National minorities in Eastern Europe, 1848-1945, Raymond Pearson


The states of eastern Europe created, adjusted or legitimised by the Versailles Settlement were divided all too clearly into two rival camps. The beneficiaries of Versailles, most prominent of which were Czechoslovakia, Poland and Rumania, had all found ways of demonstrating their commitment to the Allies in the First World War and were lavishly rewarded with territory and international recognition in consequence. The victims of Versailles, comprising Hungary and Bulgaria (and of course Germany and Austria), were unfortunate enough to be on the losing side and were punished for their misjudgement by the loss of much of their territory. The outcome of the First World War was therefore institutionalised politically and territorially in the divide between the favoured 'Versailles states' and the disgraced 'revisionist states', a dichotomy which fundamentally (and probably irretrievably) undermined the structure of the new eastern Europe.

A useful indicator of the attitude of the various nationalities to the new political partition is the league table of expatriate minorities (see Table X). It is no coincidence that the favoured Czechs, Serbs, Poles and Rumanians, who were granted states at least as extensive as they ethnically deserved, appear at the foot of the list, with expatriate minorities of only 1 or 2 per cent of their total (and therefore little ethnic need or justification for territorial expansion). At the head of the list come nationalities which were for one reason or another confined to a territory which effectively excluded a significant proportion of their total, the expatriate minority, and were therefore almost automatically adherents of the revisionist camp.

The combination of substantial population size and second-highest expatriate-proportion made Hungary the leading revisionist state within eastern Europe. Just as Allied victory favoured certain rather undeserving states, so the defeat of the Central Powers somewhat unfairly penalised others. The Ausgleich which provided the Magyars with a blank cheque for the repression of Hungary rebounded in 1914: by the terms of the 1867 agreement, Hungary had no authoritative voice in Habsburg foreign policy and was constitutionally bound to follow Austria into war after Sarajevo. Once Austria-Hungary collapsed, the fate of Hungary itself was sealed. An eleventh-hour unilateral declaration of independence from Vienna in September 1918 and the hurried creation of a moderate Magyar government headed by Count Mihaly Karolyi shortly afterwards fooled no-one. Neither did the appointment of a well-known liberal Oszkar Jaszi as Minister for Nationalities deflect the non-Magyars from their hatred of Hungary. Jaszi's proposal of a Hungarian Federation of nationalities was seen in the same jaundiced light as the similar desperate offer of the Hungarian Parliament on the eve of disaster in July 1849. The peacetime policy of Magyarisation, together with the profoundly disquieting appearance of a 'Hungarian Bolshevik' government under Bela Kun in 1919, cost Hungary all sympathy and influence in the West. Friendless at home and abroad, Hungary was above all others the state cannibalised to provide the territorial gains of the beneficiaries of Versailles.

Table X Expatriate National Minorities in Eastern Europe, 1919-1939
Nationality Total populations
Expatriate populations
Albanians   1.6 0.7 44
Magyars 10.0 3.0 30
Slovenes   1.6 0.4 25
Belorussians   5.0 1.0 20
Ukranians 30.0 5.0 17
Bulgars   6.25 1.0 16
Estonians   1.2 0.15 12.5
Latvians   1.3 0.15 11.5
Germans 70.0 8.0 11.5
Slovaks   2.7 0.2 7.5
Lithuanians   1.8 0.1 5.5
Croats   3.1 0.08 2.5
Czechs   7.4 0.13 1.8
Rumanians 13.0 0.2 1.5
Russians 90.0 0.9 1
Poles 20.0 0.2 1
Serbs 6.1 0.05 0.8
Totals 271.05 21.26 average 7.8

1. 'Expatriate' may be defined as resident outside the state in which the majority of the membership of the nationality is located. Emigrants outside Europe are excluded.
2. Jews and Gypsies cannot be included in the table since the essence of their demographic position was the lack of any home territory. For the geographical distribution of these 'one hundred per cent expatriates', see Table XII.

The punitive Treaty of Trianon left Hungary with 32.7 per cent of the territory and 41.6 per cent of the population it had previously enjoyed. All neighbouring states benefited at Hungary's expense: 36.2 per cent of Hungary's former territory was transferred to Rumania by the cession of Transylvania; 22.3 per cent in the north went to Czechoslovakia; 7.4 per cent was taken by Yugoslavia; and even the 'rump state' of Austria received 1.4 per cent. And yet the traumatic loss of over two-thirds of its former territory failed to rationalise the ethnic position of Hungary. Only 67.5 per cent of Magyars were left within the reduced state of Hungary: of the 32.5 per cent of Magyars who now found themselves outside Hungary, 16.7 per cent were in Rumania, 10.8 per cent in Czechoslovakia and 4.6 per cent in Yugoslavia. Put succinctly, two-thirds of all Magyars were confined to one-third of their former territory, while the other one-third of Magyars were forcibly incorporated into other states.

