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Hungarian Foreign Policy, 1919-1945

Eva S. Balogh

Whether one accepts or rejects the view that revision of the Treaty of Trianon was the sine qua non of the nation's "survival and independent existence,"1 the fact remains that revisionism was the cornerstone of Hungary's interwar foreign policy. Successive governments preached the gospel of revisionism to anyone who would listen, repeating its message so often and with such fervor that many Westerners soon became convinced that "the Hungarian people were not quite sane on that subject."2

The zeal with which Hungary promoted the cause of revisionism was commensurate with the difficulty of the undertaking. Istvan Bethlen, who as prime minister laid the foundation of Hungarian interwar foreign policy, did not exaggerate when he claimed that although "this nation had gone through many catastrophes, never in her history did she face such a formidable task as the question of revision."3 The obstacles in the way of revising the Treaty of Trianon were enormous: the opposition of those who had benefited from the reorganization of Central Europe in 1919, the Great Powers' antagonism toward or lack of sympathy for the Hungarian demands, and Hungary's insignificance in economic, military, and diplomatic terms. Without a general territorial reshuffle of the whole region between Germany and Russia, Hungarian revisionism did not have the slightest chance of success.

As peace began to give way to war by the late 1930s, revisionism became a more realistic goal. The obstacles which had formerly blocked Hungary's revisionist path were no longer insurmountable, and the futile rhetoric of the past could now be replaced with diplomatic maneuvering. Hungarian policymakers took full advantage of


the new situation. Spurred on by early diplomatic triumphs, they relentlessly pursued their revisionist aims. Nonetheless, the result was total failure; after World War II the victorious Allies reimposed the same borders (with one minor change, and that to Hungary's detriment) which had been so odious to her after World War I and which she had tried to change for more than two decades.

What were the diplomatic underpinnings of this revisionist foreign policy? A good summary of them appeared in the 1938 spring issue of the Hungarian Quarterly, the English-language publication of Bethlen and his circle. Gyorgy Ottlik, a diplomat, writer on international relations, and a member of the periodical's editorial board, recalled in an article that "after the war, there existed in Hungary two political orientations. One desired to establish friendly relations with her neighbours endeavouring to strike a bargain with each of them in the hope of getting some territory back from one or other of the Successor States. The other theory tried to remove Hungary from her isolation and to get the backing of one of the Great Powers."4 From the Karolyi regime to the different cabinets of Regent Miklos Horthy, Hungarian governments experimented with both.

It has been customary to date Hungarian revisionist policy either from the the actual signing of the Treaty of Trianon in June 1920 5 or from the post-Soviet period beginning in August 1919.6 Prior to that time, the argument goes, the democratic regime of Mihaly Karolyi was striving for peaceful coexistence with its new neighbors, while the pro-Soviet Kun regime put its faith in proletarian internationalism, paying little attention to national borders. It was only the reactionary, counterrevolutionary Horthy regime which first embarked on a sinister and eventually destructive revisionist course. Such an interpretation has been influenced by political considerations and a view of history which would like to draw a sharp division between the periods before and after the demise of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. But it is almost a commonplace to state that ideology concerning domestic matters has little to do with foreign policy which, in the final analysis, is determined by geopolitical considerations and national self-interest. In the case of Hungary the losses inflicted by the peacemakers on her were so enormous that Hungarian foreign policy became, more or less, predetermined from the moment the first foreign troops crossed the demarcation lines. From semi-fascists to Com-

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munists, all Hungarians were of the same mind: the Treaty of Trianon had to be revised. Some might have been satisfied with a less drastic revision of the borders than others, but the Hungarian population as a whole fully supported the policy of revision all through the interwar period.

Initially, Karolyi,s foreign policy was enthusiastically pro-Entente; in fact, his popularity rested on his promise that an immediate change from a pro-German to a pro-Entente foreign policy accompanied by "domestic reform," as Karolyi called the "realization of the aspirations of the national minorities,"7 would lead to an independent, democratic, and federated Hungarian republic, within the thousand-yearold borders of the Kingdom of Hungary.8 However naive the Karolyi regime's trust in the country's former enemies appears today, at the time it seemed a promising course to follow. After all, who knew exactly what "self-determination of nations" meant? For Karolyi, one of the leaders of the Party of Independence, it could certainly mean the independence of Hungary from Austria, which the majority of Hungarians wanted. As for the country's nationalities, Karolyi and his followers hoped, Wilson's formula would mean recourse to plebiscites in order to ascertain the wishes of Hungary's non-Hungarian inhabitants. One ought not to fault Karolyi or Oszkar Jaszi, his minister of nationalities, for trying this course, but one can be more critical in assessing the Karolyi regime's responses to the rapidly unfolding world of reality.

