Holec, Roman: Trianon – triumf a katastrofa [Trianon – Triumph and Tragedy] Reviewed by Attila Simon

Holec, Roman. 2020. Trianon – triumf a katastrofa [Trianon: Triumph and Tragedy]. Bra tislava, Marenčin PT, 256 p.

Roman Holec has been one of the influential Slovak historians during recent decades. His earlier research concentrated on issues of economic history, as well as assimilation, of the age of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, but he was not uninterested in topics of post-1918 history. Furthermore, he has been one of the few historians who have realized that professionals must not allow “public history” to take over, – instead, they must meet the readers’ expectations by producing texts suitable to a broad audience without a compromise in professional requirements. It is in this spirit of opening towards the readership that Roman Holec has recently published some books on Andrej Hlinka or Pozsony/Bratislava Habsburgs, with a favourable reaction from both professionals and the wider audience.

Nevertheless, the Treaty of Trianon has not been a subject of special importance for Holec, but this is hardly surprising: after all, Slovak historiography in general has not been playing much attention to the Trianon issue, something that strikes the outsider as a surprise, unless we consider the range of publications emphasizing Slovak historical myths, such as a thousand years of oppression, sparkling the anti-Hungarian attitude of Slovak society, a favourite topic of which is justifying the Trianon Treaty, but which are in want of even the minimal professional standards.

The fact that Trianon has been a “nonissue” for Slovak historians derives, to some extent, from Slovakia’s winning position. Notably, from the conviction that the Treaty of Trianon, signed June 4th, 1920, was not merely justified, but so much unquestionable, too, that it cannot even be subject to professional debate. Based on this axiomatic stance, the huge Hungarian literature on Trianon has not been met with genuine professional counterarguments from Slovak side; instead, the only reaction has been to state that Trianon was a just (and justified) peace treaty, and anyone who questions this fact is a revisionist. Thanks to all of these factors, the Slovak historical literature on Trianon (I mean “officially sanctioned” historiography), after the fall of communism, has been essentially (maybe exclusively) based on Marián Hronský’s (1998) Boj o Slovensko a Trianon 1918-1920 (‘A fight for Slovakia and the Treaty of Trianon, 1918-1920’ – Trans lator’s note), which provides a range of data concerning the military and diplomatic aspects of the subject, but it is quite biased too. The main problem about Hronský’s book, however, is its afterlife, having been treated ever since as a canonical work of Slovak historiography; indeed, Hronský’s mistakes and biases have remained unrevealed even by colleagues, Holec included, who seem to be aware of how biased the book is.

The first (2020) edition of Trianon: Triumph and Tragedy contains 350 pages, which may look discouraging to the average reader; yet, the length is counter-balanced by its readability as well as the author’s use of endnotes rather than footnotes. Those who have been following Holec’s scholarly activity will find the content familiar, with the individual chapters often reflecting upon his earlier topics, such as the fate of aristocracy, the issue of the Danubian shipping lane, the image of Trianon in

Hungarian historiography, or people like Andrej Hlinka and Ľudovít Bazovský. This makes the structural composition of the book somewhat mosaic-like, characterized by a kind of duality, too. Specifically, some chapters are deeper and more analytic, providing new insights to professionals, while other chapters give a summary of individual topics aimed at the general public, without adding new results of research to the professional discourse.

Holec’s book is mostly important due to the author’s refreshingly new and co-operative/constructive approach to the Trianon issue, which is in many a way “unorthodox”. For instance, he explicitly claims – against the accepted Slovak interpretation – that Trianon was not an inevitable consequence of the socalled “oppression of Slovaks by Hungarians for a millennium” or the punishment of that oppression. Indeed, he keeps emphasizing that the extent to which Hungary was punished by the Trianon Treaty was unjust. At the same time, he also expresses his considering the historical Kingdom of Hungary’s treatment of its ethnic minorities, Slovaks included, as equally unjust. Therefore, it seems justified that Hungary was given the bill to pay by the post-war peace conference for all it had committed before 1914 or, for that matter, during World War I. Put differently, it is Hungarian nationalism that is to blame for Trianon.

The first two chapters are essentially intended to justifying this claim, providing, as it were, an inventory of the acts of Hungarian nationalism and imperial aspirations. These two chapters present the work and thought of authors such as Béla Grünwald, Jenő Rákosi, or – indeed – Alajos Paikert, but (of course) the assimilation of Slovaks in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy is given especial attention, too. Concerning the latter case, the author partially accepts, but – on the whole – rejects the arguments put forward by Hun garian historians who have emphasized “voluntary” as opposed to “enforcedHungariani zation.

