Commemorative Stakes

Prior to 2014, as the centennial of the outbreak of World War I neared, the Great War emerged as an important symbol in Hungary. Since 1918, its interpretations have been sometimes plural and competing, but they have tended to share a common trait: they always speak to the present time. One must underscore that in Hungarian memorial culture there is one dimension that is of utmost significance. For Hungary, the war of 1914-1918 did not and does not evoke merely and exclusively unprecedented devastation and desolation, but also the disappearance of the first reference point of Hungarian nationalism, which is to say Hungary’s historical unity. Although it serves as a myth, this “millennial” unity was, at least for the Hungarian population, a feature of its identity before 1918. And that so-called “millennial” unity unravelled when between 1918 and 1920, historical Hungary disaggregated with the breaking away of ethnic non-Hungarians supported by the powerful victors. The Treaty of Trianon signed on June 4, 1920, stripped Hungary of two-thirds of its territory.[1] It is not surprising therefore that Trianon is perceived still today as a trauma, and that many Hungarians still consider it an unjust diktat emanating from the Entente powers.

Trianon profoundly shaped Hungarian political thought, and as a rule, it traumatized Hungarian society. Given the importance of this trauma, the interpretation of its causes has become a burning objective of political identity. The following questions have long been all on the table. Who brought about this tragedy? The political regime in power before 1918 or its elite? Or, on the contrary, the outside world and the great powers? Was it the entry into war in the first place? Or perhaps the “awkward” exit from it? These questions divided Hungarian society and especially its leadership after 1920 and they remain polarizing to this day. Indeed, each of these questions remains open and still has an impact on public life. This matter of “responsibilities” has thus polarized the memorial stakes and has coloured the commemorations around the centenary of the Great War.

The Construction of Discourse

Under these circumstances, the judgement over Hungary’s role in the First World War has been first and foremost the subject of political, rather than historical debates. One leitmotif that was especially typical of the interwar years would be revived following the change of regimes in 1989-1990: the heroism of the Hungarian soldier. In works published in the 1920s and 1930s, one can see the following conclusion emerge: despite all of the horrors and deprivations it experienced, the Hungarian army had stood firm to the end. That is why treason could only have come from without (here we see a Hungarian version of the German Dolschstoßlegende).

After 1945, the Marxist internationalist left, whose views shaped Hungarian historical discourse, depicted the Great War as fundamentally unjust and imperialist in nature. In this view, Hungarian soldiers (the “children of the people”) and civilians on the home front had fought and suffered for the interests of the upper bourgeoisie and industrialists.

In the 1960s however, Hungarian historiography began to judge the country’s engagement more objectively and to reveal the motivations behind the decisions of the political elite. While the publication of sources took on new importance, ideological bents did not fundamentally shift.[2] In his important and oft-republished work (most recently in 2000), the renowned historian József Galántai presented “objective tendencies of capitalist structures” as the prime mover in the outbreak of war. He had also already rejected the notion of “automatism” and the predetermination of the war as inevitable, independently from human error.[3]

After the change of regime and the advent of democracy in political life, the process of professionalizing historiography continued. The Great War and its actors received a more balanced evaluation, with the historiography at least reaching a consensus over the causes of events.[4] Since 2016, a research team named “Trianon 100” directed by historian Balázs Ablonczy and funded by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, has sought answers to some of the remaining open questions. Its twenty-two members include historians and sociologists. It has already published several monographs and articles, and organized both workshops and conferences.

Collective memories and contemporary debates

Nowadays, the historical and collective memory of the First World War is somewhat contradictory in Hungary. Public opinion more or less sees the Great War as an especially bloody conflict, which led to disproportionate human losses. To be sure, this perception is rather generalized across Europe.

