It’s June 1920 and at the Trianon Palace in Versailles, the fourth peace treaty ending the Great War has been signed. This time it is Hungary’s turn to make peace on Allied terms.
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Hi, I’m Jesse Alexander and welcome to the Great War. It’s safe to say that none of the peace treaties that followed the First World War has been without controversy, like the Treaty of Versailles. But for some, it is actually the Treaty of Trianon, which brought peace between Hungary and the Allies and completed the new map of Central Europe, that is the most controversial. Love it or hate it, the Treaty was signed 100 years ago on June 4, 1920, and still stirs passions in the region.
So let’s take a closer look at the circumstances surrounding the Treaty and how the Kingdom of Hungary ended up being broken apart to help create new states and strengthen older neighbours.
BREAK UP OF AUSTRO-HUNGARIAN EMPIRE
The end of the Great War in November 1918 also brought the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – even before the peace treaties were drawn up. The Hungarian part of the empire had consisted of the Kingdom of Hungary,In the revolutionary mood of fall 1918, Hungary declared itself a republic, but many other regions of the empire did so as well, and there were – to say the least – competing claims about where the borders should be. Now the empire was known for being multi-ethnic and multi-lingual, and this was also true of the Kingdom of Hungary.
The 1910 census showed 54.4 percent of the Kingdom’s million inhabitants spoke Hungarian as their first language, and in some areas other languages were spoken by a majority of residents. (Gyula 30) These included German-Austrians in the west, Slovaks in the north, Ruthenes in the north-east, Romanians in the east and Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in the south. When the Empire collapsed and new states were formed, these regions were claimed by them.
What resulted in 1919 was a Bolshevik Revolution that led to Hungary briefly becoming a Soviet Republic, and series of border clashes and outright wars between Hungary and its neighbours, especially Romania. The Entente powers, which often supported the non-Hungarian forces in these conflicts, attempted to police the situation. They weren’t very successful in stopping the violence, but exerted enough pressure so that Hungarian control did not extend into areas claimed by its neighbours for very long. The demarcation lines and new lines of control following the chaos of 1919 largely followed the claims of Hungary’s neighbours, and often put large Hungarian-speaking communities under Czechoslovak, Romanian, and Yugoslav control. From their point of view, as historian Margaret Macmillan explained “in the heady atmosphere of 1919, it was madness not to grab as much as possible.” (Macmillan 121) You can find out much more about these conflicts in our 1919 episodes about the Hungarian Soviet Republic and the Romanian-Hungarian war.
Now all this chaos of revolutions and border wars was going on during the Peace Conference in Paris, which was supposed to create a peace treaty to end the Great War and settle the borders. Because of the fighting, this proved impossible until one faction finally gained control of Hungary – which Admiral Miklos Horthy had done by early 1920. His right wing movement overcame the leftist forces, and re-established the Kingdom of Hungary as a political system – but there was no king. Instead, he served as regent. And his government controlled only the heartland of the pre-1918 kingdom.
So after two revolutions and defeat in border wars against its Allied-supported neighbours, Horthy’s appointment as regent was able to bring a minimum of stability to Hungary, though that came at the cost of the violence and pogroms of the White Terror. And many parts of the pre-1918 Kingdom were now under the control of other states.
Some these states were new. Czechoslovakia had gained control of Slovakia, or Upper Hungary, and much of the southern part of the Kingdom of Hungary was now under the control of the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. In the east, several provinces, including Transylvania, were now under Romanian control.
These countries wanted to keep what they had gained, and provided several different arguments. One was ethnic self-determination, since many parts – but not all – of these regions had non-Hungarian majorities. Another argument was that non-Hungarians had been mistreated before 1918 as a result of the policy of Magyarization, which encouraged or imposed, depending on your point of view, the Hungarian language. This policy had led to tensions between the different groups in the pre-1918 Kingdom.
