Bad Treaty That Won't Go Away
Today marks the eightieth anniversary of the Treaty of Trianon,
named for the palace in Versailles where it was concluded in 1920.
Few Americans know it ever happened, yet thousands of them are
having to risk their lives right this minute in consequence of it.
Here the story begins: After long periods of Austrian occupation,
Hungary achieved limited independence in 1867, embodied in the so-called
dual monarchy, Austria-Hungary. (There never was an Austro-Hungarian
Thus, despite little interest or stake in World War I, Hungary
found itself involved, and on the losing side. France declared itself
the winner, and sole arbiter of a new Europe. President Woodrow
Wilson watched his Fourteen Points, a source of hope for lasting
peace, brushed off the table by French fury.
For reasons yet to be explained, Hungary was singled out for punitive
treatment, unique in the annals of modern history. After a thousand
years as a nation-state, and looking like a perfect geographic entity
on the map, the country was dismembered and carved up as if on a
butcher's board. Two-thirds of Hungary's territory and 60 per cent
of its population were simply detached, making it a torso of insufficient
resources, creating international borders of village streets. Overnight,
parents, grandparents or cousins needed passports if they wanted
to visit. Millions woke up as subjects of new, hostile governments
that literally did not exist the night before.
The proceeds of Trianon appeared on the map as Czechoslovakia,
Yugoslavia, and Greater Rumania. A final quirk: even Austria got
a chunk of Western Hungary. Can anyone figure that one?
Now it is certainly true that, for example, Slovaks had lived in
the Northern counties of Hungary for a thousand years, and their
only path to social advancement was to become Hungarianized. Also,
Hungary missed a great opportunity during its own revolution of
1848 to respond to the aspirations of ethnic minorities. But the
answer surely was not to place millions of Hungarians under Slovak,
Serbian, Rumanian rule - the latter through the wholesale gift of
Transylvania to Rumania.
Distributing the material and human resources of Hungary was presumably
the only way to endow the new entities with a measure of economic
viability. Northern Hungary was rich in minerals, Southern Hungary
was famous for its wheat fields - and in the East, Transylvania
simply had everything, including enormous historic importance to
Historic importance also attaches to what is now known as Bratislava,
capital of Slovakia. Under its original name, Pozsony (Pressburg
for the German-speaking), it had been the coronation town of Hungarian
kings for 900 years, seat of the first Hungarian Parliament, and
the cultural center where child prodigies like Mozart and Liszt
performed within days of being heard in Vienna.
Of Hungary's four greatest composers, all born in Hungary of course,
only Zoltán Kodály's birthplace remains. On today's
maps, it appears as if F. Liszt had been born in Austria, Ern_ Dohnányi
in Slovakia, and Béla Bartók in Rumania. On Bartók's
100th birthday, the Hungarian delegation, wishing to lay a wreath,
was turned back at the Rumanian border.
The 19th century was a hotbed of nationalistic aspirations. But
knowing how to be a country takes more than a flag and a few leaders.
Among other things, cities must be built, an infrastructure produced
and operated. At the time of Trianon, Slovaks had zero years of
experience of it. Rumanians had 61 years of running two provinces
combined into a political entity. Serbs and Croats had made various
attempts between periods of Turkish, Austrian and Hungarian rule.
Alone Hungary in the region could look back upon 1,024 years of
Thus, the towns, the great centers in Slovakia, in Transylvania,
in Vojvodina were not built by Slovaks, Rumanians or Serbs. The
distinguished teaching institutions, the book publishers, indeed
all carriers of "culture," passed to their control through
the Treaty of Trianon along with the territories. The new owners
could have chosen to learn and benefit by them, as once Romans did
from the Greeks. They could have looked upon the people, the cities,
the institutions as precious capital, gifts of history, assets to
nurture and multiply.
They could have invited, encouraged the participation and loyalty
of their new subjects. Instead, their policy became to usurp what
they could, and do away with the rest.
Initially, promises of plebiscites were made to enable entire communities
to choose sides. They never happened. What has happened is a horror
story of systematic destruction of cultures, involving millions
of Hungarians - still the largest oppressed minorities in Europe.
If at least the outcome had been a success story for everyone else,
one might propose that sacrificing Hungary, an alien among European
nations for a thousand years, was worth the happiness of others.
But, as always, history teaches us that destruction can never provide
foundations for construction. We learn this when we compare the
"Great French Revolution" with the American Revolution;
we learn it again when we look to the dissolution of Czechoslovakia
at the first opportunity and, of course, the tragedy that Yugoslavia
has been day in day out.
There is nothing to show for the untold suffering of millions of
Indeed, many believe that a wiser disposition of World War I might
have forestalled the tragedies of World War II. Certainly, many
of Hungary's leaders between the wars had a distaste for Adolf Hitler's
reign, but the national pain about Trianon was a button Hitler was
always able to push. And make no mistake: what socialists denounce
as "irredentism" has been shared by most, and found its
lasting artistic expression in Zoltán Kodály's magnificent
oratorio "Psalmus Hungaricus."
Unlike its neighbors, Hungary has not hired public relations firms
in Washington. There has neither been a Hungarian lobby nor a Hungarian
vote to court in America. Hungarians have been coming here simply
to avail themselves of the opportunities of this great land and
ask for nothing else. But something is not right about the manner
in which the plight and cultural destruction of the Hungarian millions
in Slovakia, Rumania and Serbia has been ignored. An inspired initiative
for the Danube region is long overdue.
Then, perhaps, Americans who now have to keep the peace in the
Balkans, will come home for good.