“No less importantly, our next-door neighbours—Slovaks, Ukrainians, Romanians, Serbians, Croatians, Slovenes, and Austrians—have shared a common fate with us here in the Central European region for a thousand years, even if Trianon made our experience of coexistence fraught with bitterness for a long time.”
From the perspective of present-day Hungary, Trianon (Hungarian shorthand for the applicable section of the Versailles Peace Treaty signed on 4 June 1920) seems a remote historical event, yet a source of nagging problems that remain unresolved to this day.
Essentially, these outstanding problems can be grouped into three important categories. The first concerns the uncertain legal status of Hungarian minorities who found themselves in the annexed territories in the wake of the Treaty of Trianon, through no fault of their own. The second set involves anomalies in the relations between Hungary and neighbouring states, each of which was delivered a sizeable chunk of Hungarian land by the Treaty. Some circles in these countries have been prone to feeling threatened by us, even if we would never think of threatening them. To them, it simply makes no sense that we do not. The third group of problems is engendered by the fact that the borders as redrawn in Trianon severed regions with seamless, contiguous economies, snagging their development. As a result, these border regions remain disadvantaged almost everywhere in the Carpathian Basin.
TRIANON IN HUNGARIAN DOMESTIC POLITICS
Following the democratic turn of 1990, it became obvious soon enough that some people did not care much about the legacy of problems caused by Trianon, and that they came to be regarded as the common political opponent by generations on the centre right, including Christian Democrats, conservatives, and civic forces. A case in point was Gyula Horn, the Prime Minister of the second democratically elected, leftist/post-communist government, who distanced himself from a statement made by József Antall, the Prime Minister of the first, conservative administration, who said in April 1990 that, in spirit, the prevailing Prime Minister of Hungary must be the Prime Minister of all Hungarians (some 15 million souls). On the night of his election victory in 1994, Gyula Horn deemed it important to declare that he considered himself the Prime Minister only of Hungarians living within the country’s current borders (a population of roughly 10 million).
The conflicting sentiments between the two sides turned particularly acrimonious in 2004, when an initiative proposed by an NGO led to a referendum on the introduction of citizenship for Hungarian minorities in neighbouring countries. The Left proclaimed that Hungarians across the border only wanted the jobs of Hungarians in the mother country. On our part, we recognized the claim as a fundamental one, and that refusing the petition would be tantamount to a psychological nuclear strike on Hungarians across the border. Ultimately, neither side emerged victorious from the battle: the Left because ballots against citizenship status were clearly outnumbered by the votes for it, whereas we felt let down because the referendum turned out to be invalid, which meant that its outcome did not mandate the National Assembly to confer citizenship on Hungarians living across the national border. The spiritual trauma was healed when the Fidesz Party formed its cabinet, giving the green light to Hungarian as double citizenship as one of its first measures in office in May 2010. Of course, everyone realized before long that not only had the Hungarian minorities not taken anyone’s job at home, but that employment rates in Hungary had begun to climb beneficially due to the fresh injection of vigour into the national economy.
I only mention these events to suggest that Trianon, more than a matter of history and foreign policy in Hungary, has become a major divide in domestic politics. However, it is not an internal issue in the sense that it would net certain votes for any political camp. Despite the clearly divergent positions on national policy between the parties, voters have proved inconsistent on the issue from one occasion to the next. Trianon as a test case of domestic policy boils down to the fact that there is a population of 2.5 to 3 million Hungarians living in the countries around us. They are subject to adverse circumstances in many ways and, partly because of this, have certain expectations of the mother country. Of course, they also have expectations of the country in which they happen to live, but the point is that they simultaneously nurture hopes of aid, solidarity and, ultimately, protection from Hungary. The question that domestic politics must answer is whether we should ignore these calls for support or try to meet them as best we can. This dilemma has been at the crux of our dispute with the Left for three decades now.
For the sake of accuracy regarding this ongoing dispute with the post-communists, let me mention that, when it comes to Trianon, many people on the left actually gravitate toward our stance rather than toward that of their own camp. For all their leftist convictions, over time some of these people found their own political identity on our side. An example is Katalin Szili, the former socialist Speaker of Parliament, who accepted a role in the current administration with responsibilities in kin-state policy.
TRIANON IN HUNGARIAN PUBLIC THOUGHT
An important newcomer in the terminology of the Trianon debate is the notion of összetartozás – a resonant Hungarian word whose multifarious English equivalents include ‘belonging (together)’, ‘cohesion’, ‘solidarity’, ‘togetherness’, and ‘affinity’. This concept was essentially thrown in by Fidesz to cap the dispute over the place Trianon should occupy in Hungary’s remembrance policy. For the spirited younger generations, nothing could have been less attractive than yet another national memorial day indulging in gloom and self-absorbed mourning. On the other hand, the older participants stressed the need to commemorate, in one way or another, what had been one of the most tragic events of Hungarian history. Thesis and antithesis eventually yielded a synthesis, which proposes to view Trianon not so much as the tragedy that it was but as a reminder of the fact that, although the country had its current borders staked out a hundred years ago, Hungarians across those borders still feel that they belong to Hungary, and that the majority of Hungarian citizens feel the same way about them. Let us celebrate this as a cultural asset that few nations of the world posess.