Following the armistice there were immediate signs that Karolyi's initial foreign policy assumptions were unrealistic. In his memoirs Karolyi spends several pages recalling the frustration of his government in the face of repeated violations of the Belgrade Military Convention duly signed by the representative of the Allied and Associated Powers. Ironically, the victorious small allies of the Entente in the Danube region seemed to have trusted the peacemakers a great deal less than the defeated Hungarians did. Although they were assured of a sympathetic hearing and they knew that they would receive sizeable territories at the expense of Hungary, they did not know to what extent their maximum demands would be met. To be on the safe side, all three neighbors, with or without Allied blessing, launched military action against Hungary in order to be in possession of territories they coveted by the time the peace conference began its deliberations. Most of these requests for military operation were received sympa-


thetically by the Allied foreign ministries but, even if they had not been, it is hard to see what the peacemakers could have done to prevent this onslaught short of sending troops to protect the former enemy against their own allies.

The failure of Karolyi's initial policy formulations based on the benevolence of the Entente Powers became evident within a few weeks, but the Karolyi government was unable to resort to the only course which was open to it: military defense of the demarcation lines agreed upon by the two parties at the Belgrade Military Convention. However, one needs an army for defense and there was no Hungarian army to speak of by December 1918. While Hungary's neighbors were arming to the hilt, the Budapest government disarmed and sent the returning troops home, ostensibly for internal security reasons.9 One also suspects that Karolyi, who had been the chief critic of the war since at least 1916, paid minimal attention to army affairs. At least the selection of his minister of military affairs indicates that much. Although the new prime minister had picked his future cabinet months before he took power, he had no one in mind for the post. And when the selection was made it was a most unfortunate one. It is hard to imagine a minister of military affairs and a soldier by training who would announce that he did "not want to see any more soldiers!" Although he departed in disgrace, his successors were no better in bringing order to the general chaos which reigned in the ministry throughout the period. Admittedly, an energetic organization of a new army would not have been an easy task, but as the improvised fighting units of Hungary's neighbors, and, following the Karolyi regime's collapse, the achievements of the Hungarian Red Army amply demonstrated, it would not have been an impossibility.10 With an army behind it, Karolyi's government would have been able to do more than receive notes from the Allies. Under the circumstances, however, the Berinkey-Karolyi government had no choice but to resign in March.

As for the general thrust of the Karolyi government's ideas on foreign policy, later Karolyi claimed that, if he had been in power after the signing of the peace treaty, his foreign policy would have consisted of good relations with the Allies as well as with the successor states. Given the complexities of the postwar relationships among the Great Powers themselves, the delicate bonds between the successor states and the Great Powers, and the tangled antagonisms among the

Hungarian Foreign Policy, 1918-1945 57

successor states, this utterance cannot be taken at face value. No one can say with certainty what would have happened had Karolyi stayed in power. One thing, however, is certain: no Hungarian government could survive without seeking "justice for Hungary." After Karolyi's fall, this was exactly what endeared Bela Kun's regime to the Hungarian people.

Fundamentally, Kun's frame of mind was not very different from that of Karolyi. Although by different means, both of them were committed to saving Hungary from its neighbors. Whereas Karolyi had abiding faith in the Entente, Kun believed just as ardently in the outbreak of a world revolution. If the world revolution Kun was hoping for had engulfed Central Europe, a federal reorganization of the former Habsburg Monarchy might have solved Hungary's nationality problems on the Soviet-Russian model. Lenin in fact urged Austria-Hungary's nationalities to unite in support of world revolution and transform the Danubian Empire into a peoples' union of soviets. This did not happen but Kun, as Lenin's disciple, tried to make it happen - and by doing so, he drew the Entente's serious attention to the Hungarian problem, something Karolyi was unable to do. Karolyi later complained bitterly that Kun had been treated better by the Entente than he had been. Indeed, while the pro-Entente Karolyi had met only with rebuffs, the Bolshevik Kun was to receive the Entente's emissary, General Jan Smuts. Of course, Kun had also shown a kind of strength which the Entente could not ignore. He demonstrated that a Hungarian army could be recruited to challenge the territorial transgressions of Hungary's rapacious neighbors, the allies of the Entente. Eventually, Kun lost his nerve and agreed to withdraw his hardpressed Red Army from territories it had occupied in a spectacular offensive in Northern Hungary. He relied on the Entente promise of Romanian withdrawal from the Tisza River, which turned out to be empty. The Romanians overran the Hungarian Red Army and the Hungarian Soviet Republic collapsed under circumstances similar to those surrounding the fall of the Karolyi regime - in a vain effort to bring "justice to Hungary."

