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Peacemaking after World War II:
The End of the Myth of National Self-Determination

Bennett Kovrig

WHO won this war, the United Nations or Hungary?"' That rhetorical question, asked by Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk at the Paris Peace Conference of 1946, bore the obvious implication that the defeated have no rights. The Hungarians, finding themselves for the second time on the losing side as allies of Germany, clung to the myth of national self-determination and believed that, despite their fatal alliance, the injustice of the Treaty of Trianon would be weighed by their judges as a mitigating factor. They also hoped that the positive aspects of their wartime record would be appreciated.

During World War II, prior to the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944, Hungary's cooperation with Hitler was grudging, prompting Nazi complaints and unfavorable comparisons with more willing allies, notably Romania. The Germans knew about the Hungarians' "secret" negotiations with the Western Allies.2 For years, a working group in the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had made preparations for a separate peace and, under the Kallay government, contacts were established with the Allies in neutral capitals. These preparations were based on the assumption that for strategic reasons the Western powers would not countenance Soviet rule over southeast Europe and that the British and Americans would mount a Balkan thrust and occupy the Danubian plain ahead of the Russians. More-


over, recalls the Hungarian diplomat Stephen Kertesz, the Allied war aims expressed in the Atlantic Charter and the Four Freedoms "had a tremendous impact upon all social classes in Hungary. It was supposed that the Western powers, in addition to these general principles, had some concrete plans for the reorganization of Europe in general and the Danubian region in particular."3 It was further assumed that an armistice agreement could be negotiated with the British and Americans, rather than with the hated Russians. With these relatively comforting assumptions the Hungarians proceeded to plan for democratic reforms, for Danubian cooperation or even federation, and for safeguarding the integrity of frontiers that bore a closer relation to the distribution of Magyar population than did the Trianon line. Regrettably for Hungary, the fortunes of war and Allied strategy conspired to disappoint these expectations.

The United States and Britain, conscious of their own prevarication in opposing Hitler in the late 1930s, reserved a certain understanding for the predicament of Germany's East European allies. The Soviet Union felt no such sympathy for the hostile Hungarians and Romanians whose armies fought alongside the Germans. Indeed, early in the life of the Grand Alliance it became clear that Stalin's designs for postwar Central and Eastern Europe might not be fully consistent with the professed ideals and interests of the Western allies. The Atlantic Charter, which antedated Pearl Harbor by four months, had proclaimed all peoples' rights to choose their governments freely and precluded territorial changes "that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the peoples concerned." The Soviet Union endorsed the Charter with reservations, as it did subsequent statements of intent of the Grand Alliance such as the United Nations Declaration and the Yalta Declaration on Liberated Europe.

To the extent that this noble rhetoric was designed for psychological warfare it reinforced the East Europeans' affinity with the West, but it failed to mitigate traditional hatred and fear of the Soviet Union. And the latter was looming ever more clearly as the dominant power in the area thanks to Allied military strategy and political compromises. Franklin D. Roosevelt adopted a posture of "no predetermination," preferring to leave contentious political issues for resolution in peacetime.4 The British, like Stalin, were rather more conscious of the political stakes in Eastern Europe, but to little effect. Winston Churchill's proposal for a confederation in the Danube region was

Peacemaking after World War II 71

rejected by Vyacheslav Molotov in October 1943 as a faintly disguised anti-Soviet scheme. The prime minister's repeated advocacy of Anglo-American strikes at the "soft underbelly" of the Axis received short shrift from his allies, and Eastern Europe was left entirely to Stalin's sphere of military responsibility. Churchill's percentage deal with Stalin in October 1944 was an attempt to gain recognition of Britain's primacy of interest in Greece. Over Hungary, influence was to be divided equally, an illusory notion in light of the total absence of British or other Western military power in the area.

In these circumstances the Hungarian schemes for a separate peace were foredoomed. For tactical reasons the Western allies did talk to the Hungarian envoys, and an OSS team was parachuted into Hungary just in time for the German occupation. But the principle of unconditional surrender and the Soviet Union's primary military responsibility allowed neither for bargaining on terms nor for a Western-oriented armistice. When the Hungarian government finally resigned itself to plead for peace in Moscow, the Germans were ready. Horthy's armistice proclamation on October 15, 1944, coincided with his seizure by Otto Skorzeny's commandos and the installation of a Nazi puppet regime. It was left to a provisional government, established under Soviet auspices in eastern Hungary, to receive the armistice terms in January 1945.

