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Budapest was the fastest growing European city in the 19th century and about a quarter of its population was Jewish. Jews in Eastern Europe have functioned like the canary in the mine: what happened to the canary would soon enough happen to the miners. The degree Hungarian Jews felt included, excluded, then ambivalent and confused about leaving or staying also provides a glimpse of the history of Hungarian nationalism in its various manifestations between 1848 and the present.

The semi-autonomous Hungarian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1867-1918, included Slovakia, Transylvania, northern Serbia and the quasi-autonomous Kingdom of Croatia. Magyars were by far the largest ethnic group in Hungary at 40 percent yet, they would have to cobble together a majority. Assimilating Jews and Germans were welcomed in order to expand Magyar plurality. On the eve of World War I, Hugh Stetson-Watson made famous what he called the "racial problems" in the Hungarian borderlands. The notoriety of forced Magyarization in the schools and bureaucracy obscured the success of Magyarization in the capital. Budapest went from about 80 percent German-speaking in 1848 to about 80 percent Magyar-speaking in 1880.

The word "inclusion" rather than "assimilation" is used in order to shift the focus onto the nation and the process of accepting minorities into a community, rather than on the actions of the minorities who are making the adaptation. Assimilation implies a solution, a kind of permanency, whereas inclusion suggests a process with ruptures and redefinitions. Policies of inclusion can be severed or reinstated more easily than assimilation.

In the bitter interwar years, Budapest was attacked for its diversity. The city was indifferent to true Hungarian values, it was argued. Cosmopolitanism was counterpoised to patriotism. The revolution that broke out in Pest on March 15, 1848 conjoined classical Liberal aspirations with the awakening of Magyar nationalism. Civil rights for Jews were embraced. Not all crowds in 1848 were inclusionary, however, and scattered pogroms in the first weeks prompted the revolution to place restrictions on the right of assembly and delay civil equality for the Jews until the twilight days of the revolution. The violence against the Jews proved a harbinger of terrible ethnic civil wars in the borderlands later that year.

Hungarian nationalism, indeed all the Central and East European nationalisms, are driven by martyrologies of defeat. There was a natural solidarity that came from this collectively suffered defeat and occupation. Hungary's Jews, as fellow sufferers, gained a passport to political inclusion. Reconciliation with the Habsburg monarchy in 1867 brought semi-independence and control over the internal affairs of their multiethnic kingdom. The demography of the hinterlands, however, put Hungarian national liberalism in a vice. By the turn of the century, the National Liberals retreated from a policy of widening the suffrage that threatened gentry dominance for fear of overturning the Magyar identity of the state. Jewish intellectuals consequently became prominent as crowd spokesmen of a socialist internationalism critical of an increasingly rigid national liberalism.

With the collapse of Austria-Hungary in World War I, the need for cobbling together a Hungarian ethnic majority was rendered obsolete. Hungary was among the principal losers. Within its truncated borders, Hungary became one of the most ethnically homogenous states. Nostalgia for the bucolic world of a lost Hungary reflected the imbalance between Budapest, a metropolis, and the dwarf state it seemed to dominate after World War I. Budapest's loss of economic dynamism lent credence to the myth of an anemic liberalism undone by success. The counter-revolutionary regime drove leftists into exile, and the liberalism of the preceding half- century was reversed. Internally, an exclusionary policy was adopted which rested on anti- Semitism and notions of national purity. Hungary, it was said, had allowed its ethnic identity to be diluted, washed too thin by the pull to the West, by urbanization, and by the heavy influence of Hungarian Jews in the culture and prosperity of the country. Hungary was the first to subject Jews to quotas; then Jews were targeted in special legislation in 1939, 1940 and 1941. The process by which Jewishness was criminalized was deeply corrupt. Although most of the Jews of newly-acquired Transylvania and the countryside were deported, about 120,000 Jews remained in the ghettoes of Budapest by the end of the war. This was the largest surviving Jewish community in Eastern Europe, outside the Soviet Union.

World War II lasted so long and the climactic battle of Budapest was so brutal that Hungarian soldiers and civilians felt victimized. There were a million Hungarian POWs and civilians in forced labor camps in the Soviet Union. Was this liberation? Most muttered about a "so-called liberation," and many looked askance at the Jews, the one group for whom 1945 represented liberation. The martyrology of the Holocaust upstaged all others. The "discovery" of the concentration camps in March and April redefined the Anglo-American conception of the purpose of the war. The death camps came to define fascism as more than mere militarism or capitalism gone berserk. The new term genocide characterized exclusionary politics taken to the unthinkable. The quick repatriation of Hungarian camp survivors in the summer of 1945 brought Budapesters uncomfortably face-to-face with "Returnees [who] don't speak much," a psychologist reported. "Except for the daily reading of the list of the returnees and looking for their lost relatives and fighting for a little food, nothing interests them. They are totally paralyzed." By the end of 1945, the American-Jewish charity JOINT had provided 41 percent of the returnees with food while a third received monetary subsidies.

