Orbán instrumentalizes the Hungarian trauma of Trianon

by Alexandra Reinhild Berndt

     After World War I, in 1920, the Austro-Hungarian empire collapsed and Hungary was obliged to sign an agreement with the Allied Powers at the Trianon Palace in Versailles, France (Sandford & Magyar, 2020). Hungary lost two thirds of its territory and millions of people found themselves in another country from one day to another (2020, Ozsváth). Due to the immense loss of territory, almost every family experienced the consequence of Trianon, meaning that “every family has a family member who either had to leave their home and move to (the new) Hungary, or was separated for decades” (Sandford & Magyar, 2020). After World War II, Hungary was under the influence of the USSR. In the wake of the socialist doctrine, the Soviet Union aimed at pacifying the region and the trauma of Trianon was increasingly tabooed (Mdr.de, 2020). However, the conflict did not disappear. Now, 100 years after Trianon, the treaty still has an impact on national politics and the comprehension of history.

      The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, uses Trianon for his political purposes. Calling Trianon, a “dictate” (which calls to mind the right-extremist choice of words of the Nazi-Propaganda in the times of the Weimar Republic), Orbán creates a myth around Hungary’s past in order to consolidate and promote nationalist ideas (Mdr.dw, 2020). Orbán invested 14,5 Million Euro into a monument commemorating Trianon (Schlagwein, 2020).  The monument shows the names of all the 12.536 places that have been part of Hungary before World War I (Mdr.de, 2020). However, some of these places have never been populated by a Hungarian majority (Mdr.de, 2020). On the day of the centenary of Trianon, flags were at half-mast (Sandford & Magyar, 2020). By drawing attention to Trianon, Orbán not only promotes nationalist ideas, but also manipulates the national understanding of history.

      Orbán aims at creating a national feeling across borders in order to secure the electoral support of the Hungarian diaspora. Hungarian people living abroad are also granted the right to vote and a dual citizenship (Sandford & Magyar, 2020). Furthermore, Orbán supports the Hungarian diaspora financially by investing in Hungarian speaking schools, universities and churches (Fillinger & Nowotny, 2020).  The integration of the Hungarian diaspora has the purpose to generate a devoted and faithful electorate. 90% of the Hungarian diaspora living in Romania votes for Orban  (Fillinger & Nowotny, 2020). In Romania, the Hungarian minority is not well integrated in the society. Orbán actively supports the isolation of the Hungarian minority in Romania by financing Hungarian cultural and educational projects (Fillinger & Nowotny, 2020). By further contributing to the isolation of the Hungarian diaspora he not only secures important votes, but also creates a relationship of dependence which has a positive effect on his expansion of power.

      The isolation of the Hungarian minority, however, also leads to conflicts as in 2019, when Romanian nationalists and Hungarian nationalists disputed “the right to place crosses for Romanian soldiers in an international war cemetery which contains the remains of soldiers of multiple nationalities from both world wars” (Palfi, Asbóth, & Musaddique, 2019). In Slovakia, Hungarians are better integrated into the society. The party of the Hungarian minority has even been part of government from time to time (Fillinger & Nowotny, 2020). In Slovakia, only 50% of the Hungarian minority support Orbán. This shows that the more Orbán influences the Hungarian diaspora politically and financially, the more likely the electorate is to support him.

      In May 2020, Orbán published a post on Facebook showing a map of Hungary before World War I, before Trianon, on the occasion of the final history high school exams in the subject history (Schlagwein, 2020). This was an international scandal. The president of Slovenia, Borut Pahor expressed “rejection and concern” over the map (Walker, 2020). This shows that until today Trianon is a sensitive issue. However, approximately 85% of Hungarians see Trianon as Hungary’s “greatest tragedy” (Than & Fenyo, 2020). This shows that Orbán’s attempts to manipulate the country’s understanding of history was successful.

      In conclusion, Orbán successfully instrumentalized Trianon for its purposes. By drawing attention to Trianon, Orbán promoted nationalist ideas and manipulated the national understanding of history.  In the wake of the idea of the “dictate of Trianon”, Orbán can more easily mobilize his electorate and justify his extension of power. 


