UP to the early nineteenth century Hungary was not a national but a Christian state with Latin as its official language. In the high schools all subjects were taught in Latin and as late as 1830 students who ventured to speak their mother tongue in the classroom had to sign a liber asinorum -- a book of asses. In the upper strata of society the language of conversation was chiefly Latin and German. Only the serfs spoke their native tongues. We must not forget that, owing to the Habsburg policy of settling non-Magyars in areas depopulated in the Turkish wars, by the end of the eighteenth century not more than 29 percent of the population was Magyar. Nevertheless, prior to the national uprising in 1830, the multilingual masses lived together in perfect harmony and peace. They all were equally drudges, laboring to maintain the nobility -- five percent of the population -- in self-satisfied exuberance.

When the rising tide of nationalism reached Hungary after the Napoleonic deluge it came not by way of the middle class, as in most western countries, but through the efforts of aristocrats such as Count Széchényi, who became aware of the backwardness of the lower nobility, and through men of letters who discovered the Magyar language and the Magyar people. As the Holy Alliance was engaged in an attempt to suppress nationalism wherever it sprang up, the Magyar ruling class, in its effort to establish its national independence, was bound to embrace liberalism, which, like nationalism, was a heritage of the French Revolution. Under the influence of this true liberal spirit, which had brilliant representatives such as Eotvoes, Deák, Szalay and others, it happened that many Slovaks, Germans and Serbians turned Magyar. Paradoxical as it sounds, most of the non-Magyar population became Magyar at a time when no pressure had as yet been brought to bear on them to do so. During the 60 years between 1790 and 1850, the number of Magyars in Hungary increased 15 percent; while during the following 60 years, despite mounting prosperity and strong attempts at Magyarization, the increase was only 9 percent.

By the end of the nineteenth century, when nearly half the population of Hungary was listed as Magyar, non-Magyars enjoyed the prerogatives of the ruling classes only in so far as they conformed to the assumption that Hungary was a Magyar national state and renounced their own cultural independence. After the Compromise of 1867, the Habsburgs availed themselves of the services of the Magyar ruling class to police the non-Magyar minorities most efficiently. Francis Deák, who negotiated the Compromise, realized fully that the failure of the struggle for independence in 1848-49 had been partly due to the fact that the non-Magyar minorities had been antagonized. His objectives were to bring about the honest collaboration of the national minorities and to coax the Habsburgs into giving real independence to a united Hungary. This was why the law of 1868 granted the minorities full cultural autonomy. A year after his death in 1876, a newly formed coalition government, labelled "liberal," disavowed Deák's policy and embarked on a program of artificial Magyarization. This merely embittered the minorities. The closing of all Slovak high schools and the limits set to cultural activities of the minorities induced Slovaks who could afford it to send their children to Prague and Rumanians to send theirs to Bucharest, where they graduated as future propagandists for the cause of separation from Hungary.

Meanwhile, due to the loss of serf labor and unwonted taxation, and because they nevertheless continued their accustomed easygoing life, most of the Magyar nobility were plunged heavily into debt. Once they had squandered the indemnity paid them for the loss of their serfs, they sought refuge in the already overstaffed civil service. Within a single decade, 1892-1902, the number of civil servants was doubled.

There was no development in Hungary, as there was in western Europe, of a self-conscious bourgeoisie. The leaders in trade and industry were Magyarized Germans and Jews. The "liberal" régime of the ruling classes not merely tolerated them but collaborated with them as members of boards of banks and industrial enterprises. Magyarized non-Magyars who met with success in economic and professional life promptly joined the nobility, aping its external customs and adopting its habits of mind. Budapest's rapid development, the luxury displayed by the owners of large estates, gave the impression of prosperity. But more than a third of all the arable land of the country was owned by only about a thousand proprietors. And the growing emigration to the United States and Canada -- the figure rose to over 250,000 per year out of a population of 16,000,000 -- showed how deep was the misery and maladministration.

