The Loneliest People in Europe

Representative international and Hungarian surveys leave no doubt: in no other post-communist country are people as dissatisfied, embittered, hopeless and disappointed by the outcome of the post-1989 transition as in Hungary. According to polls carried out in 2008 and 2009 (by Gallup and Pew World Polls, among other organizations) some 60 per cent of Hungarians see their country as a loser in the transition process, and three quarters of respondents claim their living conditions are now worse than they were under the communist dictatorship. Two-thirds believe the transition has only benefited the power elite.

The political impact, especially on the younger generation, is considerable. Only 23 per cent of 18-to-29 year-olds are happy with their living conditions; this is by far the lowest percentage in all the post-communist countries. No less than three-quarters of the youth believe in the possibility of a new regime change, which might involve re-nationalization of key enterprises and a settling of accounts with politicians guilty of damaging the country. Two-thirds of adult citizens believe that the country still serves the interests of foreign powers and that Hungary’’s interests are not pursued vigorously enough.

A landslide victory

Hungary also leads in the anti-Semitism survey that the New York-based Anti-Defamation League carried out in seven EU countries: in the past two years the percentage of those claiming that the Jews have too much power in the economy has grown by 7 per cent to two-thirds (whereas only 15 per cent of respondents in the UK and 21 per cent in Germany answered this question in the affirmative). Around 40 per cent of the Hungarian respondents believe that Hungarian Jews consider Israel’’s interests more important than those of Hungary.

In view of these findings the April 2010 landslide victory of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, a party espousing conservative right-wing political views and economically left-wing populist ones, with strong nationalist and clerical tendencies, was not surprising. The winner blamed Hungarian society’’s abysmally deep depression on the failure of the socialist-liberal governments (2002 to 2010) in economic policy, their slide into the quagmire of corruption and their neglect of the interests of the more than 2.5 million Hungarians living in the neighbouring countries. The losers, on the other hand, accused Orbán and his party of rampantly populist and extremely nationalist propaganda, which in their view had contributed to the rise of the extreme right-wing, openly anti-Roma and anti-Semitic Jobbik party.

However, these mutual, though mostly valid, charges from both right and left are too superficial to explain the serious, even alarming mental and moral state of society.  In a rather apposite comment in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on 14 January 2011, Richard Wagner pointed out that in Eastern Europe the discussion of the past focuses solely on the crimes of communism: The crux of the East Europeans’’ problem is not their relation to the West but to their own history.  This is also, and especially, true of Hungary.

The Magyars, with their unique language and history, are the loneliest people in Europe, with the possible exception of the Albanians. The writer Arthur Koestler, born in Budapest into a Jewish family, who dreamt in Hungarian but wrote his books in German and later in English, had the following to say on the 1937 suicide of the great poet Attila József: Perhaps the strange intensity of its existence can be explained by this exceptional loneliness. Being a Hungarian is a collective neurosis. Ever since their settlement in central Europe in 896, Hungarians’’ fear of the slow demise of a small nation, of an extinction of Hungarianness and the impact of amputations of large chunks of population imposed by lost wars has been a determining factor of Hungarian history. Since the 4 June 1920 Peace Treaty of Trianon every third Hungarian has lived in the successor states.

The real mortgage Hungary has been burdened with is the suppression, denial and embellishment of the truth about the path to Trianon, to the death certificate of the kingdom of St. Stephen and the fateful upheavals between 1920 and 1989. The Nietzschean cowardice in the face of reality is probably true of all post-Communist countries, not just Hungary. At the same time, the apposite observation made by the American historian of culture William M. Johnston ought to be borne in mind: The willingness to look at the world through rose-tinted glasses made Hungary exaggerate its greatness while failing to acknowledge the misery of the nations it subdued.… Its capacity for dreaming turned Hungary into an outstanding advocate, forever ready to defend Hungary as an exception among nations.

Following the 1867 Austro-Hungarian Compromise the Hungarian part of the monarchy swiftly and blindly followed a path of increasingly rampant magyarization, with the Crown of St. Stephen serving as a symbol of the so-called political nation. Ignoring the obligations of the 1868 law on nationalities, the long-standing Hungarian Prime Minister Kálmán Tisza was driven by a growing Hungarian sense of a mission. In 1875 he declared, not beating about the bush:  There can only be one viable nation within Hungary: this political nation is Hungarian. Hungary can never become a Switzerland of the East; by doing so, it would cease to exist.

Nationalism and anti-Semitism

Admittedly, in spite of the magyarization campaigns in Slovakia, Transylvania and Croatia, the idea of the Hungarian state did not rest on racial but rather exclusively on cultural foundations. Anyone who professed to be Hungarian enjoyed the same opportunities for promotion. As early as in the period before World War I over a quarter of the statistically recorded Hungarians was estimated to be made up of assimilated Germans, Slavs and Jews. Many of the glorified heroes of the Turkish wars or of the liberation struggle against the Habsburgs, outstanding figures in politics, literature, arts and science were partly or wholly of German, Slovak, Croatian, Romanian or Jewish descent, an astonishing fact that has been completely denied or suppressed by nationalist chroniclers until this day.

Writing about the nationality question in Hungary, the Hungarian émigré Slavist Lajos Gogolák (1910-1987) said: A romantic belief in the mission and indivisibility of the Hungarian nation, defying all sense of reality, has been something of a national lay religion.  Between 1920 and 1945 the idea of a re-integration of the territories lost to despised neighbours was kept alive in kindergartens and schools, in church services and in the press with slogans such as: No, no, never! or A truncated Hungary is no empire, Greater Hungary is a divine empire.

