IN SPITE of her small territory and present economic bankruptcy, the new Hungarian state plays a dominant part in any consideration of the problems of Central Europe. The Hungarian question is so intimately connected with the general condition of the neighboring states that no serious diagnosis can be made of the disastrous moral and economic ills of that part of the world without understanding the main issues of recent Hungarian history. Economically, geographically, historically, Hungary always has been an important part of Central Europe. Should she continue in her present state, alternately despairing and in the throes of a feverish dream of revenge, there is small possibility for serious work of reconstruction and the establishment of a sane equilibrium in the Danubian countries.

I

There is a wide-spread belief in Europe--supported by the Marxist interpretation of history--that the chief cause of the recent conflagration lay in the capitalistic and imperialistic rivalry between Germany and the other great commercial countries. Without denying the partial truth of this hypothesis, I nevertheless see that a still more important factor was at work in all those regions which for many decades were called the danger zone of Europe.

This danger zone was made up of the Dual Monarchy, the Balkan States, and the Russian Empire, all of which countries had one characteristic in common, namely, that they were not finished units. They were not really national states in which geography, race and government contributed to form a harmonious organism; instead they formed a world apart, a mediaeval world. In these countries the role of national consciousness was usurped by armies and dynasties, all eager to protect the economical privileges of their class and to develop their national language and culture to the detriment of the subject races. A perfect example of this mediaeval type of civilization was the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, whose constitution gave the power in Austria into the hands of the Hapsburg army and bureaucracy, and in Hungary into that of the Magyar feudal classes, allied with the haute finance and a small circle of intelligensia. This order of things led to a system of Germanization in Austria and of Magyarization in Hungary, directed against the Czechs, Slovaks, Rumanians, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Ruthenians, Poles, and Italians, peoples who constituted the large majority of the population.

In Hungary the system I have described provided two real and important privileges for the ruling classes: The one was the exclusion of the middle classes of the non-Magyar races from all government offices and from the local county administrations, as well as from the higher spheres of cultural life. The other was the restricted suffrage, exercised with open balloting, which gave full opportunity to the dominating classes to nullify not only the political action of the national minorities but also of the pure Magyar landless peasantry and working classes. Before and during the war not one representative of the Hungarian working classes or the Hungarian landless peasantry had a seat in the Hungarian Parliament. And the non-Magyar races, although they formed almost half of the entire population, were only represented by some fifty members out of a total of 453. Of these fifty some forty were the representatives of Croatia-Slavonia, composing the delegation chosen by the Sabor, or provincial assembly, at Zagreb.

This arbitrary system was the natural outcome of the mediaeval economic structure of Hungary, which left immense estates in the hands of the feudal lords (most of whom had obtained them from the Hapsburgs in return for military or other services at the time the lesser nobility and the peasantry were struggling for national independence), while on the other hand it excluded the vast majority of the Hungarian people from the ownership of landed property, or gave them allotments incapable of supporting independent peasant families.

This economic and political situation had a further natural consequence. With the growing power and consciousness of the national minorities the spirit of Magyar chauvinism rose higher and higher. The great liberal traditions of Francis Deák and Joseph Eötvös were forgotten, and there came in a vogue of Magyarization by force--by the artificial suppression of foreign tongues and cultures, by the persecution of the leaders of the national minorities, by the vexatious supervision of their schools and churches. The non-Magyar and non-German nations of the Dual State saw more and more clearly that their aspirations for national autonomy and cultural development were hopeless in the face of the mighty powers of Hungarian feudalism. Irredentist sentiment grew ever stronger, and the Slovaks, Rumanians and Jugoslavs of Hungary flirted in secret with organizations of their own or kindred nationalities, both within and without the Monarchy.

All these causes cooperated in creating a very uncertain political equilibrium in the Danube Basin. The air was full of plots and of trials for high treason. The nervousness of influential circles in Vienna increased and the more clear-sighted were of the opinion that a continuation of the situation was impossible. Certain influential groups and personages made attempts to overthrow the dualistic system and rebuild the Monarchy on the lines of a confederation. Unfortunately, all such efforts were shattered against the solid wall of Hungarian feudalism. Under these conditions the endangered Hapsburg Monarchy was compelled, in order to save itself, to adhere more and more closely to German imperialism as against the Slavs.

