László Milutinovits – War Ends, Struggle Continues.
The Little Entente and Central Europe in the 1920s.

The present article is looking for answers for the following questions. Why and how the alliance called the ‘Little Entente’ was formed after the First World War? What were its aims? How these conditions influenced Hungary?

As the First World War was about the come to its end, the leading powers and other nations in Europe were preparing to draw the new borders of the continent. The new borders were especially in the focus of the attention of all in Central Europe, where the old Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was about to fall apart due to ethnic, political and social tensions. However, these phenomena appeared all over Europe – after the long 19th century’s imperialist-capitalist era it was a time of social revolution, finally successful national movements. And last, but not at least, the new political order also succeeded to gain space in Europe, as Russia became the first socialist-communist country, which made the ruling European bourgeois elite quite worried. While the winners of the WWI gathered together in Versailles for a peace conference, the struggle continued in Central Eastern Europe, in the battlefields and in the fields of diplomacy as well. The Russian Red Army was fighting the interventionist armies of Western Powers, the White Tsarist Russian Armies and the Armies of the newly re-born Poland at the same time. Parallel, the leading politicians and intellectuals of nations living under Austro-Hungarian rule (fully, like Czechs and Slovaks, or partly, like Romanians and Serbians) were preparing to take steps in diplomacy and internal politics to gain at least autonomy, or even independence form the ramshackle old Monarchy. Key characters of these political and diplomatic manoeuvers were the Czech Edvard Beneš and Tomáš Masaryk, who later became not only the first President and Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia but also leading personalities of a new alliance to be called the “Little Entente”.

However, it was still a long way to go till the new countries were formed, as even at the end of the WWI the future of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was unclear. Despite ethnic and social tensions, the old Habsburg Empire together with the kingdom of Hungary was an economically well-working system, with a successful share of economic interests and activity areas within the country, with a developing transport (railway system), no internal customs and with access to the world trade through the ports of the Adriatic Sea like Trieste and Fiume.

The Monarchy also had its important role in the European balance of great powers, and from certain aspects it could have served as a vanguard against the communist influence and danger from Russia, where the once reliable ally of the “Entente” powers (France, the United Kingdom and Russia), the Tzar was deposed. Therefore, it must be said that the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was not necessarily among war aims of the Allies, as it was also confirmed by David Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister that time. Wilson, the President of the USA also hoped to preserve the economic and political unity of the empire, but in a new, federal and more democratic structure. The USA appeared just these decades in the European politics, but its influence was getting stronger. Their wish to take part in political life of the “Old continent” was also expressed in the 14 points of Wilson which intended to set the main principles of multi-lateral politics in the post-WWI Europe. However, as the defeat of the central powers was approaching, and the nations of the Monarchy were already hoping to catch the opportunity create their independent states, the 10th and 13th points evoked great disappointment. In the 10th point, Wilson only mentioned that “The peoples of Austria-Hungary… should be accorded the freest opportunity to autonomous development.” – and did not refer to independent states. Only one new (or re-created) country was mentioned separately in the 13th point, Poland.(Which, for example for the Czechs and Slovaks was also a danger, due to some territorial disputes with the neighbours. Nevertheless, in October 1918 the situation of the central powers had become critical. That was the point when the Emperor and King Charles of Austria had to realize that there is a need for quick reforms and changes in his politics and made a proclamation (manifesto) to all the peoples of the Monarchy: he agreed to the transformation of the Empire in to a federal state he called the various national councils to cooperate with the Imperial Government in the creation of a federal state only the Austrian provinces, as the Hungarian government was opposed the idea. But Wilson s rational plan for the federalization of Central Europe was made unrealistic by the new military and international situation. Following the defeat of Germany and its allies, empires were broken up, and new states were born. In case of the Austrian provinces of the Monarchy, the Czechoslovakian and Serbian-Slovene-Croatian states were proclaimed. The case was more complicated in the Kingdom of Hungary, where political leaders wanted to defend the country’s integrity by any price, which, of course opposed the interests of Slovak, Romanian and South-Slavic inhabitants, who now preferred to join neighbouring countries of their nationality. Therefore, Slovaks, Romanians Southern Slavs and Ruthens living as a minority in Hungary also rejected the manifesto. One by one, Slovakians, Southern Slavs and Romanians decided to secede and form a union with Czechoslovakia, the Kingdom of Serbs-Slovenes and Croats and Romania. All this happened quite fast, between the end of October and beginning of December 1918. As a result, and also as an outcome of social-political processes, following a democratic revolution Hungary also declared of its independence on 31th October.

Thus, all in all, significant changes were taking place all over the continent. The political and geographical map changed, social and national revolutions took place. Three historic Empires were broken up (Russia, German and Austro-Hungarian), and countries with new political systems were about to come to life: communist republics, bourgeois democracies beside the old or new kingdoms. Also, fascist or extreme right social systems were about to appear in Italy, Bavaria and Hungary. While efforts were made to stabilize the peace, the war continued in some areas, first of all in Soviet Russia. The struggle for soviet-socialist power or against it, and for the stabilization of democracies and new states continued. Facing all these changes, the uncertainty of the Allied powers about Central Europe was high, and different conflicts of interests appeared.
The peace conference, which was meant to close the war and stabilize the situation of Europe was opened on 18 January 1919 in Paris, with all the above issues – and much more – in the background. The new states had important territorial ambitions (i.e. claimed territories from other countries), sometimes with considerable overlapping. The new frontiers had to be drawn, by considering the economic, strategic and traffic aspects. Reparations (immense amounts) were to be paid by the losers, but it was a question if to impose them on the successor states, too. Last, but not at least losers and Soviet Russia were excluded from the talks. Taking all that into consideration, it is a question if it was at all possible to come to some kind of common understanding/compromise, and sign treaties that are more or less acceptable for all states concerned. However, it is sure that finally the treaties created a situation in Europe which was highly unfavourable for several countries, losers (Germany, Hungary) and winners (Italy) alike, and therefore lead to the break-out of the WW II later.

