Commemoration is Not Closure

Inteview about trauma, facts and fallacies of "Trianon"

At the start of the “Year of National Unity” in Hungary, we sat down to talk to historian Balázs Ablonczy, head of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ Lendület (Momentum) Research Group called Trianon 100, about the trauma of Trianon: facts and fallacies, as well as the ever-recurring question of “what if”.

As the date of 4 June 2020 is fast approaching, it seems that more and more people are nurturing hopes that the Treaty of Trianon will expire on its one hundredth anniversary. Do such expectations have any basis in reality?

I sympathise with everyone who has such hopes, but I am afraid they will be disappointed. From an international legal point of view, it is only the 1947 Treaty of Paris that is in effect at present, not the 1920 one. Such treaties are not for a limited period of time anyway; it is only true for certain lease agreements that they expire after ninety-nine years. I have also heard stories that people are collecting signatures for a petition to reinstate pre-1920 borders, but such initiatives are maliciously exploiting the hopes of well-meaning people: first of all, individuals may not petition the International Court of Justice with such a matter, and second of all, the Treaty of Trianon had no secret clause that mentioned any such expiry. Instead, what we should focus on today is how to redefine ourselves in the 21st century – with the awareness that this unfair treaty exists and has torn our nation apart, we must go on with our lives.

„Trianon, the child of Europe, is a historical heritage which we, the nations living in the Carpathian Basin, must jointly carry. After three generations we must learn to live with this shocking reality of our history to build a common future which surmounts this division and also spans borders based on a new European order.”

How can this duality be resolved?

There are several initiatives that reach beyond current state borders, and the Hungarian government has been allocating substantial funds for this cause; institutional developments are underway. But at the same time we must ask the question: how many people will be involved in these institutions? This question is important because, for example, a hundred years ago the proportion of the Hungarian population was higher in the towns than in the villages of Transylvania, but these days the Hungarian institutional system is reduced to the second- and third-line sections of the Transylvanian town network. Achieving autonomy can improve this situation, but I would discourage everyone from considering territorial autonomy – which is good and necessary, by the way – to be a magic cure. If for no other reason than for the fact that it would only impact half of the Hungarian population of Transylvania, as the other half does not live in Hungarian cluster regions. On the other hand, we live in an age that favours network-building – dual citizenship and the so-called Status Law (which provides benefits to people of Hungarian nationality who are not Hungarian citizens – translator’s note) are good examples of reacting to the trauma of Trianon. Both of these measures promote a sense of belonging to the Hungarian nation, regardless of where one lives.


Fotó: László Sebestyén

Dr. Balázs Ablonczy is historian, senior fellow of the Institute of History and faculty member at the Eötvös Loránd University. He is heading the research group Trianon 100. Coming from a Reformed family, he studied in Budapest and Paris, worked as visiting Professor at the Department of Central Eurasian Studies of the Indiana University, Bloomington and served Director of the Hungarian Institute in Paris between 2011 and 2015. He is author of numerable book and publications, including a volume on The Legends of Trianon. He teaches among others Hungarian history and history of political ideas in the 20th Century.

Balázs Ablonczy: Orphans of Trianon. Refugees and refugee policy in Hungary during and after World War I

The return of refugees has hardly been completed when, in autumn 1918, waves of refugees reached interior regions of the country from all areas under occupation, and not only from Transylvania. This migration was initially spontaneous. As far as military activities and blockade at the border allowed, the escape continued during the so-called Dictatorship of the Proletariat. According to official statistics, 57 000 people sought refuge in the last two months of 1918. This figure doubled in 1919 (110 000) and peaked in 1920, the year when the peace treaty was signed, reaching 121 000. According to the National Refugee Office set up in 1920, 350 000 people came to the ‘Trianon’ Hungary until 1924. Hungarian government made an effort to decrease this figure through administrative means.

When a hundred years have passed, is it still worth asking questions that start with “what if”?

Contrary to what most of my fellow historians believe, I think it is. Such questions can highlight alternatives and past opportunities, helping us understand that the borders drawn in 1920 were the result of decisions by the major powers, which contradicts the narratives that have arisen in neighbouring countries that suggest there was a desire of independence on the part of the former minorities within the Kingdom of Hungary. However, we must also accept the fact that Hungary could not have survived in the form it had at the time: the Austro-Hungarian Empire had too many nationalities that were motivated by the ideas of nationalism and becoming independent. Even if the Monarchy had won the war, the question of whether people of each nationality would still wish to be its citizens – including those of Hungarian nationality – would still have arisen within a few decades. In such a scenario, one option would have been duality, a lack of sovereignty and a limited use of one’s mother tongue, while the other option would have been for Romanians, Serbs and Czechs as well to have their own country, and for the next generation to have a more open future – these two options can never have the same weight. This issue would have come up sooner or later in the case of all ethnic nationalities, boosting nationalism – especially because there were no other ideas that intrigued Central European societies more than that.

