Environmental determinism on speed: the Hungarian concept of the Carpathian Basin

Geographical labels have never been neutral and this contribution investigates the post-WWI flourishing and effects of the ‹Carpathian Basin› in Hungary. It shows that while the concept had appeared sporadically prior to WWI, it suddenly exploded during the interwar era largely to support the official position of Hungarian irredentism. The contribution also shows how the loss of much of the Carpathians (widely perceived as a national trauma) triggered certain new practices in nature–society relations in Hungary.

By the 1910s it became increasingly clear that the country’s territorial integrity was at risk. Thus during WWI and especially in its aftermath, the concept of the Carpathian Basin was intensively promoted. In autumn 1918 Hungary’s Minister for National Minorities proposed a Swiss-style confederation, but it was too late and the country lost over 2/3 of its territory at Versailles. From WWI up to the end of WWII academics and geographers in particular were mobilised to legitimise the country’s pre-1920 territorial shape. Many developed the concept of the Carpathian Basin, which they saw as a perfectly cohesive natural entity that should never have been divided politically. Based on orographic and hydrographic maps and conditions they argued that the Basin made up a ‹round and whole›, which also explained why the Carpathians constituted Hungary’s political borders for a ‹thousand years›.

All of this also impacted society at large. In the interwar era geography was strengthened in the national curriculum, mainly adopting the approaches mentioned above. Partly as a legacy of pre-WWI growing familiarity with the Carpathians (e.g. through the Ungarischer Karpathenverein), domestic mountain tourism was promoted through the development of trekking itineraries and youth hostels, for instance in the Mátra (which unlike the Tatra and Fatra has remained in Hungary). Some of this infrastructure tried to imitate, and certainly compensate for, the loss of much of the Carpathians.