Dendrochronology and Environmental History: The Difficulties of Interpretation

András Grynaeus
Hungarian Dendrochronological Laboratory
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 9 Issue 2  (2020): 302-314 DOI:10.38145/2020.2.302

The study provides insights into questions concerning forest management and timber use by drawing on case studies in the dendrochronological research which has been underway over the course of the past couple of decades in Hungary. The essay refers to natural resource-use and historical and demographic questions which arose in analyses of the wooden materials. The study questions some of the topoi of historical research, such as the immense forest loss traditionally associated with the Ottoman wars.

Keywords: dendrochronology, Hungary, forest resources, Ottoman wars, environmental history

The dendrochronological research which has been underway in Hungary for more than two decades now has brought to light a number of environmental history (related) data which goes beyond the use of the method in dating. If one takes a closer look at these data, several questions arise many of which remain unresolved. This study discusses some (if not all) of these questions.

In 2017, Gergely Rákóczi, associate of the Dobó István Castle Museum of Eger, excavated a wooden sluice bridge structure in Eger in the bed of the Eger Stream.1 Based on the four samples, the earliest year in which the oak trees which were used for the construction could have been cut was 1798. Analyses of the beams showed that the trees were considerably older than what is considered the ideal age for cutting (90 to 120 years), as the samples had 242, 257, 117, and 168 consecutive rings. Thus, these four samples offered a dataset which spanned a long period and could be used for dating and other investigations.

A relatively new and increasingly used method in dendrochronology which has yielded important insights is dendro-provenancing. By using many regional chronologies, researchers try to identify the original habitats of the trees used for timber and thus offer a spatial comparison.2 As Fig. 2 shows,3 the tree rings in the samples from Eger fit best with the chronology from trees in present-day Slovakia, which means that their original habitat was probably there.

This conclusion seems logical, as the Archbishopric of Eger had significant land holdings in this region. Furthermore, it harmonizes with the familiar topoi concerning the Ottoman Empire’s use of Hungary for its timber and the destructive impact on forests of the war to liberate the country from Ottoman occupation, as it suggests that there was a dearth of suitable trees in the Great Hungarian Plain and timber had brought in from the north. However, data referred to by Eszter Magyar concerning the valley of the Hron (Garam) River (a river in Slovakia was a tributary of the Danube) are frequently cited in support of the contention that the region of present-day Slovakia was not used for timber mining.4 In Magyar’s words, “as is clear from a lawsuit in 1544, […] the dynasties of charcoal burners who had been working in the easily accessible forests of the area since the death of King Matthias I [1490] cut down and charred the forests for the second or third time in little more than 50 years.”5 The finds from Eger, however, shed light on this conclusion, as the trees felled in the late 1700s at the age of 200 to 250 were already about 100 to 150 years old at the end of the Ottoman period. This suggests that during the period of the Ottoman presence in the Carpathian Basin, the forests in present-day Slovakia were never completely timbered or burned.

In 2012, during the construction of the new gym of the Saint Elisabeth High School in Esztergom, Edit Tari, an associate of the Balassi Bálint Museum, excavated a number of timber-framed Ottoman-period wells.6 The most “beautiful” and elaborate structure was no. 60, the timber of which was cut during the winter of 1584–1585.7 The builders used trunks cleaved in two, so in each case it was possible to measure the full series of the tree rings, while in most of the samples, both the bark and the sapwood were removed. Fortunately, in eight cases, they were not accurate enough, and in three cases not even the bark was removed decently. If one looks at the relative age of the timber used for the well, it is clear that very young trees were used. Thus, the well supports the conclusion concerning timber mining by the Ottomans in the forests of the Carpathian Basin.

However, when applied in these cases, dendro-provenancing yields surprising conclusions. The timber of the well can be best dated according to the chronology valid for the Vienna Basin. In other words, the timber used in Esztergom came from the Danube River valley or the surroundings of Vienna.8 This means that the timber mining was not “Ottoman” but rather “Ottoman period.” In other words, it was done on the other side of the border.9 One is also confronted with the rather surprising fact that, among the three (hostile) polities that shared the territory of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary, there was considerable trade. This somewhat contradicts the traditional view.10

In 2015, Gábor Wilhelm and Máté Varga, archaeologists from the Katona József Museum, excavated two “barrel wells” in the center of the town of Kecskemét (Nagykörösi Street 7–9), i.e. two well structures in which, within the timber frame, there barrels, one in each (objects 19 and 26).11

Similar structures are familiar from the Roman period (e.g. from Ménfőcsanak) but are unique in late medieval contexts.12 The timber material is well suited for analysis, and it turned out they were cut at the earliest in 1486 and 1484.13 As there was no way to provide a more precise dating for the samples, it cannot be determined whether they made their way to Kecskemét in the late Middle Ages and the barrels, which were considered useless, were re-used in this manner or whether they were brought to the town in the period of the Ottoman occupation and were recycled as “rolls.” Unfortunately, there is no way to resolve this question, which is regrettable, as the timber originates from Transylvania. More precisely, they best match the chronologies of Biertan (Berethalom) and Târgu Mureş (Marosvásárhely).14 This means that they made their way Kecskemét by trade. The question of what was originally stored in them is fascinating, if still unanswered, and it would be similar interesting to know whether the barrels also testify to trading activities across the borders in the Ottoman period similar to the practices observed in the context of the site at Esztergom. The uncertainty lies in the fact that, because of the post quem dating of the barrels, it cannot be determined whether they were brought to the town in the last years of the unified Kingdom of Hungary or only after the tripartition.

In Budapest, at Kacsa Street 15–23 (in the second district of the city), Katalin Éder and Tibor Hable (both of whom were associates of the Budapest History Museum at the time) found wooden wells the trees for which were felled around 1584–1585. These Ottoman-period objects also testify to “transborder” trade (certainly present towards the Kingdom of Hungary and presumably towards the Principality of Transylvania) in the life of the country after the fall of the medieval kingdom, as the material of the well can be best dated according to the Viennese chronology.15

As a method, dendrochronology bears surprises for scholars of significantly earlier periods as well. In 2011,16 Katalin Sebők and Gábor V. Szabó (Institute of Archaeology, Eötvös Loránd University) unearthed a well that be dated to the Late Bronze Age (Urnfield culture) at Pusztataksony–Ledence.17 Most of the timber in the well (twenty of the twenty-two pieces) was of ash (Fraxinus sp.). The difficulty of interpreting the finds lies in the fact that one cannot draw a distinction among the three species of ash that are indigenous to the Carpathian Basin, the European ash (Fraxinus excelsior L.), the flowering ash (Fraxinus ornus L.), and the narrow-leaved ash (Fraxinus angustifolia subsp. pannonica) on the basis of the image of their tissues.

The habitats of the three species, however, differ. The first two species are mountainous, while the Hungarian subspecies of the narrow-leaved ash prefers flood plains.18 This provides us with an opportunity for further interpretation. One could assume that the trees were transported, in which case one gains valuable data concerning the economic life of a community very far away from Hungary today, both in space and time. However, one can interpret the data from an environmental history perspective. In that case, the data tells of the significantly different composition of species in the flood plain forests back then. Which reading of the data would be correct?19 The site provides us with one more surprise: young (only 40- to 50-year old) trees were used here again. Why? This question, i.e. the age of the felled trees, is difficult for specialists even at sites on which they have more information.

In the cases of a number of excavation sites, information can be acquired on the ages of the trees used to craft different objects. A telling example is the case of the two Neolithic wells (nos. 629 and 583) that were unearthed at Szalkszentmárton–Táborállás in 2017 by Bernadett Kovacsóczy (an associate of the Katona József Museum).20 The wells were built of trees felled with an eleven-year gap. For the older well, they used trees which were 200 years old, while for the younger, the trees were roughly 150 years old.21 This indicates two things: when building wells, there were trees of those ages at the disposal of the community within a reasonable distance, which means that the forests in the territory had been left intact for at least 200 years. However, it also became clear that the newly settled population started to use the forests, so after a decade, they had to “fall back on” the less suitable timber, which was “only” 150 years old.

The use of old trees can be observed at many sites throughout Hungary, such as in the case of a Celtic-period well22 unearthed at site no. 212 (Center for Heritage Protection, Hungarian National Museum, 2010) by the M3 highway at Pócspetri–Bikarét, where trees which were 100 to 160 years old were built into the well’s structure. But the same could be observed at the Sarmatian-period wells found at Püspökladány–Sárréti Csali-tanya (2013)23 and at site no. 14 at Tiszagyenda–Lakhatom.24 One tends to conclude that the use of old trees indicates an undisturbed environment, while uninhabited territories and the use of younger trees shows a disturbed environment and densely inhabited areas. However, if one has some background knowledge of these periods, one may call into question the accuracy of this reading of the data.

Site no. 45 by the M6 highway close to Szekszárd, which was excavated by János Ódor (Wosinsky Mór Museum) in 2010, prompts one to call into question the above conclusion.25 Two Avar-period wells (nos. 53 and 70) were also made of timber from trees felled within a gap of eleven years. This is just a coincidence with respect to the aforementioned example, of course, but the interpretation is more problematic, as in this case, the structure of the older well was made of trees felled at about 100 years of age, while in the case of the younger well, the trees used were over 200 years old when felled.26

Is it reasonable consistently to associate the use of older trees with demographic tendencies? Do we really have to assume that there were long periods during which areas were uninhabited and/or periods without forest clearance? Or would it be more realistic to set aside the notion of forests going untouched for generations and consider the possibility that forests were consciously used and cultivated? Could one reasonably make this assumption in the case of the Avars, the Sarmatians, and the Celtic-period populations? Or can one communities inhabited a certain area? The question is clear: should the features make this assumption with regard to periods in which different peoples/of the wood be understood as demographic data or as cultivation data? Do they yield conclusions concerning demographic processes or farming knowledge and practices?

At this point, one must consider methods of forest clearance in historical times. A number of questions and many possible answers arose in the course of an excavation led by Gábor Váczi (an associate of the Institute of Archaeology, Eötvös Loránd University) at site no. 5 at Tiszabura–Bónis-hát. The most important “source” was an Avar-period well. The eight beams studied included trees younger than 100 when felled and older than 200, but only one in between those ages.27 Why?

Was this the result of clear cutting? This would explain the mixed ages of the trees. However, this may also have been the result of selective cutting, as based on the sizes and the shapes of the beams, they may have been carefully selected. Or could their placement in the structure of the well be related to their age? There is no substantive data that could support or dismiss this possibility. Do we have so many unanswered questions simply because the low number of samples distort the results? Is this problem aggravated by the fact that parts of the samples have been destroyed (some of the beams and planks), so some parts of the dataset are missing, and some of the external tree rings may be rotten? Of course, one can also interpret the feature as a consequence of a particular method used to shape the beams, because assuming that the wood was cut from a suitably mature tree which was cleaved in half to create two 100 year-old beams, we may have only found one of them. This can also be understood as a special feature of the excavation, which can be traced back to the fact that only the bottom beams survived. The ones above them were destroyed over the centuries.

Can we assume that different methods of wood-cutting were used? I.e., is it possible that people at certain periods could not fell trees of any size? This may seem plausible, but it is unlikely that, if they were able to fell the old trees, they could not deal with the younger ones. Is it possible that the trees preserved traces of demographic processes? Or are both true? Did one of the peoples arriving in the region not know how to or did not want to fell larger trees, and so the trees survived only to be felled and used by later groups? Environmental reasons can also be considered, as for instance younger trees stands could have fallen victim to an ice-flood, while older trees may have proved to be more resilient. And in that case, we have not considered explanations concerning possible rituals or beliefs, such as “sacred oaks” left standing by previous peoples who had lived there.

Which interpretation is correct? How far can an archaeologist/scholar go in interpreting such data? These questions are difficult to answer, but similar features can be observed at late medieval (Vácszentlászló–Hajta-patak28) and Árpád Era (Hódmezővásárhely–Kingéc29) sites, and these similarities limit the interpretive possibilities to some extent, certainly in connection with ritual practices.

What explanations are the most convincing in such cases? And what methods should researchers use when positing explanations? Should they brainstorm, or should they patiently wait until, at some point in the future, enough data have been gathered to yield definite answers? Should one consider stick to observations of features or should one build theories, which of course involves the risk of error? These questions are not simple to answer.


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Babos, Károly. Fafajmeghatározás restaurátorok számára [Specifying tree species for conservation specialists]. Budapest, 1994.

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Éder, Katalin. “Hódoltságkori gödör a Víziváros területéről: Egy szemeskályha maradványai és kísérőleletei” [Ottoman-period pit from the Víziváros: Remains of a tiled stove]. Budapest Régiségei 47 (2014): 283–311.

Fülöp, Kristóf. “The Birth of Wells: A Late Bronze Age Well from Pusztataskony–Ledence.” In State of the Hungarian bronze age research. Proceedings of the conference held between 17th and 18th of December 2014, edited by Gabriella Kulcsár, and Gábor V. Szabó, 309–36. Budapest: ELTE BTK Régészettudományi Intézet, MTA BTK Régészeti Intézet, Ősrégészeti Társaság, 2017.

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Grynaeus, András, János Gábor Ódor. “Dendrokronológia: Avar kori kutak Szekszárd, Varga Peti-dűlő, 1. lelőhely” [Dendrochronology: Avar period wells at Szekszárd Varga Peti-dűlő site no. 1]. In Nem térkép e táj: Régészeti kutatások eredményei Szekszárd területén 2006–2015 [The landscape is not a map: Results of the archaeological investigations at Szeszárd, 2006–2015], edited by András K. Németh, 31. Szekszárd, 2016.

Hajnal, Zsuzsanna. “Migration period settlement at Tiszagyenda with Hun period destruction horizon.” Poster presentation at the Attila Európája [Attila’s Europe] conference Budapest, June 6–7, 2019.

Kondé, Zsófia. “Egy kút élete: Avar kori településrészlet Tiszabura–Bónishát lelőhelyről” [The life of a well: Avar-period settlement fragment from Tiszabura–Bónishát]. In Beatus homo qui invenit sapientiam: Ünnepi kötet Tomka Péter 75. születésnapjára [Volume in honor of the 75th birthday of Péter Tomka], edited by Teréz Csécs, and Miklós Takács, 337–51. Győr, 2016.

Kovacsóczy, Bernadett. “Előkelő avar férfi sírja Szalkszentmárton határából” [Burial of a member of the Avar elite from the borders of Szalkszentmárton]. In Hatalmi központok az Avar Kaganátusban [Power centers in the Avar Khaganate], edited by Csilla Balogh, József Szentpéteri, and Erika Wicker, 69–96. Kecskemét 2019.

Larsson, Nicklas, Vera Majerik. “Pócspetri határa” [The borders of Pócspetri]. In Régészeti kutatások Magyarországon 2011 [Archaeological investigations in Hungary, 2011], edited by Júlia Kisfaludi, Judit Kvassay, and Attila Kreiter, 146–47. Budapest: Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum, 2018.

Magyar, Eszter. A feudalizmus kori erdőgazdálkodás az alsó-magyarországi bányavárosokban (1255–1747) [Forest management in the Lower-Hungarian mining towns in the age of feudalism, 1255–1747]. Budapest, 1983.

Molnár, Karola. “Kecskemét–Nagykőrösi utca 7–9. lelőhely kútjainak vizsgálata: Adatok a késő középkori-kora újkori kutak vizsgálatához” [Analysis of the wells of Kecskemét–Nagykörösi Street 7–9 site. Data to the study of late medieval – Early Modern wells]. In Acta iuvenum: Sectio archaeologica. Tomus III. Acta Universitatis Szegediensis, edited by László Révész, 129–51. Szeged: Szegedi Tudományegyetem, Régészeti Tanszék, 2017.

Ódor, János. “Avar szőlő, avar kút: Szekszárd, Varga Peti-dűlő, 1. lelőhely – M6 To 045 lelőhely 2008” [Avar vineyard, Avar well: Szekszárd, Varga Peti-dűlő, site no. 1 – M/ To 045 site, 2008]. In Nem térkép e táj: Régészeti kutatások eredményei Szekszárd területén 2006–2015 [The landscape is not a map: Results of the archaeological investigations at Szeszárd, 2006–2015], edited by András K. Németh, 22–23. Szekszárd, 2016.

Rákóczi, Gergely. “Zsiliphíd az Eger patak medrében” [Sluice bridge in the bed of Eger Stream]. Agria, forthcoming.

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Szabó, Péter. “Erdők a kora újkorban: történelem, régészet, ökológia” [Woodland in the early modern period: History, archaeology, ecology]. In Környezettörténet: Az utóbbi 500 év környezeti eseményei történeti és természettudományi források tükrében, edited by Miklós Kázmér, 137–56. Budapest: Hantken, 2009.

Szolnoki, László. “Püspökladány, Sárréti Csali-tanya” [Püspökladány, Csali farm in Sárrét]. Déri Múzeum Évkönyve 89 (2018): 41.

Tari, Edit. “Az Esztergom-vízivárosi oszmán fajanszedény-kincslelet” [The Ottoman faience-treasure hoard at Esztergom–Víziváros]. Archaeológiai Értesítő 141 (2016): 195–210.

Váczi, Gábor. “Tiszabura, Bónishát” [Tiszabura–Bónishát]. In Régészeti kutatások Magyarországon 2009 [Archaeological investigation in Hungary, 2009], edited by Júlia Kisfaludi, 366–67. Budapest: Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum, 2010.

Vadas, András, Péter Szabó. “Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees? Ottoman-Hungarian Wars and Forest Resources.” Hungarian Historical Review 7, no. 3 (2018): 477–509.

Várkonyi, Gábor. Ünnepek és hétköznapok: Művelődés és mentalitás a török kori Magyarországon [Feasts and weekdays: Education and mentality in Hungary in the Ottoman Era]. Budapest: General Press, 2009.



1 Rákóczi, “Zsiliphíd.

2 Bridge, “Locating the origins.”

3 From the statistical data marked on the map, “t” is the result of the t-test. This text, which is frequently used in archaeology, demonstrates the extent to which the values in two datasets could be said to match each other. TVNP is the Baillie-Pilcher’s t-value and GW is Gleichlaufigkeitswert (correlation), which indicates the correlation in the running of two curves. The fourth data (ol) marks the number of overlapping tree rings. On the statistical methods used in dendrochronology, see Schweingruber, Der Jahrring.

4 Magyar, A feudalizmus kori erdőgazdálkodás.

5 Ibid., 82.

6 The official name of the site was Esztergom-Szent Erzsébet iskola udvara (Víziváros) [Esztergom–Saint Elisabeth High School Yard (Víziváros)]. Only a preliminary report of the excavation has been published so far: Tari, “Az Esztergom-vízivárosi,” 195–210.

7 The reference chronology is the Viennese dataset gathered by Michael Grabner and his colleagues. The statistical values of the comparison: t=5,62; TVBP=5,2; GW=71,4/99,9%; overlap: 64 tree rings. The values of the Hungarian dataset: t=3,87; TVBP=4,9; GW=69,8/99,0%; overlap: 64 tree rings.

8 Other reference chronologies used in the comparison were oak chronologies from Slovakia and the central part of Hungary.

9 See Vadas and Szabó, “Not Seeing the Forest”; Ágoston, “Where Environmental”; Szabó, “Erdők a kora újkorban.”

10 See Várkonyi, Ünnepek és hétköznapok.

11 Molnár, “Kecskemét–Nagykőrösi utca 7–9,” 129–55.

12 I know of only one other example from the Middle Ages, from ca. 1380 from the market town of Mohi/Muhi.

13 The reference chronologies were gathered by the Anno Domini Laboratory in Miercurea Ciuc (Harghita county, Romania, by Boglárka Tóth and István Botár). Statistical values of comparison: t=4,67; GW=64.7/95%; overlap: 119 tree rings, and: t=5,28; GW=68.5/99,9%); overlap: 130 tree rings.

14 There was no observable potentially relevant correlation with other chronologies (Vienna Basin, central territory of Hungary, Maramureş region, present-day Slovakia).

15 The reference chronology is the Viennese dataset gathered by Michael Grabner and his colleagues. Statistical values of the comparison: t=5,15; TVBP=4,5; GW=74,0/99,0%; overlap: 51 tree rings. See Várkonyi, Ünnepek és hétköznapok.

16 Fülöp, “The Birth of Wells.”

17 NKT-01. o:637/s:869.

18 Babos, Fafajmeghatározás, 58.

19 The two other beams were made of sessile oak (Quercus petraea (Mattuschka) Lieblein). This indicates a mountainous origin if one assumes that all the timber came from the same area.

20 Kovacsóczy, “Előkelő avar férfi,” 69–96.

21 In most of the samples, the sapwood was preserved and, in some cases, even the bark could be observed. As the planks were carved out radiately from the trunks, the datasets could be set to the center of the tree, allowing us to measure the width of (almost) every tree ring.

22 The excavation was led by Vera Majerik and Eszter Istvánovics. For a short overview of the excavation, see Larsson and Majerik, “Pócspetri határa,” 146–47.

23 Szolnoki, “Püspökladány,” 41.

24 Hajnal, “Migration period.”

25 Ódor, “Avar szőlő,” 22–23, and Grynaeus and Ódor, “Dendrokronológia,” 31

26 The planks for the wells were carved out radiately from the trunks in both cases, so we could measure the trees to their centers, and the bark was consistently removed as well. In the case of well no. 53, however, the sapwood was not removed, and in many cases, all of the sapwood was preserved. At well no. 70, from the sixteen plank samples, fragmentary or full sapwood was preserved in six pieces.

27 The planks were carved out from the trunks radiately, so we managed to include the tree rings to the center, but the sapwood had consistently been removed. As the datasets end at (almost) identical dates, it is likely that only the sapwoods were removed.

28 Excavation led by Zoltán Farkas (Museums of Pest County) in 2011, where a water mill and the related wooden structures of a water mill that can be dated to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were unearthed.

29 Well no. 209. Excavation led by Viktor Csányi (Tornyai János Museum) in 2010. See Csányi, Beszámoló, Grynaeus, “A 164. számú kút.”

Figure 1. Structure of the sluice bridge in the bed of the Eger Stream
(Photograph by Gergely Rákóczi)


Figure 2. The relationship between the data from Eger and chronologies of different areas


Figure 3. Well 60 (image by Edit Tari). Relative age of the beams (the light fields on the diagram mark the hardwood, while the dark fields indicate the sapwood of the tree rings)


Figure 4. Structure of well no. 19. Photograph by Máté Varga


Figure 5. Image of the tissue of one of the ash beams (at a magnification of 20).
Photograph by András Grynaeus



Figure 6. The relative ages of the beams of the wells of Szekszárd (the light fields on the diagram mark the hardwood, while the dark fields indicate the sapwood of the tree rings)


Figure 7. Tiszabura–Bónis-hát, site no. 5, relative ages of the beams of object no. 43
(the light fields on the diagram mark the hardwood, while the dark fields indicate the sapwood of the tree rings)


Figure 8. The relative ages of the beams found at Vácszentlászló–Hajta-patak
(the light fields on the diagram mark the hardwood, while the dark fields indicate the sapwood of the tree rings)




Along the Danube and at the Foothills of the North-Eastern Hungarian Mountains: Some Data on the Distribution of Stone Raw Materials in the Late Iron Age

Zoltán Czajlik
Eötvös Loránd University
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 9 Issue 2  (2020): 331-342 DOI:10.38145/2020.2.331 

Stones as raw materials are important environmental resources often found at prehistoric sites. Since their various types essentially retained their original geological features, it is generally relatively easy to identify their origin. Nevertheless, there is hardly any systematic research on late prehistoric stone raw materials. Furthermore, these materials are mentioned very inconsistently and the geological terms, definitions and analyzes are absent from the discussions. The general picture that we can sketch based on secondary literature is therefore mosaic-like. However, it is by no means impossible to identify extraction sites. Based on on-site experience and using modern analyzes, it is possible, for example, to differentiate between individual types of sandstone and andesite. From the perspective of future research, analyzes of late Iron Age stone materials from well-studied archaeological contexts could contribute to understand better how stones as raw materials were used in late prehistoric periods.

Keywords: natural resources, stone raw materials, Carpathian Basin, Iron Age


Stone raw materials are important environmental resources. They offer a good topic for research, since they are usually frequently present among the finds of both prehistoric settlements and cemeteries. An additional advantage of this material is that the various ways in which they were modified and put to use did not change them significantly, unlike in the case of many other raw materials, such as clay ceramics or in various ores. Given that their original geological conditions are essentially preserved, it is usually comparatively easy to identify their provenance. Regrettably, in spite of the suitability of this resource as a useful tool on the basis of which to pursue study of a given period, there is very little systematic research regarding stone raw materials from the Late Iron Age, in contrast with the secondary literature on earlier periods of prehistory. These materials are mentioned only inconsistently in the scholarship, and the geological terms, definitions, and analyses are missing from these discussions. The general image we can outline concerning the secondary literature is mosaic-like, and this reflects the lack of research.

The most important figures in the history of the Carpathian Basin in the Late Iron Age were the Celts. Their arrival and presence in the area can be reconstructed in comparative detail on the basis of historical sources and archaeological evidence. Regarding the latter, attention should be drawn to the several waves of western immigration which began in 450 BC and to the changing settlement areas of the different periods.1 Furthermore, the remarkable changes observed from the third century BC should be mentioned, which are associated with the formation of many larger and more structured settlements and with the more intensive utilization of natural resources. This process is well documented in the Western Celtic territories and especially in Czech lands and Moravia,2 further important study has been published from the Scordiscan region,3 but it cannot yet be outlined in the whole Eastern Celtic area. Similarly, the development of the next economic-technological stage, the establishment of the oppida (fortified Iron Age settlements representing the pre-industrial level), is not common here, and these settlements existed much shorter period in the region east from the Danube than in the west.

Taking into account the archaeological-historical circumstances, we would list the most important available data about the use of the raw materials needed for stone tools. Despite the obvious difficulties and the lack of data, due the increasingly intense archaeometric research which has been underway over the course of the past few decades, certain raw material sites and the networks in which they were involved are slowly being outlined, as are their positions in the regional resource supply chains.

Stone Tools

Although various stone tools were often found in the archaeological material of Celtic settlements, they were only rarely studied in detail, with clear discussions of their geological provenance. Two main tool categories should be given primary consideration in the research: the sharpening stones and the grinding/mill stones. For these different functions, stones with different characteristics were needed, as the first tool was used for sharpening metals, while the second was mainly used for grinding grain. While in the first case stones which contained quartz (e.g. sandstone) are especially favorable, hard rock types (e.g. extrusive igneous volcanic rocks: andesite, dacite, etc.) are suitable for grinding.


1. Sharpening stones

Most of the known sharpening stones were discovered used and fragmented, buried in buildings within settlement areas. In the Eastern Celtic territories, however, most of the large cemeteries also had some finds in the tombs, and sharpening stones were unearthed among the personal belongings of
the deceased.

The excavated whetstones of the Pottenbrunn cemetery (Austria, representing the Early Celtic Period) are made from flysch (sandstone; tomb no. 520, no. 1005) and quartzite originating from greywacke strata.4 According to the authors, with regards to the provenance of the raw material, the gravelly alluvia of the Traisen River should be primarily taken into account. i.e. these objects seem to be made of local secondarily deposited raw materials.

The evaluation of the material from the Celtic site at Süttő - Sáncföldek is still in progress, but based on the excavated features, it can be dated to the period between the second half of the fourth century BC and the beginning or middle of the third century BC.5 The whetstones of the site were studied by Dóra Kürthy, and most of them can be linked to the Lábatlan Sandstone Formation, located 8–10 km to the east of the Süttő plateau.

The sharpening stones from the third-century BC settlement of Sajópetri Hosszú-dűlő were mostly made of hard, fine-grained sandstone.6 The exact geographical provenance has not been identified, but there are several different types of sandstone nearby among the sedimentary rocks in the valley of the Sajó River, i.e. within a distance of 15–20 km. It also should be noted that 50–60 km away from this microregion, connected to the valley from the West are the Ózd-Pétervására Hills, which include a sandstone zone significant in the regional context.7 It would definitely be worth dedicating a more detailed geoarchaeological study to it. In the contemporary cemetery of Sajópetri–Homoki szőlőskert (grave nr. 62/136, 1 km to the south of the settlement) and in the pit 03.46A.194 of the settlement, whetstones from rhyolitic tuff were also excavated. This material originates from the east, from the Tokaj Mountains.8 Similarly to the case of the Ózd-Pétervására Hills, the distance between the Sajópetri microregion, the southern part of the Sajó Valley and this raw material source is 40–50 km.

The Celtic settlement of Nitra-Šindolka is from the same period, and it has also been thoroughly studied. The majority (13) of the 17 geologically determined sharpening stones proved to be sandstone. Their provenance is unknown.9

The whetstone found in one of the pits of the oppidum at Gellérthegy, which is from the Late Celtic period (end of the end century BC and beginning of the first), was made of a fine variant of the Hárshegy sandstone, which was identified by Péter Bohn as a type known from the Ezüst-hegy in Budakalász.10 This area can be reached along the Danube River on a 13–14 km long road, so it can be considered, from point of view of Gellérthegy, a microregional natural resource. The whetstones and polishing tools of the Bratislava-Devín oppidum were published by Karol Pieta as finds belonging to a workshop. Most of them are sandstone, but there is one tool made of rock crystal, which suggests goldsmithing.11 As a possible provenance area for rock crystals within the Carpathian Basin, we can mention the Eastern Alps, specifically the High Tauern. This hypothesis is indirectly confirmed by the rock crystals unearthed at Magdalensberg,12 and also by the Neolithic rock crystal mining site discovered at Riepenkar. Although the latter site is far from Devín, which is thought to be the western gateway to the Carpathian Basin, a number of rock crystal finds indicate the important route connecting the Riepenkar zone with the Inn and Danube valleys.13


2. Grinding stones, millstones

At the Celtic site of Süttő–Sáncföldek, we also excavated broken pieces of grinding stones deposited in a pit. Their material is andesite, and according to the research of Dóra Kürthy, they originate from the Börzsöny or the Visegrád Mountains.14 Although further geological studies are necessary to determine their provenance accurately, it is certainly noteworthy that on the western edge of the source area of the andesite, on both banks of the Danube, very important, partly contemporary Celtic sites are located. The Celtic cemetery of Szob-Kőzúzó was found at the mouth of the Ipoly River.15 The settlement presumably belonging to the cemetery16 was discovered by the riverside approximately 500 m higher. Farther, 3 km away, on Csák Hill an andesite quarry that is still in use is located. On the right side of the Danube, in Pilismarót-Basaharc, another Celtic cemetery was excavated which is also significant in the supra-regional context.17 The contemporary settlement18 was identified ca. 1–1.5 km east of the graves, on the riverbank. The best-known locality of andesite in the region is 4–5 km southeast of the Celtic sites of Pilismarót, on Szekrény Hill. For exact identification, further research is needed, but we know that the raw material of the grinding stones of Süttő originates from a distance of at least 40 km downstream.

