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Thomas Spira

The Sopron (Odenburg) Plebiscite of December 1921
and the German Nationality Problem

In mid-December of 1921, the citizens of the West Hungarian border town of Sopron and eight surrounding communities1 voted on whether the area should remain with Hungary, or join the newly created Republic of Austria. The Sopron Plebiscite ranks as a relatively minor incident in postwar history, but it has attracted considerable attention. Not only did the dispute test the authority and prestige of the victorious great powers, it also revealed that some of the area's predominantly German-speaking rural inhabitants had succumbed to German nationalistic fervor by voting for unification with Austria.

Until 1647, when ceded to Hungary by Emperor Ferdinand III, the Burgenland, as the contested area came to be known shortly after World War I, belonged to Austria. The Germans' allegiance was untested until war's end, when the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy disintegrated, and West Hungary's Germans became separated from their brethren in Austria. Burgenland's 1,514 square miles contained nearly 345,000 inhabitants, of whom 75% were Germans and variously called Heinzen, Heanzen, or Swabians (Schwaben). The remainder of the population claimed to be Hungarians, except for a sprinkling of about 10% Croatians and Slovenians scattered throughout the Hungarian and German communities.2 Responding to Austrian diplomatic pressure, petitions by Austrophile elements In West Hungary, and dismay over Hungary's Marxist government, the Paris Peace Conference reversed its original position to let the territory remain with Hungary. On 20 July 1919, Hungary was ordered to evacuate the larger, predominantly German-inhabited portion of West Hungary. For more than two years, Hungary defied both Austria and the Peace Conference, but finally, it agreed to exchange the region for Sopron and its immediate environs. A compromise agreement, drafted by Italy and signed in Venice on

11 October 1921, called for an internationally supervised plebiscite to determine the destiny of the town and its hinterland.

The plebiscite zone's 80 square miles contained a population of 48,000, of whom 34,000 lived in Sopron, the administrative capital. Unfortunately, the area's heterogeneous ethnic distribution complicated a just settlement. Sopron's German speakers roughly equaled the Magyar population, but in the countryside 9,983 Germans outnumbered the 2,369 Hungarians.3 To prevent splitting Sopron from its hinterland, the victorious powers decided to let the combined vote determine the disposition of the whole area. Hungary won the plebiscite, conducted between 14-16 December 1921. Austria gained modest majorities in five of the eight rural communities, but Hungary swept Sopron, as the pro-Hungarian vote exceeded the rate of self-professed Hungarians by 29.1%. On 23 December 1921, the Conference of Ambassadors ratified the plebiscite results, and handed the Sopron area to Hungary on 1 January 1922. On 20 February 1922, Austria reluctantly recognized the cession.4

Apart from the fact that most West Hungarians in the ceded zone were never consulted as to their national preferences, two other factors complicate judging the Germans' loyalties, even in the plebiscite area. Between Armistice Day and the plebiscite, both Hungary and Austria suffered political upheavals which influenced the allegiance of the Germans. Communism immediately threatened postwar Austria. Fears of bolshevism persisted even under its first chancellor, the Socialist statesman Karl Renner, replaced in June of 1920 by a coalition led by the conservative Michael Mayr. An ultra-conservative government under Johann Schober, dominated by Christian Socials and German Nationalists, assumed power in June of 1921, and remained firmly ensconced even beyond the Burgenland crisis.

Hungary was a political rainbow. Its liberal democratic postwar government, led by Count Mihaly Karolyi, led to a Socialist-Communist fusion forged in late March of 1919 by Bela Kun. A counterrevolution overthrew Kun in August, and in November, Admiral Miklos Horthy seized power. His ultra-conservative regime remained firmly entrenched until nearly the end of World War II. These changes bewildered the Germans, most of them unsophisticated and conservative, predominantly Roman Catholic, peasants. Their intelligentsia, especially the influential Magyarized

("Magyarone") administrators, clergymen, and educators, wished to assimilate their people into the prevailing Hungarian ethos.

