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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 4:9–10.


Small Nations*


Talking about small nations, I think the first thing to do is to define just what a small nation is. My experience has been that when I am travelling in the West, visiting, for instance, Holland, Belgium, or other small countries similar in that respect to Hungary and I speak about small nations, the locals look at me rather blankly.

There is considerable agreement in thinking that calling a nation small or large – and especially “little” or “big” – does not depend on the size of its territory or the number of its population. In fact the concept is by no means widely used; the usage “small nation” as against “large nation” seems to be fashionable primarily in Central and Eastern Europe. The things seem to be inherent in the application of the two phrases: on the one hand, we consider ourselves small (with a latent inferiority complex at work in this attitude); and on the other hand, we try to compensate for this sense of littleness in some way, as a matter of fact regarding ourselves as being much more significant than we actually are. I think we should not really allow this idea – whether we are small or large, little or big – to occupy so much attention in our minds. We would probably be better off if we felt the same way as do the Danes. In Denmark I never heard the term “small nation”, but they often said that they were happy and building the country for them. And it is quite apparent that the size of their country suits them and is in perfect accord with their character. They don’t want to be larger and they don’t want to be smaller.

I think two possibilities are open to us. We can either observe ourselves with sound scepticism preserving the right to sustain certain reservations. Let us have doubts about ourselves, and, above all, let us have reservations about just how right we are. I think there is good reason for us to have doubts in regard to our prejudices, I almost said in regard to our national delusions, our national paranoia. Once we overcome this feeling, we shall, it is to be hoped, no longer feel that our neighbours are a threat to us, and the adjoining countries will not feel either that we are a threat to them. If we look at each other with the proper reservations about our original impressions, these threats will generally prove unrealistic. The alternative possibility is to preserve the freedom of our thinking, not allowing a feeling of littleness – or even of greatness – overcome us because both are unreasonable.

Should I seek the prerequisites to real national largeness, I would use two key terms: “the right to reservations” and “freedom of thinking”. Freedom of thinking means that we recognize the freedom of others to stand by their own ideas. It surely wouldn’t hurt if we allowed others also the possibility to size us up, just as we often measure ourselves. This way, we might find that others take us with the same unbiased autonomous good will as we appraise ourselves. I believe that in that case we shall be happier in our existence as a “small nation”.


* Introduction to the first ”József Eötvös Memorial Lecture” at the Europa Institut Budapest, 4 March 1992.