REFLECTIONS ON ‘A NATION DISMEMBERED’

“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 for loyalty from the citizens placed wholesale under their sovereignty without asking that they surrender their souls too.”

We are here to introduce a book which celebrates a national tragedy in poetry of both heart and mind, expressing such emotions as grief, loss, indignation, sorrow, and anger. The national tragedy in question is the dismemberment of the Kingdom of Hungary by the diplomatic representatives of the victorious Allied Powers meeting at the Trianon Conference in Paris one hundred years ago.

I said ‘celebrate’. Is that the right word? No. And maybe there is not a right word. Poetry takes an injustice, an outrage, a cruelty, a misunderstanding and somehow transmutes those evils into a work of art that arouses sympathy, soothes hearts, and perhaps changes minds and attitudes as well. I do not think there is a single word for all those complex emotional changes. At least there is not one in English, rich though that language is, but perhaps there is such a word in Hungarian.

If so, this book is a fine example of it, and I must begin my remarks by thanking all those responsible for the love, devotion, and cultivated taste they have invested in it. There are many who deserve to be thanked, and I cannot name all of them, but I must obviously start with Csilla Bertha and my colleague of seven years, Gyula Kodolányi, who made the selection of poems, edited them and provided all the illuminating notes in their scholarly apparatus. Then, Donald Morse and Béla Pomogáts who wrote two powerful essays on the significance of Trianon to the Hungarian people and to Hungarian literature. Thirteen poets and translators made translations of the original Hungarians poets which are always faithful and beautiful and which in some cases give us poetry that competes with the original. And then there are the original poets – some like Endre Ady known to the world and even to me, others hitherto known only unto God and other persons of taste. There is an afterword from the great twentieth-century writer, Gyula Illyés, who had a family connection with Hungarian Review. His essay seeks both to defend the lost Hungarians and to celebrate their language as the symbolic mother tongue that has comforted all those in our times who have faced the bitterness of defeat. Finally, I would like to thank our co-publishers the Batthyány Foundation and our own publisher, Tamás Dezső.

Donald Morse points out in his introduction that there are two great events involving Hungary in the twentieth century: Trianon and 1956. Everyone knows about 1956; only Hungarians know about Trianon. Yet both are vital to understanding Hungary and its history.

Until 1986 I was a typical foreigner. I knew only about 1956. Then I had a most revealing meeting. I was working as Associate Editor of The London Times when I received an invitation to lunch from the Foreign Office to meet a Hungarian political figure visiting London as its guest. He was a prominent reform communist, and over lunch he gave me some very accurate predictions as to how the political situation in Hungary was likely to evolve over the next ten years: the reform communists would gradually prevail over the hardliners; the Party would split between a small faction of irreconcilable communists and a larger group of ‘social democrats’; and there would be an agreed transition to multiparty elections and democracy.

‘But won’t you lose the elections?’ I asked.

‘Yes’, he replied, going on to explain that the country was in such difficulties that the first democratic government would be a suicide mission, and the newly-baptized social democrats would return in the second post-communism elections. It was a fascinating analysis, pure gold for a journalist, which was to be confirmed by events almost precisely. I thanked him for it and asked if there was anything I could do for him in return. Maybe there was someone he would like to meet?

He said, yes, there was one thing. Since I was in charge of writing editorials, would it be possible for The Times to appeal to Ceauşescu’s regime either to end or soften its harsh treatment of ethnic and cultural minorities in Romania. That was comfortably within The Times’s editorial guidelines. But I wondered why he would ask a Western newspaper to send this message rather than address his fraternal comrades in Bucharest directly.

‘Oh’, he said, almost laughing at my naiveté, ‘they pay no attention to us, but if The Times or another voice from the West complains, they feel they have to do something in response.’ I told him I would ensure such an editorial was written, and did so. But in the course of preparing to write it, I discovered more than I had known before about the havoc that Trianon had wreaked on Central Europe and on the Hungarian nation.

As no Hungarian needs to be told, Trianon was the last of the ‘little Versailles’ conferences that settled the disposition of territory and peoples between existing and new states in Central Europe following the defeat of the Central Powers in the Great War. Hungarians are well aware of this because Trianon deprived their country of two thirds of its population and territory. Hungary had not been the leading power in precipitating the great conflict – arguments still rage on which country’s statesmen deserve that obloquy – but it was the nation that suffered the worst calamities at its close.

