Academic journal article East European Quarterly

The Sopron Plebiscite of 1921: A Success Story

Academic journal article East European Quarterly

The Sopron Plebiscite of 1921: A Success Story

Article excerpt

The multi-ethnic character of states in Central and Eastern Europe has been an ongoing source of instability in the twentieth century. At times this has created grave difficulties, especially in 1918 when the multi-ethnic Habsburg Monarchy dissolved and was replaced with so-called nation-states. Drawing firm, acceptable boundaries for these new nation-states was all but impossible; there were always people who wanted to rectify borders. Adolf Hitler, for example, justified his annexation of the Sudentenland by arguing that he was simply correcting the erroneous frontier of Czechoslovakia. Since 1990 there have been attempts in the former Yugoslavia, by force of arms, to redraw the borders. The common procedure for solving a territorial dispute has been by military force, but there have been peaceful solutions to disputed regions. The Burgenland, the strip of territory between the new states of Austria and Hungary after World War I, was one such contested area over which a peaceful solution was reached in 1921.

This article examines the conflict between the new states of Austria and Hungary over the Burgenland after 1918. This territory had belonged to the kingdom of Hungary before the war, but was given to the Republic of Austria by the Western Powers at the Paris peace conference. This was not an acceptable solution for the postwar governments of Hungary, and Hungarian forces never completely abandoned what they called West Hungary. To solve the dispute an agreement was reached in 1921 with the help of Italian mediation. The majority of the Burgenland was given to Austria, and after a plebiscite the city of Sopron (Odenburg in German) was given to Hungary.

Much of the literature on the Sopron plebiscite and the Burgenland focuses on the ethnic composition of the city of Sopron and other parts of the Burgenland. The literature often tries to justify the need for a plebiscite, especially in Sopron, because of the large number of Magyars who would have been forced to live under Austrian rule.(1) Some of the literature also emphasizes the fact that the German-speaking majority in many other parts of the Burgenland justified its incorporation into Austria.(2) The emphasis has often been on the desires of those affected. But the people in control of the fate of this multi-ethnic area were in Vienna and Budapest. The leadership of these new states offered the victorious Powers at the peace conference conflicting advice about the territory in question.

In this article the actions of the Austrian and Hungarian leadership are examined. Their reaction to the decision of the Great Powers to give the Burgenland to Austria, and particularly the Hungarians' rejection of this decision, are the focus of what follows. It was the leadership of both states that finally realized that a compromise served both states better than continuing animosity. An examination of the circumstances and events leading up to the compromise over the Burgenland will shed light on the reasons that prompted the leadership of both Austria and Hungary to accept a solution over a multi-ethnic territory that both peoples considered their own. The Sopron plebiscite is presented as an example of a peaceful solution to a territorial dispute, an example of success that needs to be understood. This case can be a useful lesson for the understanding and solution of various ethnic conflicts that erupted after the withering of the bipolar world of the Cold War.

After World War I, in the spirit of national self-determination, nation-states were proclaimed in Central and Eastern Europe. The Powers at the Paris peace conference sanctioned these states and recognized their new frontiers. Where there were disputes, the Powers investigated and made decisions, sometimes resulting in plebiscites. In the final version of the Treaty of Versailles with Germany there were five plebiscites, and in the treaty with Austria, the Treaty of Saint Germain, there was only one (in the Klagenfurt Basin). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.