Trianon Trauma: How a 101-year-old Treaty explains Orban’s actions Today

  • The 101 year old Trianon Treaty made Hungary a second-rate power in Europe
  • Prime Minister Orban uses rhetoric surrounding Hungary’s national trauma, the Treaty of Trianon, to further his political agenda
  • Orban hopes to bring Hungary back into power in Central Europe, redeeming the country from a century-long slump
Memorial of National Unity to remember territory lost in the Treaty of Trianon

In August of 2020, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban opened the Memorial of National Unity, a sprawling monument which commemorates the 13,000 cities, towns, and villages which Hungarians populated during the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During his speech, Orban claimed Hungary stood “high up once again,” having “regained its self-esteem.” This contentious monument and speech references the Treaty of Trianon, a long-forgotten treaty in the West which has stayed in the hearts and minds of Hungarians for over a century.

Like many of the treaties negotiated during the Paris Peace Conference, the Treaty of Trianon levied a harsh penalty on the Kingdom of Hungary. It reduced Hungary’s size by two thirds, leaving a third of Hungarians outside their country’s borders. The Allies took an incredibly harsh approach, intentionally sabotaging the return of a powerful Hungarian state.

For many Hungarians, this treaty marked the point when Hungary became a second-rate state, pushed around by foreign powers in the games of politics. This experience inserted a sense of yearning and mistrust in the Hungarian population, one which stayed through World War 2, the Cold War, and the birth of Hungarian democracy in the 1990s. As political scientist Levante Salate stated, there is a lasting “conviction… of historic injustice” in Hungarian society.

Since coming into power in 2010, Viktor Orban has used this yearning for the return of an expanded Hungary and mistrust of foreign powers towards his own political gain. Orban has used rhetoric to depict the EU as meddling in Hungary’s domestic politics, reminding his constituents directly and indirectly of major European powers’ meddling a century ago. Moreover, Orban commonly speaks to Hungarian populations outside Hungary, even passing a bill granting them citizenship in 2010. To understand Orban’s actions at a domestic and EU level, comprehending the Treaty of Trianon and its impact on Hungarian politics is key.

Hungary Pushed Around after Trianon

The signing of the Treaty of Trianon marked the end of Hungarian political independence for the next 70 years. Throughout the 20th century, the great powers of Germany and the USSR used Hungary as a pawn in their expansionary games. At the onset of World War 2, the Hungarian Regent Miklós Horthy allied with Hitler under the promise of regaining territory lost at Trianon. When Hungary saw the writing on the wall in 1943, Germany occupied her, forcing her to stay in a losing war. When the USSR liberated Hungary from the Nazi regime, the country did not gain independence, but rather switched from Nazi to Soviet control.

The experiences of Trianon and World War 2 put a level of distrust in foreign influence into the hearts of Hungarian citizens. During the Cold War, Budapest saw the first large-scale uprising against Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. In 1956, Hungarians revolted against Soviet occupation, seeing their independence threatened by the occupying army. While brutally crushed, the regime remained one of the more liberal communist regimes in Eastern Europe. After the 1956 revolution, especially in the ‘70s, slogans supporting Hungarian independence popped up everywhere despite the fear of Soviet-imposed Hungarian authorities.

When Hungarians overthrew the communist government in the early 1990s, with Orban as one of the independence leaders, the country finally secured the independence lost 70 years earlier. Hungarian politicians celebrated their independence by voluntarily joining the Western institutions of NATO and the EU. However, these multinational institutions have superseded national authority in some cases, bringing independence back into the national conversation.

For this reason, Orban invokes rhetoric about Hungary’s independence to much success. To him, the treatment of Hungary by the EU harkens back to the Treaty of Trianon and the Allied powers’ mistreatment of Hungarians. In his speeches, he recalls the Hungarian fights against “Western Empires,” calling the European Union itself an empire. Orban often publicly wonders why Dutch Prime Minister Rutte “hates me and Hungary.”

This strategy feeds off the sentiment of foreign mistrust and plays into the political hand of Orban. He also makes use of this rhetoric against foreign NGOs in Hungary, especially those working against his political agenda. While Orban likely only sees these entities as political opponents, he has sold them to the Hungarian people as enemies of the state and a threat to Hungary’s independence. Turning this rhetoric into policy, Orban forced Central European University, a university funded by George Soros, a liberal, Hungarian-born businessman, to close. These measures, while criticized by many Hungarians, keep Orban popular with the majority of the Hungarian population. 

A Yearning for the Past

Even after 100 years, Orban and many Hungarians still have not reconciled with Hungary’s modern borders. They see Hungary as a power temporarily silenced rather than destroyed and therefore work to regain the territory owed to Hungary. When the Allied powers and Hungary signed the Treaty of Trianon, nearly 33% of Hungarians were left in the dust in new states across Central and Eastern Europe, with large populations in Romania, Serbia, and Slovakia.

