At 2:30 p.m. on January 16, 1920 at the Quai D’Orsay in Paris, Count Albert Apponyi prepared to give a verbal presentation of the Hungarian position on the peace terms submitted to Hungary by the Allied powers. The terms of the treaty to be imposed on Hungary were shocking in the extreme. If there were no alterations, the Kingdom of Hungary would lose over two-thirds of its land base and population. Even worse, one-third of the Kingdom’s ethnic Hungarian population would end up under foreign rule. The redrawn borders would sever ancestral homelands. Such historic territories as Transylvania (Erdely in Hungarian) and Upper Hungary (Felvidek) would be taken away. The rulers were on the verge of becoming the ruled.
Speaking In Tongues – Historic Hungary & The Nationalities
Apponyi must have been unsettled by the historically twisted position he found himself in. As Minister of Education for the Hungarian Kingdom thirteen years before, he had been one of the main proponents of what became known as the Apponyi Laws. These laws required that instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic for students could only be given in Hungarian. This had been the ultimate outcome of a process known as Magyarization, in which ethnic subjects of the Kingdom – whether Romanian, Slovak, German, Serb, Slovene, Croat, Rusyn or Jew – were to be educated socially and culturally in Hungarian. They were to be transformed from Slav, Teuton and Latin into loyal Magyar subjects in the Hungarian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Count Albert Apponyi had been born into one of the most ancient and noble families in Hungary. He was uniquely qualified for the role he was about to play in Paris. He was extremely accomplished in politics and literature. A man of vast intellectual gifts, over the final twenty-two years of his life he would be nominated no less than five times for the Nobel Prize. A successful career in letters saw him pen eleven books. These focused mainly on politics and philosophy. A brilliant orator, fluent in six languages, his speech at the Quai d’Orsay was to be given first in English, followed by French and Italian. None of these three languages were his mother tongue. That is revealing.
Historic Land Grab – The Ethnic Backlash
Apponyi’s first language was Hungarian. The overriding majority of those present on that mid-winter’s day would have scarcely understood a word of Hungarian. The fact was that those who sat in judgment of Hungary knew very little about it. What mattered was that it had ended up on the losing side of the Great War as one-half of the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most importantly, the lands of historic Hungary contained a majority of ethnic minorities.
This transformation, which had been greatly resisted by the subject peoples, had been halted by the First World War. Now these same ethnic groups had thrown off the yoke of servitude and were in the process of either creating new nation-states or expanding their existing borders at the expense of historic Hungary. Meanwhile the Hungarians lay defeated, torn asunder by internal tumult as rival democratic socialist, communist and nationalist forces took control of a rapidly dwindling homeland. Parts of the nation were occupied by Romanian, Czechoslovak and Serb forces. A historic land grab was in progress.
The Last Bastion of Defense
Count Apponyi’s words would be the last bastion of defense for Historic Hungary. Nothing less than the Magyar homeland was at stake. In accented English he began to speak:
In the first place we cannot conceal our astonishment at the extreme severity of the conditions of the peace. This astonishment can easily be explained. The conditions of the peace treaties contracted with the other belligerent nations, with Germany, Austria and Bulgaria were certainly also severe. But not one of these contained such significant territorial changes inevitably affecting the national life, as those we are called upon to accept.
You, Gentleman, whom victory has placed in this tribunal, you have pronounced guilty your former enemies, the Central Powers, and have decreed that the burden of the war should be cast upon those responsible for it. So be it in that case, I think, in dividing the burden, the measure of guilt should decide the proportion. Hungary being punished by the most severe conditions, threatening her very existence, one would think that of all nations she was guiltiest.
…the peoples right of self-determination should be considered. A statement might be hazarded as to the rights of minorities being more effectually assured on the territories of the new states than they were in Hungary.
I do not, on this occasion, wish to plead the case brought against Hungary relative to the alleged oppression of the non-Hungarian races. I will confine my words to declaring myself well pleased should our Hungarian brethern on the territories torn from our country enjoy the same rights and facilities as the non-Hungarian citizens of Hungary enjoyed.
Hungary was in possession of every condition of organic unity with the exception of one: racial unity. But the states to be built up on the ruins of Hungary – according to the terms of the Treaty – will also lack racial unity, the one condition of unity missing in Hungary – nor, may I add, will they possess any other.
Actions Versus Words – A Failure To Assimilate
Apponyi’s oration stated the Hungarian position precisely while at the same time exposing its fatal flaws. The ethnic minorities of Hungary had been given extremely limited rights when it came to the use of their mother tongue. The basic right they had been given: was to become Hungarians. This was something they would never be, because this was something they never wanted to begin with. Even after decades of forced Magyarization, they still spoke their own languages, kept their own customs and obeyed their historic traditions. The failure to assimilate these minorities was fatal to Historic Hungary.
Apponyi as the former minister of Education surely understood all this very well. He had tried – along with many of his countrymen- to make Hungarians out of people who were not. His speech in defense of historic Hungary was in vain. The terms of the Paris Peace for Hungary went unchanged. They would be imposed later that same year. It was not so much that Apponyi had failed that day in Paris, it was more that he had failed with his education policies many years before. His actions had already spoken and they were much more convincing than his words.