After our defeat in the First World War, to what extent were the ideas of the Monarchy’s dissolution and the dismemberment of the country present in public discourse?

By the end of 1918 the political elite was painfully aware that territorial losses were inevitable. What was still uncertain was the extent of such losses. In his letters to his American acquaintances, Prime Minister Pál Teleki predicted that 4 million Hungarians would be lost to other countries. When in June 1919 the Paris Peace Conference sent us the so-called Clemenceau note, which called upon the Communist government in Budapest to cease fighting, it included a map with the would-be borders, which was also printed in the papers: from that point on, everybody knew what was coming. The Trianon borders were basically born out of the compromises between the demands of the successor states and the somewhat more reasonable suggestions of Western experts. But knowing something and accepting it are two entirely different things. What I would like to emphasize, instead, is how enormous the plummet itself was. In May 1918 it seemed that we had won the war: the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s military goals had been achieved: it had invaded Serbia, and by reaching the Po Valley, it almost made the Italian army collapse. A defeated Romania signed a peace treaty, the Austro-Hungarian army was deep inside Russia, which was also asking for peace. But three months later the Bulgarian front collapsed, and it changed everything. This major turn of events traumatised people deeply.


Fotó: László Sebestyén

How did the Hungarian community feel on 4 June 1920 and during the subsequent years?

Based on the accounts that have survived, very badly. Official documents frequently refer to people suffering nervous breakdowns, and research into local stories reveal that several officials, including very high-ranking ones, described suffering from mental problems. The Mayor of Gyulafehérvár, for example, left the city in November 1918, and died after 1921 in a Buda sanatorium. It looks as if they got sick because of the nation’s fate. Previously, Hungarians living in Nagyvárad or Szatmárnémeti would only meet Romanian peasants from the mountains when visiting the market, and now all of a sudden the Romanian army was taking over, they found themselves citizens of another country, and the new authority was openly violent towards them. This new reality was often impossible to deal with; the world they used to live in collapsed completely.

The Trianon decision also meant that the Reformed Church in Hungary lost a significant portion of its members and territories. These days it is more and more common in former Hungarian territories that being Reformed is synonymous with being Hungarian; the nation-preserving power of religion has become more significant. What does the history of the past century look like from a Reformed point of view?

It is my personal impression that due to the democratic nature of the Reformed denomination, they found it easier to get accustomed to the events that took place a hundred years ago. In several territories that had been annexed to neighbouring countries, the Reformed communities began developing church organisational units, for example in former Upper Hungary or Királyhágómellék, which was a territory torn from the Transtibiscan Reformed Church District. The attitude of not waiting around for others – no matter how difficult the struggle was – only strengthened their nation-preserving role. A significant portion of the Transylvanian Hungarian school system, for example, was maintained by Protestant denominations, and by 1939 there were only two Romanian schools where Hungarian-language education was conducted. The churches carried all the burdens. The democratic synod-presbytery principle has played an important role in the preservation of the Hungarian language and culture.

Énekeskönyv - Hymn Book

Fotó: András Dimény

You were the Director of the Hungarian Institute in Paris for four years. In your experience, how do the French feel about the consequences of the peace treaties signed around Paris?

The First World War plays an important role in the national identity of the French: the Third Republic was a mere 40 years old when the war broke out, and the country was characterised by ongoing crises and conflicts. 1914 was a test of power for them, and it turned out to be a victory of the republic that they managed to defeat the Germans, although with the cost of a considerable loss of life. They still remember this all over the country; it is present in literature and the press, as well as in public awareness. For them, the Paris treaties mean that they won, and they had a chance to influence how the cards were being dealt. On the other hand, the French are very critical of everyone, including themselves, and therefore later on they were able to articulate that the outcome was not the best solution. When in the early 1990s François Mitterrand – who was the President of France at the time – came to Hungary, he acknowledged that the Treaty of Trianon had been unfair. And this shows that while our thinking is history- and law-focused, theirs is ethical-philosophical: they admit making a mistake, but in the eyes of a French politician, such an admission has no legal consequences.

