Towards a Social History of Trianon and its Aftermath

Author: Gábor Egry



Two important, interrelated issues were tackled in the debate between Éva Kovács and Krisztían Ungváry in the Hungarian left-liberal weekly Élet és Irodalom. First, how did Trianon affect the social psychology of different Hungarian communities and their next generations (whether it constitutes a trauma or neurosis today)? Second, which approach would enable a social history of Trianon and its aftermath to go beyond the common narrative of suffering? As these two historical problems are closely linked, constituting the social history of Trianon's aftermath, it seems logical to turn our attention to the very beginning, namely the end of 1918. In this regard, Éva Kovács challenges the dominant, monolithic interpretation of the end of WWI on two levels. First, she emphasizes that the dissolution of Hungary could be seen as a positive development for millions of non-Hungarians. Second, she stresses that one's individual relationship with the Hungarian nation and Hungarianness could have been much more complex than what the simplifying assumption of national trauma suggests. I tend to think that a more extensive analysis of social history would question this assumption even further.

The end of 1918 - seen from before Trianon - was a revolutionary period with all of the well-known consequences. Even if it meant no more than in the case of Tiszaeszlár where the revolutionaries ravaged the tap-houses,[1] such outbursts of public anger point to the real social content of (and discontent behind) the events. But one can find numerous examples of similarly violent actions from territories inhabited by minorities or by mixed populations. The offices of mayors and village notaries were devastated all over Transylvania, notaries were expelled or held in captivity and newly established local national councils started to manage public affairs in these villages. Such experiments of self-rule belong to the legacy of 1918 just as much as national liberation or destruction. According to the dominant narrative, this legacy almost immediately disappeared among Hungarians who had to face the nationalizing governments of the successor states.
There is ample evidence to support a more balanced view: one possible example is the continuous strong showing of Czechoslovakia's Social Democratic and Communist parties among Hungarians. Even Romania's history offers a similar starting point. The second election to the parliament of Greater Romania in 1920 was officially boycotted by Hungarians, resulting in an extremely low turnout in many Hungarian dominated cities (like in Cluj/Kolozsvár). Nevertheless, in dominantly Hungarian cities where the socialist parties fielded candidates they managed to attract - irrespective of their nationality - thousands of voters and often won the respective seats (like in Timişoara/Temesvár).
Furthermore, it is far from evident that the former minorities would have found their new situation as advantageous as we tend to assume today. To take the example of Transylvania (and Eastern Hungary) once again, the extension of the administrative system of the Old Kingdom in fact soon led to major disappointment and even some intense conflicts. Members of the local Romanian middle class had to live with the requisition of their houses, with erratic levies on their property and negligence towards them - just as their Hungarian peers. The peasants showed - sometimes physical - signs of disobedience to the gendarmes, complained about the ever higher prices and they soon produced the first songs about the Damned God of Old Kingdom Romanians, to be sung and danced as a "hora" (a traditional Romanian dance). At the height of these passions a daring person even stormed into the office of the local chief of the State Security Police in Lugoj/Lugos and advised the "mămăliga-eater" to go to his Old Kingdom "mămăliga".[2] The consequence of this tense situation was the emergence of a strong regionalist current in Transylvania - another highly promising subject for historical research, especially since its aims were surprisingly similar to those of the dominant Hungarian party in Northern Transylvania between 1940 and 1944. The interpretative framework of national history will obfuscate the political myth-making too that existed at least until the end of the twenties and was based on the idea of a Hungarian-Romanian (but primarily Transylvanian) modus vivendi reached at Alba Iulia in 1918. It emphasized that both the Romanians and the Hungarians of this region were the most democratic parts of their respective nations and pointed to their unity against Bucharest and Budapest. A different approach, namely that of entangled history enables us not only to make this story visible but can also help contextualize it.