In the decades preceding World War I there was a general tendency among the upper classes to compensate for the lack of real national sovereignty by adopting an attitude of bumptious nationalism. A sort of batrachomymachy -- to borrow the name of the epic Greek battle between the frogs and the mice -- was fought in the Hungarian Parliament over emblems, flags and the language of command to be used in Hungarian regiments, as well as for the economic separation of Hungary from Austria. It went on furiously despite two evident facts -- that it was the Habsburg army which secured Magyar domination in Hungary; and that Hungarian agricultural produce supplemented Austrian industry, and vice versa. The Austro-Hungarian customs system did actually form a practical working arrangement. In the atmosphere of comparative abundance and political irresponsibility which pervaded the lives of the old feudal classes and their business and professional recruits, chauvinism throve vigorously. Magyars, Germans, Slovaks and Jews, struggling to appear plus Catholique que le Pape, helped develop the nationalistic megalomania. Journalists like the late Eugene Rákosi (Kremser was his original German name), in whose memory Lord Rothermere afterwards erected a monument, suggested that the Magyar population must reach thirty millions. This was at a time when it totalled barely nine. Academic toadies wrote and taught a history in which the ruling classes were idealized out of any semblance to reality. Gerrymander, corruption and abuse of authority combined with the system of open voting in parliamentary elections to ensure that the non-Magyars should be a diminishing minority in the House of Representatives. And after the one almost fair election which Hungary ever had (1905), the victorious opposition and the defeated government party, the quondam "liberals," gave evidence that there was even less difference between them than existed between the Tories and the Liberals in Great Britain.

The misera plebs contribuens, lacking both education and political training, took no interest whatsoever in the essential problems of national life. Only the ruling classes mattered. So enraptured were they with their national illusions and their talk about the external trappings of sovereignty that eventually they convinced themselves that Hungarian national sovereignty really existed. Occasionally danger signals flashed up. Propagandists of the suppressed nationalities had to be imprisoned or local riots had to be quenched. They were disregarded. A few members of the intelligentsia saw the handwriting on the wall of the Magyar "empire." Social ostracism was their only reward. Count Tisza instinctively felt that the approaching war would jeopardize the rule of his class, and attempted to avert it. But when his resistance to the trend was unsuccessful he carried on to the bitter end as the "strong man" of the Monarchy.


Such was the political and social setting in which the disaster of 1918 occurred. No wonder the Hungarian ruling class was stunned by the unexpected dual shock -- the simultaneous collapse of the Habsburg Empire and of their imaginary realm. As a matter of fact, no revolution occurred on October 31, 1918, for there did not exist any real authority which a revolution could have overthrown. The King fled the country, the Government resigned, the House of Representatives dissolved itself and, as appears from the memoirs of the Budapest military commander, the armed forces disintegrated. When the Habsburg and their prop, the Hohenzollerns, disappeared through the trapdoor of the historical stage, the artificial Hungarian structure which they had supported crashed also.

Those requested by the King-Emperor to take over the reins made futile attempts to come to terms with the minorities and to initiate a thorough agrarian reform by means of which the country might be democratized as a preliminary to establishing a system of responsible government. They were bound to fail because there was no politically trained stratum of Magyar society which could give them support. As soon as the ruling classes had recovered from their stupefaction they set out to thwart to the utmost the efforts of the Károlyi Government. The latter, aware of its inherent weakness, could not afford to estrange any part of the body politic by using force. Some of the feudal lords, terrified by the prospective agrarian reform, even conspired with the reactionary elements among the victors in Paris, the arch-enemies of the country, to overthrow the new régime. The plot succeeded to the extent that the Allies put every sort of difficulty in the way of the Károlyi Government and, by disregarding the armistice terms, paved the way for the Bolsheviks to assume power.

Even prior to the Bolshevik interlude, and long before the leaders of the counter-revolution signed the Treaty of Trianon, revisionism had set in. It started as soon as the impending dismemberment of the country became evident. University students led by refugees from the occupied territories and by middle-class intellectuals whom the war had left stranded, gathered at meetings of the "Awakening Magyars." Their feelings and tenets were the same as those of the German Nazis later on -- a sense of outrage at the thwarting of their traditional racism and overheated chauvinism, and promulgation of the "stab-in-the-back" legend which denied that Hungary had been defeated militarily and asserted that she merely had fallen victim to treason from within. For this latter development the liberals, pacifists, Jews, socialists and Free Masons, all in the same pot, were held responsible. To save time and trouble the group was usually labelled "Jews," eternal scapegoats of history.

After the collapse of the Bolshevik régime, the same lower middle-class elements collaborated in the so-called counter-revolutionary putsch. As a matter of fact, it ousted not the Bolsheviks but a weak Social Democratic Government which had established itself when the Bolsheviks were forced to give way as a result of the resistance of the peasants, their own incompetence and the onslaught of the Rumanian army. It was a bankrupt manufacturer and an ambitious dentist who with the help of some officers arrested the Peidl Government and took over the remnants of political power. Other convulsions followed when the new régime was consolidated under Admiral Horthy and Count Bethlen. Actually it was not counter-revolutionary at all. The form of the prewar government was not restored, nor was the old coalition between the aristocracy, the lower nobility and high finance. Though the new régime stressed the adjective "royal" in its references to government institutions, it did not hesitate to turn its guns against the King and to deliver him to British captivity. Parliament lacked even the vestiges of civil liberty and represented merely the effectiveness of government propaganda. Behind its façade the dictatorship, vested in a clique of officers and higher civil servants, called itself "Christian and National." It was neither the one nor the other. Nothing could have been less Christian than the revengeful cruelties of the White Terror, nothing less "national" than the ruling gang, composed as it was mostly of Magyarized Germans, Rumanians and Slavs.