At war's end, Austria still beckoned as a potential new fatherland to Burgenland's Germans. But its Marxist-tinged Socialist regime offended the predominantly traditionalist Germans. Nonetheless, before Horthy's counterrevolution, Austria might still have attracted their support simply by appearing to be the lesser of two evils.5 After Kun's demise, but before Mayr, Hungary gained the advantage. However, when conservatism in both capitals eliminated politics as a paramount issue, Hungary became, at best, a doubtful choice for them. The treatment of non-Hungarians would not likely improve without the protective Habsburgs, and the past Hungarian record of accommodating the ethnic minorities was poor. Nonetheless, the Austrians feared that economic and political necessity might bind the Germans to Hungary.6

Economic considerations are always powerful in agricultural border regions where markets straddle international boundaries, and West Hungary was no exception. In the Austro-Hungarian preplebiscite struggle for German support, both sides issued conflicting and exaggerated claims about their respective commercial importance. On 16 June 1919, Chancellor Renner, and on 22 November 1919, the Provisional National Assembly of German Austria, argued for West Hungary's cession to Austria. They added intellectual, geographic, and ethnic considerations to massive economic arguments. The entire region, they claimed, was indispensable to feeding Vienna, Wiener Neustadt, and Graz. Moreover, these three cities allegedly paid more than Hungarian buyers, who drew upon more diversified domestic sources. Furthermore, West Hungarian farmers could more advantageously exchange their farm products for machinery in Austria than in Hungary. If Burgenland remained Hungarian, Austria's three greatest industrial cities would thus be denied their only food source, whereas Budapest, too distant to draw upon West Hungary's provisions, would not benefit. Indeed, even Hungary's westernmost regions could be conveniently provisioned from elsewhere. The Austrians also claimed that the offspring of petty Burgenland farmers frequently depended on Austrian jobs in industry and mining. For these transient residents, Burgenland's incorporation into Austria was a matter of economic necessity.7

Later, when the decision came to apportion Burgenland's western

portion to Austria, and allow a plebiscite to decide the fate of Sopron, the Austrians argued that, in Hungarian hands, Sopron would lose its natural hinterland in Austria and wither, while north-south railway traffic would have to be rerouted and cross several international boundaries.8

Hungarians in general, and the Hungarian delegation at the Peace Conference in particular, tried to rebut the Austrian arguments. The region allegedly only traded in the food sent to Austria and depended on the great Hungarian Plain, and on Gyor's agricultural hinterland. Burgenland's modest industrial production found a ready market in Hungary, but could not compete with Lower Austria's superior and cheaper commodities. Moreover, Burgenland's largely agriculturally oriented factories, notably sugar beet refineries, drew most of their raw materials from Hungary, and almost none from Austria. Burgenland's commerce and light industry would thus decline under Austrian rule. Hungary's other regions would suffer indirectly, and their sacrifices would not alleviate Austria's food shortages in the least. For example, Austria's deficit in wheat flour totaled about seven million tons annually, of which the Burgenland might provide, at most, 1/4-1/2 million tons. Throughout the crisis, Hungary offered to relieve Austrian hunger by establishing an Austro-Hungarian free trade zone, and promised to provision Lower Austria, but only if the Austrians renounced West Hungary. The threat of suspended food deliveries hovered over Austria's industrial cities throughout this period.9

The Hungarians won the Sopron plebiscite, and they had Jakob Bleyer and his followers to thank. The Bleyerites barely tolerated Karolyi's government and boycotted the Kun regime's attempts to pacify the Germans. But throughout, they made every effort to persuade their followers to support Hungary's claim for West Hungary, notwithstanding Hungarian harassment of German cultural institutions that occasionally bordered on intolerance.

Bleyer, a man of the people, a devout Roman Catholic of peasant origin from Yugoslav-occupied Bacska, emerged as the most important and influential German leader in postwar Hungary. When the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy collapsed, Bleyer was already known as a leading exponent of German aspirations. In December of 1917, Bleyer, in collaboration with the Roman Catholic cleric Johannes Huber, founded the ultra-conservative daily Neue Post, his official publication until it was superseded in January of 1921 by the weekly