'Trianon Hungary' did not even have the merit of promoting national homogeneity. According to official statistics (see Table XIa), the Magyar proportion of almost 90 per cent of the total population brought Hungary closest to the ideal of the nation state of any political entity in eastern Europe. In reality, the non-Magyar minorities mustered at least 15 per cent of the total. By the Census of 1920, based upon the criterion of mother-tongue rather than nationality, a Hungarian government long experienced at juggling with statistics to exaggerate the Magyar hegemony completed another propaganda exercise. The German minority, certainly numbering well over the official half a million, was so entrenched within the officer corps of the army (which patriotic Magyars had been boycotting for half a century) that its position was privileged and secure. But the long-standing policy of Magyarisation, coupled with Magyar patriotic frenzy at their treatment at Trianon, constrained all lesser minorities to present the lowest possible demographic profiles in their own self-interests. The most telling instance is that of the Hungarian Jews: although statistics for religious affiliation put the Jewish population at 473,000 or some 5.9 per cent of the total, the socialist republic of Bela Kun the previous year had provoked such an outburst of anti-semitism that very few Jews cared to declare themselves officially and attract the unwelcome attentions of the 'White Terror'. Although the Magyar dominance of Hungary was guaranteed by a demographic proportion of over four-fifths of the total population, the intimidated minorities both quantitatively and qualitatively together constituted a far from negligible factor.

TABLE XI National Composition of Hungary and Bulgaria

(a) Hungary (Census of 1920)
Mother tongue Population % of total
Hungarian 7,147,000 89.6
German    551,000   6.9
Slovak    141,000   1.8
Croat      37,000   0.5
Rumanian      24,000   0.3
Others (mainly Gypsy)      79,500   0.9
Total 7,979,500 100.0

(b) Bulgaria (Census of 1934)
Nationality Population % of total
Bulgars 5,275,000 86.7
Turks    618,000   9.8
Gypsies      81,000   1.3
Jews      28,000   0.4
Armenians      23,000   0.3
Rumanians      16,000    0.2
Russians      12,000   0.2
Others      25,000   0.4
Total 6,078,000 99.3

In terms of 'ethnic justice', Hungary suffered far more from the Treaty of Trianon than the strictest interpretation based upon ethnic criteria could warrant. The moral principles which had been waived in order to concoct or expand the beneficiary states were also suspended for the purpose of penalising Hungary. Given the temperament of the Magyars and the political climate of the inter-war period, there was no possibility of Hungary resting content with its grotesquely reduced territory. Both in principle and practice, the ethnically iniquitous Treaty of Trianon was a disaster for Hungary and, eventually, for the whole of south-eastern Europe.

Bulgaria found itself in a similar, though less drastic, situation. Allied wrath was visited on Bulgaria for not only joining the Central Powers in the First World War but doing conspicuously well. Known as the 'Prussians of the Balkans', the Bulgars continued their late-nineteenth-century success story by capturing Serbian Macedonia, laying claim to Greek Macedonia and recovering the southern Dobrudja ceded to Rumania by the Treaty of Bucharest in 1913. But military success was dependent on the overall victory of the Central Powers and the maintenance of political and economic stability within Bulgaria. The Treaty of Neuilly of November 1919 was another punitive, almost vindictive treatment meted out by the Allies in collusion with Bulgaria's neighbours. All the territory acquired by conquest was automatically forfeit and restored to its 'rightful' owners. Extra Bulgarian territory was also made available to Yugoslavia, which gained most of Macedonia, and to Greece, which was granted enough of Thrace to deny Bulgaria once again access to the Aegean. Despite an excellent war record, Bulgaria emerged from Neuilly considerably smaller than in 1914.