With victory a mere question of time, the Allies began in 1944 to consider the conditions of the many eventual peace settlements. On the question of frontiers, there was agreement that the changes effected in Eastern Europe by the Axis powers were to be reversed. Hitler's exploitation of the real and alleged injustices of the Versailles settlements impeded an objective reevaluation of the territorial and ethnic complexities of the area. Nevertheless, the U.S. State Department in particular sought to transcend the simple formula of a return to the status quo ante and to plan equitable solutions conducive to stable and cooperative regional relations.

The case of Hungary was perhaps the thorniest, for it was an enemy state with territorial claims on both Allied and enemy states. The proposed terms of surrender for Hungary, prepared by the State Department in July 1944 for its representative on the European Advisory Commission, provided for the restoration of the Trianon frontiers with Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia "subject to any rectifications which


these two countries might agree to make as part of a general settlement of the issues in dispute between them and Hungary." With regard to Transylvania, "Hungary might be assured that an attempt will be made to establish a more just ethnic boundary between Hungary and Rumania, the territory in dispute to be controlled by the United Nations pending the final territorial settlement."5 An earlier memorandum from the Division of Southern European Affairs advanced the view that "probably some form of autonomy for the entire Transylvanian area may prove to be the solution best suited to serve the interest of international security and of future collaboration and peaceful relations among the Danubian States."6 The experts did anticipate that the Russian claim to Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina would further complicate the issue.

The department's briefing paper on Hungary, sent to Roosevelt on September 6, 1944, argued that while the starting point ought to be the pre-Munich status quo, changes in those boundaries might serve a stable settlement:

Thus, in the case of the frontier with Czechoslovakia, if an opportunity arises for revision by agreement which would leave to Hungary certain overwhelmingly Magyar-inhabited districts, the United States would favor such a solution. In the case of the frontier with Yugoslavia, the United States sees some merit in a compromise solution which would leave to Hungary the northern part of the Voyvodina, although this Government should not, we feel, press for such a solution. In the case of the frontier with Rumania, the Amencan position will be more or less frozen by our agreement to the annistice terms for Rumania which provide for the restoration to that country of "all or the major part of Transylvania, subject to confirmation at the peace settlement." In the final settlement the United States would favor, at the least, a revision of the pre-war frontier on ethnic grounds, transfering to Hungary a small strip of territory given to Rumania at the end of the last war.7

The American experts' view on the merits of Hungary's territorial interests was shared by some of their British counterparts, but the whole matter had very low political priority as the war in Europe ground to an end.

While a peace settlement could be delayed, interim conditions for the cessation of hostilities had to be determined, necessarily by the Soviet Union. When Ambassador W. Averell Harriman raised the matter of equal participation on the projected Allied Control Com-

Peacemaking after World War II 73

mission for Hungary, Molotov observed that the Soviet Union was already master of most of that country and therefore could, if it wished, forego the formality of an armistice.8 The eventual document, signed by Hungary's representatives on January 20, 1945, declared the Vienna Awards null and void (article 19) and bound Hungary to evacuate all troops and of officials from Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Romania back to the December 31, 1937 frontiers, and to repeal all legislative and administrative provisions relating to the annexation or incorporation of those three states' territory (article 2).9 Back in October, Secretary of State Cordell Hull had reminded Harriman of his "firm view . . . that territorial settlements should not be embodied in the armistice document and that no final decisions on territorial disputes should be taken during the course of the war."10 The U.S. Ambassador, supported by his British colleague, recommended therefore that Article 2 be prefaced with the phrase "without prejudice to ultimate settlement of disputed territoria1 claims." Molotov demurred, objecting that such a qualification would arouse concern in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, and it was agreed simply that the territorial clauses could not be interpreted as definitive boundary settlements.