The next chapter, Defeat and the Birth of a New Europe, is devoted to the period when the First World War ended and the Czecho slovak Republic was born. Besides a tangible presentation of current affairs, a significant part of the chapter is devoted to the issue of how the boundary between Hungary and Czechoslovakia was drawn. Holec gives an overview of how the demarcation lines were being formed in a way that is rather unusual in the Slovak historiographic literature, stating that the demarcation line known as the Bartha–Hodža line was drawn along ethnic boundaries, but the state borders finalized in June, 1919, were not; instead, they were drawn south of the Bartha–Hodža line, based on poli tical considerations rather than ethnographic ones. Although this statement by Holec can hardly be considered as a merit by itself, it certainly shows the courageousness of the author, considering the fact that such views have long been regarded by Slovak historiography and public opinion as a downright questioning of Trianon itself.

As far as the events of the autumn of 1918 in Upper Hungary are concerned, there are but a small number of moments where we perceive the presentation of them somewhat biased. For example, we find it difficult to interpret what Holec means by the “terrorization” of the population of Slovakia by Hungarian troops. Sure enough, there must have occurred some instances of violent demonstrations of force, but the claim appears to be exaggerated still, raising questions such as why Hungary’s military might have terrorized the people of their own country, whom it actually terrorized – and what terror means. Yet, we get no answer. The author would have done a better job by providing specific examples – as quite a few times in his book – of what he was suggesting.

Holec gives a presentation of the Czecho slovak military occupation of the Felvidék7 and the relations between Czecho slovak authorities and the local populace during the first few weeks of occupation based on a variety of perspectives, shedding light on individual stories which, however, have universal validity, – and he does so with plasticity and empathy. He also discusses issues relating to (dis)continuity during the change of sovereignty. Moreover, although the traditional approach is that the creation of Czechoslovakia marked a sharp boundary between past and present, with the new state starting from scratch, Holec seems to see, quite appropriately, that such a view is untenable. The new Czechoslovak state was, in many ways, a continuation of the foregoing period, which was not only perceivable to those who worked in the state administration, but in many walks of everyday life, too; that is hardly surprising, given that the entire population of

Czechoslovakia had been socialized within the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.

Holec devotes Chapter 4 to the events of 1919, specifically, the first half of that year, a period exceptionally rich in (often tragic) turns, which are often reflected upon quite diametrically by Hungarian versus Slovak historians. Yet, Holec gives an excellent solution to this difficult problem by not aiming at defending positions or giving judgments; instead, he aims – yet again – at a multi-lateral presentation of events, be it about the Pozsony/Bratislava fusillade resulting in several deaths, or the closing down of the Hungarian University of Elizabeth. He clearly understands that the strike wave across Slovakia in 1919 cannot be attributed solely to national or social motives, since these aspects supplemented and occasionally reinforced each other. He attempts at staying unbiased concerning the fusillade of February 12th, which he succeeds in, while he takes the responsibility of evaluating those events, too. While he does see (and accept) the responsibility of all participants of the demonstration, including local citizens as well as the legionaries coming to keep law and order but also knocking out the city’s Italian military commander, he still consi ders the tragic event, resulting in eight deaths, as a failure of the state administration.

Furthermore, Holec perceives, quite appropriately, that this kind of misuse of power against citizens was by no means a unique event, and that the responsibility of the contemporary Slovak political élite is beyond doubt. True, he criticizes Šrobár and his associates quite indirectly, quoting the Czechos lovak President T. G. Masaryk, who expressed his criticism regarding the growing feeling of antisemitism and the acts of violence against Hungarians in Slovakia. Our perception of lack might not be unfounded: Šrobár’s activity, his dictatorial manners and his measures against Hungarians were criticized by his own contemporaries, cf. the hundreds (if not thousands) of ethnic Hungarians deported to Illava/Ilava, and later on to Terezín.

Similarly, the author seems to fail to seize an opportunity to provide a detailed account of an armed conflict in Komárom/ Komárno on May 1st. Holec describes these events rather briefly, devoting but 3 to 4 lines to it, mentioning a letter by Lujza Esterházy, although the number of victims, amounting to between 300 and 400, might have deserved more attention. In a similar vein, the claim that the Italian officers’ disapproval was caused by the Czechoslovak authorities executing some civilians after driving back Hungarian attacks is somewhat misleading. Reading the report by Piccione, Italian commander-in-chief, there emerges a rather different picture. Piccione, while (of course) disapproving the execution of civilians, was mostly worried about how cruelly the Czechoslovak troops treated the unarmed Hungarian soldiers. As he said, “the satisfaction resulting from defeating the enemy often got bitter by the acts committed by certain soldiers during and after the battle, against the founding principles of civilization. Among the less respectable members of the army, the highly regarded feelings of patriotism and individual braveness appear to be mixed with low instincts of hatred, revenge, and destruction”.