The Late Iron Age third-century BC settlement of Sajópetri Hosszú-dűlő was excavated on an area covering more than 40,000 m2, and it provided a huge amount of stone material, including larger, mostly fragmented tool stones. The only intact grinding stone was unearthed in the votive ensemble 02.A.93. The best-preserved rotary quern fragment was in the building 03.B.32. Most of these stone tools belong to semi subterranean buildings, and they are made of porous/compact andesite. To identify the provenance area of the andesite, we took into account the probable origin of the rhyolite tuff (Mád/Tállya/Szerencs) which was also discovered in the settlement, and in 2007, we suggested that it comes from the Tokaj Mountains, which are 40–45 km away, but we did not exclude the possibility that they came from the Mátra Mountains.19

Millstone and grinding stone exploitation sites (in total exceeding an area of 10km2) were discovered at the foothills of the Mátra Mountains in the Domoszló microregion.20 At the Pipis-hegy, Középső-hegy, Hosszú-hegy, Hegyes-hegy (etc.) a unique rock type of the Nagyhársas Andesite Formation was utilized. The size and the shape of the andesite bombs and boulders made it easier to produce the tool stones.21 Based on geological analyses of excavated archaeological stone tools, the andesite from Domoszló was used as early as the Middle Bronze Age (Füzesabony culture) and until the seventeenth century (Szendrő-Vár), i.e. this raw material may have been known to the Celts as well. The most significant Celtic site in the surroundings is discussed in a 2012 monograph22 on the cemetery of the Ludas–Varjú-dűlő, 10–12 km south-southwest of the raw material extraction site. The necropolis was established in the same period as the Sajópetri site, in the third century BC, but a settlement with a similar scale has not been discovered around it yet. Before the expansion of a lignite mine, there were rescue excavations on an area of 30 hectares,23 and field surveys were done along the Bene Valley,24 In the course of both, remains of smaller farmsteads were found in the vicinity. Nothing has been published on the stone material of the excavated settlement remains in Ludas, and there were no andesite tool stones in the burial sites of the Varjú-dűlő. However, there may still have been a connection between the site and the Mátra Mountains, as the graves are oriented to the main peaks.25

Based on the above-mentioned facts, we can assume that in the Late Iron Age, andesite was in use in the Börzsöny/Visegrád Mountains, the Tokaj Mountains, and the Mátra Mountains. In addition, previous studies suggest that the extraction of andesite in northern Hungary began in the Cserhát Mountain range relatively early, as the basaltic andesite millstones of the Sarmatian settlement of Üllő (third and fourth centuries AD) suggest.26

Péter Bohn examined two millstones from the Late Celtic oppidum at Budapest-Gellérthegy.27 He identified the provenance area as laying either in the Börzsöny Mountains or the Visegrád Mountains, but no further research was conducted. In this case, assuming waterborne transport, we can calculate a distance of 50–60 km. Other oppida on the banks of the Danube (Devín and Bratislava) draw attention to a different important raw material source, namely the basalt of Pauliberg at Oberpullendorf (Austria).28 During the Late Celtic period, this basalt was transported not only to the Danube Valley but also to areas lying more to the north, to the Moravian territories.29

The millstone found in a subterranean building at the excavation site of the fortified settlement of Nitriansky Hrádok belongs to the same period, and it is also made of andesite.30 Although in the Northern Carpathians (e.g. Liptovská Mara), earlier Tatra granite and rhyolite were also used for stone tools, a remarkable quarry and production area for andesite grinding stones with semi-finished and waste products is known from Rakša, where there is a Late Celtic settlement nearby.31 The site is located far from Nitriansky Hrádok (130 km), but probably most of the route (85–90 km) could have been made on the River Nitra.

One can also mention several relevant studies done outside the Carpathian Basin, in neighboring territories, such as northern Italy and Bohemia. The fourth-century and third-century BC grinding stones from the material of Monte Bibele originate from the volcanits located around Orvieto, which was at least 300 km away from the site across the Apennines and much farther if using sea lanes.32 The era of the oppida is represented in Bohemia by specialized centers like Lovosice and the Kunětická Mountains. They supplied the entire northern part of the region and often even more distant areas with their products.33

Concluding Remarks

We examined three regions from the period of the Celtic expansion to the Carpathian Basin: the Traisental; the section of the Danube between Devín and Budapest; and the border zone of the Hungarian Plain and the mountains in northern Hungary, the region from the Mátraalja to the Tokaj Mountains. In the Pottenbrunn, Süttő, and Sajópetri microregions, the evidence suggests that the sandstone for sharpening stones was supplied mostly from local/microregional sources of raw materials. Nevertheless, in the case of Sajópetri, we should bear in mind the use of two different regional sources for raw materials, the Pétervására Hills for sandstone and the Tokaj Mountains for rhyolites. Based on the available data, in the oppidum at Budapest-Gellérthegy, we can observe the use of microregional sandstone raw materials, while the rock crystal artefacts in the Devín oppidum indicate an economic background that made it possible to procure special raw materials for these urban settlements.

The distribution of grinding stones suggests a regional network system. Andesite, the most commonly identified raw material in our region, is clearly linked to its geographical source sites within the Börzsöny/Visegrád Mountains and the Tokaj Mountains, and in the more distant Mátra Mountains we can even determine a very significant extraction site for it (the Domoszló region). The number of grinding stones from the fourth and third centuries BC with known provenance is still small, but in the case of Süttő and Sajópetri, we see that these heavy tools were transported over a relatively long distance.

The exploitation of andesite from the Börzsöny/Visegrád Mountains did not stop during the period of oppida, as the findings at Budapest-Gellérthegy suggest, although this cannot be confirmed by a contemporary settlement discovered on the Danube Bend. We do not even have indirect data on the utilization of the andesite of the Domoszló region and Tokaj Mountains from this period, but we know of a mining site in the northern Carpathians (Rakša). The tools of several Late Celtic settlements in Moravia and millstones from the oppidum in Devín and Bratislava were made of basalt, and in their case, provenance can be determined precisely (Oberpullendorf–Pauliberg, Austria).

The studies listed above show that, in the case of the grinding/mill stones, the quality of the raw material was of primary importance, and despite their large size and weight, they were transported over considerable distances. At the same time, this also means that high-quality raw material may have significantly increased the value of the resource supply of a given micro-region.

We have seen that it is far from impossible to identify extraction sites. Based on field experience and with the use of modern analyzes, individual types of sandstone and andesite can be distinguished from one another. From the perspective of future research, we need analyses of Late Iron Age stone materials from well-studied archaeological contexts. Such analyses may lead us to a better understanding of the late prehistoric role of this natural resource, which has been somewhat neglected in the secondary literature.



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Péterdi, Bálint, Katalin T. Bíró, Zoltán Tóth, Éva Bertalan, Zsolt Horváth, Ágnes Freiler, Zsuzsanna Beke et al. “Domoszló: őrlő- és malomkő nyersanyag-kitermelőhely és műhely a Mátrában: első régészeti elterjedés-vizsgálatok – Domoszló: grinding stone, millstone and quernstone exploitation and workshop site in the Mátra Mts: first studies on archaeological distribution.” Archeometriai Műhely 13, no. 4 (2016): 219–36.

Péterdi, Bálint, Katalin T. Bíró, and Zoltán Tóth. “Domoszló: Grinding Stone and Millstone Production Centre in Hungary: Preliminary Results.” In The Exploitation of Raw Materials in Prehistory: Sourcing, Processing and Distribution, edited by Telmo Pereira, Xavier Terradas, and Nuno Bicho, 90–97. Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017.

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Szabó, Miklós, and Károly Tankó. “La nécropole celtique à Ludas – Varjú-dűlő.” In La nécropole celtique à Ludas – Varjú-dűlő, edited by Miklós Szabó, Károly Tankó, and Zoltán Czajlik, 9–152. Budapest: l’Harmattan, 2012.

Szabó, Miklós, Károly Tankó, and Zoltán Czajlik, eds. La nécropole celtique à Ludas – Varjú-dűlő. Budapest: l’Harmattan, 2012.

Tankó, Károly. “The graves of Szob and some southern aspects of La Tène finds from northern Hungary.” In The Clash of Cultures? The Celts and the Macedonian World, edited by Mitja Guštin and Wolfgang David, 259–67. Manching: Kelten-Römer Museum, 2014.

Waldhauser, Jiři. “Keltské rotační mlýny v Čechách / Keltische Drehmühlen in Böhmen” [Celtic rotary mills in Bohemia]. Památky archeologické 72 (1981): 153–221.

Wefers, Stephanie. Latènezeitliche Mühlen aus dem Gebiet zwischen den Steinbruchrevieren Mayen und Lovosice. Monographien RGZM 95. Vulkanpark-Forschungen 9. Mainz: RGZM, 2012.

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1 Szabó, “Les Celtes orientaux.”

2 Čist’akova et al., “Craft production,” cf. Waldhauser, “Keltské rotační mlýny,” and Wefers, Latènezeitliche Mühlen.

3 Ljuština, “Rotary querns.”

4 Ramsl and Draganits, “Steinartefakte aus Pottenbrunn.”

5 Czajlik et al., “Traces of prehistoric land use,” 208.

6 Czajlik et al., “Matériel lithique,” 279.

7 Horváth et al. “The Vajdavár Hills.”

8 Czajlik and Mohai, “Pierres à aiguiser,” 240.

9 Illášová, “Steinartefakte,” 337.

10 Bohn, “Tabáni kelta leletanyag,” 243.

11 Pieta, Die keltische Besiedlung, 174–75.

12 Niedermayr, “Die Mineralvergesellschaftungen,” 55.

13 Leitner et al., “Die Ostalpen als Abbaugebiet,” 66–68.

14 Czajlik et al., “Traces of prehistoric land use,” 211.

15 Tankó, “The Graves of Szob.”

16 Dinnyés et al., Magyarország régészeti topográfiája, 324–25.

17 Jerem, “Pilismarót – Basaharc, Ungarn.”

18 Horváth et al., Magyarország régészeti topográfiája, 291.

19 Czajlik et al., “Matériel lithique,” 283.

20 Péterdi et al., “Domoszló: Grinding Stone.”

21 Péterdi et al., “Domoszló: őrlő- és malomkő.”

22 Szabó et al., La nécropole celtique.

23 Domboróczki, “Recherches archéologiques,” 168.

24 Czajlik et al., “Recherches microrégionales.”

25 Szabó and Tankó, “La nécropole celtique,” 88.

26 Péterdi et al., “Bazaltos andezit.”

27 Bohn, “Tabáni kelta leletanyag.”

28 Zirkl, “Zur Herkunft der Rohstoffe.”

29 Čižmář and Leichmann, “Pozdně laténské žernovy,” 126.

30 Pieta, Die keltische Besiedlung, 173.

31 Ibid.

32 Renzulli et al., “Provenance and trade.”

33 Čist’akova et al., “Craft production,” 234.


Figure 1. Archaeological sites from the Celtic period in the Carpathian Basin and in the Eastern Alps mentioned in the paper (black dots): a. 5th–3rd centuries BC, 1. Pottenbrunn – Steinfeld, 2. Nitra – Šindolka, 3. Süttő – Sáncföldek, 4. Szob – Kőzúzó, 5. Pilismarót – Basaharc, 6. Ludas – Varjú-dűlő, 7. Sajópetri – Hosszú-dűlő/Homoki-szőlőskert, b. 2nd–1st centuries BC, 8. Magdalensberg, 9. Bratislava – Devín, 10. Nitriansky Hrádok, 11. Liptovská Mara, 12. Budapest – Gellérthegy

Lithic raw material sources in the Carpathian Basin and in the Eastern Alps mentioned in the paper (black triangles): a. Identified, 13. Riepenkar, 14. Oberpullendorf – Pauliberg, 15. Lábatlan, 16. Rakša, 17. Budakalász – Ezüst-hegy, 18. Tatra Mountains, 19. Domoszló, 20. Tokaj Mountains, b. Assumed, 21. High Tauern, 22. Szob – Csák-hegy, 23. Pilismarót – Szekrény-hegy, 24. Ózd – Pétervására Hills.

Map edited by Zoltán Czajlik and Balázs Holl.

pdfVolume 9 Issue 1 CONTENTS

“It Is an Unpatriotic Act to Flee”: The Refugee Experience after the Treaty of Trianon. Between State Practices and Neglect*

Balázs Ablonczy
Research Centre for the Humanities
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In the wake of World War I, the collapse of the Habsburg Monarchy and creation of new political borders in accordance with the peace treaties prompted more than 400,000 people from the lost territories to seek refuge in Hungary. In this essay, I map the policies adopted by the Hungarian state in its efforts to integrate and pacify refugees, but also at times to discourage refugees from coming to Trianon Hungary. These policies were implemented with the participation of ministries, refugee organizations, large state-run enterprises, and municipal councils. I also interpret the various strategies used by individual actors in these processes. Taken together, the policies and strategies adopted by the state demonstrate the de facto prolongation of wartime administrative practices and offer examples of how the state turned against its own Christian, nationalist, and authoritarian ideology in the course of its efforts to keep prospective refugees from entering post-Trianon Hungary. How the questions raised by the refugee crises were tackled in the country was conditioned by multiple considerations and perspectives. The ambiguities of the policies that were adopted explain in part the long silence that has fallen over the issue of post–World War I refugees in Hungary.

Keywords: refugees, Trianon Peace Treaty, state administration, government, memory

The post–World War I flight of Hungarians was relatively organized and, most importantly, did not involve as much bloodshed as other exoduses during and after the war, such as the plights of the Greek-Turkish or Galician refugees. Moreover, this is an untold story in the Hungarian historiography. Recent articles by foreign scholars (especially Friederike Kind-Kovacs and Ilse Josepha Lazaroms) have drawn attention to this forgotten topic, focusing on children’s relief or on Jewish wagon dwellers in Budapest, but they have tended to focus more narrowly on particular groups.1

During the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in October and November 1918, the first wave of refugees from the borderlands reached the core territories of Hungary. This flow consisted essentially of railway workers, post officers, village and county clerks, and officers in the police forces and the gendarmerie. On October 31, Mihály Károlyi, an aristocrat, was nominated head of the government by Charles IV, the last emperor and king of the Monarchy. Károlyi would be the first prime minister of the newly formed Hungarian People’s Republic and then, from January, the first president of the same People’s Republic. His cabinet, composed of social democrats, the so-called bourgeois radicals (polgári radikálisok, a left-wing party consisting mostly of urban intellectuals), and people from the former Independence Party, had to confront the invasion of the former Hungarian territories by Serb, Czechoslovak, and Romanian troops, as well as the collapse of the public food supply, the Spanish flu, and a deepening political crisis inside the country. Károlyi’s government had not been recognized by the Allies or the Paris Peace Conference, and his main activity in foreign affairs was limited essentially to making repeated protests concerning the advancement of foreign troops on Hungarian soil to the head of the Allied military mission in Budapest, Lieutenant-Colonel Fernand Vix, whose so-called second note (March 20, 1919) led to the demission of Mihály Károlyi as President of the People’s Republic, which was followed by the communist takeover on March 21, 1919 and the proclamation of a Republic of Councils, which fell due to Romanian military intervention on August 1. That moment, followed then by the election of Miklós Horthy as Regent of Hungary on March 1, 1920, can be regarded as the beginning of the counterrevolutionary period, and it constituted a crucial shift in the handling the issue of refugees.2

This was an issue, however, which was relatively underrepresented in the Hungarian public sphere. Although the Hungarian press reported on it extensively in the first half of 1920s, the topic was barely taken up in political debate. The social side of the question was peddled by the opposition parties (social democrats, liberals, and the radical right), who wanted to demonstrate the government’s incompetence in the matter.

Similarly there were no movies, plays, or novels of any remarkable success about the refugee issue, or at least there were no works which have since become part of canonized national culture. After 1945, for reasons quite different from the ones in the earlier period, this topic was not among the preferred themes of the state’s memory regime. After 1956, for the Kádár regime, which was constructing its own legitimacy on anti-nationalist foundations, such a topic would have presumably been awkward, although the experience of flight appeared in some memoirs. There have been only a few attempts to explain the silence of the interwar period. While alongside its anti-communist and, at times, pronounced anti-Semitic stances the demand for the revision of the territorial boundaries of the Paris Treaties was one of the pillars of the Horthy era in Hungary (1920–1944), the regime did not wish to exploit the potential of the trope of flight, despite the uses it might have had in state propaganda. This paper discusses the possible reasons for this. Historians have not addressed the issue in depth. There is only one monographic study on the refugees in Hungary after the Treaty of Trianon. István I. Mocsy, an author who lives in the USA, attempted to present the issue on the basis of published materials. His location conditioned the type of sources on which he could draw.3

In this study, I analyze the reactions of Hungarian state organs (including the state railway), explore the motives behind their actions, and discuss images of refugees and the strategies which were developed by the community of refugees to promote their interests. First, I briefly present state policies and features of the social profile of wagon dwellers and of those who were repatriated. I do not interrogate sources to determine the reasons behind people’s decisions to flee. I inquire, rather, into the relationship between the circumstances of integration and dissipation of refugees into Hungarian society despite state policies that neither were effective nor were products of measured reflection and the erasure and transformation of the memory of refugees.

Numbers of Refugees in Hungary and Their Places of Origin

The immediate prelude to the flight between 1918 and 1924 and the test of the Hungarian refugee policy was the large-scale movement from the eastern and southern border areas of Transylvania, which was triggered by the Romanian invasion in August 1916. More than 200,000 people fled to interior areas of Hungary, and since the Hungarian public administration could not stand the pressure, refugees appeared in Transdanubia as well.4 This shaped the ways in which authorities treated similar crisis situations, such as aid, child protection, and refugee reception centers (for instance, Hajdú County, the capital of which is the city of Debrecen, was designated for refugees coming from Csík County, today Ciuc County in Romania, and in particular the capital of the county, Csíkszereda, today Miercurea Ciuc).5


Table 1. Refugees arriving in Hungary from different countries, 1918–1924 (based on data from the National Office for Refugees)


The repatriation of Transylvanian refugees had hardly been completed when, in autumn 1918, large waves of refugees poured into the interior areas from all occupied territories, not only from Transylvania. Initially, the movement was spontaneous, but it was subsequently replaced with a practice of expulsion on behalf of citizens of the successor states. To the extent that the military activities and the blockade permitted, the stream of refugees continued during the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Despite research efforts, we have only scattered information about the institutional framework of refugee policy between March 1919 and August 1919. According to the National Office for Refugees, which was set up in 1920, by 1924 roughly 350,000 people had fled to Hungary due to the change of borders. (However, this figure is a suspiciously round number, and it is likely that it is not precise.) The author of the monographic study that addressed the issue, Istvan Mocsy, estimated a much larger number in 1983. He talked estimated that there were between 420,000 and 425,000 refugees.6 According to official statistics, of the 350,000 refugees, 104,000 had had some form of employment (some 20,000 had been civil servants and 20,000 had been railway employees). Regarding this group, we need to correct two widespread beliefs which are based on stereotypes. First, most refugees did not depend on the state for employment, even if the proportion of civil servants was much larger among refugees than it was in the general population of the country. Second, we do not know the proportion of those who were expelled from the new states by the new authorities, nor do we know how many relocated because their professional positions made it practical to do so and how many simply chose to leave.7 In order to answer these questions, one would need a comparative study of citizenship policies in the surrounding states. For the moment, no such study has been done.8

The Policies of the Hungarian State

The activities of the Hungarian state related to the reception of refugees were ambiguous, to say the least. The first refugees in October-November 1918 were chiefly Hungarian State Railway employees and, to some extent, postal services employees who had left Croatia, Bosnia, or Fiume because of the advances of the Serbian and French army, uncertainty caused by revolutionary and national movements, or simply straightforward looting. In 1910, the Hungarian State Railways and other railway companies had nearly 110,000 employees.9 The relationship between railways and nation building deserves a separate study, but the Hungarian State Railway was definitely one of the symbols of Hungarian state authority in the areas where non-Hungarian ethnic groups dominated. From the last days of October 1918, Hungarian railway employees arrived by the dozens and, then, by the hundreds to cities close to the southern borders of post-Trianon Hungary, such as Gyékényes, Nagykanizsa, Csurgó, Murakeresztúr, Barcs, Pécs, and Szeged.10 The directorate of the State Railway in Budapest experimented with local solutions and ordered station managements to find employment for the people who were arriving. However, it soon became apparent that local station managers were unable to do this even at the largest junctures. There were simply not enough posts. At first, railways, just like other state-owned companies and state organs, encouraged their employees to hold out and allowed them to swear allegiance to the new states. Then, it allowed them to leave, only later to reverse the policy and subsequently, encourage employees to stay at their posts until the spring of 1919.11 Contradictory orders frequently figured as explanations in applications submitted by railway employees for compensation after 1919. One applicant, for instance, made the following complaint:


It is natural that, as in all things, the railway institution is the last to help its robbed emigre employees. While superiors, such as leisurely sheriffs and public notaries who grew fat during the war, do not fail to receive aid on time, it is odd that while we had little joy in the war and our supplies (compared to civil servants) were insufficient beyond measure, … we are the ones who are at the end of the list in receiving aid. […] Considering that our Directorate and Management ordered us to stay at our posts and thus, partially, caused our misery, we now ask the Directorate to differentiate us from those who were more fortunate and left with their belongings.12


The quote points to a certain competition among branches. The case of railway employees was dealt with at the company level. Initially, the Railway Syndicate was the authority responsible for refugee issues at the largest state owned company, and beginning at the end of 1919, the “Central Authority for Issues of Hungarian State Railway Refugees” played this role. Refugees could receive a few hundred Korona cash aid and possibly be sent to a new work station, but many of them would be reassigned to stations which were now on “the other side of the border,” such as Kolozsvár (Cluj in Romania), Szabadka (Subotica in Serbia), or Nagyvárad (Oradea in Romania), within weeks or months, which meant that they had to leave again. In late 1918, the management of the Hungarian State Railways began to assess which of their employees would remain employed in the new states. It is somewhat surprising that, despite chaotic conditions, among the declarations that were sent to Budapest about the willingness to be employed in those weeks we find documents written in both Croatian and Hungarian, and the names, which were from several different languages, were written in a diverse variety of ways. This indicates that the decision to stay or leave was not necessarily a question of ethnicity or national identity, at least not in the first period of state succession.13

At the ministry level, the Ministry of Interior appointed Pál Hegymegi Kiss, who would become a noted politician of the opposition in the interwar period, as Commissioner responsible for arranging accommodation for sheriffs and notaries, and he was also given responsibility for school teachers and the staffs of museums. While leaders at the university in Kolozsvár (Cluj) and Pozsony (Bratislava) decided to stay, professors and students of the forestry and mining college at Selmecbánya (Banska Stiavnica, in present-day Slovakia) left for Budapest and, subsequently, for Sopron.14 Crossing the mountain pass in winter and the act of leaving presented as something resembling an expedition from a periphery to the interior became part of the legendry of the institution, which still exists. However, the migration of the college was also the end of a prolonged debate in Hungarian educational policy, so professors arriving in Sopron received extra benefits that other fugitive civil servants did not have access to. This situation led to tensions and competition for the title of victim.15

Refugees kept continued arriving during the period of the Soviet Republic of Hungary, which lasted from March until August 1, 1919. Pauses due to military activity and border blockades were temporary. After the fall of the communist experiment, the new anti-revolutionary administration created the Transylvanian Department of the Office of Preparation for Peace Treaty Negotiations, which was explicitly tasked with providing aid for refugees from Transylvania. There were civilian organizations that tried to cover other regions (the Szepesi Szövetség or “Szepes Alliance,” the Területvédő Liga or “Territorial Defense League,” the Felvidéki Liga or “Upper Country League,” and the Délvidéki Liga or “Southern Country League”). In April 1920, i.e. relatively late, the government finally set up the National Office for Refugees (Országos Menekültügyi Hivatal – OMH) and the National Council of Refugee Issues, which was its advisory and supervisory body. The head of the council was István Bethlen, who would later become prime minister and who was among the most influential politicians in Hungary in the interwar period, while the head of the office was a refugee aristocrat and former prefect, Emil Petrichevich-Horváth (1881–1945). Transylvanians had a marked presence throughout the lifetime of these institutions. Initially, the office worked within the framework of the Office for Preparation for Peace Treaty Negotiations, but shortly became directly subordinated to the Office of the Prime Minister. Beginning in 1922, it was part of the Ministry for Labor and Welfare, and the head of the office was a state secretary until the institution was closed in 1924.

The papers of the office are lost, probably destroyed by fire during the battle of Budapest in 1944–45. Since then, scholarship on refugees has relied chiefly on a single source, the office’s own official record. However, these data should be treated with caution.16 OMH dealt with a range of issues, in addition to providing direct aid (clothes, cash, and coal) for refugees. It ran soup kitchens, organized re-training courses, provided legal counselling services, coordinated construction projects, and organized recreational holidays for children. It also established check points check newly arriving migrants, especially at the more important railway junctures which were also border stations.17 The explanation for this lay in the fact that, after the Treaty of Trianon had been signed on June 4, 1920, the Hungarian state faced the reality that the rate of immigration (290,000 refugees by the end of 1920) could not be sustained. In September 1920, Bethlen was very firmly in favor of stopping the flow, that is, immigration. In his view, 70 percent of the 300–500 refugees who were arriving daily were not really refugees, but people opting for citizenship, which they would only be able to do after the treaty had been ratified, which did not take place until November 1920. Bethlen felt that the attempt by these refugees to resettle in Hungary for reasons of personal economic interest “fundamentally threatened Hungarian national interests,” because it lessened the proportion of Hungarians in the lost territories, which would have been the basis for revision of the treaty). As Bethlen wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Pál Teleki in September 1920,


the majority of the émigrés do not have sufficient reason to emigrate and do so in hope of finding easy employment […] This way, in Transylvania and in the southern areas, houses which had been inhabited by Hungarians become empty, the number of Hungarians living in the cities is shrinking, and they are being replaced by a wave of foreign elements. Leaving this process without intervention would be a threat to the nation.18


In October 1920, Teleki adopted Bethlen’s point of view (they were distantly related and both had family roots and lands in Transylvania) and ordered outposts to be set up to control and limit immigration. Teleki voiced his opinion publicly and used wording that was almost identical to Bethlen’s. In addition to the idea of a “threat to the nation” and the urban dimensions of flight (i.e. the Hungarian population decreasing in towns and cities), he also mentioned the crisis of housing and damage to private property:


The rapid increase of the number of refugee officers fleeing from occupied territories is a national threat. We cannot push citizens out of their homes to provide housing for refugees. Doing so would be close to Bolshevism. […] It is an unpatriotic act to flee if they not forced to leave but only do so because they have sold their property in Sokols, Lei, or Dinar and they even pay to be expelled.19


His words caused considerable uproar in some groups of refugee officials and on the political far right,20 though they also caused echoes in other circles. The owner of a house expressed his anger with a refugee magistrate from Arad (Arad, Romania) when the refugee was allotted a portion of the property:


on seeing the order, he loudly protested against letting the property pass and stated that he didn’t build a villa for refugees to live in it! We should have stayed where we were, did we think that ham grows by the side of the road in Budapest? We are worse than the communists were, since they spared his villa, but we take it by force.21


The government did not think legal regulation was sufficient to tackle immigration, and it occasionally set up a border blockade (for example during the summer and early autumn of 1921). In such periods, no refugees were received mainly out of concern for the number of railway wagons needed during harvest. The government was firmly convinced that wagons that would have been used to transport and, perhaps, accommodate refugees were essential for the success of the operations related to harvest. In 1921, because of these policies, the number of migrants fell to one fifth of what it had been in 1920, and the total number in 1922 was 80 percent of the figure of 1921. In 1923, 9,043 people immigrated (or fled) to Hungary, while in 1924 this number had dropped to under 1,000.22 We do not have detailed statistics about their geographical location, such as place of departure and place of arrival. A recently released database about more than 15,000 refugees from the period (www.trianon100.hu/menekultek) shows an overrepresentation of urban migrants (coming from an urban milieu in the territories annexed by the successor states and arriving to cities, in particular Budapest, in postwar Hungary. However, this database is quite fragmented, and some groups (such as railway workers) may be overrepresented, so the results should be treated with caution. The reluctance of the government to accept all expellees, returnees, or “person moving in” (the Hungarian term used at the time was beköltöző ) was probably motivated by fear of a “third wave” of revolutions led by distressed middle-class refugees whose loss of prestige and search for proper lodging would lead to clashes with the authorities at the beginning of the 1920s.23

Wagons and Barracks

The government constantly feared that refugees would become a source of social unrest and that this group, which for the most part had belonged to the middle class in the pre-war societies in which they had lived, would become the engine of a new wave of revolution. It is clear from statistics that the authorities did their best to keep the most visible elements, those who lived in wagons, away from the capital, which had already borne witness to several revolutions, occupation by a foreign army, and other traumatic upheavals in 1918–1919. Although these people and the conditions in which they lived became symbols for the suffering of post-Trianon Hungary, hardly more than 12–14 percent of them lived in wagons for extended periods of time. It can also be established that a maximum of 20,000 people lived in railway cars parked at railway junctures or side tracks at any one point of time. A family was usually allotted two wagons. They kept their furniture in one of them and lived in the other one. These wagons were not suitable for extended habitation (for instance, they could not be properly heated), and hygienic conditions became unbearable around them, as there was no running water and some of the families had domestic animals. Diseases and epidemics soon broke out, and there were many accidents. The latter chiefly affected children who played around the railway lines. Statistics allow us to track the efforts of the government to distribute wagon dwellers throughout the country and limit their numbers in the capital. In early 1921, county prefects along the borders complained in vain, asking the government to find places somewhere else for the refugees.24 When statistical records began to be kept in October 1920, there were a recorded 1,540 wagons in Budapest with 3,840 people living in them, while outside the capital there were 4,137 wagons with 16,500 inhabitants. Subsequently, in Budapest, the number of wagon dwellers quickly declined until the spring of 1921, but this number began to grow again, reaching a peak in September 1921. In the second wave, the number of wagon dwellers dropped below 1,000 in September 1922, and a year later, there were less than 300 people living in such conditions. Newspapers in the capital triumphantly reported that there were no more wagon dwellers.25



Table 2. Changes in the number of wagon dwellers in Budapest and in the countryside


The decline in these figures was much slower outside the capital. There were several examples when railway stations in villages (for example Mórágy, Almásfüzitő, and Kecel) also received wagons with refugee families living in them.26 This way, however, the sight of refugees became more familiar to people across the country, and the unpleasant conditions in which they lived served as a poignant illustration of the consequences of the Treaty of Trianon even in small communities. While wagon dwellers became symbols of the misery of the country and the tragedy of the Treaty of Trianon, newspapers hardly mentioned them after 1924–1925. Although in the mid-1920s, papers reported several times that “the last wagon dweller” had moved into proper housing, there nonetheless remained refuges who continued to live in wagons, temporary shelters and barracks. The wagon dwellers’ suffering became part of a narrative of suffering which followed the pattern of the Stations of the Cross and drew a parallel between the Crucifixion of Jesus and the fate of Hungary. It is a telling detail that the Jewish press in Hungary partially endorsed this view. At the same time, the papers hardly mentioned the multitudes of Jewish refugees.27

Though wagon dwellers hardly made up one-seventh of all refugees, initially they were the subject of disproportionate attention (though interest in their plight had completely dwindled by 1924). Those that lived in barracks, former army hospital buildings, and schools dramatically outnumbered the wagon dwellers, but they did not become symbols of the postwar fate of the country to the same extent. This overrepresentation of the wagon dwellers in the imagery concerning the refugees could be explained by the fact that their conditions provided an apt and pithy image of the decline of the middle classes after the war, and the wagon itself became a symbol.28

Although the government and local authorities tried to facilitate the settlement of refugees with programs for small flat construction and by creating residential colonies, if one considers the number of flats completed in the first half of the 1920s, this intervention was hardly efficient or sufficient.29 More research is needed to determine how Hungarian society absorbed more than 100,000 refugees (or 400,000 if we include family members) who were mostly from middle class backgrounds and who had relatively high expectations when it came to living standards and material conditions. (There are countless examples of middle class refugees refusing to accept one-room apartments offered to them by municipalities, as they contended that these dwellings were of a “proletarian type.”30) Based on randomized analysis of data, by the 1930s, the number of refugees sharply dropped in the barracks that had been built for them, and they were replaced by the urban poor.31 One possible explanation for this is that refugees might have built houses drawing on their own resources. One such example is the St. Emeric Suburb (Szent Imre Kertváros), which lay beyond the boundaries of Budapest at the time. The community, which consisted primarly of former civil servants, struggled for ten years for the right to move to their new homes. The cross erected in the central square, which was named Hargita (a mountain range in Transylvania and also the name of a county in Transylvania), reminded the 280 owners of the Treaty of Trianon, as did the street names, decorations, and the designs of some of the houses.32


Apart from futile initiatives, such as the launching of the so-called Székely National Party in 1920–21, the refugees did not appear as political force. After June 1921, the Bethlen government banned associations which openly irredentist views, such as defense leagues and relocated/expelled municipal authorities formed in Hungary (menekült törvényhatóságok) and associations that formed on a territorial basis and had territorial revision in their articles of association.33 These measures created a serious limitation to ability of refugees to give expression to their interests through civil bodies. A centralized institutional setting funded Hungarian associations across the border in a covert way, but until the formation of Revíziós Liga (League for Revision) in 1927, only those organizations were allowed to exist that organized activities that did not go beyond reminding members of their common cultural heritage. Yet, the orientation of these organizations was not in doubt: the organizations that operated in areas that were outside of the territories reannexed between 1938–41 quickly dissolved. The remainder of the associations functioned under close government control: the papers of the Prime Minister’s Office (Department of Nationalities and Minorities) and those of the Ministry of Home Affairs offer proof of the strict surveillance under which the activities of every refugee organization were kept. The first exercised its influence by granting or retaining subsidies, while the latter used the means of legal controls.

Being a refugee had importance in individual career paths. Almanacs kept by the Parliament of the time clearly illustrate that having come from one of the lost territories, having suffered the experience of flight, or having played an active role in an irredentist organization were assets in politics. These experiences complemented the “Good Hungarian, Good Patriot” image even in cases of politicians who had little to do with Transylvania. They did not however, become a basis of group formation.