Sonntagsblatt. During the war, Bleyer published widely in Hungarian journals, explaining his view of the appropriate German role in Hungarian life. Bleyer claimed that the Hungarians were entitled to assimilate the non-Hungarian intelligentsia. Magyarization of the educated classes was a normal part of urbanization and assimilation through the natural process of acculturation. But German peasant children should not be Magyarized, but rather given a sound, practical Hungarian education in elementary schools that were otherwise purely German. Bleyer believed in the vitality of German rural culture. Even if the Hungarians limited German exclusively to private use, the Germans would survive, provided their ethnic village school system remained vigorous.10

As the war wound down, Bleyer clung to his views of 1917. In a Neue Post editorial, he attacked Transylvanian Saxon leader Rudolf Brandsch for urging Hungary's Germans to demand full autonomy. Bleyer conceded certain legitimate grievances, but rejected autonomy on patriotic grounds. Restoration of German elementary schools was his only really significant demand, but only in total harmony with the Hungarians.11 When, on 1 November 1918, Karolyi officially recognized Hungary's first German administrative organization, the Deutschungarischer Volksrat, Bleyer announced its program and pledged that all Germans would defend Hungary's integrity, reject autonomy, but demand full national privileges.12

Bleyer, however, distrusted Karolyi and his left-wing functionaries. He was apprehensive about the preservation of German traditions in the rural regions of West Hungary. Not surprisingly, only one week after founding the Volksrat, Bleyer announced that cultural concessions no longer sufficed; the Germans also deserved all those rights which Karolyi had just granted to Hungary's other minorities.13 At the same time, however, Bleyer and his collaborators paid lip service to Hungarian unity. Franz Bonitz, a Volksrat colleague, urged Germans to "march shoulder to shoulder with Magyardom," while also promoting "a united [German front ... both at home and abroad, with respect to our cultural, linguistic, political, and economic aspirations."14

Such pressure earned short-term benefits. On 16 November 1918, Germans obtained the right to abolish Hungarian instruction in the first two elementary grades in predominantly German regions. But shortly thereafter, the Volksrat insisted on separate German schools, on official German in the courts and the administration of

predominantly German areas, and that non-Germans be excluded from German affairs.15 In order to satisfy these demands, Marton Lovaszy, the Minister of Education and Religion, ordered on 21 November 1918 that the educational concessions granted a few days earlier be expanded to include church-run institutions.16 This was important because nearly 86% of German schools were confessional. The Germans received additional "favors," mostly meaningless, owing to the critical shortage of indigenous teachers.

Signs of German discontent with Karolyi soon appeared. Obviously, the new government had neither the means nor really any strong desire to implement properly the minority policies. Soon complaints filtered into Volksrat offices concerning violations of the education ordinance. Throughout Hungary, village and county officials effectively blocked the regime's attempts to provide at least some improvement in the German school system. The Germans also discovered that Count Albert Apponyi's 1907 school law, which forbade non-Hungarian elementary textbooks, was still in effect. So German children were worse off than before. Hungarian instruction shrank, while an effective German education was barred.17

The government's inability to enforce its laws rapidly ended Hungarian-German cooperation. On 27 December 1918, Geza Zsombor, the influential editor of the Sopron Grenzpost, announced that, failing to gain immediate autonomy, Burgenlanders would proclaim an independent German republic. On 11 January 1919, the Volksrat called for German middle schools and academies, and German primary schools on demand even in predominantly Hungarian-speaking areas.18 On 20 January, Germans in Sopron reiterated Zsombor's autonomy plea and renewed their threat to either proclaim Burgerland's independence, or join Austria.

The government was hard pressed. In deference to the Germans, Karolyi commissioned several of their representatives, notably Peter Jekel, Guido Gundisch, and Otto Herzog, to draft a new statute embodying extraordinary German privileges. The gesture proved futile because a Hungarian, Odon Berinkey, and Karolyi's State Secretary for German affairs, Heinrich Kalmar, a Hungarian Jew, also participated in its preparation. Conservative Germans objected not only to Kalmar's Judaism, but to the government's alleged impudence in foisting an outsider on them. A similar stigma clung to Berinkey. The Bleyerites admitted only Christian Germans in their affairs. Despite the cabinet's objections that the Germans should not

merit special treatment, Law VI of 29 January 1919 granted cultural and political autonomy to Germans in Hungary's predominantly German-speaking areas. This included administration, justice, education, and religion. Although autonomy would be centered in Deutschwestungarn (German West Hungary), the Germans acquired a National Assembly (Deutsche Nationalversammlung), a German Ministry, district councils (Gauverwaltungen), and commissioners.

