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Trianon: Instead of the principle on self-determination of nations, the victorious great powers re-drew borders according to their geopolitical interests – Interview with historian Balázs Ablonczy

Hungary can only be held responsible for World War I as any other participating country, says historian Balázs Ablonczy, whose new book, “Unknown Trianon,” has just been published. On the other hand, the bad perception of Hungary in the world at the time played a role in that the treaty hit the country particularly hard. The leader of the Trianon 100 Lendület (Momentum) Research Group of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences does not expect a consensus on Trianon between historians of Hungary and the neighboring countries, because what was a national tragedy for us, Hungarians, was for others, a step towards the creation of their nation-states.

You write in your new book that at the beginning of the summer of 1918, it seemed that the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy reached its aims and won the war. How did it change to a historically tragic defeat so suddenly?

Well, the answer is the situation was not as rosy as seen from without. Supply disruptions became more and more serious in the Dual Monarchy. The Monarchy’s Army, which had not been able to carry out an independent offensive operation since the end of 1914 without the support of Germany, slowly collapsed: soldiers dressed in rags and weighing less than hundred pounds fought on the Italian Front. The collapse was symbolically introduced by the sinking of the most modern unit of the imperial and royal navy, the battleship St. Stephen [named after Stephen I, the first king of Hungary], while, in practice, the absolute failure of the Piave offensive at the end of June 1918. From here, it was all downhill.

If it were not for the lost World War, could the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy have survived? Or would it have only delayed the disintegration of the multi-ethnic state?

In the short term, it could have possibly survived. In the long term, I believe that only an authoritarian regime, such as a military dictatorship could have had the chance to sustain that state. In the long run, the empire could have survived in some kind of a federal structure, but by then I think the goodwill of the ethnic elites to cooperate was missing.

The treaty that followed the First World War hit Hungary particularly hard. Albert Apponyi, the head of the Hungarian delegation, also emphasized in his defense speech that even if the winners punish the countries declared responsible for the war, it can only be proportionate to their particular responsibility. Was Hungary responsible for the outbreak of World War I? Was the country particularly responsible for the devastation of the war? Why did Hungary get the heaviest punishment?

Hungary can only be blamed or held responsible for World War I as any other participating country.

It is now a well-known fact that Prime Minister István Tisza opposed the war message in the joint Council of Ministers: however, this was not known at the time. But nonetheless, the intention of the victorious states was to divide the Austro-Hungarian Empire and create a system of alliances consisting of (more or less) nation-based sovereign states in the back of Germany that could provide the victors with enough guarantees to both keep Germany in check and isolate Bolshevik Soviet Russia.

Photo by Attila Lambert/Hungary Today

Although the Wilson principles were about the self-determination of nations, the Red Map, presented by geographer and later prime minister Pál Teleki, which showcased the ethnic relations of historical Hungary by marking the ethnic majorities, was not taken into account. Why were the Hungarian arguments not heard at the peace conference?

The Hungarian peace delegation arrived late to Paris, almost a year after the opening of the conference, beginning in 1920. By then, the German, Austrian, and Bulgarian peace treaties had been signed, the United States had left the peace conference, and the League of Nations had been formed; to sum it up, too much had already been decided to achieve a substantive change. I think this also played a role in the fact that the Hungarian reasoning was not taken into consideration. On the other hand,

postponing the invitation of the Hungarian delegation was related to the fact that the successor states were very determined to produce a fait accompli (done deal), i.e. to occupy all the territories they claimed.

Was it possible to make a treaty which would have been acceptable to all and would not lay the groundwork for a next world war, like the unjust treaty did?

In the end, Germany – losing 4% of its population, albeit more in area – did not suffer huge losses, not nearly as much as Hungary. Nevertheless, a significant part of German politics immediately began to pluck revisionist strings. Obviously, the changed nature of the Paris Conference played a big role in this. The Paris Conference no longer sought a compromise with the defeated states (and didn’t even try to take their views into account) unlike the Vienna Congress [1814-1815 — which remade Europe after the downfall of French Emperor Napoleon I, to provide a long-term peace plan for Europe by settling critical issues arising from the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars] or, to some extent, the Congress of Berlin [1878 — regulating Balkan issues], but pursued a power policy of great powers in the rhetorical guise of democratic self-determination. But the nationalism of the era (either on the victorious or the losing side) was not inclined to consensual solutions either.

The Treaty of Trianon: Railroading Hungary

What was the perception of Hungary in the world since the beginning of the decade? Did it play a role in the final decision?

It was bad and got even worse. This certainly played a role in the decision. The Central Powers, and among them the Dual Monarchy, had already lost the propaganda war at the moment of the war’s outbreak. This certainly affected what happened to Hungary later.

Leaders of Hungary’s national minorities often complained about what they thought was violent nation-building, that the Hungarian state “wanted to make them Hungarian.” Without such a strong nation-building effort, could the division of the country have been avoided?

I do not think so. Although the Hungarian nationality policy was not generous, it was far from being as bad as its reputation.

Rival nation-builders like to present all that happened as the mistake of Hungarians, but the dynamics of Central European history in the 19th-20th century show that all national elites sought to create their own state.