Some refugee communities developed strategies with which to address the new circumstances. The migrants from Szepesség/Zips/Spiš often had German origins, and they used their associations as a kind of network of pressure/interest groups targeting pensions, jobs, and benefits. The pattern of migration among intellectuals of the Szepes region, which had been a palpable tendency since the nineteenth century, remained an observable trend, as did attachment to ethno-regional identities and the maintenance of ties to the homeland. These ties were nurtured through organized tours, regular exchange of information, and organized holidays for children.34 The associations around the much larger group of people who had left eastern Transylvania and especially the Association of Székely University and College Students (SZEFHE) and the network of associations around it had a different strategy. They did not build a network of influence. Instead, they sought to act in a Messianic way and integrate elements of Székely cultural heritage (military borderland identity, free peasant community, mythical Hun origins) into the national canon in order to transform Hungarian society, regardless of whether change came from radical Left or radical Right. One of the central figures put their mission in the following way: “I absolutely believe in Transylvania. I believe that all light, health, talent, good, beauty, and moral power comes from there. If Hungarians can still be saved, this can only be done via Transylvania.”35 This presence proved so powerful that it survived decades of state socialism. The revival in the post-1990 era of the Székely Anthem and a runic script allegedly used well before Hungarians adopted the Latin alphabet is partially a sign of the success of their and their successors’ efforts.36 The Zipser and the Székely refugee community had pronounced contours and defined itself vis-à-vis the state. While the first wished to use state infrastructure to promote their individual and group level goals and to protect cultural heritage, the second wished to integrate this heritage into the national canon.

Between 1918 and 1924, alongside people and artifacts, institutions were also relocated to a new country. Professors and students at the university of Kolozsvár (Cluj) and Pozsony (Bratislava) came to Budapest and, subsequently, to Szeged and Pécs, where their successors operate to this day. The Forestry and Mining College found its new home in Sopron, and the law schools of Máramarossziget and Eperjes also moved to Hungary. Although these individual histories are well explored, the question of institutional level flight has hardly been made the subject of study, and the comparative studies of policies towards universities are not complete in their scope or framework.37 From the perspective of the broader context, it is worth noting that the leadership of the universities initially adopted a strict legalistic point of view at the time of the political changeover and tried to continue working at their locations until they were forced to leave in 1919. Some of the institutions and the more specialized training institution in Selmecbánya found their place, since the development of universities was a matter of state policy in the 1920s. Institutions that did not fit the prevailing concept, however, barely survived or lost state subsidies and had to close down. I am thinking, for instance, of law schools whose curricula did not harmonize with the state’s concept of development.

Images and Imagination

If we look at remembrance of flight and repatriation, we find a picture that is more complex than the picture of victimhood. It is useful to consider memoirs written between the second half of 1920s and the 1980s about experiences of flight between 1918 and 1924.38 I considered it important, from a methodological point of view, to use memoirs that form a control group. I identified three memoir writers who hesitated and eventually chose remain in the lands of their birth. Their motivations are at least as telling about the circumstances of repatriation as the writings of those who left.

The individuals who decided to stay did not adopt a heroic pose (“loyalty to Transylvania”) when making this decision. Their motivations were fear of material uncertainty, a rejection or fear of the ideology of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, or fear of the so-called white terror. The feature that the writings of those who left and those that stayed have in common is strong referentiality. None of them used arguments that stand on their own. Arguments that might well be accepted as reasonable explanations for the decision to leave would include fear for one’s life or the desire not to become part of a national minority living in a new nation state. Instead, the memoir writers made references to more specific details of their individual circumstances. For instance, they would mention the advice given by a pastor, or they would mention the desire to free themselves from someone they despised. They also mentioned having lost their jobs or having been betrayed by (Hungarian) colleagues. In some cases, such as that of László Ravasz (a Calvinist preacher who was born in Transylvania and who emerged as a prominent representative of the Calvinist Church in the interwar period), there was even reference to a divine order. It is even more puzzling that the use of references to external persons or circumstances is independent of political regimes. It is just as typical of memoirs produced in the 1930s as it is of those written after 1947–48, i.e. in communist Hungary. The memoirs suggest that their authors felt the reasons for the decision to leave were not self-evident or understandable in the eyes of others. There was a need for one more explanation in the argument. The other feature that stands out is that those who went to Hungary adjusted to an expected mode of speaking. Memoir authors whose writings did not fit the prevailing ideological currents stayed and died outside of post-Trianon Hungary. One could mention Farkas Gyalui, the director of the library in Kolozsvár, who felt like vomiting when he thought of Mihály Károlyi, the communists, the anti-Semitism of the post-1920 regime, and the people he regarded “Hungarians in word only,” i.e. those who had left the land of their birth and resettled in Trianon Hungary.39

The images of refugees in works of literature are no less loaded. No great novels were written about the plights of the refugees, and refugees often did not recognize themselves in the works that were produced. Zoltán Szitnyai (1893–1978) was a journalist and a writer whose novels were frequently published in the interwar period. Since he was born in Selmecbánya/Banska Stiavnica, his works often revolved around the city and the people who left for Trianon Hungary. In his novel Hodinai Hodinák (“Árpád from Hodina,” 1936), some of the expelled Hungarians living in Budapest drew up lists of alleged traitors, in their eyes, those who remained and continued to maintain the pre-war patriarchal world. They were more like merry tourists: their behavior did not reflect any suffering or pain. Szitnyai used the same framework in his work about the association of refugees that was published in Kassa (Kosice) in the early 1930s (Szeptemberi majális or “May Day in September”). The author/observer was critical of the loftiness and emptiness of the leaders and members of the association and the fawning attitudes that they exhibited on the tenth anniversary of the founding of the association. They were looking forward to seeing a minister who had been sent to see them, and they all hoped that their requests would enjoy the support of the influential politician. Lajos Zilahy (1891–1974) was one of the best-selling authors of interwar Hungary. His novel Földönfutó város (“Beggar Town”), which was published in 1939, was not one of his major successes. It builds on experience he gained during his work as a journalist, and it offers a (man’s perception of a) female perspective on the society of refugees. It is the story of a family falling apart. Following the death of her husband, the widow decides to repatriate and become a wagon dweller. Although the novel has a surprisingly tolerant tone (it does not contain anti-Semitic formulas and it addresses taboos such as homosexuality), it is not optimistic in its final judgement: emigration, moral degradation, and human pettiness and the ill-will of refugee society provide an allegorical framework for the fate of the family. The mother saves her new love from the police, but her children leave her, and it seems unlikely that her new relationship will last.

Addressing the plights of refugees in the tradition crafted by memoirs and literary works was burdensome, and this may explain why their stories remain largely untold in Hungary. Under pressure from official and public discourse, these narratives were distorted and used to legitimize flight. The fact that these stories have gone untold has constituted a barrier to the memory of the community, and it has prevented this memory from being integrated into the larger national narrative of victimhood.


One can speak of the refugee policy of the Hungarian state in its true sense from the end of 1919, when the state set up certain institutions to manage the flow of immigrants arriving in the country and initiated and coordinated welfare efforts. This approach replaced earlier approaches that were used in a time of flight in 1916. Beginning in the second half of 1920, the government focused on drastically cutting back the number of new arrivals. They were motivated by concern for public order and hypothetical revision of the peace treaty in the future, rather than by humanitarian considerations. State companies, Churches, and state institutions or local municipalities had different and inconsistent policies. The latter used the refugee issue in their battles for material resources, in fights against control from center of the state, and in internal political battles. With the closure of the National Office for Refugees, the problems faced by immigrants disappeared from public view and, except for a few marked groups (Zipsers and Székelys), refugees were not able to represent themselves in the public or political spheres. Refugees not only had to face limitations imposed on them by government policies, but also had to grapple with the obstacles which arose because of the simple fact that many people in the communities in which they sought to settle saw them as competitors for available resources, so their cause did not evolve into a national outcry. Their flight forced them to justify their decisions and redefine their identities. Although state efforts were neither satisfactory nor consistent, Hungarian society finally integrated and absorbed this predominantly middle-class crowd of refugees, but the details (the technical details and networks) of this integration should be subjected to further study. In this sense, integration was a success story, though not thanks to the state. However, in many cases, the cost of success was silence.

Archival Sources

Fővárosi Szabó Ervin Könyvtár Kézirattár [Metropolitan Ervin Szabó Library, Manuscript Department]

Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltára [National Archives of Hungary] (MNL OL)

K26 Miniszterelnökségi Levéltár [Prime Minister’s Office]

Z1610 Gazdasági Levéltár, Magyar Államvasutak Igazgatósága [Papers of

MÁV directorate]

Országos Széchényi Könyvtár Kézirattár [Manuscripts of National Széchényi Library] (OSZKK)

Quart Hung. 4313 Dezső Ottrubay Vitéz: “Visszaemlékezés az 1914–1918. világháborúra” [Remembering the World War between 1914–1918], “Háború utáni nehéz évek” [Hard years after the war]


Ablonczy, Balázs. “ ‘Lesz még kikelet a Szepesség felett’: Kormányzati befolyás és a menekült hálózatok társadalma a két világháború közötti Magyarországon” [The sun will rise over Zips: Governmental influence and the society of the refugee network in interwar Hungary]. In Nyombiztosítás: Letűnt magyarok [Evidence collection: Vanishing Hungarians], 122–58. Bratislava: Kalligram, 2011.

Ablonczy, Balázs. “Menni vagy maradni? Az 1918 utáni távozás és a helyben maradás motívumai az emlékiratokban” [Stay or go? Motives for leaving or staying in 1918 in memoirs]. Pro Minoritate (Winter 2018): 77–99.

Ablonczy, Balázs. “Székely identitásépítés Magyarországon a két világháború között” [Székely identity construction in Hungary in the interwar period]. In Székelyföld és a Nagy Háború: Tanulmánykötet az első világháború centenáriuma alkalmából [Székely Land and the Great War: A collection of studies for the centenary of World War I], edited by Zsolt Orbán, 467–85. Csíkszereda, 2018.

Cserháti, Katalin. “Az első világháború utóhatása a MÁV hivatalnokrétegére 1918 és 1922 között” [Impact of World War I on clerks of Hungarian State Railway 1918–1922]. In Trauma és válság a századfordulón [Trauma and crisis at the turn of the century], edited by Béla Bartók. Eger, 2015. https://uni-eszterhazy.hu/public/uploads/cserhati-katalin-az-elso-vilaghaboru-utohatasa-a-mav-hivatalnok-retegere-1918-es-1922-kozott_56a7291225a61.pdf. (Last accessed on July 29, 2019.)

Dékány, István. Trianoni árvák [Trianon’s Orphans]. Budapest: Noran Libro, 2018.

Gyalui, Farkas. Emlékirataim 1914–1924 [My memoirs, 1914–1924]. Edited by Péter Sas. Cluj: Művelődés, 2013.

Hermann, Mihály Gusztáv, Zsolt Orbán. Csillagösvény és göröngyös út: Mítosz és történelem a székelység tudatában [Star-trail and a difficult road: Myth and history in the consciousness of the Székelys]. Cluj, 2018.

Iratok az ellenforradalom történetéhez [Papers relating to the history of the counterrevolution, Budapest, 1956]. Vol. 2, A fasiszta rendszer kiépitése és a népnyomor Magyarországon, 1921–1924 [The construction of the Fascist regime and widespread poverty in Hungary, 1921–1924]. Edited by Dezső Nemes. Budapest, 1956.

Kind-Kovács, Friederike. “The Great War, the Child’s Body and the ‘American Red Cross’.” European Review of History, 23 (2016): 33–62.

Kind-Kovács, Friederike. “Compassion for the Distant Other: Children’s Hunger and Humanitarian Relief in Budapest in the Aftermath of WWI.” In Rescuing the Vulnerable: Poverty, Welfare and Social Ties in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Europe, edited by Beate Althammer, Lutz Raphael, and Tamara Stazic-Wendt, 129–159. New York: Berghahn Books, 2016.

Kós, Károly. Erdély, Bánság, Kőrösvidék és Máramaros magyarságához! [To the Hungarians of Transylvania, Banat, Crişana, and Maramures!]. http://adatbank.transindex.ro/html/cim_pdf1374.pdf (last accessed on July 29, 2019).

Ladányi, Andor. Klebelsberg felsőoktatási politikája [Klebelsberg’s higher education policy]. Budapest: Argumentum, 2000.

Lazaroms, Ilse Josepha. “Jewish Railway Car Dwellers in Post–World War I Hungary: Citizenship and Uprootedness.” In People(s) on the Move: Refugees and Immigration Regimes in Central and Eastern Europe during the Twentieth Century, edited by Joachim von Puttkamer (forthcoming).

Matus, László. “A horvátországi vasútvonalak evakuálása 1918–1919-ben: Orning Antal állomásfőnök kálváriája” [Evacuating Croatian railway lines in 1918–1919: Calvary of Antal Orning station master]. Website of the Archives of Hungarian State Railway, https://www.mavcsoport.hu/sites/default/files/upload/page/honap_dokumentuma_mav-os_menekultek_1918-1919_0.pdf (last accessed on June 29, 2019).

Mocsy, Istvan I. The Uprooted: Hungarian Refugees and Their Impact on Hungary’s Domestic Politics, 1918–1921. War and Society in East Central Europe 12. New York: East European Monographs, 1983.

Németh, Ildikó. “A selmecbányai Bányatisztképzőből lett soproni Erdészeti és Faipari Egyetem” [The College of Mining Officers at Selmecbánya that became the University of Forestry and Timber Processing of Sopron]. Limes 17, no. 4 (2004):113–24.

Petrichevich-Horváth, Emil. Jelentés az Országos Menekültügyi Hivatal négy évi működéséről [Report on the four-year functioning of the National Office for Refugees]. Budapest: Pesti Könyvnyomda, 1924.

Romsics, Ignác. Hungary in the Twentieth Century. Budapest: Osiris–Corvina, 1999.

Szűts, István Gergely. “A szepesi menekültek sajtója 1920 és 1944 között” [The Zips County refugee press between 1920 and 1944]. Fórum 14, no. 1 (2012): 23–34.

Szűts, István Gergely. “Vasutas vagonlakók és a MÁV menekültpolitikája, 1918–1924” [Railway-employed wagon dwellers and the refugee policies of the Hungarian Railway]. Múltunk 57, no. 4 (2012): 89–112.

Teplán, István. “Szent Imre Kertváros: Egy város-antropológiai kutatás vázlata” [Saint Emeric Suburb: Draft for a research project in urban anthropology]. Tér és Társadalom 4, no. 1 (1990): 15–31.

Umbrai, Laura. A szociális kislakásépítés története Budapesten, 1870–1948 [The history of social housing projects in Budapest]. Budapest: Napvilág, 2008.

Vincze, Gábor. A száműzött egyetem [The exiled university]. Szeged: JATEPress, 2006.

Zeidler, Miklós. Ideas on Territorial Revision in Hungary 1920–1945. Boulder: Social Science Monographs; Wayne: Center for Hungarian Studies and Publications; Budapest: Institute of Habsburg History, 2007.


1* The paper is a product of the “Trianon 100” Momentum Research Grant of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

Kind-Kovács: “The Great War, the Child’s Body and the ‘American Red Cross’,” 1–2, 33–62, and “Compassion for the Distant Other,” 129–59; Lazaroms: “Jewish Railway Car Dwellers in Post–World War I Hungary.”

2 Romsics, Hungary in the Twentieth Century, 89–123.

3 Mocsy, The Uprooted: Hungarian Refugees. Recently Dékány, Trianoni árvák.

4 This figure relates to those who managed to cross Királyhágó (in Romanian: Pasul Craiului) the historical border between Transylvania and the Kingdom of Hungary. There are only estimates of the number of people who moved to new locations within Transylvania.

5 Hungarian historiography has not dealt with this aspect. There are partial results, however. The most recent include Ilona L. Juhász, “Amikor mindenki a háború igája alatt roskadoz…” Erdélyi menekültek a mai Szlovákia területén [When are all toiling under the burden of war…Transylvanian refugees in present-day Slovakia], Somorja/Samorín, 2015; József Buczkó, “Szállást adtunk hűséges magyar véreinknek”: Székely menekültek Hajdúnánáson, 1916–1918 [We provide lodging to our loyal kin], Nánási Füzetek 19, Hajdúnánás, 2011. The summary that the leading expert of the theme wrote, Csaba Csóti, “Menekülés Erdélyből 1916-ban,” Rubicon 27, no. 1 (2016): 74–81.

6 Mocsy, The Uprooted.

7 Jelentés az Országos Menekültügyi Hivatal négy évi működéséről.

8 For Romania, see e.g. Constantin Iordachi, “Állampolgárság és nemzeti identitás Romániában” [Citizenship and national identity in Romania], Regio 11, no. 3 (2000): 27–57, 40–46. Compare with Lajos Nagy, A kisebbségek alkotmányjogi helyzete Nagyromániában [The constitutional position of minorities in Greater Romania], Cluj, 1944, 76–87. For Czechoslovakia: István Gaucsík, “Állam, polgár, jog. Megközelítések Csehszlovákia állampolgársági intézményének vizsgálatához” [State, citizen, law. Approaches to studying institutions of citizenship in Czechoslovakia], unpublished manuscript, 2019.

9 Szűts, “Vasutas vagonlakók és a MÁV menekültpolitikája,” 90.

10 A case study: Matus, “A horvátországi vasútvonalak evakuálása.”

11 Cserháti, “Az első világháború utóhatása a MÁV hivatalnokrétegére.”

12 MNL OL, Z 1610, box 119, 1919/12083. sz. Letter from Károly Kürthy, refugee railway officer from Zilah (Zalau, Romania), to the central directorate of the Hungarian State Railway. Debrecen, April 15, 1919.

13 About this, see the same fond, box 120, File: Letters exchanged in 1919, passim.

14 Németh, “A Selmecbányai Bányatisztképzőből lett soproni Erdészeti és Faipari Egyetem.”

15 MNL OL, K 26, bundle 1264. 1921-XLIII. t., 10935-1920, Refugee civil servants’ petition to the Prime Minister, May 1921.

16 Petrichevich-Horváth, Jelentés az Országos Menekültügyi Hivatal négy évi működéséről.

17 Ibid.

18 MNL OL K 26, bundle 1299. XLIII. t. Letter from István Bethlen to Prime Minister Pál Teleki, Budapest, September 16, 1920

19 “A kormány a menekültek beözönlése ellen” [Government against the flow of refugees]. Pesti Napló, October 30, 1920. 1.

20 MNL OL, K 26, bundle 1299. XLIII. t.–1922, Gálocsy Árpád továbbítja a Területvédő Liga tiltakozásának jegyzőkönyvét. Budapest, 1920. november 14. At the same location: Egri menekült tisztviselők memoranduma, Eger, November 26, 1920.

21 OSZKK, Quart Hung. 4313: Dezső Ottrubay, “Visszaemlékezés az 1914–1918. világháborúra” [Remembering the World War between 1914–1918] and “Háború utáni nehéz évek” [Hard years after the war] f. 211–12.

22 Jelentés az Országos Menekültügyi Hivatal négy évi működéséről, 37.

23 See i. e. “Vagonlakók a Lipótvárosi Kaszinóban és a Demokrata Körben” [Railway car dwellers in the Lipótváros Casino and in the Democrat’s Circle]. Az Est, November 9, 1920. 3. It should be noted that these institutions were considered as the seats of leftist or liberal associations and the process of moving in was facilitated by the far-right Association of Awakening Hungarians (ÉME).

24 MNL OL K 26, bundle 1264. 1921-XLIII. t

25 For example: 8 Órai Újság, January 15, 1925. 5.

26 On this see statistics that the Hungarian State Railway prepared in July 1920: MNL OL, Z 1610, box 120. Kimutatás a vagonban lakó menekültekről, 1920. június-július.

27 Zeidler, Ideas on Territorial Revision in Hungary; Lazaroms, “Jewish Railway Car Dwellers.” I am especially grateful to the author for having shared her paper with me.

28 The wagon dwellers are “the martyrs of the homelessness” (Népszava, July 24, 1926. 9.) or the wagon became the symbol of “distress, bitterness, suffering” (Miskolczi Napló, April 6, 1920, 5.).

29 On this, see Umbrai, A szociális kislakásépítés története, 69–75.

30 A late example: Újság, September 4, 1925. 8.

31 Dr. György Szalai, Barakklakók a Horthy-korszak Budapestjén: Történetszociográfiai áttekfintés [Barrack-dwellers in Budapest during the Horthy Era. A historical-sociological account]. Budapest, 1963. Fővárosi Szabó Ervin Könyvtár Kézirattára, Bq 333/135.

32 Teplán, “Szent Imre Kertváros.”

33 Iratok az ellenforradalom történetéhez, 2:177–81.

34 See Szűts, A szepesi menekültek sajtója, and Ablonczy, “ ‘Lesz még kikelet a Szepesség felett’.”

35 György Csanády’s Papers (Budapest, private property), manuscript notes ad. 3–7. d. n. [1928]. Csanády was a radio program editor, one of the five founders of SZEFHE, and the author of the Székely Anthem.

36 On the Székelys, see Ablonczy, “Székely identitásépítés Magyarországon.” On the frameworks of Székely ideology, see Hermann, Orbán, Csillagösvény és göröngyös út.

37 Ladányi, Klebelsberg felsőoktatási politikája, 28–39. On the university in Kolozsvár, see Vincze, A száműzött egyetem.

38 See Ablonczy, “Menni vagy maradni?”

39 Gyalui, Emlékirataim 1914–1924.


pdfVolume 9 Issue 1 CONTENTS

The Flickering Lighthouse: Rethinking the British Judgement on Trianon*

Mark Cornwall
University of Southampton
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This article reassesses the official British discourse around the Treaty of Trianon between 1919 and 1921. It studies a range of colorful opinions for and against the treaty, why they emerged at particular times, and why some could prevail over others. Especially it focuses on the rationale of those British parliamentarians or officials who spoke out against Trianon as being unjust to Hungary. These leading voices had varied backgrounds and prejudices, but they all had personal knowledge of Hungary either before or after World War I. The article is divided into three time-periods, thereby highlighting the main shifts in British opinion that were often caused by geo-political changes in Hungary itself. While the key British decisions were taken in 1919 at the time of the Paris Peace Conference, the vibrant and public British debate of 1920–21 also had a long-term impact: it sustained Hungarian hopes and illusions about a future revision of Trianon and about potential British sympathy. In fact, despite the strident voices heard during the British debate, the evidence suggests that there was more agreement among the British elite than some historians have suggested. By 1921, both opponents and supporters of Trianon had reached a certain pragmatic consensus; they recognized both the faults and the fairness of the peace settlement, but most now considered there could be no return to greater Hungary.

Keywords: Trianon, Great Britain, Paris Peace Settlement, revisionism

In one of the compelling spy thrillers which the novelist Eric Ambler wrote in the late 1930s, his stateless hero, Josef Vadassy, is a Hungarian living in France whose life has been dramatically changed thanks to the Treaty of Trianon. It was typical of Ambler to bring East-Central Europe into his thrillers, portraying the region for an English readership as somewhere both exotic and dangerous, where spies competed in the ideological battle of fascism against communism. However, at the start of Epitaph for a Spy, his Magyar protagonist makes a gross error. Explaining to the French police that he is from Szabadka, he gives the date of the Treaty of Trianon not as 1920 but as 1919.1 The reason for the mistake is perhaps simple. Ambler had never been to Hungary, and for him the detail was irrelevant: it might well be jarring to a professional historian or any Hungarian reader, but few among his English audience in the 1930s would care, for “Trianon” was unknown to them. On the other hand, if we wish to be generous to Ambler, we might suggest that Vadassy’s Magyar credentials were intact when he assumed that the Treaty of Trianon was in place by 1919. Arguably, the crucial decisions about Hungary’s future borders were made in that year. What was left, in 1920, was a flood of Hungarian protests, with some outspoken British voices of support, but these voices had little effect on the signing and ratification of the peace treaty.

Since 1920, many historians have suggested that Great Britain played a key role (perhaps the most vital among the Great Powers) in drawing up the treaty which shaped Hungary’s new borders and in stabilizing interwar Hungary. In the early 1920s, there was certainly much wishful thinking on the Hungarian side about Britain’s major influence, as well as Britain’s alleged historic sympathy for the Hungarian cause. Gyula Andrássy, for example, spoke in 1921 of “how deeply disappointed he and others had been that England had deserted her old principles […] It was not the England that Hungary used to know that had made the peace.”2 This illusion of special British sentiments towards Hungary always found some echoes in London too. In one British parliamentary debate in March 1920, for example, a garrulous politician who had recently visited Budapest pressed in exaggerated language for his country to intervene and help the Magyars: “It is Britain that is serving as a lighthouse for the whole world, and if it flickers and goes out through our cowardice, half the world will sink in the storm for lack of guidance which this country alone can give.”3

Yet the extent to which Great Britain really shaped the Hungarian settlement remains debatable. Even at the time, some establishment figures could not understand why the severe Trianon Treaty emerged as it did and why it had British approval. In April 1921, the treaty was debated in the House of Lords, and Lord James Bryce commented, “No-one has carried any lamp into these dark corners in which the fate of Hungary was decided.” A few months later, Lord Sydenham agreed. The Supreme Council’s decision concerning Hungary, he said, was “one of the most extraordinary things of which I know. Someday it may be explained, and we shall know what was behind this determination, but at present it is unintelligible.”4

Over the course of the past forty years, several British and American historians have tried to answer these questions. One conclusion has been the predominant influence on the British Foreign Office of “New Europe” adherents, especially the diplomats or “expert advisers” in Paris who shared the liberal-national outlook of publicists like R. W. Seton-Watson. Seeking to carve out a territorial settlement on the basis (mainly) of national ethnicity, these advisers’ role in 1919 was crucial in fixing Hungary’s borders to the advantage of neighboring states like Czechoslovakia and Romania.5 Other historians have approached the British impact on Trianon more broadly, highlighting how and why the Anglo-Hungarian relationship dramatically improved between 1918 and 1922 as Britain aspired to the restoration of political and economic stability. According to Gábor Bátonyi, these years were a unique chapter in British interest in the region. From a position of hostility or at least passivity towards Hungary in the first half of 1919, there was then a “positive shift,” as the influence of the “New Europe” group declined and the stabilization of Budapest became London’s predominant approach. Certainly, Britain was motivated by the desire to penetrate the Carpathian Basin economically, but perhaps as important was the sense that any long-term stability needed to be based on a just or fair settlement too. To some key British observers, the evidence increasingly suggested that the settlement was neither just nor fair to Hungary.6

The following discussion, in the centenary year of Trianon, seeks to rethink this shift in British official attitudes. It is primarily a study of the conflicting British discourse about Hungary and Hungary’s borders, with a particular focus on when and why certain voices emerged and why some gained ascendency. The article is divided into three time periods of the “Trianon settlement.” It also proceeds in reverse chronological order, working from 1921 back to 1918, in order to challenge a rather well-worn historical narrative and to highlight more clearly the trajectory of opinion-formation. Through this approach to the sources, I reassess the continuities or breaks in British perceptions. I also show that the shifting Hungarian geo-political framework itself determined how British observers responded in a positive or negative fashion. Indeed, to a large extent, London was always reacting to events on the ground in the Carpathian Basin, faits accomplis which could not be controlled and were usually only of modest concern to British official interests.

A Certain Consensus

The first period to consider, as an introduction, is spring 1921. After Hungary had ratified the peace treaty in November 1920, the focus in London was on British ratification in order to finish the peace process and allow reconstruction across Central Europe. This ratification occurred on May 5, 1921. The British parliamentary debates before this in the House of Lords and the House of Commons reveal well the underlying perceptions and prejudices for and against the treaty. However, we should not simply note the individuals who took a stand as supporters or opponents of Trianon, but also consider the ways in which the ideas of both camps overlapped and converged. Ignác Romsics contends that by 1921, there was still no rapprochement between the “Foreign Office faction” and the “pro-Hungarian faction.”7 Yet as we shall see, this is only partially true. This notion, furthermore, implies a strict division in opinion when by 1921 the divide was actually rather artificial.

Certainly, there were basic disagreements in the parliamentary debates from March to May 1921, and these very much echoed the views expressed a year earlier (by many of the same speakers). On the one hand, the British Coalition government in 1921 was pressing for treaty ratification. It claimed that the terms of the treaty could not now be reopened for negotiation, as that would mean another peace conference. Instead, the famous “Millerand note” (sponsored by the British) suggested a way forward for some Hungarian border adjustments in the future.8 Fundamentally, however, speakers like Robert Cecil in the Commons and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon, in the Lords justified the dismemberment of historic Hungary as a process that was legitimate because of the ways in which the Magyar rulers had behaved before 1918. They had “grossly misgoverned the subject races.” Moreover, as Curzon put it, the Habsburg Monarchy had been “an artificial system” which had already begun to totter before 1914: the war, which Budapest had helped cause, had simply given the system its coup de grâce.9 Following this line of argument about Magyar misrule, the speakers also stressed that neither Britain nor the Paris Peace Conference had broken up Hungary. Rather, the peacemakers in 1919 had been faced with a fait accompli: at the end of the war, Hungary’s “hostile races” had taken matters into their own hands and Hungary had “fallen into its component parts.”10 Great Britain’s role, with the other Powers, had been, according to Curzon, to find a compromise when settling the borders. This had been done as far as possible according to the Wilsonian principle of self-determination. He maintained that the Magyar arguments had been given a fair hearing, and it was now time for Hungarians to put the past behind them: “the war may before long become no more than a painful dream.”11

Against this optimistic stance, the parliamentarians who spoke out against Trianon also appealed to the lessons of history and then, especially, attacked the way in which the principle of national self-determination had been adjudicated for Hungary. In both areas, however (history and self-determination), many “anti-Trianon” speakers were prepared to accept some of the government arguments: it was not a clear-cut division of views, notwithstanding the contrary contentions of later historians. Among the critics of Trianon, two main loose groups can be identified. One represented new, younger politicians of the parliamentary intake in the immediate wake of the war. A second small group of individuals stand out because of their experience of pre-1914 Europe, including having born personal witness to the relative stability of the old Habsburg Empire. Let us turn to them first.