Magyars were also exhausted and suffering from widespread hunger. The American Legation warned that in Budapest daily rations were falling to an average of only 858 calories per person. Magyar deprivation engendered a bitter discourse. Gyula Illyes, populist poet- laureate, complained in his diaries of 1946 that "about half a million 'Budapest Gentiles,' i.e. every second citizen, had been instrumental in sheltering persecuted Jews, but the press and the Jewish community showed no gratitude for such rescue action." On the other hand, Chief Rabbi Dr. Ferenc Hevesi said in December, 1945: "We have the feeling of living among murderers, and I never know whether the man opposite me in the tram is not my father's or my brother's murderer."

Invisibility and suspicion were key responses to the immediate postwar chaos. It was easy to assume a new or disguise an old identity. The entire society had a dislocated identity. Arrow Cross men went underground, while for many Budapest Jews, being inconspicuous had become a life-saving reflex. Many who had survived by submerging in the wider gentile population completed their assimilation. Intermarriage in Hungary reached 37 percent (almost double that of 1918), while the number who formally abandoned their Jewish religious designation rose from 9 percent in 1945 to 37 percent in 1949. By the end of the 1950s, 50 percent of Jews had Magyar-sounding names. An encouraging official rhetoric of inclusion spoke of "equality of all citizens," "amnesty and rehabilitation," and the "punishment of war criminals." Yet, there was a fundamental contradiction between combating anti-Semitism while continuing a policy of ethnic cleansing. Stalin coerced the Eastern European countries to swap minorities and to expel the Volksdeutsche in their midst. Ethnic politics of the war thus continued in forced repatriations that ranged from deadly to gentle and involved all the occupying allied powers in Europe. Hungary thus became a more ethnically pure nation. For those minorities who remained, the compulsion to Magyarize was irresistible.

Jewish demands for restitution of property were so resented that, by the spring of 1946, Jews faced a new anti-Semitism that identified them with the black market, the victors, and postwar deprivation. In one provincial town, a Communist iron workers' meeting turned into an anti-Semitic demonstration; in another, a pogrom was prompted by the trial of a school teacher and a priest by a local People's Tribunal. Two of the three ringleaders were women. The provisional government claimed to support Jewish reparations, but turned restitution into an unworkable bureaucratic morass. Meanwhile, the Communists adopted the position that former persecution for religious rather than political reasons did not warrant special consideration. Certain incidents, such as the light sentences given to a group of policemen, many of whom were Jewish, for killing alleged fascists in custody aroused further resentment. Jewish Communists had become conspicuous insiders, but cadres were walled off, insulated from the majority population who viewed them as collaborators. Communists tended to assume the people were collectively responsible and quite capable of repeating their behaviors, unlike the Americans who insisted that the guilty could be determined and separated from the public. If Americans sought to induce German regret, Communists were content that the Hungarian population move away from their past. This, however, required that the Jewish Communists deny their own Jewishness; religion, in fact, became a taboo in public discourse.

Hungarian Jewry could seek invisibility by either laying down the burden of Jewishness or Hungarianness, or abandoning both. In the spring of 1945, Hungarian concentration camp survivors had been treated as persecuted enemy aliens, and the Hungarian survivors, given the proximity of Hungary, were among the first to be repatriated to the East. The strict classification by nation of origin came under attack, giving way to an expanded category of "stateless" people to include Jewish refugees. Hungarian Jews now had the option of melting into the ranks of displaced persons. For many, if not most, the destinations of choice were English- speaking countries, but as access remained restricted, displaced Jews seized on the alternative of Palestine. Although probably the second largest group in the Jewish displaced persons camps, the invisibility of the Hungarians in these camps is especially striking. There remained no compulsion, advantage, or purpose to sustaining a public Hungarian presence, save for a chance to relax into one's native speech. In contrast to the Jews of other Soviet satellites, however, the number of Jews who did not emigrate from Hungary is striking. Only a quarter left before the Communist dictatorship closed the border in 1948/49. The opportunity to leave was there - Budapest was on the transit route of Jews moving west. A last surge of emigration did take place in 1949, when middle class Jews feared being cornered as "class enemies."

In the 1990s, ethnic cleansing to the south underscored the old dangers of nationality politics. The fragmentation of Yugoslavia and the breakup of Czechoslovakia sent a chastening message. Choosing a diplomatic route for redressing Hungarian minority grievances in Slovakia, Romania and Serbia has meant extending model legislation on nationality rights to Hungary's minorities. Gypsies have become Roma, establishing the once pariah group as a minority nationality, without, however, alleviating their poverty. An infusion of American support has rebuilt the great synagogue in Pest, and opened bilingual schools that offer Hungarian Jews opportunities in a global economy. The invisible Jew has become visible, often to himself/herself for the first time. Becoming a showcase of national minority inclusion has brought with it an unease of becoming too visible.

In exerting demands for national minority rights for Hungarians living across its borders, Hungary benefits from a redefinition of the region as Central Europe, and most of all, from multinational partnerships, especially membership in NATO and the European Community. With the exception of Romania, the states surrounding Hungary have become smaller, weaker, and presumably more pliable to Hungarian interests. The politics of National Liberalism has returned to Hungary, but this time, the indignation and demands for minority rights are not directed at Hungary but from Hungary.

Alice Freifeld spoke at an EES Discussion on October 16, 2001. The above is a summary of her presentation. Meeting Report #238.


About the Author

Alice Freifeld

Former East European Studies Title VIII Research Scholar;
Associate Professor of History, University of Florida
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