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Power Hungary: The WWI wounds that have not yet healed

Romanian Hungarians carry a Szekler flag during a protest in Sfantu Gheorghe in Romania in 2012. Photo: DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP via Getty Images - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

A century ago, the Treaty of Trianon reduced the size of Hungary by two thirds – much of it going to Romania – fuelling tensions which are still felt today. MICK O’HARE talks to people in both countries about a controversy which shows no sign of abating.

On June 4, 1920, two minor-ranking officials from the Hungarian government reluctantly signed the Treaty of Trianon. It was an act that still bedevils their nation today.

Following the First World War, the victorious allies had drawn up the Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919. Its intention was to ensure such devastating conflict could not recur – instead it proved to be an ill-fated attempt to reconfigure the disparate political and ethnic map of Europe leading almost directly to the rise of European fascism and the Second World War two decades later.

It also had a missing signatory. At the conclusion of hostilities in 1918 the Austro-Hungarian empire, key ally of Germany throughout the conflict, dissolved and Hungary descended into violent political chaos.

It was in no position to sign anything at Versailles. By the time its cliques had forged an uneasy peace under de facto leader Miklós Horthy, the nation was subject to a separate treaty under which it would pay severe reparations.

The Treaty of Trianon – like Versailles, named after the French palace in which it was signed – at one fell swoop reduced the size of Hungary by two-thirds.

Sizeable minorities of Hungarians found themselves inside the new states of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia (then known as the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes) and to a lesser extent the new Austrian republic.

However, the most significant enclave of Hungarian speakers was in Transylvania, today part of Romania. In total, a third of native Hungarian speakers fell under foreign authority.

It has been a source of dented Hungarian pride since – variously regarded as a ‘national tragedy’ and the ‘Trianon trauma’.

But apart from a brief period during the Second World War – when Horthy’s pact with Nazi Germany restored Hungary’s pre-Trianon boundaries – there has been, amid the sadness and grievance, widespread acceptance of Trianon’s realities.

Until recently. When Hungary’s populist prime minister Viktor Orbán was elected 10 years ago the tone changed. Orbán has weaponised the sense of injustice Trianon stirs to add fuel to his nativist rhetoric and his Trump-esque ‘Hungary First’ agenda.

In February’s state-of-the-nation address he announced that 100 years after Hungary’s ‘death sentence we are alive, and have freed ourselves from a hostile ring of alliances’.

And on June 4 – the centenary of the signing – church bells rang and people nationwide observed a moment of silence.

While never going so far as demanding the return of Hungary’s former territories, Orbán has used the resentment to his advantage, making Hungarian ethnicity and sovereignty a rallying point.

He believes Europe has been ‘invaded’ by migrants and Hungarian culture is in danger of being subsumed, a view that plays well to his Fidesz Party base.

And Orban has turned his words into stone. The new ‘Monument of National Solidarity’ near the Budapest parliament lists in steel lettering every settlement in what is termed the ‘Greater Hungary’ of 1910 – many of which are now in surrounding countries.

At its centre is an eternal flame. This complements Orbán’s foreign policy of offering Hungarian passports (and the right to vote) to Hungarian minorities in surrounding nations. Tens of thousands have been taken up, and – unsurprisingly – most vote Fidesz.

‘If he wanted to upset the neighbours, he couldn’t have done better,’ says Gabor Benedek, an Orbán-opposing history student from Eger, northern Hungary. ‘Except he did by flying the flag of the Szeklers over parliament.’

The flag is a common sight throughout the Hungarian Szekler community in central Romania but cannot be flown over public buildings there.

Although Orbán has found common ebullient ground with his sometime populist cohorts in the Visegrád group of nations comprising Hungary, Slovakia (which also has a significant Hungarian minority), the Czech Republic and Poland, other neighbours have viewed his actions with less enthusiasm.

He insists Ukrainian laws discriminate against Hungarian speakers in that country and has blocked meetings of the Ukraine-Nato Council in protest.

Earlier this year he posted a map of pre-Trianon Hungary online causing Slovenia’s president, Borut Pahor, to express ‘concern’ while he infamously built a fence along Hungary’s Serbian border to stop the ‘flow of migrants’.

But of all his neighbours, the most disapproving has been Romania. While the fallout from Trianon is most often told from the Hungarian perspective, Romania was substantially transformed too.