Naturally, the war divided cultural and artistic spheres at the time as well. The famous contemporary poet Endre Ady (1877-1919) experienced the outbreak of the conflict as the tragedy of the Hungarian people. To him, the devastation and apocalyptic slaughter of the war were “a horrible blood nuptials.” In his poem titled Nincsen, semmi sincs (“there is nothing, nothing at all”, 1914) he wrote: “the distraught world is found nowhere else/ and it hurts that I am / and it hurts that I cannot be proud/ of being human. However, another poet, Géza Gyóni (1884-1917), glorified the outbreak of war. In Petőfi’s soul (“Petőfis Seele”, 1914) he wrote: Hurra Herzbruder, pack ihn fest und fester, / jetzt gilt es, jetzt! stürzen wir mit Juchein, / mit Jubelliedern in die Feindesrotte: / Petőfis Seele kämpft in unsern Reihn! (“Hurrah dear brother, hold him tight and tighter,/ now it is time, now! plummet jubilantly, / with songs of joy into the enemy gang: / Petőfis soul fights in our ranks!”) But later, after his captivity in Russia in 1917, Gyóni reached a radical critique of the war.[5] To this day, the writings of Hungarian literati of the era continue to shape perceptions of the conflict.

Over the course of the 1990s, the interwar debate over the causes of the war and over responsibility for the disintegration of Hungary were opened once more. Although historians had already provided more or less professional answers to these questions, political camps interpreted the great events of 20th century Hungary in keeping with their own objectives. The right wing in particular proved very active in reinterpreting the past. After decades of communist rule, the conservative and nationalist right sought to rehabilitate the dominant opinion of the 1920s and 1930s. Thus in 2001, under a right-wing government, a new law was enacted promoting the memory of Hungarian heroes. It “declares the last Sunday of May to be each year, a celebration in memory of Hungarian Heroes.”[6]

Meanwhile, the liberals crafted an altogether different image of the war from that of the right-wing conservatives. One of their departmental presidents declared in a 31 October 2003 speech:

We can assert without hesitating that the First World War was superfluous, unnecessary, and bloody for Hungary! […] Our soldiers participated in the war under the leadership of István Tisza who was Prime Minister until 1917! It would therefore be hard to deny his responsibility. During the First World War, we did not have national objectives that justified entering into war! There were no territories that we had to occupy, there were no peoples against whom there were reasons to fight, there were no economic interests that we had to defend by force! It was an unjust and useless bloodletting for which generations became disabled and millions of people marched to their deaths!

This political liberal took a firm position against the conservative right in the debate over the responsibility of the political elite of the time. To the aspirations of the nationalist right to erect a statue to commemorate wartime Prime Minister István Tisza (1861-1918), he responded:

Yes, we should show respect for the dead, but I don’t think anyone should be memorialized with a statue for having pushed their country into a lost war! […] One does not need to know much about history to understand that it was ethnocentric politics and the Hungaro-imperialism of the monarchy that brought about the disintegration of Hungary, and not the few months of National Council [the “Asters” Revolution of October 1918]. And yet, nowadays, [Oskar] Jászi and the Octoberists (not to mention Károlyi) are deemed an insult to the right in Hungary, while the left does not know what they were in reality.[7]

In point of fact, in seeking to free itself from the heavy burden of the communist past, the left today seems to show considerable prudence in its interpretation or reinterpretation of 20th century events. Thus, on the opening of an exhibit on the Great War, Imre Szekeres, the socialist government’s defence minister, spoke of the necessity to commemorate “the heroic struggles” of Hungarian soldiers.[8]

The Hungarian far-right always had and still harbours a pronounced opinion on the settlement of the Great War. In 2013, one of the representatives of the “Jobbik” party declared during a ceremony: “Trianon is a shame for the entire world! It is the only real cold-blooded, premeditated murder attempt on a nation in the 20th century […] With diabolical intrigue and violence, the Hungarian people and nation were massacred and deprived of everything to which Western Europe and maybe all of Europe was due over the course of its historical life, which is to say education, culture, survival and safety of its Christian religion!”[9]

As for the position of the far-left, it seems rather ambiguous. According to the president of the Worker’s Party, one must never forget the war and the peace treaty “our national tragedy,” for “at Trianon, our lands, our compatriots were taken away, which has made us into a vulnerable country.” He added: “But the pain of the national tragedy should not fool us! The billionaire and the worker may both be Hungarian, but the two do not share a common lot […] Trianon was not the will of peoples. Capitalist groups that won the war imposed their will over rival capitalist groups of losing nations. Lands and goods were carted away, markets were redistributed. All of this was done in the name of nations and peoples. But peoples and nations were the victims, not the winners at Trianon.”[10]

