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The Dream of a Greater Hungary

Could dreams of a greater Hungary turn into a nightmare?

August 25, 2000

Could dreams of a greater Hungary turn into a nightmare?

Miklos Patrubany, the new head of the World Hungarian Congress, started his term in office by providing his own definition of a Hungarian: “A Hungarian,” he declared, “is someone who is pained by Trianon.” Of course, most non-Hungarians can be forgiven for not being pained by Trianon. In fact, they might wonder what a small château in Versailles, made famous by Marie Antoinette, has to do with being Hungarian.

It turns out that both Versailles and, particularly, Trianon have a lot to do with Hungarian history. At the end of World War I, when the winning powers imposed their solution on the losers, they demanded stiff monetary reparations from Germany at Versailles — and dismembered Hungary at nearby Trianon.

That was an idea advanced by Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. President who, along with British Prime Minister Lloyd George and French Premiere Georges Clemenceau, sought in vain at Versailles to establish a stable and peaceful post-war Europe.

As he brought the United States into “the war to end all wars,” Wilson promised that every nation in Europe would live in its own nation-state and would have access to the sea. One result was to split Prussia off from Germany so that Poland could have direct access to the Baltic.

Another was to lope off two thirds of Hungary, stranding some five million Hungarians in Romania, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and, after some additional tailoring of the map, the Soviet Union. Hungarians are fond of complaining that a 100-mile strip beyond their country’s borders is populated by Hungarian speakers.

The past decade has seen several brands of nationalism emerge in the Balkans. Serbs dream of Greater Serbia, which would incorporate Kosovo and Monetnegro, as well as parts of Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia. It is likely to remain a pipe dream as long as NATO has dominant air power.

The dream of Greater Croatia, including a large chunk of Bosnia, has fortunately departed feet first with the death of Croatian strongman Franjo Tujman. But such concepts as Greater Albania, comprising Kosovo and parts of Macedonia, and Greater Bulgaria, also with designs on Macedonia, are still on the table.

So, why not Greater Hungary? Remember Bill Clinton’s quip during the 1992 U.S. presidential election, “It’s the economy, stupid”? That phrase, then directed against President Bush’s handling of a mild U.S. recession, still resonates even in remote parts of the world. Nevertheless, a greater Hungary probably has the best chance of building a powerful economy.

These days, the country is already one of the richest post-communist countries. Its per capita GDP is nearly $5,000, three times as high as Romania’s — and almost ten times higher than Ukraine’s. The rump of former Yugoslavia is an economic basket case and a political upheaval there is only a matter of time.

The gap between Hungary and its pauperized neighbors is only going to grow. Last year, Hungary joined NATO, and in a couple of years it should become a member of the European Union. There is no reason why it should not experience a burst of growth comparable to Ireland’s.

Its neighbors, meanwhile, have proved incapable of adapting to the post-communist world. Their economic reforms have lagged behind and their politicians are universally corrupt and incompetent. These countries will be getting poorer, economic crises there will become a way of life, and political unrest and territorial disintegration could easily follow.

But while there is certainly nothing far-fetched about this scenario of a revitalized Hungarian nationalism, it seems unlikely — economically-speaking, at least — that Hungary would imperil its application to join the European Union.

Hungary has everything to gain from closer ties to the EU — and would severely jeopardize its newfound economic success by distancing itself from the EU by giving into nationalist impulses. They need look no further than the EU’s chastisement of Austria for institutionalizing Jörg Haider’s xenophobic Freedom Party.

So while it may have been Woodrow Wilson’s vision that the prerequisite for stability in Eastern Europe was for every nation there to have access to the sea, it now appears that what these countries really need is access to the increasingly sound economies of Western Europe.