During his ten-year premiership Count Bethlen made futile attempts to reëstablish something like the prewar feudal régime. He disfranchised one-third of the electorate and got rid of his own extremists (of whom, as in most revolutions, a good many were common criminals or Communists who had turned Fascist). His chief aim was to ward off the agrarian reform which had been promised the farm hands during the war by Count Tisza. In this connection he had to make western statesmen believe that it was he who had mastered the dreaded Bolshevism; and he was shrewd and cynical enough to succeed in large measure in this propagandistic aim. Under his incompetent successors, this would-be feudal and would-be military would-be dictatorship was in fact merely a stopgap filling the interval between the defeat and downfall of the prewar régime and the time when an attempt could be made to get back Hungary's lost dominions as part of the process of restoring that régime's prestige and power. Meanwhile a shallow nationalism nourished by legendary misconceptions and flag-waving supplied such moral foundations as the Government could muster to keep itself in power.

"Justice for Hungary" through the peaceful revision of the peace treaty was the announced aim of the revisionist propaganda. But all the main arguments used in this propaganda -- the unity of the Hungarian Empire for a thousand years, the economic advantages of such unity, the fair treatment always accorded the minorities, who would have preferred to remain under Magyar domination had they not been victimized by foreign agents -- all this made clear that the goal was the total restoration of prewar Hungary rather than the ethnic readjustment of the frontiers by compromise. Reiteration of the fact that only "peaceful" means were to be used did not accord with events such as the famous forgery of French francs or the training on a Hungarian farm of the Marseilles assassins of King Alexander of Jugoslavia and Foreign Minister Barthou of France. Serious and realistic elements in the Government and members of the General Staff of the Army made no bones about admitting in private conversation that the degree of revision they required -- i.e., 100 percent -- could not be achieved by peaceful means. And indeed there was little probability that the Western Powers would bring pressure to bear upon Hungary's neighbors to accord even limited revision peacefully just when the resumption of German aggressiveness made the friendship of those same nations so important.

It was clear, of course, that Hungary could reach her goal only with the support of some major military power. Some simpletons believed that appeals to the vanity of an English newspaper peer would secure the assistance of British or French armed forces. This illusion could not last long. As for Weimar Germany, it was supposed to be oriented towards peace in spite of the fact that it tolerated Hitler's steady gathering of a private army. There remained Italy. Mussolini was only too glad to find a satellite to help him fulfill his Balkan aspirations. Though Il Duce never thought of handing back Fiume, once the "most brilliant pearl" in the Holy Crown of St. Stephen, he was ready to sell Hungary secretly some of his antiquated fighting planes. Above all, he put his influence back of the Hungarian claim for revision. This support became even more valuable after Hitler's advent to power in Germany, since the Führer did not have much spontaneous sympathy with Hungarian nationalism or with the Hungarian brand of reaction.

After Munich, however, Hungarian revisionists were forced to court Hitler's favor directly. Whenever the Nazis seized a neighboring country the Regent of Hungary and his Prime Minister promptly presented themselves asking for a share in the loot. Having brought pressure to bear upon "independent" Slovakia for more land than the Vienna award allotted them, they succeeded in obtaining the Führer's permission to "conquer" Carpatho-Ruthenia. After the Germans had defeated Jugoslavia, the Magyar army was allowed to march in and annex part of the territory of that country. The Hungarian Government was not deterred from this course by the fact that a few months previously its predecessor under Count Teleki had concluded with Jugoslavia a treaty of "eternal" friendship. For obvious reasons, however, the Government did not press for the restoration of Burgenland, the part of western Hungary detached by Austria. Some Hungarian Fascist students distributed handbills expressing confidence that Hitler would help to repair the injustice done to Hungary in that area. But these students apparently had not read the geopolitical discussions which had been going on in Germany about the German Lebensraum and were ignorant of the fact that not the Burgenland only but Hungary itself was scheduled to become a part of it.


It is often said that in Hungary today there are no friendly feelings for the Nazis. But it would be misleading if this correct statement led one into oversimplifying the relationship between Nazi Germany and revisionist Hungary.