The complexity of the issue of the change of sovereignty, including several weeks of the population’s attempts at adapting or confirming to, or rejecting, the new state, is shown via personal fates and stories. And that’s a “bull’s eye” indeed: via the stories of individuals, it becomes possible to give a shaded and detailed overview of sensitive issues such as “change of sovereignty”. It is only regrettable that Holec fails to utilize the same device, viz. the presentation of individual lives, regarding the processes of assimilation and nation change in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, although there are lots of fitting examples.

One of the most powerful chapters of the book is the one on Ľudovít Bazovský (Hun garian: Bazovszky Lajos), a Slovak politician of Losonc/Lučenec. The first ethnic Slovak count of the County of Nógrád/Novohrad, he was an extremely interesting and controversial person. The profile of him shown here, however, suggests a broader interpretation, exemplifying the characteristic behaviour of the contemporary Slovak political élite, including its occasional inner discrepancies and unreadiness.

The following chapter is devoted to the finalization of the Trianon borders, presenting the work carried out during the Paris peace conference, the diplomatic background of the Czechoslovak delegation, as well as the differing opinions among the members of that delegation, including the differences of emphasis between President Masaryk and Beneš,

Minister of the Interior, regarding the issue of state borders. In this respect, Holec shares the majority view in the literature, claiming that Masaryk (unlike Beneš) was not unwilling to make some concessions to Hungary; this might have been so, but one must also understand that the view contrasting a “benevolent Masaryk” with a “malevolent Beneš” is not quite evidence-based. What is closer to historical reality is the image of a pragmatic Beneš, paying attention to the general atmosphere at the Paris peace conference, with Masaryk being emotionally influenced by the predominant public feelings in Czechia. This is proved by the border conflict between Czechoslovakia and Poland, concerning Teschen (Czech Těšín, Polish Cieszyn – Translator’s note), during which Masaryk would opt for a military solution, that is, attacking Poland, while Beneš favoured diplomatic negotiations. The same claim is substantiated by the fact that Mas aryk, who would have been prepared to give up the Csallóköz region (an island between two branches of the Danube south of Po zsony/Bratislava – Translator’s note) in March, 1919, changed his mind upon the outbreak of war between Czechoslovakia and (the Soviet Republic of) Hungary, demanding the border to be fixed south of the Rivers Danube and Ipoly, and suggested a punitive occupation of Budapest itself.

While this chapter gives a relatively unbiased overview of the topic, some of the details are not uncontroversial, such as the issue of what is known as “the second demarcation line”, regarding which Holec seems unable to rise above the (Czecho-)Slovak historiographic myths. Specifically, following the tradition established by Milan Krajčovič, Marián Hronský and Jindřich Dejmek, he claims that, upon launching an attack on Hungary on April 27th, 1919, attempting to reach the so-called “second demarcation line” (i.e. Verőce – Mátr a – Mályi – Gesztely – Tállya – Sárospatak), Czechos lo vakia acted with the approval of the peace conference, writing, furthermore, that the “second demarcation line” had been laid down in the Vix (or, Vyx) Note (received on March 20th). But this view is mistaken, for several reasons. On the one hand, the Vix Note is not concerned with the demarcation line between Czechoslovakia and Hungary at all, a fact that Holec might have found out with ease. On the other hand, Slovak historiography has been unable to come up with a single authentic source to prove that the “se cond demarcation line” had indeed been approved by the peace conference. Moreover, it was Beneš himself who admitted, albeit indirectly, in a letter to Masaryk, that they had had no approval to push forward; as he wrote, “when we occupied Miskolc, we appeared to be violators of the peace agreement. I’m not entirely sure, but I guess we indeed were”. Well, it is hardly likely for Beneš to have written anything of the sort if he had been aware of the approval of the new demarcation line.

