“Get over it.” That’s the usual answer across the globe if a Hungarian mentions the Trianon Treaty in a discussion. Today, June 4th, 2020, is the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Trianon Treaty. And we, Hungarians cannot “get over it”—and I’d like to explain why.

It is true that “it was long time ago” and happened in a place far away. It is also just one historical fact among many, and the usual suggestion—typically from Britons—is to simply “get over it” because, as they tell us, “we, too, lost our Empire.”

This indirect reference to the former Austro-Hungarian or Habsburg Empire overlooks and ignores the historic Hungary, which was practically identical with the Carpathian Basin. In fact, it wasn’t an empire at all.

So, to lose, under the Trianon Treaty, Transylvania, later Slovakia, and roughly two-thirds of our country, wasn’t like losing India for the Britons. It was more like losing Manchester and Liverpool, both integral parts of the English homeland.

The borders of Austria-Hungary as drawn in the Treaty of Trianon and Saint Germain. Image courtesy of the ‘The Independent’ (1919)/CCA-SA 3.0 Unported.

Hungarians didn’t go those territories from somewhere else; they had been living there for a thousand years. Of course, those lands were—and still are—a homeland for Romanians, Slovakians, Saxons, Swabians, Croatians, and other smaller communities of peoples, too. So, they were and remain a part of the Hungarian soul. Consider the following.

The capital of Slovakia today, Bratislava (whose Hungarian name is Pozsony and, in German, Pressburg), was until the middle of the 19th century the Hungarian capital. It even had an overwhelming majority of German-Hungarian, like many other cities. The whole of  southern Slovakia is still populated by Hungarians, even today—as is the Romanian side of its eastern border. Oradea (whose Hungarian name is Nagyvárad and Latin name was Varadinum) is the burial site of Saint Ladislaus I of Hungary (1077-1095). And Cluj-Napoca (which, in Hungarian, is Kolozsvár, in German Klausenburg, in Latin Claudiopolis, and in Saxon Kleusenburch) was the birthplace of the great Hungarian king, Mathias Corvinus. There are even a “Hungarian main square” and a “Romanian main square” at Cluj.

It’s worth noting that the city of Cluj-Napoca had a Hungarian ethnic majority until the 1960s, when a large block of flats was built to enlarge the city. Hungarian residents were pushed out, as they were overpopulated by Romanian arrivals. Now, 60,000 Hungarians and 300,000 Romanians live in the city. The “Házsongárd” central cemetery is, in fact, the resting place of countless Hungarian poets, heroes, statesmen, and other important figures.

In short, when teaching Hungarian history, one cannot ignore the whole Carpathian Basin.  A lot of things emerged from that region and from those cultures that have been long ignored by historians.

Today, many things are happening there again. For example, the most popular Hungarian folk dances are those preserved by Transylvanian Hungarians. Personally, I have many friends on the other side of the border. For us Hungarians, those parts of the Carpathian Basin which were formerly an integral part of our country cannot simply be seen as something “abroad” or something foreign. Instead, we refer to such places as being simply “across the border” (határon túl) or “outer-homeland” (külhon).

Many newspapers here in Budapest today run different columns that follow this kind of classification: ones for happenings “abroad” (that is, foreign policy) and others for matters “across the border”—that is, for occurrences in those areas where millions of “Hungarians outside of Hungary” live.

At the time of the traumatic Trianon Treaty, it was impossible to draw new borders along ethnic lines because ethnic populations at the time were completely blurred and the peoples and communities intermingled. This is partly true and no one in their right mind would argue for such ethnic boundaries; but it certainly would had been possible to draw much more just borders. The Wilsonian ideas that inspired the Treaty—utopian and idealistic, perhaps, but officially endorsed—were replaced by other geopolitical considerations. There were, at the time, clear ethnic lines between Hungarians and Slovakians, and between Hungarian and Romanian communities; but the Hungarian areas were simply given to the new Czechoslovakia and to an enlarged Romania—with seemingly little consideration of what was just—in order to give them railroad lines at the foot of mountains (so they wouldn’t have to build new ones).

Image courtesy of CoolKoon/CCA-SA 3.0 Unported.

The policy of Hungary’s political elites toward ethnic minorities at the time wasn’t perfect. In fact, those elites certainly committed historical ‘sins’ by not being generous enough toward such communities (although, it must be recognized, the policies of Hungary toward minority groups after 1867 were far more progressive and generous than the European standards of the time). On the other hand, what came later was worse, with the policy toward those Hungarians who became minorities in the ‘Little Entente’—the alliance of 1920-21 formed by Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia—was not generous at all: it was a policy of aggressive or forced assimilation.

It remains so, wherever Hungarians are a big part of the population. I shall mention just two examples.