Rampant nationalism characterized by a wholly disproportionate revisionist campaign, as well as rabid anti-Semitism, laid the foundations for the fateful course that ultimately led Hungary into another disaster in World War II as a loyal satellite of Hitler’’s Germany.  Following the Vienna Awards by the Axis powers (1938-1940) the Horthy Regime, amidst indescribable public jubilation, won back nearly half of the ‘‘lost territories’. The state territory increased by 85 per cent and the population by 58 per cent, reaching nearly 15 million.  In addition to the 2 million Hungarians who had been ‘brought back home’’, a further 3 million Romanians and Slavs were forced to live under Hungarian rule, but this did not bother either the enthusiastic public or the bureaucrats who took charge of the administration of the territories, which Hungary in any event lost again at the end of the war. After 1945 these ethnic Hungarians found themselves in the position of particularly suspect minorities without effective minority protection.

Hungary paid a high price for the alliance with the Third Reich and for the failure of the amateurishly executed attempt to get out of the war on the part of the aging Regent Miklós Horthy, betrayed by a Nazi-friendly officer corps.  Over 900,000 Hungarians, including 560,000 Jews, lost their lives; 40 per cent of the nation’’s assets were destroyed.

Soon afterwards the country became a ward of the Soviet empire. 1956 marked the outbreak of a spontaneous uprising, which swiftly broadened into a revolution aiming to overthrow a system that had been imposed on the people from the outside, and eventually led to a hopeless national liberation struggle against Soviet rule. The trauma of Russian oppression had been part of the national consciousness ever since Russia’’s intervention on the side of the Habsburgs in 1849. In many respects, the Horthy regime’’s anti-Russian propaganda was confirmed by the unimaginable treatment of the civilian population by the Red Army in 1945.

In no other fraternal country (apart from Poland) was the resentment of the Russian superpower as well as the Soviet Union as a whole as strong as in Hungary. Unlike the communist regimes in the neighbouring countries the leadership of the Hungarian communist party never used the national idea as a means of winning over the people but rather as a means of dividing them. This was the background to an extremely cautious neighbourly policy not just under the Kádár regime, with its unwavering loyalty to Moscow, but also for the conscious restraint the socialist liberal governments between 1994 and 1998, and from 2002 to 2010, exercised in response to the complaints from the Hungarian minorities. This, in turn, was the reason why not only the nationalistic policies pursued by Viktor Orbán and his party Fidesz but also the extreme right-wing Jobbik could generate a huge degree of support among the young generation in Hungary as well as among the Hungarians in Romania, Serbia and Slovakia.

A number of studies have shown the oppressive long-term effect of heroic sagas and falsification of history.  The almost ubiquitous ignorance of the causes and effects of national disasters is politically very worrying. Although 90 per cent of Hungarians outside Hungary reside in countries of Central and Eastern Europe that are members of the European Union and therefore enjoy cross-border freedom of movement, the mental frontiers in their heads have in fact been reinforced by the escalation of historical resentments and overblown national rhetoric on all sides. Only one in ten adult citizens in Hungary believes that the unjust treatment of Hungary’’s national minorities played a role in shaping the Treaty of Trianon. Three times as many blame the subversive activities of the Left and Jewish forces. 58 per cent believe the Germans were solely responsible for their country’’s entry into the war and for the Holocaust, even though Hungary had declared war of its own accord and there is evidence that much of the population and state apparatus collaborated extensively with the German occupiers following the mass robbing and killing of Jews in Hungary after March 1944.

However, the most spectacular and explosive shift in contemporary attitudes to the consequences of Trianon among the Hungarian public took place between 2002 and 2008. Whereas in 2002 around 18 per cent of adults stated that the consequences of the peace treaty could be never accepted, since then the percentage holding this view has risen two and a half fold. In addition, one in three of the same respondents claimed that any means of reincorporating the lost territories into Hungary are justified.

Revisionist rhetoric


Over the past ten years, as a result of an aggressive nationalist rhetoric supported by a right-leaning media empire, and of the passivity of the politically discredited Left, the image of Trianon among the population has been dominated by the nationalist and right-wing conservative camp. Furthermore, only about 15 per cent of respondents have even approximately accurate information on the present-day ethnic mix in the neighbouring countries. Only one in five of the inhabitants of Romanian Transylvania are Hungarian. Nevertheless, half of those in favour of reintegrating this territory with Hungary believe that Hungarians make up over 50% of its population!  In general, respondents in Hungary believe the current proportion of the Hungarian minorities in the lost territories to be three times higher than it is in reality.

The first pieces of legislation rushed through by the new parliament in Budapest included a law on a National Trianon Memorial day, which invokes God as the Lord of history, and a law that grants all Hungarians living abroad the right to Hungarian citizenship. The new Constitution, once adopted, will go even further, giving them the right to vote. No Hungarian politician, apart from a few hare-brained Jobbik members, has so far called for a revision of the Trianon borders. Nevertheless, the nationalist posturing and the granting of voting rights to citizens of neighbouring countries – in view of similar tendencies among the majority nations in those countries – could easily ignite the fuse on a powder keg. We must remember the warning by the French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville: The end of an act should not be taken for the end of the play.


Translation: Julia Sherwood

The original article appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung.