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The Race for National Self-Determination at the End of 1918

Guest Writer 2018.12.01.

In the fall of 1918, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire came to a dramatic end. In the last phases of the war, the Entente powers adopted the Wilsonian principle of national self-determination, and embraced the movements of unsatisfied nationalities within the dualist monarchy. The WWI defeat thus ultimately led to the dissolution of the Monarchy and of historical Hungary. Self-determination became the basis of the “New Europe”, but it was selectively utilized—seemingly always to the detriment of the defeated nations.

The handling of the “Transylvanian question” exhibited the one-sided nature of implementing national self-determination. In the shadow of the WWI defeat, the Romanian minority leaders in the Hungarian Kingdom, who had long been seeking autonomy within it, made a radical move. On October 18th they announced their demand for complete “national freedom”, and later began to grasp power in Romanian majority regions through the aid of the Romanian national councils and national guards. On November 9th, the Romanian minority leaders expressed their requirements in the form of an ultimatum to the newly-formed, post-Aster-Revolution Hungarian government. They demanded administrative power in 26 eastern-Hungarian counties. Negotiations were held in Arad; Oszkár Jászi represented the Hungarian government and attempted to reason with Romanian leaders by explaining that these contested regions were actually quite diverse, with only a relative Romanian majority—but to no avail. Iuliu Maniu and his associates—with the support of the successfully mobilized Transylvanian Romanians and Romania—which recently reentered the war—announced that the autonomy granted by Jászi was not sufficient anymore: the Romanians must separate from Hungary.

By the middle of November, the “race for self-determination” had reached a new level. While the Hungarian government was attempting to consolidate the chaotic country, the Transylvanian Romanian leaders, collaborating with the Romanian government, began organizing a popular assembly. The assembly, held on December 1st in Gyulafehérvár (Alba Iulia), strived to provide legitimacy and also aimed to obviate the unsure outcome of a popular vote. The “National Assembly”, made up of 1228 (other sources stating 1450) Romanian elected delegates, mobilized more than a hundred thousand participants to festively vote to leave Hungary and join Romania.

Simultaneously, Hungarian politicians were also trying to implement the Wilsonian points. In Transylvania—and the Hungarian majority Szekler region—Hungarian and Szekler National Councils were striving for either preserving territorial intactness of the country or attaining independence for Hungarian regions. The Szekler Assembly held in Marosvásárhely (Târgu-Mureș) on November 28th with a few thousand attendees, along with the December 22nd Kolozsvár (today: Cluj-Napoca) National Assembly, which—according to certain estimations, had tens of thousands in attendance—stood out for territorial intactness, thereby rejecting the Romanian conquest. The two meetings and various unborn plans—for example, Árpád Paál’s “Szekler Republic”—conveyed the claims of Hungarian self-determination but went unnoticed next to those of the Romanians.

The Romanian army ended the race for self-determination as a “zero-sum game”—the winner took all. Here “all” meant a multiethnic region: “Transylvania of Trianon”, larger than present-day Hungary. It was inhabited by, according to a 1910 census, a population identifying by mother-tongue as 54% Romanian, 32% Hungarian and 11% German. For a time, the latter ones still had hope in the liberally conceived guarantees declared at Gyulafehérvár (“complete national freedom for all cohabiting peoples…”), yet, the Bucharest Government only fulfilled the unconditional attachment of Transylvania to Romania. This step foreshadowed a new – Romanian – era of nation-building in Transylvania.

Csaba Zahorán, historian, Trianon 100 Momentum Research Group, Hungarian Academy of Sciences

on the featured photo: National Union Museum, Gyulafehérvár
photo by Csaba Zahorán


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