Trianon trauma: Why is the peace treaty signed 100 years ago seen as a national tragedy for Hungary?

A picture taken on May 25, 2020 at the Trianon Museum in Szeged, Hungary, shows a map with the limits Hungary before and after WWI.
A picture taken on May 25, 2020 at the Trianon Museum in Szeged, Hungary, shows a map with the limits Hungary before and after WWI.   -   Copyright  ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP

In some parts of the Hungarian countryside, roadside maps show the country not as it is now, but as the much larger nation it once was. The same images of "Greater Hungary" dating from over 100 years ago can also be seen on car bumper stickers and T-shirts sold to tourists. Recently, Prime Minister Viktor Orban provocatively posted the old map on Facebook.

On Thursday, Hungary marks the centenary of what many people regard as a national tragedy. Flags will fly at half-mast, and despite coronavirus restrictions, a series of events are planned around the country over several days.

On June 4, 1920, Hungary and the Allied Powers signed a treaty at the Trianon Palace in Versailles -- one of several agreements that concluded World War I.

The agreement -- although Hungarians tend to prefer descriptions such as "dictat", "trauma" or "tragedy" -- cemented the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Hungary was dismembered, losing two-thirds of its pre-war territory and almost the same proportion of its population.

'An open wound'

"Every family has a family member who either had to leave their home and move to (the new) Hungary, or was separated for decades, or still lives in another country and has their own story of being a secondary citizen of those countries," says Daniel Bartha of the Budapest-based Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy (CEID).

He describes the 100-year old treaty as "an open wound that basically has an enormous impact" today.

"Trianon is everywhere, it's part of our culture, our music, our history and our politics. It's very hard to understand Hungary without understanding it," he told Euronews.

EuronewsThe map shows how the loss of Hungary's territory was formalised by the Treaty of Trianon, signed on June 4, 1920.Euronews

Whole swathes of territory went to Czechoslovakia, Austria, Yugoslavia and Romania -- which received all of Transylvania. Millions of Hungarians found themselves living in foreign countries. The treaty also blunted the size of Hungary's armed forces to just 35,000 troops.

Yet the Trianon Treaty essentially confirmed the reality on the ground, and the losses that Hungary had suffered over the war years. The Allied Powers wanted to preserve stability, and the Hungarian government acquiesced, believing that resistance would be dangerous and futile.

In the inter-war period resentment at the treaty culminated in Hungary joining World War II on the side of Nazi Germany, but defeat brought the loss of regained territory and the reinstatement of Trianon boundaries. Hungary was then swallowed up into the Soviet empire for over 40 years, before the post-communist era brought a trauma of a different kind as the country struggled to integrate with Western Europe.

'A series of myths'

For Dr Thomas Lorman of University College London (UCL), a specialist in the history of Central Europe, the legacy of Trianon has been "subsumed into a series of myths". Changes that resulted from the Second World War have been "largely swept under the carpet", he says, and now "the widespread popular belief is that Trianon remains in effect, when in actual fact, it doesn't".

"Those traumas: the trauma of a large number of Hungarians becoming a minority in a region that treated its minorities badly, the economic breakup of the country, the damage to its prestige, going from being a large country to a small country; all of this, combined with multiple other traumas: the trauma of the loss of World War I and the tremendous loss of lives and material resources, and the problems that the region faced, going back decades and even centuries; all of this came together to leave a bitter legacy," he told Euronews.

ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFPA border guard beside a monument at Kubekhaza where the borders of Hungary, Romania, and Serbia meet, May 25, 2020. The date 'June 4, 1920' is carved into the stone.ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP

The fallout from the Treaty of Trianon has echoes in tensions today between Hungary and its neighbours, where some two million ethnic Hungarians still live.

After coming to power in 2010, Viktor Orban declared June 4 a "Day of National Cohesion". He has also showered the diaspora with financial aid, and granted dual citizenship and voting rights to over a million non-residents -- many of whom have voted for his Fidesz party in Hungarian elections.

More spats have followed in the run-up to the centenary. Orban's Facebook post of a Greater Hungary map brought condemnation from Croatia's President Zoran Milanovic. Last month Romania's parliament passed a bill declaring the Trianon anniversary a day of remembrance, viewed by Hungarian groups as a provocative celebration. Tensions have come to the fore over a failed attempt to give more autonomy to Szeklerland, part of Romania's Transylvania region which used to be part of Hungary and is still home to many ethnic Hungarians.

Good relations

Yet despite such tub-thumping in the run-up to the anniversary, Daniel Bartha of CEID argues that Hungary is keen to foment good terms with its neighbours.

"There is an intention to keep good relations with Slovakia and Serbia and not to provoke anybody," he says, adding that Hungary also wants to normalise relations with Ukraine which have been cool in recent years. "And obviously the tensions are a little bit higher with Romania, but in order not to provoke the neighbouring countries I think there is a decision not to make (the commemorations) really loud and really provocative."

ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFPRomanian fans holds a 'Trianon' banner to cheer their team prior to the Euro 2016 qualifying football match between Hungary and Romania in Budapest, on September 4, 2015.ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP

Preserving Hungarian minorities

Brandishing old maps makes headlines but no-one is seriously talking about reclaiming lost territories, says Dr Thomas Lorman of UCL. He argues that Hungary's record in coming to terms with its past is better than that of several other countries in Central Europe -- for instance on anti-Semitism or the expulsion of 200,000 ethnic Germans after World War II.

However, he does point to a deeper problem, concerning Hungary's ethnic minorities living beyond its borders.

"Large numbers of Hungarians are worried about what is happening to the Hungarian minorities outside Hungary because their numbers are going down pretty rapidly, and that raises all sorts of concerns," he told Euronews. "They might talk about Trianon but what's really generating current upset and nervousness and fear, is what's happening to the Hungarian minority now, not what happened to the Hungarian minority 100 years ago."

At Levice in western Slovakia, the local Reviczky association is working to preserve the culture of its shrinking Hungarian community. A hundred years ago the town, a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, was 90% Hungarian. Now it is almost 90% Slovakian.

Part of the association's programme is a Hungarian language class for ethnic Slovakians. Despite the turmoil Central Europe has witnessed over the past century, Levice's deputy mayor Csaba Tolnai says the town wants to hold on to its multi-ethnic tradition.

"There were episodes in the history of Levice when there were more Slovakians, more Germans, more Czechs, more Hungarians. We don't know what the future holds, but the Hungarian language won't die out in Levice. And neither will the Hungarian culture," he told Euronews.