Considering this, some more grammar schools and nurseries, and a few changes in public administration would not have changed anything. Croatia had a relatively broad self-government within the “countries of the Holy Crown,” yet its elite joined the new South Slavic kingdom in 1918 almost without hesitation.

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

Were the differences between the national minorities and the Hungarians present in everyday life, especially in the period from the end of the war up until the peace treaty?

That’s hard to answer. With the escalation of internal conflicts in the monarchy caused by the war, this relationship deteriorated. Obviously the internments and imprisonments didn’t help, neither did the fact that the imperial army very deliberately, always deployed units of other nationalities to quell the growing riots. In the Czech provinces, the deployed Hungarians; in Hungary, South Slavs; and some Germans everywhere.

What characterized the thinking of the (changing) Hungarian political leadership from the end of the World War to the Peace Treaty? Did they expect “fair” peace? How much room for maneuvering did they see? When did it become clear that such drastic conditions would be forced on Hungary?

The feeling of danger suddenly fell on the country, when it was all too late.

The political elite began to rush, trying everything between 1918 and 1921, from pacifist Wilsonism to armed national defense, to secret alliance seeking.

Everyone acted a bit differently than what was expected of their ideological or political background: the internationalist communists waged a territorial war, the conservative elitist Albert Apponyi proposed a referendum, which was a Wilsonian idea. What is clear is that after the so-called Clemenceau note in June 1919, there could only be a few people left with illusions. Then, the Budapest newspapers published the new borders of the country.

Photo by Attila Lambert/Hungary Today

It took more than a year and a half from the end of the World War until the treaty. In this period of time, there was no peace at all in the region, just think of the military actions of the Romanians and Czechoslovakians, the Romanians broke all the way to Győr. It seemed that despite the end of World War I, the new borders could be drawn not only by diplomatic means but also by weapons, as in the case of Turkey. Could Hungary achieve more favorable peace conditions with arms?

Future Prime Minister and reputed geographer Pál Teleki himself said about the difference between the Hungarian and Turkish examples that “we did not have a desert in Asia Minor that we could retreat from behind,” so he justified with geographical factors why a successful resistance was not possible.

On the other hand, in connection with the Turkish example, we often forget that Mustafa Kemal was supported by the Soviet Union, not to mention that he did not have to fight on several fronts and against more armies, as he only had to confront the relatively weak Greek army.

Are there Hungarian politicians who can be held responsible for the terms of the Trianon peace treaty? Those usually mentioned in this regard are the assassinated former Prime Minister István Tisza; the Prime Minister of the Aster Revolution, Mihály Károlyi; his Minister of Defense, Béla Linder; and Béla Kun and the Soviet Republic of Hungary.

The Hungarian political elite has a joint responsibility for this: those who cherished foreign policy illusions and did not really see beyond the fences of the Monarchy; those who rocked themselves into doctrinal pacifist illusions; and also those who introduced violent dictatorships. I leave the measuring of responsibilities to the reader.

Why did Hungary sign the peace treaty? Were they afraid that if they didn’t the situation would get worse? Did they have fears that Hungary could disappear from the map, as it had been done with Poland several times?

The danger of the complete abolition of the state came up during the late summer-autumn of 1919. At the time of the peace treaty, this danger was no longer present. The Entente had to make peace with someone; although there was some chance that if they rejected it, the country would be even smaller.

Photo by Attila Lambert/Hungary Today

How did the Hungarian society experience this extremely uncertain and often very torturous period?

Badly: the Hungarians from that era were scared, cold, hungry, and sick. I think this is a more important circumstance in the history of the period than what the Boer General Smuts, sent to Budapest, thought about Béla Kun.

How was the crowd of refugees from across the border, many of whom lived in rail cars for years, received?

At first, kindly. But as soon as it turned out that refugees meant competition in the housing and labor markets, that perception obviously changed. In addition, those who were initially supporters, after a while were in need of support themselves. Hence the opinions oscillated between regret and malice.

Were there people waiting for peace so eagerly that they would accept any treaty that meant closure and a new beginning?

I think everyone was waiting for peace, but it was the end of the Soviet Republic that meant a fresh start.

History seems to live on with us, as the 100th anniversary of the Trianon treaty awakens fierce emotions, it is enough to think that the date of the peace treaty has become a national holiday in Romania. The basic principle of historiography, from antiquity, is to write “sine ira et studio,” “so without anger and passion.” Do you think there is a historical minimum among Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak, and other historiographers writing about Trianon? If not, why not? What would it take to create it?

Obviously there is a historical minimum, we agree on certain facts. But there are varying distances between the conclusions drawn from them.

There is no consensus because what is for one the culmination of national salvation history and the creation of its own nation-state (or the first step towards it), for the other, is a national tragedy.

Creating a consensus or historical minimum primarily requires political will, which I do not see. At the same time, I would warn everyone not to expect that in the case of such a minimum, any historian from any neighboring state will fall to his knees, acknowledge the sins of his nation, and offer the lost territories on a tray: this will certainly not happen.

Photos by Attila Lambert/Hungary Today