Since 2010, the right-wing government coalition (the “Fidesz” allied with Christian Democrats) has given new momentum to revisionism. In a way, the regime is thus imitating that of Miklós Horthy (1868-1957): it has brought back to life the doctrine of the Holy Crown,[11] it has erected a monument to Trianon,[12] it has underscored the injustice of the treaty in question, it has had Kossuth Square reconstructed back to its 1944 layout in front of Budapest’s parliament, and so on.The regime’s historical conception was encapsulated by the wording of the new constitution adopted in April 2012. It declared that Hungary’s sovereignty ceased to exist between March 19, 1944 (the onset of German occupation) and May 2, 1990 (the first free elections), thereby disavowing and outright ejecting those decades from the annals of the country’s contemporary history. The government wished not only to occupy and determine the terrain of collective memory, but also to blame all of Hungary’s 20th century ills on the great powers, the left, the liberals and the freemasons. In this vision, historical memory consolidates national conscience and fortifies Hungarian identity. Faced with this offensive on the memorial front, the opposition has accused the government of wanting to control memorial culture and to expropriate the right to interpret history.

Some suggest that underpinning these political struggles is a cultural war raging in Hungary, a kind of Kulturkampf, for control over cultural life, the managing of theatres and museums. Interpreting the past is part and parcel of this struggle. Historians themselves are split. Some, (for instance Mária Schmidt) who tend to support the regime in their writings and speeches, blame western powers for Hungary’s tragedies, while others (Ignác Romsics, Krisztián Ungváry) posit that Hungary’s political elite and dominant classes share a part of responsibility.

The centenary: politics of commemoration

The current government which came to power in 2010 has given high importance to the commemoration of the First World War. In September 2012, it created a Centenary Commemorative Committee, whose president is still the current minister of human capacities (at its founding it was Zoltán Balog, and currently it is Miklós Kásler).[13] Among the members of this committee, one counts high state officials (associate ministers, secretaries of state, under-secretaries of state) and people close to the government, while the consulting expert pool that has come into place includes historians such as István Diószegi, András Gerő and Lajos Izsák as well as linguists such as Károly Manherz. The committee has been responsible for preparing the design of commemorations in Hungary, the elaboration of detailed projects centering both historical events as well as on victims and heroes, and finally participation in the coordination, and execution of a series of events.[14] During the 21 May 2015 session of the Centenary Commemorative Committee, the participants asserted the specific importance of drawing attention to the extraordinary loss of Hungarian life during the Great War.

In addition to official government events, the authorities have facilitated commemorations emanating from civil society and from municipalities. Thus, a competition was organized for the organization of programmes, for the publication of books, for subsidizing movie scripts, for restoring monuments to Hungary beyond the nation’s borders,[15] and for creating game software. Unfortunately, the budget in question had evaporated come April (for 2015, some 500 million Forint were invested, which is to say roughly 1,500,000 Euros into 230 applications in seven different categories). In any case, the planned reconstruction of all military cemeteries, planned for 2018, has been completed. The authorities also considered erecting a central war memorial but up to now only a conceptual competition was floated in December 2015. The series of programmes is due to continue through 2020, and its ultimate objective is to cast new light on one of the most important events of the 20th century which has defined the history of Hungary and the world.

The first event in the series was an international conference convened in November 2013 in Budapest (“Europe’s Great War and the birth of a new world order”). The Hungarian academic Ferenc Glatz underscored that during the five years following, historians should not so much focus on military questions as they should reflect, without ideological bias, on the consequences of the war, and thereby forge a “new politics of memory.” It would seem that among the participants in the conference a well-established interpretation was formed, which conceives of the events of 1914-1918 as a civil war or a European fratricidal conflict.[16] As for the peace settlement, researchers deemed that it had shattered some cultural traditional consensuses by declaring the vanquished to be guilty. In the spring of 2014, the conference proceedings were published in both Hungarian and in English.[17]