Following the fall of Kun's Soviet Republic, the Entente eventually recognized a government which was actually its own creation.11 During this early phase of the post-Soviet period one cannot speak of a Hungarian foreign policy in the accepted sense of the term. In foreign affairs the regime returned to the Karolyi mold of impotence. The


country signed the humiliating Treaty of Trianon in an utterly helpless state. This, however, did not prevent accusations that Hungary was a threat to the status quo. The protagonist of this allegation was Edvard Benes, Czechoslovakia's foreign minister. Even before the signing of the peace treaty, he launched an encirclement policy against Hungary which eventually resulted in the formation of the Little Entente.

Benes seemed to have acted more from weakness than from strength. During the summer of 1919 the Hungarian Red Army had torn Czechoslovakia apart. Entente military circles began to doubt the military viability of the new Czechoslovakia. Moreover, Entente diplomatic observers were certain that Slovakia was "ripe for revolution" as a result of the Slovaks' disenchantment with the new Czech order. It was reported that the Slovaks wanted to form an "autonomous state connected with Hungary."12 In fact, one leading Slovak politician, Andrej Hlinka, was in jail while another, Frantisek Jedlicka, was in Budapest negotiating with the Hungarians concerning Slovak autonomy. 13 Moreover, news leaked out that the French foreign ministry was conducting secret negotiations with the Hungarians indicating a change of heart in some French circles. All these sounded ominous to Benes who felt more and more that Czechoslovakia could not rely solely on the Great Powers.

As early as September 1919, Benes approached the Yugoslav foreign minister, Ante Trumbic, in Paris with the idea of a defensive alliance against Hungary.14 After being turned down by the Yugoslavs, Benes sold his idea to Austria's Socialist chancellor, Karl Renner. They signed an agreement in January 1920, and both of them urged the Romanians to adhere to it but were rebuffed.15 Meanwhile, Hungary made diplomatic moves to counteract Benes's endeavors. In December 1919, Budapest approached Prague with the idea of a commercial treaty, but the Czechs were not interested.16 A Hungarian offer of alliance to Yugoslavia was also rejected.17 Attempts for a political agreement between Romania and Hungary has also failed.18

From the Czechoslovak point of view the most upsetting among these unfavorable developments was the episode of an attempted rapprochement between France and Hungary in late 1919 and early 1920. This strange interlude in postwar French diplomacy was the work of Maurice Paleologue, secretary general of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was intertwined with the French cordon sanitaire plans against Soviet Russia in which Hungary might have served as a pivot.

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The whole Hungarian foreign ministry was electrified by the Paleologue plan.19 But, when Philippe Berthelot took over Paleologue's post, the plan was promptly dropped. The whole affair did more harm than good to Hungary. In the final analysis it only helped Benes to bring his Little Entente system of alliances together. The Yugoslavs, upset by France's furtive negotiations with Hungary, accepted Benes's second offer for an alliance. The following year, in 1921, the Habsburg restoration attempts in Hungary prompted Romania to join. Hungary's encirclement was complete, the Little Entente was born and France became a staunch supporter of the new alliance.