The Germans remained obdurate. They sensed that these regulations were merely designed to forestall further German defections, mainly in Burgenland, and to lure back secessionists in southern Hungary and Transylvania. Concessions to the Germans of Hungary paradoxically exacerbated the nationality conflict. Bleyer now scorned the new law because he claimed that political autonomy conflicted with his own patriotic views. He believed that the Peace Conference must resolve Burgenland's destiny, and that cultural autonomy was all the Germans ought to accept.19

Bleyer's rejection of autonomy was complex. He believed that the Karolyi regime, because of its republican nature and socialist affiliations, was evil, and the autonomy statute unworkable. The Germans also wondered why their cherished goals should have been achieved so easily. Earlier concessions were not carried through and they suspected further treachery. The government would revoke the favorable regulations with a return to stability, leaving the Germans worse off than before. The Neue Post accused Karolyi of subverting Germans by sending Social Democratic officials and ideas into their midst. An editorial pilloried the socialist minister of education, Zsigmond Kunfi, for banning religious instruction in the schools, and planning to nationalize education, which would impose government ideological control over German youth. The German press campaign raged intensively, when Bleyer suddenly quit the Volksrat and withdrew from contact with the government. On 12 March 1919, the Neue Post even hinted at possible secession in Burgenland, because Germans had grown skeptical about the administration of autonomy. Burgenlanders still needed the Austrian market, just as German workers depended on well paying jobs in Austria. The newspaper warned the government not to isolate Austria from Hungary by erecting tariff barriers, or by imposing harsh criteria to obtain border passes.20

In the final weeks of Karolyi's reign secessionist activities intensified. Deputations of peasants from Burgenland petitioned Vienna to

annex the region. Austrian Foreign Minister Otto Bauer failed to intervene when Austrian agitators infiltrated West Hungary as private individuals. Oscar Charmant, Hungary's envoy in Vienna, reported intensive anti-Hungarian propaganda in Burgenland, with the Vienna-based Fremdenblatt being the chief culprit. At the end of March 1919, the Karolyi regime fell for a variety of reasons, including the aggravated Burgenland crisis. Karolyi yielded to the 133-day interlude of Bela Kun's Communist Republic of Councils.

When Kun assumed power on 21 March 1919, only the Ruthenians and West Hungary's Germans remained firmly under Hungarian rule. Bleyer and his supporters went into hiding to plot the overthrow of the Marxist regime. Kun at first ignored the minority situation entirely Germans were entrusted to radical Social Democrats and Marxists, many of them Hungarians or Hungarian Jews. Soon, however, foreign policy considerations, especially Austrian intrigues in Burgenland, prompted a more pragmatic reappraisal of the German problem in Hungary.

The Communists' ventures into minority politics and diplomacy were dogmatic and amateurish. Kun deemed nationality problems a major nuisance, a bourgeois affectation, and hence just another obstacle to Communism.21 A Marxist state would not require minority legislation, because the exploitive capitalist system would evaporate. The Germans recognized that Kun had no interest in their ethnic survival, that concessions were meant to court their support to counter Austrian and Allied diplomatic measures detrimental to Hungary's integrity. Indeed, Kun had cause for concern. Although publicly Austria's Social Democrats pledged noninterference in Hungary unless Kun was deposed, their subversions dismayed Hungary's new leaders.22 Partly, this explains why Kun meant to block German minority rights. He was far more interested in staffing vulnerable West Hungarian border posts with reliable Marxists than with pleasing suspected German nationalists.

The Communists had inherited from Karolyi a slender framework on which to construct a nationality formula that was more suitable than the one they had envisaged at first. They dared not retract even the illusory German gains granted under Karolyi. Almost immediately they established a Hungarian Federal Soviet Republic with two provisional jurisdictions-one for Ruthenia and one for Trans-Danubia (Burgenland). A Commissar attached to the Ministry of German Affairs governed Deutschwestungarn, the German region.

