Modern history



ON MARCH 23, 1919, as the first signs of spring were appearing, two American experts walked glumly in the Bois de Boulogne. “We had just learned,” one wrote in his diary, “of the outbreak of troubles in Hungary, which, if they spread, may make waste paper of our conventions for a while to come.” 1 If Austria had been causing mild concern in Paris, Hungary had been setting off alarm bells, especially when Béla Kun, an unknown communist, seized power in Budapest. Suddenly Bolshevism appeared to have taken a giant step into the rich Hungarian plain, with its key strategic position. With a short hop, it could be in Austria, already under a socialist government, or the Balkans, and with another step still, into Bavaria, where the communists were edging toward their brief moment in power. Kun himself sent out contradictory signals, with reassuring messages to the Allied leaders but fraternal greetings to their working classes. More worrying, he sent an offer eastward to Lenin, asking for a treaty. Perhaps the two communist states could establish a link through the disputed territory on the eastern edges of Poland and Czechoslovakia, where there were said to be local Bolshevik forces on the march.

Even before Kun arrived on the scene, the peacemakers were suspicious of Hungary. With its great landed magnates, its cowed peasantry and its history (the Magyars had stormed out of central Asia in the ninth century), there was something not quite European about Hungary. Liberals tended to blame the worst faults of the old empire on the Hungarian oligarchy. “There has been much talk of suppressing the revolution in Hungary,” Lloyd George told his colleagues on the Council of Four when they first heard the news. “I don’t see why we should do that: there are few countries so much in need of a revolution. This very day, I had a conversation with someone who has visited Hungary and who knows it well; he tells me that this country has the worst system of landholding in Europe. The peasants there are as oppressed as they were in the Middle Ages, and manorial law still exists there.”2

This time Lloyd George was not far wrong. Budapest was an elegant, modern capital, but the countryside, which produced much of Hungary’s wealth, was a different world. Serfdom had been finally abolished in 1848, but much of the land was still held in large estates, by aristocrats, the gentry or the church. In 1914 Prince Esterházy owned 230,000 hectares; one of his ancestors had had a uniform on which all the buttons were diamonds and the seams were marked out in pearls. The grand families were worldly and international, with houses in Vienna and Paris, English nannies and grooms, French cooks and German music masters. They spoke easily in French or Latin, less so in Hungarian. They produced the political leaders, the generals, occasionally even liberal reformers, but most were deeply conservative and uninterested in anything outside their own world. They distrusted Jews, although rich Jewish industrialists and bankers were starting to marry their children; they believed in keeping the non-Magyars, the Croats, Slovaks or Rumanians who probably made up more than half the population of prewar Hungary, firmly under control.3

The man Béla Kun overthrew in March 1919 was one of the greatest landowners of them all. Michael Károlyi, who took over in the last chaotic days of the war, owned 60,000 acres, a glass factory, a coal mine, a superb country house, a mansion in Budapest and several shooting lodges. When he tipped a Gypsy band in a restaurant the usual amount, his tutor, he recalled, reprimanded him. “I should pay at least double the amount given by anyone else, for I must never forget that I was a Count Károlyi.” Fate had given him much but not everything. He was a lonely, ugly child with a cleft palate. Surrounded by protective relatives and servants, he was deeply hurt when, on his first forays into Hungarian society, people laughed at him and women rejected his timid advances.4

The young Károlyi reacted by throwing himself madly into various pursuits. He forced himself to become an orator and took up politics. He gambled, he drank, he drove fast cars very badly. He became the foremost dandy in Budapest, then the wildest man-about-town. He played polo recklessly, he fenced compulsively, he took one of the first flights over the city. He raised eyebrows by finding shooting parties boring, and doubts about his manhood when he refused the young peasant girl in his bed (supplied by custom to all male guests along with the game). His ideas, at least by the standards of his world, were radical. Before the war he was seen with strange people: socialists, middle-class politicians, intellectuals.5

When the war started, Károlyi joined up. (His regiment was held back from active service until his wife gave birth to their first child.) By 1918, he was demanding a separate peace with the Allies and, finally, the end of the union with Austria. On October 31 Károlyi became Hungary’s prime minister; two weeks later, he proclaimed a republic. “He seems a very good fellow,” reported an American, “but nervous and permanently worried, which is perhaps not surprising.”6 The army no longer obeyed orders, the civil administration had broken down, the transport system had collapsed and money was rapidly losing its value.

