It is a strange thing to be in a region that was considered more or less part of Hungary for the better part a millennium and then to realize this same region bears very few overt traces of its Hungarian past. Anyone traveling through the tidy towns and quaint villages of the Burgenland region of eastern Austria today, would be hard pressed to notice much of anything identifying it with the Kingdom of Hungary. The transformation was radically subtle and had a great deal to do with the border alterations that occurred in the region after World War I. In retrospect, the new lines that were drawn turned out to make a great deal of sense since they followed ethnic demography. Nonetheless, there were winners and losers. The nation of Hungary was certainly one of them.
After the First World War ended, Hungary endured the dismemberment of its kingdom by the hands of peacemakers who poured over maps in Paris. They relied on experts to advise them on the best course of action. Such courses were fraught with danger. The decisions that were made, especially in regard to the Kingdom of Hungary, created a sense of grievance that endures to this very day. Oddly, that sense of grievance is largely absent in the Burgenland even though Hungary lost land to its former ally, Austria. In the postwar peace process, Hungary could not win, even against the losers.
An Agricultural Lifeline – The Food Network
Creating Austria was not easy. Many disparate provincial pieces had to be brought together, one of the most important of which, the Burgenland, is largely overlooked today. To understand the Burgenland’s importance, consider how geographically different it is from the rest of Austria. While the mountains of Austria might be beautiful, the words alpine and agriculture are not synonymous. Some 60% of Austria is mountainous, while only 17% of the land is arable. Trying to grow crops at high altitudes is a non-starter, especially for populations that were rapidly growing as industrialization and urbanization proceeded apace. The far western region of the Kingdom of Hungary, known as German West Hungary (Deutsch-Westungarn), offered a pastoral lifeline for a newly forming nation that suffered from a paucity of decent agricultural land. The land just happened to be located east of the River Leitha, a symbolic dividing line and in this case an administrative border between what had been the Austrian (Cisleithania) and Hungarian (Transleithania) ruled regions of the former empire.
This region included portions of the pre-war Hungarian counties of Vas, Moson and Sopron. It offered choice ground for cultivation. The land was an extension of Transdanubia, a region of fertile fields west of the Danube in Hungary that yields excellent crops. It was unlike any other region that would help form Austria. It was also badly needed. Areas where Austria used to get its food supply, such as Moravia, were now going to be part of the newly constituted nation of Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, Hungary was in no mood to deliver food to their former allies. In 1919, it was every nation for itself. Austria and Hungary were no longer allies, that meant everything was up for grabs, including land that had been administered by Hungary before the war. Borders could be changed at the stroke of a pen, as soon they would be.
Forget Me Not – From Trianon To St. German-en-Laye
To be fair, Austria might be getting a piece of territory at Hungary’s expense, but it was losing plenty of its old imperial holdings. Today, Hungarians are never shy about reminding people how they lost two-thirds of their territory due to Trianon, but you would be hard pressed to find an Austrian who would remind you that they lost 60% of their territory due to the Treaty of St. Germain-en-Laye. This included Bohemia and Moravia whose German population would become a huge point of contention in the lead up to the Second World War. They were also losing south Tyrol to the Italians. Getting German West Hungary would not compensate for all those losses, but it would ameliorate them to a certain extent. The Austrians had demographics on their side in the tussle for control. In the 1910 census, the last one taken prior to World War I, ethnic Germans made up 74% of the population in the region.
Strangely enough, though the region was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, ethnic Hungarians were not even the second largest ethnic group in the region. This status was reserved for ethnic Croats at 15%. Ethnic Hungarians came in at only 9%. This demographic breakdown was nothing new and went all the way back to when Hungarians first gained control of the area during the Middle Ages. A Germanic majority existed at the time. This was the frontier or Marchland as it was then known on the Kingdom of Hungary’s western border. The Hungarians who settled there were border guards. The Croats had come in much later, during a fifty year period in the mid-16th century when their lands in Slavonia had been laid waste by the Ottoman Turks. Hungary had nominally retained control of the area throughout much of the past 900 years. This was something of an historical anomaly since so few of the residents were ethnic Hungarians. Thus, it made sense to attach the region to Austria, but logic is one thing, passion quite another.
An Afterthought – The Course of History
Dispassion and reason were not exactly hallmarks of the postwar peace process. Demographic evidence certainly did not make the loss any easier for Hungarians to stomach. After all, it had lost a massive amount of territory due to the Treaty of Trianon. Losing German West Hungary only served to add insult to injury. Interestingly, the Hungarians did not give up German West Hungary without a fight and it would pay off in at least one instance. On August 19, 1921, the handover to Austria of German West Hungary region was due to occur. This resulted in an armed uprising led by ultra nationalist Hungarian forces. They succeeded, albeit only briefly, in carving out their own state, the Lajtabansag (Banat of Leitha) which lasted little more than a month during the autumn. The “state” managed to issue some stamps and implement custom duties.
This “state” did not enjoy support from the Hungarian government which was susceptible to pressure from the Allies. It did not take long for Lajtabansag to disintegrate. One offshoot of the uprising was that the city of Sopron held a plebiscite to see whether it would go to Austria or Hungary. Sopron and three of the surrounding villages voted to stay in Hungary, while five villages voted to stay in Austria. Due to the size of Sopron and the weight of its vote all eight villages would remain in Hungary. Meanwhile, German West Hungary became the Burgenland. The Austrians had gained a valuable new territory, the only one of its nine provinces which had never really been part of Austria proper. It would now and remains part of Austria today. As for the Hungarians, they focused their irredentist energies on Transylvania and southern Slovakia. The Burgenland became what it continues to be for them, an afterthought.