Certainly no one in Hungary likes the present restrictions on food and clothing, which are incomparably more severe than those in effect even in the last phases of World War I. Limitations set on all means of communication, the presence in the country of Gestapo agents, the arrogance of the German emissaries, do not enhance the Nazi reputation. Yet there are no signs of resistance. There is no sabotage, no attempt to balk or baffle the invaders as in the other overrun countries (even including Austria). Now there is no reason to presume that the Magyars are less courageous than the Serbians, Czechs, Belgians or Norwegians. Several reasons explain the difference in the Hungarian attitude, but one above all is decisive -- the determination of the ruling clique to keep power at any cost. Limited though this power has become under the Nazis, it still is better than none. As for the rest of the population, the reactionary rank and file are cheered by the partial success of revisionism secured under Nazi patronage. And the full restoration of St. Stephen's realm is being dangled before their eyes as a probable reward for continuing to defend Christian civilization, i.e., Nazism, against the heathen Bolshevik barbarians.

This is the point at which Nazism and revisionism were bound to meet and to some extent merge. Today they are, in fact, hopelessly entangled.

Only the naïve can believe that, after the crushing condemnation of aggressors written into the Atlantic Charter, and after the terrible sacrifices and suffering which are daily being chalked up against the account of those aggressors and their junior partners, the victors will decide to confirm the gifts handed by the Nazis to their henchmen. There is no certainty that the Allies will not blunder again as they did in 1919. They may again commit the error of establishing half a dozen entirely separate minor national states in Eastern Europe, each of them endowed with absolute political and economic sovereignty. But though there can be no insurance against this, it does not seem probable on the other hand that the idea of restoring St. Stephen's realm will appeal to them particularly. Hungarian revisionists know this. They know that the Allies will not leave them the booty which they have acquired by grace of Hitler and Mussolini. Therefore they see no recourse but to continue playing the Nazi game, counting thereby on securing additional territorial gains and hoping that, if an Allied victory does materialize, they then will at least enter upon negotiations with the victors holding as many cards as possible in their own hands.

Strenuous attempts have been made to dissemble the true character of the counter-revolutionary reaction in Hungary over the past 20 years. The same efforts are now being made to convince the Allies that the country's present rulers are secretly pro-British and devoted in their hearts to democracy. If they are, they have been remarkably successful in camouflaging their beliefs by their actions. They have one recurrent excuse in view of Hungary's open and indefensible frontiers against the powerful Nazi Reich -- was it not more reasonable to yield to pressure rather than to put up a resistance just for show? This argument is, indeed, irrefutable. But the Allies might press their inquiries further and ask some questions to which no satisfactory answers can be found. Would it not have been possible for Hungary to resist the German onslaught if, instead of plotting during the last 20 years to regain an irretrievable past, she had tried sincerely to come to terms with her neighbors? Turning to the present, does Hungary have to send troops to fight side by side with the enemies of the United States and Britain against the allies of those nations? And for the future, does she intend to keep or does she renounce the booty which has come to her as a result of that military action on behalf of the Axis?

The Hungarian revisionist propaganda mentioned above had an undeniable degree of success. This was partly due to natural ignorance abroad of specific Hungarian conditions, partly to some superficial resemblance of the Magyar landlord to the English "gentleman," but above all to the deadly fear of Bolshevism existing at the time when the propaganda was inaugurated. To the City in London and to Wall Street in New York, to Tories and diehards all over the world, Magyar revisionist propaganda presented itself in sympathetic guise because it came from a government which was supposed to have struck down the Bolshevik dragon in Hungary. No matter that Bolshevism had collapsed in Hungary long before this government assumed power. Natural Hungarian hospitality, moreover, combined with a special politeness shown to foreign journalists and to travellers who studied the problems of South East Europe "on the spot" in the course of a spring holiday, made the propaganda most effective. The American sense of justice and fairness was revolted by a peace treaty which was described as depriving the Magyars of two-thirds of "their" territory and nearly half "their" population. The dismemberment of Hungary was compared with the results of a peace treaty which would have robbed the United States of 36 of the states because some of the population of them was foreign-born. The fact held back was that Hungary was not and never had been a melting pot in which the component multilingual elements voluntarily dissolved while retaining full freedom to enjoy the culture of their lands of origin.

Armed with the fruits of these 20 years of work the propagandist agents of the Horthy Government are now essaying the difficult task of combining disapproval of that Government's collaboration with the Axis with approval of the Nazi bribes by which that collaboration has been brought about. Recently a paper in this country favorable to the Hungarian Government presumed so far on the supposed naïveté of the American people as to attempt to exculpate Regent Horthy and his Premier by stating that they did not know anything about the participation of the Hungarian Army in the campaign against Russia, since this had been arranged behind their backs by the Hungarian and German general staffs.

