The Day of National Unity in Hungary fails to unite Hungarians


The assessment of the historical traumas of the 20th century has played a crucial role in the polarization of the Hungarian public discourse. The centenary of the Treaty of Trianon, marking the end of the Great War, did not bring about “national unity” either. If possible, Hungarians are more divided now than ever. The primary reason is the conscious strategy of PM Orbán to monopolize memory policy, but the opposition’s responsibility cannot be ignored either.

Victor Orban

Hungary signed the Treaty of Trianon on 4 June 1920 with the winning powers of the Great War. Although Hungary had existed in the past half-century solely as part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, it lost around two-thirds of its territory and population at that time, which was a massive trauma for the nation and the numerous families that were torn apart. Although the larger part of the lost territory was inhabited by other ethnicities, more than three million Hungarians then became minorities in the neighboring nations. Paradoxically, it was also the Treaty of Trianon that created an independent Hungary for the first time in about 400 years – and, for the first time as well, it was almost ethnically homogenous.

The horrors of the 20th century rewrote the memory of Trianon multiple times. Since inhumane deals with Nazi Germany temporarily returned some territories to Hungary in the 1930s and 1940s, for half the country the treaty is nothing more than one of the first steps on the road to the Holocaust. In the communist era that followed, Trianon was not discussed at all, and even near the end of that regime, the state-controlled public discourse only allowed brief mentions of Hungarian communities living in neighboring countries (hereinafter, out-of-country Hungarians).   

Decades of silence about the treaty were broken during the democratic transition in 1989-1990. When the first democratically-elected Hungarian Parliament was formed, then-PM József Antall declared that he is, in his heart, the prime minister of “15 million” Hungarians, referring also to the out-of-country Hungarians. The relationship to these Hungarians thus became the symbol of right-wing actors’ dedication to the nation, but at the time this did not involve elevating extremist views on Trianon into the mainstream.

In the 1990s it was far-right movements and parties who reminisced about the memory and symbols of Trianon, which immediately heightened the sense of fear in the leftist and liberal public discourse. Moderate voices became less and less prevalent, while the “measuring” of historical traumas started soon thereafter: whoever is hurt by Trianon cannot feel pain about the Holocaust and vice versa. Views on communism turned out to be divisive as well. Consequently, the assessment of the historical traumas of the 20th century has played a crucial role in the polarization of the Hungarian public discourse.

For a long time there seemed to be a consensus on supporting out-of-country Hungarians as one of the main pillars of Hungarian foreign policy (in addition to the country’s Western orientation and amicable relationships with its neighbors).  Orbán’s politics focusing on monopolizing the concept of the nation started undoing this consensus, and the 2004 referendum on dual citizenship only aggravated these divisions: just 3 million of the 8 million citizens eligible to vote participated, and barely half of them supported the initiative allowing out-of-country Hungarians to gain dual citizenship. The referendum was therefore invalid. Then-PM Ferenc Gyurcsány and the left-wing forces led by him won the battle (they argued for a “no” vote, playing on underlying existential fears), but also earned the stigma of being “anti-national” for an apparently indefinite amount of time. This development played a crucial role in the demise of the leftwing in Hungary between 2006 and 2010, and in the rise of Orbán.

One of the first decisions of the Orbán Government after its 2010 accession to power made it easier for out-of-country Hungarians to gain citizenship (they granted them suffrage just a year later), and the National Assembly declared 4 June to be the “Day of National Unity.” At the time, some still hoped these anniversaries would be about encouraging discourse - making peace between Hungarian and Hungarian - but this swiftly became an illusion. Building alternative narratives about history proved to be an essential part of the Orbán regime’s gradual radicalization. Just as the Prime Minister is fighting imaginary enemies in the present -  like George Soros, “the bureaucrats of Brussels,” and “the invisible hand” that can only be defeated by a “strong nation” - he has also built conflictual historical narratives depicting Hungarians as victims. This is how the claim that the Trianon “diktat” was the result of a “global conspiracy” spurred on by “enemies within” (e.g., the leaders of the civic rebellion that erupted after the Great War, Hungary’s first President Mihály Károlyi, and the communists of the Hungarian Soviet Republic who ruled for slightly over three months in 1919) became elevated from the far-right subculture into the mainstream. Hungarian media controlled by the Government supplements this with narratives about the allegedly disruptive work of Freemasons, which has antisemitic connotations.