The Romanian armistice, concluded the preceding September, determined the provisional disposition of Hungary's interest in Transylvania. The loss of northern Transylvania as a result of the Second Vienna Award had aroused a Romanian irredentism as passionate as that of the Hungarians of the post-Trianon era, and during the war the Antonescu regime courted Hitler in the hope of regaining the lost area. The ethnic mosaic of Transylvania made national self-determination difficult to apply. Magyar majorities did exist in Romania's northwest, along the Trianon border, as well as in the eastern (Szekely) corner of Transylvania. The territory reannexed by Hungary encompassed these districts. But with the reannexed territory also a large Romanian minority came under Hungarian rule, while in southern Transylvania a smaller Magyar minority remained under Romanian rule. The Romanians, like the Hungarians, made peace overtures to the Western allies in early 1944 and were advised to deal with Moscow.12 Recognizing that the loss of Bessarabia to the Russians was a foregone conclusion, they sought Stalin's support for their claim to all of Transylvania. Stalin had a pronounced dislike for Hungarians,l3 and Transylvania was handy compensation for Bessarabia and


Northern Bukovina and an incentive for Romanian participation in the final battle against Germany.

In the proposed armistice terms, the Soviet Union considered "unjust the decisions of the Vienna Award" and declared itself "ready to conduct operations in common with Rumania against the Hungarians and the Germans with the object of restoring to Rumania all Transylvania or the major part thereof."14 The State Department's Southern European Division noted on April 11, 1944, that "the terms are essentially Russian, not allied nor tri-partite" and restated the basic U.S. position that the "whole complex Transylvanian problem should be left for postwar consideration."15 Such reservations were, as usual, of little consequence. They were sidetracked by the Soviet Union's political and military interests and the adamant view of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff that all political considerations be subordinated to the most expedient and earliest defeat of the Axis powers. If Romania could be brought over to the Allies, a compromise over Transylvania seemed a small price to pay.

Negotiations were still under way when, on August 23, King Michael proclaimed Romania's switch to the Allies and called on his people to "liberate our Transylvania from enemy occupation."16 However, the original Soviet formulation about the restoration of all or the major part of Transylvania found its way into the final armistice document, with the qualifying phrase, "subject to confirmation at the peace settlement," which was added on Churchill's advice to preserve the appearance of no predetermination.17

While the Hungarian and Romanian armies, now on opposite sides, fought over Transylvania, Hungarian political factions in the region, including the underground Communists, began to prepare for an uncertain peace. Even some non-Communist leaders anticipated that the safety of the Transylvanian Hungarians lay more in a leftwing alliance with Romanian Communists than under the rule of the established, nationalist parties.18 Indeed, as Transylvania came under Soviet-Romanian occupation in the autumn of 1944, the Hungarian population was subjected to more or less officially sanctioned reprisals--to mass murders and pillage - at the hands of the vengeful Romanians. The Communist-led Hungarian organization, MADOSZ, linked to the Romanian Communist Party, condemned Bucharest's anti-Hungarian incitement and called for peaceful collaboration in a new and "democratic" Romania.

Peacemaking after World War II 75

Having secured Romania's military aid, the Soviet Union felt little need to accommodate the "bourgeois" government in Bucharest. On November 11, the Soviet-dominated Allied Control Commission ordered the removal of Romanian civil administration from northern Transylvania and the region was placed under direct Soviet military rule. Stalin's envoy, Andrei Vyshinskii, denounced the persecution of Hungarians in a move calculated to undermine the legitimacy of the Bucharest regime. A Minorities Law offering some protection to the Hungarians was passed on February 7 by the Radescu government, but the latter's days were numbered. Soviet pressure compelled King Michael in early March to appoint a Communist-dominated government led by Petru Groza. On March 9, Stalin acceded to Groza's request for the return of northern Transylvania to Romanian administration on condition that the equal rights of all nationalities be guaranteed. Although Groza was relatively well disposed toward Hungarians, the minority remained subject to harassment, one official measure being the dismissal and expropriation of Transylvanians who had chosen Hungarian citizenship after the Vienna Award.19

In the late spring of 1945, in devastated Budapest, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry began to prepare the country's case for the peace conference. The conditions could hardly have been less propitious. The provisional government, followed after the November elections by a coalition government, was constrained in both domestic and foreign policy by the Soviet-led Allied Control Commission and by the Soviet-sponsored Communist party. Peace aims had to have the support of these two, yet the non-Communist consensus held that Hungary's interests demanded a reasoned case for modification of the armistice's economic and territorial provisions. Even in the absence of clear policy guidelines, experts coordinated by the Foreign Ministry's Kertesz studied various options, notably models of Central European federation.20