In January 2014, the director of the Institute and of the Museum of Military History announced that his institute wished to present the history of the events of the great war from the point of view of Hungarian society, and in several forms. Colonel Vilmos Kovács added that shared commemorations with other European countries were being considered. According the director/colonel, from 1950 to 1989 several studies had sapped social conscience and public instruction, which explained why subsequent generations did not sufficiently understand the history of the global conflict. One even had to “re-write” textbooks. Currently, the largest project of the institute, jointly undertaken with the Ministry of War, involves the creation and sharing of a database of war losses. It is not yet available, because the lists in question were burned in the 1950s. Admittedly, in Vienna one can find registers of the dead, missing and prisoners of war for the entire monarchy,[18] but Hungarian lists need to be reconstituted from multiple sources. This research began in 2012 and up to early 2014 the team had managed to collect the names of roughly 300,000 Hungarian, Slovakian, Romanian and Serbian soldiers who, as Hungarian nationals, served in the imperial and royal armies. After 2015, the data collection accelerated spectacularly thanks to funding from the Centenary Commemorative Committee. Thus, up to mid-2017, more than one million entries were undertaken. 90% of the lists of the Ministry of War have thus been mined, 70% of the Archives of National Defence and 60% of the cadastral records of the Viennese cemetery. This means that roughly a million registers of loss have become available. Once the data collection is complete, users should be able to consult 1.5 million entries. In the archive of Hungarian military sacrifice, one will find every soul who fell, went missing, was injured, or was taken captive. In fact, over the summer of 2017, an information site was established to fill lacunae on military losses of troops stationed in Hungary ( (retrieved: 23 September 2020)); one can thus research their stories.

Furthermore, in 2017, the Institute considered dispatching an exhibition train to Poland and later to Slovenia and Italy. This rapid “Isonzo” train first wound its way to Slovenia in 2015, then later over the summer of 2017, to Slovenia and Italy as part of the centenary of the Battle of Caporetto. The central ceremony was organized in the military cemetery of Modrecje where 1600 Hungarian soldiers are buried. On board the nostalgia train, historians delivered speeches, travellers were able to visit photo exhibitions and a musical ensemble played trench songs.[19] In early 2019, the train was on the road again, this time across Austria and then back to Slovenia and Italy. This time, visitors were able to visit spaces from the front and the Piave offensive. This memory train also visited Hungarian towns. In May 2019, it stopped in Eger in Northern Hungary. There, locals could participate in programmes that promised to maintain military traditions, they could visit an exhibit titled “from school benches to the hell of Doberdo” which presented the everyday trials and tribulations of soldiers at Doberdo. In one of the wagons, members of the Section for Maintaining Traditions and the Association of Hungarian Reservists presented present-day Hungarian uniforms, weapons and materiel. Next to the train, on the platform, a Skoda type mountain canon fired rounds.

Meanwhile, the Museum of Military History created a mobile exhibit on the Danube (the project was completed in August 2014). Then in 2018, public opinion was informed that this floating museum would tour the Hungarian sections of the Danube and would stop in eleven ports to mark both the 170 years of the Hungarian army and the end of the Great War.[20]

The programmes of the centenary year proved very diverse. The Hungarian post office produced a commemorative stamp and on July 27 as part of a programme organized by the Italian government, the trumpeter Áron Koós-Hutás played Nini Rosso’s (1926-1994) piece titled “Il silenzio” in Buda Castle. The event was broadcast on public television. On May 8-9 2014, Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest organized a conference featuring some 70 participants. British, French, Czech, Russian, Turkish, Albanian historians joined Hungarian ones in presenting their research.[21] Meanwhile, Budapest Administrative University posted online the songs of soldiers collected in 1916-1918 by musicians Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and Zoltán Kodály (1882-1967). On 28 July, the Budapest Opera performed a grandiose concert titled “when weapons speak, the muses are silenced” whose orator was none other than the president of parliament László Kövér.[22] The National Museum presented stereoscopic views as part of a traveling exhibit. The Petőfi Literary Museum displayed the parts of its collections dealing with the war. The Museum of Theatre History prepared an exhibit on front-line theatres and stages in prisoner of war camps in Siberia. Because this was a national initiative, several institutes asked the population at large to send in photos, everyday objects or family memories centring on the years 1914-1918. The 20th Century Institute showed several relevant screenings of films by Stanley Kubrik, Lewis Milestone and Jean Renoir. These showings continued in following years, with a cinema specialist commenting on filmic backgrounds. In the educational realm as well, there were many projects. They included the elaboration of programmes of instruction, publications, multimedia modules and a schoolbook. A graphic novel was also planned…