The Government is preparing for the centenary with a gigantic monument being built on a street next to Parliament. The monument is essentially a trench that resembles the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. The Hungarian monument’s wall contains the names of all settlements in “historical Hungary” (regardless of whether any Hungarians lived there or not). This sort of remembrance will certainly not be able to heal the trauma of the treaty, which unquestionably lives on with us. Although the monument has been finished, it will only be unveiled on a later national holiday because of the COVID-19 crisis.

Although it has been becoming more and more noticeable in recent months that the centenary is approaching, it was only prevalent in a select layer of the public discourse. Government-controlled media kept Trianon on the agenda, intellectual circles also discussed it, and civil society organizations were organizing numerous events concerning it (while some of these were canceled due to the epidemic after mid-March, others were held online).

However, the opposition parties rarely joined the Trianon-discourse throughout most of the year and only made the obligatory rounds of the media as 4 June was approaching. They obviously had nothing meaningful to say about the subject. This in and of itself shows very well that the center-left parties are well behind Fidesz in terms of identity politics.

Naturally, the Government committed to doing everything in its power to stop any developments that could have led to an actual sense of “national unity” in their tracks. In an interview, Speaker of the House László Kövér accused the left of “attacking their own nation, just like 100 years ago,” and then noted that opposition MPs would not be allowed to speak at the commemorative session of the National Assembly. As a result, they did not attend that particular session.

The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), which governed Hungary for three election cycles, held commemorations in Budapest and the countryside, focusing on the message that the trauma of Trianon can be overcome by true national unification within the European Union by making the country’s borders just symbolic. They did not address the topic in any additional depth, but merely reacted to the Government’s Trianon-related attacks.

The party of Ferenc Gyurcsány, Democratic Coalition (DK) – currently the most popular opposition party in Hungary with 10-15% support – did not address the centenary at all. In the only Facebook post of the party that deals with the topic, they announced they would not take part in the Assembly’s Trianon commemoration session. Although the former PM admitted in a 2014 interview that they had argued “shamefully” in the 2004 referendum campaign, the party has avoided any issues of nation-building policies ever since, and would tie the voting rights of out-of-country Hungarians to a registered address in Hungary.

The Momentum party started addressing the issue of Trianon a few weeks before 4 June, sharing partly informative posts on their social media accounts and advocating, in part, for peace, for looking to the future, and for understanding different views of the treaty. They clarified their relationship to out-of-country Hungarians, for instance, by declaring their support for autonomy for these communities. Besides talking about a Europe without borders, their messages also discussed remedying divisions between different groups of Hungarians.

For the formerly far-right Jobbik, which has been consolidating since 2014 and then disintegrating gradually since 2018, Trianon is a part of its identity, but the party has been striving to strike a more moderate tone on it recently. Jobbik’s messages on the centenary fit in line with the party’s recently confusing communication efforts, which included both traces of far-right claims and efforts to make peace.

Politics Can Be Different (LMP), which has also lost most of its popularity, apparently felt that some conventional interviews and social media posts would be sufficient. The only difference in their communication compared to other center-left parties was that they had messages similar to those of the Government: the “Great Powers” can do whatever they want with Hungary, the country can only count on itself.

The Párbeszéd party, which broke away from LMP in 2013, addressed the issue in more detail, not independently of the fact that its politician, Gergely Karácsony, has been the Lord Mayor of Budapest since October 2019. On his initiative, public transport in Budapest was halted for one minute precisely 100 years after the treaty was signed. The commemorative action, of a kind known from several other countries, was the only significant initiative by the opposition that managed to break into the headlines.

Nothing proves this better than the fact that it caused a slight confusion in the Government’s communication machine: the Speaker of the House thought the initiative was dishonest, and most pro-Government opinion-leaders also said so, but during the Assembly’s commemorative event, the Prime Minister commended the Lord Mayor’s idea with a single sentence.     

Proofreading by Gwendolyn Albert.