Certainly the tragic death of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand at the hands of a fanatic student exemplified one of the most profound causes of the war. It seemed to symbolize the impossible situation in the Danube Basin and the Balkans, to symbolize the desperate craving of the subjugated nations for independence and national autonomy. Hungarian democracy, under the leadership of Count Michael Károlyi, had done its best to prevent war, and during the war it advocated a separate peace.

The outbreak of the war found Count Károlyi in America, engaged in a tour of the Hungarian colonies with the aim of securing their political and financial support for the progressive movement in Hungary. At the first rumors that the Viennese militarists were preparing for a war against Serbia, he delivered several public speeches before Hungarian emigrant societies, in which he denounced the Dualistic system and called for a rapprochment with the Slavs. Previously he had sought to establish a liason with leading Frenchmen in order to develop a Franco-Hungarian understanding in opposition to German and Austrian imperialism, and he made no secret of the fact that he intended next to proceed to Russia to convince the Slav world of the peaceful intentions of the Hungarian people. In this he was prevented by the sudden outbreak of the war.

In the absence of Count Károlyi, the socialists and the radical liberals of Hungary did their best to ward off the war. Let me quote a sentence or two from an article of mine published in the liberal daily Vilag on July 19, 1914, during that fearful week just before outbreak of hostilities: "It is not true that sympathizers will be found in the ranks of working Hungary and thinking Hungary for a war against Serbia. Outside the feudal class and haute finance the whole public opinion of the country is for peace, and feels that it would be a crime to raise hecatombs for the Southern Slav ghost, which cannot be frightened away with the bloody instruments of war."

After the return of Count Károlyi to Hungary, he and his friends took every opportunity to denounce German imperialism and to advocate schemes for a separate peace. Count Károlyi was so energetic, and his activities were so popular, that a special Prussian spy, Major Consten, was sent to Budapest to gather evidence of high treason against him; in fact, he installed a special police bureau for this purpose, which was later a subject of protest in Parliament.

When her German ally was defeated the situation of the Dual Monarchy became desperate. Portions of the army were split into nationalistic groups, others were Bolshevized; anarchy and dissolution took the place of order and discipline. In Hungary the superhuman task of saving the country fell to the Government of Count Károlyi. Count Károlyi and his Cabinet, of which I was a member, saw clearly the impossibility of the task; but we considered it our patriotic duty to attempt the impossible. We did our best to appease the Bolshevized mind of the masses by introducing far-reaching democratic reforms. By proposing a vast scheme of democratic confederation we tried to convince our fellow citizens of foreign tongues that it would be more profitable for them to remain within the historical frontiers of Hungary than to secede.

And this we could do without hypocrisy and on a firm moral basis because Count Károlyi, the socialists and the radical liberals had for twenty years been advocating the very same program of universal suffrage, national autonomy and agrarian reform, and during that time had endured persecution and calumny in common. Our effort must not be considered, therefore, as merely a last-minute make-shift to avoid Bolshevism, but as the final step in a consistent democratic program, to further which we had sacrificed a life-time of public activity.

Feverishly we introduced reforms, the elaboration and administration of which should have taken decades. We introduced universal suffrage and the secret ballot with proportional representation. We secured all the public liberties of the people, especially free press and free speech. We tried to meet the needs of the working masses by a very advanced social policy. We separated the church from the state and inaugurated genuine liberal education. We offered honest home rule to all our nationalities, following the example of the United States and Switzerland. We began energetically the expropriation of the latifundia in order to create an independent and liberal-minded farmer class. As an example, Count Károlyi of his own accord gave up all his estates for the good of the public.

In the meantime we took pains to emphasize our peaceful intentions towards the newly formed neighboring states and let them know that we advocated an economic policy of complete free trade and a cultural policy based on reciprocal guarantees of national autonomy for all minorities. To demonstrate the earnestness of these reforms and intentions, we dethroned the Hapsburgs and proclaimed a democratic republic.

Unfortunately our efforts were of no avail. The working classes abandoned the flag of the republic and our alien races forsook the boundaries of ancient Hungary. Despair and starvation threw the nation into the arms of the Bolsheviks. Circumstances analagous to those prevailing in Russia after the fall of Tsarism--economic blockade, famine, national humiliation, mutilation of the country, the Messianic creed of Marxism, the entire disorganization of social and political life--led to very similar consequences.