By the time the Horthy regime was consolidated, Hungarian diplomacy was confronted with the fait accompli of the Little Entente and a static international scene generally unfavorable to Hungarian interests. Postwar consolidation was the work of Istvan Bethlen and it was under his premiership that Hungary's interwar foreign policy was formulated. Bethlen's ideas on strategy were well summarized by Gusztav Gratz, one of postwar Hungary's foreign ministers before the Bethlen era: "On principle, Bethlen was not against an understanding with the neighboring states. But he held all steps in this direction to be premature so long as Hungary was not in the position to confront those states as an equal partner, or at least with powerful protectors at her back. The time for such efforts would come, he said, when Hungary also had some trump cards to play."20

The first opportunity to find a "powerful protector" of sorts came in 1926. At Italian urging, Hungary interrupted ongoing negotiations with Yugoslavia and ended up signing, in 1927, a treaty of eternal friendship and arbitration with Italy. One of the Hungarian requests was Italian help in rearming - illegally - the Hungarian army. Despite Mussolini's fascist blustering, Italy certainly was not the ideal "powerful protector" Bethlen was seeking. But he might have thought that Hungary had to seize the opportunity to end her isolation with the help of one of the European powers, even if it was not the most desirable one. When a truly "powerful protector" appeared on Hungary's revisionist horizon, it was an even less desirable one - Hitler's Nazi Germany. By that time, Bethlen was out of office, but he, too, believed that any territorial reorganization of Central Europe would most likely be carried out by Gerrnany and Italy.21 What he did not foresee was the Axis alliance between Nazi Germany and fascist It-


aly - let alone that revisionist Hungary would be confronted with a shift in the European balance of power which would enable Hitler to redraw virtually singlehandedly the map of Central Europe.

By 1938 the long-awaited opportunity for a territorial reorganization of the Danube region seemed to be on hand, but the danger of German eastward penetration was threateningly looming behind it. The revision of the Trianon Treaty, always a complex problem, now seemed to be even more intricate, given the nature of the Nazi regime and Hitler's ambitions for a German Lebensraum. The question was how long Hungary could, as C. A. Macartney put it, "pluck for herself the fruits which Germany's growing power brought within her reach, while escaping the danger."22

Between November 1938 and April 1941, Trianon Hungary took full advantage of German patronage and, in four different stages, doubled its size. Ethnically, these acquisitions were a mixed bag. Some were populated mostly by Hungarians. Others, such as Ruthenia, were almost wholly non-Hungarian in composition, while still others (for instance, Transylvania) had such a mixed population that any ethnic claim, on either side, was dubious at best. However, the ethnic composition of these territories, although important as far as world opinion at the time went, was not the determining factor in their final fate. As the second Paris Peace Conference proved, national self-determination could be ignored as easily in 1946 as it had been in 1919. A permanent revision of Trianon Hungary's borders depended on the success of rival nations in their wartime diplomacy and on the influence and intentions of the Great Powers in Central and Eastern Europe.

Hungary's revisionist drive began auspiciously enough. The First Vienna Award in 1938 was the result of Italian-German arbitration and, therefore, not subject to four-power guarantees as envisaged by the preceding Munich conference. Nevertheless, the British government tacitly recognized the Vienna settlement as binding. In fact, the Foreign Office "received the news of it with satisfaction and even relief."23 The new Hungarian border with Slovakia as devised by Germany and Italy favored the Hungarians slightly, thanks to Mussolini's arguments against those of Hitler which favored the Slovaks. Strategic considerations which justified the border devised by the Entente Powers after World War I did not count anymore - and some areas, the

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island of Csallokoz in particular, even at that time were awarded to Czechoslovakia only against the better judgment of the Allied peacemakers.

With the outbreak of World War II, Hungary's prospects for retaining the territories acquired from Slovakia looked even brighter. The Slovak state created with Hitler's help became a vassal of Nazi Germany and took part in the war against Poland, while Hungary, to the West's satisfaction, resisted Hitler's pressure and remained neutral. Sympathy toward Budapest, conspicuously lacking earlier, began to grow both in Great Britain and France.24

Hungary's second territorial acquisition in March 1939, the annexation of Ruthenia by independent military action, was a different kettle of fish. Hungary had no valid ethnic claim to the area since the population was of Slavic stock. Nevertheless, at that time, the Hungarian move was greeted with some measure of sympathy in the West.25 The reason was obvious. Following the German occupation of the Czech lands and the proclamation of Slovak independence in March 1939, a group of Ukrainian nationalists declared the independence of Ruthenia as a Carpatho-Ukrainian state. The Hungarian annexation - only grudgingly endorsed by Germany - prevented the Carpatho-Ukraine from becoming another Nazi satellite; moreover, it brought about a common border between Poland and Hungary, also not in German interests.