The Hungarians, with their territory melting away, cast about for protection. A cousin of the emperor, now calling himself Joe Habsburg, wrote to George V in London suggesting that Hungary become part of the British empire. Perhaps, Hungarians hoped, they could borrow an English prince. Like the Germans and the Austrians, they also hoped that their republican revolution would soften the Allies. The Hungarian Academy appealed to distinguished Allied scholars not to let Hungary be dismembered. Károlyi dispatched a prominent feminist as his representative to contact the Allies in neutral Switzerland, calculating, wrongly as it turned out, that this would demonstrate the new, liberal face of Hungary. (She shocked the conservative Swiss and spent most of her time quarreling with her own staff.) A leading Budapest restaurant named a dish in honor of Marshal Foch. (Unfortunately, in Hungarian it came out as “diarrhea soup.”)7

Like everyone else, the Hungarians looked to the Americans. His peace platform, Károlyi assured American representatives in Budapest, was “Wilson, Wilson, Wilson.” The city was festooned with Wilson’s photograph and the slogan “A Wilson Peace Is the Only Peace for Hungary.” What that meant, at least to Hungarians, was not self-determination for the minorities within Hungary but that their country should keep its historic boundaries. There was much talk of Switzerland, a favorite analogy in Central Europe, of regional autonomy, and of language and other rights. The Károlyi government set about passing laws to this effect.8

The Hungarian appeals were futile. The Allies remained suspicious of Hungary. Was Károlyi really as liberal as he claimed? He was, after all, an aristocrat, related to the men who had led Hungary into the war. If the British and the Americans were cool, the French were actively hostile. Only the Italians were sympathetic, simply because they hoped to use Hungary against Yugoslavia. That both Czechoslovakia and Rumania were able to present their demands as Allies did not help Hungary. Nor did the fact that Hungary’s borders were drawn piecemeal, in the Czechoslovak commission and the one on Rumania and Yugoslavia. As Nicolson, who represented Britain on both, admitted, “it was only too late that it was realised that these two separate Committees had between them imposed upon Hungary a loss of territory and population which, when combined, was very serious indeed.” 9

Thanks partly to the French, whose troops made up the bulk of Allied forces in Central Europe, Hungary had already lost control of much of its territory before the Peace Conference started. When Károlyi and his colleagues had arrived in Belgrade in November 1918 to surrender, they had come full of optimism, with postcards for the French general Louis Franchet d’Esperey to autograph. He had greeted them coldly, dismissing their claim to represent a new, liberal Hungary. “I know your history,” he said. “In your country you have oppressed those who are not Magyar. Now you have the Czechs, Slovaks, Rumanians, Yugoslavs as enemies; I hold these people in the hollow of my hand; I have only to make a sign and you will be destroyed.” The French allowed the Serbians to move north into Hungarian territory, the Czechs to take over Slovakia, and the Rumanians to advance westward into their coveted Transylvania. When the Hungarian government complained to Colonel Ferdinand Vix, the head of the French military mission in Budapest, he refused to pass on their complaints.10

The Hungarians feared that temporary occupations would harden into permanent possession. They had resigned themselves to the loss of Croatia, even Slovakia, although in both cases they had hoped for more generous boundaries than the ones they finally got. Transylvania was something else again. Over the hills dividing the Hungarian plain from the highlands, it lay sheltered within the arrowhead of the Carpathians where they point down toward the Black Sea. Transylvania was almost half the old kingdom of Hungary; it was rich; and it was woven into Hungarian history.

Geography gave Transylvania natural defenses, but over the centuries outsiders—Romans, Germans, Slavs, Magyars—found their way there. By the eleventh century, it was under Hungarian control and it remained so, in various forms, until 1918. Rumanian scholars dismissed this history, claiming that Rumanians had been there long before anyone else. “It was in this territory,” Brătianu told the Supreme Council in February, “that the Rumanian nation had been constituted and formed; and all its aspirations for centuries had tended towards the political union of that territory.” (Brătianu did not mention that the Rumanian claims went well beyond the old boundaries of Transylvania, into Hungary proper.) Rumania, he went on, had been promised Transylvania under the Treaty of Bucharest when it entered the war in 1916. This was not persuasive, because everyone remembered how Rumania had made a separate peace with Germany in 1918. In fact, Brătianu had a much better argument: even according to Hungarian statistics, Rumanians made up more than half the population in Transylvania; Hungarians constituted only 23 percent, with Germans and others accounting for the rest. At the end of the war, an assembly of Transylvanian Rumanians had voted overwhelmingly for union with Rumania. The local Germans eventually added their support. The Hungarians, of course, remained opposed. The peacemakers expressed some concerns over the Hungarian minority—Brătianu said they would be treated in the most liberal fashion—but did not question that Transylvania should go to Rumania. Indeed, the French had made up their minds long before they had heard the Rumanian case.11

