There was a peace treaty after World War I that caused deep sorrow in Hungary and overwhelming joy in its neighbouring countries. It was a historic decision that deprived Hungary of most of its territories and population, and annexed them to Romania, the adjoining Slavic states and Austria. And here is the leader of the province of the Hungarian Jesuits, P. Elemér Vízi S. J., whose family history, like an ocean in a drop, comprises the peculiar past of this European region. On the 100th anniversary of the peace treaty signed in Trianon, France, we asked him how he experienced the dismemberment of his nation, and – as the Jesuit motto goes – how God may be found in all things. Written by Szilárd Szőnyi.
According to the bon mot, Hungary is the only country in the world that borders itself. This historic paradox refers to the fact that due to the 1920 treaty after World War I, Hungary lost three-quarters of its territory and two-thirds of its population to the neighbouring states presently called Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. The family history of the Hungarian Jesuit provincial, P. Elemér Vízi S. J., is a good example for the weird past of Central and Eastern Europe.
“In order to illustrate the peculiarity of the history of my native land, I sometimes joke, saying: My father was born in Hungary, my mother in Romania, though they were born in one and the same place, in 1941 and in 1945, respectively,” he says.
This was fuelled by coming on the heyday of the national awakening of the ethnic groups living in the Monarchy, each seeking independence from both Austria and Hungary, and – luckily for them, but unluckily for the latter two states – by the end of the war most of them were on the victorious side.
However, the population in this region has been so heavily mixed and geographically scattered throughout history, that in this part of the world borders cannot be set without creating injustice for one or the other nation. What is more, in the heart of Transylvania, present day Romania, there is a homogenous Hungarian territory of some 13 square kilometres called Szeklerland, whose status makes things even more complicated.
Elemér Vízi’s parents were born in Szeklerland, which was returned to Hungary by the Second Vienna Award in 1940 as reparation of the consequences of Trianon. It was a decision which was in effect only for four years.
Before and after there were and have been decades that saw the Hungarians’ constant struggle for autonomy and other minority rights; a privilege – or, rather, an entitlement – that was promised but never really kept by successor states. In a historical twist specific to this region, the prerogatives fought for by the different ethnic groups – first within and then outside the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy – have not been granted to the newly minted minorities of the respective nation states.
Below is a special Q&A with Elemér Vízi meant to provide a narrative about what happened and why, touching on the unhistorical question of “what if,” as well as an attempt to give a balanced interpretation of the common past of Hungarians and other nations in the Carpathian Basin.
Szeklerland is home to a homogenous Hungarian community, with their own schools and other institutions. How did their history textbooks deal with Trianon?
From the perspective of Bucharest, the capital of Romania, as if Transylvania, with Szeklerland its heart had always been a Romanian land, nothing to do with Hungarian history. What is more, our Szekler teachers had to teach the country’s geography and history in Romanian. However, as we didn’t really speak the language, lessons went said in Hungarian, and our teachers, for „emergency reasons”, dictated the compulsory parts in Romanian. Meanwhile, everyone knew the reality behind the official curriculum and, in Communist Romania, how overtly they dared to speak about it depended on the bravery of our teachers.
While the ordeals of the past 100 years retrospectively validate contemporary Hungarian protests against the peace treaty, today unbiased Hungarian historians also emphasise the role of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy’s inappropriate policy toward the ethnic groups in the decision made in Trianon. How do you see that?
Sure, a more righteous policy toward the ethnic groups may have prevented many of our misfortunes. It is also illustrated by the fact that it was not only Romanians who demanded separation but they were supported by Saxons, as well, although they had been living under Hungarian jurisdiction for nearly 800 years, with autonomy and other privileges. The Andreanum, issued in 1224 by Hungarian King Andreas II, ensured peaceful coexistence of the local nations for centuries.
So autonomy and multiculturalism were always characteristic features of Transylvania, and it would have been more than advisable to support it from all sides in order to maintain it as a special Transylvanian identity.
In my view, the Hungarian governments of the age were not wise enough handling the question; had they pre-empted the Trianon decision, and provided, say, autonomy to the Romanians living in the Monarchy, they might have achieved more with the great powers. Lo, the Romanians also felt the need to be courteous with the ethnic minorities, so when they proclaimed the will to annex Transylvania to the Kingdom of Romania, they promised to grant them autonomy – a promise they have failed to fulfil ever since.
The peace treaty after WWI is frequently said to have been a long ceasefire setting the ground for WWII. What lesson does it teach us Hungarians?
What took place in Trianon 100 years ago foretold the shadow of an aggressive peace for the entire century: It was doing justice in an unjust way. This is a shame for the 20th century history of Europe. Unquestionably, the situation needed to be handled after the war, but instead of aiming at judicious peace based on mutual respect, the great powers sowed seeds for further demolition – of WWII, the dictatorships and the Balkans wars not long ago. But consider this: While throughout Europe some minorities have sought justice through aggressive means, Hungarians living in the successor states – including us, Szeklers, whose history is interwoven, like a red thread, with the protection of our freedom – have always taken a lawful stand for our rights. It is unfortunate that in our 21th century Europe, after 100 years passed by, some successor states still protect themselves against the minorities.
