WISHFUL THINKING REVISITED: GÉZA JESZENSZKY’S ‘LOST PRESTIGE’

On my bookshelves there are already two copies of Lost Prestige: the 1986 edition, a little blue book, which back then was a real eye-opener for an MA student in History and English, and the 1994-second edition, a presentation copy, which was a book of great value for my dissertation. The most recent, eagerly awaited English version, containing many more primary sources in a bibliography running to fourteen pages, is and will long be, in my view, an indispensable resource for both professionals and the wider public.

Lost Prestige is a very telling title, as from a Western, more particularly British point of view, one can indeed interpret Hungarian history from the 1848 revolution up to the end of the Cold War in terms of periods of high esteem, such as 1902–04, 1956 or 1989–90, and of periods in which the country was viewed extremely critically, especially between 1906 and 1920. On the other hand, after 1920, as Hungary lost its strategic significance (as a part of Austro-Hungary) both praise and condemnation were succeeded in Britain by general indifference. Still regarding the title, the postpositive use of the past participle, that is Prestige Lost – somewhat reminiscent of Paradise Lost – might have sounded more emphatic, and probably more dramatic, too.

The book superbly analyses how the half a century-old positive image of Hungary evaporated within just a few years. Jeszenszky devotes an entire chapter, more than fifty pages, to the constitutional crisis (1904–1906), and with good reason. He calls attention to the Hungarian jurists’ and politicians’ ‘extraordinary skill’, their obsessive preoccupation with formal ritual as a substitute for electoral or social reform. The debates over titles, hyphens, flags, badges, uniforms and particularly, the language of command in the army, some seventy words, dominated political life up until the Great War. Chapter 5 reminded me of the popular nursery rhyme ‘For the want of a nail the shoe was lost, for the want of a shoe the horse was lost, for the want of horse the rider was lost’, etc. The rhyme ends with the exclamation: ‘All for the want of a horseshoe nail!’ Can one argue that the horseshoe nail upon which was lost if not the kingdom then at least its integrity, was the constitutional crisis or, more precisely, a futile debate over some seventy words?

The treaties imposed by the Entente powers after the First World War – including the Treaty of Trianon of 1920 – were the products of the Entente wartime strategy of, among others, breaking up Austro-Hungary, as well as the failures of the Central Powers. Moreover, the constitutional crisis also did weaken Austro-Hungary considerably. First, owing to the myopic preoccupation with the constitutional question, the Hungarian Parliament successfully blocked the modernization of the Austro-Hungarian Army for more than ten years, with the result that it rapidly fell behind its rivals and became fully dependent on the German high command during the Great War. And secondly, in line with the book, the constitutional crisis destroyed the reputation of Hungarian politicians and, more importantly, that of the Hungarian nation for several decades to come. As Lost Prestige explains: after 1907 no one in England believed in the idea of a liberal Hungary. But how long did this negative image prevail? To illustrate the extent of the harm caused, it may be enough to cite a British historian, Carlile Aylmer Macartney, who had once been a disciple of the vehemently anti-Hungarian polemicist R. W. Seton-Watson, but later turned against him and developed a sympathetic view of Hungary. In a recently found, miscataloged letter dated 1934, Macartney wrote:

The trouble has been all along that the only people who enjoyed any reputation of having anything whatever about the country [Hungary] were uniformly hostile to it, and although a certain number of MPs and similar people from time to time made speeches about it, the immediate reply has been that they knew nothing about it, that they were only repeating what they were told from one side, and that the real facts are quite different, will be found in the works of authorities referred to (hostile to Hungary).1

As the fitting summary in Lost Prestige goes: ‘All the wells were poisoned.’2 With reference to a vast number of archival sources, the author sets out to prove that this long-lasting hostility towards Hungary was not due to the authorities’ – that is, Seton-Watson’s or Steed’s – inborn hatred of Hungary, nor to any conspiracy, but primarily to the coalition politicians’, and unfortunately most of their colleagues’, tragic lack of self-reflection and their unwillingness to react to criticism in a scholarly way. Their letters and articles reveal that the formerly great friends of Hungary were stigmatized as paid agents, ticks, parasites, and were usually considered misinformed about or unaware of the nuances of Hungarian history and politics. This was unfair and untrue. Both Seton-Watson and Steed were intimately acquainted with the country, and took great pains to discover its landscapes and peoples, to understand its history and constitution, and above all, to learn Hungarian. The unwillingness to accept the minoroties’ voluntary assimilation, and almost all of their one-sided arguments and subsequent factual distortions stemmed from their overlapping and sometimes conflicting identities as liberals, nationalists, and particularly in Steed’s case, imperialists. Lost Prestige does not elaborate on this, but Seton-Watson’s and Steed’s writings suggest that they both remained largely unaware of the interplay of these three layers: adherence to lofty ideas of justice, coloured by British foreign political considerations and interests, as well as by personal ties and emotions.

Nevertheless, despite their shortcomings, Macartney could argue in 1937:

To Magyar writers, Professor Seton-Watson is anathema. … I can, however, find, no work from the other side to set against his; since his opponents either ignore or deny the problems of which he treats, instead of explaining them. The reasoned Magyar view has yet to be expounded in any Western European language. Meanwhile, Professor Seton-Watson’s works remain unsurpassed in any language as collections of the facts and utterances of Magyar statesmen and Parliamentarians on the National question.3

Unfortunately for Hungarians, this is not all: not only were Seton-Watson’s works on Hungary unsurpassed, but in the interwar period, the tireless Oxford professor wrote the most detailed history of the Romanians then available in English, and later followed this with histories of the Czechs and the Slovaks, with an overall bias against the Hungarians.

Géza Jeszenszky’s Lost Prestige lives up to Macartney’s expectations, and expounds the reasoned Magyar view while not shunning the sad fact that after 1920 the Hungarians in the successor states were soon worse off as a minority than the non-Hungarian peoples of Hungary had been. The mistreatment of the Hungarian minority still continues, thus on the hundredth anniversary of the Treaty of Trianon the memory of the lost territories may still sting. Yet Lost Prestige is utterly devoid of any misleading self-pity or self-delusion. The example has been set to follow, both at home and abroad.

Notes:

1 C. A. Macartney’s letter to József Balogh, 13 November 1934. OSZK K Fond 1/2067.

2 Géza Jeszenszky, Lost Prestige (Helena History Press, 2020), 380.

3 C. A. Macartney, Hungary and Her Successors (Oxford University Press, 1937), 24.

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