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On this Day, in 1938: the First Vienna Award forced Czechoslovakia to surrender territory to Hungary

On November 2, 1938, orchestrated by the foreign ministers of Germany, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and of Italy, Galeazzo Ciano, the First Vienna Award transferred the largely Magyar-populated territories in southern Slovakia and southern Carpathian Rus from Czechoslovakia to Hungary.

During the 1930s, the newly independent Kingdom of Hungary, under the regency of former Austro-Hungarian admiral Miklós Horthy, adopted an increasingly irredentist policy in an attempt to incorporate ethnic Hungarian areas in neighboring countries into Hungary. Horthy notably used its relationship with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy to attempt to revise the Treaty of Trianon, which saw Hungary losing two-thirds of its territory at the end of World War I.

The partitioning of Czechoslovakia

With Germany well into its own revision of the Versailles Treaty, with the remilitarization of the Rhineland and the Anschluss of Austria, Adolf Hitler and Miklós Horthy began planning the partitioning of Czechoslovakia, where ethnic German and Hungarian minorities, opposed to the territorial settlements, began asking for broader political autonomy.

As Adolf Hitler continued to make inflammatory speeches demanding that Germans in Czechoslovakia be reunited with their homeland, war seemed imminent. But neither France nor Britain felt prepared to defend Czechoslovakia and both were anxious to avoid a military confrontation with Nazi Germany at almost any cost. In a last-minute effort to avoid war, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain proposed that a four-power conference be convened immediately to settle the dispute.

In September 1938, with the prospect of war looming over Central Europe, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy held an emergency meeting in Munich and signed the so-called Munich Agreement, which sanctioned Adolf Hitler’s annexation of the German-speaking Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia, as long as he promised to go no further.

The First Vienna Award

The Munich Agreement also defined a three-month period to resolve the Hungarian demands, but Miklós Horthy pushed to start negotiations immediately. Under international pressure, and facing diversionist activities by specially trained groups of Hungarian partisans sent to the frontier regions, Czechoslovakia agreed to begin negotiations, which took place in Komárno on the Slovak bank of the Danube River, just on the border of Hungary.

But after two weeks, the bilateral negotiations failed and Czechoslovakia and Hungary officially asked Germany and Italy to arbitrate and declared in advance that they would abide by the results. Led by the foreign ministers of Germany, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and of Italy, Galeazzo Ciano, arbitration began in the Belvedere Palace, in Vienna, at noon on November 2, 1938, where the Czechoslovak and the Hungarian delegations were allowed to present their arguments.

When the award was announced around 7 p.m., Czechoslovakia had to surrender the territories in southern Slovakia and southern Carpathian Ruthenia south of the line to the border with Romania, but retained the western Slovak towns of Bratislava and Nitra. In total, Czechoslovakia lost about 12,000 square kilometers and approximately 1,000,000 inhabitants. But this did not fully satisfy Hungary’s territorial ambitions.

In fact, the First Vienna Award also led to worsening anti-Hungarian sentiment in Slovakia, which had gained greater autonomy within Czechoslovakia after Munich, and the perceived violation of the ethnic balance between the two countries’ minorities caused anti-Hungarian sentiment and social movements to become a significant unifying element for Slovaks in the lead up to World War II.

The “Little War” between Slovakia and Hungary

In early March 1939, Adolf Hitler invited Tiso to Berlin to make a pact with the recently-deposed Slovak leader. Threatening to abandon Slovakia to the will of Hungary’s territorial ambitions, and promising to protect and safeguard the integrity of the Slovak state, Hitler urged Tiso to break off from their Czech neighbours. And on March 14, the Slovak Parliament, convened at Tiso’s request, unanimously declared independence.

Claiming that the unrest in Czechoslovakia was a threat to German security, Adolf Hitler declared support for the Slovak regime and immediatly sent troops into Czechoslovakia for a forceful annexation of the Czech lands. After recognizing the new independent Slovak state, Hungary soon requested Germany to mediate further transfer of territory from Slovakia to Hungary.

But before any final agreement came to fruition and without any formal declaration of war, Hungarian troops invaded Slovakia from Carpathian Ruthenia, starting the Slovak-Hungarian War, also known as “the Little War”. Catching both Slovakia and Germany off guard, Hungarian troops advanced quickly into eastern Slovakia, with the instruction to “proceed as far to the west as possible”.

Embarrassed by the war and torn between its new obligation towards the Slovak State and its friendly relations with Hungary, Germany soon began to assert pressure for an end to the fighting. By early April, a peace treaty was signed in Budapest, which forced Slovakia to cede to Hungary a 1,697 square-kilometer strip of eastern Slovak territory, corresponding today to the area around the towns of Stakčín and Sobrance.

Hungary and the Axis

In August 1940, with World War II well underway the Second Vienna Award “awarded” Northern Transylvania from Romania to Hungary. The following month, Germany, Italy and Japan signed the defensive military alliance known as the Tripartite Pact which integrated the military aims of the three powers and formed the main basis of the Axis.

By December, under increasing pressure from Germany, Hungarian Prime minister Pál Teleki, who strongly desired to remain neutral, reluctantly signed the Tripartite Pact and Hungary became the fourth state to officially join the Axis, followed three days later by Romania and the German puppet-state of Slovakia. In April 1941, unable to further prevent Hungary’s participation in the war, Teleki committed suicide.

Three days later, Hungarian forces participated in the invasion of Yugoslavia alongside German and Italian troops. In June 1941, Hungary declared war against the Soviet Union and joined Operation Barbarossa. By 1942, tens of thousands of Hungarians were fighting on the Eastern front.

Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.