Fillinger, R., & Nowotny, S. (2020, June 02). 100 Jahre Vertrag von Trianon – Das ungarische Trauma und Orbans grossungarische Ambitionen. Retrieved June 25, 2020, from https://www.srf.ch/news/international/100-jahre-vertrag-von-trianon-das-ungarische-trauma-und-orbans-grossungarische-ambitionen

Mdr.de. (2020, June 04). Trianon: Ein Friedensvertrag stiftet Unfrieden. Retrieved June 25, 2020, from https://www.mdr.de/zeitreise/trianon-ungarn-friedensvertrag-geschichte-100.html

Ozsváth, S. (2020, June 03). 100 Jahre Vertrag von Trianon – Geschichtspolitik mit einem ungarischen Trauma. Retrieved June 26, 2020, from https://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/100-jahre-vertrag-von-trianon-geschichtspolitik-mit-einem.976.de.html?dram:article_id=477909

Palfi, R., Asbóth, B., & Musaddique, S. (2019, June 10). Tensions flare between Romania and Hungary after cemetery incident. Retrieved June 26, 2020, from https://www.euronews.com/2019/06/07/romanian-crowd-break-into-austro-hungarian-world-war-i-graveyard

Sandford, A., & Magyar, Á. (2020, June 04). Trianon trauma: Why is the 1920 treaty a national tragedy for Hungary? Retrieved June 25, 2020, from https://www.euronews.com/2020/06/04/trianon-trauma-why-is-the-peace-treaty-signed-100-years-ago-seen-as-a-national-tragedy

Schlagwein, F. (2020, June 03). 100 Jahre Trianon: Ungarns nationales Trauma. Retrieved June 26, 2020, from https://www.msn.com/de-de/nachrichten/other/100-jahre-trianon-ungarns-nationales-trauma/ar-BB14YEKr

Than, K., & Fenyo, K. (2020, June 05). One century on, Hungarians still feel World War One ‘injustice’. Retrieved June 25, 2020, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ww1-century-hungary-trianon/one-century-on-hungarians-still-feel-world-war-one-injustice-idUSKBN23B1SD

Veyder-Malberg, T. (2019, October 23). Geschichtspolitik in Ungarn: Opfermythos und Revolution. Retrieved June 25, 2020, from https://www.mdr.de/nachrichten/osteuropa/politik/ungarn-geschichte-orban-opfermythos-100.html

Walker, S. (2020, June 04). Hungary marks treaty centenary as Orbán harnesses ‘Trianon trauma’. Retrieved June 25, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/04/viktor-orban-fuels-hungarian-nationalism-with-treaty-of-trianon-centenary

Hungary and the EU: A conversation with the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade

By Lea Schiller

On the 1st of May 2004, Hungary was one of ten eastern European countries to join the European Union (EU) as part of the biggest enlargement to date. Since then, political and economic changes have shifted Hungary’s relationship with the EU – from an applicant in the process of consolidating its democracy, to a country in the middle of some of Europe’s most challenging conflicts. As a leading Hungarian foreign policy think-tank, The Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade (IFAT) not only carries out research in all fields of Hungarian foreign policy, but also publishes its own foreign policy journal and organises conferences and workshops.

In an interview, Dr. Attila Kovács, a Senior Research Fellow at the institute, describes the work of the institute as well as his own judgements on the current position of Hungary in the European Union.

What does your day-to-day work look like?

The work is flexible, so I am not in the office every day. Sometimes I have meetings with representatives of other think-tanks, or I go to the ministries. But normally we are writing; for example, we follow the daily news from other countries. I could also talk to the media about once a week on average. Especially when there is a political situation, for example a plenary week of the European Parliament, then it’s very common that I will get calls to give my expectations on what’s going to happen. But in the very end, we are measured based on the written outcome of our work.

So would you say written reports are the biggest part of your work?

To me personally, yes. Sometimes these are not for the external audience, but for inside: for the ministry; for decision makers. I haven’t organised that many events yet, but many of my colleagues are concentrating on increasing the visibility of the institute via organising lots of events. Another thing is that when there is a foreign delegation coming to Hungary, we regularly meet with them. Top-level diplomats are going to the ministry, but at the expert-level, they come to the institute, where we have workshops or talks with them. It can be just an exchange of views, or we establish some relationships with them.