The peacemakers asked the Commission on Rumanian and Yugoslav Affairs to draw the new border between Hungary and Rumania. The French and the Italians wanted to give Rumania a generous swath of Hungary as well, while the British and the Americans followed ethnic lines, which would have kept the border further east. As one of the British experts said, “The balance must naturally be inclined towards our ally Rumania rather than towards our enemy Hungary.” The commission came up with a compromise report in March, which went a long way toward satisfying Rumania’s demands. When rumors of its contents reached Hungary, they caused consternation. Posters with maps of a Hungary divided into four asked “Voulez-vous faire quatre Alsace-Lorraines?” (“Do you want to create four Alsace-Lorraines?”) Before the Supreme Council could decide what to do, the revolution in Hungary broke out, adding the stigma of Bolshevism to the beleaguered country.12

Károlyi’s government had been under attack from the right, which bitterly resented attempts at land reform, and the left, which felt it was not going far enough. The peacemakers did little to help. Where Austria received 288,000 tons of food and clothing for relief in the first six months of 1919, Hungary got only 635 tons. “Our difficulties,” Károlyi recalled bitterly in exile, “were multiplied a thousand times by the ill-will and inefficiency of the different foreign missions in Budapest.” On March 20, Colonel Vix delivered the final blow when he presented Károlyi with a decision from the Supreme Council establishing a neutral zone between Hungary and Rumania. Hungary had ten days to withdraw all its troops to the west of this area, while Rumania could advance to its eastern edge. This, according to the peacemakers, was to prevent clashes between the two nations. The Hungarians did not see it in that light.13

As Károlyi pointed out to Vix, the Hungarians were being asked to withdraw from almost exactly the territory claimed by Rumania, while Rumanian troops were being allowed to move westward by a hundred kilometers. What was to stop them from going still farther into Hungary? If he agreed to the neutral zone, he added, there would be a revolution and his government would fall. Under his breath, he muttered: “As far as I am concerned, I should be glad to be rid of it.” Vix was unmoved; it was not, he kept repeating, a matter of politics. The Hungarians must calm down and accept the ultimatum from Paris. He was sure that the Allies would keep Rumania in check. They might as well occupy the whole country now, said Károlyi: “Make it a French colony, or a Rumanian colony, or a Czechoslovak colony.” Vix shrugged. The following day Károlyi’s government fell and he went into exile.14 He died on the French Riviera in 1955.

Károlyi’s successor was, as he predicted, a revolutionary. Béla Kun came from a tiny village in Transylvania and was the son of a drunken, shiftless notary. (His father was a nonpracticing Jew, a fact later seized upon by anti-Semites as proof of a widespread Jewish-Marxist conspiracy.) A dandy and a poseur, Kun was vain, hot-tempered and self-centered. He was also, it was generally agreed, ugly, with a huge head supported on a wiry small body, a flat nose and enormous ears. Before the war he had made something of a name as a radical journalist. In 1914, he joined up and fought against the Russians on the Eastern Front, where he was captured and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp. The Russian Revolution of 1917 brought a rapid change in both his politics and his fortunes. By 1918 he was free and in Moscow, meeting with Lenin and the other Bolsheviks, and the leader of a new Hungarian communist movement. At the end of the war, provided with gold and fake documents by his new friends, Kun traveled back to Hungary to spread the revolution. His timing was perfect.15

Kun moved through Hungary’s chaotic politics like a whirlwind, issuing manifestos and demands, calling strikes and demonstrations. When the police in Budapest beat him up, he achieved martyrdom. On March 21, the day after the Allied ultimatum, Károlyi’s socialist allies in the government came to see Kun in prison; they were prepared to hand over power to the communists. Béla Kun got his freedom, his revolution and his power that day, all without a shot being fired. The next day he declared Hungary a Soviet republic. 16

