Janos Gereben
Janos Gereben

Fellowship Title:

Possibilities of Regional Development in the Danube Basin – Part I

Janos Gereben
August 28, 1969

Fellowship Year

August 1969

Lerchengasse 28/43
1080 Wien, Austria

BUDAPEST—Benczur utca is a quiet, tree-lined street in the seventh district, home of most of the diplomatic missions to Hungary.

The Soviet Embassy is here (guarded by two policemen) as well as the Chinese Embassy (with four of Budapest’s finest).

There are no policemen at all in front of No. 25, home of the Danube Commission. It is a small building, housing an international group whose job is to regulate and improve navigation on Central Europe’s major international river, exploit its hydroelectric potential, and plan for the development of a European system of waterways. Austria, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia are its members; West Germany (where the Danube has its source) sends an observer to its meetings.

Benczur utca 25 does not need police protection because the Danube Commission is an apolitical, technical and seemingly unimportant group.

Yet, within the walls of this unguarded house on that quiet street works an organization which officially keeps alive a century-old dream, one that may yet have an important role in the future of Central Europe’s 100 million people.  It is the dream of a Trans-Danubian Federation.

TWO WAYS OF SLICING IT—To the right, the map of pre-World War I Central Europe; above, the same area between 1918 and 1938. See P-3 for map of the Danube Basin.

TWO WORLDS – Can the historical and temperamental differences along the shore of the Danube be bridged? Above, a memorial to the 1919 Commune in Budapest; below, the august figure of Ferdinand I (“The Amiable”) in Vienna.

The dream, at its utopistic maximum, is that of an independent and neutral federation of the countries along the Danube, on over 400,000 square miles, in the very heart of strategic Central Europe, separating the Soviet Union from Germany.

It is an impossible dream, considering the present political situation and the historical, social, economic, cultural and language differences between the peoples of the Danube Basin.

But, through various method and under contrasting circumstances, Switzerland, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and other countries have formed such “impossible” federations; and, in the near future, a world-wide trend toward regionalism may displace or modify nationalism which has always been the main obstacle to federalism in Central Europe—two factors (albeit against a hundred opposing ones) which justify interest in the possibility of regional development along the Danube. The scope of this possible development—its rich background in history, its little-discussed present, and uncertain future—is a very large one indeed. Although it will be the topic of a number of these newsletters, advanced apologies must be made for mentioning only briefly such significant areas as the nationalities problem, the role of economics and that of the present Mutual Economic Cooperation (COMECON), the military and the Warsaw Treaty, the neighboring regional development in the Balkans, and many others.

The focus here will be on the large outlines of the over-all problem and on contemporary developments having to do with its practical aspects; details and fringe areas of the Danubian Confederation idea may safely be taken up at some future time when it progresses from the realm of desire to a more urgent stage of the feasible.

Above, Bela Bartok, the composer, whose folklore research had promoted friendship and understanding among Danubian peoples and who had signed an appeal in 1918 for the protection of non-Hungarian minorities. To the left, a fountain in Budapest representing the river.

There have been many empires here, in Central Europe—of Romans, Germans, Turks, Magyars, of just about any nation which had the power and the will to unite, forcefully this geographically coherent and strategically important region.

And it was here, in Budapest, that the idea first emerged, and where it is still given the most serious consideration: Let the many nations and ethnic groups voluntarily come together for the sake of all of them in increased cooperation or in some form of a confederation.

Janos Kadar, the first secretary of the Hungarian Workers (Communist) Party, revived the old dream in 1964 when he declared:

“The nations in the Danubian Basin live in a community of fate; they either get on together or perish together. There is no other solution for the people in this area. We should…join forces…(Nepszabadsag, Dec. 13, 1964)

VIEW OF DANUBIAN HISTORY—From the Pest side of the Chain Bridge, the ancient part of Buda Castle is visible with Matthias Church on the left, the Fishermen’s Bastion to the right. The castle was begun after the Tatar invasion, in 1255. Later, it became the home of Sigismund, King of Hungary and Emperor of the Holy Roman Bapire. The church was built by Matthias who, in the middle of the 15thCentury, united under his rule all the territories that could constitute a Danubian Federation. (Photos and maps—blush – by Janos Gereben)

POLAND31120100 (%)

(Note: Data as of 1965; per capita figures are approximate, taking Poland as 100%.)

