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21 January 2020

On the Trianon Treaty and the Absurd Storms of Central Europe

"This first issue of Hungarian Review for 2020 is published on the 100th Anniversary of the Trianon Conference. As no Hungarian needs to be told, Trianon was the last of the “little Versailles” conferences that settled the disposition of territory and peoples between existing and new states in Central Europe following the defeat of the Central Powers in the Great War."

 

This first issue of Hungarian Review for 2020 is published on the 100th Anniversary of the Trianon Conference. As no Hungarian needs to be told, Trianon was the last of the “little Versailles” conferences that settled the disposition of territory and peoples between existing and new states in Central Europe following the defeat of the Central Powers in the Great War. Hungarians are well aware of this because Trianon deprived their country of two thirds of its population and territory. Hungary had not been the leading power in precipitating the great conflict arguments still rage on which country’s statesmen deserve that obloquy but it was the nation that suffered the worst and most unjust calamity at its close.

It might be better for Hungarians if Trianon had been a deliberately plotted and imposed humiliation on the country. There were, of course, conspiracies and plots galore at the various Versailles conferences as is made very clear by Paul Mayle’s fascinating and intricately understood account of what happened at Trianon and beforehand at the larger Versailles conference. What is also clear, however, that the monstrously unjust treaty imposed on Hungary was the result of a “absurd storm” of disadvantages that its diplomats faced at the conference.

In a magisterial summing up, Paul Mayle lists them:

 

However odious the process, Hungarian leadership could hardly have failed to appreciate that punishment for being on the losing side was inevitable. And, at least in the rear view mirror of history, it was naive to suppose Wilson’s idealistic plan could completely satisfy any of the nations involved. In the first place, the terms were much too general and ambiguous. Far too many vested and conflicting interests clamoured for attention. While Hungarians could claim victimisation, the past complaints of minorities made it unlikely any but Magyars would call for unity, not that any different approach would have guaranteed success. In sum, Hungary experienced an absurd storm of vengeance and punishment – opportunistic neighbours, major powers focused on punishing the losers while simultaneously trying to avoid future conflicts, and the unfortunate timing of Béla Kun’s short-lived Bolshevik government – all conspired to the ultimate detriment of Hungary. When Winston Churchill, summarising the peace settlement with Germany, wrote that “[h]istory will characterise all these transactions as insane”, he overlooked the greater truth that the legacy of Versailles was a flawed resolution that troubled all of the defeated nations, not just Germany. And for Hungary Trianon was more than travesty – it was tragedy.

 

A tragedy, one might add, with no single perpetrator but instead a multitude of semi-villains and not-very-innocent bystanders.

Donald Morse powerfully underlines the tragic and painful legacies of Trianon in his own essay, and he takes them two stages further. He first describes how the Hungarian nation experienced its own vivisection on the Trianon table and responded to it with emotions ranging from personal suffering as families and regions in the historical nation were divided from one another to a deep feeling that such an unjust settlement could not be sustained and to a bitter desire to reverse the course of history. The second stage of responses to Trianon is the impulse of poets and other writers to express their own and the nation’s feelings of loss and pain.

The mid point of Morse’s essay is this sentence: “The Irish writer, Tom MacIntyre once defined a writer as someone who has been hurt by life and lived to sing about it – a definition that applies all too aptly to generations of post-1920 Hungarian writers who have never forgotten and can never forget the pain inflicted on their country by the Trianon Treaty.” Nor did they forget this pain – though pains equally great and mostly unmerited were poured on top of it as the century ground mercilessly on. Well into the 1980s, the nation’s greatest writers were envisaging the Hungarian nation as a wounded and imprisoned one. They sought a spiritual liberty in their beautiful language which thus became the language of all those constrained by history and injustice. Morse cites the “famous hymn-like poem, “A Wreath” by Gyula Illyés, that conveys the deep love, respect and loyalty to the mother tongue:

 

Language of fertile smiles,
of bright tears shared in secret, language
of loyalty, lingo
of never-surrendered faith, password of hope, language
of freedom, briefly snatched freedom, behind-the-prison-guard’s-back-freedom...



In this very modern poem Illyés proudly identifies his mother tongue as the language of the losers and victims of that terrible low point of holocausts and mass murders, the 20th century, speaking in the name of sufferers from a vantage point of a quasi-Christian compassion: language of the Kassa black marketeer, the Bucharest servant girl, the Beirut whore, all calling for mother.

An especially appreciative audience for these messages from the darkened and silent half of a continent were those Hungarians who, in successive waves, had fled to freer lands. They cherished an image of their home that always called out to them to return. Inevitably, they returned to a different home. That is always the exile’s final disappointment. In our third instalment of Gabor Bethlenfalvay’s In Search of an America where two Hungarian brothers, long (and reasonably happily) resident in the United States, return after forty years to a changed Central Europe, in the days not long before “the Change.” They meet surprises:

 

They spent the day in Vienna (it was not Bécs for them anymore [the Hungarian word for Vienna]) and, the next morning, found the border crossing to Pozsony, the Magyar city, that according to the redrawn borders is now part of Slovakia and goes by the Slovak name of Bratislava. That place was for them the official opening in that Curtain, whose iron mesh was already rusting terminally. For him, his last visit in Magyarország dispelled somewhat the mystique of that no longer impenetrable shroud whose shreds still darkened the lands on the other side. The way the people had talked there, it was clear that the Evil Empire was about to collapse any minute now, and everybody knew it except the CIA. Who knows, maybe the CIA knew it also, but they felt duty-bound to keep it a secret from the Greatest Communicator.

