review by Sir Bryan Cartledge
In ‘Lost Prestige’, Geza Jeszenszky has crafted a gem of historical scholarship. His study of changing British attitudes towards Hungary between 1894 and 1918 is meticulously researched, beautifully written and admirably well translated. As the story of a ruptured romance, it is also unexpectedly moving.
Britain’s love affair with Hungary began in 1848, with the Hungarians’ assertion of their national identity and, in 1849, rebellion against the Habsburg Monarch’s attempt to deny it. British admiration for Hungarian courage and resource in the Revolutionary War was succeeded by compassion when the Austrians took cruel revenge. During the following years, British visitors to Hungary spoke and wrote about the beauty of the country and the generous hospitality of its people. The Compromise of 1867 evoked fresh admiration, this time for the wisdom and restraint of the Hungarian statesmen who negotiated it with the Emperor Franz Josef. As the balance of political authority within the Dual Monarchy gradually shifted in Hungary’s favour, British respect for Hungarian constitutionalism increased; and Hungarian support for Great Britain in the Boer War further enhanced Hungary’s popularity in British eyes.
The greater part of Jeszenszky’s book is devoted to an account of how Hungary’s favourable standing in Britain was gradually eroded, first by the demeaning behaviour of Hungarian politicians in the crisis of 1905-6 and then, more drastically, by the Hungarian government’s denial of political and cultural rights to the national minorities within its borders and by the continuing policy of repressive ‘Magyarisation’.
This progressive disenchantment was exemplified in the activities of two men, the distinguished journalist Wickham Steed and the publicist Robert Seton-Watson, both of whom evolved from being admirers of Hungary to becoming its fiercest critics and opponents. It is on them that Jeszesznsky’s narrative is largely focussed. Because ‘Lost Prestige’ is an analysis of national attitudes and their formation rather than of the causes of the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, it does not encompass the wider context within which Steed and Seton-Watson operated: the campaigns for the Monarchy’s break-up waged in Britain and France by the Croats Frano Supilo and Ante Trumbic, the Serb Nikola Pasic and the Czech Tomas Masaryk; the gradual pivot of opinion in the British Foreign Office towards giving primacy in a peace settlement to the principle of nationality; and the growth of political activism in the predominantly Slovak, Romanian, Serb and Croat regions of the Monarchy. This deliberate sharpness of focus and intentional restriction to the small frame of British attitudes to Magyars and vice versa is natural, given the author’s chosen terms of reference. There is nevertheless a small risk that readers of ‘Lost Prestige’ may gain the impression that Steed and Seton-Watson brought about the destruction of the Dual Monarchy by their own efforts and almost unaided. A reader, too, may be tempted on occasion to wonder whether the author has not taken Steed’s and Seton-Watson’s own assessments of their success in influencing policy too much at face value. Their influence was undoubtedly significant over several years and, in Paris in 1919 when the Treaty of Trianon was being drafted, possibly decisive. They both were, however, seasoned self-publicists not nervous of immodesty: some of Seton-Watson’s writings, in particular (as the author readily acknowledges), should carry a health warning.
This tentative cautionary note in no way diminishes the stature of ‘Lost Prestige’ as an important, and academically rock-solid, contribution to the history of the Anglo-Hungarian relationship. As the author hints in his final chapter, the narrative of ‘Lost Prestige’ has considerable resonance today. There is a vivid parallel between the trajectory of British attitudes to Hungary between 1848 and 1918 and that from 1956 to 2021. The unflinching courage of the Hungarian revolution against Soviet communism in 1956 won the admiration of the free world and, not least, of the British public. There was subsequently respect, too, for the uniquely Hungarian brand of ‘communism lite’ in the 1970s and 1980s; and renewed admiration for the management of the communist regime’s peaceful demise in 1989. Since 2010, however, this favourable image has been steadily eroded by the anti-democratic policies of the Fidesz regime under Viktor Orban. The politicisation of the judiciary, the media and, not least, of the constitution that had for so long symbolised Hungary’s uniqueness in Central Europe and a political tradition held in common with Britain has disappointed Hungary’s friends and vindicated its critics. The contemporary relevance of ‘Lost Prestige’ is just one of many reasons why it deserves to be much more widely read than its small, brilliantly painted, canvas might suggest.
Sir Bryan Cartledge
Sir Bryan Cartledge, is a former British diplomat and academic. After studying at Hurstpierpoint College and St John’s College, Cambridge, he took research posts at St Antony’s College, Oxford and the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. He was inspired to become a diplomat after being invited to assist the former British prime minister and foreign secretary Sir Anthony Eden with his memoirs. He served as UK Ambassador to the Soviet Union and later Hungary in 1980.
Cartledge left the Diplomatic Service in 1988 on his election to be Principal of Linacre College, Oxford. In Oxford, he has edited six books on environmental issues. He holds diplomas in the Hungarian language from the University of Westminster (UK) and University of Debrecen (Hungary). His history of Hungary, The Will to Survive, fulfills an aspiration which grew out of his deep interest in the country where he served three years as ambassador. He subsequently wrote Károlyi & Bethlen: Hungary – The Peace Conferences of 1919-23 and Their Aftermath.