In the opinion of a young American officer in Budapest, the revolution was more nationalist than communist: “The Hungarians who are united in their conviction that Hungary must not be dismembered, have made use of Bolshevism as a last desperate resort to preserve the integrity of their country.” In Paris the Council of Four hesitated. Clemenceau and his military advisers were for reinforcing the Rumanians and letting them loose on both the Russian and Hungarian Bolsheviks. Foch appeared with a large map to demonstrate how Rumania was the key to preventing a solid Bolshevik front in the center of Europe. Forget the White Russians in southern Russia, he said brutally; they were already lost. “This is why I tell you: build upon Rumania, because there you have not only an army, but also a government and a people.” Wilson admitted that he was uncertain about the right course of action. “What exactly is our position with regards to the Bolsheviks?” Perhaps it had been unwise to establish the neutral zone between Rumania and Hungary: “It doesn’t seem this method has produced the desired result.” Should the Peace Conference be choosing sides? “Nominally we are friends of the Hungarians and even better friends of the Rumanians.” Clemenceau responded sharply, “The Hungarians are not our friends but our enemies.” Of all the peoples in Austria-Hungary, they had been the most reluctant to surrender.17

Lloyd George, who was now modifying his earlier hostility to Hungary, sided with Wilson. After all, the Croats and the Slovenes had also fought until the bitter end for Austria-Hungary, and the Allies were now friendly with them. “Why not enter into conversation with the Magyars as well?” The German peace terms should be a warning to them all; he had spent the previous weekend at Fontainebleau considering their flaws—the way, for example, they were leaving Germans under Polish rule. It was just as dangerous to the future peace of Europe to leave millions of Hungarians outside their country. He was also doubtful, as a result of their experience with Russia, about the prospects for a military solution to Bolshevism. “Let’s not deal with Hungary as with Russia,” he urged the others. “One Russia is enough for us.” He suggested that they send some reliable person, Smuts perhaps, to report on Kun and his regime. Wilson agreed with enthusiasm, Clemenceau with reluctance. Under French pressure, the Council of Four also agreed to ship military supplies to Rumania.18

On the evening of April Fool’s Day, Smuts and his aides, including Harold Nicolson, left Paris on a special train for Budapest. Ostensibly, Smuts’s job was to persuade the Hungarians to accept the neutral zone between Hungary and Rumania; his real purpose was to assess Kun and decide whether he might be used as an informal conduit to Lenin. (The Allies still had not come up with a workable policy on Russia.) The British also hoped that the mission might counteract French influence in central Europe. The news caused tremendous excitement in Budapest, where it was seen as a sign that the Paris Peace Conference was prepared to recognize the new government. Kun hastily sold off Hungary’s remaining assets—its stocks of fats—to Italy and ordered a huge amount of red velvet to drape the buildings leading from the railway station to Budapest’s leading hotel, which itself was decorated with a giant Union Jack and a tricolor.19

When he arrived in Budapest, Smuts refused to play along. He remained firmly in his special train and Kun was obliged to come to him. (The miles of red velvet had to wait until May Day to make their appearance.) Nicolson, no friend to Hungary at the best of times, viewed the communist with all the hauteur of his class. “A little man of about 30: puffy white face and loose wet lips: shaven head: impression of red hair: shifty suspicious eyes: he has the face of a sulky and uncertain criminal.” And the new Hungarian foreign minister, who accompanied Kun, was just as distasteful: “A little oily Jew—fur-coat rather moth-eaten—string green tie—dirty collar.”20

The discussions, in the cramped quarters of the dining car, did not go well. Kun wanted recognition; Smuts was determined to withhold it. Kun wanted the Rumanians to withdraw to the east of the neutral zone; Smuts was only prepared to make minor concessions that would have left Rumania occupying Transylvania. Smuts decided that there was no point in further bargaining. “Well, gentlemen,” he said at the end of the second day, “I must bid you good-bye.” He politely shook hands and stepped back on his train, which, to the amazement of the Hungarians, slowly pulled out of the station. 21 Smuts concluded from his brief foray that Kun was a stupid man whose government was unlikely to last long.

