How Viktor Orbán turned the Treaty of Trianon into a dangerous political weapon

On its 100th anniversary, the agreement is being used to whitewash anti-Semitism in the past and present. 

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One hundred years ago, at Trianon Palace in Versailles, France, a treaty was signed. It was not the most famous treaty signed in Versailles after the First World War – that would be the Treaty of Versailles – but it was an impactful one.

The Treaty of Trianon was the Austro-Hungarian version of the Treaty of Versailles. After the Treaty of Trianon was signed, Hungary was left with roughly 93,000km2 of the 282,000km2 it had prior to the war. Pre-Trianon Hungary had 18.3 million people; post-Trianon Hungary had 7.6 million. Almost every family was impacted, suddenly finding itself with family members and friends who were now minorities in a foreign country.

This was a trauma. And Hungary did what many in trauma do: it set about to find someone to blame. It settled on the Jews of Hungary.

Before Trianon, Hungarian Jews were some of the most assimilated in Europe. They were part of glittering Budapest society and of the Hungarian national project within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The leader of the First Hungarian People’s Republic had a Jewish adviser, and the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic had its Jewish Bolsheviks. Hungary was nearing bankruptcy and still there were Jewish millionaires. 

“In short, the Jews and they alone were responsible for Trianon and the Hungarian tragedy”, wrote the historian and journalist Paul Lendvai. Soon there were anti-Jewish laws and quotas. And when Hitler’s Germany presented the opportunity to get territory back, Hungary took it, joining the Axis Powers. This is not unique to Hungary. There were many across Europe who thought Hitler made an attractive offer. And the Treaty of Trianon was indeed a tragedy and a trauma for millions of people. I do not mean to make light of this, particularly not on its 100 year anniversary.

However, the Hungarian line on this, in the present day, has become that they joined the Axis Powers because they had to. They had no choice. This was the only way they could recover from the loss of the Treaty of Trianon. When I went to interview Hungarian government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs for my book last summer, he said that claims of present day Hungarian anti-Semitism go back to the interwar period, when Hungary couldn't pick a different side. But he is not alone in saying so. I saw similar information hanging on the wall of Budapest’s Hungarian National Museum: Hungary’s alliance with Germany was the only hope it had of reclaiming the territory lost to the Treaty of Trianon.

We all have choices, always. They are often all we have. And Hungary, too, had a choice. It chose to privilege reclamation of territory over Jewish lives. 

According to Eleni Kounalakis, who was US ambassador to Hungary during Barack Obama’s presidency, Kovacs told Erika Schlager, an expert in international law at the US Helsinki Commission: “While the greatest tragedy for Hungarian Jews was the Holocaust, the greatest tragedy for the rest of Hungarians was the signing of the Treaty of Trianon”.

What this ignores, of course, is that, prior to the signing of the Treaty of Trianon, many Hungarian Jews thought of themselves not as Hungarian Jews, but as Hungarians who happened to be Jewish. Part of the tragedy of the fate of Hungary’s Jews is that non-Jewish Hungarians decided that Hungarian Jews were responsible for, and could not take part in, their tragedy and trauma. 

In her book Madam Ambassador, Kounalakis writes that she realises, from this conversation, that this was a story Hungarians told themselves because, in this rendering of what happened, Hungarians are not the losers of history, but the victims. This is an important distinction. A loser picked the wrong side. A loser could have made better choices. A loser is responsible for his own actions. But a victim! A victim didn’t do anything wrong. A victim had history happen to him. And a victim can be forgiven for taking actions that prevent him from ever being a victim again.

If you have read this far into this piece on the Treaty of Trianon, you likely already know that Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has set about rewriting Hungarian history. The House of Terror in Budapest is directed by Maria Schmidt, a sometime Orbán ally whose work consistently presents Hungarians as historical victims, not perpetrators. Orbán’s government has passed legislation to grant citizenship to those whose ancestors were subjects of pre-Trianon Hungary. By 2014, they could vote. As the New York Review of Books notes, in elections that year, 95 per cent of the 200,000 new Hungarians voted for Fidesz, Orbán’s party. There is a monument in Budapest to German occupation; it does not mention that, before suspecting Hungary of betrayal, Nazi Germany and Hungary were allied. Orbán’s government has largely pushed out Central European University, the institute founded by Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist George Soros in the early 1990s. So, too, has it essentially taken over the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the 1956 Institute, dedicated to the memory of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

This history does not exist in the past. It is used to inform present policy. That Orbán’s government makes dog whistles about Soros – saying that they are fighting an enemy that is not national but international and that speculates with money – is concerning, given the country’s history (Orbán’s government has consistently denied being or saying anything anti-Semitic). But as concerning is the reality that, armed with the indignity of history, Hungary has positioned itself as the defender of Christian Europe, well aware of the offences committed against it in the past and so dedicated to protecting it in the future – even if that defence means migrants are kept in camps, and that those who would help migrants and asylum seekers are engaging in illegal behaviour owing to laws introduced by Orbán.

They say that those who don’t learn their history are doomed to repeat it. But this is not wholly true. Those who don’t learn their history may not be doomed to repeat it. But they will certainly join those who half-learn it or learn it to abuse it in twisting it to justify tomorrow’s traumas. And to write the next century’s tragic history. 

Emily Tamkin is the author of the forthcoming book, The Influence of Soros

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor

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