At the peace conference, the three successor states in Central Europe, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Romania were preoccupied with the representation of their own interest. They had some territorial ambitions, which were partly opposing the interest of the others; same time also shared similar interests. There were border debates between Czechoslovakia-Poland; Romania- Czechoslovakia; Romania-Yugoslavia; Yugoslavia-Italy. Also, for strategic reason, not only a common frontier between Czechoslovakia and Romania, but also one between Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were considered important. (The latter was not realized later.)

In theory, the leaders of the peace talks wanted to follow the principle which stated that the frontiers have to be drawn so that the smallest possible foreign ethnic groups would be annexed to the new states. In contrast, the three countries did their best to take possession of all the claimed territories before the end of peace conference, including regions where their ethnic group formed no majority. This was actually also important for them as their successes also helped them to consolidate the unstable internal position of newly formed governments. In all the three states, national successes contributed to the possibility of consolidating the internal situation within a bourgeois framework. Accordingly, in Hungary, where the new democratic government could not stabilize the situation of the country, and assure that their needs are taken into consideration at the peace conference, the opposite happened. The government could not stabilize the bourgeois democratic system, and therefore in March 1919 and extremist proletarian revolution triumphed.

The Hungarian Soviet Republic and its leaders aimed to join the idea of an international proletarian revolution, by joining forces with Soviet Russia. As an idea, the possibility a socialist coexistence of the Danubian nations also offered an alternative for the present situation. For a while, they also managed to reach certain military success, and supported the proclamation of a Slovak Socialist state, centred in Prešov. However, communism was a high risk and threatening for most of the bourgeois states of Central and Western Europe, therefore it was clear that they would never accept such changes in the region. The centre of the anti-revolutionary struggle was Paris, but the successor states could also benefit from the situation, and show up as the ‘guardians’ of the order in Central Europe. France gave Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania the role of starting an intervention, which, after a compromise was made between Czechoslovakia and Romania over the Ruthenian question lead to the defeat of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. This lead to a the triumph of the other extreme wing of Hungarian politics: the right wing took the power, led by Regent Miklós Horthy who became the most important personality of the era between the two wars, and led the country into the WWII on the side of Germany. During the peace conference Hungary was represented by governments under Horthy’s regency. For a while, under the new government of Millerand there was a short period of rapprochement between France and Hungary, mostly because of French economic ambitions. However, later the interests of the three successor states were considered more important. Finally, the so called Trianon Peace Treaty was signed on 4th July 1920 with Hungary, which allowed the successor states to keep all of their new territories. Hungary could keep only 93,073 km2 of its territory, only 28% of the 325,411 km2 that had constituted the pre-war Kingdom of Hungary. Its population decreased to 7.6 million, only 36% of the pre-war kingdom’s population of 20.9 million. Areas to neighbouring countries possessed in total 31% (3.3 out of 10.7 million) of ethnic Hungarians, and five of the pre-war kingdom’s ten largest cities were drawn into other countries. No need to say, that the decisions of the treaty were more than shocking for the Hungarian population, and resulted in a high demand for the revision of the treaty, and lead to rising irredentism.

Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia intended to keep their territorial achievements, which was only possible by controlling Hungarian revisionism and irredentism. Besides, Habsburg restoration attempts also meant a realistic danger for the three countries. (Charles Habsburg tried to return to take his throne in Budapest two times in 1921 (March and October). Therefore, despite of their disputes, leaders of Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia decided to sign bilateral agreements, which formed the alliance that became known as the ’Little Entente’. The treaty between Czechoslovakia and Romania was signed on April 23, 1921 in Bucharest. The treaty between the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and Romania was signed on June 7, 1921 in Belgrade. The treaty between Czechoslovakia and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was signed on August 31, 1922 in Belgrade. The agreements were basically focused on military partnership – they guaranteed mutual military support in case of a Hungarian attempt to take back territories by force. Also, the agreements included clauses for keeping at least neutrality in cases if the other signatory country decided to attack Hungary. The alliance was consolidated later during the ’20s. The three conventions were replaced by a tripartite treaty of alliance between Romania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, signed in Strbské Pleso in 1930. This treaty created a regular consultative structure for the Little Entente (Permanent Council., The Secretariat of the Permanent Council, The Economic Council). Also, as France needed strong allies to counterbalance Germany and ‚replace’ Russia in the balance of powers in Europe, the ties between France and the Little Entente were strengthened. France decided to sign bilateral agreements with Czechoslovakia (Jan 25, 1924), Romania (June 10, 1926) and finally with the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (Nov 1, 1927). However, all in all, the alliance remained mainly a military cooperation, and had no structured economic collaboration aspects. During the 1930s, due to the political changes in Europe, the alliance gradually disintegrated. German power after 1933 had gradually undermined French influence in the Little Entente countries, while right wing changes in Romania and the royal dictatorship in Yugoslavia also affected the relations of the three countries. Growing revisionist pressure of Italy (Mussolini), and unsuccessful efforts for economic cooperation also played important role. Finally, the Little Entente began to break down in 1936 and disbanded completely in 1938.

The article is mainly based on the following work: ÁDÁM, Magda. The Little Entente and Central Europe in the 1920s.