The notion that suffering is the only form of minority existence (and in a broader sense of nationalized history) has weaknesses other than the fact that it just does not reflect the experience of everyone. It is easy to find examples of people who, even though they accept a nationalized perspective in dealing with other nations, do not behave as one would expect them based on this fact. For instance, the prefect of the Romanian county Trei Scaune/Háromszék submitted a report to Bucharest at the end of 1930. As part of his information gathering, he ordered his subordinates, the heads of territorial administrative subunits, to prepare their own reports on the situation in their townships. The first official (primpretor) of the Sepsi township and Romanian by self-identification painted a dramatic picture of the Romanians' fate whereby he urged the prefect to step up in Bucharest and help ensure efficient government intervention to shore up the declining Romanian culture in a predominantly Hungarian environment. He was outraged about what was happening in the village of Ozun/Uzon in particular. Here the local administration was entirely composed of Hungarians and it allegedly forced the Romanian inhabitants to proselytize to the Calvinist religion (generally considered a "Hungarian" denomination) in order to get the social allowances necessary to withstand the harsh winter. A few months later the Orthodox and Greek Catholic - Romanian - priests of the village filed a complaint against the village administration, describing almost verbatim what the primpretor noted in his report. Nevertheless, when the prefect asked for the opinion of the very same primpretor, the latter was scandalized by the interference of churchmen with the process of administration. He went on to claim that what was outlined in the document was completely unsubstantiated and advised the prefect to reject the petition and reprimand its authors in order not to bring unfounded allegations against the administration.
It seems that two different self-perceptions - that of national activist and the less ethnicized one of public servant - were reconciled without conflict in the same person. Which one of these two roles were enacted depended on the circumstances and the situation. To a certain extent the same phenomenon can be observed when villagers were reluctant to pay the higher school fees of the religious school where Hungarian was the language of instruction and preferred to send their children to the state-run school while this practice tended to be publicly condemned as supporting the conscious assimilationist policies of the Romanian state. The experiences of young Translyvanians visiting Hungary in the 1930s tell a similar tale. In their reports on these journeys they frequently mention how Hungarians from Hungary, subjected to strong revisionist propaganda at home, were surprised to hear them speak Hungarian and even directly inquired how they managed to learn Hungarian in Romania. Sometimes it was even made clear to the Transylvanian Hungarians that they were undesired intruders occupying the jobs rightfully belonging to Hungarians from Hungary. It is entirely possible that the people encountered by these Transylvanians turned emotional when encountering Transylvanians at other, less banal occasions or when hearing of the abstract sufferings of their kin in Romania and they probably supported territorial revision as well. Nevertheless, their reaction to a real Translyvanian was less than enthusiastic and indeed often rather negative. But the traditional interpretative framework that uses the homogenizing discourse of common national suffering after Trianon as its primary reference point hardly enables us to reveal the complexity of such phenomena. Nevertheless, the perception and use of national categorization, the encounter between "representatives" of homogenizing national discourses and individuals offers a fashionable topic - and it has been amply researched concerning the territory of present day Czech Republic, Ukraine or the former Galicia.

