Why Is Viktor Orban Keeping The 100-Year-Old Treaty Of Trianon Alive? – Analysis


By Lili Rutai

(RFE/RL) — On a hill overlooking Varpalota, a former mining town a 90-minute car ride from Budapest, sits a newly refurbished museum with a single and equivocal message: Hungary was — and is — a victim.

With interactive screens, speakers blasting out the sounds of gunfire, the rattle of train tracks and protesting crowds, and an escape room in the making, the Trianon Museum commemorates the 1920 Trianon Treaty, a post-World War I agreement in which Hungary lost around two-thirds of its territory. In the museum, there is a gift shop selling anti-Trianon merchandise and irredentist board games.

The state-funded museum is part of a broad campaign by the right-wing Fidesz government of Viktor Orban to foster national unity and a sense of injustice by elevating the Trianon issue among ordinary Hungarians. Yet despite increased state funding and state-issued textbooks, Hungarians still don’t know very much about the treaty — and the things they do know are often grounded in misinformation or conspiracy theories.

‘We Will Never Forget’

After taking in the exhibitions, visitors are encouraged to visit the Greater Hungary Park, some 15 kilometers from the museum, which boasts a flowerbed in the shape of Greater Hungary, a We Will Never Forget bar, and the Carpathia Restaurant and Hotel, whose rooms are named after Hungarian cities signed away by the Allied Forces in the Trianon Palace at Versailles.

The museum is well-funded, with the Trianon Museum Foundation, which oversees the museum and the park, receiving over 750 million forints ($2.1 million) from the Hungarian government between 2014 and 2020.

The museum secured a further 350 million forints ($960,000) from taxpayers’ money and 582 million forints ($1.89 million) in EU funds for refurbishment, which, according to local media, was completed in 2023.

For many Hungarians, Orban’s campaign is pushing on an open door. “The misery of Hungary stems from Trianon,” said Botond Zsolt Batar, repeating a phrase his history teacher mother always used to say.

Seventy-seven years old, Batar, a historian with a full head of white hair and thick glasses, is on a tour to promote his latest work, a 736-page hardcover book titled Why The Trianon Peace Diktat Is Unfair.

On the front cover of Batar’s book, there is a map of all the territories that belonged to Hungary before they were ceded to neighboring states and are now in Croatia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Ukraine.

“It was a political decision and a selfish one, instead of a smart one,” Batar said in conversation with RFE/RL ahead of his book talk.

Hungary’s prime minister agrees. “The diktat saw two-thirds of the country’s territory and 63 percent of its population shorn from us. Thus, one in three Hungarians found themselves outside our borders. The verdict was obviously a death sentence,” Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on June 4, 2020, the centenary of the treaty, which he declared a national holiday on his first day in office in 2010. On that day, Budapest’s public transport stopped for a minute, and politicians around the country unveiled statues, memorials, and museums.

World War I Defeat

Hungary was on the losing side in World War I and the victorious Allies enforced strict conditions, dividing Hungary along with German, Austrian, and Ottoman territory. Hungary’s suggestion to hold referendums in areas under consideration was rejected during the negotiations, and the country had virtually no influence on the outcome.

In Trianon, Orban has discovered a valuable tool for fighting present-day political and ideological battles. In his speeches, he often portrays Hungary as a victim of Western powers — in the past, it was Trianon; in the present, it is the European Union. “Brussels is not the first to have its eye on Hungary,” he said on March 15, a national holiday.

A few months earlier, Laszlo Kover, the speaker of the National Assembly, Hungary’s unicameral parliament, and a close ally of Orban, drew a comparison between the pre-Trianon government and the European Commission at the opening of the Trianon Museum. Comparing the population transfer of Trianon to the European Union’s migrant crisis, Kover said that there was recently a “planned population exchange disguised as illegal migration.”

“[In 1920], we Hungarians were attacked by European powers and interest groups outside the Carpathian Basin. But, nowadays, [foreign] powers and interest groups outside the continent are attacking and destroying Europe…. What is this, if it’s not Europe marching toward its own Trianon?” he said.

There are approximately 2 million ethnic Hungarians living in countries surrounding Hungary, mostly in Serbia’s autonomous province of Vojvodina; Romania’s Transylvania region; and Transcarpathia in western Ukraine. Since coming to power in 2010, Orban has advocated for the political and cultural rights of those ethnic Hungarians. In 2011, he gave ethnic Hungarians living in the former Hungarian territories citizenship, voting rights in 2012, and free rail passes in 2024.

