Place, Memory, Propaganda: The 1930 album Justice for Hungary!

When we think of history, we think of it as unfolding in time. The historical events we remember sit somewhere in a chronology, and we think of them as having causes and effects, laid out neatly in the timeline. History also has a spatial dimension: the locations where the events took place are integral to their memory; but, paradoxically, this often means that their geographical reality dissolves into an abstraction. Mohács, for instance, was the scene of a battle between Hungarians and the Ottoman Turks in 1526. In the nineteenth century, the disastrous defeat suffered by the Hungarian army came to be seen as a singular national tragedy, which led to the subsequent Turkish invasion of a large part of the Kingdom. ‘Mohács’ became a metaphor. Although the town had its own local commemorations, the battle was essentially remembered in the same way everywhere in Hungary. Its physical location played no role in its national remembrance; the main thing was that it was part of the great national timeline – the national narrative of history.

The standardisation and centralisation of historical memory was part of the nineteenth-century process of nation-building. After 1867, the now semi-autonomous Hungarian state promoted the ideas of continuous Hungarian statehood and the legitimacy of Magyar hegemony in the Carpathian Basin through paintings, murals, sculptures and public monuments across the Kingdom. Monuments were sometimes erected to mark important historical locations, but at other times their locations were not relevant to the historical events they commemorated. It did not matter: all of these places, whether historical or not, were part of the country. They were in a synecdochical relationship with what was seen as most important: the nation, its territory, and its history as one integral whole. But what happens to historical memory when that integrity is suddenly broken?

As a part of the Paris peace process, the Treaty of Trianon was signed in Versailles on 4 June 1920. It awarded two thirds of the former territory of the Kingdom of Hungary to Hungary’s neighbours: Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia and Austria. About 30% of all ethnic Hungarians were now living outside the borders of what opponents of the treaty called ‘Dismembered Hungary’ (Csonka-Magyarország). In the next two decades, the revision of the treaty was held up as the Holy Grail of Hungarian nationalism; it was this idea that propped up the authoritarian, institutionally anti-Semitic political structure that was the Horthy regime. Revisionism led the Hungarian political elite to support Hitler, with whose help Hungary regained some of its former territories in 1938 and 1940, with the First and Second Vienna Award. Hence, revisionism was deeply integral to some of the darkest chapters of Hungarian history.

The political appropriation of Trianon spawned a hateful rhetoric and led to horrific atrocities, while overshadowing the human dimensions of the actual historical trauma caused by the treaty. In the chaotic years around 1920, about 350,000 ethnic Hungarians from the detached territories fled to Hungary, where many of them lived in makeshift housing, in abject poverty. Those who stayed had to contend with the often restrictive policies the new states imposed on the Hungarian minority. And even Hungarian citizens who were not directly affected had to rethink their relationship to their own country. Historical memory had to be reframed in order to fit into the new geopolitical reality.[1]

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The cover of Justice for Hungary! with an image of Hungary crucified

This post will look at a piece of revisionist propaganda which provides examples of both the heated nationalist rhetoric that steered the country towards fascism and the reconfiguration of historical memory. The album Justice for Hungary! was published in 1930 by the Légrády Brothers, editors of the daily Pesti Hírlap.[2] It was one of many English-language publications aimed at convincing the British public of the ‘cruel errors of Trianon’, as the subtitle of the album put it. The arguments put forward in these books were varied. Some presented pure economic and statistical data in the form of maps, in order to prove that ‘Greater Hungary’ was an organically functioning whole. Others aimed to demonstrate in long essays that Hungarians had a historical right to the regions in question, or made dubious claims about the supposed cultural superiority of Hungarians compared to Romanians and Slovaks. The Légrádys’ Justice for Hungary! included a pinch of all of these, but what makes it interesting to us is that it partly made its argument through images.

A visual rhetoric of revisionism

Justice for Hungary! was not simply an English translation of a Hungarian work; it was designed to appeal to the British public. Accordingly, it opened with a chilling image of Great Britain divided up in a way proportionate to Trianon’s effect on Hungary. The revisionist cause had a high-profile supporter in England in the person of Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, who had published an article entitled Hungary’s Place in the Sun: Safety for Central Europe in his paper on 21 June 1927 and provided financial support for revisionist endeavours. As a result, Rothermere became a celebrity in Hungary. He was invoked several times in the album, which reverently included a picture of his bust (p. 106). Thanks to him, the editors hoped their arguments would fall on fertile soil in Britain.

Dismembered UK

‘Dismembered Great Britain’, as visualised in Justice for Hungary!

