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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

Did two Britons cause the break-up of Austria-Hungary and the dismemberment of historical Hungary?

Updated: Sep 16, 2022

Or did too few listen to their warnings?

Géza Jeszenszky, Hungary's Minister of Foreign Affairs 1990-94, diplomat and historian, tells of his research into why Hungary's image in the west changed so dramatically in the decade before the First World War, paving the way for what in Hungary is the reviled post-war Treaty of Trianon, which left a truncated Hungary just one-third of its pre-war size.

This talk was given just two years ago, on September 23, 2020, as Jeszenszky's introduction to his newly published book Lost Prestige: Hungary’s Changing Image in Britain 1894–1918.

He begins with an overview of how he wrote its first edition, in Hungarian only, in 1986, and then learned more, inspiring him to pen a revised and enlarged version in both Hungarian and English in 2020. The First World War, and what to do with Austro-Hungary? Even during the war, there were second thoughts in Britain, or at least controversial debates about what should happen to the monarchy. So unlike many Hungarians [after WW1] and even today tend to think, it was not a foregone conclusion, even after the war started, that the monarchy [and Hungary], should be broken up. Arnold Toynbee, who was to become a very distinguished and well known historian of civilisations, he had a strong interest in the nationalities problem, and in a book published in 1915, Nationality and the War, he admitted that all he knew about central Europe was based on Seton-Watson's writings. Nevertheless his keen mind understood that perhaps the remedies proposed by Seton-Watson, and then the break up, was not necessarily the best. Again, a British observer, Leo Amery, at the end of 1918 proposed a kind of democratic federation as a super state. In some ways, this memorandum, a very thoughtful memorandum, envisaged a future of not only a central European federation, but even a European federation, a forerunner of the present-day European Union.

The cover of the English version of Géza Jeszenszky Lost Prestige. The very readable English translation is by Brian McLean, a good friend of mine and a number of readers of this blog, who sadly passed away earlier this year.

Now, especially in the last few years, I have realised that my story is not simply interesting as a forerunner or explanation of Trianon, but also has important messages for today's Hungarians - and others. Namely, it is quite alright to receive criticism and very often foreign critics can see the real problems even better than the people inside, especially if the current governments are very sure of themselves and proud of their own performance.

Indeed, the internal critics and external critics may speak in unison. Actually, in my own story, the internal critics of Hungary, like Oszkár Jászi, the famous sociologist and exile in the USA, was citing almost exactly the same points of criticism as Seton-Watson. But Jászi also warns that Seton-Watson's criticism should not be directed at the whole Hungarian nation, because Hungarian workers, Hungarian peasants and intellectuals were also victims of a system which Jászi criticised as much as the foreign critics. Now, I'm very sorry to say, that in the last few years, or rather months, I can again read abuse heaped upon Seton-Watson, and the present day, well-meaning critics of Hungary. Seton-Watson in a recent Magyar Nemzet [a Hungarian daily now guaranteed to take a pro-government line] was also called an agent of British imperialism who was bent on destroying the "hated Hungarians". So, I may say that the first two editions of my work had absolutely no impact on many Hungarians today, but I would say that it is even more important and timely to give this warning that today, while we can still command the sympathy of Europe and the civilised, democratic world.

But we can waste this sympathy, and it would be very difficult to gain it back if Hungary really falls into the trap into which it fell in 1914.

Two reviews of the book, one by myself and another by Annabel Barber, are here:

Lost Prestige: Hungary’s Changing Image in Britain 1894–1918, by Géza Jeszenszky. Published by Helena History Press, 2020.

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