On August 14, 1945, an introductory note on Hungary's peace aims was delivered to the three principal Allies.21 The note stressed the need for Danubian economic cooperation and went on to obsene that the prerequisite political stability would depend in part on a settlement of the outstanding territorial and nationality issues. Both the Trianon Treaty and the resulting nationalist excesses on all sides were deplored: "The most effective measure to counteract national antag-


onism . . . would be the delimitation of boundaries according to the freely expressed wish of the population and to the principles of nationality wherever the nationalities live on contiguous territories." The transfer of populations was justified "only when nationalities live in isolated fragmentary groups, that is to say, when it is impossible to reunite the national minorities with the mother country by redrawing the boundaries." For the remaining national minorities, international protection through the United Nations was "absolutely necessary." The note was a modest enough statement of Hungary's Danubian outlook, but its indirect suggestion of regional integration was criticized by the Soviet Union and the Hungarian Communist leader Matyas Rakosi as premature - that is, as not serving the Soviet strategy of piecemeal absorption of Eastern Europe into its sphere of dominance. In January 1946 a note to the three powers requested the appointment of a committee of experts to conduct a proper appraisal of Hungarian-connected problems for the peace conference.22

The Transylvanian question was treated in some detail in a note drafted in February 1946, but the Communists and Social Democrats objected to its allegedly nationalist proposal for an equitable division of the region between the two countries, with the aid of international experts and plebiscite.23 Prime Minister Ferenc Nagy and Foreign Minister Janos Gyongyosi chose to avoid confrontation with the leftwing parties in the hope of gaining time until the eventual peace treaty and Soviet military withdrawal. Privately, Soviet representatives had encouraged the Hungarian leaders to address their territorial proposals to Romania and even hinted at support if Hungary acceded to the Czechoslovak demand for a population transfer.24 Meanwhile, the U.S. Minister to Budapest, H. F. A. Schoenfeld, advised Washington that an adjustment of the Transylvanian frontier in favor of Hungary would correct past injustice. He observed that it was "more important for us to consider the effect of a frontier revision on Hungarian internal politics than on Rumanian internal politics inasmuch as Hungary is still a twilight zone in respect to Soviet expansion whereas the shadows falling on Rumania are already of deeper hue."25 Playing a devious game, the Russians relayed Schoenfeld's recommendation to the Groza regime, whose public outrage served as useful anti-American propaganda.26

The Hungarians' hopes were kindled on the occasion of a top-level

Peacemaking after World War II 77

visit to Moscow in April. The delegation was armed with two alternate proposals regarding Transylvania. The first was for the reannexation of 22,000 square kilometers to Hungary. The area had a Romanian majority, but the idea was that the roughly comparable size of the Hungarian minority in Romania would result in decent treatment in both countries. The second scheme was for the return of 11,800 square kilometers, with a majority of Hungarian inhabitants.27 The Hungarians were cordially received by Stalin. They won concessions on reparations, and with respect to Transylvania Stalin ostensibly agreed that according to the Romanian armistice terms Hungary was entitled to advance claims for Transylvania. Molotov thereupon urged the Hungarians to negotiate directly with Bucharest before approaching the Allies. Prime Minister Nagy voiced doubts about the Romanians' willingness to negotiate, and asked Molotov to intercede, but to no avail.28

As Nagy expected, the Groza government refused to negotiate, and on April 27 Hungary addressed a note to the three allies advancing the larger of the two claims to parts of Transylvania.29 The future of Transylvania, however, was already in the process of being settled and with scant regard for Hungary. In September 1945, at the London session of the Council of Foreign Ministers (which had been created at the Potsdam Conference to prepare peace treaties), Molotov had recommended the award of all Transylvania to Romania. Secretary of State James F. Byrnes argued in favor of minor changes in the Trianon line to return some predominantly Hungarian-inhabited border areas to Hungary, all in the interest of facilitating better Hungarian-Romanian relations. At the Council's session in Paris the following May, the die was cast. In the interval, the British had decided that on balance their interests would not be served by an obviously token concession to Hungary that would nevertheless alienate the Romanians. Encouragement of the Hungarians at Moscow had been a diplomatic charade, for Molotov also rejected any concession. The Americans thereupon abandoned what was for them a very minor issue, and proposed that the treaty provide at least for recognition of any future rectification of boundaries agreed to by Hungary and Romania "which would substantially reduce the number of persons living under alien rule." Even this failed to win support, and on May 7 Byrnes agreed to support the original Soviet recommendation.30