While the first two territorial revisions were justifiable in one way or another, the third border revision - between Hungary and Romania - carried out by another German-Italian arbitration in Vienna in August 1940, marked the beginning of "an impossible situation," as Hungary's Prime Minister Pal Teleki himself realized.26 Cooler Hungarian heads, of those no longer in offlce, suggested a very different policy. In fact, they pressed for a rapprochement between Hungary and Romania.28 What course wartime history would have taken had their advice been followed no one can know with certainty. It may, or may not, have helped Hungary in the long run.

Hungary's position was extremely precarious, and the possibility of an uninvited German march through her territory was quite likely. The situation was further complicated by Russian interests in the Balkans. Stalin was eager to work hand in hand with Hitler to draw further gains from the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, this time by redrawing the map of the Balkans and adjacent areas. The British maintained


that if Hungary resisted a German move across her territory, even if this action were followed by the establishment of a Hungarian Quisling government in Budapest, Hungary would be placed in the same category as Nazi-occupied Denmark vis-a-vis the Allies. Moreover, if Regent Horthy and his government went into exile, Hungary's chances of receiving favorable treatment after the war would be good. On the other hand, Hungarian cooperation with Nazi Germany would have very serious repercussions.28

The revision of Romania's boundaries began in 1940 with the Soviet annexation of Bessarabia and northern Bukovina. At this point, Hungarian revisionist diplomacy committed the mistake of pressing Germany for help in fulfilling Hungarian territorial claims to Transylvania. In return for such a favor, the Hungarian government declared itself ready to grant Germany free traffic through Hungary.29 The damaging effect of this move was not immediately discernible. In fact, Hungary's position, under the then prevailing circumstances, even seemed to improve. After Romania repudiated the British guarantee of her territorial integrity and moved into the Axis camp, Great Britain was no longer sensitive to territorial changes between Romania and Hungary. In addition, Moscow declared that Hungarian claims to Transylvania were justified and that the Soviet Union was prepared to support those claims at a possible future peace conference.30

The settlement of the territorial dispute between Romania and Hungary, seemingly approved by both London and Moscow, was meant to be achieved through direct Romanian-Hungarian negotiations. But these negotiations broke down and in August 1940 the issue was decided by another Axis "arbitration." Italy assisted at this Second Vienna Award, but it was little more than a German Diktat. Although the British did not mind a peaceful solution to the Romanian-Hungarian dispute, they very much minded a German-Italian arbitration.The Soviet leaders were also greatly annoyed by the obvious German determination to exclude them from the affairs of the Balkans.

The Second Vienna Award greatly indebted Hungary to Germany. Shortly thereafter, Berlin launched its request for the transportation of German troops via Hungary to Romania, and naturally the request had to be granted. A few months later Hungary adhered to the Tripartite Agreement which eventually committed her to war against the

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United States. Hungary was rapidly drifting into the Nazi camp and was dangerously close to the point of no return by the spring of 1941 when Hitler decided to invade Yugoslavia. The Nazi war machine chose Hungary as one of its invasion routes. Yugoslavia's collapse set the stage for Hungary's fourth and last border revision. But Hungary's complicity in Hitler's war against Yugoslavia compromised all of Hungary's revisionist successes. The Yugoslav episode is usually interpreted as a watershed in Allied-Hungarian relations. Actually, it was a logical extension of the Hungarian diplomatic decision made during the previous summer at the time of the Romanian border revision.

Prime Minister Teleki's suicide as a protest against his country's role in the attack on Yugoslavia was a tragic symbol of Hungary's own predicament. Yet not all was lost. Hungary was still not a belligerent. Admittedly, her behavior in the Yugoslav events was particularly dishonorable in view of the recently signed friendship treaty with Yugoslavia. Great Britain broke diplomatic relations with Hungary. But still, by doing as little as possible, there was room for maneuvering. Germany was not forcefully pressing Hungary to participate in the war. The longer that fateful step was postponed the better it was for the country. Pressure there was, but less from Germany than from Hungary's own Nazis and the military, dazzled by the ease of German victories. Prudence dictated extreme caution. After all, the ultimate success of Hungarian revisionist foreign policy depended on Hungary's siding with the victors. And as the Romanian case amply demonstrated (both in the First and the Second World Wars) such volte face could be performed at the very last minute.

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