The Hungarians of Fehér County (Județul Alba in Transylvanian) are a very small community, although its capital, Gyulafehérvár (Romanian: Alba Iulia) was the capital of the Principality of Transylvania. It is the center of the Hungarian Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Transylvania, founded by Saint Stephen I of Hungary in 1009. Its Romanesque Medieval cathedral is the resting place of John Hunyadi, Regent-Governor (1446–1453) of the Kingdom of Hungary, as well as of Queen Isabella, the wife of John Zápolya; John II Sigismund Zápolya, King of Hungary from 1540 to 1570 and Prince of Transylvania from 1570–1571; Andrew Cardinal Báthory, Prince-Bishop of Warmia, and Prince of Transylvania in 1599; and Áron Márton (1896-1980), a Roman Catholic bishop, referred to as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’, who was prosecuted by Romanian communists.

The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Gyulafehérvár. Image courtesy of Ciprian Lazar/CCA-SA 3.0 Unported.

So, the Romanian state does not do—nor has it ever done—anything with the ethnic Hungarians living there because they do not threaten the Romanian nation-building project. They are neglected and ignored. But they built a big orthodox cathedral next to the old Catholic one. Of course, Orthodox Romanians have a right to their churches; but the setting of this particular cathedral is politically motivated. Another politically motivated project has been the effort to build “historical” orthodox churches in hundreds of ethnic Hungarian villages—places where people have been refusing to go to the Romanian Orthodox church. The Orthodox priest in some of these villages has to celebrate the holy liturgy alone—or with the attendance of the only Orthodox family in that village.

But at Marosvásárhely (Romanian: Târgu Mureș), the so-called “gate of Székelyland”, where Hungarians are almost half of the inhabitants, and where the mayor was Hungarian until some years ago, there is a veritable ethnic war, which is made manifest in the battle over street names. This means that although the town hall has officially given permission to have bilingual street names—in Hungarian as well as Romanian—officials play a petty game. Rather than using the traditional, historic Hungarian names for the streets, officials take their current Romanian names, translate them into Hungarian, and declare they have fulfilled their obligation for bilingual street signs. It matters not that these Hungarian names have nothing to do with history nor are they related to the original Hungarian names. The Hungarian past is thus slowly, almost imperceptibly, being erased.

This is happening now. It is not history. It is happening now, at the eastern end of the European Union, which is more concerned about the rights of migrants and LGBT groups than with the rights of the traditional or original or native communities of Europe—that is, those minorities which have been living in one place for generations, preserving lifestyles that go back centuries, while the political boundaries change around them, above their heads.

The site of the Hungarian village of Bözödújfalu, flooded in 1988. The tower collapsed in 2014. There is an association to rebuild the church, and people from the village still go there annually on pilgrimage. Image courtesy of lacihobo/CCA-SA 4.0 International.

There’s little need to mention the aggressive nationalist-communist policy of the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu, who tried to forcibly “modernize” and “industrialize” Romania. The dictator tried to solve the problem of having Hungarians and “reactionary peasants” by uprooting entire villages and putting unwilling villagers into cities; rebuilding city-centers by demolishing historical buildings and building ‘phalansteries’; and, in some cases, creating water reservoirs to replace Hungarian villages. Ethnic Saxons, in turn, were literally sold to the Germans. Depending on their occupation, they garnered different prices, and their great church fortresses were eventually abandoned in the 1970s. (Be warned: it’s time to visit them now, if you want to see the architecture of the Transylvanian Saxons during the Renaissance and the Middle Ages, because the Romanian state and what remains of the congregations are not able to maintain them anymore.)

These are quick glimpses into what used to be in those lands that formerly formed part of Hungary. But they provide a sense of what has been lost so tragically—and perhaps people will be able to understand why it is hard to simply “get over it” for us Hungarians.

The ex-Saxonian fortified church of Berethalom (Biertan) in Transylvania. Image courtesy of Otto Schemmel/CCA-SA 3.0 Unported.

Note that the first democratically elected government in Hungary—the center-right government of József Antall after 1990—established a generous system of personal autonomy for the remaining Hungarian minorities in those regions, but only after long negotiations with officials and other representatives. Still, the only truly “nation-state” in the Carpathian Basin is Hungary. That’s why Hungarian conservatives use the term “nation-state” rather reluctantly and prefer the term “sovereign state.” If they use the term “nation-state” at all, it is to refer to “sovereignty”, not ethnically homogenous states.

One question that is often asked is: why did Hungary not appreciate the national freedom that was given to them—becoming free of Hapsburg rule—as a result of the Trianon Treaty?