In 1920 it absorbed a Hungarian-speaking population of 1.5 million – now around 1.2, or 6.1% of the population – but, unlike Hungary, it views Trianon as generally positive. Its territory was extended and the people who lived there – with the exception of the Hungarian speakers – were no longer a minority amid the greater Austro-Hungarian empire.

‘For the first time, my grandfather was educated in his own language,’ says 62-year old Ana-Maria Fieraru, a former teacher from Iasi, in north eastern Romania.

At Trianon, Hungary suggested autonomy for Transylvania as a means of keeping closer links with its minority. The pleas were overruled – a decision considered greedy in Budapest but pragmatic in Bucharest.

That pragmatism turned to anger and fractious defiance after Horthy’s 1940 deal with Adolf Hitler which returned northern Transylvania to Hungary. Although overturned in 1945, resentment simmered long after.

Nonetheless, despite constantly revisiting the arguments over Trianon, Hungarian speakers in Romania have lived relatively peacefully alongside their Romanian compatriots.

Under communist rule a Magyar (Hungarian) Autonomous Region was created in 1952, and although autocratic leader Nicolae Ceausescu later instituted a policy of ‘Romaniaisation’ to bolster ‘Transylvania Proper’, by and large conflict was limited. And – with the exception of clashes in Târgu Mures in 1990 – rarely violent.

In 1995 Hungary renounced any territorial claim to Transylvania, while Romania reiterated respect for its minorities. Official documents in minority areas are in Hungarian, and Romanian universities offer courses in Hungarian.

Hungarian speakers have seats in Romania’s parliament – the party representing them, the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR), has supported every Romanian coalition government since 1996 – and sportspeople represent Romania internationally.

‘I thought after 1995 maybe the matter was settled,’ says Fieraru, although Sándor Sabados from the Hungarian community in the Romanian town of Oradea views it differently.

‘Some Romanian-born Hungarians felt abandoned in 1995,’ he says. ‘In hindsight that probably led to demands for more autonomy.’

As both nations joined the European Union it seemed relations could only improve. Then along came Orbán fomenting discord and offering passports and voting rights. He narrowly failed in a 2004 referendum to grant Hungarian citizenship to Hungarian speakers in Romania – the motion won but turnout was below the mandatory threshold.

Yet it opened a can of worms. Some Romanian Hungarians, alongside minorities in other countries, started to lobby for Hungarian citizenship, bringing them into conflict with their host nations – now nearly 300,000 have taken up Orbán’s passport offer.

Demands for more autonomy – similar to that of say Basques in Spain – became more pronounced, especially from the Szeklers whose flag Orbán has flown in Budapest.

It was all a step too far for Bucharest which declared the demands ‘unacceptable and unconstitutional’. Former prime minister Mihai Tudose seemingly went further, hinting the Hungarian minority could ‘hang itself’ prompting a stern riposte from Budapest, although he insisted he had been misinterpreted.

But Romanian politicians seem divided on how to deal with the demands, with some, at least implicitly, pro-greater autonomy and others dead set against.

The arrival of the 100th anniversary of Trianon hardly helped. Tensions had already been rising ahead of it. Last year, on Hungarian Heroes Day, trouble flared at a Romanian cemetery in Valea Uzului claimed by both communities seeking to commemorate soldiers of each nationality killed during the world wars.

And earlier this year the UDMR, with the tacit support of the opposition Social Democrats (PSD), proposed to extend limited autonomy to the Szeklers.

The law foundered in the upper house of Romania’s parliament, at which point president Klaus Iohannis waded in, accusing the PSD of plotting to ‘give Transylvania to the Hungarians’.

It was an unnerving paroxysm from an – at least ostensibly – constitutionally neutral president which led to a fine from Romania’s Anti-Discrimination Council and admonishment from Budapest.

Yet in what is seen by some as a contradictory move, the same PSD party Iohannis accused of working with Hungary introduced a law stating that, for the first time, Romania would celebrate the anniversary of Trianon.

‘In my opinion, that was simply to annoy the incumbent National Liberal Party (PNL) government,’ says Alina Grigoras, editor-in-chief of the online Romania Journal, ‘a political weapon with one eye on forthcoming elections.’

Nonetheless, it passed by a large majority. Hungarian speakers were furious. Some described it as forced assimilation. Hungary Today wrote: ‘Countries such as Belgium, Finland and Italy have found peaceful solutions to their minority situations by giving them wide-ranging territorial and cultural autonomy. It is unacceptable that Romania continues to flaunt its nationalistic project.’