Holec pays considerable attention to the issue of the Danube as the new state border and – related to it – the status of Csallóköz, coming to the conclusion that the initial rejection of the Csallóköz populace of joining the Czechoslovak Republic (chiefly due to the creation of the Hungarian Soviet Republic) diminished, and they became more and more supportive of the idea that the region, inhabited almost exclusively by ethnic Hungarians, be part of Czechoslovakia. He seems to regard – as the most important piece of evidence – a memorandum by Samuel Zoch, Count of Pozsony and Vavro Šrobár, Minister Plenip otentiary, concerning the issue of the County of Pozsony, saying, quite literally, “the inhabitants of the island [i.e. Csallóköz – Translator’s note] keep on asking the signatory of the present text, as a representative of Pozsony County in the Government, to do all he can do within the Government to make the island part of the Czechoslovak state”. As for me, I have no doubt that there might have been Hungarians whose economic interests or political sympathies made them require precisely that. At the same time, we would be naïve to think, based solely on a Czechoslovak memorandum, that the majority of ethnic Hung arians in Csallóköz were in favour of such a decision, especially because that claim is falsified by other sources, including the attitudes of Hungarians living in Pozsony/ Bratislava, Dunaszerdahely/Dunajská Streda, or Komár om/Komárno (see, for example, the above-mentioned general strike, the fusillade of February 12th, or the events at Komárom/ Komárno on May 1st), but also by the plans of establishing a “Hungarian Republic of Csal lóköz”.

The author touches upon several further issues in the remaining chapters. These include the importance of the Danube as a navigable river and its role in determining the state border; the activity of the international commission to establish the new borders; the fate of aristocracy after Trianon (an excellent chapter indeed); the position of cities, such as Losonc/Lučenec, finding themselves on the periphery due to the new borders; or, even the speech made by Albert Apponyi before the peace conference’s audience. As in the whole book, he performs this in a sober and well-founded manner, relying on specific historical sources, just as he is concerned with Trianon’s aftermaths, including how the treaty affected Hungary’s subsequent history. In connection with this topic, and not for the first time in his book, he refers to István Bibó; specifically, Holec disagrees with Bibó, whom he otherwise appreciates, and who said that Hungary’s history between the two world wars could have taken a different course, had the peace treaty been more just and favourable for Hungary. Holec, however, considers this stance to be an example self-deception, claiming that Hungary’s political tradition had predestined the country to take an anti-democratic course, which, in Holec’s opinion, was characterized by a strong rightward trend, an authoritarian regime, the stigmatization of nonHungarians, as well as the “first anti-Semitic legal acts in Europe”. While agreeing with the image of Hungary as described by Holec on the whole (with the reservation that the infamous Numerus Clausus Act of 1920 was not followed by other anti-Semitic acts up to 1938, the use of the plural being, thus, misleading), I do not personally believe that some nations (such as Germans or Hungarians) have been a priori antidemocratic, versus others (such as Czechs), which have inherently been in possession of some democratic cultural attitude. Bibó’s argu mentation, moreover, appears plausible because the Versailles peace treaties, having divided European nations into mutually exclusive groups of “good” winners vs. “evil” losers, i.e. positively vs. negatively “discriminated” ones, had a significant impact on the history of these nations in the inter-war period.

What I consider to be a less successfully developed aspect in the book is the author’s quite negative evaluation of Hungarian historiography and the current treatment of the Trianon subject in Hungary. While it is obvious that there has indeed been a trend in Hungarian historiography, neglecting the basic scientific principles of the field, that has blamed Jews, freemasonry or the conspiracy by “background” powers, as scapegoats for Trianon – rather than making an attempt at self-reflection, a symbolic figure being Ernő Raffay. Yet, Raffay (or Gyula Popély) are not mainstream historians in Hungary: instead, they are on the periphery, even though they are read by many, and they are also promoted by the media and the government. Nonetheless, it is not them, but Ignác Romsics, Balázs Ablonczy, Miklós Zeidler (et altri), who represent the genuine academic tradition of historiography. In fact, just as one should not equate Slovak historiography with Martin Homza, department chair at Comenius University (Pozsony/Bratislava), and Holec’s supervisor, and with his views and the situation at his department.

In sum, Trianon: Triumph and Tragedy de serves to be considered positively, since Roman Holec creates his own image of Trianon on the basis of strictly professional criteria and a rich database. One may, of course, argue with him, and – indeed – one must: after all, that’s a historian’s job. One thing, however, is beyond doubt: the author approaches the topic with great empathy towards how we, Hungarians, perceive Trianon, stepping out of the traditional Slovak narrative space, providing the reader with a fresh perspective on the topic. We might as well say that Holec’s image of Trianon is one which, perhaps for the first time, brings it closer to all of us than ever before to find a consensus between Slovak and Hungarian scholars. In order to achieve this goal, it is necessary for Hungarian historians to read Holec’s book and interpret it in an appropriate way. I can but en courage them to do so, for it is worth the while.

Attila Simon