Simon, Attila: Az átmenet bizonytalansága. Az 1918/1919-es impériumváltás Pozsonytól Kassáig [The Uncertainty of Transition:  The “Change of Sovereignties” in 1918 and 1919, from Pozsony [Bratislava] to Kassa [Košice]] Reviewed by Gergely Bödők

Simon Attila: Az átmenet bizonytalansága. Az 1918/1919-es impériumváltás Pozsonytól Kassáig [The Uncertainty of Transition: The “Change of Sovereignties” in 1918 and 1919, from Pozsony (Bratislava) to Kassa (Košice)]. Somorja–Budapest, Fórum Kisebbségkutató Intézet–Bölcsészettudományi Kutatóközpont, 2021, 248 p.

Attila Simon has been, for quite a while, one of the best known and most productive members of the Hungarian community of historians in Slovakia.[1] The research topics of Simon, Head of Forum Minority Research Centre, concentrate on the overall history of the community, including the most important turning points during the 20th century as well as transitional periods such as the history of the “regime change” [the change from Communist dictatorship to democracy – Editor’s note] or ethnic Hungarians in Czechoslovakia3, the First Vienna Award and its consequences4, the seven years of the “Hungarian era”5, or, as now, a multi-faced presentation of the “change of sovereignties” in 1918 to 1919.

Anyone familiar with the Internet will often find that historically sensitive anniversaries frequently give rise to intense emotions, leading to tsunamis of posts which, in turn, result in increasing anger rather than contributing to clarification and mutual understanding. Yet, we might expect for the current (later) generations to be “conveniently protected” against outbursts of temper by the (fake) wisdom of posterity. On all accounts, Simon is – fortunately enough – “outdated”, not only by trying to avoid such traps of a one-sided attitude, but also by indulging in deconstructing

the expected clichés of interpretation. A fitting example of the former is that he refuses to present either Károlyi or Horthy on the basis of widespread ideological approaches. As he says, “[o]ur history is full of talented and untalented politicians; or, should I say, competent and incompetent leaders of the country. I consider both Károlyi and Horthy as incompetent, but I do believe that both of them were trying to act with having the interests of the country and the nation in mind. Well, they often did fail.” (p. 15.) Simon, moreover, thinks that “the interpretation of the past is doomed to be unsuccessful if one fails to consider the views and opinions of the people who lived back then” (p. 10.).  This view of contemporaries will often, and by necessity, contradict our presuppositions, as illustrated by the story of an elderly citizen of Rimaszombat (Rimavská Sobota), talking to a representative member of the Red Army, after it had recaptured the city, said, “if you advertize to all that it’s going to get better”, they had better recapture the area from which he usually obtained his cottage cheese in summer. It might appear as a surprise, in the shadow of national tragedy, how

Minority Research Institute often individual people are driven by understandable human considerations.

In his latest book, Simon assumes a “lower perspective” of this kind, in order to show the feelings and the perceptions of “a Hungarian of the Felvidék during the spring or summer of 1919”, when the “Trianon trauma” was starting to be perceivable, but all seemed changeable and temporary. The book discusses this “uncertainty of transition”, “from the perspective of the predominantly ethnic Hun garian population of the area between Pozsony (Bratislava) and Királyhelmec (Krá ľovský Chlmec), called Southern Slovakia today” (p. 11.). Writing his book, Simon consulted an impressive range of archival sources in Prague, Kassa (Košice), Pozsony (Brati sla va), Budapest, Besztercebánya (Banská Bystrica), Léva (Levice), Rozsnyó (Rožňava) and Komárom (Komárno); and, although the COVID pandemic caused him to cancel his planned repeated visit to Prague and the Bodrog-Tisza Interfluve, he says had at least the time to analyze the archival material he had collected earlier. Besides analyzing the most important items in the literature and various databases, he succeeded in browsing around forty issues of daily newspapers.

