What They Were Fighting For, Was What They Were Fighting Against – Hungarian Soldiers & The First World War

The problem with history is that in the overriding majority of cases, the people being influenced by it, did not have to live through it. The present is separated by years, decades and centuries from the past. The context in which past events occurred is lost over time. Is it any wonder present opinions and values are imposed on views of the past? We who are here today always seem to know better. With such a vague, indirect and indifferent connection to the past it is hardly surprising that we look back through rose tinted glasses, with an air of alarming self-righteousness. Statements are made with complete confidence on how we would have done things differently. It is easy to make such proclamations when you do not have to live with consequences of your decisions.

Hungarian Soldiers in 1914

Hungarian Soldiers in 1914 – Ready for war

We Know Better or They Knew Worse – The Folly of Armchair Historians
Now that the 100th anniversary of the First World War is in full swing the retrospective judgments of a supposedly much wiser public are being posited with little regard to the context in which that ill-fated conflict was fought. Today’s opinion makers and armchair historians love to talk about how blundering diplomats were self-serving at best and willfully ignorant at worst. The nations and empires involved were filled with vile nationalistic instincts. The public was uninformed and naïve. The military strategists on all sides lacked vision and cultivated cataclysm rather than victory. While some of this is undoubtedly true, it is no truer than at any other time in history, especially when it comes to military affairs. What was different during the First World War was the lethal killing power readily available to all combatants. Machine trumped man and ushered in an age of efficiency in the art of murder that was scarcely fathomable then and almost as incomprehensible now, even with the hindsight of a century.

One opinion that is often espoused and quite irksome to hear is that countless lives were lost for nothing. This flows from the idea that the men fighting out in the trenches, across the battlefields and high seas really had no idea what they were fighting for. Even worse, if they did know, they somehow knew they were fighting for nothing in particular, a sort of violence for the sake of violence. Now do not get me wrong, millions of lives were wasted, but I am pretty certain that these men were definitely fighting for something, even if they were not totally conscious of it at the time.

Count Istvan Tisza with Hungarian Soldiers on the Italian Front in 1917

The Fight Against – Count Istvan Tisza with Hungarian Soldiers on the Italian Front in 1917

Fighting Against Fate – The March To War
This brings us to the case of Hungary and the Great War. The Kingdom of Hungary lost hundreds of thousands of men on the battlefield in four long, bloody years. To make matters much worse, after the war, Hungary lost 64% and 72% respectively of its prewar territory and population in the negotiated peace. Supposedly this happened because of a war where Hungarian soldiers had no idea what they were fighting for. It was not so much what they were fighting for, it was more like what they were fighting against, specifically losing much of the Kingdom of Hungary. Case in point, the Prime Minister of Hungary, Count Istvan Tisza had been against Austria-Hungary going to war with Serbia. Indeed he had advised both Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef and Austria- Hungary’s Commander-In-Chief Conrad Von Hotzendorf to avoid war. Both the Emperor and Hotzendorf felt otherwise and their power trumped Tisza’s.

Seeing that the dye was cast against him and his country – the Austrian leadership was hell bent on punishing the Serbs – he threw his lot in with the Austrians. Once the decision was made, Tisza and Hungary went full force into the conflict. He surmised, as did so many ethnic Hungarians that this was a life and death fight for the violability of the Kingdom. Self-interest, alliance and honor made any other decision impossible. The truth of the matter is that all those Hungarian men who were struck down in the sand and dust of Galicia, the frozen passes of the Carpathians, across the rugged terrain of northern Serbia and in the lonesome Alps of northern Italy most certainly were fighting for something. This was to keep the Kingdom of Hungary together or put another way, they were fighting against dissolution and revolution, to continue their most favored status in an increasingly unbalanced Dual Monarchy, riven by ethnic tensions.

Map of the Kingdom of Hungary showing the linguistic makeup according to the 1880 census

Map of the Kingdom of Hungary showing the linguistic makeup according to the 1880 census – Hungarians were the most numerous group, but they were not a majority

Fear As A Great Motivator – The Seed of Self-Destruction
What was pushing the entire Kingdom of Hungary over the top? Perhaps, it was the creeping suspicion that a loss would mean the end of their autonomy in the Dual Monarchy or even the end of the Empire itself. Fear is a great motivator and paradoxically it can lead men or whole nations to commit themselves to acts of courage that bring about their own self-destruction. The fear was that Hungary would be subsumed or even worse consumed by Germanic and Slavic peoples. Their power might erode or disintegrate from within the Empire. Every ethnic Hungarian who marched off to the front must have done so in the knowledge that they were fighting to continue being more equal than all the others in the Dual Monarchy. Even those ethnic Hungarians who lived as peasants in the most miserable circumstances were still better off than Slovaks, Romanians, Serbs, Slovenes and Croats.

The ethnic Hungarian was still a Magyar and need not undergo the process of Magyarization that had been fomented with such zeal by the Kingdom’s leadership since the Compromise of 1867 against all the “others.” The ethnic minorities or should we say (gasp), nationalities of the Kingdom really had no active role in the economic, political or cultural life of Greater Hungary. Yes those Hungarian soldiers were definitely fighting both for and against something on all those far flung fields beyond their borders, in battles beyond their worst nightmares. Those who survived the war to see the Kingdom sundered and their ethnic kin in Felvidék (Slovakia), Bácska (northern Serbia),  Erdély (Transylvania), the Bánát (west-central Romania) and Kárpátalja (modern southwestern Ukraine) placed under the rule of Czechs and Slovaks, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and Romanians most have known that this was what they had been fighting against all that time. The resulting dismemberment of the Kingdom bore out this great truth. Did these men die in vain? One could say yes, but if they had been victorious, the Kingdom would almost certainly have remained inviolable.

Trianon Memorial in Barand Hungary showing Republic of Hungary superimposed on Kingdom of Hungar

What They Were Fighting Against – Trianon Memorial in Barand, Hungary showing Republic of Hungary superimposed on Kingdom of Hungary (Credit: Einstein2)

It Was Something & It Will Be Nothing – Of Victory & Of Defeat
Whether or not one believes the cause the Hungarian soldier fought for was worth the terrible human cost, depends largely on one’s ethnicity. A Hungarian would say that it was absolutely worth it or would have been, had they met with victory. Was it still worth it in defeat? Was there any other choice? Many good men have died for all kinds of causes, both right and wrong, but to say that the men who went off to fight the Great War were fighting for nothing, especially in Hungary, is patently untrue. The ethnic Hungarian soldier’s fate was to fight for something that no longer exists. Yet armchair historians would do well to remember that eventually everyone who goes to war – whether they achieve victory or suffer defeat – fights for something that someday will no longer exist.

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