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  • Writer's picture Kester Eddy

Rethinking Trianon (now) 102 Years On

Updated: Jul 29, 2022

Sixteen years ago today, on May 17, 2006, Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan gave an address in Budapest on her assessment of the Treaty of Trianon, then a few weeks short of its 87th anniversary. Having stumbled across a copy of a report from then, I think it's time for a revisit.

Photo: A rather discoloured copy of the article I wrote for the then weekly English language Budapest Sun. It appeared in the issue after Prof MacMillan's talk.

About one year ago, I wondered if I still had a copy of the piece pictured above. Margaret MacMillan's talk back in 2006 had stuck in my mind for many years - indeed, it still does - as I surf the net and find sweeping comments underneath various reports on historical events made by people who seem unable to realise that, as it is termed in modern parlance, they are looking back "with 20/20 vision", and not considering the state of things in the world at the time.

One item in the talk, for instance, was the absolute breakdown in services and supplies that prevailed in central Europe in the winter of 1918-19. It was a time when, as MacMillan described, ordinary citizens of Vienna leapt upon the scraggly body of a horse that was dying in the street in order to hack out some meat to eat, such was the level of starvation in those terrible days.

Frustratingly, despite repeated attempts at searching my ancient files dating from that period, this story was not among them. Not only that, but I went through (and listened to) boxes of cassette tapes containing interviews dating from 1992, and I still could not locate the original recording that I must have made at the time.

Then, one day last January, leafing through some old FT reports, Eureka! To my delight I found a hard copy of the story, a copy I had no idea that I still had (see illustration above). But since the text is rather too difficult to read here, I have transcribed it, and reproduced it below for renewed study.

​Budapest Sun, May 25, 2006 - Rethinking Trianon 87 years on

Trianon is an infamous word to many Hungarians: it signifies the dismemberment of pre-1920 Hungary, according to which more than 3m or more ethnic Magyarok, including a sizeable Hungarian-Jewish minority, were left adrift in neighbouring countries, most especially, Romania.

Hungary, as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had been on the losing side in WWI, and the Treaty of Trianon, signed in Paris in 1919 [sic - it was signed only in 1920] signified the price it would pay.

The carve-up dominated Hungarian politics between the wars, and resonates strongly to this day.

So when Margaret MacMillan, the highly regarded Canadian historian and specialist on the Paris Conference, visited Budapest on May 17 to talk on the theme “Rethinking the peace settlements of 1919: from Versailles to Trianon”, she attracted a sizable and attentive audience.

But Trianon was only one of several settlements, each drawn up by the victorious allies and imposed on the defeated powers after the Great War which resulted from Paris in 1919. Prof MacMillan sought to treat them, at least initially, as a whole, for they were all much criticised both at the time and since.

Indeed, the prevalent view today is that the Paris peace settlements were a disaster, whose inherent faults led directly to the Second World War, she said. Equally, the world has a poor impression of the key men responsible, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and David Lloyd George, his British counterpart, who are barely seen as human, while the third, US President Woodrow Wilson is viewed as high minded, but thoroughly naïve.

MacMillan attributes this [perception] partly to John Maynard Keynes, the British economist, who wrote a book portraying the three as “wicked, vicious and stupid people sitting in little, crowded rooms, making peace while the world heads to disaster around them,” she said.

Many Hungarians, filled with contempt for Trianon, would be inclined to agree.

But is the prevailing view – even if it is marginally milder than Keynes' highly jaundiced exposition - fair and accurate?

Fundamental to MacMillan's approach is the need to consider the decisions in historical context.

“It is easy to say that they [the allies] should have known that there was a young German corporal called Adolf Hitler who was lying in a hospital ward weeping because Germany had lost the war. I think in some cases they did make bad and foolish decisions, but they could not see what was going to happen, they had to work with what they had,” she said

What they had was a deeply wounded and damaged Europe, with many of the affected countries in chaos, their starving, disillusioned populations threatened by disease and poverty, often toying with revolution. Indeed, during the negotiations, Hungary itself had the short-lived, revolutionary communist government of Béla Kun.

Even the “great powers” were limited in their abilities, with their troops, weary of war at best, mutinous at worst, were most unwilling to move into eastern Europe to impose their masters' wills.

This impotence and insecurity was not confined to the distant parts of Europe.

“In France, the peace conference itself had to be stopped on May 1st, due to massive demonstrations. It has been estimated that at least 700 people died that day in Paris, as the conference was trying to make a lasting peace,” MacMillan noted.

Thus the peacemakers were under enormous pressure to reach a settlement, almost any settlement, for fear that indecision would result in far worse long-term consequences. The agenda was complex because the allies were trying to find someone to blame – and pay – for the war, while concurrently securing new borders for peace - an almost impossible scenario.

"The French are often seen as vindictive, yet, look at it from their point of view: they had twice been invaded by Germany within living memory. They did not want that to happen again,” she underscored.

Furthermore, French and Belgian homes, industry and infrastructure in the north was in ruins, while over the border, in Germany, it was all largely intact.

With hindsight it may seem easy to say that insisting on reparations was foolish, but no French politician could have argued otherwise and kept his parliamentary seat.

Hence, the German treaty, the Treaty of Versailles, was a complex, energy draining affair, and this may have had unintended consequences on the later decisions regarding Hungary, MacMillan implied.

For, as the conference dragged on, and the “answers” - if such really existed – became increasingly more difficult to pin down, so the enthusiasm for the conference began to wane.

And then there was [the issue of] the Béla Kun putsch in Budapest. This alienated the allies, who feared the rise of Bolshevism, and, while left and right struggled in Hungary, there was nobody to argue the country's cause in Paris.

Hence, Queen Marie of Romania was unopposed when, stressing the threat of communism in her own country, she lobbied for the annexation of much of historical Hungary.

By the time the Trianon border line was questioned, Wilson had gone home, and Lloyd George was unenthusiastic about taking on the French again for a revision so late in the proceedings, MacMillan said.

Yet, perhaps surprisingly and probably disappointingly to many present, MacMillan, after successfully portraying the difficulties facing the allies in Paris, shed little further light on the finer decisions which so affected Hungary.

Sure, it was late in the day, the country had no friends in Paris, and was being shunned because of the Kun government.

Sure, it would have been difficult to justify Magyar sovereignty over Croatia and Slovakia, and even parts of Transylvania, but that scarcely justifies the final outcome.

The Treaty of Trianon legalised the loss of more than two-thirds of Hungary's former territories. And Romania, which had been a barely reliable ally during the war, was awarded an area even greater than historic Transylvania.

With little concern for the ethnic make-up of the local populations, Hungary's eastern and northern borders were drawn to ensure that the railway line, running approximately north to south, from Timisoara to Satu Mare, and indeed beyond into what was (after 1919), Czechoslovak territory, allowed the newly formed “Little Entente”, that is Yugoslvia, Czechoslovakia and Romania, to send troops quickly around the new Hungarian border, should trouble break out.

You do not need to be a raving Hungarian irredentist to think that this flew in the face of all that the Paris conference was supposed to be about.

MacMillan said she thought that it was “probably a mistake” to award all of Transylvania to Romania.

She was not addressing a political rabble, where caution would have been understandable, and indeed advisable, but the Central European University where, of all places, civilised, if passionate, detailed debate of the most contested topics should be aired.

It was a pity that more was not more forthcoming.

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