REMINDER—George Washington’s statue in Budapest indicates the high regard the father of the American federation is held by many Hungarians.

There were statements following Kadar’s for a long time—although the response from other East European countries was sparse—in a continuing campaign, including one by Janos Peter, the Hungarian Foreign Minister:

“It is about time that the Danubian peoples should settle their common problems…The common champions of freedom of the peoples living here, their common statesmen, writers, and painters all had dreams (of a federation), and many of them shed their blood for these dreams.

“But right now, we are really learning the way of, and laying the foundations for, enabling Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Ruthenians, Serbs, Romanians, Croatians, Austrians, Germans to live together under one roof helping each other…” (Magyar Nemzet, Dec. 21, 1967)

Here are a few instances of those dreams Kadar and Peter were citing:

A great figure of the l9th Century Hungarian reform age, Miklos Wesselenyi, wrote in 1843 that the solution of the historical conflicts between Hungarians and Hungary’s non-Magyar nationalities should be in a “state alliance,” a federation of the peoples in the monarchy.

At about the same time, Garasanin of Serbia and Adam Czartoryski of Poland proposed similar ideas. The shortcoming of all three was that they all thought the alliance should be under the leadership of their own nation.

There was a similar problem with the federation proposals of Lajos Kossuth, governor of the 1848 revolutionary government. First mentioned in 1851, after the Austrians (with Russian help) put down the Hungarian revolution, the Kossuth plan became fully developed in 1862. He proposed (from exile) a Danubian federation of Hungary, Transylvania, Croatia, Serbia, and two Romanian principalities. The proposed federation was to have a joint parliament—with an executive oommittee whose headquarters would have alternated between Budapest, Zagreb, Belgrade, and Bucharest—to handle defense, foreign policy, trade, customs, and finance.

The Kossuth plan—publicized under his name, but actually the product of many statesmen and writers—would have improved the lot of the nationalities, but fell short of granting them equality.

This feature of discrimination was eliminated in subsequent plans, first in the works of Oszkar Jaszi, minister for minorities in the 1918 Karolyi government. Jaszi, who later taught political science at Oberlin College until his death in 1957, suggested a combination of democracy and federalism in the establishment of an “Eastern Switzerland” in the Danube Basin.

Summarizing Jaszi’s many works on the subject, Prof. Bela Kiraly of Brooklyn College wrote: “He proposed l/ To create vigorous nation states, 2/ To secure the effective protection of national minorities, 3/ To secure the organic cooperation of the new states, thereby preventing now clashes between them and their national minorities.

“Jaszi suggested that a Danubian Confederate State based on these principles should be created by means of the reorganization and extension of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. The organization of a Pentarchia, formed by the confederation of five nations, would satisfy the criteria of their historico-political individuality. The five would be the Magyar, German (within the area), Polish, Czech, and Croato-Serb (Yugoslav) nations.” (The Hungarian Quarterly, April-June, 1965)

Another Hungarian exile teaching in America, Stephen Borsody of Chatham College, dedicated his book to the memory of Jaszi and followed his lead in attempting to salvage the best features of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in support of federalism in the Danube Basin, “federalism in the sense of a truly democratic state of mind, ready to respect the equal freedoms of the individual as well as the equal rights of nations within a broader international community.”

Borsody brought the problem up to our days in the conclusion of his work, The Tragedy of Central Europe:

“The solution of the problem of Danubian Europe is no different in the 20th Century from what it was throughout the 19th Century when, following the French Revolution, modern ideas of nationalism and democracy began in great force to penetrate the antiquated structure of the multiracial Habsburg Empire.

“The great Czech historian Frantisek Palacky urged the Habsburgs in 1848 to federalize the Austrian Empire so as to forestall the great catastrophes (German and Russian domination of Central Europe included) which since then have all come true.

“He saw federalized Austria’s mission as being to serve as ‘the bulwark and guardian of Europe against Asiatic elements of every kind.’

“Of course, if a peaceful federalist solution of the present East-West conflict ever proved possible, no Danubian—or any other kind of—federation in Central Europe could be anti-Russian in the sense of Palacky’s bulwark.

“Apart from the obsoleteness of a ‘bulwark’ in the Atomic Age, Benes’s favorite idea of the role of a ‘bridge’ between East and West would be a much more desirable one for Central Europe to play.

