When the First World War started on July 28, 1914, the Kingdom of Hungary had been a fixture of the political map of Europe for over ten centuries. Like any other European state, her boundaries fluctuated over time, but apart from the period when it was under the Ottoman yoke, it had always incorporated the entire Carpathian Basin — the core lands of the Hungarian crown.
Even as the Habsburgs sat in their capital of Vienna, they ruled Hungary not as Holy Roman emperors or later Austrian emperors, but as kings and queens of Hungary. Hungary’s Golden Bull (“Aranybulla” in Hungarian) issued in 1222 established the basis of Hungarian constitutionalism, one of the oldest on the continent.
Hungarians fought for Christendom and national survival for over 300 years in the 14th to the 17th centuries against one of the greatest empires of that time. We bled, but the Ottomans could never defeat nor completely occupy the Hungarian Kingdom. For 150 years, Buda (now Budapest, the capital of Hungary) along with about 80 percent of modern Hungary was under Ottoman rule, but we kept on fighting against all odds; and with the help of many European Christian nations, we finally defeated the Ottomans.
Following the Ottoman era, Hungarians again fought for liberty and national independence for over two centuries. Although defeated by the Habsburg and Russian Empires in 1848/49, the desire for freedom, national independence and republican values became deeply ingrained in Hungarians. This desire became the essence of Hungarian DNA and made Hungarians highly sensitive to injustice, foreign domination and the threat of loss of sovereignty.
One of the greatest manifestations of this aspect of our national character was the uprising in 1956 against the mightiest military power on Earth, the Soviet Union. Once again, against all odds, we fought, and although we were defeated, the damage we caused to the Soviets’ image was fatal. And while they collapsed, we Hungarians are still standing today.
The First World War changed the course of Hungary’s history. As part of Austria-Hungary, we ended up on the losing side of this European civil war. After more than four years of meaningless slaughter that submerged European nations in blood, the entire continent was dramatically transformed, traumatized and reeling from the shock of lives sacrificed, wealth irredeemably lost and infrastructure wiped out. But the ensuing peace treaty left Hungary marred like no other country in Europe.
The Paris Peace Conference was hardly an overall success, and it is widely seen as a major contributing factor to the rise of fascism and the subsequent Second World War, leading to the deaths of some 50 million people, mostly Europeans. The desire for revenge and punishment, combined with shortsightedness, led to the abandonment of the centuries-old reliance on a balance of power in favor of national self-determination (which the victors did not apply when it conflicted with their own interests) and collective security (a concept that ultimately failed) as the foundation of the new European order.
In hindsight, Versailles was a tragic mistake that dozens of millions of Europeans had to pay for with their lives a mere two decades later, as well as in the 1990s during the Balkan Wars.
The invention of the multi-ethnic Yugoslavia with a collection of about eight ethnic groups — a state that had never existed before — was also one of the great novelties of the victors. It ironically was not dissimilar to the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, which treaties at Versailles tore apart exactly because of its multi-ethnicity. Yet this country was created in the Balkans, the most unstable region of the Continent. Her bloody collapse was coded into her birth.
The Hungarian Kingdom, being on the losing side of World War I, also became the victim of these short-sighted, fatuous and greedy treaties. The new European order was superficial, unnatural, weak, unjust, and ultimately destined to fall into pieces. New allies for the proud and mighty French and British Empires had to be established and strengthened in Central Europe. But the lands in question were limited, and thus all the appetite for territory, rivers, mines, infrastructure and wealth for these new Little Entente countries (i.e., the newly created Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania) had to be satisfied from the body of the Hungarian Kingdom. Forbearance and fairness were unknown notions during the weeks of the creation of the new borders. (Ultimately, power and interest dictated the terms, not principles.)
The peace treaty signed in the Grand Trianon Palace in Versailles on June 4, 1920, deprived Hungary of 72 percent of its land; 64 percent of its population; 92 cities; most of its road and railway infrastructure; every salt, silver and gold mine; and 97 percent of its pine forests. GDP shrunk to 38 percent compared to 1914. More than 100,000 square kilometers were given to Romania, more than what was left for Hungary. Despite the general understanding that the Great War was lost and the realization that the principle of national self-determination would mean major changes to Hungary’s borders, no one expected such brutal terms.
It was especially difficult to explain how self-determination squared with over one-third of Hungarians becoming separated from their mother country, as two million of them lived right next to the newly-drawn borders. More than 20 major towns and cities with about 80 percent or higher share of Hungary’s population lay within 60 kilometers of the lines the French and British drew as the new borders of Hungary. These cities were important for the new states because they gave them access to rivers and railway infrastructure, due to industrial reasons or simply because of strategic considerations.
The application of the often-cited principle of self-determination was thrown into the dustbin along with the legitimate requests of the Hungarian representatives to hold referendums for the millions who still wished to remain in a state they and their forefathers had called home for over a millennium. Of course, in the name of the new European order, such claims were dismissed.
The same way the British and the French raped Africa and the Middle East, they raped Central Europe as well. Power and geopolitics came first; lives, rights and justice did not matter. We can rest assured that their actions did not cause them any sleepless nights.
The Trianon Treaty was absurd, unjust and unprecedented in “civilized” history; it was dictated by once civilized nations acting in the most uncivilized manner. It was unacceptable, a death sentence for Hungary. The victors left millions of Hungarians with no choice but to rise up against this with all they had. This then forced Hungary to side with the revisionist powers of Europe in the next two decades. This should not have come as a surprise at all; it was a natural consequence of the terms imposed on Hungary. And as a result of these dire and reckless terms, Hungary along with other European nations again had to pay a great price.
Today, on June 4, we mark 100 years since the signing of the Treaty of Trianon, mercifully, in much more prosperous and peaceful circumstances. But for Hungarians, this anniversary nevertheless is and will remain one of sorrow and solemn contemplation.
One hundred years ago, our nation was torn apart. And this is not just history, but a living memory for us Hungarians. Hungary is still the only country in Europe that borders her own former lands. Hungarians are still one of the largest minorities in Europe (2.5-3 million in neighboring countries). And while we have heard sincere apologies for the sins committed during the Second World War by many nations, we have never witnessed any official apologies from either the French or the British or the Italians or the neighboring countries for their actions and the decision they forced on Hungary, which ruined the lives of millions and ultimately cost the lives of hundreds of thousands a few decades later.
These powers deem the rape of a great nation mere history, as if this would have happened anyway, as if it was destiny, as if it was business as usual, as if it was normal. No, it was not, it is not, and it will never be normal.
And if a well-educated citizen from a Western country asks why we Hungarians are so sensitive to unfairness, injustice, threats to our sovereignty, foreign dictates and boastful Western lectures on democracy and rule of law, then we say, read our history and what your ancestors have done to our nation, study what they have done to millions of Hungarians. It is ultimately the West that made us Hungarians what we are now. But we are not the monster that many attempt to portray us as. We simply understand history, and we have had a profound experience with what happens when our fate is decided by others in the name of shady principles.
The West owes an apology to Hungary and the millions who still live in countries (also member states of the European Union) as second-class citizens, where they have no access to proper education, public services and fair representation. If Western Europe is ready to stand up for these millions, they may gain the right to lecture us on fairness, equality and ultimately rule of law. But there is no sign of that at all.
We, Hungarians, seem to be abandoned in this fight yet again. Nevertheless, Hungarians, living in the Carpathian Basin for more than 1,100 years, have started to accept that this is our fate and this is our destiny. To remain and continue our fight for survival. And against all odds, we will ultimately survive. As we have always done.