 

They instead want to give credit for the collapse of Communism to the peoples of Central Europe who actually carried out the velvet revolutions, in particular to those Hungarian reform Communists, like Miklós Németh and Imre Pozsgay, who consented to holding the famous picnic, cutting the border fence, and letting the captive nations run through it. This is a valuable corrective to those who see the end of Communism as a solely Western achievement. Hungary’s reform Communists and the civic opposition that joined with them in peacefully ending Communism deserve a great share of the credit. So do their counterparts in Poland and Czechoslovakia, like Lech Wałęsa and Václav Havel, who undermined their Communist satraps by different kinds of resistance. But it would be a mistake not recognize that some of these brave rebels were able to achieve what they did only because the global balance of power had altered to the disadvantage of the Communists. And that was because of the military, economic, and diplomatic policies sustained by the Great Communicator.

As Clark Judge, who worked with and for Ronald Reagan, argues, there were two Reagan policies that led to 1989. The first term strategy was to build up America’s strengths and to apply pressure to the Soviets at every point. The second term strategy “became to keep up the pressure in the areas where it was pulling the Soviets apart. Keep that pressure going. But the leader-to-leader stance was one of embracing. The administration’s message was: if you want to change, if you want to become a ‘normal’ country, as many in Soviet society were saying back then, we will help you; we will show you a way … And we were saying: “Come with us, walk with us, and there will be a safe way for all of us to walk together.” And that policy was also a breach of the fence that enabled reformers in Central Europe to be bolder.

Afterwards the end of the Soviet empire seemed to mean the end of all empires. But the idea of empire seems recently to have revived. Several European leaders in France, Holland, and the EU have begun to argue that Europe too must become an empire in order to survive in a world of empires like China and the US.

Boris Kálnoky, a distinguished commentator on German politics, comments tangentially on this notion. He points out that Germany is moving away from the imperial idea, but in two possible different directions. We recommend his balanced analysis.

Finally, it is with a feeling of great loss that we announce the death, on 12 January, of a valued friend, contributor, and friend of Hungary, a man also equally at home in politics and philosophy as in music, literature and the fine arts, Roger Scruton. A fuller tribute will be paid to him in our next issue. For the moment, however, I will end these notes with an account from my former Danube Institute colleague, Gerald Frost, of Roger’s lecture to the students of the Liszt Academy, on whether classical music has a future, at which the students played some of his own compositions.

 

In September 2016 Roger delivered a lecture on the nature of conservatism at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences under the auspices of the Danube Institute and the Pázmány Péter Catholic University. The title, “Europe and the Conservative Cause”, reflected the fact that Roger was a man of action as well as of thought and was itself revealing; many conservatives are reluctant to admit to pursuing anything as strenuous as a cause. His arguments were sympathetically received by a mainly young audience of around 200 which gave every impression of not only of not having encountered them before but of being interested in and even stimulated by them.

There was none of the hostility that might have been expected had the lecture been delivered in London, New York, Toronto or Sydney. It was followed by a spate of television, press and radio interviews. In his lecture Roger posed the question: “What remains of conservatism in a society of material abundance and instant communication, when human relations are fluid, global and without respect for the old boundaries and the old hesitations?” Although it was plain that Scruton found many aspects of Western civilisation disagreeable, it was also clear that he believed in the possibility of finding a way to reconnect with the spirit that had shaped Western civilisation and brought it into being. Indeed, in his view it was essential that this should happen; humanity would survive without conservatism, but it would not flourish.


A day after his lecture, knowing that Roger was a composer of classical music (as well as a distinguished musicologist) I arranged for young musicians at the Liszt Academy to perform some of his shorter pieces as part of a talk by him to post-doctoral students. I had the distinct impression that members of the Academy’s teaching staff, which was very thinly represented, did not approve of his presence because of Roger’s trenchant criticism of musical modernism. To the evident relief of staff members who did attend, Roger refrained from launching into a full-scale attack of the musical avant-garde. Indeed, he played passages from Schoenberg on the piano to illustrate the points he wanted to make and was sympathetic to some aspects of contemporary music. What he did do was to warn those present not to uncritically accept the attacks of the high priests of modernism, such as Pierre Boulez on classical traditions in matters of tonality and form, but to make their own judgement. Politics was not on the agenda and was not mentioned, but it was evident to those with ears to hear that Roger’s criticism of the musical avant-garde (and indeed of architectural modernism) was rooted in a profound belief that evolution is always preferable to revolution, and that the accumulated wisdom of the ages is better than the transitory fashion of the moment. He did not say as much, but it followed that a debt was owed to the dead as well as to the unborn. Judging by the enthusiastic response of his young audience both to the performance of his music and to his arguments – I think it got the point. I came away feeling unexpectedly moved – as much by the responsiveness of the young people present as by Roger’s eloquent and sweetly reasonable words.

 


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