The population got completely exhausted by the end of the last year of the war, i.e. 1918; they suffered from a range of problems, including the lack of everyday commodities, rationing, the lack of firewood, an alarmingly increasing inflation rate, and – on top of it all – the influenza pandemic known as Spanish flu, often mentioned in the past few years. These topics, supplemented by the presentation of local events during the Aster Revolution and the riots demonstrating the deterioration of public safety, form the core of the second chapter of the book, entitled The last autumn in Hungary. Simon adopts a “local” approach: the issues of “greater politics”, which are in the focus of attention in this chapter, are presented from a local viewpoint, something we can rarely read about, including riots and lootings (in which the local national guard, intended to protect law and order, was often involved), or the interruptions in coal supply, – problems which diminished the energy and the powers of the recently formed local national councils.

The following chapter, called The Czechs are here, gives an account of the stages of occupation, and the actions, by the Czech army entering the Felvidék. What is of especial interest is the variety of ways that the locals reacted to the Czech occupiers: sometimes they greeted them enthusiastically (as in Turócszentmár ton/Martin), but sometimes with distance-keeping coldness (as in Ruttka/ Vrútky or Zsolna/ Žilina). As Simon states, this rejection did not quite derive from an unwillingness regarding change of sovereignty, but, instead, was based on the “experiences of meeting the invading troops” (p. 47.). The unruly behaviour of the Czechoslovak troops in Zsolna/Žilina, for example, totally failed to impress the population, to say the least: as expressed by a physician (who was otherwise pro-Czechoslovak), “They were but scum, completely undisciplined, giving such an unfavourable impression throughout the whole area that the entire population feels antiCzech”. In other places, though, the situation was quite to the contrary: an example is provided by Dunaszerdah ely/Dunajská Streda, where the unbridled lootings by the local mob on the 4th and 5th of January resulted in the citizens asking Czechoslovak troops for help, in order to restore security.

These local examples, in contrast with our expectations and prejudices, are definitely the most thought-provoking new bits of information in this volume. The author enumerates several nice examples to illustrate the ambiguous nature of the problem, notably, whether the transition from one “empire” to the other was peaceful. In many places, people were prepared (and devoted) to defend their homeland, including the use of armed force, which was enhanced and supported by the Hung arian government, generally stating that it was committed to defending the country’s territorial integrity, although these statements now appear to have been quite vague promises rather than specific plans of resistance. In some other places, the local citizens decided not to resist the “arrival” of invading troops using armed force. In Simons’s opinion, Károlyi’s government must have been responsible for the lack of armed home defence, including the small number of recruits, but the fact that Hungarian diplomacy “was in a vacuum”, i.e. Hungary had no internationally recognized legitimate government. Even so, he blames the “conditions of contemporary Hungarian society”, cf. p. 49. A good example is provided by the 1918 “sad Christmas at Pozsony”. At first, the press informed the public about the Pozsony Military Council’s decision on December 22nd to defend the city with armed force; next day, though, the claim was refuted. Furthermore, the backing out of the city’s citizens from actual fighting was indicated by the fact that the Pozsony (Pressburg) German Popular Council sent a letter to Hungary’s government on December 19th, emphasizing the pointlessness of resistance, as well as the material-economic damage to the city and the unnecessary bloodshed. Simon thus assumes a definitive stance against the fashionable view regarding a single person as responsible for the failure in proper military organization, substantiating his claims with appropriate examples which go to show that it was not Mihály Károlyi, prime minister and subsequently president of the republic, or Béla Linder, minister of defence, who could be exclusively blamed for the lack of organized military resistance.

The process of occupation was not taking place in the same manner and at the same time in different places, and the author summarizes the specific geographical, spatial and spi ritual aspects thereof. While the takeover of cities and towns by the Czechoslovaks was well visible and perceivable, the contact with the occupiers was but sporadic in rural areas; indeed, as Simon puts it, “for several weeks, it was but the occasional Czechoslovak patrol that reminded the population of the change of sovereignty” (p. 77.). After the long war, followed by a turmoil, the first weeks of occupation were considered by most people as a period of order and certainty – yet, the Czech presence seemed transitional and temporary.