Public discourse tends to pose more social historical research questions than it can answer

Moving beyond the differences between historiographical (and, sadly, partly also propagandistic) discourses and lived experiences, let's turn our attention to some additional issues of historiography. Although political discourses tend to assume that forced assimilation and the resulting suffering are the core components of minority existence, trying to prove this thesis might in fact prove difficult. Relying exclusively on public discourse has its own pitfalls as it was often bound to propaganda and its organizers were keen to focus on grievances. Sometimes they claimed to have succeeded in feeding the whole spectrum of the Hungarian press - at home and abroad - with the same selective material. Furthermore, there is a process of unintentional selection too since those who report on less scandalous cases usually have harder access to the media. As scholars, we should be ready to openly admit how limited our knowledge about the implementation of the policies usually associated with assimilation and nationalization of state and society still is - wide ranging studies of social history are simply not yet available. In my assessment, public discourse (or propaganda) tends to pose more social historical research questions than it can satisfyingly answer.
The case of former Hungarian public servants in Romania can illustrate this issue well. According to contemporary accounts - adapted by most historical accounts - they were soon laid off, and laid off again just a few years later and then once again, already for a third time. It is hard to reconcile documents from interwar Romania with these reports. For example, the National Directorate of the Police made an inquiry at the prefect of county Szolnok-Doboka/Solnoc-Dăbăca in 1923, asking why the majority of public officials used Hungarian in their official dealings and internal documents too. (The prefect's answer was rather straightforward: the officials from the Hungarian era had still not learned Romanian while there were only few Romanians with the necessary qualifications.) To take another example from a decade later: when the Ministry of Public Instruction decided to establish Romanian or German as the language of instruction in the so-called Swabian villages in the Satu Mare/Szatmár region, the process dragged on for years despite the explicit official intention to have it realized from one school year to the next. Once again, the main problem was that qualified personnel with the appropriate language skills were not available.[3] Even as late as 1938-1939, hundreds of Hungarian public officials, still employed or pensioned, flooded the newly established Ministry of Minorities of Romania with petitions expecting remedies for their supposed unjust treatment.
It is undeniable that many officials were discharged, ran away, or were in a vexed situation in Romania of the inter-war years. It is undeniable that most Romanian governments saw assimilation or at least nationalization of Transylvania as one of their primary objectives. On the other hand, such general statements rather obscure how these policies affected people, how the minority (or the majority) population experienced its nationality. Such statements tend to imply that every minority Hungarian necessarily felt this pressure and perceived it as being personally exposed to forced assimilation. To know the extent and details of such experiences would be necessary to assess what and how large the trauma of Trianon was. We are still far from possessing this knowledge..

Complement to the debate between Éva Kovács and Kristián Ungváry

As the discussion between Éva Kovács and Krisztián Ungváry tackled, among others, whether Trianon should be considered a social trauma or neurosis in the present, it is advisable to pose the same questions regarding developments since 1989. Many instructive research projects from the field of sociology and social anthropology have already revealed how diverse individual identities, how varying the perception of categories like nation and how wide ranging their practice in individual encounters can be [4] - not to mention here the striking similarities with the situation in the interwar era. For example, whether the incidents affecting minority Hungarians and appearing in the contemporary media are a true reflection of rather widespread circumstances or just a distorting selection following the logic of tabloidization is as difficult to decide as regarding the interwar period. Research conducted on encounters between Hungarians from both sides of the borders suggests that beyond the rituals expressing symbolic unity, real interactions tend to be ambiguous at best. It would be foolish to declare that no Hungarian has suffered an insult in the last two decades or that minority Hungarians have no legitimate claims of having suffered discrimination. I would not even dare claim that only a minority of them have some justified grievances since 1989 in this regard. What I would like to emphasize though is that - contrary to Ungváry's argumentation - all this is still not enough to legitimately presume that the general, uniform perception and experience of individual lives is forced assimilation and suffering - although this seems to be what Ungváry expects his readers to recognize whereby he effectively ends up suggesting that suffering makes someone Hungarian and unites the nation.
Somewhat curiously, Ungváry questions this historically when he claims that the reunification process between 1938 and 1944 did not require Hungarians to be uniform. But the wide ranging processes of verifying the fidelity of Hungarians in the reattached territories and the accompanying wave of denunciations were based on assumptions strikingly similar to Ungváry's: the idea was that those who were not persecuted, not to speak of those who "dared" to serve as public servants and employees of successor states could not but be collaborationists and deserved to be treated as suspects. It is quite true and Ungváry is entirely right to point this out, that the short period of re-established Hungarian sovereignty constitutes a very positive element of today's social memory among minority Hungarians, especially in Romania. Nevertheless, it is methodologically problematic to take this retrospective evaluation - obviously strongly influenced by the experiences of the Ceauşescu era - at face value, use it as proof of similar sentiments shared during the period and simply dismiss the enormous amount of sources that highlight the conflicts and tensions brought about by reunification. To take an admittedly somewhat provocative counter example: according to current surveys a majority of Romanians think today that they were better off before 1989. Would we therefore say that overthrowing Ceauşescu was an enormous mistake, a result of some kind of collective delusion?
Given their deep disagreement it is hardly surprising that Kovács and Ungváry assess the possibility of developing common historical memory with Slovak and Romanian historians markedly differently. Ungváry wants to consistently confront the official Hungarian historiography with the official Slovak and Romanian ones. According to his evaluation the latter are unable to admit and critically assess the practice of forced assimilation of Hungarians in the past and the present. The implicit expectation here seems to be that official historiography - however defined - represents whole societies and should create an authoritative version of the past. Ungváry extends the national interpretative framework to the field of historical research and seems to maintain that we need a common narrative influenced by the politics of history. Somewhat surprisingly, Kovács does not wholly contest this assumption, especially the rationality of the category of official historiography. She rather challenges Ungváry's characterization of Slovak and Romanian historians and his negative assessment of the possibility of joint work. I have to admit that I am not too familiar with what Eastern Europeans used to label "official historical science", i.e. academic institutions, so called mixed commissions, huge state sponsored conferences and large volumes meant to deliver historical truth on contested issues, etc. Nevertheless, the colleagues I have been fortunate enough to encounter are hard to characterize as narrowly as Ungváry does. There are younger ones and elder, from research institutions and universities, from Romania and abroad. Most of them were ready to discuss sensitive issues in a professional (but also empathic) way. They were not bound to the traditional genre of political history and very consciously tried to overcome methodological nationalism. It is still not certain they will establish their works as "official historiography" and sit across the table to discuss common history textbooks in the future. But there is a good chance that while some are waiting for "official historians" to create a new "official" history of the region, others will find "unofficial" partners and write "unofficial" histories that will then be the only commonly available ones.

