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The Little Entente in Historical Context

At the end of World War I the victorious Allies gathered in Paris and redrew the map of Europe.  (The Treaty of Versailles disposed of the war with Germany.  The Treaty of St. Germain dealt with Austria, and the Treaty of Trianon with Hungary.)  They built a new Europe based in part on the principles of democracy and self-determination.

New European states were built on the ruins of old absolutist empires.  Czechoslovakia was built from both halves of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Bohemia, Moravia and Austrian Silesia had been part of Austria, while Slovakia and Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia had belonged to Hungary.  To the north, Poland was recreated from the three empires of Austria-Hungary, Germany and Russia.

Other countries which were allied against the Central Powers were allowed to expand their boundaries to include compatriots formerly under Austrian or Hungarian rule.  Italy was awarded the south Tyrol from Austria.  Romania was given Transylvania and part of the Banat from Hungary, as well as Bukovina from Austria.  Serbia and Montenegro joined with the Croats of old Hungary and the Slovenes of old Austria to form the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later known as Yugoslavia).  This new kingdom was also given other old Hungarian territories, including Voivodina and that part of the Banat not awarded to Romania.

The treaties of Paris placed most of the Czechs and Slovaks in Czechoslovakia, most of the Poles in Poland, most of the Romanians in Romania and most of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in a kingdom of their own.  The problem was, however, that the newly acquired territories came with built-in powder kegs.  Millions of Germans now lived in Poland and Czechoslovakia.  Millions of Hungarians likewise lived in Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia.

This situation was the source of a festering irredentist movement.  It was a situation that plagued the new states during the inter-war years and contributed to the establishment of totalitarian regimes in the region.  It would seem as if the new Europe were almost programmed to self-destruct.

The Hungarians were especially determined to have what they saw as an unjust situation reversed.  They adopted the battle cry “Nem, Nem, Soha,” or “No, No, Never” to the hated Treaty of Trianon.  They propagandized tirelessly to turn world public opinion against the treaty. They would not be satisfied until the boundaries of the old kingdom of the Crown of St. Stephen were restored.  Never mind the fact that their lost territories were populated primarily by Slovaks, Ruthenians, Romanians, Serbs and Croats, who did not want to have anything to do with rule from Budapest.

In 1919 a Bolshevik government was established in Hungary.  The Hungarian Red Army invaded and occupied eastern Slovakia.  They withdrew and then marched against Romania. The Romanian army headed for Budapest, and Hungary’s Bolshevik government fell.  The Hungarians’ ardent desire to reestablish their old boundaries did not wane, however, and Hungary’s neighbors took their irredentism a little more seriously.

In 1920 Czechoslovakia and the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes entered into a defensive military alliance.  They pledged to come to the other’s aid in the event of an unprovoked attack from Hungary.  Later the governments of Czechoslovakia and Romania entered into a similar agreement.  Shortly thereafter the Romanians and the Yugoslavs rounded out the agreement with a treaty of their own.  This was the Little Entente: an alliance system between Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia to keep Hungary from regaining territories lost to them.

At the same time that Hungary’s successor states were constructing a defensive alliance system, the specter of a Hapsburg monarchy on their borders reared its head.  Twice in 1921 the deposed Austro-Hungarian emperor Charles I tried to reclaim the Hungarian throne.  Pressure from Hungary’s neighbors was a factor in keeping the dynasty from once again gaining control of the heart of Europe.  And the Hapsburg threat stiffened the resolve of Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia to ban together for their mutual protection.

Additional commercial agreements between Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia, as well as cooperation on the international front, did much to bring stability to Central Europe between the two World Wars.

It is interesting to note that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s father, Josef Korbel, was appointed press attaché at the Czechoslovak embassy in Yugoslavia in 1937.  This was the same year in which Secretary Albright was born in Prague.

Both the Little Entente and the new Europe collapsed with the Munich Agreement in 1938.  In the same year Hungary benefited from Hitler’s political and military adventures.  By the First Vienna Award, Hungary was given areas of Slovakia and Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia along the Hungarian border.  In 1939 Germany invaded the remainder of Bohemia and Moravia, Slovakia declared itself an independent state with close ties to Germany, and Hungary took over the rest Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia. In 1940 the Germans gave Hungary the northern  part of Romanian Transylvania in an action known as the Second Vienna Award.  In 1941 the Axis powers dismembered Yugoslavia, and Hungary regained control of Voivodina.  A Europe of democracy and self-determination became only a memory of the past and a hope for the future.  From the Hungarian point of view, however, the harsh terms of the Treaty of Trianon were at least partially reversed.

Hitler’s vision of a German-dominated Europe collapsed with Germany’s defeat and the liberation of Eastern and Central Europe by the Soviet Red Army.  Hungary’s boundaries with Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia basically returned to their post-World War I configuration.  A small difference was that Czechoslovakia was given a salient of land across the Danube River from Bratislava.  A big difference was that Hungary now shared a border with the Soviet Union, since the Soviets had annexed Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia.

Occupation by the Red Army, Soviet domination, totalitarian rule and membership in the Warsaw Pact enforced a somewhat stable situation in Central Europe.  Territorial disputes and nationalistic antagonisms were set aside in the interest socialist solidarity.  The collapse of the Soviet Empire, however, changed everything.  Disparate nationalities that had been held together by idealistic dreams or by brute force found it undesirable or impossible to live together under the same political roof.

The Czechs and Slovaks parted ways in an amicable divorce.  The political boundary between them was long-established, easily defined and widely recognized.  The Czechs had centuries-old humanistic and democratic traditions, they had enlightened leaders and they were more like the Slovaks than they were different from them.

Yugoslavia’s breakup was not so cordial.  In the old Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes the various nationalities were divided by language, religion, culture and old hatreds.  They were not neatly divided geographically, however.  Orthodox Serbs and Macedonians, Catholic Croats and Slovenes, and Moslem Bosnians and Albanians were mixed together in a hodgepodge of competing and contradicting religious and historic traditions.

The political situation is still in flux.  The Czechs and Hungarians, along with the Poles, are now members of the western alliance system.  The Munich Agreement, abandonment by the West and subsequent German invasion taught Central Europe that regional alliances like the Little Entente were not sufficient to guarantee their security.  Hence their desire to join NATO.  But problems still exist.  There are still significant Hungarian minorities in Slovakia and Romania.  The future of Yugoslavia is uncertain, and no one can foresee what road Russia will take in the future.

What is certain is that the Czechs have the opportunity to be a stabilizing factor in a Europe once again aspiring to the principles of democracy and self-determination.  What is also different is that the Czechs are no longer sitting on a powder keg of dissident minorities.  The Germans were expelled from the country in 1946, and when the Czechoslovak divorce was finalized at the end of 1992, Slovakia got custody of the Hungarian minority.  With no common border to haggle over, with no dissident minorities to poison their relations, the Czech Republic and Hungary have a chance to build a relationship that will be a pillar of stability in the region.  Perhaps this time around, the idea of a Europe of democracy and self-determination will come to fruition.

– Robert Janak

“The Little Entente in Historical Context,” printed in the series Czech Connections, Cesky Hlas (Newsletter of the Czech Heritage Society of Texas), August 1999, pages 10-11.

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