The system which I have described, ending in a total economic, moral and political collapse, in turn plunged unfortunate Hungary into the disaster of the Rumanian occupation, and following upon that--under the auspices of the Allies--into the White Bolshevism of Admiral Horthy. Under the pretext of extirpating Communism--which after the defeat of the Red Army became a mere dead dog--Horthy exterminated at the same time the political and social liberties of the country. I must confine myself to pointing out merely the principal features of this new régime. They included the suppression of universal suffrage and of the secret ballot, the persecution of the press, the establishment of internment camps for political malcontents, the creation of an order of Knighthood, the passage of emergency laws against republicans and those who criticised the new system abroad and of a law of numerus clausus for the elimination of Jewish students from the higher schools, the militarization of the coal mines, and the nullification of endeavors to obtain land for the landless peasantry by a legal expropriation of the feudal estates.

II

When we come to analyse the fundamental changes which the war has brought about in the national and economic structures of practically all of the countries of Central Europe, it is necessary for us to elevate our minds above the tragedies and miseries of the present situation and view only the broader issues of the war and of the peace settlement, unbiased by the heavy losses which they have brought to many nations and many classes.

From this perspective I see some most beneficial and also some pernicious results. Let me begin with the advantageous changes:

As a result of the war, the question of nationalities was solved in many regions; new and more ethnically homogeneous states whose population had formerly been under alien rule now came into independent existence. Many ancient irredentas ceased to be. Czechoslovakia, Jugoslavia, Rumania, Poland, achieved all if not more than they had aspired to for centuries. In broad terms, the movement towards universal national autonomy took an important step forward.

Another propitious change was that the three oppressive military dynasties which had continually plagued Europe with their warlike preparations and imperialistic dreams were destroyed; Romanoffs, Hohenzollerns and Hapsburgs no longer impede the march of popular progress.

Even more important is the movement which I will call "the advent of the peasants," which like a gigantic wave has broken down, wholly or in part, the old ramparts of feudalism in all the new states and overturned the economic and social domination of the great landlords. All over Central and Eastern Europe--from the borders of Hungary northwards to the Baltic, southwards to the Adriatic and the Mediterranean, and eastwards to Siberia--the old feudal holdings have been expropriated and divided among the small and landless peasantry.

And in consequence of this fundamental social and economic change another very promising and propitious fact now dominates the horizon of Central Europe. I refer to the cultural elevation of the former semi-bondsmen. The elementary and high schools in the newly formed states are crowded with peasant boys and girls who under their former rulers were held in a deplorable state of illiteracy.

When I thus emphasize all these profound beneficial changes it becomes also my duty to point out certain dangerous and unfortunate features that followed in the wake of Armageddon. One of the most distressing results of the World War is the state of economic and moral collapse which naturally is most accentuated among the vanquished nations, but the consequences of which bear down also on the victors.

Large economic units, many centuries old, linked together by ties of cultural intercourse and free trade, were broken to pieces. A great number of military and customs barriers were established, dividing populations which long had lived in economic unity. These artificial changes stopped the natural blood-circulation of many ancient economic organisms as if their veins had been gripped in an iron vise. As a result, there has been a serious falling off in production in many regions, and in some misery and famine prevails.

These economic changes involve serious moral consequences as well. Homo homini lupus--the original collective mind of human society, according to the pessimistic philosophy of Hobbes--came back again into being in many parts of Russia, Central Europe, and the Balkans.

This economic and social disease is further aggravated by a spirit of national and race hatred which is perhaps even more bitter than before the war. One chief cause is that the peace treaties were short sighted and unjust in many respects and inflicted unnecessary humiliation and economic hardship upon the losers. It must be admitted that in Central and Eastern Europe it is often impossible to draw an absolutely equitable ethnographic line between different peoples, so inextricably are they intermingled. In consequence, it was often inevitable that national minorities should be sacrificed to the principle of building up a national home for the homogenous majority of the population. But the peace treaties inflicted unnecessary cruelties which could have been avoided by a wiser spirit of justice and benevolence.

Many of the new irredentas created by the peace treaties are even more dangerous than were the old ones, because they consist of elements which were formerly in a dominant position and which, therefore, usually represent a higher degree of culture and national consciousness than is possessed by the new dominant rulers.