Unsurprisingly Orbán – who makes an annual pilgrimage to speak to the Hungarian community in Romania – objected. Hunor Kelemen of UDMR said laws should be used ‘to bring us closer, instead of dividing’ and while Trianon might have brought ‘joy’ to Romania it had brought ‘sadness’ to Hungarians.

But former Romanian foreign minister Titus Corlatean was bullish when he told the BBC: ‘All these years we took note… of the statements from Budapest, which were offensive for Romania. Why should Romanians be shy of marking what was fundamental to their history. We don’t want to offend anyone.’

Gergely Illyés, a Hungarian-speaking Romanian political analyst has argued the bill was clearly a response to Orbán’s endless levering of Trianon.

Zsolt Németh, Fidesz chairman of Hungary’s foreign affairs committee, did little to ease the situation by saying Trianon was a contemporary problem – this despite the 1995 agreement. ‘As long as these questions are not settled, they undermine the region’s stability,’ he said.

Of course not everybody shares their governments’ viewpoint. Many Romanians think celebrating Trianon is provocation, although according to Grigoras, most don’t think about it at all. ‘They are more concerned about important things like health, education, infrastructure or corruption.’

Mihai Iordanescu, a former local councillor in Oradea, in north west Romania, says: ‘We should leave Trianon alone. It’s a fact, the rest of the world accepts it as fact. Let Orbán rage all he wants. There’s no reason to encourage him,’ while in Hungary many young people think Orbán should move on.

‘When Orbán says the west ‘raped’ us at Trianon,’ he is using indefensible language says Martin Szabó, 28, a college lecturer from Pecs, in central Hungary. ‘Turning up the heat on Romania does not help Hungarian speakers living there. Trianon is an old wound, let it heal.’

But in Romania there was to be a final twist. The Trianon bill failed to pass its final legal hurdle to become law. Maybe it was a contrite gesture following his earlier outburst or maybe he just wanted to thwart the PSD (Iohannis was formerly the leader of the PNL) but the president failed to implement it in time, instead referring it to the Constitutional Court. ‘It could have been any of these reasons,’ says Grigoris, ‘Or maybe he genuinely thought it was a bad law. There was certainly no need for it. The country has better things to worry about.’ The law ‘doesn’t clearly say what is the targeted general social interest,’ Iohannis wrote in his referral.

Some considered it a brave stance, others were furious that a law introduced by elected MPs was not enacted. ‘Iohannis has lacked the national pride to promulgate this law,’ PSD chairman Marcel Ciolacu said. Internal fault lines appeared again with the Romanian Academy issuing a press release celebrating the date, while Romania’s embassies abroad were told not to acknowledge it.

With the Slovak Hungarian minority also responding to Orbán’s goading by recently presenting a claim for autonomy, it’s obvious Trianon is not receding, throwing up contradictions and discord a century on. Both Hungary and Romania are to some extent culpable, says Levente Salat who lectures in intercultural communication at Babes-Bolyai University in Romania.

‘There is no genuine interest in historical reconciliation’ at present, he says. ‘Both sides need the other to exploit [the issue] for political gain.’ Grigoras agrees. ‘It’s just electioneering. Trianon has been used as a puppet for years by politicians on both sides,’ she says.

Polling seems to bear out Salat’s concerns – while nine out of 10 Hungarians view Trianon as a national tragedy, 63% of Romanians view Hungary as a greater threat than any nation other than Russia.

So while Orbán’s position falls short of irredentism, the Trianon-inspired slogan ‘Mindent vissza!’ (‘Everything back!’) is useful rhetoric for him to hide behind.

He knows his supporters consider Trianon a ‘dictated peace’. But he is also aware that any demands for a return of the territories lost would never be met by the international community.

It is a triangulation that presents unspoken acceptance and bellicose posturing as bedfellows. Orban wants to ‘make it natural to dwell on Trianon as present suffering’, says Gabor Egry, director of the Budapest-based Institute of Political History.

Perhaps the last-minute referral of the Trianon bill by Iohannis marked a turning point in the war of words between Bucharest, Budapest and those caught in the middle. Judging by the reaction at home, however, perhaps that’s wishful thinking. And with Orbán seemingly set fair for another term come the 2022 election we are unlikely to see a change in tack from Budapest.

Perhaps Gaston de Bénard, minister of labour and public welfare, and Alfred Drasche-Lazar de Thorda, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary – those minor-ranking Hungarian officials who signed Trianon under sufferance a century ago – knew a thing or two about consequences. They might not be at all surprised to learn disharmony rumbles on today.

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