Budapest, Hungary – Nearly a hundred years after it was signed, the 1920 Trianon Peace Treaty remains one of the most traumatic events in Hungary’s collective memory, and a recurring issue in current politics.
One of Viktor Orbán’s first measures when he rose to power in 2010 was to establish a national memorial day on June 4 to mark the anniversary of the day the treaty was signed. Since then, Hungary’s strongman, comfortably reelected in April for a third consecutive term, constantly refers to the infamous treaty to play on the sense of victimhood, boost national pride and lambast Western European nations. “Since Trianon, we have never been so close to bringing our nation back to self-confidence and vitality as we are now”, the Hungarian Prime Minister said last year.
This trauma remains deeply engraved in the minds and hearts of many Hungarians. Hell, a rock opera was even created on this topic. The Trianon Treaty is also used as a scapegoat in a more direct, electoral sense: Orbán has moved to make ethnic Hungarians living – as a consequence of Hungary’s dismemberment – in neighboring countries (mostly in Romania, Ukraine, Slovakia and Serbia) eligible for citizenship and thus secure their votes whenever Hungarians head to the polls. The recent spat between Budapest and Kiev can only be understood in that context.
Why it is still such an overarching issue in Hungarian politics, society and culture today? Here’s everything you have to know to understand what it’s all about.
What is the Trianon Peace Treaty?
The Trianon Peace Treaty was signed by the representatives of Hungary on one side and the Allied powers on the other, on June 4, 1920, at the Grand Trianon Palace at Versailles, in France. It’s one of the many peace treaties that were signed in the aftermath of the First World War from 1918 to 1920.
What happened between 1918 and 1920?
In the fall of 1918, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy quickly collapsed in the wake of military defeat, paving the way to its disintegration and empowering autonomist movements all across Central Europe. The Padova Armistice put an end to the war for the Austro-Hungarian empire on November 3, followed by the Belgrade Military Convention a few days later that put huge parts of the territory under foreign control pending official peace settlement and forcing the new Hungarian state to disarm. On December 23, the Paris Peace Conference ordered the evacuation of Northern Hungary to pave the way for the establishment of the newly-formed Czechoslovak administration.
Meanwhile, neighboring countries – including Serbian, Romanian and Czecho-Slovak troops – advanced into Hungarian territory well beyond demarcation lines. Hungarian authorities initially watched passively their advance, before a newly-established Republic of Councils organized its Red Army to halt the advance of Romanian troops in April 1919. The counteroffensive of the Bolshevik government was short-lived, and Romanian troops eventually occupied Budapest, along with Central and North-Western parts of Hungary – many of which had a strong concentration of mines, industrial facilities and transport infrastructure – in the summer of 1919.
This de facto military occupation lent weight to those countries’ territorial views on Hungary during the upcoming negotiations. During the unstable two years that followed the end of World War I, Allied powers remained reluctant to open negotiations with Bela Kun’s short-lived Bolshevik regime as well as with the governments that assumed office during the Romanian occupation.
They eventually recognized a new government and sent the draft of the peace treaty to Hungarian authorities in January 1920.
Did Hungary really lost two-third of its territory?
According to the terms presented by Allied powers, Hungary was stripped of two-third of its territory and population: Czechoslovakia received Northern Hungary, sub-Carpathian Ruthenia and the region of Pressburg (Bratislava), along with other minor territories; Austria received most of the Burgenland (Western Hungary), while the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes took hold of Croatia-Slavonia and part of the Banat region. Romania was given most of the Banat province and Transylvania, while Italy received Fiume. This disintegration left Hungary with less than 93.000 of the initial 325.000 square km of its territory.
Despite Hungary’s attempt to organize plebiscites and open secret negotiations with Allied powers, all those transfers were done without consulting local populations.
It should also be noted that, during the Second World War, Hungary managed to take back some of its lost territories. The Trianon frontiers were nonetheless reinstated in 1945.
How did the demographics change?
This dismemberment planted the seeds for much of the resentment that can still be felt today. The fact that it was done, almost everywhere, without consulting with local residents, makes it all the more easy to describe it as a gross violation of Hungary’s national integrity and of the principle of self-determination.
Millions of Hungarians suddenly found themselves living in foreign countries. Hungary’s population dropped from over 20 million people to less than 8 million, with most of the displaced populations now living in Romania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Three million people for whom Hungarian was their mother tongue were annexed by successor states. Those new borders also turned Hungary into a highly homogeneous state: while less than 50% of the kingdom of Hungary’s population had Magyar as their mother tongue before, they now accounted for nearly 90% of the Hungarian population.
Did the treaty state other conditions?
By the terms of the treaty, Hungary’s armed forces were also to be restricted to 35.000 men. They had to be lightly armed and only employed for border protection and domestic order. The treaty also stated that war reparations were to be paid by Hungary; its exact amount was to be decided later on.
Talking to The Guardian, historian Andras Mink summed up the everlasting influence of the Trianon treaty as shaped by the narrative of Hungarian authorities over the years: “When you want to track down the roots of anti-Western and anti-liberal sentiment in Hungary, you should go back to that moment in history, when for many the lesson was that the ideas of liberty and self-determination are valid only for the Western powers”.