“But how can they ever play such an imposing role for the benefit of their own as well as the world’s peace, if they fail, as they have failed in the past, in building small bridges of peace among themselves?

“Since Palacky’s time, the catalogue of failures to reconcile national rivalries has grown alarmingly. Meanwhile, the key to ending these rivalries has remained the same.

“As Oszkar Jaszi wrote: ‘Neither the hereditary conception of the Habsburg Empire, nor the principle of self-determination after the First Wor1d War can be the solution…Federalism is the only possible means of reconciling states and nations.’ The two basic problems of Central Europe, the attainment of national freedom and of social justice, remain unsolved. If and when they are solved, the danger zone of Central Europe, which has triggered off two world wars in the 20th Century, may become a zone of peace and stability.”

Danube scenes

At the same time with Jaszi’s work for the government, a group of Hungarian artists, including Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly, drafted an appeal to the winners of World War I, asking them to allow the peoples of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy to settle their own affairs within a federation which would accord full self-determination to all (Nov. 3, 1918).

But the appeal was in vain and the victors, led by President Wilson, tried to bring “democracy” to Central Europe by dismantling the monarchy. They did a terrible job which left countries fragmented and mangled, while creating artificial states unable to survive.

The next war, partially a result of the inadequate settlement of the first, brought a new order to Central Europe, courtesy of the Red Army. And yet, the dream of a federation survived all this.

SHUTTLE—The hydrofoil “Siraly” arriving at its Budapest dock, across Gellert Hill, after its regular daily run from Vienna. The Danube serves as a major thoroughfare for passengers and cargo between Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Romania. The statue seen in this picture is a memorial to the Red Army for the 1945 “liberation” of the country by the Soviet Union.

Imre Nagy, minister of agriculture in 1945, laid the foundations of the present-day COMECON, Moscow’s answer to the Common Market, by proposing an Institute for Agriarian Science in the Danube Basin.

The plan was vetoed by Moscow and Nagy, in “retirement” during the Stalinist era in Hungary, worked on a federation plan.

The forerunner of Kadars, 1964 suggestions, Nagy’s work, written in the early 1950’s, explained the rationale for such a federation:

“The most practicable plan is the active coexistence of progressive democratic Socialist or similar countries with those other countries having a different system, through a coordinated foreign policy and through cooperation against the policies of the power groups, through neutrality or active coexistence.

“This path is made easier for Hungary by its geographic location through its neighboring states, neutral Austria, and countries building Socialism, among then the Soviet Union, and neighboring Yugoslavia, which stands on the principle of active coexistence.

“It is the sovereign right of the Hungarian people to decide in which form they believe the most advantageous international status will be assured, and in which form they think that national independence, sovereignty, equality, and peaceful development will be attained…

“Around us in the world, near and far, there are countries of varying social orders, in various stages of development which show their diversity in their language, traditions, economy, culture, and their whole way of life. We are one of the countries within this circle. We must therefore recognize that we are members not only of the Socialist camp but of the great community of nations.” (Imre Nagy, On Communism, New York: Praeger, 1957)

Nagy, as prime minister of the 1956 Hungarian revolutionary government, had a chance to realize part of his plan when, on Nov. 1, he declared the country’s neutrality.

But Moscow allowed this for only three days and when Red Army units entered Budapest again during the dawn of Nov. 4, the dreams of independence and neutrality were crushed.

Kadar was installed by Moscow as the new party chief and Nagy was executed in 1958.

Yet, just a few years after these bloody events, it was Kadar’s turn to renew the dream of the federation, using words strikingly similar to Nagy’s:

“On the basis of the principle of peaceful coexistence, our government is establishing normal relations with the Capitalist countries…

“This announcement surprised a great many people, although there is nothing to be surprised at. In our view, peaceful coexistence is accompanied by the fact that we take notice of each others’ existence…

“Socialist Hungary is also in Europe, in the central part of this continent. Realistically thinking, we have always taken into account the fact that in the same geographic area there are many countries whose internal systems differ from ours. We can only welcome the fact that a realistic acknowledgment of these endowments has also been started by the other side, because geographic proximity lends itself to many-sided and useful possibilities of cooperation and because our peoples have common interests in the maintenance of peace…” (Nepszabadsag, Feb. 12, 1965)


Received in New York on August 28, 1969.

Mr. Gereben is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. This article may be published with credit to Janos Gereben, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and the Alicia Patterson Fund.