It must be made plain once and for all that revisionism in the accepted formula of the "Awakened Magyars" did not and does not aim merely at the liberation of either the Magyars or of other nationals detached from prewar Hungary by a restoration of prewar Hungary; it also aims at the restoration of the caste rule which held all who were not members of the caste, Magyars and non-Magyars alike, indiscriminately under its sway. This became manifest during the whole period preceding the outbreak of World War II, when the brunt of revisionist propaganda was directed more against the Czechoslovak democracy under which the Magyar minority at least enjoyed cultural autonomy than against Rumanian rule, which in many cases inflicted on Magyars in Transylvania as bad treatment as the Magyars had previously inflicted on the Rumanian minority there before World War I.

Partisans of the present Hungarian Government will deny this and will brand the statement of it as an unpatriotic attempt to smear the Hungarian "nation." The answer is that the "nation" and "nationality" are words which describe a moot concept in political science; but whether stress is laid on common descent or language or religion or on the common interest in common defense, nationality certainly does not consist in the rule of a minority over a majority, at any rate not in the democratic interpretation of the term given us in the Gettysburg address. "Democracy," too, has various meanings, but one of its essential bases is the identity of the nation with the people. In this respect Louis Kossuth's statue is less misplaced on Riverside Drive than George Washington's in the city park in Budapest. For in Hungary "nation" has meant merely the ruling classes and those who conformed to their ideology. The "nation" was those who owned large estates. The farm hands were the "people." The "nation" thus could not survive in a remnant of its prewar domain. The "people" could not survive in prewar Hungary.

Arguments for restoring to Hungary all its prewar territory may be of economic interest. However, the obvious disadvantages which followed the dismemberment of the economic unit which was the Austro-Hungarian Empire might more easily be obviated by a customs union between the Succession States than by an attempt to restore that political entity. Moreover, restoration of territory to Hungary would not in itself necessarily undo the economic harm done Hungary by the Treaty of Trianon. For example, revisionism succeeded in reconquering Ruthenia, a densely wooded area with an overwhelmingly Ukrainian population. Since one of the drawbacks of the treaty had been that it left Hungary without timber, everybody would suppose that after the reconquest of Ruthenia timber would begin to find its way to Hungary. But the ruling caste has limited imports to a diminishing minimum because they would damage the interests of those landowners who had forested their estates. The dismemberment of the country reduced only its area, not the selfishness of its ruling class. Restitution of territory is not enough.

Nor is it enough to approve of democracy in the abstract, to endorse the Roosevelt-Churchill declaration, and to hope for independence when the German flood shall have receded from South East Europe. Specific acts will have to be taken if the flowers of democracy and liberty are going to blossom on that blood-soaked soil. Anyone who is aware of ethnic conditions in South East Europe realizes the impossibility of drawing arbitrary frontier lines between the various national groups. Unless we agree to the ruthless Nazi methods of resettling populations, no other expedient remains except to adopt the cantonal system in all the Danubian countries and for the Great Powers to see that those countries are united in a practical form of political and economic coöperation. If thereby a more effective protection of minorities is secured, the old struggle for land may in the course of time fade away into comparative insignificance and the question whether one area or another should be part of one federated state or another will be reduced to an administrative problem.

Some people say that the settlement of the future relations of Hungary and its neighbors is not a vital problem, at least not for the time being. We must indiscriminately unite all possible forces, no matter what their political and social persuasions, to defeat Hitler, the enemy of mankind and civilization. Agreed that we Hungarians must all stand for a free and independent Hungary. But a free and independent Hungarian government is not enough to produce that result. A prison remains a prison even if we oust the warden and reinstate the deputy warden previously in charge.

At the present time the test of the validity of any Hungarian movement directed against Nazi Germany is whether or not it declares without reserve the determination to refuse to accept the revision of the frontiers accorded Hungary by the Nazis and instead to come to terms with the neighboring nations on a basis of free negotiation and mutual understanding. Without such a declaration any "Free Hungary" movement can too easily be twisted into being merely an instrument for restoring in Hungary the domination of the same semi-feudal caste which bears a heavy share of the responsibility for both the first and second World Wars. Hungarian democracy and Hungarian independence are inextricably interlocked. They have to be built up, if they are going to be built at all, together.

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
  • RUSTEM VAMBERY, Professor and Dean Emeritus in the Law School of the Royal Hungarian University of Budapest; now lecturer in the New School for Social Research, New York; author of many books on the philosophy of law, sociology and criminology
  • More By Rustem Vambery