[The following appeared June 10 on The Mantle.]
BRATISLAVA – There’s nothing that nationalists in Central Europe relish more than to commemorate an historic injustice, harping on their victimization. If it falls during an election season, even better.
The 90-year-old Treaty of Trianon – which dismembered the old Kingdom of Hungary, carving up its land and its people – has resurfaced in an ugly spat between Slovakia and Hungary, influencing Slovakia’s upcoming June 12 elections. In the middle of this scrum is the half-million-strong Hungarian minority in Slovakia.
In a land once known to the Magyars as “Upper Lands,” it also poisons what just may be the worst neighborly relations of any ex-Communist countries to join the European Union.
The fact it comes on Trianon’s anniversary, on the eve of Slovakia’s national election, creates almost perfect-storm conditions for petty but dangerous politics. What caught my eye, though, is how similar the tactics are by mainstream nationalists and extremists on both sides.
This comes from someone with a fairly unique perspective: during my 17 years of reporting from the region, I’ve lived in both countries. I try to appreciate the narratives of both nations.
Bratislava, known to Hungarians as Pozsony, served as Hungary’s capital during the first half of the 19th century. This is why I commemorated Trianon with a short walk from my home to the city’s greatest living symbol of Hungarian identity, the Magyar alapiskola es gimnazium – the Hungarian-language primary and high school. The elegant, 130-year-old building dominates an entire block downtown.
It’s there I met a quintet of 18-year-olds stung by the slings and arrows fired from both sides of the mighty Danube: the ethnic Hungarians of Slovakia. It may have been their great-grandparents sheared from the motherland in 1920, but they’re savvy to their quandary today.
“In my family we say, ‘Yeah, both sides are just using us,’” says Andrea Menyhartova.
“We’re the puppets,” chimes in Mate Orban.
“This is good business for politicians – to get more votes,” adds Viktoria Veghova.
What makes this particularly tragic is that there was genuine harm inflicted upon the Hungarian nation nine decades ago. And the wound remains. Because, if there’s one thing that unites the world’s 15 million Hungarians, it’s the notion that Trianon was igazsagtalan – unjust.
In fact, I’ve never met a Hungarian who didn’t turn woeful about how their muscular state was shrunk to pipsqueak overnight. That, plus the loss of the stunning Carpathian Mountains, access to the Adriatic Sea, and the cultural heartland of Transylvania – where, even today, ethnic Hungarians are admired in Hungary proper for speaking the “pure” Hungarian, one of the world’s trickiest languages.
It was June 4, 1920, that the Trianon treaty singled out Hungary among the losers of World War I, formally severing two-thirds of its territory and one-third of its people – some 3.3 million Hungarians were abandoned across new borders. The trauma was acute.
Mate Orban says his grandmother, now 88, was born in Transylvania just after Trianon. She tells him how they used to sing songs in school about how Hungarians “will be together again.”
The vow to recover those lands helped drive Hungary into the arms of Nazi Germany. After that failure, the new Communist dictatorships muzzled tensions, knowing how they inflamed passions.
The dawn of democracy 20 years ago thawed the bitterness, revealing ethnic Hungarians in no less than seven of Hungary’s neighbors. The three largest communities are in Romania, Slovakia and Serbia, followed by Ukraine, Croatia, Austria and Slovenia. Despite decades of assimilationist policies, stalwarts persevered. Now they had allies, as Hungarian nationalists rediscovered their voice.
Hungary’s very first post-Communist leader, Prime Minister Jozsef Antall, electrified the region when he proclaimed himself the premier of “15 million Hungarians” – though modern-day Hungary holds just 10 million citizens within its own borders. Ever since, the Hungarian right has generated no shortage of fodder for their Slovak counterparts to fear-monger about “Magyar irredentism.”
Meanwhile, though some 1.5 million Hungarians also remain in present-day Transylvania, in northwest Romania, Serbia has always stood out for its potential: back during the wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia republics, I remember some analysts wondered if the Serbian province of Vojvodina – heavily Hungarian, who call the place Vajdasag – would follow the path of fellow Serbian province, Kosovo, and try to break free. Bloodily. (Which might draw in Hungary itself. Then could spread to Romania. And so on.)