Yet Smuts was willing, as he told the peacemakers in Paris, to follow up on the one useful suggestion Kun had made: that the nations of the former Austria-Hungary be called together to work out their common borders and common economic policies. Smuts even worked briefly with Keynes on a plan for an international loan to get the economies in the Danube basin going again. These were sensible ideas, but nothing came of them in Paris. The Italians were firmly against anything that smacked of a reborn Austria-Hungary, and none of the other Allies had a particular interest in implementing Kun’s suggestions. Even if they had tried, the mutual hostilities among the successors to Austria-Hungary might have made the job impossible. There was to be precious little cooperation, economic or otherwise, along the Danube in the interwar years. The dream has never quite died, though. The son of the last emperor, Dr. Otto von Habsburg-Lothringen, as he is known in the European parliament, works indefatigably for cooperation among the nations that once belonged to his ancestors.22

In Hungary the communist-controlled newspapers claimed that Smuts’s mission meant the Allies had recognized their regime. They did not report his sudden departure, but versions of what had taken place leaked out, adding to public unease. It was rumored that the Allies were sending an army to occupy Budapest, or that Trotsky and a Red Army were approaching in the northeast to support the Hungarian revolution and the one which had just occurred in Bavaria. The Austrian Reds were about to seize Vienna. The communists were arresting thousands of the middle and upper classes. There were right-wing plots to seize power, left-wing plans to unleash mass terror. Not all the rumors were false.23

Trotsky was not on his way, but the Bolsheviks were hoping to link up with their fellow communists. In Belgrade, Franchet d’Esperey was trying to persuade the Yugoslavs to send part of their army north to Budapest against Kun. In a palace in Vienna, exiled noblemen, including Károlyi’s relatives, were meeting secretly to plan a counterrevolution. (In a daring raid on the Hungarian embassy, the conspirators seized a small fortune in cash which Kun had sent out of the country; unfortunately, they immediately became immobilized with quarrels over how to spend it.) In the Hungarian countryside, safely out of Budapest’s reach, army officers led by another one of Károlyi’s cousins planned a military coup. They persuaded one of Austria-Hungary’s few naval war heroes, Admiral Miklós Horthy, to join them.24

Kun’s regime made things easy for its opponents. In its 133 days in power it announced dramatic and largely unenforceable reforms: prohibition of alcohol, socialization of the factories, distribution of the big estates, the abolition of all titles, proletarian culture for all, compulsory baths and sex education for schoolchildren, compulsory reallocation of housing and furniture, the standardization of graves. They alienated almost every section of the population, from Catholics horrified by plans to turn churches into cinemas, to liberals appalled by the censorship, the arbitrary arrests and the secret police. Public opinion condemned the regime above all for its failure to cope with inflation and shortages, and its own corruption. 25

What finally finished off Kun’s government, though, were its external enemies. In April, a week after Smuts left Budapest, the Rumanian army, with a nod and a wink from the French military, attacked through the neutral zone toward Budapest. The Czechs made their move in the north a few days later. In Paris, the Rumanians, like the Czechoslovaks, claimed that they were blameless. “I fear,” Brătianu told the Council of Four, “that you are not perfectly informed about the role of the Rumanian army and the Hungarian provocations.” Their moves were entirely defensive. “They are all little brigand peoples,” complained Lloyd George, “who only want to steal territories.” As the Rumanians moved well west of what they were claiming, even Clemenceau found their demands excessive. And he was worried about the political implications: his own left feared that he was planning to intervene against the Hungarian communists. He was also getting alarming reports about the state of morale among French forces supervising the armistice in Eastern Europe.26

The Hungarians temporarily rallied. Even conservative army officers found Béla Kun preferable to the Rumanians. The regime, for its part, dropped the language of the proletarian revolution and appealed simply to patriotism. Volunteers rushed to join the army. The Italians, motivated largely by their hostility to Hungary’s other hostile neighbor, Yugoslavia, sold Kun guns and ammunition. According to a British observer, they also passed on information about Allied plans. By the middle of May Hungarian forces had pushed the Czechs back and driven a wedge between them and the Rumanians.27

In Paris, the peacemakers failed to take this in at first. Wilson was inclined to think the Hungarians the innocent party but asked an awkward, and all too familiar, question: “Do we have a way of stopping the movement of the Rumanians?” Lloyd George and Clemenceau could only suggest talking firmly to Brătianu. They were, it must be admitted, distracted by the breach with the Italians over Fiume. When the Council of Four saw its experts’ recommendations on Hungary’s borders with Rumania and Czechoslovakia in the second week of May, it approved them with scarcely any discussion. 28

