Hungary and Independence

By H. N. Brailsford, London, January

[The Independent; February 13, 1915]

Within a week of the outbreak of the European war, Sir Edward Grey warned the Austrian Ambassador that it would bring with it a repetition of 1848, and "many things would be swept away." We have all been watching the flood since that day, and among the things which some of us expected to see borne down it was the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. We are not yet in the atmosphere of 1848, and there are neither crowns nor sceptres in the debris of the tide. It carries only the multitudinous corpses of the slain. Save for the trivial Boer revolt, the catastrophe has brought in its wake neither rebellion nor civil war. Three of the empires in the field are artificial structures, pinned together with bayonets; but Russia, Austria and Turkey seem from a distance to stand as solidly in the battle-line as the national states of the West. The Jews of Russia are fighting gallantly against the Italians of Austria, and so little have the ties of blood interfered with discipline that Vienna actually dared to embody its own subject Servian conscripts in the armies which marched on Belgrade. Some confusion there may have been in-these polyglot Austrian armies, some lack of the fierce enthusiasm which wins victory, a temper which caused half-hearted regiments to prefer surrender to the last stubborn phases of a hand-fought battle, but there has been as yet neither mutiny nor wholesale defection. The great discovery of modern militarism has been that a uniform will serve as well as an idea to give cohesion to an army.

At last, if we may trust the fragmentary and doubtful news which escapes the censor's sieve, there is a break in the united battle-front. It is no one of the discontented subject races which has asserted itself, but the dominant ruling caste of Hungary. Some of the facts are beyond dispute. We know that the Premier, Count Tisza, has visited the German headquarters. It is probable enough that he went to voice the discontent of Hungary when she found herself exposed to invasion, and realized that German strategy was bent on defending Silesia, and that her own good regiments were busy round Cracow while the Cossacks crossed the Carpathians unopposed. The change in the Austro-German plan of campaign seemed to reflect this visit, and the Count's published denials of discontent and his defense of German policy were the best proof that he was opposing a formidable current of opinion. It is certain that the disaster to Austrian arms in Servia must have accentuated this unrest. Precisely because the Magyars are of all the ruling races of Europe the most arrogant, they must have felt a defeat at Servian hands as a humiliation harder to endure than any disaster itself. We know, too, that a document has been circulated, bearing the names of some of Hungary's proudest hereditary magnates, which threatened the Dual Monarchy with a declaration of independence and the conclusion of a separate peace. It is no abstract pacificism which has brought them to this pass. Hungary was seized last July with a passionate resolve to chastise Servia, and her Premier was among the three or four men in Europe who have the heaviest responsibility for this war. Her present temper is a reaction imposed upon her by facts and fears.

A sentiment of independence has always existed among the Magyars, but apart from the difficulty of realizing it, there were calculations which restrained it. An independent Hungary would find itself confronted by difficulties which it could surmount only by the abandonment of the pretensions of the Magyar race to rule, and by compromise with its neighbors which would leave it only the name of independence. The population of Hungary is composed only to the extent of a bare half of Magyars. It has been possible to exclude the remaining half of the population, Rumanians, Slovaks and Serbs, from any real share of political power only by a complicated system of repression and trickery. Behind that system there has stood, hitherto the connivance and consent of Austria. Vienna somewhat reluctantly sold the non-Magyar races of Hungary to the Magyars, in return for the loyalty of the ruling and military caste. What the Magyars can do with, Austria behind them, it is unlikely that they could achieve if they stood alone. If Hungary stood alone with neither Austria nor Germany behind her, she could oppress her Rumanians and her Serbs only at the risk of provoking an attack, possibly a combined attack by Rumania and Servia. Independence would mean, in effect, the surrender by the Magyars of what they most prize—their unchallenged dominance at home, their power to impose a Magyar impress on the civilization of their own country, their attitude of imperial arrogance towards their Balkan neighbors. Nor would the difficulties of an independent Hungary end here. It is a continental state, which has hitherto maintained its contact with the outer world only through the port of Fiume, which belongs to Croatia. If Croatia joins Servia, Hungary would become a landlocked kingdom, without port or seaboard, fatally dependent on the good-will of her neighbors for the conduct of her economic life. She would be, in short, what Servia is to-day, and she would be reduced to dependence on some precarious device of a free port on alien territory.

From these embarrassments, military, political and economic, there would be in the long run only one sure way of escape. An independent Hungary would be driven against her will into a Balkan confederation. She would become the military ally of her Serb and Rumanian neighbors, and the interest of a customs union would bind her to them by ties more imperious than sentiment. It would be an admirable, and in some respects a national, solution of the Eastern question. A Balkan Confederation which included Hungary would have become in the military sense a Great Power. It could stand four-square against the neighboring empires, and realize at last the ideal of the "Balkans for the Balkan peoples." Hungary would be within it what Prussia is to Germany. The dream is not a mean one; but one may question whether it answers to anything in the Magyar soul. It is part of the pride of this Asiatic race, the latest comer to European soil, that it belongs to the West. The typical Magyar thinks of the Balkan races as Europe thinks of Africa. If he has really made up his mind to independence, it is either because he despairs of any more congenial destiny, or because he has not yet thought out all the consequences.

There is another possible explanation of this curious "independence" movement in Hungary. It may be a gigantic game of bluff. It is rather singular that it has not been more drastically repressed, and there is something a little suspicious in the way that the news about it has leaked out. It may suit Count Tisza's government to use it as a lever for imposing its demands on the German headquarters, and also in Vienna, It has already influenced German strategy; it may conceivably explain the efforts which Austria is supposed to have made to obtain a separate peace for the whole Dual Monarchy. If the Magyars, impressed by the local dangers which threaten them from north and south alike, are beginning to despair of a triumph for the Austro-German cause, it is by some such expedient as a threat to declare their independence that they would infallibly begin to work on the fears of Vienna and Berlin. The risk of a Rumanian intervention in the war must weigh with them. While Rumania still delays, they might by a patched-up peace secure at least the integrity of their territory. The Transylvanian question is not a simple issue of nationalism. The population of that province is indeed mainly Rumanian, but the landed class is of the proudest Magyar stock, and in the center of Transylvania there is a compact and numerous Magyar colony. To abandon these people of their own blood would be harder for the Magyar patriot than it is for the sentimental English Unionist to desert Ulster. To avert that danger, any surrender, any change would be preferable. On the eve of a Rumanian intervention, Hungary will be ready for any sacrifice to secure an instant peace. From the moment that this intervention takes place, if it is destined to take place, she will fight with her back to the wall, the most resolute and desperate item in the Germanic coalition. One may doubt whether she really desires independence, but it is probable that she desires peace with an awakened and apprehensive sincerity.

The omens do not point as yet to the general cataclysm which Sir Edward Grey foresaw. There is a limit to human energies, and men depressed by discipline and defeat, by peril and privation, do not turn readily to the work of revolution. A slow war which leaves the victors exhausted, even if it ends in a more decisive triumph than to-day seems thinkable, will find even the Allied statesmen in a comparatively conservative mood. Kingdoms and empires are not made and broken up in real life with the facility of a program by Mr. Wells. The chances are that the flood will leave Austro-Hungary standing. It may suffer considerable amputations. It may lose, by the illogical fate of war, its contented Poles and Ruthenians, no less than its restless Italians, Serbs and Rumanians. It may emerge a second-rate Power, destined for its great good to devote itself henceforward to the task of internal reorganization. But the economic and political reasons which forbid any real independence to Hungary—or to Bohemia—will make for its conservation. It inspires no love, but it arouses only lacal hates. It will survive as a convenience.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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