All these factors work to create a poisoned atmosphere of national hatred, irredentist dreams and mutual suspicion, which inevitably leads towards a revival of the old militaristic and imperialistic system (the elimination of which was the main purpose of enlightened public opinion throughout the world) and the establishment of new absolutisms and dictatorships, now on the side of the Reds and now on the side of the Whites.

III

In the light of the foregoing facts, I think the importance of the Hungarian problem is clear. The chief victim of the historical forces I have enumerated was my unhappy country. We lost about two-thirds of our territory, with the most valuable industrial and commercial resources, and fifty-nine per cent of our population. This tragedy was further accentuated by the fact that very important Magyar minorities came under foreign domination. This was partly a natural consequence of the situation of Magyar minorities as small islands, pushed forward into the seas of subject nations, and partly due to exaggerated pretensions by the new states, who often based their claims on the argument of needing strategical safeguards.

In consequence, new and important Magyar irredentas arose inside the frontiers of the new states. Hungarian statistics estimate the Magyar minorities under alien rule at over three millions. These figures are perhaps exaggerated. We must keep in mind, too, the fact that a very considerable emigration from the annexed territories followed the dismemberment of the mother country, and that a large number of the detached population consisted of half-assimilated elements, especially Jews, who will doubtless change their national sentiments in accordance with their new situation. But apart from all this, the new states contain considerable Hungarian minorities which present a serious problem to those who wish to avoid the calamities encountered by the Magyar Government in pre-war days.

This problem is indeed a difficult one. The Hungarian minorities today under alien rule are proud and self-conscious. For centuries they were the rulers, in some instances the oppressors, of their present rulers. Their loss of political and economic privileges, their changed standard of life, are naturally bitter to the upper classes of these Hungarian minorities. Add to this the fact that even in the new countries where the government is openly and loyally opposed to any process of forced assimilation the exaggerated nationalism and chauvinism of certain officials and societies makes the situation of the Hungarian minorities difficult. Many of the methods of the old Magyar system have been adopted. This tendency is accentuated for two reasons. In the first place there is the motive of revenge. The new rulers wish to show to their erstwhile oppressors exactly how harsh their system was. In the second place there is the fear provoked by the threats and the warlike preparations of the Horthy Government. As a result, the public is inclined to ask how they can guarantee national and cultural autonomy to the Magyar minorities within their borders so long as the Magyar mother-country is preparing for war.

There are two ways open for mutilated Hungary to set about restoring her strength and healing her wounds.

The one would be a democratic and pacific way: the reformation of her agricultural organization; the elimination of the unearned increment of the feudal classes; democratization of her public life; honest suppression of war-like activity; and the adoption of an energetic initiative in developing sincere cultural and economic relations with the neighboring states. This would serve to cure the wounds of Hungary's dismemberment, would create a prosperous farmer class which could develop modern intensive agriculture (for Hungary is still a rich country, although her mighty resources are almost undeveloped,) and would open the way for the Hungarian intelligentsia to find useful work in the newly formed states, where their scientific, technical and financial services are badly needed. The old territorial unity of Hungary became an impossibility after Europe's latest evolution. But on the basis of the policy I have outlined it would be possible to restore the national and cultural integrity of the Hunariang race by securing a free economic and cultural intercourse between the mother country and her detached territories. In such a pacific and creative atmosphere it would also be possible to alleviate and correct certain injustices of the peace treaty. We could hope for a rectification of our frontiers at many points and for the recovery of certain territories inhabited by compact Magyar populations. Signs are not wanting that in a peaceful and loyal atmosphere such changes could be brought about. President Masaryk of Czechoslovakia, for instance--the most enlightened and humane statesman of Europe--told me on several occasions, and has since repeated the statement to a well-known newspaperman of Budapest, that if a democratic government should be established in Hungary, the loyal and peaceful intentions of which could not be questioned, the Czechoslovak nation would be inclined spontaneously to take a step in the direction of a more just and equitable rearrangement of the frontiers.

Unfortunately the way out just indicated is barred for the Horthy régime, as the policy which I have described is the line of action which the feudal aristocracy fears and hates the most. The essential aims of this oligarchy are the restitution of the Hapsburgs, the restoration of the former frontiers, the renewed domination of Magyars over alien races and, above all, the maintenance of the large feudal estates. This last aim is perhaps the most important to them, as the peace treaty deprived Hungary of just those territories where the small peasantry was most predominant. I can say without exaggeration that three-fourths of the agricultural population of present-day Hungary is landless, or owns such small allotments that peasant life is precarious. The resulting antagonism between the great feudal class and the landless people is the cause of incessant tension and no better future for Hungary is possible without a sincere and honest solution of this problem.