That said, I’ve also never found a Hungarian who seemed ready to pick up a rifle and fight to recover those lands. They saw Yugoslavia’s inter-ethnic slaughter happen below their southern border; few Hungarians have the stomach to follow down that path.
That’s why the political hysteria up here in Slovakia rings hollow, what with Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and other politicians warning of the Hungarian threat to “peace” and “security.”
Slovaks are understandably sensitive to jabs from across the river: for centuries they lived under the Hungarian csizma, or boot. Most castles here are lined with portraits of Hungarian nobility, while churches are engraved with Hungarian bishops and priests. Aside from its short stint as a Nazi quisling, Slovakia earned its first real independence in 1993, when it peacefully split with the Czech Republic.
Therefore, Slovak insecurity about identity and statehood are vulnerable to manipulation – from nationalists on both sides.
Nevertheless, the dual-citizenship proposal – and reaction – are more dubious today than in the past. Not only are Hungarian brethren no longer separated by barbed wire, watchtower and machine gun, but E.U members Hungary and Slovakia are now within the borderless, passport-free “Schengen” zone. Citizens on either side may pass freely, without checkpoints. In fact, quite a few ethnic Hungarians – and even Slovaks – are buying homes more cheaply in Hungarian villages across the line.
So, what gives?
“It’s so obvious they both want to provoke something, to take people’s attention away from the really important things – like the economy,” says Dia Takacsova, another of the five students.
Hungary is indeed mired in deep crisis; on June 3, a leading politician reportedly warned that the country is trying to “avert the Greek road” of financial cataclysm.
April 11 elections returned to power the right-wing Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, this time with a resounding two-thirds majority. One of his first – and easiest – moves was to offer the dual citizenship, which some supporters described as a “moral reward” for nine decades of torment.
While it provides a tasty morsel for Hungarian nationalists, it was also an apparent move to out-flank the far-right movement breathing down Orban’s neck. Jobbik, as the party is known, had won a stunning 17 percent of the vote, and now sits as the third-largest party in Parliament.
Nowhere was reaction to dual citizenship stronger than in Slovakia. It boasts its own election rhetoric of becoming “like Greece.” (Poor Greece, becoming a dirty word in Central Europe.) Compounding matters for Fico are fresh charges of corruption against his ruling part.
He himself remains popular. The real concern is his far-right coalition partner: the anti-Hungarian Slovak National Party, led by firebrand Jan Slota. Slota’s party is in jeopardy of dropping below the 5-percent threshold to stay in Parliament. With the opposition’s talk of rebuffing any Fico invitation to join the coalition, the premier needs Slota to survive.
Thus, not only did Fico take the bait from Budapest. One Slovak political cartoonist went so far as to portray it as a floral bouquet from Orban to Fico. Slovak legislators have responded to the dual-citizenship offer with a harsh campaign to strip Slovak citizenship from anyone who accepts it.
On Friday, on the Trianon anniversary itself, Slovak television broadcast Slota unveiling a new plaque in Komarno, a city that the treaty divided into Slovak and Hungarian halves. The Hungarians call their side Komarom. Slota’s plaque is a thumb-in-the-eye reminder: the border stops here.
The thing is, few Hungarians I speak with seem eager to accept Orban’s offer. They likely won’t receive voting rights, or more health or retirement benefits. If they’re in business, they may be able to buy land more easily, and travel to countries that restrict Slovaks, for whatever reason.
“I’d first like to know what the advantages – and consequences – would be,” says Andrea. She adds: “We shouldn’t forget the past, but it’s the past. We must respect borders and deal with it, as we live here now, today.”
Interestingly, these high schoolers have mixed feelings about Hungary itself, where they’ve discovered ignorance and insensitivity to their plight. Some Hungarians they’ve met are surprised to find they even speak Hungarian. Or they treat them as less-than-real Hungarians.
Few of the Hungarians I know in Budapest has ever been to Bratislava. They may pass through – by car or train – on their way to Prague or Berlin. But there’s little interest in visiting, say, the Hungarian Parliament from 1802-1848, which stands in the heart of Old Town Bratislava, virtually unnoticed.