Most notable in this regard were Lord Bryce and Lord Newton (Thomas Legh). James Bryce had visited Transylvania as early as 1866. He had met József Eötvös in Budapest, and had come to the conclusion that Hungarians were “a courteous graceful people.”12 In a speech in the House of Lords in May 1921, he disputed Magyar responsibility for the war and consistently stressed the sympathetic ties between Hungary and England, which included their alleged mutual crusade for “liberty.” Nevertheless, even Bryce was prepared to admit that “old Hungary” now had to bow before the “principle of nationality.” Indeed, when travelling in northern Hungary in 1878, he himself had seen how most of the rural population was Slovak (he described them as “a less advanced and less politically active race” than the Magyars with whom they lived together as friends).13 Forty years later, he seems to have acknowledged reluctantly that much of Slovakia wished to escape Magyar tutelage; he also conceded that the half of Transylvania with predominantly Romanian speakers might justifiably fall to Romania. What he disputed was the caricature of pre-war Hungary that had made the country seem as bad as Prussia or czarist rule in Poland. In other words, he claimed Hungary was being treated with disproportionate vindictiveness – most glaringly in the unjust way that the borders had been decided in Paris. Bryce therefore conceded the relevance of the “principle of nationality” to some extent, but he stressed that this principle had been violated, notably in the case of Bratislava (Pozsony) and the Székely communities of Transylvania.14 His parliamentary performance was noticed by Budapest, and it cemented Bryce’s reputation as a champion of the Magyars.15

Others who opposed the Treaty of Trianon were less compromising than Bryce. Lord Newton questioned whether Slovaks or Croats really wanted to leave old Hungary; he concluded that the country should be treated with “humanity and justice,” as it was “the least guilty of our ex-enemy powers.” A speedy ratification of Trianon would at least allow the resumption of correct Anglo-Hungarian relations.16 Newton’s forays on behalf of Hungary after the war were well known to the British Foreign Office, where one official thought him simply a dupe of Magyar propaganda, completely ignorant of Hungarian history and policy. But how true was this? His growing connections with Central Europe are intriguing, for alongside Bryce, he was one of Hungary’s most persistent supporters.17 Before the war, Newton had been a professional diplomat, traveling widely and acquiring his own understanding of the Habsburg “civilizing” mission in the Balkans. Apart from having seen Vienna and Budapest briefly in 1887, a visit to Bosnia three years later, mainly for trout fishing, left him singularly impressed: “I got the impression that [Bosnia] was well administered and that there was little to complain of in Austrian rule.”18

If Newton’s Habsburg links before 1914 were always tentative, by the end of the war, he was well-acquainted with several fellow-countrymen who were sympathetic to Hungary, including the future British High Commissioner Thomas Hohler, but also his own cousin, Admiral Ernest Troubridge, the British (Allied) commander on the Danube.19 Most significant was Newton’s underlying conservative stance against any radical peace settlement. He wished that the wartime belligerents had negotiated earlier for a stable peace and thereby prevented the destruction of the old order. In this regard, his scorn for Hungary’s neighbors was quite clear, mirroring perhaps his contempt for what he termed the “ill-mannered” Irish politicians, who before 1914 had constantly made trouble for Great Britain. In short, at Trianon, Magyars had been handed over “like so many animals, to alien races of an inferior civilization, in flat defiance of the sacred principle of Self-Determination.”20

Bryce and Newton viewed Trianon partly through a pre-war lens, in other words a certain nostalgia for what they had observed of the old Hungary, and this colored much of their criticism of the New Europe. However, while one historian has recently suggested that the critics’ “inveterate predilection for the old social and political order” was their sole common denominator, it was not in fact the only motivating force.21 A second group of critics was formed by some younger politicians, newly elected to the House of Commons, who had experienced the horrors of a European war first hand and did not want hostilities to break out again. For them, the troubling aspect of Trianon was not so much what was being lost (old Hungary, Anglo-Hungarian friendship), but rather the new nationalist instability which was already so evident. One speaker in the House of Commons, a former naval officer, attacked the whole “disease of nationality”; with an eye on other running nationalist sores, he claimed that little Ulsters or Alsace-Lorraines were now being created in Slovakia and Transylvania.22

Among those who attacked Trianon, a Scottish Conservative, Captain Walter Elliott, was the most vociferous of this new parliamentary intake. According to one witness, as a former wartime doctor and wounded soldier, Elliott had “a wide erudition and a fascinating capacity for conversation.” But in debate, “he was too diffuse with an argument insufficiently concentrated, often a fault in those who delight others and themselves delight in conversation.”23 Nevertheless, the new parliamentarian immediately made a stir with his oratory, and his many qualities led him to a seat in the British cabinet in the 1930s. His stance on Trianon in 1921 can be explained in a number of ways. As a maverick who tended to shirk from any party label, he felt mistrustful of the politicians who had produced the postwar chaos. He himself, with one eye on the Irish and Scottish problems, inclined towards a “national” style for British politics, where in his perception unity should predominate over fragmentation.24

He approached Hungary with the same pragmatism, and here two personal experiences of unabashed nationalism shaped his outlook. First, in the summer of 1919, he had decided to explore the territory of the fallen Habsburg Monarchy. He had motored along the Dalmatian coast (presumably encountering Italian-Croatian nationalist rivalry) and had then visited Budapest, observing the chaotic scenes there precisely in the wake of the regime of Béla Kun. While his biographer lightly dismisses these “trivial tales of excursions,”25 for Walter Elliott they were crucial in clarifying his abhorrence of the nationalist forces which, he felt, had caused the war and then decimated Hungary and the Monarchy. Secondly, this experience reinforced the views he had long held from his native Scotland. Before the war, the liberal commentator “Scotus Viator” (R. W. Seton-Watson) had proposed Scotland-in-Britain as the ideal federal model for national autonomy in Hungary.26 Elliott, though greatly loyal to Scotland, was equally averse to what he viewed as the whining criticisms of Scottish nationalists, and he drew his own lessons from that in the interwar world. In April 1921, in the parliamentary debate on Trianon Hungary, he savaged the “wicked policy of self-determination,” which had swept away a thousand-year-old entity. He then suggested a vivid comparison. If the Serb “immigrants” into southern Hungary could now leave the country and take territory with them, it would be like Belgian wartime refugees suddenly annexing the English coastal town of Bournemouth: what ingratitude that would signify to their host nation!27

Elliott took the most radical stance in this parliament, but in the long debates of 1921 there was actually some consensus that Trianon should now be ratified to achieve stability and perhaps also to further British influence in the region. The government side was conceding that the Hungarian settlement had been a most difficult subject: it was already criticizing the reparations imposed on Hungary as unrealistic and implying that small border corrections might be possible. In turn, the “anti-Trianon camp” was composed of men who professed to know about Hungary from personal experience, and they shared a common abhorrence of the nationalist New Europe which had replaced pre-war “stability.” But even here, there were some surprising concessions and some readiness to accept a break with the old Hungary. They agreed that previous Magyar rule over greater Hungary had indeed caused unrest and dissatisfaction; they also felt that it might be justifiable to implement the principle of national self-determination across the region. The big question for them was whether that principle had been carried out fairly, or whether Trianon contained fresh grievances which might be the seeds of a future European war. Behind the parliamentary vote in favor of treaty ratification on May 5, 1921, there was therefore a latent consensus that some future adjustments to Trianon could be necessary, while at the same time, the basic Hungarian settlement should be accepted.

The Debate at Its Height

The second phase to consider is from October 1919 until the signature of the Trianon Treaty in June 1920. These were critical months, when British interest in Hungary was at its height for many reasons. It was a time when, with the rise of the Horthy regime, there were many new British representatives in Hungary, including a High Commissioner, Thomas Hohler, and a special emissary from the Peace Conference, George Clerk (arriving in October 1919). Meanwhile, in Paris, Hungary’s treaty was finally being properly scrutinized. Count Albert Apponyi was able to submit the Hungarian arguments and objections, and in February–March 1920, the “Big Three” of Britain, France, and Italy disputed at least the viability of the proposed Hungarian borders.28 The winter of 1919–20 produced a heightened cacophony of British voices for and against the peace terms. In the end, it was the Foreign Office loudspeaker which would triumph, because its “experts,” like Allen Leeper, were deferred to as the key policymakers. They were already insisting that Hungary’s frontiers had been permanently fixed, all the more so, as precisely that message had been sent to the surrounding states in June 1919.

The authority of a contrary set of British opinions owed much to the fact that they came from new men on the spot, located on Hungarian territory from the summer of 1919 due to London’s concern about Romanian military excesses. Notable were those responsible to the Admiralty or the War Office: particularly Admiral Troubridge, who in August moved the headquarters of the Allied Danube Command to Budapest, and Reginald Gorton, who was sent as the British representative on an Inter-Allied Military Commission.29 These critical voices were then echoed in the British parliament by Bryce and others. The question arises whether, if this disparate Magyarophile camp had been more coordinated, it could have challenged the “Foreign Office” clique at this crucial stage. Rumors circulated at the time that support for Hungary was mounting. But as Seton-Watson (correctly) reassured the Czechoslovak President Tomáš Masaryk in March 1920, people like Troubridge and Newton did not really represent British policy:


They are individuals who have been caught up in certain currents and are busily engaged in urging a policy of their own upon our government, but not with success […] I can find no evidence of a serious nature to suggest that the Magyar intrigues have got any hold here in London.30


Indeed, the challenge for any champions of Hungary’s cause was tremendous, because of the Foreign Office “insider advantage” and the prejudices still circulating about Hungary as a German or Bolshevik ally, not to mention the concerted hostile stance of Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia.

Nevertheless, in late 1919, British officials in Budapest began to request a sympathetic hearing for Hungary in London. They did so partly because the new Horthy regime seemed accommodating, even moderate, and it thus offered a contrast with continued stories of Romanian “atrocities” in occupied Transylvania or the Yugoslav refusal to withdraw from the region around the city of Pécs. The British were also faced for the first time with an onslaught of Magyar petitions against the treaty, coupled with the widespread expectation that England at least would give Hungary a “fair hearing.” Most striking were the reports sent to Paris by Sir George Clerk and members of his mission, for they, after all, were Allied delegates whose designated role was to bring stability to Hungary (ensuring that a stable government was established and Romanian troops were evacuated from the country). One member of Clerk’s mission, for instance, reported to London about a tour of the truncated country: “The universal feeling throughout is that the old boundaries must be restored by some means or other and Roumania made to disgorge what she has taken.”31 Another, Percy Loraine, agreed after receiving a mass of petitions that there was widespread opposition to many of the suggested amputations. The loss of Croatia was accepted, but not Slovakia (where it was felt the conference had been duped by the Czechs) and especially not Transylvania.32

On the subject of Transylvania, Clerk himself felt that, because of the harshness of the Romanian invaders, a special Inter-Allied commission should be sent there. During the war, Clerk had been strongly influenced by the “nationality principle” in the British Foreign Office. But after arriving in Budapest, he quickly agreed with his Magyar hosts, who stressed that the “new rulers” in occupied Hungarian territory were “learners in the art of government” and of a “lower civilization.” One petition submitted to Clerk by the Hungarian Technical University pressed for territorial integrity, arguing that “Hungary has raised culture to a high level on its natural geographical territory […] On mutilated territory Hungary would be unable to further fulfil this vocation!”33 Clerk concluded that, while the new states needed firm supervision and guidance from the West, Hungary itself, on the basis of what he had observed, could be expected to be sensible: “They realize, I think, the broad justice of the inclusion of peoples of one common stock in one State, but they feel that the Allies have […] only heard one side of the case and have naturally given the benefit to those who fought on their side.” He warned against the Allies sowing the seeds of future conflicts.34

These reports usually found an unsympathetic ear at the Foreign Office, as they were sent first to Allen Leeper or Eyre Crowe (permanent secretary), key figures on the territorial committees of the Peace Conference, and they could easily be deflected.35 Both Leeper and Crowe were now irritated at Romania’s refusal to withdraw to the demarcation lines and were even prepared to send an Allied commission to investigate. But they did not want to reopen au fond the nationality questions, which their committees had settled in May 1919. Thus, when in November they were sent a memorandum from the Hungarian government about injustices in Slovakia, both responded negatively. Leeper noted that the memorandum was exaggerated and not worth passing on to the Supreme Council. Crowe remarked simply, “Better leave it alone. These controversies lead to no practical results.”36

Despite this, there is good evidence to suggest that by early 1920, the mood in the Foreign Office was indeed slowly shifting away from the Leeper-Crowe perspective towards a more positive engagement with Hungary’s complaints. One reason was the replacement as foreign secretary of Arthur Balfour, who fully supported Trianon and had been a member of the Peace Conference, by Lord Curzon, who seemed to have less blatant sympathy for Hungary’s neighbors.37 Curzon’s introduction to the Central European situation also coincided with the Clerk mission to Budapest, which, as Gábor Bátonyi suggests, started something of a special Anglo-Hungarian relationship in the winter of 1919–20. In addition to a Hungarian Delegation now being invited to Paris, another result of Clerk’s mission was the appointment of a British High Commissioner to Hungary. From January 1920, Sir Thomas Hohler was to be an “extraordinarily sympathetic and totally uncritical minister” in Budapest, partly due to his friendship with Regent Miklós Horthy in prewar Constantinople.38

Precisely at the time when the Hungarian delegation under Apponyi was putting its case in Paris in early 1920, Hohler sent several reports to the Foreign Office expounding the Hungarian case. He passed on the views of Horthy and Apponyi that, whatever treaty was signed, the state would eventually be restored “to its old historic limits.” Here, there was strong evidence that the Magyar leadership hoped especially for British support, all the more so after January 16, when both Curzon and Prime Minister David Lloyd George had shown interest in Apponyi’s ethnic map of Hungary.39 Hohler strongly promoted the idea that Britain should support Hungary as a “friendly buffer state” in the region, and he asked Curzon to consider a fresh presentation by Apponyi in Paris. “The present arrangements,” he concluded on February 1, “appear to be faulty and incapable of standing the test of time.” The treaty was contrary to Wilson’s principle of national self-determination and therefore constituted “an immediate menace to the peace of Europe.”40

It is of course tempting to suggest that Hohler was simply hoodwinked by Magyar propaganda, but like Clerk, he was at least reporting the protests and mood he observed on the spot. These critical winter months require more research to illuminate in detail the close interaction and even confluence of Anglo-Hungarian arguments and networking. Britain was keenly aware at this time that the French too were vying for influence over Hungary; this has been well documented by historians.41 Budapest in turn was taking new initiatives to highlight in London the benefits of Britain securing influence in the region. For it was precisely now that Miklós Bánffy was sent by the Hungarian government to London to make contact with politicians, including Curzon and Asquith. According to his memoirs, Bánffy had some success after “endless hard work, attention to detail and, above all, tact.”42 He found willing ears in Bryce, Cecil, and Newton, but also among church leaders, particularly Unitarians and Presbyterians alarmed at Romanian treatment of Transylvanian Protestants, and Jewish leaders like Lucien Wolf, who were anxious about minority rights.43

Bánffy’s path into the corridors of power was also considerably eased through the “invaluable help” of the Hungarian-born Rozsika Wertheimstein, the wife of Charles Rothschild. Having met the Rothschild heir, a serious conservationist, in 1906 when he was exploring the Carpathian mountains, the flamboyant Rozsika had moved to England, but she always kept firm ties with her family in Hungary. There, in December 1918, she had led a campaign publicizing the miserable plight of Hungarian children; in interwar Britain, she knew Magyarophiles like Lord Newton, and she actively promoted financial aid to Hungary from Rothschild resources.44 “In her house,” wrote Bánffy, “I almost felt I was breathing the air of my own home; and the lion’s share in any success I may have achieved in my mission was thanks to her advice and help and to her mediation on my behalf.”45

In the spring of 1920, indirectly through Rozsika Rothschild and other social contacts nurtured by Bánffy, vigorous debates began in the British parliament. Bryce, Newton, and others, having urged the Hungarians to delay finalizing the treaty as long as possible, echoed the language of Budapest when they spoke in the House of Lords: namely, that Hungary was pro-British and had been against the war, and that “civilised human beings” were now being handed over like cattle to the successor states.46 According to Newton, Hungary was like a man “who has had a paralytic stroke and is being constantly kicked and cuffed by his former associates and dependents.”47 Another Bánffy target, Lord John Montagu of Beaulieu, agreed, contending that the treaty was simply “insane and unworkable.” If Montagu’s own passion for motoring and modern transport perhaps naturally inclined him to criticize the new fragmented communications network in the Carpathian Basin, he had also just visited Budapest. There, he had honed some pro-Hungarian views when staying with his friend, Admiral Troubridge. He concluded that “that country had suffered unfairly in the breaking up of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire after the war.”48

Yet this fresh British political momentum of early 1920 also owed much to news reaching London about Romanian misrule in Transylvania and rumors about a White Terror (which a delegation from the Labour Party and the British trade unions would soon investigate). Some eccentric Conservative politicians were encouraged to support the Horthy regime precisely because of Labour opposition to it. Thus, in one House of Commons debate, Walter Elliott pointed out the prejudices of the left-wing press as he went on to condemn the treaty. Describing the new Slovakia as a “banana-shaped country,” he ridiculed the proposed borders: “The Peace Conference is full of very great and important gentlemen, but they cannot make rivers run sideways across mountains, because they run downhill and not across.” In his view, the iron rules of geography could not be changed.49

The Government responded to these criticisms in March 1920 by noting that the expert territorial committees had worked very diligently in 1919, that there was no bias, and that Hungary in January 1920 had had ample time to put its case to the Peace Conference. The critics rightly found this line of defense disingenuous. In fact, it did obscure the differences of opinion that had begun to appear at the Foreign Office. On February 10 in response to Hohler’s reports, Curzon noted that he did not really know why the conference had decided on the proposed borders for Hungary. Allen Leeper, however, quickly jumped in to reject Hohler’s arguments. He stressed that the territorial committees had followed the ethnic principle as far as possible (except in Slovakia and Transylvania, where transport links were necessary). And since the new countries had been told by Britain that this was the final settlement (and in the meantime had signed their peace treaties), future stability was in danger if everything were to be reconsidered. This would simply encourage Hungary to resist, and would constitute a betrayal of the recognition which Britain had given to Czechoslovakia and the other neighboring states.50

Curzon’s behavior a few weeks later suggests that he was not wholly convinced by this argument, or he felt at least that the Hungarian question still needed to be revisited. Lloyd George similarly was urging France and Italy that Europe would have no peace if the Hungarian case were not fully scrutinized. A key reason for this governmental shift was that, in early 1920, new opinions had surfaced at the Foreign Office, stemming either directly from British supporters or indirectly from Magyar campaigners in Britain. The Hungarian settlement was suddenly (for the first time) a real focus of public attention.

Nevertheless, Curzon continued to listen to the “expert” Allen Leeper, who stridently expounded his opposition to Hungary’s “anachronistic” arguments. The result was that, during a meeting of Allied foreign ministers in London on March 8, the idea of making any changes to the treaty was rejected.51 The overriding argument, as detailed in writing by Leeper, was that Hungary’s borders must be settled quickly and short-term stability must be prioritized over any long-term dangers. Thus, in 1920, the very idea of reopening the treaty was construed as a major obstacle. But there was a small “carrot” which the Powers (especially Britain) still seemed to be offering Budapest and which the Hungarians seemed grudgingly to accept when they signed the Treaty of Trianon (June 6). This was the so-called Millerand note, which was sent to Hungary on May 6 under the signature of the new French premier, Alexandre Millerand. While rejecting the Hungarian Delegation’s demand for plebiscites in contested areas, the note suggested that if Hungary had objections to the treaty, it might eventually appeal to the League of Nations over specific border rectifications. It was a glimmer of light that would sustain Hungarian revisionist hopes thereafter, just as the Anglo-Hungarian flirtation of winter 1920 had substantially prepared the ground.

Fixing the Trianon Framework

As we have seen, by 1921 there was growing British official consensus over Hungary, a realization that the new normality of Trianon should be accepted. In 1920, however, the clash of opinions was only too evident, for in the struggle for stability in the region, fresh voices had challenged the official line favoring Czechoslovakia and Romania and had questioned what the new Hungarian frontiers might mean for Central Europe. If we now turn briefly to 1918–1919, the third and best documented phase, this was of course the period when the Trianon framework, which later proved so hard to dismantle, was firmly set in place. First, in the faits accomplis of late 1918, the Allies had allowed the successor states to invade greater Hungary and stay there. Second, the Peace Conference’s territorial committees, guided by the principle of national self-determination, scrutinized the Hungarian frontiers and had them approved without debate by the Council of Ten on May 12, 1919.

Historians have examined much of this period in depth, showing that Lloyd George was an occasional spokesman for Magyar interests (for example in his Fontainebleau Memorandum of March 25, in which he warned about a draconian peace which could ferment Hungarian irredentism). On April 30, he proposed to the Council of Four that Hungary should be invited to Paris to discuss the peace terms. However, generally he was not interested or engaged enough to push his concerns in the face of the Foreign Office, which dominated in Paris and consistently favored the Czechoslovak and Romanian states.52 It is usually noted that Harold Nicolson, Crowe, and Leeper played key roles on the territorial committees, siding with France and defining Hungary’s ethnic borders in the narrowest sense possible; in addition, they focused on making the surrounding states economically viable. What is often ignored is the historic continuity in official British thinking: namely, Hungary was consistently seen as a destabilizing element in Central Europe. As I have shown elsewhere, the Foreign Office before World War I had summed up the “chauvinistic” Magyar regime as a key source of instability and had anticipated, even before Seton-Watson began to gain more influence in 1917, that Hungary would have to be restructured in some way.53 In the wartime British press, diverse opinions were ventilated for and against Hungary, but in Whitehall, a viewpoint sharply critical of Budapest was long established.54

During the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, this trend persisted. The Foreign Office believed that the old Magyar regime had fought to the bitter end and therefore deserved punishment, while the country’s new rulers (or were they really so new?) seemed in their petitions to the West far too obsessed with Hungary’s territorial integrity. Moreover, any small sympathy for Hungary’s aspirations was weakened by the reign of Béla Kun, which caused major headaches for the peacemakers. As Crowe noted on one occasion, the Allied plan in Central Europe was “to set up free and independent states as a counterbalance to a German-Bolshevik combination.”55 Hungary, having been Germany’s staunch wartime ally, could now for four months be portrayed as a virulent Bolshevik threat. In both cases (whether Hungary was a German ally or a hotbed of Bolshevism), it was natural to them in the regional danger by affirming tighter frontiers. During the key months of the Peace Conference, these concerns formed a steady backdrop to British official thinking, especially when Leeper and others suggested that Magyar nationalism and Bolshevism went hand in hand as a combined threat to Central Europe.56

Only a few British observers (apart from Lloyd George) started to become concerned about the future of Hungary. Ironically, Seton-Watson was one of them. In May 1919, having witnessed the chaos there, he wrote, “Little as I love the Magyars or regret the fate they have brought on themselves, I do not wish to see them destroyed altogether.”57 Despite this, like most British officials in Paris or London, Seton-Watson was not questioning the notion that greater Hungary needed to be dismembered. What was vital was to ensure stability and security for the New Europe; the new successor states were the allies who needed to keep order (since Britain itself could not contribute any troops). Only in the last months of 1919 was a new Hungarian regime established which tried to present itself to Britain as a respectable force for regional stability and order. As we have seen, this prompted new forms of support for the Hungarian cause and a new British questioning of the peace settlement.


Of course, the British debate on Trianon did not end in 1921. Fresh controversy was stirred through the press campaign of Viscount Rothermere six years later.58 During the three phases of the creation of Trianon, it is clear that the Hungarian treaty really became a subject for public discourse in Britain only from late 1919. Until then, the British officials who debated it were working in private on the territorial committees of the Paris Peace Conference. They were chained above all closely to the “nationality policy,” which Britain in mid-1918 had semi-officially adopted towards the Habsburg Monarchy.59

In its essence, that vision of a New Europe always had an anti-Hungarian streak based on the firm conviction that the Magyar regime in the old Monarchy had been oppressive and that similar nationalistic chauvinists were still in control of Hungary. It was only in 1920 that the idealistic crusade began to weaken, when the reality of the New Europe became clearer, and when new British voices sprang up to counter Leeper or Seton-Watson. Particularly, some new Magyarophiles emerged in the British parliament to paint a different version of modern Hungarian history and even to question the ideal of self-determination. Among these critics, there was a strong sense that an alternative moral dimension to the ongoing Hungarian crisis existed, one which any “fair-minded person” would surely support.60

Indeed, this early British debate over the morality of Trianon had some parallels with a later moral contestation over Central European grievances during the Sudeten crisis of 1938. In the early interwar years, the matter of Czechoslovakia’s German minority had received little British attention, or at least justice and morality were mainly felt to be on the Czech side against anything German. By 1936, however, many British observers were inclining towards a moral stance in favor of Sudeten German complaints about discrimination. They did so on the basis of the belief that firm evidence existed to support those grievances; that notion was strengthened by their own personal observations in Czechoslovakia and by the avid campaigning in Britain of Sudeten German political activists.61 In both cases (the Hungarian in 1920 and the Sudeten in 1938), there was a moral underpinning to the cause that strengthened the arguments of Britons who primarily feared regional chaos or even a new war if the respective grievances were not addressed. The difference in 1938 was that the British government was now prepared to back a (Sudeten) cause, which would reverse the peace settlement of 1919. It viewed that course as both moral and practical for British interests. This, in turn, raised again the matter of territorial revisionism more broadly. Recent research has shown how, parallel to the Sudeten crisis, British equivocation about Trianon naturally resurfaced; in the late 1930s, Anglo-Hungarian relations began to matter again, since key pillars of the New Europe were starting to crumble.62

Yet early 1920, when the Hungarians had first put their case to the Allies in Paris, was the key time when they had looked to the British lighthouse for guidance and aid. New feelers were then sent out from Budapest to sympathetic supporters in Britain. In response, the lighthouse sent back some reassuring messages, but it remained flickering and was never consistent. On the one hand, the British establishment was naturally conservative, wishing to conclude the Hungarian treaty as quickly as possible, gain economic advantages, and ensure regional stability. On the other, many British politicians who were now studying the subject for the first time began to feel uneasy about what had occurred. At most, they could suggest to Budapest that the Trianon borders might be adjusted in the future, if only Hungary would behave responsibly and peacefully on the European stage. By 1921, a certain consensus prevailed across the British political spectrum that the basics of Trianon were now permanent. It is worth emphasizing, especially in this centenary year of Trianon, that even friends of Hungary like Lord Bryce or Walter Elliott were not advocating a crusade to overturn the new frontiers. Theirs was a pragmatic approach: to complain about Trianon Hungary, but largely to accept it despite its imperfections: there could be no restoration of greater Hungary.

The next twenty years saw the Trianon grievance occasionally surfacing in Britain and stirring public awareness. Among those who harped on the subject were mavericks like Rothermere or idealists like Lord Newton. For Newton, Hungary had become a lasting passion, a new chapter in his life, and one that brought him into the company of the “most charming” Rozsika Rothschild. He continued to visit the region (for instance Transylvania in late 1921) and advised the Hungarians to be patient: they should “strive to create a homogeneous state, which will serve as an enviable model to their neighbors and do more towards recovering Hungarian Irredenta than anything else.”63

For others who heard the word “Trianon” in the late 1930s, it surely sparked anxious thoughts. Thus, for the novelist Eric Ambler in 1938, Trianon was above all useful as a small device to enhance the drama and credibility of his espionage thriller. His Magyar protagonist, Vadassy, might well personify one of the sad injustices of Trianon for those who were well-informed. But for most British readers, he probably evoked hazy ideas of chaos in nationalist Eastern Europe in the aftermath of a cataclysmic war. In their minds, the old Hungarian grievances were just some of the many that seemed to be resurfacing in 1938, edging Britain and Europe towards a new period of war and mass death.


Archival Sources

The National Archives, London (TNA)

Foreign Office files (FO)


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Coote, Colin. A Companion of Honour: The Story of Walter Elliott. London: Collins, 1965.

Cornwall, Mark. The Devil’s Wall: The Nationalist Youth Mission of Heinz Rutha. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Cornwall, Mark. “Great Britain and the Splintering of Greater Hungary 1914–1918.” In British-Hungarian Relations since 1848, edited by László Péter and Martyn Rady, 103–22. London: School of Slavonic and East European Studies, 2004.

Cornwall, Mark. “Robert William Seton-Watson és a kései Habsburg Birodalom nemzetépítési kísérletei” [Robert William Seton-Watson and nation-building experiments in the late Habsburg Empire]. In Párhuzamos nemzetépítés, konfliktusos együttélés: Birodalmak és nemzetállamok a közép-európai régióban (1848–1938) [Parallel nation-building, conflictual coexistence: Empires and nation-states in the Central European Region, 1848–1938], edited by László Szarka, 327–49. Budapest: Országáz könyvkiadó, 2017.

Cornwall, Mark. The Undermining of Austria-Hungary: The Battle for Hearts and Minds. New York: St Martin’s Press, 2018.

Deák, Francis. Hungary at the Peace Conference: The Diplomatic History of the Treaty of Trianon. New York: Howard Fertig, 1972. First published 1942.

Deák, Francis and Dezső Ujváry, eds. Pièces et documents relatifs aux rapports internationaux de la Hongrie. Vol. 1, 1919–1920. Budapest: Royal Hungarian University Press, 1939.

Fisher, H. A. L. James Bryce. 2 vols. New York: MacMillan 1927.

Hanak, Harry. Great Britain and Austria-Hungary during the First World War: A Study in the Formation of Public Opinion. London: Oxford University Press, 1962.

The Hungarian Problem in the British Parliament: Speeches, Questions and Answers thereto in the House of Lords and the House of Commons from 1919 to 1930. London: Grant Richards, 1933.

Jeszenszky, Géza. Az elveszett prestízs: Magyarország megítélésének megváltozása Nagy-Britanniában, 1894–1918 [Lost prestige: The change in the image of Hungary in Great Britain, 1894–1918]. Budapest: Magvető, 1994.

Lojkó, Miklós. Meddling in Middle Europe: Britain and the “Lands Between” 1919–1925. Budapest: Central European Press, 2005.

Mosley, Oswald. My Life. London: Nelson, 1968.

Newton, Lord [Thomas Legh]. Retrospection. London: John Murray, 1941.

Novotný, Lukáš. The British Legation in Prague: Perception of Czech-German Relations in Czechoslovakia between 1933 and 1938. Oldenbourg: De Gruyter, 2019.

Ormos, Mária. From Padua to the Trianon, 1918–1920. Boulder: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Repington, Lieut.-Col. Charles à Court. After the War: A Diary. London: Constable, 1922.

Romsics, Ignác. “Hungary’s Place in the Sun: A British Newspaper Article and its Hungarian Repercussions.” In British-Hungarian Relations since 1848, edited by László Péter and Martyn Rady, 193–204. London: School of Slavonic and East European Studies, 2004.

Romsics, Ignác. The Dismantling of Historic Hungary: The Peace Treaty of Trianon, 1920. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Rothschild, Miriam. Dear Lord Rothschild: Birds, Butterflies and History. London: Hutchinson, 1983.

Sakmyster, Thomas L. “Great Britain and the Establishment of the Horthy Regime.” In Eastern Europe and the West, edited by John Morrison, 71–80. London: St Martin’s Press, 1992.

Sakmyster, Thomas L. “Great Britain and the Making of the Treaty of Trianon.” In War and Society in East Central Europe. Vol. 6, Essays on World War I: A Case Study of Trianon, edited by Béla Király, Peter Pastor, and Ivan Sanders, 107–29. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Searle, G. R. Country before Party: Coalition and the Idea of “National Government” in Modern Britain 1885–1987. London and New York: Longman, 1995.

Seton-Watson, Hugh. “R. W. Seton-Watson and the Trianon Settlement.” In Trianon and East Central Europe: Antecedents and Repercussions, edited by Béla K. Király and László Veszprémy, 43–53. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Seton-Watson, Hugh and Christopher. The Making of a New Europe: R. W. Seton-Watson and the Last Years of Austria-Hungary. London: Methuen, 1981.

Steiner, Zara. The Lights that Failed: European International History 1919–1933. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Šarenac, Danilo, ed. The Forgotten Admiral: Extracts from the Diary of Sir Ernest Troubridge, 1915–1919. Belgrade: RTS Library, 2017.

Troubridge, Lady and Archibald Marshall. John Lord Montagu of Beaulieu: A Memoir. London: Macmillan, 1930.

Zsuppán, F. T. “Hungarian Treaty Revision and the Scottish Presbyterians, 1919–1939.” In British-Hungarian Relations since 1848, edited by László Péter and Martyn Rady, 153–60. London: School of Slavonic and East European Studies, 2004.

1 Ambler, Epitaph for a Spy, 9.

2 Repington, After the War: A Diary, 163.

3 Captain Walter Elliott, quoted in The Hungarian Problem in the British Parliament, 50.

4 Ibid., 214, 239.

5 See especially Sakmyster, “Great Britain and the Making of the Treaty of Trianon,” and Hugh and Christopher Seton-Watson, The Making of a New Europe.

6 Bátonyi, Britain and Central Europe, 4, 104. See also Sakmyster, “Great Britain and the Establishment of the Horthy Regime”; and for a study emphasising Britain’s economic agenda in the region: Lojkó, Meddling in Middle Europe.

7 Romsics, The Dismantling of Historic Hungary, 160.

8 See the speech of Cecil Harmsworth (Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs) in the Commons on 20 April 1921: The Hungarian Problem in the British Parliament, 113.

9 Ibid., 193ff: speech by Curzon.

10 Ibid., 108ff: Harmsworth speech.

11 Ibid., 198–99, 206. Also Bátonyi, Britain and Central Europe, 117.

12 Fisher, James Bryce, vol. 1, 119–26.

13 Bryce, Memories of Travel, 102ff.

14 Bryce’s speech: The Hungarian Problem in the British Parliament, 213ff.

15 See the pamphlet commemorating the anniversary of Bryce’s birth: Balogh, A magyar revízió angol előharcosa.

16 Newton’s speech: The Hungarian Problem, 209, 212.

17 Sakmyster, “Great Britain and the Making of the Treaty of Trianon,” 122. See also for Newton’s extra-parliamentary agitation: Barta, “Oxfordi Magyar Liga,” 370–76.

18 Lord Newton, Retrospection, 44, 56–57.

19 Ibid., 130, 235. For Troubridge, see Bátonyi, Britain and Central Europe, 104. While pro-Serbian, Troubridge clearly approached Hungary with concerns about Romanian aggression in the region; for the background to his stance, see Šarenac, The Forgotten Admiral.

20 Buday, Dismembered Hungary, vii (introduction by Newton). See also Retrospection, 262–63, and Newton’s view of “ill-educated and ill-mannered” Irish MPs, ibid., 99.

