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Beyond Trianon. The Place of History in the Political Discourse of Viktor Orbán

Beyond Trianon. The Place of History in the Political Discourse of Viktor Orbán
 Stefano Bottoni
Visiting Fellow - Europe

Signed on June 4th, 1920 at the Château de Versailles in the aftermath of the First World War, the Peace Treaty of Trianon officialized the dismantlement of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Since he came to power, Prime Minister Orbán, has brought to the surface the memory of this "great disaster", with the goal of reporting the "dikat" imposed to Hungary by Western powers, but also of presenting the Hungarian government as the defender of the Hungarian minorities living outside the borders of the country (határon túli magyarok). On the eve of the centenary of Trianon, wished to be "magnificent and tragic" by the Hungarian government, Stefano Bottoni analyzes the role of this event in the political rhetoric of Viktor Orbán. 

The 100th anniversary of the Peace Treaty of Trianon catches the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at a challenging moment, after the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Mass meetings are still not allowed in the country, and the current economic crisis jeopardizes the narrative of a resurgent nation. Earlier this year Orbán could have proudly announced a 5% economic growth in 2019 – the seventh consecutive year of expansion – and a record-high employment rate. A few months later, economic recession has turned communication plans upside down. It seems now that the Hungarian leader would rather get rid of Trianon as soon and smoothly as possible. 

But what has Viktor Orbán got to say about June 4? Would he play the nationalist card, blaming the great powers or all kinds of external and internal enemies? Or would he rather show the way to national redemption through the overcoming of the Trianon trauma?

Yet the overwhelming majority of Hungarians never felt the need to celebrate this milestone.

As the historian Pál Hatos recently claimed, "everything that happened before 1918 is history, and everything that has happened since then is still standing with us". After the First World War, Hungary became an independent state for the first time in centuries. Yet the overwhelming majority of Hungarians never felt the need to celebrate this milestone.

On the contrary, along with the 1526 Mohács battle that paved the way to the century-long Ottoman occupation of most of the former Hungarian Kingdom, Trianon is being regarded as a national catastrophe even under communist rule. 

Hungary became formally sovereign amidst the lost war, the short-lived radical-democratic government, the equally precarious but much more egregious Bolshevik experiment of 1919, the chaotic intermezzo of local civil wars and foreign military interventions, and finally the right-wing counterrevolution and the authoritarian regime led by admiral Miklós Horthy. 

Whatever you think about the Hungarian war record and the escalation of the nationality issue before and during the conflict, there is little chance that ordinary Hungarians will ever accept as fair a peace treaty that reduced the new country’s territory by two thirds, and made millions of fellow citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy second-class minorities in the successor states.

Thus, how to talk about Trianon one hundred years later, and how to frame the last century of a national history so many regard as altogether unsuccessful? Over the last few years, Hungarian scholars – Balázs Ablonczy, Gábor Egry, Péter Csunderlik, Pál Hatos, and Béla Bodó to name a few – have produced fine-tuned historical accounts of the social and cultural conditions that made Trianon possible. However, public memory is less influenced by lengthy books than by private emotions and induced prejudices. Viktor Orbán is nationalist and pragmatic at the same time, and masterfully plays between these tones. 

Starting from his first term in office between 1998 and 2002, Orbán has tried to overcome the Trianon syndrome by strengthening cultural, economic, and juridical ties between the Hungarian kin-state and the more than two million Hungarians living beyond the present borders. Both the Hungarian legitimation card introduced in 2001, and the much more legally binding naturalization law passed in 2010 aimed at stimulating virtual loyalty for Hungary. 

Public memory is less influenced by lengthy books than by private emotions and induced prejudices.

This has been criticized as a rabid prosecution of the interwar revisionist politics, but the claim starts from a wrong premise. Viktor Orbán has not been exploiting the sore public memory of Trianon to "make Hungary great again" by redrawing its borders. Over the last decade, it has allowed and even encouraged pathetic overtones on Trianon for internal consumption, but preventing revendicative nationalism from becoming the official Hungarian policy. 

What he actually does is rather using the past to emphasize the key role of Hungary in Central Europe in the post-liberal age of disillusion towards the West. When he ostensibly cultivates good relations with the economic and political circles of the neighboring countries, Orbán not only counterbalances his own nationalist rhetoric, but also sets its pragmatic illiberalism as a new pragmatic model for handling a troubled past and settling down bilateral issues. 


Copyright : Attila KISBENEDEK / AFP

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