Pál Teleki (1874–1941): The Life of a Controversial Hungarian Politician

TitlePál Teleki (1874–1941): The Life of a Controversial Hungarian Politician
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsBehrendt, Andrew
Author(s) of reviewed materialAblonczy, Balázs


PublisherBoulder, CO: Social Science Monographs
ISBN Number978-0-5218-4515-1
Special information

Translated by Thomas J. and Helen D. DeKornfeld

Full Text

Among the dramatis personae of the history of interwar Hungary, only a handful of names bulk as large as Pál Teleki’s (18741941). At a glance, his two tenures as prime minister offer themselves as crucial markers for the period. It was on Teleki’s first watch that the infamous numerus clausus act of 1920 went on the books, severely restricting the enrollment of Jews and women at Hungarian universities. It was during his second term that Hungary passed its second anti-Jewish law and recovered much of the territory surrendered in the Treaty of Trianon. He is perhaps best known for his suicide on the eve of Hungary’s entry into the Second World War on the side of the Axis, a deed mourned by his contemporaries as martyrdom and by some of our own as the redemptive sacrifice of a national hero. Yet there was an incredibly eventful life before and between these darker chapters, one in which Teleki gained a reputation at home and abroad as a brilliant geographer and devoted leader of the Hungarian scouting movement. Historian Balázs Ablonczy brings these two weights into balance in a much-needed volume, which fills a conspicuously empty space alongside the definitive accounts of the two most defining figures of the period, Thomas Sakmyster’s biography of Miklós Horthy (1994) and Ignác Romsics’ volume on the life of István Bethlen (1995).

Ablonczy divides his book into four major sections, each according to what he sees as an appropriate periodization of Teleki’s public life (239243). After giving a brief glance at Teleki’s youth, he characterizes the period 1897–1918 as “The Years of Learning,” detailing Teleki’s rise to prominence as a geographer of international renown and as a significant player in the Hungarian academy. His participation in the pre-First World War fantasies of small-time Hungarian imperialism—directed mainly toward the Balkans, flavored by a peculiar kind of Orientalist logic and often forgotten today—forms an especially interesting subtheme here. He was, for instance, a high-profile member of the Turanian Society (formed to promote cultural relations with Altaic-speaking peoples as a counterweight to pan-Slavism and pan-Germanism) and helped advance the group’s wartime cultural Ostpolitik, which sought to make friends of Bulgarians, Turks, and Bosnians (37).

The next section spans the years 19181921. Ablonczy judges this period to represent a pivotal point in Teleki’s political and social outlook, catalyzed by the twin revolutions of 19181919. He first joined the counterrevolutionary movement based in Vienna and then the one in Szeged, during which time he took a leading role in the campaign to maintain the territorial integrity of the Hungarian state. The “shock” of these turbulent months convinced Teleki that the Dualist Era faith in Jewish assimilation had stifled the growth of a proper “Christian middle class” and cleared the way for a Jewish takeover of Hungarian society. During his first tenure as prime minister (19201921), these beliefs, coupled with a deep suspicion of liberal democracy, informed his support of the numerus clausus law of 1920 and subsequently, the three Jewish Laws passed in between the years 19381941 (57–58). Ablonczy rather laconically acknowledges that the numerus clausus and other repressive measures “[were] not among the positive aspects of [Teleki’s] regime,” but credits him nevertheless with laying the foundations of the political consolidation of the 1920s, usually associated with István Bethlen (90).

The third section of the book, “Educating the Nation,” has a certain diffuse quality, but it is arguably the heart of Ablonczy’s enterprise. It covers the seventeen years (1921–1938) between Teleki’s first and second ministries, which Ablonczy considers “the most awkward period of his life to understand and describe because his interests were directed in so many directions simultaneously” (94). Even so, three themes come to the fore. First, we have Teleki the educator, who involved himself in an array of projects whose supreme goal was the cultivation of a Christian, nationalist élite trained to assume command of the nation’s affairs—and displace the Jewish middle class thought to control them already. Such activities included a professorship at the School of Economics of the University of Economics and Public Administration in Budapest, a term as chief administrator of Eötvös College, and, most famously, a leading position in the Hungarian branch of the international Boy Scout movement (139). Second, we have Teleki the “organizer and ideologue” of the campaign to revise the territorial boundaries established by the Treaty of Trianon (103). This meant not only a few years in the early twenties as president of the central organ for revisionist propaganda (TESz), but nearly two decades as a writer of sophisticated appeals for the return of the territories ceded in 1920 aimed at other European intellectuals. Finally, Ablonczy offers an interpretation of the conservatism that underlay all of Teleki’s endeavors in these years. He emerges as a thinker and politician who remained sensitive to social problems and therefore open to change, so long as it came incrementally and respectful of tradition; whose vision of “democracy” leaned towards corporatism and rested on paternalistic order, contempt for mass politics, and a deep distrust of the masses themselves.

