Trianon 100 Years After: exploring ongoing historical Hungarian-Romanian tensions

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by Megan Palmer and Mădălina Mocan

The Ratiu Forum is partnered with the Central and South-East Europe Programme (CSEEP) at LSE IDEAS, but that is not the only connection the London School of Economics has forged in the region. CSEEP’s connections with Romania (and Transylvania in particular) also include an academic partnership with the Faculty of Political, Administrative and Communication Sciences (FSPAC) of Babeş-Bolyai University (BBU) in Cluj-Napoca. In June 2020, IDEAS and FSPAC held a two-day conference, called ‘Trianon: One Hundred Years After’. We are pleased to share that we have now published a report (click here for download), in English, containing many of the conference’s areas of discussion.

For readers in Transylvania, and more generally in Romania and Hungary, the treaty needs no introduction. However, in English-speaking countries such as the USA and the UK, the treaty is obscure: the post-WWI treaty that UK schoolchildren learn about, if any, is the Treaty of Versailles that decided Germany’s post-war fate. British or American readers may not know that the Treaty of Trianon (1920) was the post-WWI treaty, written by the Allied Powers of Britain, France, the USA, Italy and Japan, that dealt with the Kingdom of Hungary’s fate. The treaty led to significant territorial losses for Hungary, and none was more bitterly contested than the transfer of Transylvania and parts of the Banat to Romania. One hundred years later, the treaty remains an emotive subject for many.

This new publication brings together historians and political scientists from Romania, Hungary and the UK. This report is the result of the IDEAS-FSPAC international conference during which BBU faculty members, along with distinguished guests, exchanged ideas, perspectives and insights on a region in which competing narratives of the past are often used for short-term political gains. A key finding of this report, however, is that beyond these narratives are the complex dynamics of multicultural societies who seek a common future while honouring a painful past.

The initiative stands out as part of an already vibrant academic community of Cluj-Napoca, by bringing together distinguished scholars and researchers from the extensive networks of knowledge of LSE IDEAS and Babeș-Bolyai University. Contributors include Professor Levente Salat (BBU), Professor Michael Cox (LSE), and Professor Dennis Deletant (UCL).

The works in this report reveal just how problematic the word ‘Trianon’ remains. For some, it is merely a now-obsolete treaty (Hungary’s contemporary borders were not determined by the Treaty of Trianon, after all). For many others, however, it is a word charged with emotional significance: the loss of Greater Hungary is repeatedly invoked as a painful and unifying collective memory. Trianon is, for many Hungarians, a lament. The very word signifies humiliation, or betrayal, or deception, or threat, depending on myriad interpretations and intentions. Its elusiveness is what makes it powerful.

The discussions in our panels and roundtables that led to this report explored a wide range of ways in which Trianon manifests, including lesser-known historical episodes that hint at the possibility of reconciling opposing views on Trianon. For example, ethnic Hungarians in post-Trianon Transylvania who believed in a tolerant, multi-ethnic community, post-1989 moves towards friendlier relations between Hungary and Romania, and the publication of large historical works that aimed to illuminate the complex circumstances around the treaty’s creation.

Another recurring theme in the report is the manipulation of the memory of Trianon for political purposes. Hungary is commonly the culprit, but Romania has also stoked fear among its citizens by evoking a latent Hungarian threat, both from its neighbour and its minority population. Such fearmongering and sabre-rattling by politicians from both countries is reprehensible and harmful. The ease of the political point-scoring, however, makes it highly attractive.

Similarly, the misunderstanding of the history and circumstances of the Treaty in both the Hungarian and Romanian populations, was also explored throughout this report. Bringing together historians not only from these two countries but also from further afield, as we have here, opens the possibility of fresh perspectives and understandings of the past. Since impartial and analytical education is vital for combatting entrenched attitudes around Trianon. Several contributors to this report have discussed the possibilities for reconciliation based on attempts to harmonise historical narratives (recalling France and Germany’s great success in this area). They do note, however, an absence of political will to do so – precisely because political points are harder to score with a better-informed public.

Across the world citizens are grappling with their collective histories – sometimes narratives of oppression or mass murder, other times narratives of subjugation and hardship, but always complicated. In Transylvania, such narratives entrench its population in simple tales of winning and losing, of who deserved what. The reality, of course, has always been more complex. There were Transylvanian Hungarians who did not harm Romanians, just as there were Transylvanian Romanians who treated Hungarians harshly in victory. Living Hungarians are not subjugated daily by a historical document just as contemporary Romanians are not under constant threat of a Hungarian fifth column. A deeper understanding of the past would help to diminish such anxieties and lessen the word’s power.

It was not the intention of our conference and this report to ‘solve’ the problems around Trianon discourse – such an ambition would be foolhardy. Instead, we wanted to widen the conversation to include the voices of historians, political scientists and political economists – Hungarian, Romanian, and British. Our public events attracted a global audience (an advantage of being required to hold the conference online). Judging by the contributions to this report, and the positive engagement we attracted throughout the conference, it has been a success. It is our deep hope that we have stimulated constructive and novel conversations across disciplines and beyond the academy to demystify Trianon. One hundred years after the Treaty of Trianon was signed, perhaps its controversies may be beginning to abate.

Megan Palmer holds an MA in the history of Central and Eastern Europe from University College London and a BA from the University of Bristol. She has a particular interest in modern Romanian history and has travelled extensively in the region. Prior to joining the Raţiu Forum, Megan worked for a number of years in communications and publishing.

Mădălina Mocan is a civil society professional associated with the Center for the Study of Democracy and the CSEEP Desk at FSPAC, Cluj-Napoca and a proud board member of Techsoup Romania and ELiberare.