BRATISLAVA – There’s nothing that nationalists in Central Europe relish more than to commemorate an historic injustice, harping on their victimization. If it falls during an election campaign, even better.
The 90-year-old Treaty of Trianon – which dismembered the old Kingdom of Hungary, carving up its land and its people – has resurfaced in an ugly spat between Slovakia and Hungary, influencing elections in both. In the middle of this scrum is the half-million-strong Hungarian minority in Slovakia.
In a land once known to the Magyars as “Upper Hungary,” it also poisons what just may be the worst neighborly relations of any ex-Communist countries to join the European Union.
The fact it comes on Trianon’s anniversary, on the eve of Slovakia’s June 12 national election, creates almost perfect-storm conditions for petty but dangerous politics. What caught my eye, though, is how similar the tactics are by mainstream nationalists and extremists on both sides.
This comes from someone with a fairly unique perspective: during my 17 years of reporting from the region, I’ve lived in both countries. I try to appreciate the narratives of both nations.
Bratislava itself, known to Hungarians as Pozsony, served as Hungary’s capital in the early 19th century. This is why I commemorated Trianon by taking a short walk from my home, to the city’s greatest living symbol of Hungarian identity, the alapiskola es gimnazium – the Magyar primary and high school. The elegant, 130-year-old school dominates an entire block downtown.
It’s there I met a quintet of 18-year-olds stung by the slings and arrows fired from both sides of the mighty Danube: the ethnic Hungarians of Slovakia. It may have been their great-grandparents sheared from the motherland in 1920, but they’re savvy to their quandary today.
“In my family we say, ‘Yeah, both sides are just using us,’” says Andrea Menyhartova.
“We’re the puppets,” chimes in Mate Orban.
“This is good business for politicians – to get more votes,” adds Viktoria Veghova.
What makes this particularly tragic is that there was genuine harm inflicted upon the Hungarian nation nine decades ago. And the wound remains. Because, if there’s one thing that unites the world’s 15 million Hungarians, it’s the notion that Trianon was igazsagtalan – without justice.
In fact, I’ve never met a Hungarian who didn’t turn woeful about how their muscular state was shrunk to pipsqueak overnight. That, plus the loss of the stunning Carpathian Mountains, access to the Adriatic Sea, and the cultural heartland of Transylvania – where, even today, ethnic Hungarians are admired in Hungary proper for speaking the “pure” Hungarian, one of the world’s trickiest languages.
It was June 4, 1920, that the Trianon treaty singled out Hungary among the losers of World War I, formally severing two-thirds of its territory and one-third of its people – some 3.3 million Hungarians were abandoned across new borders. The trauma was acute.
Mate Orban says his grandmother, now 88, was born in Transylvania just after Trianon. She tells him how they used to sing songs in school about how Hungarians “will be together again.”
The vow to recover those lands helped drive Hungary into the arms of Nazi Germany. After that failure, the new Communist dictatorships muzzled tensions, knowing how they inflamed passions.
The dawn of democracy 20 years ago thawed the bitterness, revealing ethnic Hungarians in no less than seven of Hungary’s neighbors. The three largest communities are in Romania, Slovakia and Serbia, followed by Ukraine, Croatia, Austria and Slovenia. Despite decades of assimilationist policies, stalwarts persevered. Now they had allies, as Hungarian nationalists rediscovered their voice.
Hungary’s very first post-Communist leader, Prime Minister Jozsef Antall, electrified the region when he proclaimed himself the premier of “15 million Hungarians” – though modern-day Hungary holds just 10 million citizens within its own borders. Ever since, the Hungarian right has generated no shortage of fodder for their Slovak counterparts to fear-monger about “Magyar irredentism.”
Meanwhile, though some 1.5 million Hungarians also remain in present-day Transylvania, in northwest Romania, Serbia has always stood out for its potential: back during the wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia republics, I remember some analysts wondered if the Serbian province of Vojvodina – heavily Hungarian, who call the place Vajdasag – would follow the path of fellow Serbian province, Kosovo, and try to break free. Bloodily. (Which might draw in Hungary itself. Then could spread to Romania. And so on.)
That said, I’ve also never found a Hungarian who seemed ready to pick up a rifle and fight to recover those lands. They saw Yugoslavia’s inter-ethnic slaughter happen below their southern border; few Hungarians have the stomach to follow down that path.
That’s why the political hysteria up here in Slovakia rings hollow, what with Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and other politicians warning of the Hungarian threat to “peace” and “security.”