Similar to Putin’s expansionary tendencies in the Baltics and Ukraine with Russian minorities, Orban commonly acts as the protector of Hungarian minorities abroad. His philosophy, known as “Hungarian Irredentism,” comes to fruition in many different ways as it informs both his words and actions. While not the first Hungarian Irredentist, Orban has successfully brought the ideology from the fringes into the mainstream.

Hungarian Irredentism originated right after the Treaty of Trianon when Hungarians wanted their brothers abroad to rejoin the new Hungarian Kingdom. This sentiment pushed Hungarian Regent Miklós Horthy to form an alliance with Adolf Hitler in the promise of regaining territories with support of the German Army.

When these actions led to genocide and disaster, the sentiment of yearning for the old Hungarian borders subsided from the mainstream into the fringes of Hungarian society. That is until Orban very blatantly displayed his irredentist philosophy during his EU Council Presidency in 2011. Orban presented a map of Hungary with its 1848 borders on the carpet of the EU Council, a reference to the membership of much of Central Europe to this old empire.

Orban’s actions now continually reflect this yearning for the powerful past.  One of his first actions as Prime Minister in 2010 was a law extending citizenship to many Hungarians living abroad. Orban supports Hungarian minorities abroad voting in both Hungarian and their own national elections, with many Hungarian minority parties gaining success around Eastern Europe and causing political conflicts between Orban and many of his Eastern European counterparts.

For example, throughout his term, Orban has gotten into diplomatic rows with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, whose party in government has opposed granting autonomy to the Hungarian population in Transylvania. On the 100th anniversary of Trianon, while Orban’s Hungary mourned, Romania celebrated the gaining of Transylvania. In contrast, Orban’s government spends nearly 700 million Euros per year supporting Hungarian minority institutions in Transylvania (ironic given Orban’s aggression to foreign funded NGOs in Hungary), and many of these institutions have pushed for further autonomy from Romania. 

Orban’s most spectacular display of Hungarian Irredentism, however, was the foundation of the Memorial of National Unity; the monument placed outside the Parliament building which commemorates 13,000 towns in Central Europe lost during the Treaty of Trianon. The optics of this monument say it all: A monument outside of the most important political buildings in Hungary would likely commemorate its most important goal.

For Orban, his most important political goal is rectifying Trianon in one way or another. While he doesn’t want to expand Hungary’s borders, as this would ostracize Hungary beyond proportion, he wants to expand Hungary’s influence nearer to its pre-1920 levels, with him as its leader. The 13,000 towns on the Monument of National Unity serve as a reminder of Orban’s goal to bring Hungary, with himself as its savior, back into power in Central Europe. 

Why Orban?

While Hungary has had several Prime Ministers since the 1989 revolution, only Orban has successfully used the trauma of Trianon for his own personal goals. After independence, many of the Hungarian political elite across the spectrum pushed for joining the European Union, hardly a move justified by sentiments of mistrust of the West.

Most politicians hedged their bets that joining the EU would provide the closeness to Hungarian minorities which voters wanted. Orban, however, largely stayed out of the campaign to join the EU, instead warning of massive job loss due to EU regulations while providing lukewarm support. While 83% of Hungarian voters voted in support of joining the EU, Orban saw the writing on the wall as only 45% of voters voted in the referendum.

When the time came and voters hoisted Orban back into office in 2010, he could legitimately show himself as a freedom fighter against both the USSR (1980s) and the Brussels (2010s) elite. Voters accepted this message and flocked to his party, granting him huge mandates to defend Hungary as he pleased. This unique position Orban finds himself in has allowed him to create a Hungary reflecting his vision: an illiberal democracy.

Orban’s opposition largely fell into line behind Orban and his policies on Hungarian minorities, now supporting the 2010 citizenship law which many of his opponents campaigned against in 2004. By the time he celebrated the opening of the Memorial of National Unity, Orban had solidified himself as the defender of Hungary, with a monopoly on rhetoric around Trianon, making him a hard figure to defeat both at home and abroad.

This is exactly the title Orban wants. A mastery over this rhetoric and the popular support of the population grants him immense powers to lead Hungary as he wishes. Orban can evade criticism from most of his enemies; anyone shaming him for actions justified by Trianon would be twisted as unpatriotic. Internationally, he especially wants to become the representative of Eastern Europe in the European Council, as the defender of “Christian” Europe against the liberal Western Europeans looking to create a Brussels-led empire. In this light, Orban has portrayed his powerful stances in the EU as Hungary’s return to greatness and pre-Trianon strength, much to his voters’ pleasure.