How common is it around Europe for historians to study the situation of Hungarians?

It is not common at all. This may come as a disappointment to some, but it is quite rare for anyone to be a specialist of Hungary. Historians do not have the luxury of choosing such a narrow field; even in the best-case scenario they have to become Central-Europe specialists if they want to have a professional career in history. For us, Trianon is a severe trauma, but for others it is nothing more than a past event. And I must add that the story-based narrative that voices this discrepancy does not seem to work today. In a few decades it might, but at present it does not. Today, focusing on human and minority rights – aiming for autonomy, for example – is more effective in the centres of the Atlantic world.

Based on what you have just said, what kind of commemorations can we expect in 2020 in neighbouring states?

There are countries, such as Austria and Slovenia, which are not expected to turn their commemorations into political issues, while in other places we might see the deliberate creation of tension on a political basis. In Romania and Ukraine we can still encounter a strange combination of political provocation and insensitivity, despite the fact that historical experience shows that every nation has their own traumas, and if we do not rub salt into each other’s wounds, we can learn to co-exist on the basis of mutual respect.

The Lendület („Momentum”) Programme established in 2009 aims at a dynamic renewal of the research work going on either at research institutions of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ (MTA) research network or at universities, via attracting internationally acclaimed scientists and highly-talented young researchers either by hiring them from abroad or keeping them in Hungary. In 2016 11 research teams received a grant for carrying out their research activities. In the area of Humanities and Social Sciences 3 of the proposals received grant from the board, including Trianon 100 Project which is the first project within the excellency program that relates to 20th century. The group consists of 22 people. It is a truly interdisciplinary research involving sociologists, art historians and geographers, among others. The output is expectedly 8-10 volumes published, workshops, conferences, papers and publications in languages other than Hungarian. See

You participated in a similar discussion at Starpoint Reformed Youth Festival. You also emphasized then that there is no way to talk about our current state borders without mentioning the First and Second Vienna Awards. In those cases, why could national independence not be stronger than territorial revision?

In that particular situation there was simply no alternative. It would have started a domestic political earthquake if Hungarian politicians had said that Hungarian sovereignty was more important than retrieving parts of Transylvania. Such a decision would have meant the end of any government; no Hungarian leader would have opted for saying no to Bácska if it meant dependence on Germans. Nobody could have told the Hungarian population, who had been chanting the slogan “No, no, never!” for twenty years, that no revision was going to happen. It is an undeniable fact that such decisions led to the way Hungary entered the Second World War – and then finished it the way we did.

In light of that, how can we interpret the notion of national unity today?

I would encourage everyone to experience it in natural ways. Our identity is strongly linked to language and culture; foreigners often get the first impression that history is very much alive in our lives, we have strong attachments to our past. A key element of our unity is our language. I have experienced this in Paris, seeing Hungarian wives sending their French husbands to enrol in the language courses of the Hungarian Institute, because they considered this to be an important foundation. The institutionalised forms of national sentiment, however, are frequently less effective. As a father I also see that for today’s youth a sports event, a song or a trip can be a lot more meaningful when it comes to national unity than the old-fashioned, rigid school commemorations. Those who try to raise the upcoming generations with 19th- or 20th-century methods are misguided. These generations have novel ways of finding each other, but they have natural ways of experiencing national unity.

In your experience, what makes a good commemoration?

One that makes us understand, and does not close but rather opens up questions. Needless to say there are outstanding and creative initiatives, but in many school commemorations everything is predetermined: speeches are made, poems are delivered through a crackling microphone – and this can mean closing down what we actually would like to keep alive in public awareness. I like it when the boundaries are not too firm because if they are, over time they can stifle new content and turn the event into something rigid. We do need commemorations but they are only effective if they lead us onto new paths.

European Churches has been facing together the legacy, impact and challenges of the Peace Treaties in Verailles. The Conference of European Churches (CEC) Peace Conference featured panels and seminars on 11 September, exploring the topic of peace from various perspectives. Speakers from different Christian confessions, as well as Jewish and Islamic traditions reflected together in Paris. The conference commemorated CEC’s 60th Anniversary, identifying legacies and challenges of the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, while searching for new and creative ways of peacebuilding. Contributions and statements were published online.

Interview by Zsuzsanna Farkas

Translated by Erzsébet Bölcskei