To be sure, Hungary has survived those calamities down to today. Its will to do so has been highlighted as a primary element in the national character by its distinguished biographer, Sir Bryan Cartledge. A nation, like an individual, is a creature that undergoes many experiences in life and history and is transformed by them while remaining mysteriously the same being throughout. A national culture is the mind and imagination of that people – their achievements and failures, their sacrifices and crimes, their losses and hopes, all reflected and refracted through their songs, plays, poems, novels, music, paintings, statues, theories, histories, and what Abraham Lincoln called the ‘mystic chords of memory’. Hungarian culture is an unusual one in being simultaneously high and popular, or to be more exact, its popular culture celebrates its high literary and musical culture more than elsewhere. I have not taken a count, but Budapest seems to host more statues of poets, novelists, and composers than of statesmen and generals. Those statues generally evoke either the heroic period of Hungary’s nineteenth-century struggle for independence or its economic and cultural flowering after the 1867 Compromise. As David Reynolds has brilliantly described in his forthcoming book Within the Grace of Meaning. Essays on Hungary in the Twentieth Century, that long period of success had its tragic climax in the 1916 Coronation of Karl Habsburg as Károly IV, King of Hungary, in a ceremony choreographed by the great artist-statesman Miklós Bánffy under the shadow of a grim, relentless, all-too-modern war that would shortly sweep away dynasty, kingdom, borders, and the comforting security of traditional authority. Night fell on that world. For most of the remaining twentieth century Hungary suffered defeats, dismemberment, and occupations. Trianon in particular and its costs in human suffering produced responses of passionate defiance in poetry and other arts.

It might have been better for Hungarians if Trianon had been a deliberately plotted and imposed humiliation on the country. There were, of course, conspiracies and plots galore at the various Versailles conferences as is made very clear by historian Paul Mayle’s fascinating and intricate account of what happened at Trianon and at the larger Versailles conference. What is also clear, however, that the unjust treaty imposed on Hungary was the result of an ‘absurd storm’ of disadvantages that its diplomats faced at the conference.

In his magisterial summing-up, Paul Mayle lists them:

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 victimization, 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, summarizing the peace settlement with Germany, wrote that ‘[h]istory will characterize 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. And for Hungary Trianon was more than travesty – it was tragedy.

A tragedy with no single perpetrator but instead a multitude of semi-villains and not-very-innocent bystanders.

Donald Morse powerfully underlines the tragic and painful legacies of Trianon in his own essay, and he takes them further. He describes how the Hungarian nation experienced its own vivisection on the Trianon table and responded to it with emotions ranging from personal suffering as families and regions in the historical nation were divided from one another to a deep sense that such an unjust settlement could not be sustained and to a bitter desire to reverse the course of history. But it is almost always impossible to reverse history and therefore mistaken to try. We must deal with its injustices in other ways. Another way of responding to Trianon is the impulse of poets to express their and the nation’s feelings of loss and pain and to get from the world an acknowledgment of the truth and sympathy for the losses.

Morse’s essay has this sentence at its mid-point: ‘The Irish writer, Tom MacIntyre once defined a writer as someone who has been hurt by life and lived to sing about it – a definition that applies all too aptly to generations of post-1920 Hungarian writers who have never forgotten and can never forget the pain inflicted on their country by the Trianon Treaty.’

Pains equally great and mostly unmerited, however, were poured on top of it as the twentieth century ground mercilessly on. Well into the 1980s, the nation’s greatest writers were envisaging the Hungarian nation as a wounded and imprisoned one. They sought a spiritual liberty in their beautiful language which thus became the language of all those constrained by history and injustice. Morse cites the ‘famous hymn-like poem’, ‘A Wreath’ by Gyula Illyés, that conveys the deep love, respect, and loyalty to the mother tongue:

Language of fertile smiles,

of bright tears shared in secret, language

of loyalty, lingo

of never-surrendered faith, password of hope, language

of freedom, briefly-snatched freedom, behind-the-prison-guard’s-back-freedom…

In the end it is poetry alone that can defeat history by making the world wish for a less sorrowful outcome than the one imprisoned eternally in the past.

Politics has the duty to ensure that the future will be less sorrowful. It can achieve that if diplomats and statesmen observe two principles.

The first is that we should never forget Trianon nor its many victims, but we should not nourish grievances either – especially grievances that promise to reverse history but offer no way of doing so.

That imposes an obligation on Hungarians. 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 for loyalty from the citizens placed wholesale under their sovereignty without asking that they surrender their souls too.

(Talk given at the launch of A Nation Dismembered – The 1920 Treaty of Trianon in Hungarian Poetry, an anthology published by Hungarian Review, in Budapest, on 26 November 2020.)

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