Conceived in Chaos – The Burgenland & Trianon: Austria vs. Hungary (Part One)

Last autumn I went to have lunch at a Hungarian Club in northeast Ohio. These meetings are always of great interest to me because I get to meet Hungarians who immigrated to the United States, most of them as a result of World War II or the 1956 Revolution. Each one of them has a unique story that is worth hearing. If you want to appreciate what you have, listen to someone who lost everything and took the chance of life in the hope of a better future far from tyrannical ideologies. Almost everyone I spoke with at the lunch had a connection to a major historical event. After the initial pleasantries, I found myself asking several people where they were from in Hungary. The question is always a good conversation starter.

A Land Apart - The Burgenland in Austria

A Land Apart – The Burgenland in Austria (Credit: TUBS)

I proposed it to a man who was sitting behind a table at the entrance and collecting money from those paying to have a traditional Hungarian meal for lunch. The man, who had a full head of mostly greying hair, an intelligent face and warm demeanor, politely answered my question by saying, “Szombathely.” This was the green light for an engaging conversation. I had been fortunate enough to visit that pleasant little city in western Hungary on several occasions. We spoke at length about several sites in the city center. As our conversation proceeded, I asked the man whether his parents were originally from that area. This was when he mentioned that his mother – an ethnic Croat – was from a village further to the west that was no longer in Hungary. Immediately, my level of interest soared.

A Paradoxical Peace – Losing Territory to the Losers
Now it is not uncommon for Hungarians to speak about areas beyond the nation’s current borders that are no longer part of Hungary. Transylvania usually elicits tortured responses, southern Slovakia deep sighs, northern Serbia and southwestern Ukraine irritated shrugs, but I had never heard anyone say a word about eastern Austria. The post-World War I Treaty of Trianon stripped Hungary of two-thirds of its territory and left millions of Hungarians living outside the mother country. What was different in my conversation with this man concerned his reply when I mentioned Trianon. He said, “what really gets me is that even the Austrians got territory from Hungary due to Trianon. No one ever talks about that. How did they get away with that? It is unbelievable.” I usually just listen when Hungarians get going on Trianon. I have learned from experience that it is an open wound which can lead to endless lamentations. In this case though, I had to agree with the gentleman. It was incredible that Hungary had not only lost territory to the victors, but also the losers.

Welcome to the New World - Burgenland Guest House in 1930

Welcome to the New World – Burgenland Guest House in 1930

His remark got me thinking. I knew that Austria had gained territory at Hungary’s expense because of Trianon, but I had never thought much about it until a couple of years earlier when I traveled around the eastern end of Austria, in the region that is known today as the Burgenland. The map I was using on that trip showed multiple names for towns, one was in German, another in Hungarian and a third in Croatian. It became rather obvious to me that this was a region with multiple layers of complex ethnic issues from a not so distant past. This was when I first became cognizant of the fact that Austria had been given the Burgenland in the Treaty of Trianon. I assumed that was because it was filled with ethnic Germans. Like everything else in the post-World War I peace process, that was true but not without a complicated caveat..

Anyone’s Guess – A Nation Being Born
Why had I not heard more about Hungary losing what is now eastern Austria? To my mind, there were two reasons, size and economic development. Size certainly matters when it comes to the memory of the land losses that Hungary suffered due to Trianon. Hungary lost 14 times less territory to Austria than it did to Romania, 8 times less to Czechoslovakia and 3 times less to Yugoslavia because of the treaty. Economic development also matters. I have a suspicion that many Hungarians, at least in the far western part of the nation, might wish that their towns and villages had ended up on the Austrian side of the border. The Iron Curtain, which ran along the Austria-Hungary border among many other areas, cut the Hungarians off from a market oriented economy for four decades. During that time, Austrian incomes soared. Many Hungarians probably spent a good deal of time wondering why their country could not have been more like Austria. They could be forgiven for looking enviously on ethnic Hungarians, who by historical accident found themselves living in the Burgenland. They had been lucky enough to end up on the right side of the border. Capitalism triumphed over communism, which explains a great deal about the difference between western Hungary and eastern Austria. At least that is one way of looking at the situation from a 21st century perspective.

Mixed Loyalties - Bilingual (German-Croatian) sign in Burgenland village

Mixed Loyalties – Bilingual (German-Croatian) sign in Burgenland village (Credit: Mihaly)

Going back to the period just after the First World War ended provides a much different context. The situation at that time for both Austria and Hungary happened to be difficult at best. Neither nation was in a desirable negotiating position vis a vis their enemies nor their former Allies. The Austria that exists today, prosperous, neat and orderly is a far cry from the Austria of 1919. The nation, if anyone could have even called it that at the time, was the core rump of the old Habsburg Empire. Glittering imperial Vienna was now an unruly city beset by revolutionary angst. The people were half-starved, the workers on the verge of full scale revolt and the political environment was incendiary. The outlying provinces (those that make up Austria today) were not much better off.

Carinthia was a hotbed of ethnic unrest between ethnic Germans and Slovenes. The Tyrol was on the verge of falling under Italian control, something ethnic Germans in the northern part of the region found intolerable. Those who lived in the Voralberg in far western Austria were hoping to be absorbed into Switzerland. And then there was far western Hungary, which had a majority population of ethnic Germans wondering what would happen to them. Nothing was clear by the middle of 1919. All anyone knew was that both Austria and Hungary were on the verge of irreparable change. What that change would look like was anyone’s guess.

Click here for: Forced Separation – German West Hungary & The Burgenland: Austria vs. Hungary (Part Two)

2 thoughts on “Conceived in Chaos – The Burgenland & Trianon: Austria vs. Hungary (Part One)

  1. Re: “They could be forgiven for looking enviously on ethnic Hungarians, who by historical accident found themselves living in the Burgenland. They had been lucky enough to end up on the right side of the border.”

    The great majority of ethnic Hungarians in the new Burgenland believed they ended up on the *wrong* side of the border and nearly half moved back into Hungary. Many of those who left were from the educated classes: civil servants, intellectuals, etc. It was the poor farmers who remained, those who really had no other choice. So, the percentage of Hungarians in the “Burgenland region” dropped from 9% to 5% in the first years after Trianon.

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