The non-Communist members of the Nagy government were ap-


palled at this ruling. Hungary had not even been given an opportunity to present its case. Later in May, Nagy took a delegation to Washington in a display of political independence that was unique in Eastern Europe. With regard to Transylvania, Byrnes offered to consider Hungary's claims sympathetically if the Russians chose to bring up the issue at the forthcoming peace conference. On his way home, Nagy learned from Molotov in Paris that the matter was closed.31 The Hungarians nevertheless submitted a brief to the Peace Conference that convened in Paris that summer. It painted a grim picture of the sufferings of the Hungarian minority and advanced the larger claim. The two countries' cases were heard at a joint meeting of the Romanian and Hungarian Political and Territorial Commissions. On that occasion Hungary also introduced the lesser claim (encompassing the cities of Szatmar, Nagyvarad, and Arad), whose ethnic merits were countered on the Romanian side by economic arguments. Finally, the Hungarians requested that Romania grant extensive autonomy to the 600,000-strong Szekely-Magyar enclave in eastern Transylvania. An Australian proposal for a thorough study of the area's ethnic distribution to find the fairest boundary pleased the Americans, but there was to be no alteration at this stage in a decision that had its origin in the Kremlin.32

With all its flaws, the Trianon dictate was thus reconfirmed. As in 1919, the decision owed little to the facts and merits of the Transylvanian tangle and much to the remote priorities of great power strategy. The closest and most interested great power, the Soviet Union, had found it convenient to strengthen the friendly Groza regime and ease its own territorial acquisitions from Romania by the gift of Transylvania. The less tractable Hungarians were thus punished, and the Western Allies were not prepared to champion the interests of a former enemy state even if its government was relatively representative and pro-Western.

Hungary's territorial and ethnic interests were difficult enough to advance against another former enemy state. The other Hungarian reannexations with Axis help, cancelled by the armistice, involved two members of the United Nations, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

Most of the half million Hungarians in Yugoslavia lived in the Vojvodina, which was made in 1945 into an autonomous region within the Serbian Republic. Hungary's interest in their fate was reduced to

Peacemaking after World War II 79

urgings that they receive no worse treatment than Yugoslavia's other nationalities. A bilateral agreement was concluded in September 1946, providing for the voluntary exchange of up to 40,000 Hungarians and Yugoslavs, but it was never implemented. Czechoslovakia's Ruthenia, renamed Carpatho-Ukraine, had a Ukrainian majority (formerly called Ruthenians) as well as other nationalities, including over 150,000 Hungarians representing some seventeen percent of the population. Hungary recovered part of the district from Czechoslovakia through the First Vienna Award, the rest by occupation in 1939. Its disposition after World War II did not involve Hungary directly. Fearing that the dogma of integral restoration of Czechoslovak sovereignty would be undermined, Benes agreed to cede Ruthenia to the Soviet Union only with great reluctance and in the hope of retaining Stalin's goodwill. The treaty, which gave the Soviet Union a common border with Hungary, was signed on June 19, 1945.33 The eventual Hungarian Peace Treaty simply recorded these losses.

The recreation of the sovereign state of Czechoslovakia was an Allied objective from the start of World War II. The legitimacy of the Munich Pact and of the First Vienna Award had been erased by Hitler's subsequent annihilation of the Czechoslovak state and by the war itself. Benes's government-in-exile was a recognized ally and actively prepared for the restoration of the pre-Munich status quo. For Benes, the moral of his country's dismemberment was that the disloyal German and Hungarian minorities had to be expelled or assimilated. As early as 1943 he secured American approval in principle for the expulsion of the Germans. The British, for their part, acquiesced to the eventual transfer of minority populations including the Hungarians to make Czechoslovakia ethnically more homogenous.34 The United States did not extend its approval of punitive transfers beyond the Germans and, as noted above, the State Department even saw some merit in a territorial adjustment in favor of Hungary.

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