The relentless repression of non-Hungarian ethnic identities steadily lost Budapest its international supporters during the half-century before World War I. Admirers of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy now became its most exigent critics as they looked beyond the façade of its allegedly enlightened administration in territories populated in the majority by other ethnicities. (R. W. Seton Watson, Racial Problems in Hungary, 1908). The situation of ethnic Romanians in Transylvania on eve of the war was bleak. Hungarian authorities met Romanian pleas for relief from political, economic and religious repression, from forced assimilation and from the Hungarian colonization of Romania areas with even more of the same. (Keith Hitchens, Rumania 1866-1947, 1994) Viennese authorities correctly predicted that continued Hungarian refusal of basic rights for the Romanians would bring about the end of the Monarchy.
The Trianon “moment” was interpreted uniformly by Hungarian historiography as an extraordinary injustice and a grevious wound. In fact, the Trianon Treaty redressed one of the most enduring injustices in Europe. For the first time in several hundred years the majority population in Transylvania was fully enfranchised, was relieved of systematic economic discrimination, was permitted religious freedom, and was not subjected the capricious chauvinism of a “master race.”
Nor did Trianon simply reverse the roles of the discriminator and the discriminated. The formerly privileged Hungarian minority was not politically disenfranchised. It did not suffer punitive restrictions on its religious practices. And, apart from the long-overdue Land Reform that also redistributed the property of large landowners in the Old Kingdom, it was not subjected to policies of economic discrimination. (David Mitrany, The Land & The Peasant In Rumania: The War And Agrarian Reform (1917-1921), 1930)
Of course Trianon was imperfect and minority populations continued to exist on both sides of the new border. Of course, equal rights were embedded in the minorities provisions imposed on Romania during the peace negotiations. And of course legacy resentments and individual discrimination persisted. But none of these factors diminish the fundamental innovation of constitutional and legal equality in the region.
Trianon was undoubtedly a wound. But Budapest purposefully kept it open and worried until it became gangrenous, inexorably leading the country back towards ruinous war. With the recovery of territories lost under Trianon as its number one priority, Hungary developed an abiding interest in forcibly changing borders and creating instability amongst its neighbors currently holding those territories in order to facilitate their future transfer.
To this end Budapest actively sought to obstruct any fundamental ethnic reconciliation in the region and especially the development of a common Hungarian-Romanian destiny. On the contrary, Horthy and successive Hungarian governments made it their mission to instill the belief among Hungarians everywhere that Transylvania’s unification with Romania was only a temporary occupation under which the Hungarian minority was subjected to policies of relentless brutality and forced assimilation; demonizing the Romanians and their minority policies in the process. Horthy’s October 1919 instruction stated interwar Hungary’s intentions explicitly: “Until the time is ripe for an attack, pacific relations should be maintained with Romania, yet every opportunity must be used to isolate it diplomatically and an active irredentist organization must continue to exist in Transylvania.” (Gyula Juhász, Hungarian Foreign Policy (1919-1945), 1979)
As incitement of ethnic hatred and instigation of violence became hallmarks of (clandestine) Hungarian policy towards its neighbors, domestic politics also slid towards extreme chauvinism and paramilitary violence. The “White Terror” carried out under Horthy’s largely approving eye by torture and execution squads (the so-called “officers’ detachments”) during 1919-1921, and the proliferation of right-radical paramilitary organizations thereafter, exemplified the problem.
Budapest enlisted Hungarian émigré organizations throughout the world in its irredentist project. At the World Hungarian conference held in Budapest in 1927 the leading Hungarian-American organization pledged its support for territorial revisionism, which it duly honored through uninterrupted lobbying of US administrations. Horthy even managed to recruit British ambassadors to undermine London’s support for Bucharest, and a British media magnate to lobby the Führer to attack Romania. (Neil Tweedie and Peter Day, “When Rothermere urged Hitler to invade Romania,” Telegraph, 1 March 2005) Demonstrating that any and all means were deemed justified in this endeavor, Horthy, who ostentatiously advertised his anti-Communist and anti-Soviet sentiments, also collaborated with Stalin for the division of Romania. (Tatiana Volokitina, Tofik Islamov and Tatiana Poliakova, editors, Transilvianskii Vopros: Vengero-Rumynskii Territorialnii Spor I SSSR, 1940-1946. Dokumenti, 2000)
Throughout, Budapest never accepted responsibility for its centuries-long repression of the majority Romanian population in Transylvania. Failure to fully acknowledge that burden, to examine it in all of its aspects, rendered Budapest incapable of then placing it aside and moving on. Hungarian political elites could hardly set aside the past and move forward when they refused to recognize that the roots of those abusive policies were embedded in state policy still, contaminating the education system and skewing public perceptions.