21 Bakić, Britain and Interwar Danubian Europe, 10.

22 Speech of Lieutenant-Commander Joseph Kenworthy: The Hungarian Problem, 130–31.

23 Mosley, My Life, 273. According to Cuthbert Headlam, another Conservative politician, Elliott was “extremely able and has the gift of making people believe that he is even more able than he actually is.” Ball, Parliament and Politics in the Age of Baldwin and Macdonald, 272.

24 Coote, A Companion of Honour, 43, 48, 71; Searle, Country before Party, 118.

25 Coote, A Companion of Honour, 53–57.

26 On Seton-Watson, see Cornwall, “Robert William Seton-Watson és a kései Habsburg Birodalom,” 327–49. Also, for a personal view: Seton-Watson, “R. W. Seton-Watson and the Trianon Settlement,” 43–53.

27 Coote, A Companion of Honour, 77; and The Hungarian Problem, 156ff.

28 For a still useful older history of this subject, see Deák, Hungary at the Peace Conference.

29 Bátonyi, Britain and Central Europe, 103–6; Lojkó, Meddling in Middle Europe, 15: Troubridge “retained more leverage over the military situation than any other Allied commander.”

30 Bakić, Britain and Interwar Danubian Europe, 18.

31 TNA, FO 371/3518, D.C. Campbell to Leeper (private letter), 29 December 1919.

32 TNA, FO 608/17, Percy Loraine to Leeper, 22 November 1919 enclosing ten petitions.

33 TNA, FO 608/17/20922, Clerk to FO sending petition, 2 December 1919.

34 Ibid., Clerk report to Supreme Council, 29 November 1919.

35 For the impact of Crowe and Leeper on these committees (which effectively delimited the Hungarian borders), see Romsics, The Dismantling of Historic Hungary, 76–85.

36 TNA, FO 608/17, Clerk to Crowe, 6 November 1919, with minutes by Leeper and Crowe.

37 For alarming rumours that Curzon might be pro-Magyar, see Seton-Watsons, The Making of a New Europe, 401–2.

38 Steiner, The Lights that Failed, 289; Bátonyi, Britain and Central Europe, 114 (for the Clerk mission, 107–14).

39 Deák, Hungary and the Peace Conference, 207–11; Romsics, The Dismantling of Historic Hungary, 125–28.

40 TNA, FO 371/3518, Hohler to Curzon, 1 February 1920; and Hohler to Curzon, 28 January 1920 (quoting Apponyi).

41 See for example, Bátonyi, Britain and Central Europe, 120ff; and the detailed study of Mária Ormos, From Padua to the Trianon.

42 Bánffy, The Phoenix Land, 199–201; Romsics, The Dismantling of Historic Hungary, 129–30. Something of Bánffy’s network in Britain is also clear from the diary of the Hungarian peace delegation kept by Count István Csáky: see Deák, Ujváry, Pièces et documents relatifs aux rapports internationaux, Appendix 1.

43 For a discussion of Presbyterian links to Magyar Protestant churches, see Zsuppán, “Hungarian Treaty Revision,” 153–60.

44 Rothschild, Dear Lord Rothschild, 94–97, 244. Rozsika notably was also a life-long friend of Count Pál Teleki.

45 Bánffy, The Phoenix Land, 201.

46 Speech of Newton, 30 March 1920: The Hungarian Problem, 54.

47 Ibid., 57.

48 Speech of Montagu: ibid., 66. See also Troubridge, Marshall, John Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, 215, 256. In 1900 Montagu had been the first MP to drive a car into the British Houses of Parliament.

49 The Hungarian Problem, 47. Elliott would repeat this in April 1921: ibid., 161.

50 TNA, FO 371/3518, Hohler to Curzon, 1 February 1920: minutes by Curzon and Leeper (11 February 1920).

51 Romsics, The Dismantling of Historic Hungary, 134–37. Romsics suggests that Curzon persuaded Lloyd George to accept the resolution of 8 March 1920.

52 See for example ibid., 76–102. An older narrative covering Anglo-Hungarian relations in 1918–19 is Ardaj, Térkép, csata után.

53 Cornwall, “Great Britain and the Splintering.” See also the seminal work of Géza Jeszenszky, Az elveszett presztízs.

54 For a clash over Hungary in the British press, see Hanak, Great Britain and Austria-Hungary during the First World War.

55 TNA, FO 608/13, Seton-Watson to Balfour (telegram), 9 June 1919: minute by Crowe, 11 June 1919.

56 For instance, TNA, FO 608/13/13266, Leeper’s minute, 23 June 1919: “Magyar Bolsheviks and Nationalists have been accomplices on many occasions lately.”

57 TNA, FO 608/12, Seton-Watson to Headlam-Morley (private letter), 26 May 1919; also reproduced in Lojkó, British Policy on Hungary, 202–5.

58 As an introduction to this, see Romsics, “Hungary’s Place in the Sun.”

59 For the shift in British policy towards Austria-Hungary, see Cornwall, The Undermining of Austria-Hungary, chapter 6; and Calder, Britain and the Origins of the New Europe 1914–1918.

60 See The Hungarian Problem, 9.

61 For a new take on the Sudeten problem in British thinking, see Cornwall, The Devil’s Wall, chapters 8–9; for the diplomacy, see Novotný, The British Legation in Prague.

62 See the recent revisionist work of András Becker: “The Dynamics of British Official Policy towards Hungarian Revisionism, 1938–39; “British Diplomacy, Propaganda and War Strategy and the Hungarian-Romanian Dispute over Transylvania in 1939-40.” These stem from Becker’s PhD thesis: The Problem of Hungarian Borders and Minorities in British Foreign Political Thought 1936–1941 (University of Southampton, 2014).

63 Newton, in Buday, Dismembered Hungary, xiv. See also Rothschild, Dear Lord Rothschild, 18; Zsuppán, “Hungarian Treaty Revision,” 155.

* I would like to thank Catherine Horel and Balázs Ablonczy for their help and advice in the original commissioning of this article.

pdfVolume 9 Issue 1 CONTENTS

Autumn 1918–Spring 1919: Six Months of Postwar Material and Political Uncertainty in Slovakia

Etienne Boisserie
Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

A few weeks after the Czechoslovak State has been proclaimed in Prague (October 28, 1918), Slovak territory is still a battleground for political and military control. Mid-January, the Czechoslovak forces are about to control the demarcation line under the command of Italian officers. But still, at that time, political and material problems surrounding the real control of the territory are hardly overlapped (and won’t be for almost a semester).
This paper intends to observe and analyze this short period of time (February–June 1919) when the material and psychological consequences of World War I cumulate with a weak legitimacy of the (Czecho)Slovak authorities, multiple material obstacles and the lack of experience of the so-called government in Bratislava. Those uncertainties are cruelly reminded in the personal–official and unofficial correspondence–of the main Slovak protagonists who describe a situation far from being controlled as the propaganda puts it.
The paper is based on archives of Slovak National Archive, and namely the general Minister plenipotentiary fond, and some personal archives of the main political actors of that period in Slovakia (mostly Vavro Šrobár, Ivan Markovič, Pavel Blaho, Fedor Houdek, Anton Štefánek). We shall also use some elements of the Regional Military Command (ZVV) Košice available at the National Military Archiv, and notably the regional reports.

Keywords: Czechoslovakia, Slovakia, Upper Hungary, aftermath of World War I, Czechoslovak provisional government in Slovakia

Months after the proclamation of the Czechoslovak State in Prague on October 28, 1918, the Slovak territory1 remained the theater of a battle for military and political control. Throughout this period, the priority for Czechoslovakia and the Slovak political and intellectual elites which supported the newly proclaimed state was solidly to anchor this territory to the new state, despite limited support and fragile political conditions.2 First, the Czechoslovak claim to certain territories, particularly those furthest east, was contestable and indeed contested. Second, the forces available in Slovakia to run the administration and take over from the Hungarian authorities were too few. Third, relations between Czechoslovak civilian authorities and the Italian military mission responsible for occupation of the territory were fraught with mutual mistrust. Last, like in most other regions of the former Habsburg Empire, the population faced worsened living conditions of all sorts, and this made the political situation fluid and unstable.

These difficulties and the uncertainties they created within the Czechoslovak apparatus in Slovakia are clear in the private and official correspondence of the main Slovak leaders of the time, who were responsible for administering the region from November 1918. In this article, we will primarily observe the correspondence between the Plenipotentiary, his “government,” and the prefects he appointed. This correspondence will shed light on a few themes that structured the activity and influenced the hopes and fears of these authorities in the first six months after the war. This correspondence shows the consequences of the Great War for the territory, as well as the material and political obstacles to the assertion of Czechoslovak authority. After a general overview of the context of the efforts to take over the civilian institutions in Slovakia in autumn 1918, I consider the main difficulties encountered up until April of the following year, when Czechoslovak authority was endangered during the first weeks of the conflict with the Hungarian Republic of Councils.

The Immediate Problem of Taking Control of Slovakia

In the early days of November, the new government under Mihály Károlyi in Budapest did not specifically address the issue of the Kingdom’s northern counties, where the Hungarian authorities only partially disappeared. The administrative apparatus was usable neither by Budapest, which had other urgent issues to address, nor by the Slovak National Council (SNR) in Turčiansky Svätý Martin (Turócszentmárton), which had been formed on October 30 and which struggled with its inexperience and lack of authority and political sway.3

From the very first days of November, serious problems arose concerning public order, and in many places, they broke down into armed conflicts and looting.4 Often, the various local councils cooperated with the local authorities in an attempt to maintain order and ensure that supplies reached local people, who were often disoriented.5 In the northeastern regions, Hungarian National Councils or Hungarian National Guards were assembled at the behest of the Budapest government. This happened most widely in the eastern part of the territory, but these bodies were also formed in some of the most densely Slovak-inhabited counties (like Orava [Árva], Turiec [Turóc], Liptov [Liptó], and even Turčiansky Svätý Martin, where a Hungarian National Guard was created on November 4, which contributed to maintaining political confusion through declarations in favor of autonomy). In response, National Councils and National Guards supported by the Slovak National Party (SNS) were formed in several towns.6 In some places, these Councils managed to take control of the municipal administration, but disorder remained considerable and difficult to control.7

On November 4, the National Committee (Národní výbor) in Prague named a provisional government in Slovakia (Československá dočasná vláda na Slovensku). Led by Vavro Šrobár, it was composed of three of the most reliable (and available) pro-Czechoslovak politicians: Ivan Dérer, Pavol Blaho, and Anton Štefánek.8 Its task was to take control of the territory with the help of a few hundred soldiers. This provisional government (known as the “Skalica government,” after the city where it had its first seat) managed to take control of the southwestern tip of Slovakia, between the Moravian border and the area north of Bratislava (Pozsony).9 A few towns were occupied, but resources were known to be insufficient to consider continuing as far as Bratislava.10 The Czechoslovak troops did succeed, however, in following the river Váh (Vág) upstream and occupying part of it before reaching T. S. Martin. But the situation of the Czechoslovak civilian authorities in Slovakia soon became delicate. The situation varied among regions, but the weakness of the available forces was felt everywhere, raising immediate difficulties for the “liberators.”11 There were many pockets of resistance that were not limited to transport nodes like the Vrútky (Ruttka) railway hub, where the workers came essentially from the Hungarian Plain and which was beyond Czechoslovak control.12 Initially, the position of the provisional government was fragile, but it was nonetheless more favorable than that of the Slovak National Council. The situation of the Skalica government grew increasingly complicated following the Belgrade armistice, which left the Hungarian Government free to govern the whole territory of the Kingdom, including regions which had been claimed by Czechoslovakia. The Skalica government did work, however, to keep or retake control, eventually reaching parts of the Moravian border. These operations left only a narrow, fragmented strip of land along the Moravian border under Czechoslovak control. Most situation reports sent to Šrobár at the time underlined the instability of the situation and detailed the provisional solutions aimed at ensuring the safety of the population.13

In Prague, the Revolutionary National Assembly met beginning on November 14. Two days later, Club of Slovak Deputies which had been formed within it proclaimed the transfer of the competences of the SNR to the provisional assembly and the Czechoslovak government.14 The SNR was marginalized by the second half of November.15


The situation in Slovakia raised further difficulties for the Czechoslovak authorities, which were also facing challenges in the Czech Lands. The question of the authority of civilian bodies was acute, and several obstacles complicated the issue of control of the demarcation line.

In early December, a bill was prepared on exceptional provisional measures in Slovakia.16

Slovakia (MPS). He arrived in Žilina (Zsolna) five days later, and he convened his government the next day.17 While his presence in Žilina was a step forward from a Czechoslovak perspective, this government had no legitimacy in the eyes of the locals. There is no clearer demonstration of the difficulties facing the Czechoslovak provisional authorities than the tale of the night-time arrival of one of its key figures, Štefan Janšák, who was in charge of public works. His account is far from glorious: “[The government] set to work in its new seat inconspicuously. At the station, it was met by a single man. Dr. Brežný was afraid that the people of Žilina would protest against our arrival, so he led us towards the center through the side streets. In our worn coats, with battered, old-fashioned suitcases, we looked like traveling salesmen [...]. The hotels were in such a state [...] that we did not venture into them. Dr. Brežný spread us among various local families.”18 

In his memoirs, Ivan Thurzo, then Secretary of the Slovak National Council, mentions another difficulty faced by the Skalica government. Šrobár “knew nothing of what had happened in Slovakia in the last few days,” and, in particular, he knew nothing of the passage of the Mackensen army through Žilina, which had had an effect on the population far greater than the effect a few dozen Czechoslovak soldiers could have had.19 Šrobár also faced a variety of challenges: making the civilian administration work, organizing supplies, and controlling the postal service, communications, and railways.20 The doubt as to the solidity of Czechoslovak positions was also an obstacle for the members of his government.21 In a report to Šrobár on the military situation after a tour by train, Fedor Houdek, referent in charge of National Defense, painted a picture of the uncertainty of the time:


in Sučany and Turany [Nagyturány in Hungarian; situated a few kilometers east of T. S. Martin], we did not find any Czechoslovak army members. That was suspicious. The railway administration was occupied by old officials. Either they knew nothing or they did not want to tell us anything, so we learned very little from them. In Turany, the station manager is from Lisková, and he says Šrobár knows him.22 He was not very well disposed to us, but you could read the fear in his eyes. Disoriented in the political situation, perhaps he feared the return of the Hungarians, and being too attentive to us could have damaged his position. I asked him if I could use the station telephone, and I contacted Ľubochňa [Fenyőháza] and then Ružomberok [Rozsahegy]. In both places, they were unable to tell me if there were Czechoslovak army elements ahead of us, and I could obtain no information from them on the possible presence of the Hungarian army.23 


At the end of October, the decision was made provisionally to retain all legislation from the Dualist period. Minister Plenipotentiary Šrobár therefore had to reorganize the whole administration on that basis. The implementation of policies in the different sectors was carried out by government delegates chosen carefully by Šrobár from among men who were both experienced and reliable. The various lists available in the Šrobár papers indicate that, while appointments were not yet decided with certainty, he could rely on a group of some 20 close collaborators with long reputations in the Slovak patriotic milieu. Apart from them, the pool was limited, most notably for the administration.24 In addition to the emergencies that Šrobár’s “government” had to handle itself, an essential task was delegated to the prefects (župani) appointed in the different counties. Upon their appointment, they were to reorganize local and municipal administrations and ensure the Czechoslovak State’s control over the territory. A shortlist of potential prefects had been drawn up before Šrobár’s arrival in Slovakia,25 but one of the difficulties was balancing the importance of presence in Prague and in the Slovak territory.26

In the days and weeks that followed, political uncertainty would be an obstacle to strengthening the pool of personnel on which the Šrobár government could. Several men reputed to be reliable cautiously declined the offer when contacted.27 Šrobár’s initial list had its limits. In his memoirs, Janšák sets out the problem in wider terms and highlights that the difficulties continued in early 1919. “Šrobár did his statistics before he even received answers from the people he had considered making the officers of this army of officials. When he informed them in writing that they were to take office, he encountered many refusals and much prevarication. Political insecurity in late 1918 and early 1919 and the risks attached to serving the new state were such that members of the older generations, especially fathers whose livelihood was assured (even if modest), preferred to wait and see which side fortune would ultimately favor.”28 Only in the early days of February were all the prefects definitively appointed.29 But some of them, like Otokar Jamnický in Komárno (Komárom), were only able to take office a few weeks later.30 It was sometimes impossible for them to exercise genuine authority. In Hont County, for example, the prefect’s position remained very unstable until April, when the appointment of Milutin Sahulčík enabled the establishment of a fledgling Czechoslovak authority.31 In his activity report published at the end of the year, the prefect of Hont recalled that “because of the complete lack of Slovak officials in the county seat, the prefect [author’s note: then Lehotský] could not carry out his functions, and old Hungarian officials continued to govern.” Only in late April could his successor establish his authority in some districts of the county.32


If the Žilina government faced these kinds of difficulties in the first half of December, this was also because the diplomatic and military situation remained disordered and uncertain. On December 9, the Czechoslovak Supreme Military Command in Prague published the “directive for the occupation of Slovakia,” which was to be carried out by the Czechoslovak army in Italy. Units of volunteers were tasked with securing the major transit routes and borders with Poland and occupying the interior of the territory. The last stage of this first phase of the occupation of Slovakia met with mixed results. The reports sent to Šrobár during the second half of December indicated multiple material difficulties, including food and/or coal shortages in several towns and regions, and the impossibility of installing a nascent administrative apparatus in certain towns. On January 7, 1919, Matej Metod Bella, who had been in charge of supplies for a few weeks, reported that “although we have appointed prefects, the administrations are not working.”33

However, after two months of great difficulties, some form of Czechoslovak civilian and military authority had been established over the territory. But when the peace conference opened in Paris, difficulties remained considerable—and they would increase throughout the spring, as the Slovak authorities faced resistances and insufficiencies that they were unable to overcome in such a short space of time.

Some resulted directly from the weakness of the authority exercised, while others, which were occasional but not unimportant, affected the eastern regions close to the demarcation line or were linked to disruption in certain sectors such as transport and supplies.34 The overall difficulties were a hindrance to exercising genuine civilian authority beyond Bratislava and western Slovakia, as well as to coordinating this civilian authority with the military authority handled by the Italian military mission since the December 1918 agreement.35

Italian-Slovak Tensions and Their Impact in Slovakia

During the construction phase of the Czechoslovak military apparatus, Czechoslovakia’s own forces were insufficient, and it had to rely on its allies for support. The main Slovak leaders in Slovakia were acutely aware of these needs. Initially, Italy expressed the most willingness to serve this function. In November, Foreign Minister Edvard Beneš had negotiated an agreement in principle for the Czechoslovak troops of France and Italy to be transferred to Czechoslovakia.36 It soon became clear that the French were reluctant, while the Italians were more inclined to go ahead with the transfer swiftly.37 The agreement reached in mid-December was quickly implemented. There were now Czechoslovak units (around 7,000 men) in Slovakia under the command of Colonel František Schöbl. Over the course of the month, these men took back the main cities claimed by the Czechoslovak state. But their behavior was criticized in all quarters, including by the Czechoslovak Defense Minister himself, Václav Klofáč, and by the Italian commanders who reported back to Luigi Piccione, Supreme commander of the Czechoslovak army in Slovakia.38 However, the Czechoslovak army deployed gradually along the demarcation line, and reinforcements came regularly.

But in the first weeks of 1919, tensions emerged between Rome and Prague, and relations between the Italian military authorities and the Šrobár government broke down rapidly. This had an impact on the situation in Slovakia. Ivan Markovič, Secretary of the Foreign Ministry specifically in charge of political and legal affairs reporting to Šrobár, underlined this in a report to Beneš sent in the first days of February:


In Slovakia, the attitude of the Italian officers is making waves. [...] I do not want to go into detail, because I would only be telling you what I have heard, without evidence, and you would not be able to conclude anything much from it. In short, the Italians are acting as if they had not recognized our sovereignty, particularly in the Magyarized towns. In particular, they are saying that it is not yet certain that these towns (Prešporok, Lučenec, Komárno, Nitra) will be ours. That comes across in the administration (in Nitra, the Italian colonel has not allowed us to raise our flags on the county administration building so as not to upset the Hungarian population).39

These conflicts heightened following the government’s move from Žilina to Bratislava in early February, and serious incidents occurred in the following days, including during the great demonstration of February 12, killing eight and injuring around 20.40 The Italians were now said to be favorable to the Hungarians. Their behavior was the subject of numerous complaints to the Czechoslovak authorities,41 and some of the most criticized officers were replaced. This tension between Italy and Czechoslovakia remained a point of constant tension until the departure of the Italian military mission at the end of May. It came on top of the shortage of available human resources, insufficiently compensated for by the contribution of Czech volunteers, which was organized spontaneously and informally in November 1918 before being made systematic.42

This policy of sending Czechs had its limits: the pool of personnel was small, and the chaotic conditions in Slovakia did not help. In several regions, reports from the prefects highlighted fragile political and social conditions.43 Other factors were not conducive to increasing the number of volunteers, including the prevailing financial conditions, as pay was markedly lower than in the Czech Lands,44 and professional questions, as some professions were better suited than others to being exercised in communities in which there were Hungarian majorities and which were reputedly hostile.45 Other difficulties were merely material and linked to the difficulty of billeting the men. These factors together explain the particular profile of most Czech volunteers in Slovakia: relatively qualified men who were young and unmarried, and who often mentioned pre-war Slovakophilia and/or had personal ties or friendships with Slovaks close to the new regime.46 Despite this contribution, staff shortages still affected all areas of the administration in early April, including the judicial apparatus, where the situation was soon considered acute.47 Even as late as April, Juraj Slávik in Prague noted that only three courts were totally controlled by the Czechoslovak authorities, in Banská Bystrica (Besztercebánya), Ružomberok, and Levoča (Lőcse), while others, such as in Nitra (Nyitra), had had to be closed.48 Šrobár made a wider, sharper report to Piccione on April 10, after having received authorization to occupy the territories north of the demarcation line: “I reminded him of the difficulties we would face if we were to occupy the country: supplies, the shortage of specialists and reliable people, administration, justice, railways, and the postal service. We have no teachers (...) and not even enough soldiers to hold a long border.”49 In addition to these administrative problems, there were also more political difficulties that the Czechoslovak administration in Slovakia struggled to resolve. Some of these difficulties were provoked by the attitude of the Slovak authorities themselves, particularly in early1919.

The Government’s Move to Bratislava and Internal Political Difficulties

From the Prevrat onwards, the city of Bratislava experienced a distinctive evolution as regards the territory potentially attached to Czechoslovakia. This attachment had initially been very strongly opposed among the German and Hungarian elites, before a form of accord was reached with the former. In the last days of 1918, the situation might appear to have calmed, but from the beginning of January and until the government’s arrival in Bratislava, the situation worsened in the city, particularly because of the decisions made by the Slovak government as it prepared its arrival. These measures contradicted the promises that had been made in the autumn, which had helped defuse the acute political opposition of the first weeks following the Prevrat. A few decisions made in late December had already appeared counterproductive. Railway employees who did not speak Slovak had been dismissed, as had those who had refused to swear allegiance to the government.50 In the days that followed, social allowances for the unemployed were reduced. Some workers were no longer paid, supplies became more difficult to assure, and the administration seemed to struggle to find a solution to material problems. The major difficulty faced by the Slovak authorities throughout the first half of the year remained supplies. The creation in January 1919 of a Supplies Department for Slovakia (Zásobovací ústav pro Slovensko) was supposed to help coordinate all activities. But it did not resolve the management and control difficulties that were creating tensions and serious concerns.51 Food stores in particular were looted, without the law enforcement forces (which were both insufficient in numbers and unreliable) putting an end to it. Moreover, disagreements between the Czechoslovak civilian administration and the Italian military authorities were now an open secret. In mid-January, the Slovak authorities still seemed optimistic about the situation in the city, but the situation went downhill fast.52 In the end, when Šrobár arrived in the city, there was an atmosphere of open hostility. The crowd that greeted him was essentially made up of Slovaks from the surrounding area who had been brought in for the occasion. The inhabitants of Bratislava ostensibly did not take part in these festivities. Šrobár had to contend with an insufficient, unreliable administration and a shortage of housing for the new arrivals, as well as scarce coal for the economic apparatus because of the priority accorded to transport, and the need to disarm the railway workers and some postal service personnel. The strikes in February demonstrated the importance of taking control of several administrations, including the railways.53 In the following weeks and months, more than 450 administrative staff and 2,500 railway workers were sent from the Czech Lands to replace employees who had refused to pledge allegiance to the new state and had been dismissed.

The new government also made repeated errors of judgment. Poor decisions included the closure of the city’s university after the refusal of the professors to take part in the festivities for the government’s arrival in the city.54 These tensions came on top of recurrent problems in relations with the civilian population in other regions. In early February, several reports from prefects noted a very unstable and dangerous situation for the Slovak authorities in regions close to the demarcation line.55 The normal functioning of the administration was endangered and the weakness of the Czechoslovak military presence had led to fatal incidents in a few towns.56 Two weeks later, Markovič summarized the government’s difficulties to Beneš, noting the persistent challenges faced by the civilian administration: “In Slovakia, the situation is more difficult than it was. The Hungarians continued committing provocative acts, especially among officials, and this has led to a general strike. It has above all affected the railways and the postal service, where the largest number of Hungarians and Magyarons work. Luckily, it did not break out everywhere at once, which has allowed us to gradually and fairly swiftly paralyze it by bringing in Czech personnel. Today, the trains are running more or less as regularly—or rather, irregularly—as before.”57 

Uncertainty on Borders and the Issue of the Circulation of Information

The other immediate difficulty was the lack of information available to Šrobár.58 And when information did circulate, it was not precise enough for measures to be taken in Slovakia. In his report dated March 11, Fedor Houdek, who was close to the men of the government in Slovakia and a member of the Czechoslovak delegation to the peace conference and who had been in touch with Šrobár for a few days, reported with a touch of disappointment and anger that he could “still not give any positive information on the final settlement of the borders.”59 This problem of information circulation would persist. It was an increasing source of concern as the situation worsened in Slovakia, and the contradictory information available in Prague soon gave Markovič a sentiment of discomfort, which he expressed to Beneš in early April.60 At that time, the little information Šrobár had received from Houdek dated back to early April and was not very encouraging: there was nothing on borders, there was an atmosphere of secrecy in Paris, and the Wilsonian position “of optimistic humanism... does more harm than good.” His general assessment of the overall situation was pessimistic: “For us, the danger has never been greater than it is now, and it will be greater still in the near future.”61 

In the meantime, in February and March, Markovič visited Bratislava, where he would spend several days before heading to Budapest. While he participated in several conferences aimed at asserting Czechoslovak authority,62 he sent reports to Beneš that were frankly optimistic as to the situation in the country. He had only just arrived when he sent a report on February 23, in which he offered the following conclusion: “I would not like my report to give you the impression that the conditions here are untenable. They are not. The people are generally showing calm and maturity, but the situation is worsening [...], the administration is working very poorly because there are not enough officials. In brief, the situation in Slovakia is not yet critical, but it is difficult, and it could become critical if the current uncertainty were to last even longer.”63 One month later, the effects of long-term uncertainty on the borders seemed to worsen due to effective Hungarian propaganda: “The Hungarians are still acting as if there were no doubt as to the territorial integrity of the Kingdom being upheld. That can be seen in several of their decisions and in the insinuations made by their press and agitators. And the masses are totally intoxicated by this hashish.”64


The uncertainty faced at the time by the Šrobár government and its administration was combined with political difficulties on various levels. These were linked in particular to the religious issue and the attitude of the politically organized Slovak Catholic faction. This fraction had organized in November 1918 around a priest from Ružomberok who was a figurehead of the Catholic faction of the national movement before the war: Andrej Hlinka.65 This Catholic faction, gathered within a Slovak People’s Party (SĽS), soon opposed Šrobár’s authority.66 The religious conflict which had marked the last years before the war was revived and amplified by the measures taken by the Interior Ministry in January 1919 to restrict freedom of assembly.67 These measures attracted much public criticism throughout February and March.68 In the context of the time, this agitation, described as “anti-Czech” by the authorities in Prague, was a constant source of concern. However, it was considered potentially less dangerous than the supply problems, which had become acute.69 In the first weeks of spring, the accumulation of material difficulties, political agitation involving the main leaders of the different Slovak factions, and the imperfect implantation of an embryonic administration supported by Czechs came to a head.70

In addition to this tense intra-Slovak context, the attitude of the Hungarian population also raised difficulties.71 Writing from Bratislava, Ivan Markovič underlined the most important aspects in a letter to Beneš in the first half of March.72 He reported the fear of incidents during the commemoration of the Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence on March 15 and the rumored armed uprisings, notably in Bratislava and Košice (Kassa), where exceptional security measures were taken.73 In Košice, the command of the 6th Infantry Division asked General Schöbl to ensure that all contact between officers and the civilian population was avoided in the days following the banned festivities.74 In Prague meanwhile, Prime Minister Karel Kramář was worried about the authorities’ ability to control the situation.75

Persistent Weaknesses and the “Kun Effect”

The impacts of the material difficulties and strategic situation of Slovakia both before and after Béla Kun came to power in Hungary were a source of concern. In early March, Markovič informed Beneš of the recurrent agitation provoked by the scarcity of food and other essentials and the lack of work. “This shortage is definitely a good means of agitating against the Czechs and the army, which is ‘starving’ Slovakia,” he wrote. No doubt used to modest goals, he did consider, however, that “the machinery is just about functioning”76 and that, while the stability of the Czechoslovak authorities remained fragile, the reliability of certain bodies that had long been questionable (for instance the police) was gradually improving, and anti-Czech agitation persisted in a less radical form. But less than two weeks later, while reporting a calm situation, he did note that, in some places, this calm could transform into a rebellion were the Czechoslovak authorities to show an insufficiently firm hand.77 The situation in Eastern Slovakia and Ruthenia particularly captured the attention of the Slovak authorities, which were informed of the multiple difficulties encountered. The material situation there was constantly described as even more unfavorable than in other regions. In March, acute supply difficulties became a problem again. During the Conference of Prefects and Deputies meeting of mid-April in Bratislava, the referent for supplies, Matej Bella, reported that the situation had at that stage “reached a point where there were fears of collapse.” The situation was still seen as critical by some, meaning only “the most basic needs” could be fulfilled.78 This situation raised fears of the population turning to Bolshevism in a region suffering endemic poverty and where the Czechoslovak ability to run a civilian administration encountered the most recurrent problems. Judging from the report by prefect Ladislav A. Moyš on the situation in Užhorod County in early May, this problem persisted throughout the period: “So far, we have been forced to run the administration, the justice system, etc. with officials from the old regime insofar as it is better to have poor staff than no staff at all.”79


Evidence indicates that the change in regime in Hungary and the Kun offensive had a positive impact on the authority of the Czechoslovak state. The fears inspired by the Kun regime in certain categories of the population, which had hitherto been either silently or overtly hostile to the Czechoslovak State, helped limit the destabilization of the Czechoslovak authorities, particularly in Bratislava,80 and criticism of the authorities became less audible. Reports converged in this vein to the extent that President Masaryk wrote in a rather satisfied tone to Beneš: “Hungarian bolshevism has helped us a lot in Slovakia: many Hungarians and Magyarons now see us as their salvation.”81 Markovič, meanwhile, mentioned certain segments of the population to which he referred as the majetnejšie neslovenské triedy (non-Slovak property-owning classes), for whom personal security and wealth were more important than the integrity of the Kingdom of Hungary and whose relations with the Czechoslovak authorities were now “generally better.”82 But the eastern sector remained an exception. Hungarian propaganda allegedly was exerting a growing influence over the population, who lived in a state of great deprivation, regardless of creed or nationality.83

Setting aside the special case of the eastern regions, which were fragile in the long term, early April saw the beginning of a general improvement in supplies and a gradual strengthening of the administration.84 In certain sectors important to the new regime, such as schools, the population was not spontaneously welcoming with the new arrivals, even in regions with Slavic majorities. This school issue was, along with that of the judicial institutions, one of the difficult points to address across the territory.85 In his report to the Conference in mid-April, the referent for school affairs, Anton Štefánek, reported that the opposition of Hungarian teachers to the new regime had grown in the first weeks of spring, and he announced the decision to close all schools that did not have a Czechoslovak teaching “corps” (Sbor československý) early, underlining the importance of triggering a “great cleansing of schools from the national point of view.”86

Despite persistent military difficulties, most civilian and military reports from this period mention a slight improvement in the situation, for which there were multiple causes. The attitude of the population now seemed more favorable to the Czechoslovak authorities, even if tensions persisted in certain regions, including in the west, such as in Nitra or Štiavnica. The general improvement in the food situation in April and early May helped strengthen the position of the Czechoslovak civilian authorities.87 Control of the railways and postal service had improved since the strikes had begun to subside in mid-March, but the worry provoked by the serious shortage of personnel to replace the previous administration remained high. It was in this context, which remained unstable, that the Czechoslovak army began a new phase in the conflict with the Hungarian Republic of Councils. Their initial victories gave way to a rout that shed light on the army’s endemic fragilities.88 It lacked means of transport and communication, its supplies were poor, it was ill-equipped, and it was weakened by a discipline more unreliable than ever and overt defiance of the Italian officers. A flurry of reports underlined the role played by the Italian officers in the moral breakdown of the Czechoslovak army.89 Moreover, during this Hungarian counteroffensive, part of the state apparatus also showed its fragility.90 Considerable pressure had to be applied to Hungary for the authorities to be able to take back and assert control of the territory from the beginning of July.