Relations With The Neighbors

The populist prime minister’s actions have sometimes angered Hungary’s neighbors. When Orban wore a scarf with a picture of Greater Hungary to a soccer match in 2022, both Ukraine and Romania voiced their outrage, while Slovakia’s then-Prime Minister Eduard Heger presented his Hungarian counterpart with a new shawl.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who in Orban has perhaps his strongest ally in the European Union, alluded to Hungarian irredentism in his February interview with U.S. presenter Tucker Carlson. In March, Ukraine’s Transcarpathia region appeared to be part of Hungary on a map shown by former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Most Hungary watchers are agreed, though, that it’s unlikely that Orban is interested in any serious notions of retaking those lands. Despite the rhetoric, Hungary does not have any territorial claims against its neighbors.

Instead of irredentism, the government has used the specter of Trianon and the issue of ethnic Hungarians abroad as political leverage. Orban has spoken out against Ukraine joining the European Union, citing the rights of the approximately 90,000 ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine’s western Transcarpathia region. And the Hungarian prime minister initially opposed the EU’s 50 billion euros ($54 billion) support package for Ukraine and voiced his support for the plan of Donald Trump, the former U.S. president and the presumed Republican Party presidential nominee, to cut financial aid for Kyiv.

It is a position, most analysts agree, that is not rooted in ideology but rather political expediency. With Brussels needing unanimous support for Ukraine, Hungary has used its vote as a lever to gain concessions on a more pressing issue: the EU withholding billions of euros earmarked for Hungary because of concerns about democratic backsliding.

Educating The Young

Historian Batar’s book publicity tour took him to the House of Belonging Together, a community center in Csepel, a southern borough of the capital, known for its family-friendly surroundings and right-wing voter base.

On the eve of his book talk in February, the attendees in the one-story house, which is surrounded by a little garden and Soviet-era apartment blocks, are mostly local pensioners attending a Trianon-themed exhibition.

“It’s the only permanent exhibition [on the treaty] in the capital,” Ildiko Bondor-Varga, the director of the community center, said proudly.

Artifacts from the 20th century, such as mirrors and embroidery, stories about the people who used to live there, as well as the history of the conflict that preceded the treaty are all on display at the Budapest exhibition. “I believe in one God, I believe in one nation,” reads one embroidered tablecloth. “I believe in the resurrection of Hungary. Amen.”

The exhibition is geared toward students, who visit in classes, led by Bondor-Varga. “[Our] intention is to provide visitors with knowledge [of the treaty]. And we want to emphasize that, despite some Hungarians living outside the borders, we have unity.”

Owned by the district administration, the exhibition remains apolitical, Bondor-Varga said. “Personally, my opinion is that this topic is politicized, although it shouldn’t be,” she said.

Knowledge Gap

While many Hungarians feel strongly about Trianon, many of them don’t seem to know much about it. According to a 2020 poll, conducted by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and independent pollster Soreco Research Kft on the centenary of the treaty, the vast majority of Hungarians (94 percent) said they thought the treaty was unfair, and 77 percent believed that the country is not ready to move on. Yet only 43 percent recalled the year of the treaty correctly and 27 percent the exact day (June 4).

According to the poll, over half of the participants overestimated the size of the territories and population Hungary lost, while many entertained conspiracy theories, including the role of freemasons.

While the treaty is commemorated across Hungary, the details are often glossed over. According to Istvan Kopcsik, a 69-year-old historian and retired history teacher living in rural Hungary, the state-issued history books, mandatory in public schools, touch on Trianon twice over the course of a 12-year education and don’t provide enough context about what led to the signing of the treaty.

“At least the ethnic background of the 19th century and [Hungary’s] participation in World War I should be featured in the textbooks and the teachers’ guides more prominently,” Kopcsik says. There is plenty of false information, which is “very popular with students and teachers alike,” according to Kopcsik, even in the textbooks.

There’s even a “Bad Trianon Maps” community on Reddit, the social media platform popular among young Hungarians. Csongor Horvath, a 20-year-old Budapest-based university student, moderates the community, where he posts about maps portraying Greater Hungary that are “stylized, mismatched, mis-sized, or simply catastrophic.”

“There’s a map in the [state textbooks] that is supposedly based on the 2010 census,” Horvath told RFE/RL. “But it’s exaggerated even compared to the 1910 census in terms of the number of Hungarians, which is misleading for those who only hear about Trianon in school.”

Horvath said he thinks that, apart from a few right-wing people, his generation doesn’t really think much about Trianon. Being truthful, however, is essential, he added.

“The demand for [taking] these territories [back] is completely unfeasible and has been for a long time,” Horvath said. According to the centenary poll, over 50 percent of Hungarians don’t discuss the Treaty of Trianon with family or friends. Only 5 percent said they talk about the treaty often.

“Trianon is one of [our] biggest historical traumas, and political regimes often abuse that,” retired history teacher Kopcsik said. “We have to teach the mistakes and resolve the trauma. And most importantly, prepare students for the future.”

  • Lili Rutai is a freelance journalist based in London and Budapest. She has previously reported for Vice, The Calvert Journal, and Atlatszo.hu about social issues, culture, and politics in Hungary.


RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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