Grieving Greater Hungary: Trianon, Orbán, and the Hungarian radical right

Ideas of Hungarism and the reformation of ‘Greater Hungary’ are now central to Hungary’s radical right, and not just at the fringes…

In the Hungarian collective memory, few events evoke as much emotion as the Treaty of Trianon. Referring to the peace treaty signed at the Grand Trianon Palace at Versailles on 4th June 1920, this treaty meant that Hungary lost about two-thirds of its territories. The end of the First World War marked the end of the Austro-Hungarian empire, meaning the federalisation of both Austria and Hungary. With this came the Trianon peace treaty, where Hungary lost most of its national minorities: Slovaks, Romanians, Croats, and Serbs, among others. This treaty meant families were divided along national borders, and many ethnic Hungarians now found themselves members of other nation-states. Parts of Northern Hungary went to the Slovaks and Czechs, the South went to the Serbs, Croatians, and Slovenians, and Transylvania became part of Romania. 1941-42 briefly saw a reversal of the treaty and reinstatement of lands as, under the Hungarian regent Admiral Miklós Horthy, Hungary fought on the side of Nazi Germany.

In the 1930s, the extreme right began to centre around Ferenc Szálasi, leader of the newly-formed Party for National Will; the party was characterised by militant anti-Semitism and irredentism, specifically seeking to reunite the Hungarian people of the Carpathian Basin under Hungarian leadership. Later, Szálasi’s ideas of ‘Hungarism’ and the reversal of the Trianon treaty became central to the Hungarian radical right, most specifically to the new Hungarian National Socialist Party and, later, to the infamous Arrow Cross Party and Hungarist Movement. Their ideas were a mix of anti-Semitism and fascism, believing that powers such as Great Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union should be dissolved, and Hungarians (along with Latin, German, Slavic, and Islamic nations) should become the leading world-race.

These ideas of Hungarism and the reformation of ‘Greater Hungary’ are now central to Hungary’s radical right. ‘Greater Hungary’ is recognised in the form of an idea, with the concept symbolising the reunification of all ethnic Hungarians. It can also be represented physically by the image of present-day Hungary set within the pre-Trianon borders of the country, which often appears as a form of pan-Hungarism on decals, jewellery, and clothing. In another incarnation, it appears as a common chant used by radical right groups: “Vesszen Trianon!” or “Down with Trianon!”

Viktor Orbán and his government have also been often accused of revisionist approaches. Indeed, the Fidesz government instituted the opportunity for Hungarian citizenship to all Hungarians living outside of the nation-state’s borders; those ethnic Hungarians granted citizenship from Romania, Ukraine, and Serbia have meant a large electoral boost for Orbán’s Fidesz. Additionally, Fidesz have altered the national curriculum to be ‘more patriotic’, replaced the EU flag on the Hungarian parliament building with that of the Szeklers (a Hungarian-speaking ethnic group in Transylvania), openly support autonomy for the Szeklerlands in Transylvania (for example, see here, here, and here), regularly speak at the annual Bálványos Summer Free University and summer camp in the Szeklerlands, and have been financing Hungarian-language media, football clubs, and churches in Transylvania.

 Orbán’s gestures towards the Transylvanian-Hungarian and Szekler minorities have not gone unnoticed by the Romanian government, incidentally led by their very own (Ludovic) Orban, who reacted this year by declaring June 4th a national holiday in Romania. Indeed, the Szeklerlands have become the centre of Orbán’s irredentist crusade, although he himself stated that he is not seeking to reunite all of the lost Hungarian lands. One must wonder, then, what his motives are beyond simple ethno-nationalism.

 June 4th is memorialised annually by the Hungarian government, with the day being commemorated as the Day of National Unity in 2010. Indeed, Trianon is such a crucial part of the Hungarian collective memory that a rock opera was created about it in 2018. 2020, however, brings particularly special meaning in its centennial anniversary of the treaty; so much so, in fact, that the Hungarian government commissioned a memorial monument in front of the parliament in Budapest in April of 2019 to be finished for the centennial anniversary (which it was not). Called the ‘National Unity Memorial’, the subterranean monument features the names of the nearly 13,000 settlements Hungary lost to Trianon.

Outside of the Hungarian parliament, the treaty is memorialised and mourned by the radical right; indeed, June 4th is one of the biggest days of the year for these organisations. This year, the increased anger surrounding Trianon related to the treaty being originally signed for 100 years – an notional expiration date due for the 2020 anniversary. For the centennial even COVID-19 could not stop the protests and memorials. June 5th saw the annual protest march (the article features a video about the march, with interviews in Hungarian) organised by the Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement, a youth radical right organisation centred around the reversal of the treaty. The organisation was founded by the leader of the new Our Homeland Movement political party, who also spoke at the event. Videos of the protest show organisation members, various people young and old, and families with children in attendance.

Several radical right organisations made statements in honour of the anniversary. The Hungarian Defence Movement, which portrays itself as a community and family-oriented volunteer organisation, had a week-long commemoration visiting various Trianon memorials around Hungary. The radical right rock band Kárpátia wrote a song for the occasion. Some have voiced a victimisation and portrayal as Trianon as a Hungarian genocide, as did the extremist Outlaw Army organisation who stated: “they sentenced us to death, yet we’re still alive”. Légió Hungária, a newer Hungarian white power organisation, created a video to commemorate Trianon 100 stating that: “Our message on the 100th anniversary of Trianon must be that Hungarian identity and Hungarian land will be kept Hungarian, where for one thousand years Hungarians have been born and Hungarians determined the culture. One thousand years from now should be the same.” These organisations have frequently spoken out about ethnic Hungarians across the borders, with the Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement even having branches in the Szeklerlands.

Such a parallel between the Hungarian radical right and Hungarian government’s rhetoric is nothing if not cause for concern. It is also questionable as to what the continued tension between Hungary and Romania will mean for the future of the region. At any rate, Orbán’s not-so-subtle nod to Hungarism and Admiral Horthy are worthy of Europe’s attention as the country slips further into its ‘illiberal turn’.

Dr Katherine Kondor is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Research Associate on the ‘Illiberal Turn’ project at Loughborough University. See her profile here.

© Katherine Kondor. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).