Social differences also played a role, as the aristocratic landowning elite of the old kingdom had been mostly ethnic Hungarians who, some claimed, had looked down on and exploited non-Hungarian peasants. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George weighed in on the Hungarian social system when the Bolshevik revolution broke out in 1919:
“There has been much talk of suppressing the revolution in Hungary. I don’t see why we should do that: there are few countries so much in need of a revolution. This very day, I had a conversation with someone who has visited Hungary and who knows it well; he tells me that this country has the worst system of landholding in Europe. The peasants there are as oppressed as they were in the Middle Ages.” (Károlyi 24-25)
But there were also conflicting claims between the countries that wanted parts of the old Hungarian kingdom. For example, the Yugoslavs and Romania both wanted part of the Banat. There were even conflicts within states, especially the future Yugoslavia. Croatian and peace conference delegate Ante Trumbić revealed some of these feelings to a French writer:
“You are not going to compare, I hope, the Croats, the Slovenes, the Dalmations whom centuries of artistic, moral and intellectual communion with Austria, Italy and Hungary have made pure occidentals, with these half-civilised Serbs, the Balkan hybrids of Slavs and Turks.” (Fischer 126)
Despite these issues, the successor states were invited to the Paris Peace Conference long before the Hungarians, and they had reason to be optimistic. Firstly, they already had control over much of the territory they desired, and they considered themselves allies of the victorious Entente.
And it would be the Entente Powers of Britain, France, and Italy who would decide on the fate of Hungary and its neighbours. But, as with many of the other post-war treaties, the victors were not entirely in agreement about what to do with Central Europe.
One issue complicating the peace process was that, essentially, the Great Powers didn’t know much about the region, especially Britain. In fact, early on Lloyd George had to ask whether Serbs and Croats spoke the same language. Which upon reflection, is a good question. Anyway the British were interested in limiting German power and rewarding Serbia for its part in the war, but the region was not vital to them. The US was even less interested, and their delegation went home before the Hungarians even arrived.
France’s policy was quite clear: to establish a ring of strong friendly countries that could replace the loss of Russia as an ally, and act as a cordon sanitaire to prevent Bolshevism from spreading out of Russia. Romania was to be the most important country in this cordon sanitaire. This policy seemed all the more urgent in 1919 as it seemed, especially when the Hungarian Soviet Republic was formed, that revolution might sweep across Europe.
Italian interests were focused primarily on Yugoslavia, with which it was to share a border. Although Italy’s old rival Austria had been beaten, Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando feared conflict with the new neighbour over the border regions. He told the peace conference:
“To our hurt and embarrassment. Yugoslavia will have taken the place of Austria, and everything will be as unsatisfactory as before.” (Macmillan 110-111)
The Italians even covertly supported Soviet Hungary in its struggle with the Yugoslavs.
The three major powers did generally share some opinions, however, especially when it came to their impression of Hungary. Many of the delegates saw the country as oppressive, Asiatic and backward, especially French general Louis Franchet d’Esperey, who led French forces in the region. Upon meeting the Hungarian delegation at the Peace Conference he said:
“I know your history. In your country you have oppressed those who are not Magyar. Now you have the Czechs, Slovaks, Rumanians, Yugoslavs as enemies; I hold these people in the hollow of my hand; I have only to make a sign and you will be destroyed.” (Macmillan 260)
Not all Allied leaders felt as strongly as Franchet D’Esperey, but the fact the successor states were invited to the conference before the Hungarians arrived likely meant these views became more widespread among those unfamiliar with the region.
The Hungarians were only invited to the peace conference in December 1919 and arrived in early January. By then, a draft treaty had already been drawn up without their input, while the Treaty of Saint-Germain, which dealt with Austria, had already been signed.
Hungary at the Conference
For Count Albert Apponyi, the head of the Hungarian delegation, the draft proposal for Hungary made for a depressing read. According to the terms, the new Hungarian borders would not include most of the pre-1918 territory of the Hungarian Kingdom, and even some areas with a Hungarian majority would also be granted to neighbouring states.
When the news of the terms reached Hungary, the general mood of the politically conscious was one of outrage. The Hungarian media even published articles in English to get the attention of the Allies. They tried to highlight the scale of the territorial losses by printing a map showing how Great Britain would have been reduced under similar
But neither the press nor the Hungarian delegation had much influence. As with the other treaties, there would be no face-to-face negotiations and the delegates could only submit written proposals. There was one glimmer of hope for the Hungarians, as Apponyi would be given the opportunity to make a presentation in front of the leaders of the conference. This speech became the backbone of Hungarian efforts to sway the Powers. Count Apponyi was a well-respected member of the Hungarian aristocracy, and was also seen by some of the Entente powers, especially America and Britain, as a learned and reasonable figure, earning him the nickname "The Grand Old Man of Central Europe".
In his speech, delivered in fluent English and French and very good Italian, Apponyi attempted to portray Hungary in a new light. He described it as a united, but ethnically diverse state, with a long track record of harmonious social and economic relations. In particular, Apponyi highlighted that the proposed borders often did not correlate to economic boundaries, which could potentially cripple the economies of all states in the region. Hungary had previously operated by a system of regional economic specialisation, in which regions produced resources which would be processed and turned into products elsewhere. This system, he claimed, could only function as a single economic unit.
