We’ve examined the geopolitics of the United States and Australia; let’s turn now to a radically different example: Hungary. Hungary is what I call a natural nation – its history as a self-aware community stretches into the “mists of time,” to be poetic. It has a common language and is predominantly Christian, and both of these characteristics contribute to a shared culture. Where the U.S. and Australia had a foundational culture that was transferred from Europe and then molded by subsequent waves of heterogeneous immigration, Hungary’s linguistic and cultural heritage was mostly preserved despite migration into Hungarian territory over the centuries. I have been considering why it is that communities endure – and Hungary is a mystery that, if solved, can help us measure the durability of a community or nation.
It’s not clear where ethnic Hungarians – Magyars, they call themselves – came from. They were a nomadic community that originated somewhere east of the Carpathian Mountains, though it’s hard to know just how far east. The Hungarian language is not Indo-European in structure. It shares some words with Kazakh, and an abstract linguistic analysis has found structural similarities with Turkish (the Ottomans once occupied Hungary) and Finnish (another Uralic language). As in Asian cultures, Hungarians put the family name first (mine would be “Friedman Gyuri”). Hungary – its people, language and the country itself – is an anomaly; it should not exist where it does.
As the Hungarians moved west, they settled in the most logical place – what is known as the Carpathian (or Pannonian) Basin. The basin provides ample agricultural land, and it is defensible as it’s surrounded by mountains. To the east are the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains; north is the Slovakian Tatras chain. To the southwest lie the Balkan Mountains; to the southeast, the Carpathians extend into Romania. These mountains, which today extend across state boundaries, form a chain of mountain ranges that ring the Carpathian Basin.
Hungary’s security relies on controlling these mountains; with a hold on the Carpathians, Hungary would have an almost impregnable fortress enclosing a rich valley. At times, the Hungarians have controlled a great portion of the mountains. That required having dominion over portions of present-day Slovakia, western Ukraine and northern Romania. Today, Hungary does not control any of these regions.
This is because of two key security challenges. First, Turkey’s imperative is to control the Balkans, and the Ottomans systematically pushed up through the region by building alliances through the Balkan Mountains and taking naval action in the Adriatic Sea. Second, Hungary is exposed to the west – the only side not fully enclosed by mountains. It is vulnerable to powers that can land forces at ports like Trieste and move in from the west.
If it cannot control the Carpathians, Hungary has two strategies to choose from. One option is to embed itself in a larger force and seek to benefit from that relationship, as it has done with the Ottomans, Habsburgs, Soviets and now the European Union. Alternatively, Hungary can make ever-shifting alliances with more powerful nations to avoid occupation. Neither of these strategies has worked particularly well.
Hungary’s vulnerabilities and strategic imperatives have played out on the world stage over the centuries. Its vulnerability was on display in the 16th century, when the Ottoman Empire cut through the Balkan Mountains, broke into the Carpathian Basin – at which point Hungary was indefensible – and took Budapest. The Ottomans then swung toward Vienna, where they were decisively defeated by the Habsburgs in the late 17th century. The Habsburgs, in turn, took control of the Carpathian Basin and mountains around it. In the mid-19th century, Hungary made political arrangements with the Austrians, which included control of the Carpathian Mountains, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was born.
Hungary’s strategy of embedding itself with and manipulating another powerful state failed when that state went to war and lost. After World War I, it was treated by the Allies as an enemy combatant (which it was). Its territory was divided up, and it lost the Carpathians and a substantial portion of its citizenry in the process. Between 1920 and 1943, Hungary made a series of alliances with various nations in the region, seeking to use whatever the current international political landscape might have been to protect itself. This, too, was unsuccessful – Hungary ended up occupied by Soviet troops.
Hungary’s primary geopolitical imperative is to regain the Carpathians, not so much to reclaim its lost citizens but to regain its protective barrier. That’s a tall order. Its only hope is the disintegration of Ukraine; in the latter’s weakness, Hungary could reclaim the Ukrainian Carpathians. In Romania and Slovakia, it would need an uprising of ethnic Hungarians or a state weakness it could exploit to reclaim their portions of the Carpathians. For the moment, at least, Hungary will have to share the Carpathian Basin.
The United States and Australia have inherent geopolitical strengths. Hungary has an inherent geopolitical weakness. The essential defenses of the Carpathian Basin, the mountains, are out of reach. For at least the past five centuries, they have been controlled by other countries. They are the only solution for Hungary, but a persistently elusive one. So how does Hungary survive? Why isn’t it absorbed into other nations, as has repeatedly happened to other countries in Europe? With its geopolitical weakness, why does it exist? The answer seems to lie in the topic we began with: community. Community, which may appear distinct from geopolitics, is in fact central to it.
Next week, then, we will look at Australia, the United States and Hungary through the prism of community.