The text that followed the heartfelt appeal to the British public presented the usual arguments: the organic integrity of Greater Hungary, the plight of the Hungarian minority in the successor states, the historical right of Hungarians to the regions in question. A short essay on The Thousand-Year Struggles of the Hungarian Nation was followed by a selection of images from the nation’s history; then, a discussion of The Hungarian Genius was illustrated by images of Hungarians’ greatest cultural achievements. For the idea of the book to work, its authors had to prove that Hungarian history had played out across the entirety of Greater Hungary. They had to create a spatial history by spreading out the historical narrative that had been centralised so successfully in the previous century.

The image section began with monuments erected in 1896 to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the Magyar conquest of the Carpathian basin – monuments subsequently destroyed by the ‘fury’, ‘spite’ and ‘hatred’ of the Czechs, Romanians and Yugoslavs (p. 45).[3] It then went on to present important historical figures and events, such as the Hungarian king Saint Stephen, the Renaissance ruler King Matthias Corvinus, or the battles against the Turks, in chronological order. Several of the images showed places associated with these personalities or events: some were contemporary photographs, others reproduced nineteenth-century depictions. The illustrations also included historical scenes, mostly nineteenth-century paintings such as Gyula Benczúr’s (1844–1920) monumental The Baptism of Vajk (the future Saint Stephen).

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Statue of King Matthias Corvinus in Kolozsvár (now Cluj-Napoca, Romania) by János Fadrusz (1858-1903), Justice for Hungary!, p. 59. Erected in 1902, the statue was not removed after Trianon, and has remained in the focus of competing Hungarian and Romanian interpretations of the past ever since.

Francis II Rákóczi, a Prince of Transylvania who had led an uprising against the Habsburgs between 1703 and 1711 was represented by a selection of images: a photo of his house in Eperjes (now Prešov, Slovakia; from 1920 to 1992 in Czechoslovakia), an eighteenth-century engraving showing a member of his ‘kuruc’ army, his portrait painted by Ádám Mányoki (1673–1757), a 1617 depiction of the town of Kassa (now Košice, Slovakia; from 1920 to 1992 in Czechoslovakia) and a watercolour showing its cathedral, where Rákóczi was reburied in 1906. Paintings by Benczúr and Andor Dudits (1866–1944) illustrated scenes from Rákóczi’s life which had taken place in Nagysáros (today Veľký Šariš, Slovakia; from 1920 to 1992 in Czechoslovakia) and Ónod (in North-Eastern Hungary). Thus, Rákóczi’s life connected ‘Dismembered Hungary’ with territories that now lay in Romania and Czechoslovakia.

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Kassa (Košice) Cathedral, Justice for Hungary!, p. 60

One important characteristic of Justice for Hungary! was that it did not distinguish between original remains of the past and later depictions of historical events. The conscious aim was to provide a snapshot of the nation’s historical memory, rather than a history based purely on primary sources. Many of the paintings and monuments shown had been created in the nineteenth century and presented the assertive national narrative constructed at a time when the territorial integrity of ‘Greater Hungary’ was considered self-evident. The trouble with transferring this narrative into post-1920 circumstances was that this certainty had evaporated. If Hungary’s claim to Košice or Prešov rested on their connections to Rákóczi, couldn’t other nations bring up similar reasons? They could – and, indeed, they did: the Versailles negotiations heard similar historical arguments from all parties involved.[4]

Spatial histories

Linear national(ist) narratives of history are difficult to reconcile with each other. To find an alternative to this model we need to go back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the 1810s and 1820s, the historian Joseph von Hormayr (1782–1848) and his collaborators aimed to write patriotic histories of the entire Habsburg Empire, uniting all of its regions and nations. Their publications pioneered the employment of primary sources, but they often merged source-based findings with local lore and published fictional stories and poems as well as historical accounts. The Hungarian member of the group, Alajos Mednyánszky (1784–1844) wrote about ruined castles in what was then Upper Hungary (today’s Slovakia). In some of these castles, notable historical events had taken place, and in such cases Mednyánszky recorded them, but his focus was elsewhere. Led by a conviction that the past was fascinating simply because it was so remote, he merged what written sources told him about the history of these buildings with melancholy stories of tragic love and scary legends of hauntings told by the local populace. In 1826 he reworked his articles into a travelogue: A Picturesque Journey along the Vág River in Hungary.[5] His was a spatial history, rather than a chronological one, even if it already contained some of the episodes subsequent authors would use to create a canonical, chronological narrative of national history.

