A century has passed since the beginning of the century of wars. It all started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. What was Hungary’s role in the war?
The date: 28 July 1914. It’s been an entire month since the assassination by a Bosnian-Serb nationalist: Gavrilo Princip. A step is taken: the Austro-Hungarian Empire declares war on Serbia. Living in a time of unprecedented innovations in technology and culture, the economic boom sees industrial development at high speed.
However, Europe was in the grip of imperialism. It was all about expansion and contraction of empires. Nations, ethnic groups and regions regaining political sovereignty were a source of friction or actions that could damage neighbourly relations. This had led to the creation of entangled alliances between nations. So what could have been a small war between two forces (Austria-Hungary and Serbia) became a world war that left an eternal footprint in human history. For the first time, each continent took part in the conflict.
It was the beginning of the century of the wars and the end of the world that people knew. What most of the powers from both sides believed would be “a war to end all the wars” was tragically one of the bloodiest periods of history. One hundred years later, historians still discuss the consequences of the First World War.
After the Great War the whole world changed forever. And so did Hungary. But what was its role in this global conflict? The Budapest Times spoke to some history specialists.
Before the war Hungary was, among other countries in Europe, part of an empire. Since 1867, Austria and Hungary had reached the Compromise that set a new juridical form between the two countries and established the Dual Monarchy. “The two regions of the state were governed by separate parliaments and prime ministers,” explains Sarolta Fabos, a historian who specialises in Modern Times at University of Pécs. “Unity took place only at foreign affairs, defence and finance of a common budget.”
It was an empire of 676, 615 square kilometres and the second largest of Europe, after the Russian Empire. The population was about 51. 3 million. And herein lay one of the problems. “The population was separated by many minorities in regard to religions, languages and ethnics,” recalls Fabos. Seven religions and 12 ethnic groups, to be precise.
Hungarians were the second-largest ethnic group with more than 10 million inhabitants, representing 20% of the population, two million less than the German population, representing 24%. The other ethnics (minorities) were represented by the following percentages: Czechs 13%, Poles 10%, Ukranians 8%, Romanians 6.5%, Croatians 5%, Serbs 4 %, Slovakians 4%, Slovenians 2.5% and Italians 1.5%.
In later years, this Compromise betweeen Austria and Hungary encouraged the appetites of non-Hungarian minorities. Despite the Hungarian Parliament accepting the Nationalities Act in 1868 that assured the same law to every citizen regardless of genre, language and religion, “they never accepted them as a political nation, or force”, Fabos says. However, the different minorities wanted to take part in the empire as a real political force and so they had their own re-organisation plans.
And this was why countries around the Austro-Hungarian Empire tried to tempt the nationalities to join them, for example Serbian ethnics to Serbia, Romanian ethnics to Romania, “which brought tension into the empire”, she concludes. The unrestrained nationalism impulses in each nation were especially evident in the Balkans where Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia had been nations who were now integrated into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and wanted their independence back.
To understand this tension, we visit the Hungarian National Museum First World War permanent exhibition, where we meet one of the coordinators of the museum, Lujza Varga, a PhD candidate in history who guides us through the room. We start at a map of the Austro-Hungarian Empire pre-1914. Varga shows us the territories that were living under this tension and explains how the assassination in Sarajevo was the result.
One of the few voices against war was the Hungarian re-elected prime minister István Tisza. Fearing the Serbian army’s strength and their representation in Hungary, Tisza predicted the dimension and duration of the Great War and its catastrophic consequences. “In fact, István Tisza defended a tripartite system (instead of dualistic) based on the high number of Slavs in Hungary which could further question the equilibrium inside the Dual Monarchy,” Varga clarifies.
However, Tisza couldn’t overturn the very anxious Austro-Hungarian Empire. People believed that the war would be a quick solution to their internal and international problems. They wanted it. And after a month of diplomatic wrangling, Austria-Hungary gave Serbia an ultimatum seeking concessions they knew would not be met.
Under the ultimatum the Serbian government would have to accept an Austro-Hungarian inquiry into the assassination, suppress all anti-Austrian propaganda and take steps to eliminate terrorist organisations within its borders, such as Black Hand, which was believed to be responsible for the assassination. The Serbian government would not fully comply and so the war began.
In the first two years, posters claiming “Long Live the War!” and announcing war-themed painting exhibitions by children or encouraging people to contribute money were common in Hungarian streets. However, the alliances between the countries multiplied the dimensions of the war. While Serbia would have been an easy enemy, Russian was a different issue. As Austria-Hungary called for Germany, other countries – for different reasons and alliances – started to take sides and join in.
In 1916, a ruined economy was totally focused on serving the war. Church bells were melted down to create more and more weapons. Food was rationed. People were getting hungry and tired. Modern industrial nations were fighting each other using the whole potential of their populations and economies.
Because of the low number of men, society faced some changes. One was the transition of women to the labour market. High casualties on the front saw the enthusiasm for fighting fade, finding expression in a series of strikes. Propaganda posters began to ask for the end of the war and presented it as a death that was destroying the kingdom, with the poster colours getting darker and darker. 1916 was also the year that Emperor Franz Joseph I died and Charles IV (of Hungary) ascended the throne. The young emperor shared with István Tisza the will to end the war as soon as possible, and started to pursue a peace treaty.
The Great War came to an end on 11 November 1918. The Hungarian National Council proclaimed a republic but the conflicts in the former empire continued.
Czech, Romanian and Serb military invaded deep into the country. It was also in this year that Hungary met the Bolshevik soviet system, with 133 days of a socialist and communist government. However, the Hungarians rejected this model and the party failed to stabilise the situation in the country, resuling in a collapse. The Trianon Treaty would end this, on 4 June 1920.
The peace document took two-thirds of Hungary’s territory, reducing it from 325,411 square kilometres to 92,963. With a broken country and a cost of living eight times higher than before the war, Hungarians also lost inhabitants. Part of the territories that were lost were segregated nations but some contained a high number of Hungarian inhabitants.
Suprisingly, even Austria took 4,000 square kilometres of Hungarian territory, including 26,000 Hungarians. In total, 3 million Hungarians found themselves living in other countries, sometimes with tragic results. In the Hungarian National Museum we meet a Hungarian girl who shared with us her family story: “My great-grandfather was a Hungarian who found himself living in Serbia after the Trianon Treaty. What once was Hungary, now was Serbia. But after the war the conflicts continued between the countries. He was killed just because he was Hungarian. My whole family had to run away, otherwise they would probably have died too. And I know that this happened with a lot of other families.”
So it makes sense, Varga confirms, to affirm that, in many ways, the post-war was more difficult for Hungary than the war itself.
The aftermath saw severe political, social, economic, demographical and culture changes all over the world. Empires collapsed. New countries were born. New borders designed a new world map. International relations changed forever and new ideologies arose. On the political right, fascism evolved; on the left, communism emerged in the Soviet Union.
More than half of the soldiers who went to war died, became ill or were injured, captured or declared missing. Ten million people died. Two-thirds died on the battlefields and the remainder succumbed to the conditions. To this number, add six to ten million citizen deaths.
Later, the peace treaty would lead to the Second World War and bring on the rise of communism and the Cold War, redrawing again the map of Europe. This time Hungary became a destructive battlefield.
Fabos concludes: “Public opinion still remembers the First World War as a bloody period and a huge loss, especially because of Trianon.” In one way or another all the people were touched by the war. The world could never return back. A European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights report showed last year that European politics remain strongly influenced by hostilities to immigration.