Let us celebrate those Hungarian minorities abroad who in 1956 affirmed their solidarity with revolutionary Hungary, at a time when such a demonstration of sympathy carried a prison term and quite often the death penalty. Let us celebrate our solidarity with them, which in turn played a vital role in the overthrow of communist rule in Hungary. Of course, the list of causes for celebration could go on. Because of such considerations, the anniversary of the peace treaty, 4 June, was officially declared not a day of national mourning but the day of national solidarity, first by the Forum of the Hungarian Representatives in the Carpathian Basin and then, in 2010, by the Hungarian Parliament.
This is, however, just one of the several meanings of the term összetartozás, just as the plunging of three million Hungarians into minority status was but one – if certainly the most painful – of the consequences entailed by Trianon. No less importantly, our next-door neighbours – Slovaks, Ukrainians, Romanians, Serbians, Croatians, Slovenes, and Austrians – have shared a common fate with us here in the Central European region for a thousand years, even if Trianon made our experience of coexistence fraught with bitterness for a long time.
Before and after Trianon, we all suffered together under the yoke of various occupying powers and, under luckier constellations, resisted them together. This happened during the Ottoman rule, the Habsburg protectorate and later, after Trianon, under Nazism and Communism. Directly in the wake of Trianon, the recognition emerged that this shared destiny – as the writer László Németh put it, the ‘brotherhood’ of those weaned on the same Central European culture – was a storehouse of riches that could not be squandered on the altar of Trianon. This is another aspect of what the word összetartozás means.
This aspect was paid a spectacular tribute in the form of the Memorial of National Solidarity, unveiled in Kossuth Square on the centenary of the peace treaty, whose eternal flame against the backdrop of a verse from the Bible proclaims the desire for reconciliation with our neighbours.
At the core of Hungarian public thinking about Trianon is the idea that we continue to belong together – in spite of the coercive terms of a peace which delivered the greater portion of the country’s former territories to our neighbours – with all Hungarians who found themselves on the other side of the new borders, as well as with the nations next door to us in our common Central European region.
TRIANON IN HUNGARIAN FOREIGN POLICY
Essentially derived from this twofold sense of solidarity and belonging, the approach of Hungarian foreign policy accords a central role to the protection of minority rights and to strengthening the Central European region.
None of this came out of the blue: it was all part of the strategic vision of József Antall, the country’s first freely elected Prime Minister after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Before the 1990 elections, he had announced that Hungary’s foreign policy would have to focus on three issues: Euro-Atlantic integration, good neighbourly relations, and the protection of minorities. In a sort of non-partisan consensus unique to Hungary, every administration since him has publicly embraced this threefold goal. This included the left-wing governments as well, although they supported these simultaneous objectives in principle more than anything else, as was laid bare by the referendum of 2004.
In line with these developments, Hungary has for three decades served as a major driving force and inspiration for the constitutional legislation of minority rights in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Various international documents such as the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages or the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, both adopted under the auspices of the Council of Europe, or the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious, and Linguistic Minorities, drew heavily on Hungarian diplomatic efforts. Hungary was also at the forefront of the struggle to elevate minority rights to the level of core values of the European Union, as enshrined in the Treaty of Lisbon. Today, Hungary remains committed to supporting civilian initiatives for bolstering the EU’s regime of protecting minority rights.
Hungary laid the foundations of its regional policy by joining forces thirty years ago, in March 1991 at a ceremony in the former royal town of Visegrád, north of Budapest, with Czechoslovakia and Poland to create the Visegrád Group. To this day the foremost vehicle of international cooperation in Central Europe, this formation does not in the least detract from the significance of the Three Seas Initiative, a forum comprising a broader range of states from the Baltic to the Adriatic but equally compatible with Hungary’s national interests. On the bilateral front, the Hungarian–Ukrainian framework agreement, originally signed by the Antall cabinet in 1999, continues to provide a solid model for Hungary’s policy towards its neighbours. Our present foreign policy has ralied on this document with considerable success, enjoying positively good relations with five out of the seven countries sharing a border with Hungary. As to the rest, we acknowledge the necessity of striving for bilateral compromise with Romania and Ukraine.
Hungary’s Western policy since 1990 has to varying degrees followed its own path compared to the mainstream of the European Community and then the EU, and has achieved good results doing so. This is true today on several issues, notably including that of migration. But it was also the case around the time of the regime change, when the West concentrated on finding a compromise with the Soviet Union and sought to cast Central Europe in a merely intermediary role. Yet Hungary refused to recognize any alternative to the complete liquidation of Comecon and the Warsaw Pact, aiming at full membership in the EU and NATO. By 2004, we had achieved all of these goals, not just in defiance of the Soviet Union and then of Russia, but also running against the tide of the European mainstream. These events relate to the complex problem of Trianon insofar as we would have been incapable of such achievements in Euro-Atlantic integration without handling the minority issue as a matter of legal advocacy, nor without the stabilizing influence of Central European solidarity.
As we have seen, the principled but moderate treatment of the question of Trianon in Hungarian politics has consequences reaching far beyond our national borders, specifically in the impact it has had on the shape of Europe today. This marks the twin pillars of opportunity and responsibility along the road ahead of Hungarian foreign policy.
Translated by Péter Balikó Lengyel