I read about the round-table on minority affairs in the European Parliament that was organised by the IFAT.  The report mentioned that Hungary’s involvement in minority affairs in Europe is due to the fact that they are also at the centre of Hungarian domestic politics. Could you explain why that is the case?

It comes from one hundred years ago exactly. This year in June a hundred years ago, two-thirds of the previous territory of Hungary were detached from the country and given to neighbouring countries. […] Five million Hungarians were put outside of the country’s borders. Historically, it was one country with a similar population, and that’s a historical wound in Hungary. It’s still a living wound, and many Hungarians consider this as a very unjust outcome of the First World War. This is the root of the situation. Since then – depending of course on the ideological orientation of the government – we have been paying special attention to Hungarians living outside of the official borders of Hungary. Most of them live in Romania, Slovakia, Serbia and a small part in Ukraine, which is very sensitive nowadays because of the Ukraine-Russia relations. But apart from that, there is a specialised group in the European Parliament dealing with the traditional minorities in Europe, for example the Catalans in Spain. But with these issues, there is a high level of political sensibility; there are independence movements, autonomy movements and many other, so you need to be very delicate when you approach these things. That was the root of the event. And I can see that Hungarian politicians – no matter what political side they are – are paying attention to these situations frequently.

How do you see Hungary’s position in the new European Commission under Von der Leyen?

There is a debate in Hungary, but also in Central Eastern European countries including Poland and the Czech Republic, that after sixteen years of the EU enlargement – so after sixteen years of EU membership since 2004 – there is not a double standard within the European Union, for example regarding the allocation of positions and the level on influence that countries have. Many believe that the allocation is still biased in favour of the old member states, and we are not represented based on the population. To answer your question, in this new Commission, Hungary got a good portfolio, which is Enlargement and Neighbouring Issues. I think so far this is the most important position that we have had in the European Commission. Previously, we had things like Youth Issues and Sports, which is not as important. For many young students, things like Erasmus are impactful, but politically speaking, Enlargement is much more important.

What do you see as Hungary’s long term goals for European Integration?

Hungary could be – and this is why the Enlargement and Neighbourhood portfolio is important – a bridge to Russia, and to Turkey. Orban has good relationships with Putin and with Erdogan. We need to maintain good relationships with Turkey and Russia. I think this could be a special role for Hungary in the European Union, to be an intermediary. Economically speaking, based on logistics, but also politically speaking, Hungary can be an intermediary; a bridge between the European Union and Russia and Turkey. And another thing is the Balkan countries, which we are neighbouring with, and that have a very special set of power relations. For example, the last war in Europe was in the Balkans, and the Balkans are one of the main sources of migration in Europe, which is also a sensitive issue. And again, Hungary is at the crossroads.

What is the position of the current Hungarian government towards the European Union? Under the current government, Hungary’s position is very critical, but it is not critical towards the European Union itself, but more towards the leadership – or the lack of leadership – regarding the European Union. […] For example, if you take a look at the current coronavirus situation, we didn’t see bold decisions like we see them now from the previous European Commission, while Von der Leyen immediately disclosed huge funds to handle the economic consequences of the virus. So what Hungary had a problem with was the lack of leadership. The second thing is more of an ideological approach. The current Hungarian government believes that the European Union should be about economic integration, not necessarily a political or cultural type of melting pot but economic cooperation of nation states. And this is a huge, fundamental debate; whether we should one day be the United States of Europe or a loose cooperation of nation states. Hungary represents that states still need to have significant powers in the European Union, and that can be a conflict. I can also tell you that Hungary has never been as important as it is today and in the last fifteen years. No matter what you think of Orban’s policies, everyone agrees that he has put Hungary on the map of Europe. Before that, it was a country no one really cared about, but now Orban became a reference point. Be it in a good sense or a bad sense – that’s a matter of personal interpretation – but Hungary counts today.

Photo by Matthew Waring on Unsplash


European Union (n.d.). EU member countries in brief: Hungary. Retrieved from: https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/countries/member-countries/hungary_en

Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade (n.d.). About the Institute. Retrieved from: https://kki.hu/en/about-the-institute/

Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade (n.d.). Hungarian national interest in Europe: minority affairs in the European Parliament. Retrieved from: https://kki.hu/en/hungarian-national-interest-in-europe-minority-affairs-in-the-european-parliament/