Hungarian history and culture would be unimaginable without the accomplishments of the world-famous composer Béla Bartók, the painter Mihály Munkácsy, the poet Endre Ady, the novelist Mór Jókai and the playwright Imre Madách, to name just five of the figures that define the nation’s culture heritage as we know it. Yet, all of them were born on territory that, due to the tragic events of history, now belong not to Hungary but to neighbouring states.
On Thursday, 4 June, Hungarians across the country and beyond marked National Cohesion Day in remembrance of the tragic losses brought on by the Treaty of Trianon signed exactly 95 years before, on 4 June 1920, a day that spelt the beginning of untold grief and suffering for the millions of ethnic Hungarians who suddenly found themselves in the position of vulnerable minorities in the successor states. The decades that entailed were a journey through hardship and discrimination for ethnic Hungarian communities in the neighbouring countries, categorised by forced resettlement, efforts do deprive them from education in their mother tongue, religious persecution, and in the case of post-war Czechoslovakia, condemnation to statelessness after being deprived from citizenship based on collective judgement. Persecution reached its boiling-point in the Romania of the late 1980s, when the notorious “village destruction” plan cooked up by the country’s Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu threatened the country’s ethnic Hungarians with complete cultural annihilation.
Although diminished in numbers, it is a near miracle that Hungarian communities of various sizes continue to populate all of the neighbouring countries and have lived to experience the freedom and sense of togetherness made possible by the collapse of Communism a quarter-century ago and, increasingly, the falling down of state borders separating minority communities from their kin-state, facilitating reconnection between Hungarians on each side of the frontiers.
Despite these historically unparalleled opportunities, relations between Hungarians living in the current area of Hungary and those beyond the borders reached their low in the aftermath of Hungary’s referendum on dual citizenship for beyond-border Hungarians in December 2004, which was also the culmination of an increasingly bitter divide between the political Left and Right; although slightly over half of those casting their vote supported simplified nationalisation, the referendum was invalid because neither answer won the support of 25 per cent of the entire electorate. The then-ruling Socialist-Liberal alliance’s campaign against dual citizenship, which included the line “Let’s not pay with our jobs because of cheap beyond-border labour”, however, only served to spread resentment and anomosity not only between Hungarians living within and outside of present-day Hungary but also within an already highly divided domestic electorate.
Among the most welcome developments in the period since the second Orbán government took office are the Hungarian cabinet’s decided stance to support the cause of greater self-determination for beyond-border Hungarians and the near-full consensus on the Hungarian political scene that has arisen on this issue since 2010. In 2010, only three MPs voted against the law on dual citizenship in the then 386-member Parliament in Hungary; three years later, Attila Mesterházy, then-chairman of the Socialist Party, apologised from beyond-border Hungarians for campaigning against simplified naturalisation in 2004 in the Transylvanian city of Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca) and, for example, supporting the autonomy efforts of the Szekler Hungarians in Romania is also high on the agenda of the green LMP party. SZDSZ, the liberal party which was most decidedly against extending such benefits to ethnic Hungarian communities, disappeared off the Hungarian political scene in 2010.
Since dual citizenship for ethnic Hungarians was introduced in 2010, as many as 690 000 people have taken the Hungarian citizenship oath, which is especially striking given that two of the countries home to substantial Hungarian minority communities – Slovakia and Ukraine – do not allow the practice (the two countries have a combined Hungarian population of around 600 000). Further major steps in enhancing cross-border solidarity are the mandatory class excursions for Hungarian secondary school students to areas populated by ethnic Hungarians and a government scheme launched this year that sees fifty participants from Hungary assisting sporadic communities’ survival through self-organisation. For ethnic Hungarians living in the Carpathian Basin, all forms of assistance are greatly welcome because their situation remains far from ideal despite very significant improvements since the fall of Communism, as demonstrated, for example, by the Slovakian railway company’s refusal to display minority language signing in Hungarian-populated areas and Romania’s recent re-nationalisation efforts directed at a historic dormitory owned by the Hungarian Reformed Church.
National unity, however, also has another aspect that is rarely touched upon at such occasions, this being the ever-increasing social and geographical discrepancies that continue to divide Hungarians as “haves” and “have-nots”. Emigration from Hungary reached record numbers in 2015, and the Hungarian minority in Romania, which is the largest ethnic Hungarian community, also decreased by 200 000 in the decade prior to 2011, largely for similar reasons: low salaries and lack of perspectives and employment opportunities for young people, along with low fertility rates.
The Hungarian national anthem, the first line of which has been included in the preamble of the new Fundamental Law, is ever-present at all such commemorations both in Hungary and among communities torn from the mother country by the calamities of history. It would be wise to remember what Dezső Szabó, the gifted but controversial Transylvanian-born writer, famously wrote to Count István Tisza, the country’s leading statesman at the time, over a century ago, in 1911: “The National Anthem can be sung with an empty stomach for a certain time only.”