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

Antisemitism in Poland

by Alexandra Reinhild Berndt

    In 2018, after the introduction of Poland’s contested Holocaust law, Jews faced a wave of antisemitism. The law aimed at legally prohibiting statements accusing Poland of collaboration with the Nazis (Santora, 2018). Due to the international protest, the Polish government decided to weaken the Holocaust law by amending the punishments in case of violations of the law; the amended Holocaust law refrains from a three-year prison sentence (Zeit Online, 2018). In Poland, antisemitic beliefs are adopted both by people with poor educational backgrounds and by people with high educational backgrounds (Krzeminski, 2002, p. 25). Even young people agree with antisemitic ideas. A study of 566 young poles conducted in 2011 showed that “more than 30% of young Poles think that Jews abuse Polish feelings of guilt” (Bilewicz, Winiewski, Radzik, 2012, p. 2813). Antisemitism is represented in the left and right political spectrum (Bilewicz, Winiewski, Kofta, Wójcik, 2013, p. 831). However, studies have shown that a significant percentage of voters of the Law and Justice (PiS) party and the conservative-nationalist party (PSL) share antisemitic attitudes (Zuk, 2017, p. 85). The scholar Werner Bergman (2008) also claims that antisemitism is highly correlated with right-wing national attitudes which can be illustrated by the fear about the Holocaust’s negative repercussions on the national prestige and self-confidence (p. 358). Furthermore, he evokes that “the Holocaust and the collaboration of certain sections of the nation during the Nazi persecution were initially suppressed from public consciousness after 1945 in Eastern European countries” (Bergmann, 2008, p. 359). Bergman (2008) emphasizes that the Holocaust was first addressed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, so that the country started struggling with questions about the national self-identification and self-esteem after 1989 (p. 359).  Before the Second World War, more than three million Jews lived in Poland. However, after the Holocaust, only a small number of Jewish survivors and repatriates remained in the country (Bilewicz, Winiewski, Radzik, 2012, p. 2802). Despite the small size of the Jewish community, there is an increase in antisemitism. Some scholars call this phenomenon “anti-Semitism without Jews” (Bilewicz, Winiewski, Kofta, Wójcik, 2013, p.823). The question thus arises why this phenomenon is still so prevalent in a country which faced the cruelties of the Holocaust and in which Jews only represent a small ethnic minority.

    There are different forms of antisemitism in Poland. The most widespread form is modern antisemitism which is rather secular form of antisemitism and appears to be a relic from the political ideology of the Polish nationalist movement. It comprises secondary antisemitism (claiming that Jews themselves are responsible for antisemitism) and Jewish conspiracy theories (Bilewicz, Winiewski, Kofta, Wójcik, 2013, p.823).  Secondary antisemites are “willing to forget about the Holocaust and actively oppose compensation or restitution to the victims” (Bilewicz, Winiewski, Radzik, 2012, p. 2813)

    Different theories seek to explain the causes of antisemitism in Poland. Some scholars highlight situational aspects such as crisis or deprivation that promote antisemitic beliefs (Bilewicz, Winiewski, Kofta, Wójcik, 2013, p. 824). The relative deprivation theory puts forward that ethnic prejudice results from a group’s “subjective perception of lower group status” (Bilewicz & Krzeminski, 2010, p.236). The ideological model of scapegoating developed by Peter Glick, however, claims that in times of “shared frustration”, people are more prone to ideologies that blame certain groups as responsible for the situation (Bilewicz & Krzeminski, 2010, p. 236). People who feel underprivileged are often frustrated and try to find someone they could blame for. Conspiracy beliefs provide a scapegoat, so that they can express their frustration in the aggression against the chosen scapegoat, which is in the Polish case the Jewish community (Bilewicz & Krzeminski, 2010, p. 242). Bilewicz, Winiewski and Radzik suggest that antisemitism not only has a scapegoating function for post-transitional problems, but also “allows the denial of the responsibility of historical crimes towards Jews” (Bilewicz, Winiewski, Radzik, 2012, p. 2817). However, some studies proved that personality factors such as authoritarianism and nationalism are better at predicting antisemitism than situational factors such as financial or economic crisis (Bilewicz, Winiewski, Kofta, Wójcik, 2013, p. 825).  Scholars putting forward the concept of competitive victimhood to explain antisemitism, suggest that if national identification is based on ideas moral superiority and a victimization history, people within this group are more likely to deny that other groups might also share the status of historical victimhood (Bilewicz, Winiewski, Kofta, Wójcik, 2013, p.286). Competitive victimhood thus diminishes the capacity to feel empathy towards people outside of their own group (Bilewicz, Winiewski, Radzik, 2012, p. 2813). Bilewicz, Winiewski, Radzik (2012) suggest that especially relative victimhood (“the perception that Poles were more victimized in the past than the Jews”) fuels antisemitism in Poland (p. 2813). Other scholars explained anti-Semitism in Poland with the help of the idea of collective narcissism. According to Golec de Zavala and Cichocka (2011), collective narcissism leads to antisemitism as it provokes a negative stereotyping of Jews within the non-Jewish society. The concept of collective narcissism implies that the members of a group (in-group members) develop the perception of vulnerability to external threats from out-group members which is deemed to be hostile (p. 359). Out-group members (in the Polish case, Jews) are negatively stereotyped and due to the increasing amount of stereotypes and prejudices, antisemitic ideas are fuelled. 

    In conclusion, there are situational, personality factors, and identity-related factors which might explain the phenomenon of antisemitism in Poland. However, the phenomenon appears to be very exceptional due to the fact that only a very small minority of Jews lives in Poland. The increase in antisemitism definitely raises questions about democratic values, the dealing with the past and societal values and norms.  

Photo by Erica Magugliani on Unsplash


Bergmann, W. (2008). Anti‐Semitic attitudes in Europe: A comparative perspective. Journal of Social Issues, 64(2), 343-362.

Bilewicz, M., & Krzeminski, I. (2010). Anti-Semitism in Poland and Ukraine: The belief in Jewish control as a mechanism of scapegoating. International Journal of Conflict and Violence (IJCV), 4(2), 234-243.

Bilewicz, M., Winiewski, M., & Radzik, Z. (2012). Antisemitism in Poland: Economic, Religious, and Historical Aspects. Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, 4, 2801.

Bilewicz, M., Winiewski, M., Kofta, M., & Wójcik, A. (2013). Harmful Ideas, The Structure and Consequences of Anti‐Semitic Beliefs in Poland. Political Psychology, 34(6), 821-839.

Golec de Zavala, A., & Cichocka, A. (2012). Collective narcissism and anti-Semitism in Poland. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 15(2), 213-229.

Krzemiński, I. (2002). Polish-Jewish relations, anti-Semitism and national identity. Polish Sociological Review, 25-51.

Santora, M. (2018, February 7). Poland’s President Supports Making Some Holocaust Statements a Crime. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/06/world/europe/poland-holocaust-law.html 

Zeit online. (2018, June, 27). Polnische Regierung Entschärft Umstrittenes Holocaust-Gesetz. Retrieved from www.zeit.de/politik/ausland/2018-06/polen-entschaerfung-holocaust-gesetz-mateusz-morawiecki

Żuk, P. (2017). Anti-Semitism in Poland, yesterday and today. Race & Class, 58(3), 81-86