A stopgap German autonomy, promulgated on 30 April, seemed attractive, but failed to please the Germans. Although a Gaurat fur Deutschwestungarn (District Council for West Hungary) functioned as a virtually sovereign body,23 the government failed to clarify the constitutional status of Germans residing outside Gaurat jurisdiction. After prolonged procrastinations, the regime finally limited German autonomy to Burgenland, and blundered again by deferring to the regime's influential and determined Hungarian minority. Bowing to their nationalistic pressures, Kun removed Sopron from the Gaurat's jurisdiction. The Germans resented this, because Hungarians comprised only about one-half of Sopron's population.

The Germans resented even more their new leaders and lesser executives, who all turned out to be Hungarian or Hungarian Jewish Marxists. Petty officials, for lack of reliable Marxists, were recruited from the ranks of the former German Ministry and were kept under close surveillance. The Karolyi regime had only recently incurred German disaffection by using non-German higher officials in German-inhabited areas. The Communists committed the same blunder, and suffered the same consequences.

To demonstrate his concern for minority rights, Kun maintained the fiction of a bona fide German cultural association. Bleyer's Deutscher Volksrat metamorphosed into the Deutscher Kulturbund fur Ungarn, but it followed strictly Marxist lines. Heinrich Kalmar, the newly appointed Commissioner, also managed the cultural bureau Deutsches Volksamt (German People's Bureau) and its official journal, the Volksblatt. The government ordered all authorities to communicate with minority people in their native tongue.24 This was to assuage non-Hungarians who distrusted this regime even more than previous governments. Kun's biggest mistake was dodging the nationality issue. He repudiated the principle of self-determination of nationalities as a bourgeois concept and hence invalid, in favor of self-determination of the proletariat. Kun's attempts to solve the nationality problem on this basis deepened the growing Hungarian-German gulf, and terminated any further meaningful dialogue. Austria's Socialist regime in particular intensified its efforts to rescue the by now quite willing German Burgenlanders.

The government's ill-considered educational and religious policies dismayed Burgenland's German society. In education, for example, Kun introduced a string of regulations which ultimately might have raised educational standards. Instruction was made more

progressive and humane, and teachers were to be well paid and perform educational tasks in the adult community. Promotion into higher education free of charge was guaranteed to every gifted child, and plans were laid for an extensive German elementary school building program in Burgenland and elsewhere.25 Religion was tied to education because most German schools were confessional. German peasants cherished religious control over education, a tradition dating back several centuries. But the Soviet regime published new school regulations, each more offensive than the last, designed to replace Christian precepts with a Marxist Weltanschauung through a massive teacher reeducation program.26

On 23 June 1919, the Kun regime, still soliciting German support, unveiled its long-heralded final Constitution, with certain favorable provisions for the minorities. But German public opinion in Hungary had already spurned Marxism.27 The confusing directives, German disaffection bordering on civil war, and a regime of Red Terror in Burgenland against secessionists, undercut Kun. His regime fell on 1 August 1919. One of Kun's last official acts was to disapprove on 21 July the provision of the Treaty of St. Germain, which had allocated Burgenland to Austria the previous day. Kun bequeathed to Gyula Peidl, his Social Democratic successor, an aggravated Burgenland crisis, a German nationality policy in shambles, and a thoroughly alienated German public in Hungary.

Peidl lasted only five days. Next, Istvan Friedrich, a Karolyi Independence Party renegade, became prime minister through a coup. His ministry went through three turbulent cabinet changes. Jakob Bleyer reemerged by having been one of the chief anti-Soviet conspirators in league with Friedrich and other ultra-conservatives. The two men shared a similar Weltanschauung. Both professed pro-Habsburg sentiments, they hated bolshevism and republicanism, and they favored moderate concessions for Hungary's German minority. Bleyer enjoyed such influence at that moment with Hungarians and Germans alike that he was tendered the choice between two important cabinet posts. On 15 August 1919, Bleyer accepted the portfolio of Minister of Nationalities in Friedrich's second cabinet.28