The failure of the Czechoslovak authorities to take quick control of the territories in question and the local administrations and the material uncertainties this failure caused undermined the Czechoslovak position.91 At the beginning of the summer of 1919, Markovič was even more pessimistic than he had been in the months before. He observed that the conditions were “beyond doubt worse than they were after the Prevrat [...]. Not so much because of a lack of will or because of any particular resistance, but because of the demoralization and general apathy of people, worn down by five years of war.”92 This observation in the summer was confirmed at the end of December 1919 in the Minister Plenipotentiary’s report on the situation in Slovakia, which warned against “the slightest optimism,” which it contended would be “inappropriate and dangerous” given the major difficulties the Czechoslovak authority continued to face, particularly in the four southern and eastern counties (Komárno, Hont, Gemer, and Abaujtorna).93 Most of difficulties were familiar from the previous period: the Hungarian threat, the apathy of the Slovak population, the fragility of the administration, and occasional tensions between the army and the civilian population in regions close to the Danube River or the Hungarian border, as well as in eastern regions.

It took several more months to structure the administration, this time employing resources from the Czech Lands and local Slovak elites and/or pre-Prevrat civil servants in some regions.94 But in many districts, particularly in the south and east, control remained incomplete. This administrative and political fragility of the Czechoslovak authority amplified the supply problems driven by the destruction and disorganization of the war against Hungary, which remained considerable.

Moreover, ahead of the legislative elections of spring 1920, Slovak internal political divisions (the early signs of which were observable from November 1918) intensified, as did the power struggles between the SNR and the Club of Slovak Deputies and the tensions between the authority of the Minister Plenipotentiary and political Catholicism. The Czechoslovak government in Slovakia addressed these difficulties through a policy of authoritarian control, taking measures to restrict the freedom of the press and the freedom of movement and using propaganda. Despite a few episodes of social conflict, the new absence of an external threat and the fatigue of the population helped stabilize Czechoslovak authority in the first months of 1920.


Archival Sources

Literárny Archiv Slovenskej Národnej Knižnice [Literary Archive Slovak National Library] (LA SNK), Martin.

Fond Daxner (80)

Fond Thurzo (166)

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Starý fond 8. História kultúrna, C 903, Koncept návrhov na županov na
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Slovenský Národný Archiv [Slovak National Archives] (SNA), Bratislava

Českoslovenká dočasná vláda na Slovensku, 614.11.1918 [Čs. doč. vláda].

Ministerstvo s plnou mocou pre správu Slovenska, boxes 1, 5, 8, 255, 257.

Personal collection (of.). Dula, box 9.

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Van Duin, Pieter. Central European Crossroads: Social Democracy and National Revolution in Bratislava (Pressburg): 1867–1921. International Studies in Social History 14. New York: Berghahn Books, 2009.

1 For the purposes of this article, I use the term “Slovakia” instead of “Upper Hungary,” as the first expression is the only one used in the correspondence on which I have focused. The term refers to a territory which was not defined precisely, but which encompassed the land north of the demarcation line and/or the territory claimed by the Czechoslovak state at the Paris Peace Conference.

2 For a recent synthesis on this period, see Hronský, “Vznik Česko-Slovenska,” 112–33; idem, The Struggle for Slovakia; Krajčovičová, “Začleňovanie Slovenska do Československej republiky.” With different perspectives, see also Nurmi, Slovakia: A Playground for Nationalism and National Identity.

3 An abundant literature is available. See Hronský, Slovensko na rázcestí; Krajčovičová, “Slovenská národná rada roku 1918”; Hronský, “Vznik a krátka činnosť druhej Slovenskej národnej rady”; Mlynárik, “Slovenská národná rada.”

4 Medvecký, Slovenský prevrat, 3–186. The term Prevrat, used in this paper without translation, refers both to October 28, 1918 and to the revolutionary process that followed. Revolution and takeover are possible translations, but insufficiently encompass the specific use of Prevrat in Slovak. In Trnava, see Blaho, Rozpomienky na prevratové dni po západného Slovenska, SNA, Bratislava, of. Šrobár, box 23, inv. č. 1007. In T. S. Martin, see Vyzva SNR, November 4, 1918, LA SNK, 94 R 14. See also recent studies devoted to this question, and mainly Beneš, “‘Zelené kádry’ jako radikální alternative,” and Szabó, “‘Rabovačky’ v závere prvej svetovej vojny.”

5 For an illustration at Tisovec, see LA SNK, 80 H 3, Samuel Daxner: List Jánovi Ormisovi (v forme denníka životopis), 31.

6 Hronský, Slovensko na rázcestí, 99–100. See also SNA, Personal collection (of.). Dula, box 9, IVb/3, inv. č. 234/9. For a complete list of the members of the National Councils by county (drawn up between December 6 and 12, 1918), see LA SNK, 94 S 19, Zoznam členov SNR.

7 Hronský, Slovensko na rázcestí, Príloha VIII; Medvecký, Slovenský prevrat, 3–186. For Turiec, see LA SNK, sign. 166 D 1, Ivan Thurzo, Z práce a z obeti za národ (Rozpomienky) [Work and sacrifice for the nation, Memories], 510–11.

8 Janšák, Vstup Slovákov medzi slobodné národy, 71–77. Vavro Šrobár (1867–1951) was one of the first activists of the Czecho-Slovak mutuality in the 1890s. Dérer, Blaho and Štefánek belonged to the most active groups favoring Czecho-Slovak mutuality in the 1900s. More details in Boisserie, “Family networks and the ‘generational key’,” 114–27.

9 For clarity’s sake, we have chosen to use the name “Bratislava” here, which would officially be bestowed on the city a few weeks later. In the Slovak documents of the time, there was no single standard: the names Prešpurk or, more often, Prešporok were used most often, but Břetislava and Bratislava were also employed. About the naming of the city, see Bugge, “The Making of a Slovak City.” See also Bartlová. “Transformácia administratívy v Bratislave.” Some important aspects of the evolution of the city may also be read in van Duin, Central European Crossroads.

10 Hronský, “Vznik a krátka činnosť druhej Slovenskej národnej rady,” 123 passim.

11 In Trnava (Nagyszombat), see Frndák, Spomienky na vojnu a prevrat, 55. See also SNA, BA, collection Českoslovenká dočasná vláda na Slovensku, 6–14.11.1918 [Čs. doč. vláda], sign. C, inv. č. 7. For Skalica (Szakolca), see Janšák, Vstup Slovákov medzi slobodné národy.

12 Šegľová, “Revolučná verejnosť v roku 1918.”

13 See short situation reports (November14–22) for the cities of Zvolen [Zólyom], Banská Bystrica [Besztercebánya], Slovenská Lupča [Zólyomlipcse], Pod Brezová [Zólyombrézó], T. S. Martin, Vrútky, Liptovský Sväty Mikuláš [Liptószentmiklós], Žilina, [Zsolna], Čadca [Csáca], Trenčín [Trencsén], in SNA, BA, of. Šrobár, box 8, inv. č. 582, November 1918, Zprávy zo Slovenska. Hospodárske a politické [Reports from Slovakia. Economic and political situation].

14 Šrobár, Osvobodené Slovensko, 254. See also the most comprehensive study: Lipscher, “Klub slovenských poslancov.”

15 LA SNK, Martin, Sign. 94 S 8, List výkonného výboru SNR… [Letter from the SNR Executive Committee…]. On concerns in Prague and tensions between Prague and Martin, see also Mlynárik, “Slovenská národná rada,” 516–18.

16 Zákon 64/1918 o mimoriadných prechodných ustanoveniach na Slovensku, zo dňa 10. prosince 1918. SNA, BA, f. Československá dočasná vláda na Slovensku, 6–14.11.1918, k. 1, sign. B2, inv. č. 4. The act provided for the appointment of a Minister Plenipotentiary for the Administration of Slovakia and 14 government referenti for Slovakia. They had exclusive powers for the Slovak territory under the authority of the counterparts in Prague.

17 SNA, BA, f. Čs. doč. vláda, box 1, sign. B2, inv. č. 4, Správa z nasadnutia min. komisie (MPS) z 13.12.1918.

18 Janšák, Vstup Slovákov medzi slobodné národy, 99. See also I. Thurzo, LA SNK, sign. 166 D 1, Z práce a z obeti za národ (Rozpomienky), 582–84. For another type of report, see Šrobár, Osvobodené Slovensko, 371–72.

19 LA SNK, 166 D 1, I. Thurzo, Z práce a z obeti za národ (Rozpomienky), 582–84.

20 In his first telegram after arriving in Žilina, Šrobár reported the departure of 70 locomotives and almost all the carriages from the town before his arrival. SNA, BA, f. Čs. doč. vláda, box 1, sign. B2, inv. č. 4, Minister Šrobár na Slovensku…, S.d. 1918.

21 SNA, BA, f. Čs. doč. vláda, box 1, sign. B2, inv. č. 4, Zpráva zo zásadnutia min. komisie v Žiline, 13.12.1918.

22 Vavro Šrobár was born in the village of Lisková (Liszkofálu), in Liptov (Liptó) County.

23 Šrobár, Osvobodené Slovensko, 411–12.

24 SNA, BA, of. Šrobár, box 10, inv. č. 611, Zoznam kandidátov. On prior links between the men of the Šrobár government, see Boisserie, “Family networks and the ‘generational key’.” For recent global studies on Šrobár’s period and the prefects, see Krajčovičová. “Vavro Šrobár,” and Šuchová, “‘Šrobárovi muži’: vymenovanie prvých československých županov.”

25 SNA, BA, of. Šrobár, box 9, inv. č. 607, Slovenskí župani – Návrh z 8.12.1918; SNA, BA, of. Šrobár, box 10, inv. č. 611, Menoslov slovenských katolíckych a evanjelických advokátov a juristov. See also LA SNK, Martin, C 903, Koncept návrhov na županov na Slovensku, 8 December 1918.

26 SNA, BA, of. Šrobár, box 9, inv. č. 607, “Slovenskí župani – Návrh z 8.12.1918.”

27 For the example of Samuel Daxner (eventually appointed župan of Gemer-Malohont on 29 December 1918), see LA SNK, 80 H 12, Župa Gemer-Malohontská v dobe štátneho prevratu. See also Medvecký, Slovenský prevrat, 326.

28 Janšák, Vstup Slovákov medzi slobodné národy, 160.

29 See the comprehensive study of Xenia Šuchová, “‘Šrobárovi muži’: Vymenovanie prvých slovenských županov.” See also some aspects of this question in Krajčovičová, “Vavro Šrobár.”

30 Jamnický, “Z veľkých udalostí historickej doby prevratu,” 119.

31 Šťavnica – Hontianská župa – navrh na vymenování Sahulčíka za župana. SNA, BA, fond MPS, box 255.

32 Zpráva župana o politickej a administratívnej situácii župy Hontianskej koncom roku 1919. SNA, BA, fond MPS, box 5, Sign. Prez. II/2, inv. č. 328. For similar problems in Gemer-Malohont County, where the whole of the county’s central administration refused to swear allegiance. See SNA, BA, fond MPS, box 255. Tisovce župan. Vymenování župana a ůředníků, Tisovec, letter of the Prefect to Vavro Šrobár,12 April 1919, and one month later, the report of the newly appointed Prefect, Ján Jesenský, to the referent for internal affairs: “ay župa – zpráva o poměroch“, 24 May 1919. SNA, BA, fond MPS, box 255. For a wider overview on this question, see mainly Šuchová, “‘Šrobárovi muži.’”

33 Šrobár, Osvobodené Slovensko, 427.

34 See Krajčovičová, “Dva ťaživé problémy Úradu ministra.” See also Samuel Zoch’s warning regarding the supply of coal in his report on the supply situation in Bratislava and the whole county (Modra, 7 January 1919), in Od Uhorského kráľovstva, 153–54 (doc. 61), 160 (doc. 65), and 222 (doc. 101).

35 Dokumenty československé zahraniční politiky.

36 Beneš, Světová válka a naše revoluce, 506–8 (doc. 204).

37 Klípa, “Italská vojenská mise,” 30–32.

38 Ibid., 42–43.

39 Letter from Markovič to Beneš, Prague, [before 10] February 1919. SNA, BA, of. Markovič, box 1, inv. č. 8. See Boisserie, “‘Situácia,” 276–77.

40 Šrobár, Oslobodené Slovensko, 29–31. For the measures taken by Defence Minister Klofáč, see Opis č. 3641, 4 February 1919, Vojenský historický ústav, Bratislava. VHÚ, collection Zemské Vojenské Veliteľstvo (ZVV) Košice, Presidium 1919, box 2, prez. č. 267/1919.

41 See for example SNA, BA, of. Milan Rastislav Štefánik, box 39, inv. č. 1235 in the case of Lučenec (Losonc) or, more generally in the recriminations and with a detailed description of several series of incidents, same collection, inv. č. 1249.

42 For December 1918, see SNA, BA, of. Pavol Blaho, box 40, inv. č. 1509. The pay problem of Czech officials in Slovakia was addressed from March 1919. See SNA, BA, fond MPS, box 255, 156/1919 prez. Adm, Opatření politického úřednictva, 22 March 1919.

43 See SNA, BA, of. Šrobár, box 10, inv. č. 619 for the reports from February 1919 in Novohrad County and Igor Hrušovský’s report for the Žilina region.

44 For a global overview on the question, see Krajčovičová, “Českí zamestnanci v štátnych službách na Slovensku.”

45 Markovič to Beneš, Prague, 15 April 1919. SNA, BA, of. Markovič, box 1, inv. č. 10.

46 These were the primary characteristics of those who directly approached the Czechoslovak authorities in Slovakia. SNA, BA, of. Blaho, box 40, inv. č. 1509. The first Czech officials sent to Slovakia had an atypical profile compared to the dozens of volunteers who approached Pavol Blaho. A detailed list of 64 of them sent to Slovakia in December 1918 highlights that they are relatively experienced men: 40 were over 40, and 15 were over 50. Moreover, 53 were married and 38 had children. SNA, BA, fond MPS, box 255, Status zem. kanc. úřed. české národnosti.

47 Markovič to Beneš, Prague, February 23, 1919. SNA, BA, of. Markovič, box 1, inv. č. 10.

48 Porada županů a poslanců ve dnech 11–13/4/19. Odbor soudnictví. Referent Dr. Dérer. SNA, BA, fond MPS, box 255. See also Markovič’s report to Beneš, Prague, 15 April 1919. SNA, BA, of. Markovič, box 1, inv. č. 20.

49 Šrobár, Oslobodené Slovensko, 114. (Underlined by Šrobár.)

50 Šrobár, Osvobodené Slovensko, 439. See recently: Luther, Bratislava česko-slovenská, 44–56.

51 Report of the Conference of Prefects and Deputies, 9–10 March 1919 in Šrobár, Oslobodené, 144–45.

52 For a rather optimistic analysis of the situation, see Report of the Prefect Samuel Zoch to Šrobár, January 17, 1919, in Od Uhorského kráľovstva, (doc. 83), 87. On the worsening of the situation and the interruption of several economic sectors because of a continuing shortage of coal, see Úradne osvedčenie župan Zoch, 2 February 1919, ibid. (doc. 104), 228.

53 Van Duin, “Vavro Šrobár, bratislavský štrajk.”

54 On February 9, Markovič, Secretary of the Foreign Ministry of the Czechoslovak government, who had recently been given responsibility for liaison with Šrobár, sent the latter a message from President Masaryk: “The University of Prešporok should not have been closed. That is an attack against a cultural institution. Particularly sensitive. It was a tactical error to ask the professors to welcome the government when it was predictable that they would refuse.” Message from Masaryk to Šrobár, February 9, 1919, SNA, BA, of. Markovič, box 1, inv. č. 7. See also Samuel Zoch’s decision, in Od Uhorského kráľovstva, (doc. 93), 211. And his explanation to Šrobár (14 February), Bratislava hlavné mesto Slovenska, 281–82.

55 See in particular, for Novohrad County: Ľudovít Bazovský’s reports to Šrobár of February 3 and 5, 1919, SNA, BA, of. Šrobár, box 10, inv. č. 619.

56 Letter from Markovič to Beneš, Prague, [before 10] February 1919. SNA, BA, of. Markovič, box 1, inv. č. 8.

57 Letter from Markovič to Beneš, 23 February 1919. SNA, BA, of. Markovič, box 1 inv. č. 10. In Slovak, see Boisserie, “Situácia,” 279. In several regions, prefects’ reports highlighted the fragility of social and political conditions. SNA, BA, of. Šrobár, box 10, inv. č. 619, for the February 1919 reports.

58 Šrobár, Oslobodené Slovensko, 146. This acute problem was also reported by Markovič to Beneš between February and May: letters from Markovič to Beneš, Prague, February 23, 1919, SNA, BA, of. Markovič, box 1, inv. č. 10; March 13, 1919, SNA, BA, of. Markovič, box 1, inv. č. 14; April 7, 1919, SNA, BA, of. Markovič, box 1, inv. č. 18.

59 Zpráva 7 Fedora Houdka Vavrovi Šrobárovi, Paris, March 11, 1919, SNA, BA, of. Šrobár, box 10, inv. č. 623.

60 Boisserie, “Situácia,” 280.

61 Zpráva 11 Fedora Houdka Vavrovi Šrobárovi, Paris, April 1, 1919, SNA, BA, of. Šrobár, box 10, inv. č. 623.

62 Slovenský denník, February 25, 1919, p. 3, March 4, 1919, p. 2, March 6, 1919, p. 3, and March 8, 1919, pp. 2–3.

63 Letter from Markovič to Beneš, Bratislava, February 23, 1919. SNA, BA, of. Markovič, box 1, inv. č. 10.

64 Letter from Markovič to Beneš, March 13, 1919. SNA, BA, of. Markovič, box 1, inv. č. 14.

65 Výzva A. Hlinku na založenie…, 10. november 1918 [Appeal of Andrej Hlinka for the creation of…, November 10, 1918]. SNA, BA, of. Hlinka, box 21, inv. č. 976. On Catholic agitation and the attitude of Hlinka, see Kramer, Slovenské autonomistické hnutie. See also Rychlík, Češi a Slováci ve 20. století, 75–79. More recently, Holec. Hlinka: Otec národa, 138–56.

66 Zápisnica z porady výkonného výboru, 28. novembra 1918. SNA, BA, of. Hlinka, box 21, inv. č. 977.

67 Memorandum, January 21, 1919. SNA, BA, of. Šrobár, box 10, inv. č. 613.

68 The sessions of the Club of Slovak Deputies echoed those tensions in February. See mainly “Zápisnica schôdzky Klubu slovenských poslancov, dňa 27. Februára 1919,” in Zápisnice Klubu slovenských poslancov, 148–51. See also Pavol Blaho’s request to Šrobár (March 26, 1919) for the creation of a Catholic periodical that would enhance Czechoslovak sentiment and serve the new State. SNA, BA, of. Šrobár, box 10, inv. č. 613.

69 Letter dated March 13, 1919. SNA, BA, of. Markovič, box 1, inv. č. 14. On this meeting, see also Slovenský Denník, March 5, 1919, “Bratislavské porady,” and Slovenský Denník, March 6, 1919, “Politická situácia na Slovensku.”

70 Boisserie, “Situácia,” 281–82. See also the report of Milan Ivanka, referent for internal affairs during the Council of April 11–13, 1919. SNA, BA, fond MPS, box 255, and an illustration in the Nitra County: letter from Igor Hrušovský to Vavro Šrobár, March 26, 1919, SNA, BA, of. Šrobár, box 10, inv. č. 619.

71 Among recent studies on the subject, see Nurmi, A Playground; Michela, Pod heslom integrity.

72 See for example letters of March 6 and 13, 1919. SNA, BA, of. Markovič, box 1, inv. č. 12 and 14. On this subject, see also the resolution adopted by the members of the Club of Slovak Deputies on February 27 1919, Slovenský Denník, March 5, 1919, “Za očistu nášho politického života.”

73 Letter from Markovič to Beneš, March 6, 1919, SNA, BA, of. Markovič, box 1, inv. č. 12. For the measures adopted by Šrobár, see Výnos MPS, 1131/1919 adm., March 6, 1919. VHÚ, BA, ZVV Košice, Presidium 1919, box 3, inv. č. 613.

74 VHÚ, BA, ZVV Košice, Presidium 1919, box 3, inv. č. 7854.

75 Letter from Kramář to Masaryk, Paris, February 28, 1919, in Korespondence T. G. Masaryk – Karel Kramář, 330.

76 Letter from Markovič to Beneš, March 6, 1919, SNA, BA, of. Markovič, box 1, inv. č. 12.

77 Letter from Markovič to Beneš, March 26, 1919, SNA, BA, of. Markovič, box 1, inv. č. 15. On the same topic, see the report on Šrobár’s foreword in Porada županů, April 11–13, 1919, SNA, BA, fond MPS, box 255.

78 Porada županů a poslanců ne dnech 11–13/4/19. Odbor zásobování. Referent Dr. Bella. SNA, BA, fond MPS, box 255.

79 VHÚ, BA, ZVV Košice, Presidium 1919, box 4, inv. č. 1496. For the memories of prefect Moyš, see Ladislav A. Moyš: Jeho účinkovanie počas vojny, počas prevratu a po prevrate, SNA, BA, of. Šrobár, box 26, inv. č. 1096. At that time, Užhorod County included part of the eastern part of the Slovak territory, as it was eventually delimited in the following years.

80 Letter from Markovič to Beneš, April 7, 1919, SNA, BA, of. Markovič, box 1, inv. č. 18.

81 Šolle, Masaryk a Beneš ve svých dopisech, 204.

82 See for example letters from Markovič to Beneš, April 7, 1919, SNA, BA, of. Markovič, box 1, inv. č. 18) and April 15, 1919, SNA, BA, of. Markovič, box 1, inv. č. 20, and the identical assessment in Slovenský Denník: Štefan Janšák, “Verejné práce na Slovensku,” April 8, 1919, and especially “Minister Šrobár precestuje...,” April 11, 1919.

83 See for example the report from the command of the Užhorod (Ungvár) garrison for the week of April 7–13, 1919, VHÚ, BA, ZVV Košice, presidium 1919, box 4, inv. č. 1222.

84 See in particular Vrchní velitelství čs-slov. vojsk na Slovensku, 361/op, Materiální situace, Kroměříž, March 8, 1919, příloha č. 6, VHÚ, ZVV Bratislava, Presidium 1919, box 3, inv. č. 683.

85 On the difficulties of establishing a Slovak education system, see SNA, BA, of. Anton Štefánek, box 10, inv. č. III/2, Veselé a tragikomické príhody v prvých dňoch oslobodeného Slovenska. For the very difficult case of Košice, see VHÚ, ZVV Bratislava, Presidium 1919, box 3, inv. č. 879 and 951.

86 Porada županů a poslanců ne dnech 11–13/4/19, Odbor školství. Referent Dr. Štefánek. SNA, BA, fond MPS, box 255.

87 See the weekly report by the Bratislava command for April 7–13, 1919, VHÚ, BA, ZVV Košice, presidium 1919, box 4, inv. č. 1221; similarly, in Lučenec (Situation report of the garrison command for the third week of April, same collection, inv. č. 1265) and in Banská Bystrica (Situation report dated April 27, same collection, inv. č. 1363). For the case of Nitra, see in particular MNO to ZVV Košice, April 18, 1919, 10743/11, VHÚ, BA, ZVV Košice, Presidium 1919, box 4, inv. č. 1252, and Igor Hrušovský’s report, Žilina, March 26, 1919, SNA, BA, of. Šrobár, box 10, inv. č. 619.

88 Hronský, “Priebeh vojenského konfliktu.”

89 See in particular Výňatek ze zpravod. hlášení pos. vel. v Košicích ze dne 20.5.1919, VHÚ, BA, ZVV Košice, Presidium 1919, k. 4, prez. 1658.

90 Details in Boisserie, “’Markovič zdeluje…’”

91 Hronský. “K problémom konsolidácie a bezpečnosti Slovenska.”

92 Letter from Markovič to Beneš, July 29, 1919. SNA, BA, of. Markovič, box 1, inv. č. 63.

93 Situační zpráva ze Slovenska ode dne 8./XII. do dne 21./XII., Bratislava, December 28, 1919. SNA, BA, fond MPS, box 5, Sign. Prez. II 1, inv. č. 328.

94 In the case of Bardejov (Bártfa), for example, see Szeghy-Gayer, “Államfordulat és az újrastrukturálódó helyi elit Bártfán.”


pdfVolume 9 Issue 1 CONTENTS

Summer of 1919: A Radical, Irreversible, Liberating Break in Prekmurje/Muravidék?*

Jernej Kosi
University of Ljubljana
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

In this article, I examine political, cultural and social circumstances in Prekmurje/Muravidék after its occupation by Yugoslav forces in August 1919. Since the mid-19th century, Slovene national activists in Cislanthania had considered this part of the Kingdom of Hungary as a territory densely populated by Slovene compatriots and therefore as an integral part of Slovene national space. Drawing on this belief, in 1919 Slovene officials, politicians, and journalists celebrated the act of occupation of Hungarian territory as an event that brought to the end of Hungarian oppression to the locals and with it a radical, irreversible and liberating break with the past. By examining archival sources and secondary literature, I confront the victorious Slovene discourse with the reality on the ground. In addition, I also assess how a set of administrative ruptures and legislative changes imposed by the Yugoslav government in the immediate post-1919 period influenced the everyday lives and experiences of the local population.

Keywords: Prekmurje, Muravidék, Treaty of Trianon, transition, transformation, imperial legacies

On August 12, 1919, military units of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes crossed the border with the Kingdom of Hungary and occupied segments of two counties, Vas (Železna in Slovenian) and Zala. Several weeks before that, the occupation had been sanctioned at the Peace Conference in Paris. To be more precise, in early July 1919, the Council of Heads of the four great powers’ included this small fragment of land in the very west of Hungary in the package of territorial compensations promised to Yugoslavia in exchange for Yugoslav participation in the military overthrow of the Hungarian Soviet Republic.1 The Yugoslav territorial acquisition of Prekmurje was confirmed a year later with the signing of the Treaty of Trianon. With the exception of a short interruption during World War II, Prekmurje, as the region is officially known in Slovenian (Muravidék in Hungarian), has been under Slovenian administrative control ever since.

The sudden July decision to hand over the territory of soon-to-become Prekmurje to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes came as a surprise, even though the Yugoslav Peace Delegation had laid claim to Prekmurje soon after the diplomats started to convene in Paris at the beginning of the year. According to the statements made by Slovenian members of the Yugoslav delegation, the linguistic and ethnographic facts unambiguously confirmed the region’s Slovenian character. To build a political strategy on language and cultural markers was a common practice among Central European diplomats competing for contested areas at the Paris Peace Conference.2 Yet in contrast to many territorial disputes that broke out after the collapse of Central European empires, the claim for Prekmurje did not require the Yugoslav diplomats and experts to engage in creative reasoning based on hastily compiled ethnographic and linguistic “facts.” On the contrary, in this particular case, Yugoslav diplomats could base their request for territorial rearrangement on “solid” evidence which had already been gathered. Since the late nineteenth century, Slovenian national activists, ethnographers, linguists, and writers living in the Austrian part of the Dual Monarchy had been accumulating extensive knowledge about the Slavophone community densely inhabiting western Hungary.3 In their interpretation, framed and thoroughly impregnated by the ethnolinguistically defined notion of Slovenian national belonging and adherence, these Slavophones were members of the Slovenian nation inhabiting the territory between the upper Adriatic to the west and the outskirts of Pannonian Basin to the east.4 In 1919, Matija Slavič, the Yugoslav delegation’s Slovenian expert responsible for Prekmurje, thus only additionally elaborated and refined previously published and widely disseminated findings.5 The culmination of his efforts was an ethnographic map of Prekmurje which meticolosuly depicted the area densely inhabited by Slovenian compatriots who had, according to the established Slovenian ethnolinguistic national narrative, been living under oppressive Hungarian rule for centuries.6

Despite the seemingly convincing case (convincing at least according to contemporary standards) substantiated with the strong evidence, the great powers were at best lukewarm about the Yugoslav territorial expectations regarding Prekmurje. The situation changed only as a result of the establishment of the Soviet Republic in Hungary. After the French delegation began propagating the need to suppress the Communist regime in Budapest, a window of opportunity opened for the additional readjustment along the northernmost part of the Yugoslav-Hungarian border.7

The legitimacy of the Yugoslav occupation of Prekmurje was grounded on the idea of the right of the self-determination, despite ultimately being only a consequence of strategic considerations. In reality, however, the decision could hardly be described as the implementation of the Wilsonian principles. There was no plebiscite in Prekmurje, and the locals were not given the right to choose which state they wished to join. They also had no say in the decision-making process at the Paris Peace Conference, despite different political initiatives formulated and propagated by members of local elites in the period between autumn 1918 and August 1919. It is true that the “Yugoslav option” was not without supporters in Prekmurje. In the months after the collapse of Austria–Hungary, many Slavophone catholic clergymen (though not all) who were in close contacts with Slovenian national activists in former Cisleithanian lands agitated among Slavophone parishioners for the annexation of the territory to Yugoslavia. Yet much more vocal were those members of the local elite who propagated an administrative reorganization within the borders of Hungary that would recognize the linguistic and ethnic peculiarity of the local population and grant the region some sort of autonomy. While these initiatives were seriously discussed on various levels of the Hungarian administration, the most radical application of the principle of self-determination was doomed to fail from the outset. The so-called Republic of Prekmurje, which was proclaimed on May 29, 1919 by Vilmos Tkálec, a low-level official of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, lasted for only slightly more than a week, as it was suppressed by the Hungarian army on June 6.8

In the days after the occupation of Prekmurje in 1919, Slovenian politicians, national activists, and journalists employed a common post-1918 interpretation to rationalize and substantiate the territorial gain. The contemporary Slovenian press described the territorial acquisition as “a moment of liberation” for the Slovenian compatriots and “a radical and irreversible break” of the region with its Hungarian past. “Nothing will ever be the same,” the Civil Commissioner Srečko Lajnšic promised the locals in August 1919. Lajnšic was the first head of the new Yugoslav administration in Prekmurje. According to him, the Yugoslav occupation of Prekmurje brought freedom after 1,000 years of struggle under the Hungarian yoke; it gave Prekmurje’s Slovenes a chance to unite with brothers in blood to form a single polity. This kind of post-imperial narrative was not uncommon among members of Central European national elites who happened to find themselves on the winning side of history in autumn 1918.9 Still, to what extend did the narrative correspond with the realities on the ground? Did the 1919 annexation truly play a role in the groundbreaking rupture with the past for people living in Prekmurje? What do administrative sources, historical accounts, and scholarly works reveal about the nature of this supposedly “radical and irreversible break”? In what follows, I will focus on a set of administrative ruptures and legislative changes imposed by the Yugoslav government after it acquired the region, and I will examine how these changes influenced the everyday lives and experiences of the local population.