Note by the author: This article was originally meant as a contribution to the debate in Élet és Irodalom but it was refused without further explanation. Its original version started with a summary of the positions of Éva Kovács and Krisztián Ungváry. My aim was to highlight what was left unexplored, both theoretically and methodologically.

[1]György Kövér cites some interesting report in this regard: György Kövér, "The revolutionaries drunk Friedmann's liquor stock" and Károly Hartmann's "shop was ravaged and his home sacked on November 2, 1918, at the occasion of the revolution". Az eszlári zsidóság harmadfél évszázada. In: Kovács, Zoltán/ Püski, Levente (eds.): Emlékkönyv L. Nagy Zsuzsa 80. születésnapjára. Debreceni Egyetem Történeti Intézete, Debrecen 2010, pp. 153-168, p. 166.
[2] It was all the more humiliating as the word "mamaligator" was a typical Hungarian swearword applied to Romanians.
[3] Baumgartner, Bernadette: Kisebbség a kisebbségben. PhD dissertation, PTE BTK, 2010.
[4] Brubaker, Rogers/ Feischmidt, Margit/ Fox, Jon/ Grancea, Liana: Everyday ethnicity in a Transylvanian Town, Princeton 2006.; Fox, Jon E.: Vándorló nemzet(i)-identitások, in Feischmidt, Margit (ed.): Erdély (de)konstrukciók. PTE Kommunikációtudományi Tanszék-Néprajzi Múzeum, Pécs-Budapest 2005, pp. 103-123.; Feischmidt, Margit: A határ és a román stigma, in: Kovács, Nóra/ Osvát, Anna/ Szarka, László (eds.): Tér és terep. Tanulmányok az etnicitás és az identitás kérdésköréből, III, Budapest 2005,pp. 43-58.

Citation: Egry, Gábor: Towards a Social History of Trianon and its Aftermath, in: Forum Geschichtskulturen, Hungary, Version 1.0, 18.04.2012, URL: http://www.imre-kertesz-kolleg.uni-jena.de/index.php?id=518&l=0
Copyright: Imre Kertész Kolleg Jena and the author, all rights reserved. This work may be copied and redistributed for non-commercial, educational purposes, if permission is granted by the author and usage right holders. For permission please contact dorothea.warneck(at)uni-jena(dot)de