Several days later, Bleyer issued a position paper. Communism had injured the Germans by exacerbating nationalistic passions in Hungary which his ministry would heal. Germans would integrate themselves into the Hungarian State, but retain their national identity, within linguistic and ethnic boundaries. Bleyer demanded an

effective German elementary school and cultural program, and a modest political action plan. The use of German in all official transactions was essential; but Bleyer remained discreetly silent on autonomy. His New Course intended to convince the Hungarians that the Germans' loyalty for Hungary was sincere, and would restore their somewhat tarnished image.29

Bleyer addressed the task of recapturing the allegiance of Hungary's seceded nationalities. It was a convenient way of demonstrating that the Germans were Hungarian patriots. But Bleyer no longer thought in terms of Hungary ruled only by the Hungarians, as he had when Hungary was still part of the Dual Monarchy. Bleyer felt loyalties both to Hungary and to Germandom. While wishing the Hungarians well, he also desired prominence for the Germans. These two contradictory allegiances bred a synthesis of joint Hungarian-German hegemony in Hungary. Bleyer believed that if Germans exceeded the Hungarians as patriots, then cultural and certain political concessions would be forthcoming as rewards. Although neither the seceded Germans nor the Hungarians heeded Bleyer, the Germans of Burgenland and elsewhere in Hungary applauded.30 Under Bleyer, the German Section performed prodigious paper feats. Bleyer and his aides tried to stem the anti-Hungarian tide sweeping embittered German public opinion. Under State Secretary Georg Steuer, the German Section attempted to reach a modus vivendi of sorts with the Hungarians. They also sought to persuade Burgenland's Germans to remain true to Hungary, to insulate them against pan-German influences, and to safeguard their cultural interests.31

The German Section's task of reconciling Germans and Hungarians contained contradictions. If the Germans were to be offered inferior concessions to those they had enjoyed before, then they would reject accommodation. If, on the other hand, they obtained concessions equaling or surpassing those of the radical era, then they would confront an outraged Hungarian public. Bleyer therefore elaborated what he hoped would be a fair compromise. In August, he unveiled a statute that in spirit resembled the Nationality Law of 1868. Its fairness could attract the minorities, whereas its moderation would not offend the Hungarians. By stressing the rights of individuals rather than those of groups, Bleyer sought to balance Hungarian elitism and German ethnic particularism.32

Although the Law stopped short of recognizing ethnic groups as

corporate structures, it did designate non-Hungarian ethnic groups as national minorities. It thus went beyond the 1868 statute, which merely acknowledged racial (i.e., national or ethnic) distinctions. The new law also established non-Hungarian languages in public life. Unfortunately, many regulations were cumbersome, and the local officials enforcing them were predominantly Hungarians or "reliable" Magyarized individuals. The Law also aroused exaggerated hopes for the establishment of a comprehensive minority education system, from kindergartens to chairs in the universities. But obviously, the largely Magyarized German clergy would insist on pure Hungarian schools, so the provisions had little more than publicity value. Many observers believed that the Nationality Law was a mere maneuver, designed to persuade the minorities that Hungary had shelved her oppressive prewar policies in order to retrieve her lost territories.33

Whereas Friedrich apparently had no intentions, or the means, of expediting the Nationality Law, Bleyer and his followers took the statutes very seriously indeed. Their rationale rested on firm ground. Greater Hungary could be restored, but only if the Hungarians propitiated the minorities. Once more, Bleyer and the government faced opposite poles on a fundamental issue. Should Hungary's minorities receive far-reaching cultural and moderate administrative concessions, or should the Law be ignored and the ethnic groups be Magyarized? As on previous occasions, the government maintained that the frontiers of the Hungarian State were sacred, and the domination of the Hungarians exclusive and paramount. The government's intransigence imperiled Bleyer's wish to retain Burgenland. This ambition was no longer visionary. With the conservative Friedrich government ensconced in Budapest, radical Austria's attraction began to fade for both the Entente and many Germans. By now, Burgenland's population was about equally split on the question of secession. The Germans still feared radical Austria, but they also distrusted evasive Hungary. Strangely enough, Hungary did nothing in a practical sense to attract German public opinion.

Hungary's obduracy on the minority issue undercut Bleyer's honeymoon with the Hungarians. At the Ministerial Council on 20 September he complained that his Law was being systematically undermined by Hungarian officials, especially in West Hungary where German functionaries stood accused of pan-German sympathies.

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