It was February 1919 when the fragile peace came to an end: notably, that was when it was becoming clear that this territory might permanently be annexed by Czechoslovakia, followed by outbursts of violence everywhere. In Losonc/Lučenec, demonstrators wearing (Hun garian) cockades clashed with (occupying) troops, while – on February the 12th – seven citizens of Pozsony/Bratislava were shot dead by a fusillade of Czechoslovak troops. (The latter event has been a controversial subject: the tragic incident has been regarded by recent Slovak historiography as a reaction of Czechoslovak soldiers to a provocation by Hungarian civilians attacking them.) The waves of strikes kept going on, nonetheless, in Losonc/Lučenec on the following day, and subsequently, in early March, in Komárom/ Komárno and Kassa/Ko šice. According to Simon, the protests were primarily motivated by a strong demand to handle the ever-worsening social problems, rather than – as almost exclusively emphasized in the Slovak interpretation – trying to cause an outbreak of an armed uprising (although he does recognize the political goals of such protests). The resistance against the establishment of Czech oslovak rule was strengthened by drafting men into Czechoslovak military service (and immediately at that), well before the Parisian Peace Conference effectively defined the national boundary between Hungary and Czechoslovakia), resulting in intense protests as well as the fleeing to Hungary of the people involved. The recruitment, not based on realistic considerations, can also be blamed for the tragic events at Zselíz/Želiezovce on the evening of March the 20th, when youths protesting against recruitment were shot at by a strengthened patrolling division, resulting in five deaths. Besides these regrettable events, Simon provides an account of everyday manifestations of violence, including internment, primarily affecting ethnic Hungarian areas, the battles fought against the Hungarian Soviet Republic (the war between Czechoslovakia and Hungary)[2], including the breakthrough of Komárom/Komárno on May 1st, the details of which have not clarified to date; this meant a Czechoslovak attempt at occupying the part of Komárom/Komárno on the left bank of the Danube, whereby the Czechoslovak troops suffered a loss of about 20 men, but retaliated by killing an estimated three to four hundred people during the bloodshed committed against Hungarians trapped on Elizabeth Isle and the city’s fortress.

The author devotes a chapter of its own to the “anatomy” of the shift from one state to another, entitled The office and its language. In it, he discusses how the Czechoslovak state attempted to integrate the occupied territories into its own organization, including the administrative takeover via symbolic gestures (such as the replacement of Hungarian national banners by Czechoslovak ones), up to governing by decrees and the construction of a new admi nistration, a major challenge indeed for the new power or state. In Chapter 7 of the book, titled The tools of occupying a symbolic space, Simon provides an overview of symbolic measures to his audience that were evaluated higher during the period. For instance, a small crowd gathered on May 24th in Kassa/ Košice, having seen a red-white-green flag, which – after the dissolution of the crowds – turned out to be the Italian national flag. The events and trends during the transformation, i.e. the “de-Hungar i anization” and the simultaneous “Slovaki zation” of public spaces, the massive opposition from Hungarian clerks to Slovak-language public signs, the ban on celebrating the national holiday of March 15th, and the humiliation of Hungarian public statues and monuments by damaging or completely destroying them, clearly go to show how important symbolic gestures of celebration and remembrance indeed were upon the “turn of the tides”, and how massive and extensive the efforts of the new state were to enforce its own set of symbols, including the replacement of public signs and the forced introduction of their own public holidays, completely alien for the Hungarian (or German, for that matter) populace.

The book’s timeline is defined by the local events of the autumn of 1918, in a country exhausted by war and on the verge of falling apart, on the one hand; the end point is the early winter of 1919. Simon’s latest volume elaborates on a long year of radical changes, during which the ethnic Hungarian population of the Felvidék region found itself in a minority situation, as opposed to its former majority position, gradually giving up its emotional resistance to the new Czechoslovak state, assuming a stance of “pragmatic acceptance” (p. 214.). In Simon’s opinion, a major contributing factor in this respect must have been a longing for stability after a long period of uncertainty.

Boys, trust me, it is your story, too”: this dedication of the author’s, at the end of the preface, is aimed at his friends living in Bátka, his own native village – they had been trying to convince him to write a book about them, too. Well, the book is now available, and we do hope that it will be read by many of them as well as by others.

Gergely Bödők