What remains of Hungary

by György Dalos

Poorest nation, richest nation (Issue III+IV/2018)

In the mid-1990s, I travelled from Bratislava to Budapest and accidentally bought the cheapest available ticket, which was not valid for the new Eurocity train. As soon as the train left the station, the Slovakian conductor checked my ticket and told me: "Sir, your ticket will be invalid once we cross the border and you will have to pay a fine of 2,500 forint." After half an hour, having already reached my home country's territory, it was the Hungarian conductor's turn to repeat the exact same sentence his Slovakian colleague had uttered: "Sir, your ticket is invalid, you need to pay a fine of 2,500 forint." But then he winked at me and said: "You know what? Let's leave the state out of this business. You give me 1,000 forint and you might as well go and travel in first class." I am not a fan of corruption but his offer gave me a homely feeling – I had finally arrived in Eastern Europe. My mother's side of the family comes from the small town of Alsókubin, my father's side used to live in the small town of Lugos in the Banat region. Both Jewish clans had emigrated to the territories of the presumably more tolerant Empress Maria Theresia when faced with rigorous antisemitism under Frederick the Great of Prussia. So their descendants were considered to be Hungarians and, gradually forgetting their Yiddish, switched to speaking Hungarian. Following the Act on Jewish Emancipation of 1867, they were considered equal citizens of the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy. Today, one family branch's place of origin lies in Northern Slovakia and is called Dolný Kubín while the other town is now called Lugoj and belongs to Romania. This strange constellation is a result of the Treaty of Trianon of 1920.

Counting to the defeated of World War I, the Treaty bound the Kingdom of Hungary to give up a total of 325,000 square kilometres – sixty percent of its territory before the war – to its neighbours Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Yugoslavia and Austria. Thirty percent of its population now lived outside the country's borders. On the 93,000 square kilometres that were left – which the public called the "Rump State of Hungary" in bitter self-mockery – a relatively homogeneous nation state was formed. Cities in which the most important events in Hungarian history had taken place also belonged to the lost territories: for instance the coronation city and home of the regional parliament of Pozsony (now Bratislava), Transylvania's metropole Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca), the birthplace of King Matthias I who's memorial still graces the main square, and also the city of Arad in which the generals of the 1848/49 revolution were executed by the Habsburg dynasty. Apart from the actual territorial and demographic losses, the newly determined geography was the cause of a massive psychological shock to Hungarian society. Almost a century later, Trianon is still a defining date of its national consciousness. Moreover, Hungary was on the losing side again after World War II, and the allies saw no reason for revising the peace treaty of 1920 in favour of Hungary.

The fortification of Moscow's dominance in East-Central Europe also meant that the states dependent on Moscow officially counted as "brother nations". Historical conflicts as well as the situation of the minorities counting millions of people remained taboos for decades. Only the collapse of the dictatorships gave hope for drawing closer in a democratic and European perspective.In the days after the Romanian revolution in late December 1989, scores of Hungarians travelled to their neighbouring country to provide essential aid to the people there – regardless of ethnicity. In Budapest, an ecumenical church service took place during which priests of the Hungarian churches prayed for the neighbouring state. Among them was a rabbi who included Romanian city names in his Hebrew prayer.

However, a proper reconciliation was not sealed. The tremendous challenges of the transformation and the instability of the new democratic order sparked new tensions and gave rise to the emergence of populistic trends which converted social discontent into nationalistic emotions. In this way, Viktor Orbán's government also taps into the trauma of Trianon for his politics. Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians obtained not only a passport through a citizenship law, but also the right to vote – a fairly transparent bid for "complementary" votes for the parliamentary elections in April 2018.

Some 96 percent of the Hungarians living in the neighbouring countries voted for Orbán's Fidesz party, adding 200,000 votes the governing party needed to retrain their close majority of two-thirds. But how should we come to terms with our trauma? Should we follow the Hungarian conductor's advice and "leave the state out of this business"? Might that solve our problems? If so, we could see our phantom pain healed by the hundredth anniversary of the Treaty of Trianon in the summer of 2020.

Translated by Ralloù Moutafis 

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