He also argued on ethnic grounds, and emphasized how many Hungarians would now be living under foreign governments – although his suggestion they would be forced to live under the control of quote ‘uncivilised’ peoples did not go over well. If self-determination was to be extended to the peoples of Central Europe, Hungarians, according to Apponyi should also be included. He also said that the non-Hungarian ethnic groups did not really support the new states that claimed to speak in their name.
Apponyi’s solution to propose plebiscites for the disputed regions, in line with League of Nation recommendations. The local population could vote on which state it wanted to join, and he promised that Hungary would accept the results whether they were in its favour or not. He also suggested a larger Hungary could adopt a decentralized Swiss model to allow local autonomy for minorities.
Here’s how he summed up his position:
“We refer to President Wilson’s eloquently formulated and excellent principle, by which [...] no part of the population of any state can be placed, like cattle, under the jurisdiction of a foreign government without its permission. [...] We demand plebiscites in those areas of our country that you wish to take from us. I declare that we will accept the results of the plebiscites no matter what they might be.” (Leonhard 1079-1080)
To support their position, the Hungarian delegation had prepared hundreds of memoranda, maps and statistical documents, many of them painstakingly translated into the languages of the conference. The Carte but by now they’d become politicized, and some of the peace conference delegates were suspicious:
Overall, Apponyi’s speech appeared to have the effect he wished for. Italian Prime Minister Orlando was described as visibly moved, while Lloyd George listened with great interest. Even Clemenceau, according to Hungarian reports, was “surprisingly polite”. (Deák 861)
For the Cechoslovaks, Romanians and Yugoslavs, this was not good news, and they moved to counter the Hungarian arguments. Czechoslovak foreign minister Edvard Beneš telegrammed Belgrade and Bucharest to organise a unified front, resulting in a joint memorandum being delivered to the conference. It renewed their claims of Hungarian oppression, including Apponyi’s role in the Magyarization policy, and called any renegotiation of the treaty a ‘betrayal’ of their agreements with the Entente.
Clemenceau renewed his criticism of Hungary, claiming Hungary had long been a supporter of Prussian and German militarism at the expense of France. Additionally, he was concerned that altering the draft would set a precedent that would be jumped upon by Germany to try to revise the Treaty of Versailles. Later, the new French Prime Minister, Alexandre Millerand, maintained the French position.
Lloyd George did have some hesitations:
“The Allies wanted to avoid the Hungarians feeling enmity towards them forever, but exactly that will occur as a result of a brusque refusal of Hungarian claims without considering them.” (Leonhard 1081)
But other British leaders were against concessions, and Hungary was not seen as vital to British interests. The foreign media also remained unsympathetic to Hungary, and there were suggestions that Horthy’s White Terror against political enemies and Jews would make any referendum unfair.
But, perhaps most importantly of all, from a bureaucratic and diplomatic sense, there was little support for altering the treaty. The hard work had already been done, and securing the support of Czechoslovaks, Yugoslavians and Romanians had been difficult enough as it was. Altering the treaty now, especially to their disadvantage, was a political storm the Entente powers were not willing to navigate. As one historian suggestedt, (Macmillan 269)
A Hungarian government report concluded their cause was all but lost:
“The situation is very bad, hope for substantial improvement is very slight.“ (Deák 876)
Eventually some concessions were made to the Hungarians, but these were virtually insignificant – the borders would stay as planned. In May, the Hungarian government briefly considered refusing the treaty, but it was decided this would be dangerous and futile. They would have to sign it.
And so, on June 4th, 1920, the treaty was signed at the Grand Trianon Palace at Versailles. The ceremony itself took just 15 minutes, but the treaty would greatly affect millions for generations to come.
The Treaty of Trianon Decisions
The Treaty of Trianon, like the other treaties, was based on the structure of the Treaty of Versailles, although it was shorter. Like the other treaties, there were also so-called war guilt clauses which obligated Hungary to pay war reparations. Reuniting with Austria was also explicitly forbidden, while the army was reduced to 35,000 men. Tanks, warships and aircraft were forbidden and the Danube fleet would also be confiscated.
Hungary’s neighbours were also allowed to demand social, historical and artistic artefacts from Hungarian and Habsburg museum and art collections, and could also take capital shares in Hungarian companies as compensation.
But the borders were the most controversial aspect of the treaty, and remain so until this day. Romania gained the provinces of Transylvania, Maramureş, Crişana, and the eastern Banat. To Czechoslovakia went Slovakia and Carpathian Ruthenia. Yugoslavia received Croatia-Slavonia, and the western Banat. Poland gained part of the Szepes region, and the port city of Fiume would be administered by Italy. The new republic of Austria received Burgenland, though the city of Sopron would eventually vote to stay in Hungary.
The new Hungarian state was less than a third the size of the pre-1918 Kingdom of Hungary, and the population was 7 million as opposed to 20 million. About 3 million ethnic Hungarians were now living outside of Hungary, forming large minorities in Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Romania. The treatment of these minorities would vary between states, but there were tensions, and 400,000 would eventually return to Hungary as refugees. The extensive border changes also had economic consequences. Hungary was left with an unbalanced economy that was set up for agricultural overproduction and lacked industry.
The dramatic changes were addressed by French Prime Minister and President of the Peace Conference Alexandre Millerand in a covering letter attached to the treaty:
“The nationality situation in Central Europe is such that it is not possible to make political frontiers fully agree with ethnic frontiers. As a result of this, the powers, although not without regret, had to decide to leave certain areas with ethnic Hungarian or Magyar population under the sovereignty of other states. In spite of this, it is impossible to take up such a position and claim: ‘that it would be better not to change the original state of territory’. The continuation of a situation, even if it is a thousand years old, is not justified if it is against justice.” (Suppan 134)
The letter also rejected the Hungarian call for plebiscites, but did open up the possibility of future border rectifications and adjustments by the Delimitations Commissions. The Hungarians interpreted this as a sign the treaty might not be permanent, and although only a cover letter, it was incorporated into law as a part of the treaty on its ratification by the Hungarian government, but not by any other states.
But the Treaty was not meant to be temporary, and the borders of Hungary today are largely those of Trianon, although they were some short-lived changes during World War Two.
The Treaty of Trianon is often seen as a major trauma for Hungary, and revisionism of the treaty became a central part of Hungary’s post-Trianon politics. Almost all political groups advocated for revising the treaty to recover the “occupied territories”. There was bitter resentment against the country’s neighbours and some blamed the Jews and the Soviet Republic in a sort of stab-in-the-back myth. Hungary was seen as an isolated victim. (Leonhard 1086)
Some have argued that Trianon was the harshest of all the Paris peace treaties after the Great War. In 1920, though, the leaders of Romania, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia did not see it that way. They saw Trianon as part of the birth or reunification of their states, and some felt it had righted centuries-old historical wrongs. In the summer of 1920, the conflict between states who supported the emerging new order in Europe, and those, like Hungary and Germany, who opposed it, was still fresh – and it would not end anytime soon.
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BIBLIOGRAPHY AND SOURCE
- Isaiah Bowman, The New World-Problems in Political Geography, (Yonkers-on-Hudson : World Book Company, 1921)
- Francis Deák & Dezsó Ujváry, Paper and Documents Relating to the Foreign Relations of Hungary, Volume 1; 1919-1920, (Budapest : Royal Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1939)
- Conan Fischer, Europe between democracy and dictatorship, 1900-1945, (Chichester ; Malden, MA : Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)
- Mike Gyula, (ed.): Magyar Statisztikai Zsebkönyv, 1940 [Hungarian Statistical Pocket Book 1940], (Központi Statisztikai Hivatal : Budapest, 1940)
- Róbert Győri & Charles W. J. Withers, Trianon and its aftermath: British geography and the ‘dismemberment’ of Hungary, c.1915-c.1922, Scottish Geographical Journal, 135:1-2 (2019)
- Michael Károlyi, Memoirs of Michael Károlyi: Faith Without Illusion (London : Jonathan Cape, 1956)
- Jörn Leonhard, Der überforderte Frieden: Versailles und die Welt 1918-1923, (Bonn : bpp, Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung, 2019)
- C A Macartney, Hungary and her successors : the treaty of Trianon and its consequences 1919-1937, (London : Oxford University Press, 1937)
- Margaret Macmillan, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, (London : Macmillan, 2019)
- Arnold Suppan, The Imperialist Peace Order in Central Europe: Saint-Germain and Trianon, 1919–1920, (Vienna : Austrian Academy of Sciences Press, 2019)
- Miklós Zeidler; Thomas J. DeKornfeld; Helen DeKornfeld, Ideas on Territorial Revision in Hungary, 1920-1945, East European Monographs, 717, (2010)
- Miklós Zeidler, Trianon, (Budapest, Osiris, 2003.)