In those days, Romanians living in Transylvania heavily outnumbered Hungarians. This fact was handy for the Allies who, having overcome the Central Powers, including the Monarchy, still wanted to teach Hungary a lesson. Given these circumstances, could a more righteous decision have been reached?
Yes, indeed, the ratio of Romanians in Transylvania had steadily grown. By 1910, they numbered 2.8 million, as opposed to 1.6 million Hungarians, so separation was virtually just the matter of time.
This is also why whatever decision had been made in Trianon, one of the parties would have felt it unfair.
And if there had been no border modification whatsoever, from then on Hungary would have had to live with a vast number of minorities not as a member of a multi-ethnic empire per se, but detached from the Monarchy. A fairer solution could have been to create, as a kind of “Eastern-European Switzerland”, an independent Transylvania, with ethnic groups intending to develop their differences but with a common Transylvanian identity. It is an evidently idealistic notion; but one thing is for sure: The beauty of Transylvania has always been in its diversity; this is why it is most regrettable that what has long dominated Romanian politics is the intent of homogenization.
How did Trianon affect the Hungarian Jesuits?
The same way as the whole of the country. The Hungarian Jesuits previously had belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Province, and became independent only in 1909. It was a huge blow for them that among their major houses Szatmárnémeti (Satu Mare in Romanian), Nagyszombat (Trnava is Slovakian) and Pozsony (Bratislava in Slovakian) came to be outside the Hungarian border and became part of the new provinces and vice-provinces in the given countries.
What kind of monument would express best how Trianon should be remembered by Hungarians?
We, Hungarians – most understandably – think of Trianon in negative terms like loss and mourning. Still, I somehow would also like to seek the positive interpretation of what happened. For instance: Can division, paradoxically, strengthen our national identity?
Regardless of our defeat, is there something we have gained, namely the national awareness that has since developed beyond the borders?
My answer is a definite yes. This strengthened identity was fuelled by the fact that our ethnicity was not something we could evidently make manifest in Romania, and we always had to be on alert to protect our culture and language. In the imaginary monument I would try to validate this perspective, in order to not only depict the pain of the past, but also the values derived from our being torn apart. That is why I more than agree with the decision of the Hungarian Parliament declaring 2020 as the Year of National Cohesion.
According to the motto of the Jesuits, God can be found in all things. What could be the transcendent “interpretation” of Trianon?
Let’s begin with a worldly factor, the coronavirus pandemic. Now, when we are stuck in our homes, we also experience divisiveness. And yet, the virtual world can create a kind of community; what is more, thanks to online opportunities, in some cases the present situation enabled us to rediscover one another and value our human relations much more. In a religious parallel, I see that the Passion of Christ does not end on Good Friday, either. In the same way, as far as our 20th century tragedy is concerned, I would also try to find where the Easter of Trianon lies. If look at our history through this perspective and we can say “Though in Trianon we suffered an immense loss, we still have hope,” then this hope could become our “national” identity. It is imperative to treasure the memory of our past, but we will not survive and endure if we only want to enforce justice, but rather if we are able to overcome our grievances.
Is there any chance for a great Hungarian-Romanian compromise in the foreseeable future?
I prefer the word reconciliation; this does not only mean peaceful cohabitation. It is most welcome that the various communities do not melt into a big common whole, since in our globalized world local peculiarities become increasingly attractive. At the same time, however, we should know about each another’s values, for that can be the only foundation for mutual respect. I know a Jesuit from Kolozsvár (Cluj Napoca) who is ethnically Romanian but speaks Hungarian well and knows our literature – it is people like him about whom I say: To me, this is what a true Transylvanian is like. If, reciprocally, we had more people like him, we could take a giant step towards reconciliation.
In Romanian mainstream politics allegations arise from time to time about Budapest wanting to reannex Transylvania. Is there really a separatist drive among Hungarians?
If the question is whether anyone wants to tear Transylvania out of Romania, the answer is a firm no. But whether anyone wishes to make it a liveable place for both the majority and the minority, then the reply is a strong yes, and in this regard, fortunately, there are sane voices on the Romanian side as well. But, as long as its Constitution defines Romania as a unified national state, and local politicians regularly play the “Hungarian card” and treat them as a risk against whom the state needs protection, it is difficult to move forward. And the ball is always on the larger player’s side of the court, meaning that it is from there that important steps can be taken.
Consider this: A nation can develop a proper self-image only if it is able to reconcile with its neighbours, as well as with its past.
Speaking of the protection of minorities, its importance was also underlined by the Universal Apostolic Preferences of the Society of Jesus published in February 2019. “Care for indigenous peoples, their cultures and their basic rights occupies a special place in our commitment to reconciliation and justice in all their dimensions,” reads the second point of the document. This intention was repeated by the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region held in the autumn of 2019. It certainly does not refer exclusively to the peoples of South America – and on the 100th anniversary of Trianon it invites us to cast our eyes to the Carpathian Basin.