As one would expect, for locals living in Prekmurje, the single most important break with the past was the change of the state regime, embodied in the incoming representatives of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Despite the fact that the local inhabitants and Hungarian officials who were present in the region offered no resistance to the newly arrived Yugoslav officials, the process of the administrative incorporation of Prekmurje initially did not go smoothly. The first weeks following the annexation were marked by internal strife between the Slovenian and Croat mid-level administrative bodies. Slovenian and Croat politicians and administrators could not agree on the question of which geographic and administrative jurisdiction Prekmurje should be associated with. As a consequence of this, both the Slovenian and Croatian provincial governments sent officials to the region seeking to put the territory of Prekmurje under their own administrative control. Moreover, the provincial government in Ljubljana also proclaimed Srečko Lajnšič, the district captain in the neighboring Styrian town of Maribor, the new Civil Commissioner in charge of the organization of temporary administration in Prekmurje. Unsurprisingly, Slovenian politicians saw the attachment of Prekmurje to the provincial government in Ljubljana as the only possible outcome of the occupation. In their eyes, it logically harmonized with the predominant reasoning of the Slovenian political and cultural elites from the former Cisleithanian lands, who regarded the formerly Hungarian territory as an integral part of the Slovenian national space. To their chagrin and exasperation, however, Croatian politicians and civil servants in Zagreb did not share their views. Instead, they immediately sent their own officials to take over several government and security posts in areas of Prekmurje that bordered Međimurje on the south, an area which had already been under the control of the Croatian administrative bodies since the winter of 1918.10

The fragmentation of the civil administration in Prekmurje led to conflicts and misunderstandings, as there was no clear demarcation line between the overlapping jurisdictions of Croat and Slovenian administrative bodies. The dispute was put to an end only after the intervention of a higher authority. On September 2, the Yugoslav minister of internal affairs Svetozar Pribičević finally interfered and provided a conclusive decision concerning the issue of administrative competences in Prekmurje. Pribičević ordered the provincial government in Ljubljana to mitigate the conflict, which was creating internal strife between Slovenian and Croat branches of administration and could also put Yugoslav control of the occupied territory in jeopardy. He thus decided that until the new constitution was written and ratified, Prekmurje should remain a single administrative entity under the auspices of the Civil Commissioner. The Slovenian provincial government should then, he insisted, provide the necessary officials and, in case of need, ask the provincial government in Zagreb for help. In any case, Pribičević reiterated once again, the territory of Prekmurje should remain a single unit with the Civil Commissioner in charge of the administration.11 The next day, the president of the Slovenian provincial government, Janko Brejc, ordered the subordinated departments and offices immediately to provide the requested personnel to the Civil commissioner.12 The Civil commissioner then moved the seat of his office from Radgona/Radkersburg in Styria to Murska Sobota in Prekmurje.13 With that, the first phase of the consolidation of the new administration in the occupied territory was completed.

The Yugoslav occupation of Prekmurje in August 1919 thus marked the end of Hungarian administration and of Hungarian as the official language of the state administration. From the outset, the incoming state representatives did not tolerate the existing Hungarian administrative structures. The newly arrived Slovenian administrators regarded the presence of Hungarian officials in Prekmurje as a security risk. “The state within the state cannot exist,” Lajnšic insisted. He added, “law won’t be restored as long as the administration remains in the hands of those who constitute a threat to the new order.” Given the fact that “a proper administration must be established,” the Civil Commissioner continued, “authorization should be given to take over or at least to suspend the work of the existing administrative bodies, for the Hungarian authorities only work against the establishment of public order.”14 Many Hungarian officials thus voluntarily left the region soon after the occupation, while others were encouraged, by different means, to hand over their official responsibilities to the Yugoslav representatives, pack their belongings, and leave for Hungary. The replacement was quick and clinical. Several weeks after the Yugoslav forces started entering Prekmurje, the Slovenian officials had taken over all the public offices and administrative posts in Prekmurje, from the courts and the gendarmerie to post offices and railway stations, and they had subordinated them in the process to the administrative bodies in Ljubljana.

Another important case indicating a clear rupture with the past involves the new categories introduced for the population. A series of decrees and laws enacted in the weeks and months after World War I had ended revealed that in the newly constituted nation state of South Slavs, citizenship would be “nationalised.” The national belonging ascribed to each citizen would play a crucial role in determining a given citizen’s rights and the extent to which these rights were respected and protected by the authorities. In other words, national belonging would influence the way in which the authorities treated a particular citizen. Since the establishment of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in December 1918, the newfound Yugoslav official ideology propagated the state as a nation state. Serbs, Croats and Slovenes were regarded as constitutive tribes of the so-called three-named nation (troimeni narod), or the Yugoslav nation. In this sense, the new state was understood as a culmination and embodiment of the principle of the national self-determination of one sovereign Yugoslav nation.15 However, alongside Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, many people lived within the borders of the kingdom who identified themselves or were identified by the state administration as members of other national and religious minority communities, for instance Montenegrins, Macedonians, Jews, Germans, Hungarians, Muslims, etc. Following the postwar international agreements on the protection of national minorities, the state granted the members of several of the abovementioned communities a set of specific minority rights. In this sense, the new state officially recognized the existence of several other national groups, the members of which were normatively bestowed equal citizenship rights and, in some cases, also specific minorities rights.16

After acquiring Prekmurje, the new Yugoslav administration began applying the new categories to the local population. Locals who were granted citizenship (the majority of people living in Prekmurje) were divided into two distinct categories. The first one consisted of locals who spoke Slovenian dialects. This part of Prekmurje’s population was regarded as an integral part of the Slovenian tribe and thus as members of the Yugoslav nation. The second category, however, was reserved for members of the local population who were identified by the state administration as belonging either to the German or to the Hungarian minority. According to the peace treaty, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was not allowed to discriminate against citizens who belonged to minorities. But the state bureaucracy nonetheless treated citizens in Prekmurje differently with respect to their presumed national affiliation. Many documents reveal that the level of citizenship rights depended on the ascribed national belonging, as only citizens who were regarded as members of a dominant nation were granted full citizenship rights.17

In addition to the replacement of the state administration and the introduction of the distinction between majority and minority groups, inhabitants of Prekmurje experienced another major shift in the years following the occupation, namely the land reform. In 1919, Prekmurje was a predominantly agricultural region. The majority of the population consisted of peasants who owned no land and farmers who had small holdings. The division of large estates into parcels gave the peasant population of Prekmurje access to a means of basic survival, i.e. land. The decision of the state to introduce the land reform and hence intervene in the existing property relations was thus perhaps the most important rupture affecting the everyday lives of the local population.

The land reform in Prekmurje was part of the broader strategy of rural pacification adopted by the government soon after the proclamation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in December 1918. In the precarious first postwar weeks and months following the proclamation of the new state, the Yugoslav countryside was plagued by a wave of discontent and a series of more or less violent outbreaks.18 The uprisings of the rural population were influenced by a revolutionary movement in Russia and enabled by a fragile state apparatus, massive social deterioration, and a weak or non-existent monopoly of the state on violence. Since the economic recovery was at best gradual, the government decided to use the promise of land reform as a tool to quell rural social movements. As part of this strategy, in February 1919, regent Alexander confirmed a provisional bill that dissolved all large estates in exchange for financial compensation.19

In the years that followed, in Prekmurje as in the rest of the kingdom thousands of hectares of farmland changed the ownership. In truth, the transfer of property (the ownership of arable land) came into effect sluggishly because of the many conflicting interests and the complexity of the process of land division itself. The constant shifting of people in government also slowed down the procedures, as did the complaints concerning the measures, the revisions that were made to the decrees, the annulment of some decrees, and the involvement of political parties. Nonetheless, the change of ownership of arable land transformed the economic and social conditions in the region. Before the beginning of the agricultural reform in Prekmurje, one could cross the whole region from one end to the other (approximately 90 kilometers) without leaving the estates of only twelve large landowners. A good decade after the introduction of the first decrees, almost ten thousand land seekers held legal property rights to 56 percent of the farmland that had formerly been part of large estates. Much of the land was thus still part of large estates, but the land reform enabled many farmers to get their own plots.20


The three post-1919 changes described above significantly influenced the everyday lives and routines of locals living in Prekmurje. In many ways, at least at first glance, the 1919 rhetoric thus indeed did describe actual changes which had taken place in Prekmurje in the years that followed the Yugoslav occupation and the subsequent annexation. Still, did these changes retrospectively substantiate the narrative of a “liberating,” “radical,” and “irreversible” break with the past in the summer of 1919?

To begin with, in post-1919 Prekmurje various institutional practices, administrative procedures and norms, and also everyday habits survived the collapse of the Dual Monarchy. Many sections of Hungarian civil law and other decrees from the Hungarian era were simply translated into Slovenian and remained in force in Prekmurje throughout the interwar period, despite the inclination of the Slovenian provincial government to replace the existing Hungarian body of law with the normative framework that was in use in other territories under its control. In the late 1920s, the “Provisions of Vas County Regarding Buildings and Public Cleanliness” from 1909, for instance, still regulated the urban spatial restructuring of Murska Sobota, the administrative center and commercial hub of Prekmurje, while the unique combination of former Hungarian laws specified the rights of citizens regarding fishing and hunting in Prekmurje.21

The aspirations of Slovenian state actors completely to reorganize everything in Prekmurje were not inhibited solely by pragmatic reasoning and the lack of state resources. Their ability to address and their willingness, ultimately, to tolerate the reality on the ground and the continued attachment to customs and practices were often influenced by conflicts with the expectations of locals. Through dynamic negotiations, locals on many occasions managed to convince the representatives of the Yugoslav state to show some consideration for established practices and existing institutions. When in 1920 the Slovenian administration tried to put the existing network of elementary schools run by the local clergy under the control of the state, the local Catholic and Protestant dignitaries viciously opposed the proposals. As a consequence, until the early 1930s, the network of confessional semi-independent schools remained intact in Prekmurje.22

The occasional willingness of Slovenian judges sent to Prekmurje from Ljubljana to include in their rulings specifics of Hungarian law and practice that did not exist in the existing body of law of the former Cisleithanian lands is also telling. For instance, after the death of Štefan Kerčmar, his wife Fani Kerčmar asserted the right of survivorship (widow’s right), which gave her the right to use her husband’s property until her death or marriage. Though since 1914 the imperial Austrian Civil Code had not acknowledges this right, a Slovenian judge who followed imperial Austrian procedure regarding the inheritance recognized the legality of the widow’s request in the concluding verdict.23

Furthermore, despite the intention of the Slovenian government to purge the administrative bodies in Prekmurje of any Hungarian influence entirely, several Hungarian lower officials retained their positions. Soon after the occupation, the new Slovenian civil servants came to the conclusion that they would not be able to govern without the help of experienced and literate officials fluent in Hungarian. These individuals were familiar with the circumstances on the ground and as such an important source of reliable information about the expectations and needs of local communities, and they could also function as intermediaries between the state institutions, where predominantly Slovenian was used, and locals who spoke only Hungarian.

The example of a dispute which erupted in November 1920 between the two highest representatives of the state authority in Prekmurje concerning the employment of a municipal clerk who had dubious political views illustrates how the pragmatic aspects on many occasions prevailed over political and nationalistic ones. On November 2, the Civil Commissioner wrote to the head of the regional State Police Department, Gustav Puš. He expressed his dissatisfaction with what he saw as the inappropriate prerogatives given to one of Puš’s subordinates. Puš was the highest state law enforcement official, and he also held the position of provisional unelected mayor (gerent) of the Murska Sobota municipality. In the complaint, the Civil Commissioner thus revealed his astonishment at the fact that he had received an official certificate issued by a municipal clerk named Györy. He could not understand how it was possible that Györy was still employed at the municipal office and had the right “to sign documents in the name of municipality and even use the municipal seal,” given that he had recently been convicted by the Civil Commissioner and even served a sentence for having committed anti-state acts. Györy was not loyal to the state, he continued, hence it was “absolutely unacceptable” to grant him authority to issue certificates and handle the official municipal seal. For this reason, the Civil Commissioner instructed the head of the state police and the provisional mayor of Murska Sobota to sort out the scandalous situation. In short, he asked him to replace Györy as a municipal clerk with someone who would be seen as trustworthy by the Slovenian population of Murska Sobota.24

Gustav Puš’s response was surprising. He explained to the Civil Commissioner that Györy was in charge of issuing certificates on the conditions of families and properties so that grain could be distributed to the poor population as had been demanded by the Civil Commissioner in the instructions Puš had recently received. Györy had been entrusted with this task for a good reason, as he knew the conditions of the local population well, Puš asserted. He continued: “I am well aware that Györy was punished, for I was the one who led the investigation in question. At the municipal council meeting on July 23, 1920, Györy was nominated and accepted unanimously to serve as the municipal secretary. The transcript of the municipal meeting in question was sent to the Civilian Commissariat. If today, as the order demands, the district government wants to dismiss him, this would create many difficulties. […] I must point out that Györi has done a good job so far. His specific task has been to compile various lists, such as a list of recruits, a census of livestock, and other things that would be difficult for someone else who does not know the situation, people, and language.” In short, in his role of provisional mayor of Murska Sobota, the head of state police defended diligent work of his subordinate clerk, whom he had previously persecuted. On this occasion, the smooth functioning of the administration took precedence over the more abstract interests of the state.25

These cases suggest that the consequences of the transfer in 1919 of power over the territory were far from radical and irreversible. But neither was the annexation liberating, at least not for many locals living in the region. As mentioned above, the newly founded Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes promised to respect the citizenship rights of all citizens regardless of their nationality and to recognize minority rights of several national communities. In spite of these promises, after the war, Prekmurje’s Hungarian speaking population encountered many obstacles. The majority of the educated Hungarian speaking inhabitants of Prekmurje left the region after the occupation and annexation and settled in the new state of Hungary. Others, especially Hungarian administrative employees and teachers, were fired soon after the occupation because they allegedly did not speak the official language of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.26 Their departure was a major reason why it was difficult to set up a network of schools for the Hungarian minority. The interwar circumstances were precarious from the perspective of elementary schooling in Hungarian. This eventually led to a decrease in the number of pupils and, later, to the almost complete abolishment of minority schools in the region.27

In addition to disrespecting the rights of the Hungarian minority to their own educational institutions, the new authorities discriminated against members of the Hungarian minority, especially its rural segment, in another way. Hungarian speaking peasants, who densely inhabited the area around Lendava along the new border with Hungary, were also excluded from the land reform. Though the local Hungarian speaking farmers and rural communities were initially allowed to rent out arable land of the sequestered and dissolved large estates, they were forbidden in the second stage from buying it, and hence they were prevented from becoming proper owners. This opportunity was given to locals and newcomers considered Slovenians instead of to Prekmurje’s Hungarian speaking population. In contrast with what took place in some other parts of Yugoslavia, the exclusion was not about citizenship, but about the presumed nationality of the locals. At the beginning of the reform, the Yugoslav administration allowed peasants and farmers in Prekmurje who either spoke Hungarian or identified as Hungarians to lease the land, even though they still held the right to opt for Hungarian citizenship. Yet, in 1924, when these locals had become citizens of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, their contracts were revoked on the basis of their presumed nationality, which was determined by using the 1921 census. The officials of the district state agency responsible for the land reform in Prekmurje analyzed records of the census taken in villages along the Yugoslav-Hungarian border and postulated that the declaration of a local citizen’s mother tongue should be regarded as an objective marker of his or her national identity. In this sense, the state officials classified inhabitants of villages who declared Hungarian as their mother tongue as being of Hungarian nationality and, as such, potentially unreliable citizens, whose ownership of the land along the border could cause potential problems for the integrity of the Yugoslav state.28

The integration of Prekmurje’s Slavophone speakers of the region into the new Yugoslav frame was not exactly smooth either. The incoming administration perceived the Slavophone population of Prekmurje as their Slovenian brothers who had finally been liberated from one thousand years of Hungarian domination. The local Slavophones, however, looked on the newcomers with suspicion. Many of them were in fact patriotic Hungarians who expressed particular notions of self-belonging as Slovenes that did not correspond with the understanding of “Slovene-ness” cultivated in the former Cisleithania. As a result, after the Yugoslav occupation and annexation, two separate notions of “Slovene-ness” began to intersect in the region of Prekmurje. The sentiments of ethnic belonging held by the local Slovenian speakers were very different from the idea of “Slovene-ness” developed and widely disseminated in the course of the nineteenth century on the other side of the former border between the Austrian and Hungarian parts of the Dual Monarchy. The officials who came to the region after the war were for that reason identifying Prekmurje’s Slovenian speakers as a part of their own Slovenian nation, which supposedly stretched from the coasts of the Adriatic to the westernmost parts of Hungary. In contrast, the local inhabitants, with the exception of a few catholic priests, continued to nurture their own local and regional identifications. As a result, in 1919, members of Prekmurje’s Slovenian speaking population predominantly identified themselves as “Sloveni” or “Slovenci,” yet they regarded the incoming Slovenian officials sent to the region as representatives of the new Yugoslav state as Carniolans, Slavs, or simply “newcomers.” Prekmurje’s Slovenes hence did not think of the incoming Slovenes as belonging to the same ethnic group as them.29

The two abovementioned Slovenian groups commonly fought about the role of Prekmurje’s regional literary language, particularly in the educational and church setting. These disagreements were passionate because Prekmurje’s Slovenian was both a symbol of the region’s ethnical particularity and, above all, the language of the local evangelic and Catholic Church. The incoming Slovenian officials, especially teachers, nonetheless treated Prekmurje’s literary tradition in a patronizing and occasionally even contemptuous manner. In their eyes, the Slovenian spoken in Prekmurje was not a language but merely one of the dialects of “proper Slovenian,” and for that reason, it should be eliminated. After all, according to them, a true nation could only have one national literary standard.30 Misunderstandings between the locals and the newcomers were further exacerbated by a particular group of newcomers, the Slovenian teaching staff who fostered and spread liberal views which differed from the view of the local clergy.31

Many archival documents from the months following the annexation reveal the animosity between the local Slovenian speakers and the newly arrived Slovenian administrators. For instance, in April 1922, the commander of Murska Sobota’s gendarmerie reported on the positive responses of the local Slovenian “nationally unconscious intelligentsia” to Hungarian propaganda in support of border revisions and the return of Prekmurje to Hungary. According to the sources, along with the local Hungarians, some Slovenes also supported the return of the region to Hungary, more specifically “all the Lutherans, including Lutheran innkeepers, pastors, and teachers.” The writer of this report continued with the following claim: “Prekmurje’s people hate us—Serbs especially—and are convinced that they form a particular, not Slovenian nation.”32 Furthermore, under these tense circumstances, Jožef Klekl, a priest, a member of the national assembly, and one of the very few people in Prekmurje who had supported the Slovenian national movement in the prewar times, was declared a threat to the state because of his autonomist viewpoints.33


In conclusion, after August 1919, the inhabitants of Prekmurje had to confront the reality of living in a state in which the institutional framework and the political culture differed considerably from what they had experienced in the Kingdom of Hungary. The new Yugoslav state actors who came to the region replaced the Hungarian officials, but that was certainly not all they did. Almost immediately after the region’s incorporation into the new state, they started to introduce new administrative practices and state institutions, together with a new normative framework that legally divided the body of citizens into separate communities along the lines of presumed or expressed nationality. Generally speaking, the administrative apparatus treated the Slavophone majority of Prekmurje as a constitutive part of the “three-named nation,” and it classified local German-speaking and Hungarian-speaking communities as parts of two recognized minority groups. Last not least, the Yugoslav state enacted the land reform and radically intervened in the existing ownership relations. Thousands of local Slavophone farmers were given an opportunity to become owners of the land they cultivated.

However, a closer examination of several aspects of the local circumstances in Prekmurje in the decade after the incorporation of the region into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes offers a much more nuanced interpretation of the changes which took place. Instead of supporting the characterization of the annexation as a moment of radical rupture, the events which took place on the ground suggest that the changes occurring in the summer of 1919 in Prekmurje instigated a process of pragmatic adaptations and gradual transformations framed by many aspects of the imperial past. In this sense, the documents which survive speak for themselves, and they also cast a shadow of doubt on the prevailing Slovenian national narrative, according to which the summer of 1919 was the moment of the unification of the Slovenes of Prekmurje with the mother nation.

Archival Sources

Arhiv Republike Slovenije [Archives of the Republic of Slovenia] (ARS)

Pokrajinska in študijska knjižnica Murska Sobota [Regional Library Murska Sobota] (PIŠK)


Printed sources

Službene novine Kraljestva Srba, Hrvata i Slovenaca. http://sluzbenenovine.rs


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Kosnica, Ivan. “Odnos državljanstva i nacionalne pripadnosti u Kraljevini SHS/Jugoslaviji” [Relation between citizenship and nationality in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes/Yugoslavia]. Zbornik Pravnog Fakulteta u Zagrebu 68, no. 1 (2018): 61–83.

Kovács, Attila. “Agrarna reforma in kolonizacija na območju Dolnje Lendave med obema vojnama” [Land reform and colonization in the area of Dolnja Lendava in the interwar period]. Razprave in gradivo, no. 53/54 (2007): 68–97.

Kyovsky, Rudy. “Trianonska pogodba in slovensko-ogrska meja” [The Treaty of Trianon and the Slovene-Hungarian border]. In Revolucionarno vrenje v Pomurju v letih 1918–1920, edited by Janko Liška, 236–59. Pomurska založba, 1981.

Lipovšek, Gašpar. Lovski in ribiški zakon: (zak. člen XX. 1883 in XIX. 1888) veljaven v Prekmurju [Hunting and fishing laws: (law XX of 1883 and XIX of 1888) valid in the territory of Prekmurje]. Gornja Radgona: Tiskarna Panonija, 1927.

Milić, Ivo. Pregled madžarskog privatnog prava: u poredjenju sa austrijskim gradjanskim zakonikom [An overview of the Hungarian civil law: In comparison to the Austrian Civil Code]. Subotica: autor, 1921.

Nemec, Janez. “Pravo v Prekmurju po 12. avgustu 1919” [Body of law in Prekmurje after August 12, 1919]. Časopis za zgodovino in narodopisje 60, no. 1 (1989): 54–64.

Newman, John Paul. “Post-Imperial and Post-War Violence in the South Slav Lands, 1917–1923.” Contemporary European History 19, no. 3 (2010): 249–65.

Prott, Volker. The Politics of Self-Determination: Remaking Territories and National Identities in Europe, 1917–1923. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Slavič, Matija. “Prekmurske meje v diplomaciji” [ Diplomacy and borders of Prekmurje]. In Slovenska krajina: Zbornik ob petnajstletnici osvobojenja, edited by Vilko Novak, 83–107. Beltinci: Konzorcij, 1935.

Slavič, Matija. Carte etnographique de Prekomurje: D’après la statistique officielle hongroise de 1890. Paris: Courtier & Cie, 1919.

Troch, Pieter. “Yugoslavism between the World Wars: Indecisive Nation Building.” Nationalities Papers 38, no. 2 (March 2010): 227–44.

1* The research for and writing of this article were funded by the ERC Nepostrans Consolidator Grant under the contract 772264.

In this text, I use the shorter term “Yugoslavia” to describe the polity that was officially known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

2 On the border-drawing practices employed at the Conference, see Prott, The Politics, 113–47; Crampton, “The Cartographic.”

3 Kosi, “The Imagined,” 90–94; Kosi, “Slovenski nacionalni.”

4 On ethno-linguistic nationalism, see Kamusella, “The History”; much more broadly Kamusella, The politics.

5 On Slavič’s contribution to the “Slovene cause,” see his personal account: Slavič, “Prekmurske meje,” 83–92.

6 Slavič, “Carte ethnographique.”

7 Kyovsky, “Trianonska pogodba,” 236–59; Hornyák, Hungarian-Yugoslav, 46–49.

8 For an overview, see Feiszt, “Revolucionarni pokret,” 345–52; Kokolj, “Prekmurje v prevratnih,” 53–205.

9 On the Czech example, see Bugge, “Czech democracy,” 24.

10 Kokolj, Prekmurski Slovenci, 21–22.

11 Arhiv Republike Slovenije (ARS). Pokrajinska uprava za Slovenijo – predsedstvo (AS 60), Prekmurje IV, V. 10417, 2.9.1919.

12 ARS. AS 60, Prekmurje IV, V. 10417/1919. Upravna ureditev v Prekmurju, 2.9.1919.

13 ARS. AS 60, Prekmurje IV, V. 10595/1919, 6.9.1919.

14 ARS. AS 60, Prekmurje IV, V. 10092, Položaj v Prekmurju, 26.8.1919.

15 On the nature of citizenship in interwar Yugoslavia, see Kosnica, “Odnos državljanstva,” 61–83; Štiks, Nations and citizens, 32–34. On the idea of “troimeni narod,” see Troch, “Yugoslavism between,” 229–32.

16 For more detailed information on the minority and religious rights in Yugoslavia, see Greble, “The Uncertain,” para. 9–17.

17 Kovács, “Agrarna reforma,” 68–97. Komac, “Narodne manjšine,” 59–66.

18 Banac, “Emperor Karl,” 284–305; Newman, “Post-imperial and post-war,” 249–65; Beneš, “The Green Cadre,” 207–41.

19 Službene novine Kraljestva Srba, Hrvata i Slovenaca, February 27, 1919, no. 11.

20 Kokolj, Prekmurski Slovenci, 483–591.

21 On regulations concerning the outlook of public space in Murska Sobota, see Brumen, “Panonskost Murske Sobote,” 91–102. The fishing and hunting rights in Prekmurje were regulated with the official translation of fragments of Hungarian laws combined with administrative procedures that were used in the former Cisleithanian lands; see Lipovšek, Lovski in ribiški.

22 Kokolj, Horvat, Prekmursko šolstvo, 318–24.

23 Nemec, “Pravo v Prekmurju,” 54–64. On differences between the Hungarian and Austrian inheritance law, see Milić, Pregled, 58–76.

24 Pokrajinska in študijska knjižnica Murska Sobota (PIŠK). SI_PIŠK/0001/001/001/00027. Dopis Civilnega komisarja, predstojniku oddelka državne policije o potrebni zamenjavi občinskega tajnika v občini Murska Sobota, 11.2.1920.

25 Ibid.

26 Kosi, “Slovene ethnolinguistic,” (forthcoming).

27 Göncz, “Madžarska manjšina,” 81.

28 Kovács, “Agrarna reforma,” 68–97.

29 Kosi, “The Imagined,” 95–102.

30 Kosi, “Slovene ethnolinguistic,” (forthcoming).

31 Kokolj, Horvat, Prekmursko šolstvo, 307–9.

32 ARS. AS 60, Prekmurje IV, V.Pov 1890/IV. Madžarska propaganda v Prekmurju, 15.4.1922.

33 ARS. AS 60, Prekmurje IV, V. Pov. 6573/IV. Klekl Jožef, upokojeni župnik in narodni poslanec v Prekmurju, informacija, 8.6.1921.

pdfVolume 9 Issue 1 CONTENTS

Addressing the Trianon Peace Treaty in Late Socialist Hungary: Societal Interest and Available Narratives

Réka Krizmanics
Central European University/University of Leipzig
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In the 1970s and 1980s, the state socialist regime of Hungary was aware of its failure to provide serious ideological reflection on the national question. The party actively sought information about contemporary historical and national consciousness and reacted both in policy and institutional terms. Within the framework of these developments, discourses about the Trianon Peace Treaty of 1920, which constitutes an especially traumatic episode of twentieth-century Hungarian history, also started to become more varied. Historians were in the center of these processes, although they operated often in a reactive manner both with regard to domestic journalistic and literary circles and to foreign scholars who discussed the same issue. The article provides an overview of the dynamics of late socialist science policy pertaining to the national question and the different discourses about the Trianon Peace Treaty that emerged during this period.

Keywords: socialist patriotism, Trianon Peace Treaty, historiography, science policy

This article analyzes the ways in which the Trianon Peace Treaty, a uniquely important point of reference in Hungarian national history, was discussed in the 1970s and 1980s and how the state learned about people’s interests in this question and historical research itself, which indirectly fueled such conversations. The 1920 Trianon Peace Treaty brought about the breakup of Hungary, resulting in great territorial, economic, population, and political losses and significantly influencing the course of twentieth-century Hungarian history.1 I was interested in what kinds of (historical) narratives people had access to during the years of late socialism if they sought to read about the event and its consequences, beyond the chronologically defined narratives used in primary and secondary education. In order to uncover the situatedness of these narratives, I built my analysis on an institutional and policy-based tenet, which is followed by discussion of the production of related historical knowledge. Reviewing the most important decisions of the people who defined limits of historical discourse in the socialist state, it also became crucial to engage with the development of the idea of socialist patriotism in this period, as its (in)capacity to reflect on Trianon was one of its ultimate tests of applicability.

Similar investigations merit scholarly attention, as memory politics in post-2010 illiberal Hungary and a parallel system of knowledge-producing institutions (in the making)2 has a very specific and rather simplified agenda when it comes to depictions of historians as disinterested in issues that are corollary to national history under state socialism. These phenomena are perhaps particularly conspicuous and influential in Hungary, but there certainly is a regional trend in the devaluation of knowledge production under state socialism.3 Hence, the well-known argument for the “return of the national” after 1989 is often evoked and remains dominant in regional scholarship, although critiques of this argument have been published, mostly by researchers from outside the region, most recently, by John Connelly.4 With my analysis, which identifies instances of discourses on Trianon and investigates their structural embeddedness in the infrastructure and politics of historical knowledge production, I would like to contribute to the literature that emphasizes continuities between pre and post-1989(/1991) historiographies, especially the resilience of the nation as the main actor,5 while appreciating the importance of the realization of the freedom of speech, which gave great impetus to historical research after the transition.

Late socialist Hungarian historiography showed a gradual liberalization which found expression primarily in the growing variety of narratives. As there were practically no historical taboos left by the 1980s, with the exception of the 1956 uprising and the events of the Soviet occupation in World War II, this ongoing liberalization, which was non-linear nonetheless, was less palpable in terms of approaching topics that had been beyond reach. That being said, historical knowledge production remained tied to state-funded institutions, and various actors in science policy influenced their research agendas partially either by ordering specific projects or by issuing mid-term and long-term research plans.6

In what follows, first I am going to discuss the ways in which the party-state sought to familiarize itself with contemporary historical consciousness and attitudes towards the national-nationality question. This will be followed by consideration of the different reactions prompted by the conclusions of these efforts. The third section investigates theoretical interventions of (mostly) historians in relation to the national question and its link to the issue of Hungarian minorities in national consciousness. Lastly, I offer a discursive typology to map the different historical narratives that were publicly available about the Trianon Peace Treaty in late socialist Hungary.

The Inquisitive State: Surveys of National Consciousness during Late Socialism

State socialist regimes, including Kádár regime, aimed actively to shape social consciousness, mainly through the channels of state education but also through popular and party education. In the course of the 1970s and 1980s, numerous works pointed towards the decreasing appeal of communist ideological messages, as they were increasingly deemed empty and detached from reality. These calls were not independent from the practical implication of György Aczél’s often contradictory, conciliatory claims aiming to solidify the hegemony of Marxism. The mastermind of Hungarian cultural politics in most of the 1970s and the early 1980s, Aczél claimed that hegemony is desirable instead of monopoly, while he rejected the idea of “multiple Marxisms.”7 At the same time, other state socialist regimes in the region also had to come to terms with the realization that the importance of national belonging does not seem to wither.

A telling example of how socialist leaders understood that national consciousness did not fade away is that of literary historian István Király, a close collaborator of Aczél. An entry in his diary in November 1970 reads, “It is rather strange how freely we can be anti-Romanian. Only a few years ago, I got into an argument with Illyés [Gyula Illyés, internationally acclaimed writer – R.K.] because of the five million Hungarians who live beyond the borders of Hungary proper. I defended the Party. Today, good Communists are echoing him.”8 Király was an ideologist of culture who tried to position himself somewhere halfway between reform communists and the so-called agrarian populist authors.9 His observation indicates that at the beginning of the period under investigation, the national question, often in connection with the Trianon Peace Treaty, was not only a concern of those who were linked to the loose group of agrarian populist authors or part of a current that voluntarily withdrew from the public sphere because of their incompatibility with the regime. Rather, it was self-evident that the nation as a historical category remained important for the individuals who made up contemporary socialist society. Therefore, Király believed, taking into consideration the existing though fading ideological complex, both literature and historiography had to preserve and develop contents relevant for national consciousness (and subsequently raised awareness) that would be compatible with the values of socialist society. Király, who was an important representative of the current that advocated for the cultivation of socialist ideology, considered emotional attachment part and parcel of this national consciousness that was to be hammered out.10 He thus realized quite soon the limited appeal of theorization concerning socialist national consciousness and the perhaps more limited potential of any state attempt actually to fashion such a national consciousness.

