Hungarian Conservative

Hungary’s Embittered Search for a National Identity after 1920

Detail of the Grand Trianon palace at Versailles.
Wikimedia Commons
Losing the World War and the experience of the Treaty of Trianon triggered a discourse in Hungarian public life that was not without precedent, but had never been so vehement before. Perhaps the opinion of many was reflected by the renowned writer Ferenc Herczeg, who declared that ‘Europe, free press, liberalism—all these are slogans that have deceived us.’

The Trianon peace treaty, which resulted in Hungary losing two-thirds of its territory, was accompanied by an upsurge of nationalist rhetoric, but it would be unfair to deny that the new nationalist discourse of the era also included some grim, often depressed introspection. ‘Our national character has faded and we ourselves cannot figure out who we are,’ complained Attila Orbók, the former press chief of the left-wing prime minister Mihály Károlyi, in a pro-regime journal in 1921—his former colleagues probably found it difficult to make sense of what Orbók stood for exactly.[i]Losing the World War and the experience of the Treaty of Trianon triggered a discourse in Hungarian public life that was not without precedent, but had never been so vehement before. Perhaps the opinion of many was reflected by the renowned writer Ferenc Herczeg, who declared that ‘Europe, free press, liberalism—all these are slogans that have deceived us.’[ii] In a poem by the student Gyula Somogyváry, then just 26, he similarly lamented that Hungarians ‘have not received a single kiss from them / the whores of the West laughed at us’, although he did not elaborate on why anyone would desire the kisses of ‘whores’.[iii]

Ferenc Herczeg in his study in 1939. PHOTO: Fortepan

Others, however, were not only disappointed, but were downright angry at the rest of Europe. Gábor Oláh, a poet from Debrecen, wrote in his diary that he used to be a ‘citizen of the world’, but now felt ‘terribly far away’ from English and Russian culture. ‘I can’t look at things from the Goethean high ground as before. I see the Earth as divided into small plots, on which the Hungarian land is shrinking with tragic gradualness.’[iv] The Catholic bishop Ottokár Prohászka went one step further when he declared that young Hungarians should not learn foreign languages, and right-wing author Dezső Szabó also urged people to ‘not leave Hungary’, because ‘you can only be clowns in the bleak meadows of the foreign world’.[v]  György Hegedüs, co-president of ÉME, the extreme right-wing Association of Awakening Hungarians, however, went as far as graphically describing ‘Hungarians wallowing in the stinking mud of the Western nations’ rubbish heaps’. ‘We stand alone, completely abandoned,’ he added.[vi]

But no one was hated more than the French, France and the bearers of French culture.

‘Stay away from French culture!’,

so warned a Calvinist newspaper against the ‘cynical’, ‘the rotten’, ‘the swamp’, the ‘germs of decadence’.[vii]  It is worth noting that similar epithets were otherwise only used to describe Jewry. The Lutheran bishop Sándor Raffay, in the context of a commemoration of the poet Sándor Petőfi, said that respect for French culture was a ‘sick’ phenomenon.[viii] And when theatres in Budapest staged French comedies, some newspapers made no secret of the fact that they wrote negative reviews for political reasons.[ix]

The criticism was not necessarily based on a lack of knowledge of French culture. Although Dezső Szabó was a teacher of Hungarian and French and had studied in Paris, the dialogue he put into the mouth of the protagonist of his major book, The Village That Was Swept Away, during a dialogue with French soldiers, described the feelings of many. His character did not want to ‘remain a human’, ‘I would rather learn how to be an animal’. ‘I want nothing more than to throw out of myself all thinking, all superfluous culture, to become one with my people, a piece of flesh of my race, so that I can save my kind.’[x]

Mihály Petrovits, a little-known author who was interned by the French during the First World War, wrote a complete Francophobic tirade about his experiences: ‘The French race is incurably ill. [Nothing] can save it from extinction in the shortest possible time. This is what the French race has come to through the overindulgence on alcohol, the various debaucheries, the overindulgence on individual pleasures, the loosening of family life…the French women are contaminated with the black blood of Arabs, Negroes…’[xi]

Even the humanist Aladár Kuncz, writing in the liberal literary journal Nyugat, felt compelled to write of the book that, although ‘superficial’, it ‘can certainly capture interest’.[xii] These facts did not escape the attention of the British embassy, where they noted that the Hungarian press ‘simply hates’ the French, despite France’s ‘abundant propaganda’.[xiii]

However, Sándor Giesswein was right when he wrote that although Hungary was in ‘a battle between the Western and Eastern spirit’,

the West had already ‘triumphed’.[xiv]

Social Problems and the Christian Worldview by Sándor Giesswein

Indeed, despite anti-Western sentiments, the ordinary citizen of Budapest—and the bourgeois elite who made a good living from the counter-revolutionary regime—consumed Western culture, smoked Western cigarettes, read Western newspapers, danced to Western dances to Western music, and even drank Western drinks. One newspaper complained that in Hungary ‘foreign literature is being published at a dizzying pace’, especially English, French, Russian and Scandinavian literature. France, Zola, Barbusse, Rolland, Gorky, Henry George, Shaw, Sinclair—listed the paper some of the ‘obviously destructive’ authors.[xv] Even right-wing papers wrote lengthy articles praising the 'fancy packaged' American cigarette and pipe tobacco brands sold all over Budapest: Chummie, Choid, Three Feathers, all at a high price, and of course they could never import enough.[xvi] The Hungarian Foreign Minister's desk was covered with issues of the Journal des Débats, L'Homme Libre and the Petit Parisien.