One has to take into account the fact that Hungarian historical thought is not entirely sympathetic towards the Habsburgs and, unlike others, we do not see ourselves as a country of the Habsburg Empire. Hungarian historical thought treats the Habsburgs as oppressors, with whom we finally reached a compromised (reluctantly) in 1867.

Personally, I have more sympathy toward the Habsburgs. But I’m not in the mainstream opinion regarding them. Perhaps historical thinking in Hungary is a bit flawed regarding Austro-Hungary; but that’s how Hungarians see ourselves. To be sure, there are sufficient reasons for such a critical attitude: the oppression of 1848-49 is one, as is the neo-absolutist Bach regime after 1849, which officially ended Hungary, cutting it into five completely arbitrary military districts.

So why should we look askance at the Trianon Treaty even though it brought us national independence? Because you do not really celebrate independence if your arms and legs are cut off by your “liberators.”

There is another matter, too: some historians treat the history of Hungary as something created only after in 1867. They hold that Transylvania was given to Hungary at this point. But this is not true because Transylvania was already an integral part of the country from its founding in the 9th century. When Transylvania became a distinct principality in the 16th century (due to the invasions of the Ottomans), it was still a Hungarian territory—and its subsequent reunification with the Kingdom of Hungary was a strategic aim of its political leadership.

There’s no question that the elites at the time made many mistakes. But concretely speaking, it was the Trianon Treaty that tore Hungary apart. If there is no First World War or if we had been on the winning side, historical Hungary would have remained intact. And maybe we would have federalized or cantonized the country later, or given autonomy to minorities, or perhaps the country would still have been divided up—but with more just borders. It’s hard to say and most of us find don’t find such historical hypotheticals useful.

I understand that today is a day of mourning for us, while it is a day of celebration for Slovakia, Romania, and other countries. But we have to admit, regardless of affiliations or allegiances, that the Trianon Treaty did not really solve the problems it purported to address. It only created new ones, and partly led to the Second World War.

“Get over it” is not a proper response. For Hungarians, Trianon is traumatic history, a scar that is still with us, representing something that tore apart our country, our homeland. What is more, it tore apart a historical continuity, dividing families and destroying entire villages and cities. Examples abound.

The city of Komárom on the banks of the Danube became Komárno on the Slovakian side—but remained Komárom at the Hungarian side. Mária Valéria Bridge, between Esztergom (on the Hungarian side) and Párkány (on the Slovakian side), rebuilt after 1990, was “off-limits” during 40 years of supposedly “brotherly” communist comradeship. Relatives on either side were unable to visit each other and could only do so by-passing half of the country.

Aerial view of Mária Valéria Bridge, which connects Esztergom and Štúrovo (Párkány in Hungarian). Image courtesy of Ervín Pospíšil/CCA-SA 3.0 ot Ported.

People were no longer able to go to the neighboring villages to visit family members and friends because they had to get around the new border, and what was a half-hour walk became a full day voyage.

Slovakia created artificial north-south counties after 1990 to replace historical ones because it was a way to end Hungarian ethnic majorities in some counties along the border. The intact ethnic Hungarian block is now redistributed among counties which have Slovakian ethnic majorities due to their northern parts.

There are millions of such stories—of divided loyalties, of broken families. And these divisions continue today.

Trianon is a trauma that we Hungarians have to live with, while at the same time, we continue to try to live peacefully with others. But it is impossible to forget. It is impossible to say it was a tool to achieve a “just” peace—because it wasn’t. And it is impossible to simply look ahead and “concentrate on the future”.

When you hear that those renegade Hungarians creating a “Hungarian card” for ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries or giving them Hungarian citizenship, it is not something nationalistic or a hidden or stealth way of seeking empire-building. It is simply a way of trying to heal the wound of Trianon and giving some kind of public recognition to the fact that the “Hungarian nation” is not identical to Hungary. (In fact, we encourage Romanians, Slovakians, Serbs, and others to do the same.) They are different communities but are all Hungarians. That’s why József Antall said he was the prime minister of 15 million Hungarians in his heart.

When an old Hungarian peasant tells you he has lived in five countries in his life—Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Slovakia, Soviet Union, Ukraine—without ever having to leave his village, he is evoking this traumatic past. And that’s why the date of the official signing the Trianon Treaty, June 4th, is the Day of National Unity in Hungary: in remembrance of all this.

Trianon is not just a treaty. It is a trauma; and this trauma is a prime example of the unsolvable problems of history. One has to understand this if one wants to understand Mitteleuropa, Central Europe. It is always best if one can visit the countries and peoples of the Carpathian Basin, what was at one time the eastern end of the Western world. There is rich history here and dense geography, all in a relatively small place. In the meantime, God bless us, the people of the Carpathian Basin—and may He give us peace and reconciliation as we continue to live with the shadow of the past.