These circumstances compel the military dictatorship in Hungary to choose another way out, one very different from the policy I have indicated. According to their idealogy Hungary was innocent of complicity in bringing on the World War, which was really caused by German-French capitalistic rivalry. The Hungarian army was actually victorious, and its collapse was brought about by conspiracy. Hungary today, in her mutilated form, is a country incapable of existence. All serious economic and social reforms must await the restoration of her historic frontiers. Therefore, it must be Hungary's sole endeavor to create an efficient army and to get powerful allies for the new war which will come within a short time.

If we examine the situation, then, we cannot fail to see that the Hungarian question is the key to the whole problem, an Archimedean point, as it were, for peace or war in Central Europe. And I venture to say--nor will future history contradict me--that without a complete democratization of Hungary, without the inauguration of a new internal and external policy in that country, a new war in Central Europe is inevitable.

IV

But the plan I have outlined signifies far more, to my mind, than a necessary compromise or a wholesome application of therapeutics to heal the present unwholesome and dangerous condition of my countrymen. It also signifies to me the taking of the first step in a more vast and comprehensive task--the task of establishing a new international order. The measure I have indicated would smooth the way, I believe, towards a New Europe. The Old Europe is corroded by imperialism, by foreign war and civil war. The vicious feudal dogma of an absolute national sovereignty makes almost impossible all social life worthy of the name. All the states of Central Europe live in a state of clandestine anarchy. Nations have no consideration for each other either in economics or in politics. This system destroys all moral unity in Europe. European distress, misery, anarchy, and civil war are, in their deepest roots, a moral problem.

What our most profound and noble thinkers--a Saint-Simon, a Proudhon, a Tolstoi, a Dostoievski, a Romain Roland, an H. G. Wells--predicted long ago, has become a reality: Europe is in a state of dissolution, because the spirit of a new Machiavellism destroys private and public morality.

And the only way out of this hell is the adoption of the American method or the system of the British Commonwealth--the Anglo-Saxon way of confederation. All other methods proposed during the past few years have been quackeries. The only possible cure for Europe's ills is a democratic confederation of democratic peoples, the extirpation of the system of rigid and selfish national sovereignty, peaceful and rational coöperation between all countries for the common good of all. The fundamentals of this system are to be found in two basic institutions: one, free trade between all the parties to the confederation; the other, a system of honest national and cultural autonomy for all national minorities living within the boundaries of the confederation. Under such conditions political frontiers would slowly become mere demarcations of administrative divisions.

Unfortunately this plan, though advocated by the best European thinkers, among them by President Masaryk himself, is at present entirely utopian, given the atmosphere of hatred now prevalent. The more moderate scheme of a confederation of the peoples of the Balkans and the Danube (the great creative idea of Louis Kossuth, which he conceived during the painful years of his exile after he had come to realize the immense importance of nationality) appears at first glance to be hardly less utopian. Still, my friends and I have taken it up, and we have developed it further, until we look upon it as the first serious step toward larger confederations in Europe.

The territories of the Danube and the Balkans are linked together by powerful economic, geographical, and cultural ties. Peaceful cooperation between them seems to be the order of destiny. Any one of the nations in this region is too small to live an entirely independent economic and political life, and the deadly struggles and rivalries among them make them all easy victims of foreign imperialistic schemes. Yesterday some of them were vassals of German imperialism--today of French--perhaps tomorrow of some Panslavic combination. The only road towards real self-determination, national independence, and economic prosperity lies in the direction of a free-trade Danubian Confederation.

Although these hopes are for the moment rendered vain by national and race hatred, by the economic and political jealousies of the capitalistic and militaristic classes, we can make honest efforts in the right direction, and chief among them one for the final elimination of Hapsburg feudalism and the establishment of a democratic and peaceable Hungarian Republic.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • OSCAR JÁSZI, former Professor of Sociology at the University of Budapest, Minister of Racial Minorities in the Cabinet of Count Károlyi 1918-1919, author of "Magyariens Schuld, Ungarns Suhne"
  • More By Oscar Jászi