The national composition of 'Neuilly Bulgaria' (see Table XIb) was most notable for featuring minorities too small or dispersed to figure prominently elsewhere. Turks constituted almost one-tenth of the population, both a heritage of the Ottoman past and an indication of the close proximity of Istanbul. Over the fifteen years before the Census of 1934, a considerable Turkish emigration occurred, suggesting a very substantial Turkish minority in Bulgaria in the early 1920s. Gypsies, who played a more significant (or at least more visible) role in Yugoslavia, Hungary and Rumania than their small numbers might suggest, comprised the third largest nationality group in Bulgaria, if admittedly at the very low figure of 1.3 per cent of the total. Stronger numerically in Bulgaria than in most other states, the Gypsies were tolerated as a traditional minority, although confined in practice to the lowest-status occupations: road-sweepers and hangmen in Bulgaria, for example, were invariably Gypsies. Jews and Armenians made up much of the remaining minority population. A notable absentee minority was the Greek: by 1934 a Greek colony numbering 50,000 in 1919 had been almost entirely 'repatriated' to Greece under the terms of population transfers under the auspices of the League of Nations. No discussion of the minorities can, however, distract attention from the fact that the Bulgars made up a formidable 86.7 per cent of the population. Given justifiable reservations about the official Hungarian statistics (which are probably not applicable to the Bulgarian), it may be that Bulgaria was the closest of the east European states, despite its more bizarre collection of minorities, to being a nation state.

By comparison with the Magyars, the Bulgars got off lightly: by the highest reputable count, expatriate Bulgars amounted to only 1,000,000 constituting an expatriate-proportion of some 16 per cent. Even so, rough treatment of their minorities outside Bulgaria fortified a rankling sense of injustice at the Neuilly Treaty to keep Bulgar pressure on every frontier insistent and provocative, most especially in Yugoslav Macedonia. Though less dramatic a victim of Versailles than Hungary, Bulgaria was a willing conspirator in manning the revisionist assault on post-igig eastern Europe.

It is by reference to Hungary and Bulgaria in particular that the double meaning of the term 'minority' is displayed. A national minority might well be both a numerically inferior group within a particular state and a fragment of a numerically dominant group within a different state. Every majority nationality among the states of eastern Europe, from the massive Polish group to the tiny Albanian, had pockets of its people situated outside its own state borders and not subject to its jurisdiction. The attitude to these outposted expatriate minorities in an age of integral nationalism was possessive and obsessive: all members of a majority nationality had the right to belong to their own nation state. There were only two means by which geographically separated minorities might be united (or re-united) with their co-nationalists: population transfer and frontier expansion. Population transfer, forcibly depriving a community of the territory it legitimately owned, was universally rejected as a morally iniquitous expedient. Frontier expansion was regarded as the only, answer: the single honourable recourse was to extend the borders of the kin state to include all the isolated communities of the majority nationality, despite the certainty of thereby incorporating other national minorities and antagonising their kin states.

The nations most obsessed with their outposted minorities were naturally the Magyars and Bulgars (to say nothing of the Germans), with their compulsive sense of grievance, contempt for Versailles and high expatriate-proportions. Hungary was preoccupied from the moment of the Treaty of Trianon with revisionism, expansionism and reunification with its minorities in other states. Many Magyars who found themselves outside Hungary after 1919 either refused to be separated from their fatherland or were effectively expelled from their new host states. The territorially much-reduced Hungary had therefore to accommodate a flood of refugees, which imposed an extra burden on the social and financial resources of Magyar society. The dispossessed Magyars recently transferred to Trianon Hungary were the most embittered of all Magyar nationalists, seeking in state expansion both an outlet for fanatical national commitment and restitution of their own lost fortunes. Dispossessed minorities formed a major social component of the Hungarian fascist movement, and revanchist secret societies like the sinisterly named Society of the Double Cross abounded. In Bulgaria, the same phenomenon occurred, with dispossessed Bulgar minorities from Macedonia and Thrace dominating the rank-and-file of the terrorist IMRO organisation. . Following the orthodox 'organic' view of the nation, Magyar nationalists insisted that, without its minorities, Hungary could not function: the Trianon state was a mutilated torso from which integral parts had been severed in an unprecedented act of international butchery. A victim of multiple amputation, Hungary was at the mercy of its enemies. Every day at school, the children of Hungary chanted the 'Magyar Creed' in unison:

I believe in one God,
I believe in one Fatherland,
I believe in one divine, eternal Truth,
I believe in the resurrection of Hungary.
Hungary dismembered is no country,
Hungary united is Heaven. Amen."
This Magyar commitment to its minorities was shared by Bulgaria and Germany, a trio powerful enough and sufficiently widely distributed to disrupt the new eastern Europe completely. The minorities issue became a prime interface in the continuous confrontation between host and kin states throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The minorities manned the front line in a war of attrition between the two armed camps of eastern Europe, the victims and beneficiaries of the Versailles Settlement.


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