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Hungarian and Bulgarian Interwar Revisionism: Part 2

Updated on May 4, 2012
Count Apponyi (middle) at the signing of Trianon
Count Apponyi (middle) at the signing of Trianon | Source

The Ethnic Make-up of Pre-World War I Hungary

The dismantling of historic Hungary is usually justified by claiming that it was done in accordance with Wilson’s Fourteen Points, one of which dealt with the ‘self-determination of nations’. It took no notice of how and why certain ethnic groups outnumbered others due to such things as migration, higher or lower birthrates, population movements throughout history etc. All that mattered was who outnumbered whom at Trianon, taking no consideration of the 1000 year old tradition of the multi-ethnic Hungarian state. In Upper Hungary (Felvidék), or Slovakia, Hungarian methods of rule were quite detrimental to Slovak culture, but did allow ambitious young Slovaks to move up the social scale if they were willing to conform to Hungarian culture. Though not very politically correct by today’s standards, it is not unlike the need to conform to the main national form of behaviour and language by minorities in order to establish oneself in the system. There must be some sort of order for people to conform to, otherwise all form of national identity is lost amidst a hodgepodge of groups vying against each other. As long as there is no brutal or outright discrimination (which is rare, unfortunately), some sort of majority culture needs to be in place in order to ensure teamwork and a feeling of responsibility for one another.

Hungary was for over 1000 years a geographically contained kingdom within the Carpathian Basin. The peoples within the Kingdom had lived with each other within the same borders (notwithstanding Turkish, Habsburg, Mongol invasions and divisions of the Kingdom) since St Stephen’s reign until 1920. Many different ethnic groups were introduced to Hungary due to frequent depopulations caused by Turkish and Mongol (also known as Tatar) invasions, plus the subsequent plagues. For example, the Mongol invasion of 1241 is thought to have left only about 1/3 of the population alive in its wake; and the defeat of the Hungarian forces at the hands of the Turks at Mohács in 1526 was also followed by massacres of Hungarian civilians. Also, Hungarian historians claimed that Romanians (Vlachs), came over the Carpathians from the south from Wallachia during the Turkish push into the Balkans. Many Germans were also deliberately introduced into Hungary, both by Hungarian kings and by the Austrians, but for different reasons. The Hungarian kings brought in Germans due to their good farming and mercantile knowledge, and hoped for their quick assimilation.

Part of the memorial to the Battle of Mohács (1526)
Part of the memorial to the Battle of Mohács (1526) | Source

The Austrians, however, brought more in to strengthen the older German populations and give German language and influence a stronger say within Hungary and thus to weaken Hungarian nationalism and viability as a struggling sovereign nation. The status of the various ethnic groups inhabiting Transylvania (Magyars, Romanians, Serbs, Germans, Szeklers, Romany etc.) perhaps draws the most heated debates and arguments between Romanian and Hungarian historians, politicians as well as laymen. Neither side has come up with conclusive proof as to ‘who was there first’, although both sides cleverly use some evidence supporting their ideas to make sweeping claims, whilst dismissing offhand the claims of the others. Though many times the ancient past is looked upon to try and find out who settled Transylvania first, the vast majority of these claims either way will never be proved concretely. However, since 1000 AD and the establishment of St Stephen’s Hungarian kingdom, Transylvania was a vital part of the Hungarian state and nation’s identity, as it still is. The Hungarian state did allow for the minorities to have their own schools, but only up to a point, and until they started becoming hotbeds of anti-Magyar politics and literature.

Hungarian fears were mostly based on being swept away by a wave of Slavdom, which was becoming more and more self aware, especially with Russian ideas of Pan-Slavism influencing many Czechs, Serbs, Croats, Slovaks etc. Forced ‘Magyarization’ of course did very little to win Slavs and Romanians over to the Hungarian cause, but it was viewed by many in Hungarian society as the only way of forcefully stemming the tide which was rising against their sense of nation.

Flag of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Austria on the left, Hungary on the right: 1867-1918).
Flag of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Austria on the left, Hungary on the right: 1867-1918). | Source

We can see the threat that Hungarian leaders already felt from the country’s minorities already in the beginning of the19th century. The famous Hungarian reformers all felt this way, although some more than others. Hungary’s most famous 19th century reformer, for instance, Count István Széchenyi, felt that Romanians and Slavs within the Hungarian Kingdom should have considerable rights, however, within reason.

Széchényi himself was not quite fluent in the Hungarian language, as he was thoroughly Germanized. He spent most of his time in Vienna, and even wrote his personal diary in German. It was only in middle-age that he reached some form of fluency in Hungarian. However, this did not prevent him from feeling totally Hungarian.

The treatment by Hungarians of her minorities was not looked on kindly by most European states, as Hungarians themselves were not fully accepted as Europeans due to their non-Indo-European origins. An “Asiatic” people treating Indo-Europeans harshly in the centre of the European continent was seen as a travesty, and outrage duly followed.

The view by many in western Europe that Hungarians still have very non-European traits inevitably helped to bring about Trianon. The belief that the Hungarians brutally invaded the Carpathian Basin, allegedly displacing the peaceful and settled Slavic tribes who already lived there, and then carrying out murderous raids into Germany, France, and Italy made Hungarians seem not much better than the Mongols and Turks and Huns. The only difference is that the Hungarians somehow managed to entrench themselves inside the Carpathian Basin, and they created a strong state in the Middle Ages. Also, much of the vitriol aimed at the Hungarian state during and following World War I had to do with how they were perceived as violently oppressing their national minorities, who are all members of Indo-European ethnic and language groups. The idea of an “Asiatic” state in the middle of Europe allegedly oppressing her Indo-European minorities obviously caused outrage in western Europe.


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