The fighting went briskly on, forcing the peacemakers to take notice. In June a British journalist recently arrived from Hungary was invited to lunch with Lloyd George and his military adviser, Henry Wilson, to explain the situation. He found the British prime minister in a cheerful mood; together, they looked at a map of Central Europe. Lloyd George now blamed the Czechoslovaks and the Rumanians for the conflict. “I think,” he added, “the Hungarians are the best of the lot out there. They are the most powerful race and have always kept the others in order.” They talked about Allied intervention against Béla Kun. Henry Wilson asked gloomily, “Where are the troops to come from?” Lloyd George maintained that Bolshevism would die out of its own accord. He had enjoyed this chat; it would be helpful when he talked to his colleagues later that day. “It was quite obvious,” the journalist concluded, “that the Big Four had hardly given the countries east of Germany a thought, being far too occupied with the principal offender to bother about the lesser minions.”29

The Council of Four sent off its warnings and orders, just as it had done with the Poles, and with as little success. The Rumanians were told that they must not occupy Budapest. Brătianu took a high moral line: “We wanted in a spirit of solidarity with the Entente to march on Pest in order to help in the re-establishment of order.” This was a familiar claim; so was his repeated charge that the Allies were treating Rumania with ingratitude after its great services during the war. The Hungarians were ordered to stop fighting. Kun replied that Hungary was willing to stop if Rumania and Czechoslovakia did.30

The Allies found it difficult to agree on what to do next. The French military were for sending in an army made up of Rumanian, Yugoslav and French troops to occupy what was left of Hungary; the Americans pointed out that, once in, the Rumanians might never leave. Lloyd George suggested that they might threaten to cut off supplies to Rumania. On June 12, the Council of Four settled for telegrams to Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Rumania, informing them of what their new borders were to be and ordering them to withdraw their troops into their own territory. There was to be no more land-grabbing; the Allies would not be induced to change their decisions “by the unscrupulous use of military methods.” The American delegate, General Bliss, was deputed to make sure the various forces withdrew. “A nice job,” he wrote to his wife, “to unload on a peaceful and peaceloving and somewhat tired man, isn’t it?”31

Lloyd George warned Wilson and Clemenceau that “we must impose our will now; we can no longer hurl vain orders.” But the fighting went on. The Rumanians refused to move back toward the east. Brătianu feared, he said, a simultaneous attack by Kun and the Russian Bolsheviks, perhaps even one from Bulgaria which, he claimed, was armed to the teeth. In July, the Hungarians provided him with an excuse to start advancing again when Kun, in a last desperate gamble, tried to throw the Rumanians back across the Tisza River, about a hundred kilometers east of Budapest. The Rumanians counterattacked in force. Several units of the Hungarian army that were in touch with the opposition around Admiral Horthy stopped fighting, and the Hungarian lines collapsed. Kun fled to Austria and then the Soviet Union. He was arrested there during Stalin’s purges, charged with conspiring with the Rumanian secret police, and executed in the autumn of 1939. 32

On August 3, 1919, Rumanian troops entered Budapest. The Yugoslavs and the Czechoslovaks took the opportunity to advance farther into Hungarian territory along their borders. In spite of repeated complaints from the Allies, all of Hungary’s enemies stayed firmly where they were through the autumn of 1919. A series of weak Hungarian governments proved unable to deal either with them or with the Horthy forces, who were going from strength to strength in the countryside. “If the three great powers had been able to keep armies,” the American military representative in Budapest wrote in his diary, “and could have sent them immediately to any place where trouble was brewing, it would have been entirely different, but the Supreme Council’s prestige went aglimmering when a steady stream of ultimata had no effect whatever upon that miserable little nation of Rumania.” The Peace Conference was by now winding down. Wilson was back in the United States, trying vainly to get the League approved by Congress, Lloyd George was spending most of his time in London, and Clemenceau was preparing to run for president of France.33

The Rumanians, who were now occupying most of Hungary, looted whatever Kun and his regime had left. Telephones, prized stallions, fire engines, shoes, carpets, automobiles, grain, cattle, and even railway cars and locomotives vanished eastward. Queen Marie cheerfully told an American officer, “You may call it stealing if you want to, or any other name. I feel that we are perfectly entitled to do what we want to.” When the Allied military mission in Budapest objected, the Rumanians protested that they were only taking supplies for their army. After all, Brătianu said, Rumania had saved civilization from Bolshevism.34