These impressions found expression not only in the challenges that state socialist regimes faced all across the Eastern Bloc and in Yugoslavia (Polish, Hungarian, East German uprisings, the Croatian Spring, and the Belgrade protests). Király’s observation was confirmed by polls which measured habits of cultural consumption and value changes. A poll conducted in 1971 (but only published in 1976) asserted that a large portion of Hungarian society was interested in the interrelated issues of the Trianon Peace Treaty and the minority Hungarian communities:


The answers were quite equable in relation to the statement that “He/she is deeply embittered by the Trianon Peace Treaty.” 70.4 percent of the participants consider this statement valid for them (mostly the intellectuals, unskilled workers, and agricultural physical workers, it is least likely among free professions, employees, and skilled workers). 19.4 percent answered no (in the cases of the two youngest age cohorts, these answers exceeded 40 percent). (We obtained valuable answers from 46 percent of the participants).

With a small margin, the people who rejected the following statement with a double negation formed majority: “He/she did not approve of the returning of the Transylvanian and Upper Hungarian [i.e. Slovakia] territories” (50.2 percent). 42.2 percent of the participants agreed with the statement (especially employees, skilled workers, and homemakers). (Only 59 percent of the sample gave valid answers). 11

The researchers emphasized that numerous circumstances may have prevented the participants from giving honest answers. However, the conclusion was still easily drawn on the basis of the 500 samples: the national question, which included Trianon, remained a relevant issue for a significant portion of Hungarian society. Although generational differences were palpable in the ways in which people related to the past, the topic continued to generate interest, as György Csepeli has concluded in his monograph.12

Partly due to these phenomena, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS) put the investigation of the national issue on its agenda of long-term research projects, with a promise that interdisciplinary cooperation would be an element of the projects at every stage of the research. The Mass Communication Research Center of the Hungarian Radio and Television (Magyar Rádió és Televízió Tömegkommunikációs Kutatóközpont), in cooperation with HAS, became a central organ to research on national consciousness in the beginning of the 1970s.

One of the most important cooperative endeavors was realized within the framework of the main research focus of HAS. It was entitled The Development of Hungarian Historical Consciousness after the Liberation, and it can be considered an early attempt at researching national consciousness.13 Although the main goals of the research did not point directly towards the issue of Trianon, it is important to emphasize here that a prehistory existed to the broad sociological surveys which also sought to investigate historical and national consciousness and the ways in which historical knowledge was mobilized by Hungarian society.14

Perhaps the most important comprehensive research project was launched at the beginning of the 1980s. The project proposal, entitled National Consciousness in Hungary: The National-Nationality Question in Our Politics, was drafted by the Agitation and Propaganda Department of the Central Committee. The main goal of the project was to determine “what the population of Hungary feels and thinks about the national question, what they identify with, what the contradictory elements of their thinking and feelings are, what the content of contemporary national consciousness is, and what the tendencies of development are.”15 The subsequent studies delivered important conclusions to the leaders of the regime, who had been hoping for a gradual withering away of the significance of identification with the “nation.”

Institutional Reactions: Science Policy and Research Plans

The politics of science and culture drew the necessary conclusions. The issue of patriotic education became ever more pressing under the aegis of the “youth problem,” and new momentum gathered in the support for popular historiography, a hitherto less influential genre. In the end, the state socialist regime was aware of and made efforts to understand and give a (new) scientific basis to the national question, not only in a reactive (e.g. to manifestations of Romanian nationalism) but also in a proactive manner.

The Science Policy Committee (Tudománypolitikai Bizottság), an institution under the auspices of the Council of Ministers,16 acted as the supporting institution of deliberating organs with competence in matters of science policies in the period under investigation. The committee was headed by one of the appointed deputy prime ministers.17 Other committees were also involved in policy-making, most importantly the Coordinating Committee for Social Sciences (Társadalomtudományi Koordinációs Bizottság), which was founded as a sub-committee to the Science Policy Committee in 1975 to serve as an advising and evaluating body, which also had the right to submit proposals. The latter prepared proposals for the Central Committee and was entrusted with instructing working groups which collaborated in research projects already underway.

For the purposes of this study, I am going to focus on the competencies and activities of the Science Policy Committee that directly pertained to the initiatives that were connected to research on national consciousness and, therefore, the place of Trianon on the mental map of the average Hungarian. The documents that were preserved in the archives of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences enable a partial reconstruction of the committee’s activities. One should add that the length and utility of the records are rather uneven.

In 1982, the Science Policy Committee adopted a resolution in the presence of Imre Pozsgay, the Minister of Education at the time. This resolution established that the Ministry of Culture and the HAS would launch a new, long-term research direction entitled The Exploration, Cataloging, and Publication of Our Cultural and Historical Traditions. The resolution emphasized the need to take into consideration research projects that had been initiated earlier but were directly connected to the realization of this research trend, noting that these running projects had already been given a high priority by party organs.18

General objectives were set and a detailed list of tasks was also prepared in order to provide clear instructions for research institutes that were to be involved in the implementation of the research plan (Institute of History HAS, Institute of Literature HAS, Mass Communication Research Center HRT19). The main areas of interest included the development of political and historical thought, especially Marxist thought in Hungary, the national question in capitalist and developing countries, press coverage of the preceding five years on issues of patriotism and socialist internationalism and the presence of patriotism and socialist internationalism in primary and secondary education, recent manifestations of socialist patriotism and internationalism in Hungary’s neighboring countries, and artistic depictions of Hungarian history.20

The records of the Committee that dealt with the history of Hungarian minorities in Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia and their relations to Hungary mostly used terms like “(people of the) Danube Region” (Duna-táji népek), “(people of the) Danube Valley” (Duna-völgyi népek), and Central Eastern Europe. This set of terms can be seen as a semantic experiment. Instead of using terms that were associated with the former Hungarian rule and evoked by the dominant, nationalist-irredentist discourses of the interwar era, the Committee opted to use strictly geographical, often composite units, pointing towards the creation of a discourse that would include these topics in a manner which was compatible with the idea of socialist patriotism. This language was rooted in interwar and immediate post-1945 discussions of the left, especially in the writings of Oszkár Jászi and István Bibó. The fact that the Committee ordered this research project signals the genuine wish of the state socialist leadership to learn more about the relevance and content of contemporary national consciousness by using the available interdisciplinary research methods.

The analysis of Hungarian national consciousness showed that, even if the dominant frame of reference remained the nation state, contemporary Hungarian national consciousness included a sense of solidarity among several segments of society with the minority Hungarian communities. Although these tendencies had been acknowledged in the secondary literature since the beginning of the 1970s, it was not until 1984 that the first institution was established the existence of which confirmed that leaders in science and cultural politics drew the necessary conclusions from the abovementioned studies and acknowledged the raison d’être of these ideas.

This institution called Hungarian Studies Group (Magyarságkutató Csoport) was established based on the 1984 resolution of the Agitation and Propaganda Committee. The research group was to operate under the umbrella of the National Széchényi Library. The historian Gyula Juhász was appointed head of the research group. According to the resolution, the research group was supposed to focus on three major areas:


1. The national-nationality questions and problems of national consciousness. Relying on the research that had been carried out previously primarily by the IH HAS under the title “National Consciousness in Hungary, the National-Nationality Question in Our Age,” but also research carried out by others…[…]…The main purpose of this study is to clarify how we can encourage the expression of the great forces that the national idea contains in harmony with socialist consciousness. It is also important to pursue research in order to develop further the Marxist theory of the nation according to our contemporary standards.

The continuation of the research initiatives that are developing further the Marxist theory of nations is essential according to the needs of our time. Providing help in the demanding realization of the national-nationality question in education, tertiary education, and public education is a priority in the course of the investigation of this topic.

2. The second large topic of Hungarian studies is the complex and continuous research on the contemporary as well as historical, economic, social, and cultural circumstances of Hungarians living abroad. Since no systematic research has been carried out yet, an essential prerequisite of truly scientific research includes the consecutive exploration, collection, and ordering of sources, statistical data, etc. in order to prepare a so-called databank.21

The third topic pertained to Hungarian studies and related research abroad. The fact that the resolution relied heavily on the results of previously conducted research into national consciousness is proven best by the description of the first topic.22

The authors of the resolution specified the ways in which they envisioned the realization of the tasks and dedicated four subprograms to it. Pál Zsigmond Pach, head of the Institute of History of HAS, was appointed to lead the activities of the first subprogram, which was entitled The National-Nationality Question and Research into the Problems of National Consciousness. Director Juhász was entrusted with the leadership of the second subprogram, called Complex and Continuous Research into the History and Contemporary Circumstances of Hungarians Living Abroad. The third subprogram was assigned to Péter Dippold, an expert in library studies, under the title The Exploration and Ordering of Sources that Concern Hungarians Living in Neighboring Countries as Well as in Diaspora: The Creation of a So-Called Data Bank. The last subprogram was named Research Aiding the Transmission and Education of Hungarian Studies. It was put under the leadership of linguist János Pusztay.23 The slow process of institutionalization manifested most visibly in the configurations of the research community and the new variations to describe and interpret the national-nationality question. It was not long before this growing plurality became apparent on the international scene as well.


Historians, Socialist National Consciousness, and Minority Hungarians

Informed by the surveys already discussed and various debates among regime-compatible intellectuals and fellow travelers, the state treated the issue of shaping national consciousness within the broader framework of socialist thought-shaping (szocialista tudatformálás). In that process, research centers were considered background institutions,24 and historians came to play a prominent role. Neither professional nor popularizing discussions about national consciousness were confined to the research institutions or the pages of professional journals though. Various influential outlets including the party’s theoretical journal Társadalmi Szemle (Social Review) published regularly on the issue (sometimes quite lengthy articles), but from time to time, the topic emerged in dailies and even in interviews.25

Socialist national consciousness was primarily conceptualized in juxtaposition to bourgeois national consciousness. The scholarship of the 1970s acknowledged several further stages of national consciousness: undeveloped national formations, nation of the transitory period, the communist nation, as well as corresponding, self-reflexive national consciousness in the case of each.26 A theoretical piece suggested the adoption of the Soviet definition in order to identify the prerequisites of socialist national consciousness: social homogeneity, a community of interest in terms of economy and politics, uniform cultural and intellectual identity, an internationalist worldview of society.27 It is important to notice the centrality of the nation state, a geographical and spiritual entity that is defined by solid borders: its acknowledged continuous importance preempted a conflict between the nation-centered historiography that was inherited from the interwar period and the political expectations that were transmitted in party resolutions.

Of the historians of the Modern era, two leaders of the Institute of History of HAS contributed most frequently to the debates about national consciousness. Alongside Pál Zsigmond Pach, head of the Institute of History of HAS, and research fellow Ferenc Glatz, (later deputy head of the Institute of History) and research fellow Mária Ormos28 also published on the topic in the course of the 1980s.29 However, only Pach and Glatz participated systematically in these discussions, and their publications concentrated explicitly on the ideological implications of the national question. Therefore, my study is going to limit itself to the analysis of their writings. Most of the reflections on contemporary historical consciousness encompassed centuries in their argumentative parts and avoided a clear focus on a single event. The rhetorical strength of these arguments was in fact provided in part by the large temporal framework and well-established generalizations.

Contributions pertaining to the development of socialist consciousness during late socialism harkened back to the Molnár debate, the single most important ideological-historical debate of the early years of the Kádár regime. Erik Molnár (1894–1966) was a lawyer by training, and he tried his hand in historical research and concomitant ideological work as well when he was member of the Hungarian government between 1944 and 1956. In 1949, he also took the position of the head of the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences. The Molnár debate took place after the 1956 uprising30 and provided a forum for presentations of multiple forms of possible historical consciousness under state socialism. Molnár was staunchly internationalist, and he characterized all national movements in Hungarian history as having only benefitted the ruling classes (feudal lords and the bourgeoisie) and criticized scholarship, interwar and communist alike, when it tried to locate the “national” in settings when it was anachronistic or simply absent (e.g. conflation with religious identity). Molnár’s internationalist inclinations were especially critical of “popular Marxist” tendencies (propagated by Aladár Mód and Erzsébet Andics among others from early on),31 according to which the anti-Habsburg struggles were progressive movements. Molnár, on the one hand, was challenged by a handful of historians (including György Ránki and Péter Hanák) for absolutizing class antagonisms.32 This brief contextualization was necessary, as much of the following analysis was framed even by contemporaries as a later stage of this very same debate, though Molnár died in 1966.33

Pach claimed repeatedly throughout the 1970s and 1980s that the post-1945 patriotism of the builders of socialism was continuous with what he called the popular-democratic national consciousness of the Revolution of 1848–1849. Pach identified the radical fringe of the 1848 revolutionary leaders (Sándor Petőfi, Mihály Táncsics, and Pál Vasvári) as the first representatives of this trend.34 After the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, nationalism and patriotism parted ways according to the Marxist interpretations that Pach adopted. However, he successfully linked the 1848 Revolution to the democratic revolution of 1918 and the short-lived 1919 Communist regime based on the premise that “the idea of social progress intertwined with the progressive trends of national ideology in both cases.”35 Pach reacted to Király’s study as well, claiming that Király’s judgement failed when he proclaimed that supranationalism posed the greater ideological danger as opposed to nationalism. Pach had a historicized view of the development of socialist consciousness and surrounding discussions, which naturally meant that he was ready to historicize its role in it as well.

Revisiting the Molnár debate explicitly, Pach criticized the fact that in support of the different arguments, only Hungarian historical examples were cited, though he immediately explained the reason for this: “On the one hand, our view of history was only beginning to gain certain national colors…; on the other hand, among historians it was still something of a taboo—we did not want to stir the issue. We only dealt with our shortcomings, this was not only dominant but exclusive.”36 This use of words can only be interpreted fully within the semantic field of earlier works. It was previously often emphasized by policy makers and historians (in fact, this attitude only faded away in the mid-1980s) that those who had an objection against nationalism(s) of neighboring countries should make sure first that the domestic scene was devoid of any distortions of bourgeois nationalism.37

Although Pach himself discussed the issue of national consciousness in relation to minority Hungarians, he usually did so in a rather opaque way, using periphrases. The contributions of Glatz and Péter Hanák, renowned historian of the Dualist Era,38 were more direct and radical. Still, it is worth paying attention to the less dynamically changing semantics of Pach they are good indicators of changes in the rhetoric of the party in matters of the national-nationality question, as he was in the Institute of History since its creation in 1949, and he proved politically reliable both before and after 1956. Eventually, he rose to the position of head of the institute, which he held between 1967 and 1987.

Pach’s interpretative frameworks and use of words reflected quite reliably the discourse about the contemporary national question (reflecting indirectly on the current trends of Hungarian-Romanian relations). He published his views fairly often in Társadalmi Szemle, for instance on the goals of socialist minority politics, which would be the creation of a community the members of which would be “bilingual people who have a dual cultural embeddedness and who concomitantly possess a citizenry-based and a healthy national-nationality consciousness.”39

Péter Hanák clearly went beyond the usual joint mentioning of the national-nationality question. In his article entitled “Nation–National Loyalty–National Consciousness” (Nemzet – nemzeti lojalitás – nemzettudat), Hanák granted equal status to the issue of minority Hungarians in contemporary historical consciousness:


we should treat the Hungarian population of neighboring countries as national minorities, that is to say, as a community with dual bonding. A community that is tied to the Hungarian nation by the threads of history and culture while citizen loyalty and the functioning community links them to their current homeland. This dual bond and dual identity do not necessarily create a paradox, on the contrary, in theory, they may be harmonized in socialist states. In reality, the obligations of dual identity may only be harmoniously integrated if the political system is ready to provide sufficient circumstances for the expression, realization, and development of both identities.40


A similar position was taken by Glatz, whose interventions were published in his own popular historical outlet, História, featuring as editorials or in the column called “Self-Critical Historiography” (Önkritikus Történettudomány). These writings were not historical essays. Rather, they were musings or “readers’ guidelines.” Glatz knew well the proceedings of party meetings where ideological issues were debated, and he quickly adopted the notion of cultural nation as opposed to state nation. Moreover, contrary to the practices of narrowly conceived historical fora, Glatz regularly explicated the anomalies of the minority Hungarian communities whose minority status emanated from the Trianon (and Paris) peace treaty and that of contemporary historical consciousness. Glatz’s line of thought is well illustrated by the following excerpt from 1982:


Trianon. The figures concerning Hungary’s territorial, economical, and first and foremost, social-populational losses after World War I are well-known. Hungary lost almost 70 percent of its former territories and more than half of its population. About 40 percent of Magyars were left outside the borders of the new Hungary and became nationalities, minorities in the new states. The historian has to tell this: there was no other people in history, not even before the national and state formation, which would have taken the loss of two thirds of its population and territory with tranquility, after two generations had passed. For a long time, our historiography and intellectual circles were ruled by incomprehension concerning the national shock of Trianon. We were afraid of lurking nationalism even when concerns were only raised to point to the continuity and presence of the problem. Our historiography today is not particularly surprised anymore that great territorial rearrangements (1920, the collapse of historical Hungary, the territorial revisions of 1938–1942, the return of territories after 1945), the collapse of states and new settlements, the evacuation of the population of entire provinces kept regional historiographies in the aura of momentary “rights,” the mutually committed sins and their supportive arguments.41

Glatz frequently used this framework in the years of late socialism. The fact that these views were transmitted by a popularizing magazine that was published in thousands of copies from the beginning of the 1980s shows that by that time, the Trianon Peace Treaty was a topic that could be approached and read about in various ways.

Historians were involved in the development processes of a gradually more inclusive notion of the nation which included members of the Hungarian minorities in the surrounding states. Research was conducted both on the basis of individual interests and party orderings. The conclusions drawn from the findings of these research projects and their publication for professional, administrative, or popularizing purposes influenced the language that the party used in related issues: the terminologies mutually affected each other.

Narrating Trianon in Historical Works: Three Patterns

Historians, naturally, took part in the shaping of a discourse about Trianon in more direct ways as well, as they researched the peace-making process itself, the genesis of the interwar state, and related aspects. My close reading of the literature produced about the Trianon Peace Treaty reveals three discursive patterns in the historiography, both in professional and in popularizing fora.42 I chose to discuss these two fields together, as popular history was institutionally part of the profession, and the difference between the two was more a matter of style and format than a difference in the quality of supporting research. While the grouping of the discourses yielded significant analytical benefits, I would also like to point to their occasional confluence.

The largest group is constituted by the publications that followed the chronological-neutral pattern. Their common features include a strictly descriptive language that does not allow for the evaluation of the peace treaty or at least dramatically limits criticism. In them, the Trianon Peace Treaty was depicted as a diplomatic act, usually within a broader context of international relations. They strove for a meticulous reconstruction of the preparation process and the effects of the treaty. In order to do this, historians utilized the holdings of Hungarian and Western (most notably English and French) archives. Their reliance on archival sources predestined diplomatic historians to produce texts in which sources are simply rearranged into a narrative. This practice occasionally led to the inclusion of contemporary expressions in scholarly articles in a manner that was not adequately self-reflexive. The two citations that follow are typical representatives of this category. Both were chosen from texts by two prominent diplomatic historians of the period, Mária Ormos and Magda Ádám, respectively:


The peace treaty was made ready, the allied got by and large what they wanted and the former enemies swallowed the bitter pill.43


While earlier England, Italy, and the United States had taken a stand to correct the unjust decisions of the peace treaty and managed to put this possibility in writing in a lettre d’envoi, now the tables have been turned. They discarded Millerand’s suggestion, even though it was originally their idea.44


Gyula Juhász, one of Ormos’s and Ádám’s colleagues at the Institute of History of HAS, and also Géza Jeszenszky, an affiliate of the Karl Marx University of Economics, were important representatives of this trend.

This discursive pattern was not without predecessors, of course. Its most important antecedent or, indeed, the groundwork was the monograph by Zsuzsa L. Nagy (Institute of History, HAS), which was published in 1965.45 As these works all represented the chronology-focused trend of diplomatic history, this made them especially apt for the purposes of textbooks.

The second category consists of works that aimed at the integration of the discussion of the Trianon Peace Treaty within the frameworks of socialist patriotism, hence I call it socialist patriotic pattern. As I pointed out earlier, the interventions of Hungarian intellectuals rarely produced specific theoretical results fitting the local context during late socialism. The overall picture of the field is rather undertheorized and fragmented. However, this apparent lack of a larger, comprehensive framework did not mean a lack of theorizing attempts. The interventions of Erik Molnár, Zsigmond Pál Pach, and István Király are among the most important ones, even though they failed to create a decidedly Hungarian socialist patriotism. Beyond historical works, this pattern was prevalent in policy papers and institutional programs as well, including those that have been introduced in previous sections of this article. The works that qualify for this category contained more evaluative comments and repeatedly cited Lenin’s condemnation of the peace system that emerged after the Great War.46 On a semantic level, these publications used most extensively the terms imperialista békediktátum, or “imperialist peace dictate,” and rablóbéke, or “predacious peace.”

The first example is from História, the first popular historical journal. It was established in 1979. The author is László Kővágó (1923–1990), who was born in Senta/Zenta (Yugoslavia) and who spent his active years in the employment of the Party History Institute. He was known for his publications about the interwar Communist party and the national question and the national-nationality question in the region throughout the twentieth century.


The theses about the national and colonial question called the Paris Peace Treaties and the Western democracies’ brutal and nefarious violence against weak nations and the Comintern repeatedly emphasized the necessity of revolutionary destruction of the peace treaties. At the same time, the Comintern advocated the expediency of federal unification of nation states, based on the Russian experience.47


The second excerpt is from an article by Pach. It showcases the use of the most common terms that denoted the peace treaty.


Later, the severe trauma, the defeat in the Great War, the ruthless history which materialized in the imperialist peace dictate of Trianon, did not become the teacher of life either. What had been done within the boundaries of the homeland before continued beyond it in the post-Trianon times. The thesis of Hungarian cultural supremacy blossomed at a time when the means of direct power were obviously missing.48


Iván T. Berend, the renowned economic historian and President of the HAS 1985–1990, commented in his presidential capacity on the international controversy that emerged around the publication of The History of Transylvania:49


The Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and the affiliates of its respective institutes accept historical realities, and we all, as has been emphasized in our Presidential Proclamation, share the relevant resolutions of the Helsinki closing accords, which include both guarantees for the current status quo and human rights. However, this does not change the truth that was proclaimed by Lenin as well, that the peace following the Great War was imperialist and predacious and that the Hungarian Soviet Republic cannot be seen as a nationalist action against Romania.50


The contexts of the three excerpts show that authors, who were trying to situate their contributions in relation to socialist patriotism, did so in several formats and at times when they belonged to different institutions of historical knowledge production with similarly diverse positions in their respective hierarchies. Therefore, it can be established that discussions of the Trianon Peace Treaty within the framework of socialist patriotism were not confined to a single genre, institution, or political self-positioning.

The third and least voluminous discussion referred to the peace treaty through its most visible contemporary impacts, and for that reason I refer to it as the pattern defined by the national-nationality question. It appeared at various fora, including cultural journals and policy speeches. The most important feature of this discourse was the way it used the notion of Trianon as a metonym to allude to the “questions concerning the fate of the Hungarian nation,” or “a magyarság sorskérdései” or to call attention to current issues. The fact that this strategy worked (the works were allowed to appear in print, the readership was able to decode them, and they were soon sought after) proves that Trianon has been made into a cultural code that garnered attention and established a place for itself in late socialist media. These texts, irrespective of their authors, who might have been ministers or historians who regularly published in samizdat, emphasized the need to incentivize research with regard to Hungarian communities in the neighboring countries. For instance. Lajos Für, a historian with an agrarian populist agenda, made the following claim:


When we say that the territory of the country shrunk to its ca. one third, sticking to the mere facts, it appears to be expedient to add that one third of the Hungarian-speaking population was left beyond the borders of the new country and became one of the minority communities of neighboring states. Our textbooks diligently and accurately describe the national minorities of historical Hungary and mention in a sober and open manner that in the territories that were ripped away…Hungarians lived. Would it hurt anybody’s sensitivities to publish exact numerical data as well?51

The second example is provided by an article by Béla Köpeczi, General Secretary of the HAS at the time of publication and later Minister of Education:


Concerning the nationalism of the peoples of the Danube region, even though we may understand their aggressiveness until the formation of their nation states, their responsibility cannot be denied for the fate of the region after 1919. The ruling class of the new nation states learned much from Hungarian landlords and bourgeoisie with regard to the oppression of minorities. A comparative analysis of these nationalisms would be most beneficial, as it would show that they have many common sources and mutually reinforced one another.52


In this format, emotional approaches became apparent, either in a fervent condemnation of the peace treaty and current minority affairs or in a more personal manner.


Late socialism in Hungary is usually described as a period of gradual relaxation in which ideological rigidity and ideology’s general significance steadily decreased. Arguably, the late and timid acceptance of the persistence of the nationality question was of special importance in this context. The ultimate failure of the regime to establish a long-lasting relatable ideological promise and identification (socialist patriotism practically vanished soon after the transition) does not mean that no efforts had been taken on the part of different actors. Leading ideologues and strongmen of science and cultural policy were completely blindsided or paralyzed by this phenomenon.

My article sought to recover a single aspect of the attempt to fill the ideological notion of socialist patriotism with a content which would give it serious societal resonance. Zooming in on the ideological interventions and historiographical narrative strategies of the period in relation to the Trianon Peace Treaty, I offer an account of diverse approaches that were available in official publications. The fact that the consequences of the peace treaty, a key issue in national memory, were not present simply in diverse historical works, but rather several distinct patterns emerged, proves that there was a discursive space which allowed for the pursuit and publication of related research. Excerpts from the writings of prominent historians at the time demonstrate that they were able to establish explicitly the logical link between Trianon and the contemporary situation of Hungarian minorities, even if samizdat publications went further in that direction.

From the perspective of today, we know that historians enjoyed the last decades of authority over matters of historical issues in late socialism, though writers, especially agrarian populist writers, were already posing a serious challenge to them. Approaching the one hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Trianon Peace Treaty, insightful observations may be made in relation to the afterlives of the discursive patterns introduced here, and their place in the context of policy and institutional survival.

Archival Sources

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Tudománypolitikai Bizottság [Science Policy Committee]

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Hunyady, György. “Áttekintés az MRT Tömegkommunikációs Központ munkájáról” [An overview of the work of the Mass Communication Research Center of the Hungarian Radio and Television]. Szociológia 1, no. 4 (1972): 573–77.

Hunyady, György, and Katalin Pörzse. Vélekedések a XX. század történetéről és a családok múltjáról [Beliefs about the history of the twentieth century and families’ pasts]. Tanulmányok. Budapest: Tömegkommunikációs Kutatóközpont, 1976.

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1 For a detailed discussion of the peace treaty, see Bárdi, Fedinec, and Szarka, Minority Hungarian Communities in the Twentieth Century, Section I.

2 Egry, “Constructing a New Past in Hungary.”

3 Michela, “The Struggle for Legitimacy,” 118.

4 Connelly, From Peoples into Nations, especially Chapter 21.

5 Górny, The Nation Should Come First; Palmowski, Inventing a Socialist Nation; Verdery, National Ideology under Socialism.

6 Ember, “Tervezés és szervezés a történettudományban.”

7 Aczél, “Művelődéspolitikánk a marxizmus hegemóniájáért,” 111.

8 Napló 1956–1989, 199.

9 Agrarian populists, a loosely organized circle of intellectuals who rose to prominence in the interwar period, propagating a “third way” for Hungary that would be built on the pure power of the allegedly hitherto oppressed peasantry. Many of the writers published sociographies and showed a genuine interest in the everyday struggles of people living in rural Hungary. After a strained relationship with the Stalinist regime, during the Kádár era, some of the writers made their compromises with the softening dictatorship, while others became active in the emerging opposition. Trencsényi et al., A History of Modern Political Thought in East Central Europe, 2/1: 143.

10 Király, “Hazafiság és internacionalizmus,” 360.

11 Hunyady and Pörzse, “Vélekedések a XX. század történetéről és a családok múltjáról,” 53.

12 “These research projects… [those dealing with national consciousness – R.K.] showed that the patterns of national feeling and identity are alive within the population. If one knows the political and ideological system of state socialism, these results may come as a surprise, since in general we may say that public official discourse suppressed the expression of alternative social identifications.” Csepeli, A nagyvilágon e kívül, 123.

13 Témabeszámoló 1972–1975. MTA Történettudományi Intézete [Report 1972–1975, HAS Institute of History]. MTA Levéltára, II. Filozófiai és Történettudományok Osztályának iratai, box 241, folder 5, 72–75, 76–80.

14 Ibid.

15 Tájékoztató a Társadalomtudományi Koordinációs Bizottság 1981. dec. 10-i üléséről [Prospectus about the session of the Science Policy Committee on December 10, 1981], May 1982. MTA Levéltára, Tudománypolitikai Bizottság , box 23.

16 Kónya, “Az Akadémia szerepe,” 346.

17 Tolnai, “A hazai tudomány- és műszaki politika,” 125.

18 Tájékoztató a Tudománypolitikai Bizottság 1982. febr. 5-i üléséről [Prospectus about the session of the Science Policy Committee on February 5, 1982]. December 19, 1981 - March 12, 1982. MTA Levéltára, Tudománypolitikai Bizottság, box 23, folder 3.

19 A short overview of the activities of the research institute that was established in 1969 is provided in Hunyady, “Áttekintés Az MRT Tömegkommunikációs Központ munkájáról.” The national question is also addressed, see ibid., 576.

20 A MTA kutatási-fejlesztési terve az 1981–1985 közötti időszakra BT/7. Témakör A nemzeti tudat és a nemzeti kérdés korunkban [The research and development plan of the HAS for the period between 1981–1985. December 19, 1981 – March 12, 1982. MTA Levéltára, Tudománypolitikai Bizottság, box 23, folder 1.

21 A művelődési folyamatok és történelmi-kulturális hagyományaink kutatása, 44.

22 Ibid., 45–48.

23 Ibid., 49.

24 “Beszámoló a Filozófiai és Történettudományok Osztályának tevékenységéről,” 224.

25 Tandi, “Társadalmi tudat, műveltség, minőség.”

26 Farkas, “A szocialista nemzetté fejlődés kérdései,” 161.

27 Ibid., 161.

28 Ormos got a teaching position around that time. She was appointed to the newly established Faculty of Humanities of the University of Pécs. Her political career was also progressing.

29 Ormos, “A reális történelmi tudat a hazaszeretet hordozója.”

30 Litkei dealt with the first controversy in which Molnár played a leading role in 1950. Litkei, “The Molnár Debate of 1950.”

31 Lackó, “Molnár Erik és a 60-as évek történészvitája,” 1483.

32 Ibid., 1525.

33 Pach, “‘Molnár-vita’ – nacionalizmus – szupranacionalizmus.”

34 Pach, “A hazafiság néhány kérdése,” 44.

35 Pach, “Nemzeti fejlődés, nemzeti öntudat,” 27.

36 Pach, “‘Molnár-vita’ – nacionalizmus – szupranacionalizmus,” 257.

37 “Some of the scrupulous exorbitance in the criticism of nationalism escalated the disturbance of national consciousness instead of decreasing it.” Pach, “A nemzettudatról napjainkban,” 27.

38 The ways in which Hungarian minority politics during the Dualist Era was addressed exerted a strong influence on interpretations of the behavior of the minorities that ultimately seceded and joined the new emerging states. Going beyond the issue of minority politics, evaluations of the 1848–1918 period had a significant impact on the shaping of national consciousness.

39 Pach, “Nemzeti fejlődés, nemzeti öntudat,” 36.

40 Hanák, “Nemzet – lojalitás – nemzettudat,” 184.

41 Glatz, “Kérdések etnikumról, nemzetről a 20. század végén,” 34–35.

42 In this section, I am not going to extend the scope of inquiry to source publications, as narrative options and frameworks are the primary focus of my article. However, the publication record of such volumes was also rich in these kinds of terms.

43 Ormos, “Francia-magyar tárgyalások 1920-ban,” 907.

44 Ádám, “Dunai konföderáció vagy kisantant,” 463.

45 L. Nagy, A párizsi békekonferencia és Magyarország 1918–1919.

46 Lenin, “A nemzeti és gyarmati kérdésről szóló tézisek,” 127–31.

47 Kővágó, “A Kommunista Párt és Trianon,” 7.

48 Pach, “Nemzeti fejlődés, nemzeti öntudat,” 32.

49 The History of Translyvania had been long in the making and was considered a project of the Institute of History of HAS. Even though the historians addressed post-1918 history only briefly, it was perceived as an attack on Romanian historiography and historical consciousness, as Transylvania was not described as an ab ovo Romanian territorial unit. For an overview of the controversy, see Köpeczi, “Erdély története harminc év távlatából.”

50 Berend T., “Tudományos-szellemi életünk néhány központi kérdése,” 443.

51 Für, “Milyen nyelven beszélnek a székelyek?,” 64–65.

52 Köpeczi, “A szocialista nemzeti tudat,” 3.