“In Hungary, many are sad and pissed off about Trianon,” says Dia Takacsova. “But they don’t even realize that we’re still here. We’re the ones who suffered the consequences.”
I’ve heard about similar snubs from another ethnic-Hungarian woman I know in Bratislava, who described how painful it was to hear an aunt in Budapest refer to them as the Slovaks.
My friend recalls correcting her: “Excuse me, but we’re Hungarian, too.”
This sense of being not quite accepted in either country leads Mate to say about claiming dual citizenship, “If we went to Hungary, we wouldn’t feel 100 percent at home there, either.”
Back in Slovakia, though, they describe how they and their families feel hostility worsening in recent years. The prime source, they say, is Slota.
Slota is more than a parliamentarian; he’s been in the ruling coalition for four years. That’s provided him a rarified platform to traffic in hatred. Noteworthy, though, is that Slovak resentment of Hungarians is reportedly strongest in the north of Slovakia – beyond the historic Hungarian lands. Which makes it the classic definition of fearing “the other”: they don’t personally know the people they hate.
Four of the five teens hails from the countryside, from a town with a Slovak name and historic Hungarian equivalent. They find the Hungarians who “feel most Hungarian” are in the nearly Hungarian-only towns and villages in the southern band along the Hungarian border: likewise, they don’t know Slovaks, live amongst themselves, with some even refusing to learn Slovak.
“Most Slovaks only know about Hungarians from the media,” says Mate. As for Hungarian chauvinists, “They don’t have a life, this gives them something to fight for, a community.”
“But in real life, I don’t think they would really fight for it.”
Beyond political pressure is a far more subtle factor: assimilation.
The 2001 census put the Hungarian population in more-tolerant Bratislava at just 3.8 percent, which I find hard to believe: it certainly feels like I overhear more Hungarian spoken than one in every 25 conversations.
Many locals also claim one or two Hungarian grandparents. But in the decades since Trianon, an unfriendly linguistic environment encouraged Hungarians to drift away from their mother tongue. As has inter-marriage with Slovaks, as the Hungarian parent may choose not to speak it with their child.
Without crucial reinforcement at home, the language withers. Trust me, it’s not the kind of language you can easily pick up on the streets. Bilingualism from birth takes work from both parents.
I now have a method for identifying assimilation: they have a Hungarian family name, but Slovak first name. Stronger Hungarian identity usually dictates a Hungarian first name. Like Attila!
Still, the teens say that when Bratislavers learn they attend the Hungarian school, they almost always want to share with them if they have, too, have Hungarian blood. So there’s that.
Nevertheless, I was stunned to learn the Hungarian school’s population is rapidly declining. I would have thought Slovak democracy had also brought greater self-confidence for Hungarians to have their children educated in the mother tongue.
Quite the contrary, says Judit Young, a teacher who sat in on our chat. Hungarians are often stigmatized as not speaking Slovak as well as the native-speakers. Some parents reason that if their kids attend Slovak schools, “It may be easier to get better jobs,” says Young. “And their lives will be better.”
In the 1990s, the school boasted some 600 students, from primary through high school. But the ranks have steadily shriveled, down to about 400. Just a few years ago, the high-school classes contracted from three classes for every grade, to two; in the primary, it went from two to one.
With birth-rates here finally climbing, school officials hope the student population plateaus.
Despite the political and assimilationist trends, I was struck by how the teens preferred to embrace the positives of their bilingual, bi-national identity. In fact, with the Slovak similarity to the Czech language – plus relations with the Czechs that remain close – these students say they have an opportunity to study at universities in Slovakia, Hungary or the Czech Republic.
“I personally love it,” says Viktoria Svardova, the fifth in the group. “Hungarian is the most difficult language in the world, and it’s our mother tongue. But we also speak Slovak and know Slovak culture.”
In modern Europe, says talkative Mate Orban, they actually have a leg-up on their countrymen.
“We should be happy that we can learn two languages and be a part of two cultures,” he says. “We’re Hungarian, we live in Slovakia, and we’re a part of the E.U.”