By November the powers, mainly Britain and France, had had enough. Rumania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were all ordered to withdraw their troops immediately from territory designated as Hungarian under the peace terms. Rumania complied with bad grace and much procrastination. When a new, more stable government took office in Hungary, the Allies finally decided that they could make peace. On December 1, Hungary was invited to send its representatives to Paris, and on January 5, 1920, a train left Budapest. As it passed through the country, crowds waited beside the tracks to wish its passengers well.35

Count Albert Apponyi, the delegation’s elderly leader, came from a family that traced its ancestry back to a migration from Central Asia in the twelfth century. His own political views were stuck somewhere in the eighteenth. He was kindly and courteous, enormously cultivated, deeply religious and a Hungarian patriot. He went to Paris with few hopes: “I could not refuse this saddest of duties, though I had no illusions as to there being any possibility of my securing some mitigation of our lot.” Hungary had virtually nothing with which to bargain. By the time Kun fled, its borders had already been largely set and the Allies had already signed treaties with its neighbors.36

The Hungarians received a cold but correct welcome from the French and were taken off to the Château de Madrid, a resort hotel in the Bois de Boulogne. They were treated better than the Germans had been; they could wander through the Bois, even go to local restaurants. They received their peace terms in a brief ceremony at the Quai d’Orsay. Clemenceau curtly informed Apponyi that he could make a statement the following day but there would be no verbal negotiations, only written ones. On leaving the room, the French prime minister gave a loud contemptuous laugh.37

Apponyi’s statement was, in Lloyd George’s opinion, a tour de force. He spoke in fluent French, then switched to equally impeccable English and concluded with flawless Italian. He pointed out that Hungary was being punished more severely than any other of the defeated nations. It was losing two thirds of its territory and its population, it was being cut off from its markets and its sources of raw materials, and it was expected to pay heavy reparations. Three and a half million Hungarians were going to end up outside Hungary. If the principle of self-determination was a fair one, and he thought it was, then surely it should apply to the Hungarians. At the very least, there should be plebiscites held in the territories being taken from Hungary. (Unwisely, the count weakened his case by complaining that Hungarians were being condemned to live under the rule of inferior civilizations.38)

In reply to a question from Lloyd George, Apponyi unfurled a large ethnographic map that he had brought with him, and the peacemakers gathered around. Lloyd George whispered to Apponyi, “You were very eloquent.” Even Clemenceau was polite. As the Hungarians went back to their hotel to prepare their written commentary, there was some feeling of hope. In Britain, critical questions were being asked in Parliament about the Hungarian terms. Several important French businessmen were interested in reopening economic relations between France and Hungary and informal talks had already started. The Italian government, under a new prime minister, swung around from its previous hostility and urged its allies to take Hungarian protests into account. It was not enough. In the end, the British and the French were not prepared to redo the treaties; the Italians were not willing to force the issue. The peacemakers may have been influenced, too, by a memorandum from Rumania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia which argued that any attempt to redraw the borders would be a betrayal. What ultimately weighed against Hungary was sheer inertia. As a young English observer told Károlyi in 1919, “The Entente governments had many more important things to worry about than the fate of ten million people in Hungary.”39

Hungary won only a few minor concessions: more patrol boats on the Danube, for example. On June 4, 1920, in a brief ceremony at the Trianon Palace, its representatives signed the treaty. In Hungary, the flags on public buildings flew at half-mast. “Trianon” became shorthand for Allied cruelty and its memory fueled an almost universal desire among Hungarians to undo its provisions. The leading political figure in the interwar years was Horthy, now designated regent on the grounds that Hungary was still a monarchy. (It never managed to find a king again, which suited both the British and Horthy himself.) Horthy and his supporters toyed with improbable plans to restore Hungary to its prewar boundaries, for example by gassing Czech soldiers in their barracks in Slovakia and rushing in with Hungarian troops. Moderates would have settled for Transylvania.40

In the 1930s, Hungary cautiously drew closer to the other revisionist powers, Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. After the Munich settlement of 1938 left Czechoslovakia alone and exposed to Hitler, Hungary successfully demanded a slice of Slovakia and the whole of Ruthenia. In 1940 it was Rumania’s turn, and in 1941 Yugoslavia’s. With Hitler’s support, Hungary got back about two fifths of Transylvania and part of the Banat in the south. It had only a short time to enjoy the restored territories. In 1945, the victorious Allies restored the boundaries of Trianon and there they remain, one of the arrangements from the Paris Peace Conference that has not been undone. Yet.

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