Because they were spatial, and because they encompassed folklore, Mednyánszky’s histories did not discriminate according to ethnicity. The people whose true or fictional stories enveloped the castles could be Hungarian, German or Slovak, it did not matter. The national narrative of Hungarian history, by contrast, focused on ethnic Hungarians. Historical heroes with dubious national identities were Hungarianised, as nationalists projected nineteenth-century ideas of nationality onto the past. The inconsistency in Justice for Hungary! was that it attempted to provide a spatial history while holding onto this ethnicised narrative. It tried to make corrections, for instance by mentioning that the Zrínyi family had a dual Hungarian-Croatian identity (p. 42) or that many of Rákóczi’s soldiers had been Slovaks (pp. 75, 82), but the purpose was always to prove the historical necessity of Hungarian hegemony over these groups. The album’s treatment of Slovakia’s castles and towns is markedly different from Mednyánszky’s. The castles that had evoked romantic and exciting tales were now solely important because of their connections with great national events and personalities, while places such as the vibrantly multi-ethnic Kassa/Košice/Kaschau were described as ‘pure Hungarian’ towns (p. 60).

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Trencsén Castle (now Trenčín, Slovakia; from 1920 to 1992 in Czechoslovakia), Justice for Hungary, p. 50

The album’s attempt at projecting the nineteenth century’s abstract historical narrative onto actual geographical spaces and their demographic realities was bound to be flawed, for the same reason as the Versailles conference’s abstract principle of ‘national self-determination’ was unable to produce uncontested borders in Central Europe. These were multi-ethnic areas, where different nationalities lived not just side by side but intermingled, and dual or triple identities proliferated. The spaces in question were shaped by these interactions, and not by one or the other group alone. But the acknowledgment of overlaps between national geographies and the promotion of peaceful coexistence was not in vogue in the interwar period, and certainly not in nationalist propaganda. Justice for Hungary! created a spatial history, but did not follow it to its logical conclusion.

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Double page with the medieval castle of Vajdahunyad (Hunedoara) and Budapest’s Vajdahunyad Castle (designed by Ignác Alpár, 1896; 1904-1908), Justice for Hungary!, pp. 62-63

It did, however, suggest a peaceful way out, even if between the lines and completely inadvertently. In order to prove the coherent and indivisible nature of Greater Hungary, the album juxtaposed images in particular ways. For instance, the medieval Castle of Vajdahunyad (Hunedoara, since 1920 in Romania), ancestral home of King Matthias Corvinus (Hunyadi), Hungary’s Renaissance king, was placed opposite the historicist Vajdahunyad Castle, built in the Budapest City Park in 1896 as part of the Millennial Celebrations. The historicist version of the castle was presented as an equal to the original. And this leads us to the melancholy undertone of the volume, a resigned message it transmitted despite itself: that while we lament what we have lost and attempt to reclaim it, we also need to enumerate and appreciate what we have left.

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The Lillafüred resort, Justice for Hungary!, p. 133

In this vein, Justice for Hungary! contains several examples where places in ‘Dismembered Hungary’ stand in for places in the lost territories. The old University of Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca, since 1920 in Romania) had moved to Szeged, a ‘lovely town in the Hungarian Lowlands’, while retaining its name: the ‘Francis Joseph University of Sciences of Kolozsvár’ (p. 123). Another image showed the ‘lovely resort’ of Lillafüred, which provided ‘a certain compensation’ for all the mountain resorts and spas lost as a result of Trianon. The album extolled the beauties of Budapest and dwelt on Lake Balaton, ‘the Hungarian sea’. ‘This humorous saying has a sadly tragic truth in it; for it has now become fact that we have been deprived of our real sea-board.’ (p. 138)

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Reproduction of a painting of Lake Balaton by István Bosznay (1868-1944), Justice for Hungary!, p. 138

Dismembered Hungary had lost the Adriatic coast, but at least it still had Balaton. Like the Hungarian orange (actually a lemon) presented as a triumph of Communist agronomy in the 1969 satirical film The Witness, it was slightly sourer, slightly smaller, but undoubtedly our own. Justice for Hungary! was a piece of revisionist propaganda, but buried under its combative verbal and visual rhetoric lay a framework for populating the new geography of Hungary with old and new memories.

Nóra Veszprémi

[1] On the idea of revisionism in interwar Hungarian politics, culture and the everyday see Miklós Zeidler, A revíziós gondolat (Bratislava: Kalligram, 2009); Miklós Zeidler, Ideas on Territorial Revision in Hungary 1920-1945 (Boulder, CO: Social Science Monographs, 2007).

[2] Ottó Légrády, ed., Justice for Hungary: The Cruel Errors of Trianon (Budapest: Légrády Brothers, 1930). Hungarian, French, German and Italian versions were also published in the same year.

[3] On the political background of these monuments and their subsequent fate see Bálint Varga, The monumental nation: Magyar nationalism and symbolic politics in fin-de-siecle Hungary (New York and Oxford: Berghahn, 2016).

[4] See Mary Heimann, Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 58–60.

[5] Aloys Freyherr von Mednyánsky, Malerische Reise auf dem Waagflusse in Ungern (Pest: Conrad Adolph Hartleben, 1826).

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