            The fourth section follows Teleki’s return to national politics in his fateful second appointment to the premiership (1938–1941). Ablonczy narrates the perilous—and ultimately failed—balancing act that Teleki tried to maintain between an independent foreign policy on one hand and the territorial prizes offered by the Nazis’ expanding Reich on the other. He notes that the Teleki government was especially keen to reintegrate northern Transylvania, setting aside other domestic concerns and spending recklessly to make this happen as quickly as possible (218–219). An unflattering image emerges here of Teleki as a micromanager: his technocratic conceits and insistence on having a personal hand in administration led to poor choices, especially during the negotiations for revision (199, 216). In addressing the further reduction of rights brought about by the second round of anti-Jewish laws (1940), Ablonczy does not let his subject off too lightly. He acknowledges Teleki as a “torn” but “convinced anti-Semite,” whose “indefensible” views only served to drag Hungarian conservatism into a gruesome “dead-end” (187). At the fall of the final curtain, Ablonczy reveals that Teleki arrived at the day of his suicide in a dark, broken state of mind. Plagued by chronic illness and already depressed by the steep cost to Hungarian autonomy exacted by the return of northern Transylvania, he was a man of shattered morale by the time he acquiesced to German demands for Hungarian assistance with the invasion of Yugoslavia in the spring of 1941. Almost immediately thereafter, he put an end to his own life (230).

            Overall, the depth that this workmanlike account adds to our understanding of one of the most influential figures of Hungarian history argues its importance for specialists in the field. That depth arises plainly from abundant and thoughtful documentation. At its best, Ablonczy’s volume not only fills gaps but suggests avenues for the work of others. This reviewer, for instance, found much that cast light on Teleki’s influence as a cartographer and social scientist at the sites of nationalist, and particularly revisionist knowledge production in Hungary before the Second World War. This accords well with the new light shed on the subject by Holly Case in her recent book Between States (2009).

A few shortcomings, however, threaten to limit the impact of Ablonczy’s excellent research. He has written a rich biographical narrative, but does not try to “make sense” of Teleki in a fuller historical context. There are but a few paragraphs at its conclusion that move cautiously in this direction. He asserts, for example, that Teleki’s life was “characteristic of the twentieth century,” though he does not elaborate why (238). He hints teasingly that “perhaps [Teleki’s] personal failure demonstrates something about small country existence,” but pursues the idea no further (243). This is symptomatic of the work as a whole. With no strong theses to bind his many threads together, Ablonczy generally constrains his analysis to scattered moments throughout the book. His open engagement with secondary literature is minimal and, like most of his organizational explanations, comes somewhat curiously in the afterword.

On the other hand, one suspects that Ablonczy, no doubt fully aware of how pointed a figure Teleki remains in Hungarian discourses of the nation, intentionally shied away from giving his own observations an overly sharp edge. Rather than trying to define for his readers what Pál Teleki “ought to mean” in Hungarian history, Ablonczy has given a levelheaded account planted on a solid foundation of archival research. In view of present-day Hungarian political trends, there is much to be said for this approach.

Andrew Behrendt

University of Pittsburgh





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Lorman, Thomas. Counter-Revolutionary Hungary: István Bethlen and the Politics of Consolidation. Boulder: East European Monographs, 2006.

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Romsics, Ignác. István Bethlen: A Great Conservative Statesman of Hungary, 1874–1946. Translated by Mario D. Fenyo. Boulder: Social Science Monographs, 1995.

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