All of these programmes, emanating from different cultural institutes, shared a goal of attracting the attention of the Hungarian people to the importance of preserving the memory of the First World War, and mostly of increasing knowledge about the conflict. They thus sought to contribute to reinforcing Hungarian and European identities based on common values, history and culture. Unlike the politics of memory, the necessity of that goal has elicited no real debate among political forces. Given that the government has held the purse-strings over commemorative programming through the Centenary Commemorative Committee, which lies under its direct control, one understands how most programmes and activities undertaken since 2014 have come to reflect the historical vision of the authorities rather than that of civil society or of opposition political parties.

The role of churches which participated in the commemorations with oecumenical masses in the summer of 2014, is also worthy of analysis. Generally speaking, Christian churches of Hungary tend to be closest to right-wing and Christian Democratic governments. They therefore have willingly conveyed the state’s commemorative messages (for instance, some priests blessed monuments at their unveiling) and they are regular participants in such ceremonies. However, one can also identify distinct commemorative expressions by individual churches. For instance, in the fall of 2018, the Hungarian reformed Church joined a declaration signed by other Protestant churches of Europe (Gemeinschaft Evangelischer Kirchen in Europa) which pledged the peaceful coexistence of the peoples of Europe and rejected war as a method of resolution of interstate conflicts.[23]

As representative of the government of Hungary, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Tibor Navracsics (since November 2014 he has also been a member of the European Commission) made the following pronouncement on 28 June 2014 about the centennial of the Sarajevo assassination:

Symbolically, one can say that the outbreak of World War I signified that the early twentieth century was an era of violence, of totalitarianism and false redemption. Bolshevism, fascism and National Socialism wished to offer answers to the First World War and reclaim its heritage. Inhumane regimes are all the consequences of the First World War. The year 1989 once more promised to liquidate this painful legacy […]. Since then, twenty-five years have passed, and today one can say that we still do not know how to deliver ourselves from the burdens of the First World War. We have tried in vain to appease with handshakes and negotiations some of the mistrust among the nations of Central Europe. Much remains to be done for us to be able to say that we have moved beyond the catastrophe caused by the First World War; we cannot allow nations in this region to one day turn against one another again.[24]

Since the centennial, there has thus been a constant stream of ceremonies and commemorative programmes. To cite only one of them, in the spring of 2016, with the financial support of the Centenary Commemorative Committee and the Ministry of Human Capacities, the Hungarian National Museum created a “hemispheric” exhibit in an immense tent intended to represent the era of conflict in a wholistic manner. It was supposed to cover events on both the military and the home fronts. The hemispheric tent has since toured the country.It was raised in Székesfehérvár for five days, where some 35,000 people visited it. It should be noted that up to the fall of 2017 the Centenary Commemorative Committee and the Ministry supported 681 files (monument reconstructions, cultural programmes and publications as well as film scenarios).[25] The series of programmes is scheduled to come to an end in 2020 when the country will mark the centennial of the conclusion of the peace treaty of Trianon. A new wave of programmes will then be launched, including academic conferences, exhibits, televised programmes, commemorations and so on. One can assume that the political struggle over commemorating the centennial will continue amongst the various Hungarian political currents.


One can say of the commemoration of the centenary in Hungary that the impetus from the government was anything but negligible. The initiative of memory surrounding the Great War proved appropriate. Programmes were numerous and varied. One important question involves the governmental interpretation of events that serve as lenses through which to view the past. The centenary is part and parcel of the government’s wish to dominate historical memory and to erase rival conceptions of the past. Nowadays, nationalist exploitation of historical events can be clearly identified. Politics of memory is also being used to take up the task of forging the national past, and its representatives are not tied to the professional historian’s credo to “undertake research impartially.”

Péter Ákos Ferwagner, University of Szeged

Section Editor: Michal Kšiňan

Translator: Eric Thomas Jennings