In early 1905, Ferenc Kossuth’s nationalist Party of Independence and 48 shocked the Hungarian electorate. The party, led by revolutionary leader Lajos Kossuth’s son, won the elections, beating the established Liberal Party who had been in power for 30 years. Kossuth did not have many concrete policies to offer, however he did something bold and new: he tried to define the notion of Hungary and “Hungarianness” as the heritage of his father’s fight for freedom. The electorate were very receptive to these rhetorics. Transylvania, for instance, turned almost completely red on the 1905 election map. This hotbed of Hungarian nationalism did not have a say in many more Hungarian elections.
Exactly ninety-nine years ago, on June 4, 1920, the Trianon treaty was signed, stripping the country of ⅔ of its territory, which included Transylvania among others. The treaty wasn’t only traumatic because of its political dimensions, or because of the tragedy of the many who were separated from their families. It was an especially painful event because Hungarian national identity had always been based on the territory of the country itself, not on the culture of those who lived in it.
“Hungarianness” and 19th-century nation building
In the 1830s, at the time of the “national awakenings,” Hungary was not an independent state. It was not even an ethnically homogenous territory within the Habsburg Empire either, with only 38% of the population able to speak Hungarian. Therefore, the German example of cultural nationalism, based primarily on language and shared culture was not a viable option for nation builders. For their ideas to gain any traction, contemporary thinkers had to make clear that their nationalist movement really stood for everyone they spoke to.
For instance, István Széchenyi, one of the leading reformers of the 1830s and an iconic figure in Hungarian nationalism stated several times in his writings that he did not want to interfere into what language the families speak in their homes, and even called for the “utmost protection of rights of the nationalities” within Hungary.
There had to be another factor serving as the basis for the Hungarian nation. And that was territory. Perhaps, it is the easiest to demonstrate this with Hungarian philosopher Gusztáv Szontágh’s writings. For him, the nation meant a “group of people which, connected by an independent state and homeland, becomes a civic society, and historically has its own political life.” This nation-concept is also evident from literature: Mihály Vörösmarty in his nationalistic poem ‘Appeal’ (which functions as a second, “unofficial” Hungarian anthem”) places focus on the “homeland” outside of which “there is no other place for you.” When the poem talks about national heroes in the country, he mentions János Hunyadi, who fought for the Hungarian Kingdom while actually being from a Romanian family.
“Greater Hungary” and the redefinition of Hungarian identity
As progressive and inclusive as this idea of nationalism seems to be, it backfired heavily.
Because of the territorial nature of the concept of its nationalism, Hungary did not only lose ⅔ of its territory after Trianon, but with that inherently ⅔ of its identity. In the interwar years, the far-right Horthy-regime did not even try to address this problem by redefining what being Hungarian meant. It desperately tried to cling on to the country’s former glory by investing in propaganda that made sure Hungarians would not be able to move on. Horthy and his prime ministers sacrificed everything for revisionism in order to retrieve the lost territories. Making a deal with Hitler did manage to get back some of the lost lands but at the horrible price of the Holocaust. This costly deal with Hitler can also be originated from the territory-oriented national identity; the territory of the country mattered more than the life of those who lived in it.
Hungary was on the losing side of World War II, and that meant the loss of the reacquired territories. Under communism, nation-building was a taboo. The focus was on building an identity as workers, thus the concept of Hungarianess was pushed to the fringes. And that is where the question reappeared after the change of regime in 1989. From the 90s onwards a nation was still without identity. The desperate need for redefinition was not addressed while the image of “Greater Hungary” started to appear more and more frequently on bumper stickers and in far-right circles. The image of Hungarianness which was supposed to be the basis of unity for the nation was neglected and thus exploited by the far right.
Why is this a problem? Due to the fact that the country’s concept of national identity has not been updated and that the old one has been exploited by the far right, only one layer of society holds a monopoly over Hungarian identity. Today, many Hungarians cannot get behind the idea of a Hungary based on the territories it lost almost a hundred years ago, either because of its far-right connotations or simply because it is just not true anymore. As a result, far-right politicians, such as Viktor Orbán and his allies, will never lose the grip on those “proud” Hungarians who do not feel represented by any other politician.
The need to move on from the trauma of the Trianon treaty
Ferenc Kossuth’s contribution to Hungarian history is debatable. The way he exploited nationalist sentiments and the fractions he aligned himself with were divisive and wrong. However, the core of his ideas might offer a recipe to overcome the country’s decades-old identity crisis. Hungary must rebuild its conception of itself along the lines of what Kossuth tried to do; a strong focus on the memory of 1848 and culture. Currently, prominent events of the Hungarian past remain nothing but empty symbols, exploited once a year by politicians when an anniversary comes. By building a new identity around 1848 and its values of freedom and progress, the notion of Hungarianness would gain meaning.
The current territory-based conception of the nation is not only hindering Hungary’s prospects of moving on from the trauma of the Trianon treaty, but it is also unsuitable to the 21st century. With further European integration on the horizon, many Hungarians leaving the country en-mass, and many more already living outside the country’s borders, defining Hungarianess based on shared culture instead of territory, Hungarian national identity could not only become more inclusive but it could also meet the needs of the present.
As things stand, the national identity of Hungarians either does not exist at all or it is based on something that has not existed since 1920. Those who want to remain in the 21st century cannot be Hungarian and those who want to remain Hungarian do not fit in the 21st century. Hungarians need to reclaim their Hungarianness from the grasps of the past and far-right politicians. Through that, they will not only save their identity from the 19th century but also lead the country itself to the 21st.
By Ábel Bede
Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and is currently studying History at Durham University. He wrote his dissertation on early 20th century Hungarian politics and culture and published several pieces in prominent Hungarian newspapers.