Ever since its centenary, I’ve been telling anyone who’d listen that the Armistice of November 1918 may have silenced the guns on most of the First World War’s major battlefronts but didn’t, even for a moment, bring about anything remotely close to world peace (11 November, 1918: Peace Off). Anyone taking their view of history from mainstream media can be forgiven for thinking otherwise, because the commemoration industry has been all but silent since the Armistice, giving the impression that the planet was taking a much-needed breather from conflict in early 1919.
To be fair, the silence is only partly induced by a shortage of populist stories about British men and women at war. The regular flow of battles and other dated events generated by the gigantic propaganda machines of empires at war has dried to a trickle, and without those kind of headlines modern popular media finds it hard to talk about history. In that respect, the years immediately after the First World War are both something of a forgotten period (as are the years immediately after the Second World War), and something of a challenge to anyone trying to hang a blog on centenary dates. So I’ll ease off on anniversaries for now, and wander around taking snapshots of a world in motion, starting in Hungary.
In common with the contemporary world, I’ve tended to refer to Hungary in the context of the Habsburg Empire, or Austria-Hungary, but though it was tied to Austria by a shared monarch, who was King of Hungary under a separate constitution, Hungary was a distinct cultural and political entity with considerable military and economic autonomy.
Wartime Hungarian governments were politically very conservative and concerned to protect the interests of a landed elite that had dominated the country for centuries. They were more or less jealous guardians of a separate national identity and of national territorial ambitions, and in October 1918 the arch-conservative government of Alexander Wekerle made a botched attempt to completely separate Hungary from the failing Empire (16 October, 1918: With A Whimper). The failure left a power vacuum in a country that was, like much of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, seething with every kind of political instability.
The imperial monarchy was patently on its last legs, and the conservative parliamentary government had been dismissed but not replaced. The recognised political opposition – a strongly pro-Allied, avowedly liberal party, openly committed to US President Wilson’s Fourteen Points peace plan and led by its founder, Mihály Károlyi – was proposing an independent republic, and Károlyi had established a self-proclaimed Hungarian National Council (HNC), dominated by liberals and social democrats, as an alternative parliament in waiting. Most moderate socialists, social democrats largely concentrated in the major towns and cities, were wavering between lukewarm support for Károlyi and alliance with the hard left, which was becoming a formidable force as revolutionary workers’ and soldiers’ councils sprang up all over the country’s industrial and urban regions. Meanwhile Romanians, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Serbs, Bosnians, Croats and Slovenes within Hungary’s imperial frontiers had all erupted into separatist organisation, demonstration and agitation, and a full-scale border war was brewing against Romanian Army units in the east of the country.
So it was complicated, but whichever way you cut it revolution of some sort appeared inevitable in Hungary by late October. It came, after a fashion, at the end of the month.
On 31 October Károlyi seized the day, mobilising the HNC, disaffected Hungarian Army troops and widespread popular support in Budapest to take control of public buildings in the capital. What became known as the Aster Revolution, after the flowers handed out to gleeful soldiers and civilians on the streets of Budapest, had taken power by the end of the day, when King Carol IV (aka Habsburg Emperor Karl I) accepted the fait accompli and appointed Károlyi as prime minister.
The new provisional government’s first act was to formally terminate the union with Austria, a gesture confirmed as fact on 13 November, when Karl announced his withdrawal from Hungarian political affairs. Three days later Károlyi proclaimed a Hungarian People’s Republic, naming himself as interim premier and president, and set about attempting to make it a nation in more than name.
It was, with hindsight, a doomed enterprise. While the hard left worked for soviet-style government of and by the people, conservatives sought to protect traditional power structures, and ethnic groups pursued separatist aims, support for Károlyi’s regime was (very broadly speaking) an uncomfortable mix of liberal democracy at the leadership level and basic nationalism on the streets. The new government’s only hope of maintaining support, and of eroding opposition support, lay in sounding to the rest of the world like a liberal democracy with no responsibility for Vienna’s crimes, and trusting that Wilson’s principles would spare Hungary the kind of economic or territorial punishment guaranteed to fan the flames of more radical revolution. The trouble was, that hope was never real.
Thanks to Lenin’s exposure of imperial Russia’s secret treaties, neither foresight nor hindsight was required to know that the Allies had agreed to give a lot of territory to a lot of people during the War, and that they needed to carve up Hungary (among other places) to even come close to keeping their promises. It was also made clear, in a series of French and British territorial proposals during the weeks after the Armistice, that for all its independent posturing Hungary was to be treated as a fully culpable wartime partner of Austria.
A justifiable sense of pessimism about the forthcoming peace did nothing to quell political unrest in Hungary, and by late January, with the Paris conference underway, it was already obvious that Woodrow Wilson could do little or nothing to prevent a peace founded on Anglo-French priorities. Without ever establishing secure control over the capital, let alone the political maelstrom of the wider nation, but trading on Károlyi’s liberal reputation and close French contacts as the nation’s best hope, the provisional government would hold on to office for as long as the fantasy of a lenient peace could be maintained.
The fantasy finally evaporated on 20 March 1919, when the Allies delivered their territorial demands in a note to Budapest. Having made plenty of noise about being the Allies’ natural friends in Hungary, and anyway under the implied threat of military occupation, the cabinet could hardly refuse the demands, but it couldn’t accept them either, so it resigned on the spot. Károlyi, still president of the republic, announced that only the social democrats could form a new government, but was not aware that they had merged with Budapest’s communists on the back of a promise that the Soviet Union would restore Hungary’s pre-War frontiers. Károlyi was expelled from office the following day when the communists, as is their way, ousted the social democrats and seized political control at the moment of power transfer, establishing a Hungarian Soviet Republic under the leadership of Bela Kun.
I’ll get back to Bela Kun and Hungary another day, but meanwhile this skim through the first Hungarian republic is intended as a reminder that, beyond the headlines about German punishment and American retreat, the imperial attitudes of the pre-War years were still at work shaping the new world as it emerged from the conflict. Their impact on smaller countries was often powerful, immediate and destabilising, generating outcomes that were as inimical to imperial thinking as they were to the peaceful prosperity of affected populations. It could also be argued that the fate of Mihály Károlyi and his pitch for liberal democracy says something about the dangers of pinning a nation’s political fate on a deal that’s impossible to seal – but I wouldn’t bother mentioning it anywhere near Downing Street.