There was also a movement against the hard cuff and the tailcoat, identified with the West, and as the One-Step, the foxtrot and the tango became fashionable in the nightlife of Pest, right-wing groups also initiated a Hungarian folk dance movement to fight the ‘immoral English and French dances’ and the ‘short skirts’—juxtaposing them with Hungarian dances and national costumes.[xvii] Not with much success, of course. Quoting an unnamed source, Bishop Prohászka remarked that ‘the last stunt of modern dance is the christening,’[xviii] referring to the inherent sexuality of certain partner dances.

The dances may have been foreign only in their names, but the musicians were occasionally foreign in ethnicity. 'These weeks, the fever of hiring Negro jazz bands at any price has begun to spread to Budapest,' with

the nightclubs of Pest fighting for ‘original’ black French musicians,

a March 1921 issue of a theatre journal reported.[xix] The Arab and black women—and prostitutes—who arrived in Hungary with French colonial troops at the end of the First World War were the exotic delicacies of the bars. And if we were to think that this was only a custom of the locales of the capital, a Christian Socialist author complained that in the villages, too, the one-step and the Boston were the fashionable dances.[xx]

Modernity seeping into everyday life seemed unstoppable. But in some Budapest bars, you could even order the then largely unknown American Coca Cola, which many people were convinced was made from manure. After the war, US big business was the first to enter the Hungarian stock market, buying up shares at 'ridiculous' prices.  Moreover, according to a 1922 report by Count László Széchenyi, the Hungarian envoy in Washington, the emergence of American capital was a state-supported process of war reparations. ‘We could offer shares in Hungarian companies…The Americans only have to pick [what they want]‘.[xxi]  Prime Minister István Bethlen also lured American capital towards investing in Hungarian agriculture in an interview.[xxii]

'We have entered the era of America's world domination,'

one newspaper announced, which repeatedly noted with enthusiasm that black doormen could now be seen in Budapest hotels.[xxiii] As the American trade consul wrote: ‘Hungarians in general have a very friendly feeling towards America and always prefer American goods.’[xxiv] The American embassy, incidentally, was even more frank about the Hungarians. Ulysses Grant-Smith, the American envoy, compared Hungarians to ‘other Eastern peoples’, and went into some ethno-characteristics: ‘a nationalistic, passionate people who always want too much. That is their nature, that is their way of thinking: to exaggerate.’[xxv]

István Bethlen ca. 1920 by unknown author. IMAGE: Wikimedia Common

It must be born in mind that Trianon was an exceptionally serious blow to the Hungarian nation, and similar disasters in the history of other nations also provoke extreme reactions: sometimes, these can result in positives, but of course the negative effects must also be seen. After 1920, Hungary faced many problems which led the country to reassess its relationship with the West. 103 years after the events, it is important to be aware of the complexity of Hungary's response to Trianon, as today's difficult period also forces us Hungarians to reassess our place in the world.

[i] Magyar Helikon, 1921. 214.

[ii] Jövő, 5 Jan 1921.

[iii] Hazánk, 1 May 1921.

[iv] Gábor Oláh, Naplók, Debrecen, Kossuth Egyetemi Kiadó, 2002, 273.

[v] Szózat, 26 Oct 1920. and Hazánk, 9 Jan 1921.

[vi] Hazánk, 2 Jan 1921. and Az Est, 9 Aug1921.

[vii] Kálvinista Szemle, 16 May 1920.

[viii] Evangélikus Országos Levéltár (Lutheran Archives), Raffay papers. Box 9. (1922).

[ix] Magyar Helikon, 2. (1921), 558–561.

[x] Dezső Szabó, Az elsodort falu, Szeged, Lazi, 2012, 196..

[xi] Magyar Helikon 1921. 291–292.

[xii] Nyugat, 1921/6.

[xiii] National Archives (Kew), FO 371/4859.

[xiv] Nyugat, 1921/11.

[xv] Napkelet, 1 Sept 1921.

[xvi] Új Nemzedék, 4 Dec 1921.

[xvii] Szózat, 13 Oct 1920.

[xviii] Ottokár Prohászka, Soliloquia, II. vol. Budapest, Szent István Társulat, 1929, 29.

[xix] Simon Géza Gábor: Ha a budapesti jazzmozgalom naplót írt volna, 1919–1950. Budapest: Jazz Oktatási és Kutatási Alapítvány, 2018, 20.

[xx] Néptanítók Lapja, 13 May 1920.

[xxi] Elek Karsai, Számjeltávirat valamennyi magyar királyi követségnek, Budapest, Táncsics, 1969, 273.

[xxii] YIVO Archives (New York), RG 713. Box 34, Folder 775.

[xxiii] Társaság, 1922/5.

[xxiv] Magyar Helikon, 1921. 510–511.

[xxv] Éva Mathey, Az amerikai kormányzati körök és a magyar revízió kérdése a két világháború között, Aetas 2014/3. 119–120.

Losing the World War and the experience of the Treaty of Trianon triggered a discourse in Hungarian public life that was not without precedent, but had never been so vehement before. Perhaps the opinion of many was reflected by the renowned writer Ferenc Herczeg, who declared that ‘Europe, free press, liberalism—all these are slogans that have deceived us.’