Instead, Budapest continued pursuing 19th century policies of brutal assimilation and, when Horthy’s forces entered northern Transylvania in September 1940 they systematically murdered the intellectual and spiritual elite of Romanian settlements. These were not atrocities – the independent crimes of individual officers, soldiers or units disregarding standing orders. They were punitive actions specifically ordered by Hungarian military commanders within a campaign knowingly pursued by the Hungarian political leadership.
If Romanian perspectives were lost in the midst of this campaign, one can imagine the pressures and forces that engulfed individual Hungarian elites with enough foresight to recognize the need for change. Eloquent in this regard was the remarkable protest of Foreign Minister Pál Teleki against the policy of falsely alleging minority abuse as justification for Hungarian military attacks on its neighbors. In his famous April 1941 suicide note the Hungarian foreign minister condemned his country’s leadership for having placed itself “on the side of scoundrels, for there is not a word of truth in the stories about atrocities. Not even against Germans, let alone against Hungarians!” (Nicholas Nagy-Talavera, The Green Shirts and the Others: Fascism in Hungary and Romania, 1970)
That autumn Ivan Héjjas, one of Horthy’s favorite “White Terror” commanders, and Baron Ede Atzél, who headed the “Transylvanian Society for the Evidence of the Population” responsible for monitoring, dispossessing and excluding ethnic Romanians from the regional economy, submitted a plan for the elimination of Romanian ethnicity in record time. Approved by Hungary’s Prime Minister at the beginning of 1942, the plan proposed the same policy that had driven Teleki to suicide, stipulating that “in order to justify official reprisals against the Romanians,” Hungarian commandos “who speak Romanian, dress in national Romanian costumes [and posing] as a Romanian group, would launch terrorist attacks against groups of Transylvanian Germans and against some Hungarian groups.” (23 August 1944: Documents, vol. I, 1984)
The new Hungarian authorities in Transylvania pursued a four-year program of ethnic cleansing against the Romanians. One, it is worth noting, that was not reciprocated by Romanian authorities against the ethnic Hungarians remaining under their jurisdiction. After repeated Romanian appeals – and in accordance with provisions of the Vienna Award/Diktat that transferred northern Transylvania to Hungary – a mixed German-Italian commission of inquiry was sent to investigate in 1941. Another was sent in 1943 at Budapest’s request, apparently as part of a misguided effort to nullify the Hungarian culpability revealed in the first inquiry.
The 1943 commission again identified the problem as the “brutal discriminations against the Romanian population by Hungarian civil servants and private persons,” and the underlying cause as the “fundamental attitude” Hungarian authorities openly expressed that “Romanians, both as a race and a culture, are at a much lower level than the Hungarians and thus cannot pretend to the same treatment with the State nationalities.” (Vasile Puşcaş, Transylvania şi aranjamentele europene: (1940-1944), 1995)
The German-Italian commission further reported that, under Horthy’s administration, Romanian-language education was shut down and Romanian educators driven from Transylvania or reassigned into Hungary proper. Entire populations of villages were expropriated and immediately evicted. All Romanian civil servants were fired and those who wished to receive pensions already earned, who desired state employment, or who wanted to be released from military service had first to convert to the ‘Hungarian’ churches (Roman Catholic and Reformed). Romanian names were required to be Magyarized in all official documents. Romanian Orthodox and Greek Catholic Churches were denied official recognition and destroyed while Hungarian authorities stood by.
It was as if Budapest wanted to underscore in the very darkest of colors how just and extraordinarily necessary the Treaty of Trianon really had been.
This blog first appeared in Romanian translation at Adevarul.ro
This blog first appeared in Romanian translation at Adevarul.ro