to broaden his cabinet – it included some Socialists and a future prime minister, Count Pál Teleki – the Allies refused to recognise his government. The catholic nature of Friedrich’s government was jokingly put down to his love of football; he was the first Prime Minister in history to play for a national team.

The Allies were getting increasingly tired of the imbroglio in Budapest and wanted a government which was reasonably representative of public opinion, stable and in a position to send a delegation to Paris and sign the treaty. A British diplomat, Sir George Clerk, was sent from Paris to help cobble one together. After much negotiation and grandstanding, a former schoolteacher and member of the Christian Social Party, Károly Huszár, was entrusted with the formation of a coalition government. This was done on 23 November and was promptly recognised by Sir George in the name of the Allies.

During most of this period Budapest was occupied by the Romanian Army. It had chased the remnants of Kun’s Red forces westward and entered the Hungarian capital on 4 August 1919. It was to remain there for the next three months. Meanwhile, the National Army, now led by Admiral Miklós Horthy – the last commander-in-chief of the Austro-Hungarian Navy – was making its way towards Budapest through unoccupied Transdanubia. The Romanian Army having withdrawn two days earlier, Horthy entered the city on 16 November astride a splendid white charger to the tumultuous acclaim of the relieved bourgeoisie. Socialists and former militants of the fallen Communist regime – a tiny minority, admittedly – were less enthusiastic.

Six weeks later, the Huszár government was able to hold elections, based on a relatively liberal franchise law, but without the participation of the Socialists, who had decided to boycott the election. On 1 March 1921, the new parliament restored the monarchy and elected Admiral Horthy as regent until such time as the country’s legitimate sovereign – Charles IV – could once again take his place on the throne. This would never happen – not for want of trying on the king’s part – and Horthy remained regent for the next quarter-century. Even before these events, on 6 January Huszár sent a delegation to Paris, authorised to negotiate and eventually sign a final peace treaty with the Allies. The delegation of some sixty persons was headed by a veteran politician, Count Albert Apponyi. Apponyi’s name was not unfamiliar to the French public. One of his forebears had been a popular Austrian ambassador to France at the time of Louis-Philippe, while the published diary of another, Count Rudolf Apponyi, was a valuable source of 19th-century French social history. At the same time, his name was anathema to intellectual supporters of Hungary’s “oppressed nationalities” because of the famous Lex Apponyi of 1907 – passed when Apponyi was Minister of Education – which tied state financial support for church-run primary schools to increased teaching in Hungarian.

Apponyi’s celebrated address to the Peace Conference constitutes an important part of Scitovszky’s memoirs. It was by all accounts an intellectual and linguistic tour de force. Apponyi’s physical appearance added weight to his message: tall, slim, with a fine aquiline nose, he was the very personification of the old European aristocracy, while his oratorical style was in the grand 19th-century British tradition of parliamentary debate. Alas, though there was some admiration, there was little desk-thumping applause. Old world refinement, style and an aristocratic flair for languages were not qualities much prized by the radical bourgeois politicians of the Third Republic. Clemenceau responded brusquely, saying that decisions could not be made on the basis of a “one-sided speech” and told the Hungarians to return with more concrete evidence to support their case. They did, and now it was the turn of another Hungarian nobleman to be in the limelight. Physically, Count Pál Teleki was a total contrast to Apponyi’s majestic grandeur. Small, slight, bespectacled and far from handsome, he looked more like the scholar he was than the aristocrat he was born. Teleki’s ethnographic map, created especially to be shown at the Peace Conference, was revolutionary in that it took geographical features into account and showed the extraordinary, complex intermingling of nationalities in the Carpathian Basin. Every nationality was given a different colour; the Hungarians, of course, stood out in red.

Teleki’s map aroused the interest of the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, as did other maps and statistics provided by the Hungarian delegation. They seemed to contradict the previous materials submitted by the Czechoslovak, Yugoslav and Romanian delegations when the borders were drawn nearly a year before. Lloyd George felt that an injustice had been done and said so. On 3 March 1919 matters came to a head. He told the assembled delegates that it was hard to defend a treaty which proposed to consign some 2,750,000 ethnic Hungarians – one third of the total Hungarian population – to the newly created states. The Italian Prime Minister, Nitti, supported Lloyd George. France was momentarily alone in its unconditional defence of the treaty as it stood. (President Wilson had left Paris months before and the United States would not sign the Treaty of Trianon in any case.) Philippe Berthelot, one of the principal architects of the treaty, reacted to Lloyd George’s words as if stung by a viper. An acrimonious debate ensued in which some of Berthelot’s utterances make one wonder about the state of his mental health. The Hungarians had been “perfidious, rancorous and obstinate enemies, before, during and after the war”, he claimed and then, continuing in a fairly rancorous manner himself, asserted that there was no such thing as a Hungarian nation, or a Hungarian dynasty; there is only a crown and some 15,000 ennobled Austrian families; once the estates of the latter were divided, the Hungarian nation, as such, would cease to exist. This was arrant nonsense, of course. It was also the worst possible argument to make in front of a British Prime Minister who, as a Welshman, had often been told in his youth that he belonged to a nation which did not exist. In his reply Lloyd George reiterated his view the Hungarians had been unfairly treated. They had not been heard; consequently, the Allied decisions taken in their regard had been one-sided. The Hungarian borders must therefore be re-examined. People cannot be treated like animals. He suggested that Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia would all be better off, in any case, without large numbers of patriotic Hungarians in their midst. He asked Berthelot whether the latter believed that permanent peace could be maintained in Central Europe, if it were later to be found that the Hungarian complaints were well founded and that Hungarians had been handed over to neighbouring states like cattle, solely because the conference refused to even examine their case? For a moment, it seemed as if Lloyd George would get his way and – with Italian support – the question of the Hungarian borders would be reopened. But a moment is all it would be. The French – furious and determined – counterattacked. The Hungarian borders, they pointed out with insistent legalism, had been approved by the Peace Conference, by the British delegation and by the Prime Minister himself. (Lloyd George seems to have forgotten about this.) Then, advocates of the new states within the Foreign Office put pressure on the Prime Minister to abandon his enthusiasm for Hungarian frontier revision. By 7 March, the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon could tell Berthelot privately not to worry, the Hungarian frontiers would not be altered. No one can deny that Lloyd George was a man of brilliant political instincts; he saw the errors committed by the peacemakers concerning Hungary. He also foresaw how this would store up trouble for the future. He should be given some credit for this. In the end he was unable to act. The legal engagements, pressure from his own officials, the strength of the pro-new state lobby in Britain and the Prime Minister’s own domestic political problems, especially in Ireland, made this impossible. In the end, a face-saving device was invented, the so-called Millerand letter named after the current, ephemeral French Prime Minister. It included a promise to review the most egregious errors concerning the way the new frontiers had been drawn. The Hungarians attached great hopes to the letter. In the end, they were to be disappointed. There was no major frontier revision, only some minor corrections. All told, some 750 square kilometres were returned to Hungary, half of that was, in any case, the result of a plebiscite held in Sopron in late 1921 and had nothing to do with the Millerand letter. Realising that little could now be done, the Hungarian delegation returned home. In the end, two minor political figures were sent to sign the treaty in the 17th-century grandeur of the Grand Trianon Palace on 4 June 1920. At the same moment bells tolled in Budapest and then a dark shroud of silence fell over the capital and the country. The history of the old Kingdom of Hungary had reached its end.

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