A nation is a living reality in a state of constant evolution and change: its birth is followed by growth and growth; consists of struggles, crises, triumphs, defeats, and rebirths. There are pivotal moments in the organic history of a national community; these are crucial cusps that throw light on a range of past decisions and events and define—to a large extent—a nation’s future destiny. Written in elegant expository prose, László Bernát Veszprémy’s book chronicles the main political episodes of one of Hungary’s watershed moments: the year 1921.
Following the loss of the First World War, the collapse of the dual Monarchy, the short-lived communist dictatorship, and the occupation of the country by foreign military forces, Admiral Miklós Horthy was elected regent of Hungary on 1 March 1920. A few months later, Hungary had to face and accept the traumatic consequences of the Treaty of Trianon. 1921 was marked by the painful and intermittently violent consequences of radically new social and economic realities, the possible return of Habsburg rule over the country, the rise of irredentist aspirations, and the gradual consolidation of the political power of Horthy and his government. The author convincingly argues that the objective analysis of various socio-economic factors contributes to a deeper elucidation and a better understanding of the national policies introduced and implemented over the subsequent interwar years.
Tragic upheavals in the life of a nation are normally followed by a serious and forthright self-examination and an active search for creative regeneration. The first is the indispensable condition of the second. However, in Hungary in 1921, a general feeling of resentment greatly hindered and distorted all efforts at frank self-analysis.
It was forcefully claimed that the Jews and the Left were the foremost causes of Hungary’s loss of territories and her gravest social problems
Resentment led to the search and identification of a collective scapegoat: it was forcefully claimed by ordinary citizens as well church leaders, political personalities, and celebrated intellectuals that the Jews and the Left were the foremost causes of Hungary’s loss of territories and her gravest social problems. Jewish citizens were harassed, terrorized, and killed indiscriminately by far-right thugs, inflicting their vengeance upon what they perceived as the real causes of economic hardships. Stores were closed, business permits revoked. An eminent public figure saw—in the atheistic socialism and materialistic capitalism—the chief sources of all evils affecting Hungarian families. He asserted that both politico-economic systems were generated and sustained by the Jews. He and many others regarded the attack on Jewish business initiatives and operations as an indispensable step towards a healthier and more prosperous social recovery. Anti-semitic propaganda held the Jews and Jewish organizations responsible even for prostitution, drug use, and alcohol addiction.
The ‘national self-image’ was both a source and a target of resentment. Following the recent disastrous events, Hungarians gradually lost their distinctive characteristics; they either slavishly adopted the dominant lifestyle of Western countries or mindlessly imitated the cult of force and violence stemming from the East. Oscillating between two poles and failing to undertake the rebuilding of the country with confidence and a sense of inner peace, they were also unable to assert themselves by means of their distinctive national traits.
In order to improve the economic and financial condition of the population, in both urban centres and in villages, the government introduced a number of key policies. Chief among these was the distribution of lands to the peasantry across the country, the allocation of agricultural products to factory workers, and the allocation of assistance provided to disabled soldiers. Notwithstanding the widespread corruption and the persistence of anti-semitic persecutions, these measures eased, to a certain extent, the ‘indescribable misery’ of a large part of the population. However, the arrival of Hungarian refugees coming from the recently lost territories and the inability to offer them work and proper living conditions generated additional economic difficulties and feelings of frustration, indifference, and animosity.
The recovery of Baranya County from the Serbs and the successful referendum in the city of Sopron brought some economic benefits to the local population and a general sense of accomplishment to the whole country. In both places, the atrocities committed by the adverse forces eventually gave way to the alleviation of military tensions. The diplomatic negotiations, cleverly and tactfully undertaken by Miklós Bánffy, secured for Hungary not only territorial recoveries but also a certain recognition, and even political rehabilitation, on the part of France and Great Britain as well as the other neighbouring countries that banded together in the “Little Entente”. Prudence, openness, and assertiveness characterized the arduous approach to diplomatic relations. As Veszprémy put it: ‘the Hungarian diplomacy no longer accepted the word given by the West and fought for the attainment of its objectives’ (144).
Sharp conflicts emerged not only between Hungary and her neighbours but also between those political and military leaders who remained loyal to the last king, Charles IV, and the anti-Legitimists who saw in the king a considerable obstacle to the country’s internal consolidation. Attempting to regain the throne on two occasions, Charles counted on the non-interference of the neighbouring countries and his optimistic estimation proved to be well-founded. Nonetheless, he was vehemently opposed to any internal military clash initiated for the sake of restoring his royal rule. A further royal reign was thwarted by both Charles’s hesitancy and meekness and by Horthy’s ruthless and cunning attachment to the already acquired power.
The book provides a balanced analysis of the year’s events, actions, policies, perceptions, and doctrines
The illustration and clarification of abstract statements with concrete examples is one of the chief qualities of this book. Veszprémy never advances a judgment on political decisions and social problems without supporting his claims and analyses with facts apprehended in their mutual connection and full interplay. In this respect, the numerous quotations and references, as well as the rich bibliography demonstrate the magnitude of the author’s careful and extensive preparatory research. His desire to write history with detachment and objectivity is well married to his determination to initiate reflection from the concrete. As a result, the book provides a balanced analysis of the year’s events, actions, policies, perceptions, and doctrines. A noteworthy example of this impartial view of historical realities is the nuanced and palpable narration of the reprehensible criminal actions committed by both foreign soldiers and Hungarian armed forces.
Veszprémy draws the portrait of important political figures of the time, such as Count Miklós Bánffy, Count Pál Teleki, or Count István Bethlen. Each of these played a central role in shaping Hungary’s future destiny. More important still, the book gives the reader a vivid and illuminating account of Horthy’s true personality. Far from being naïve, dull, and fatuous, Horthy was indeed a clever and astute politician. He adjusted his speeches, comments, and decisions to the ideological bent and political affiliation of his interlocutor and to the requirements of current circumstances. A gifted actor, he was able to mask his true beliefs by resorting to brazen duplicity. For example, he deceived his visitors by asserting that he usually read the socialist newspapers and that he was a staunch defender of the freedom of press. The head of the American Mission fully trusted Horthy’s denial of “white terror”. The Austrian ambassador declared that the regent was credible by claiming that he had nothing to do with the armed conflicts in the Western part of Hungary.
1921 convincingly dispels illusions not only about Horthy’s character, but, also and chiefly, about any attempts to view his regime’s consolidation as an inspiring and pure nation building process. It deserves to be translated into English so that it may reach a wider audience.
László Bernát Veszprémy, 1921 – A Horthy-rendszer megszilárdulásának története (Budapest: Jaffa Kiadó, 2021).