View Full Version : Nation and State in Modern Hungarian History

11-07-2008, 09:41 AM
The relationship between nation, nationality and state has been a focal point of Hungarian history ever since modern nationalism made itself felt for the first time during the 18th century. Some issues, however, can be traced back to the Middle Ages. In discussing his subject, Szekfű decided to go back to the eleventh century and Hungary's first ruler, King Stephen. Indeed, other historians went back even further in time. His contemporary, Tibor Joó, for instance, attempted to find the source of the fundamental features of Hungarian national identity, the Magyar sense of nationhood, in the social structures and world view of
the nomadic Magyar tribes in the times before they took possession of the Carpathian Basin.2 The ahistoric character of these endeavours needs no demonstration in the light of current scholarship. The Hungarian state, of course, does have its origins in the realm of Saint Stephen, it could be traced back even further, to the nomadic tribes of the East European steppe, but it must not be forgotten that such states have little to nothing in common with our concept of a constitutional, civic commonwealth. Not even the estates of high medieval and early modern Hungary can be considered direct predecessors of the modern Hungarian state. The founding of the Kingdom of Hungary implied-as the eminent medievalist Pál Engel put it-"a series of painful, but necessary measures which were meant to serve the peace of the realm and to secure the future of Christianity within it." "First and foremost, three items new to Hungarian society had to be established: a stable system of both feudal estates and rights, and the complex institutions of secular and religious governance."
One cannot speak of a modern nation, or of modern nationalities before the 19th century, since these terms refer to integrated cultural-political communities. As the term nobilis Hungarus could apply to any nobleman, thus covering the whole of the realm's nobility, the simpler term hungarus was meant to apply to every person native to Hungary. Feudal law in Hungary, which sharply distinguished between nobles and non-nobles, made no distinction whatsoever between Magyars and non-Magyars. Thus one cannot talk of a nationalities question-with respect to the state-before the 18th century. At most, one can observe a slow progression towards the articulation of a certain common national sentiment. Szekfű was, of course, not ignorant of the differences between a feudal and a modern nation, and he was also aware of the modern character of nationalism. He did distinguish between the nationalities question before and after the 18th century. In one of the essays included in his aforementioned book, he observed that while

it is certainly true that peoples have distinguished themselves based upon their nationalities prior to the French Revolution... the life of nations and peoples was not a self-conscious life... we would be victims of a massive misconception if we were to think that a king, a ruling class meted a decree with obvious national relevance while actually conscious of that relevance, in order to change, to alter some aspect of the structure of the nation or that of the nationalities within the state. ... Kings of old were ignorant of the nationalities question: it was present, but in a way ultraviolet rays or radioactivity are present in our life: these irradiations exist, but we usually do not realize their presence.

The relationship of nation, nationality and state became problematic mainly because of two major factors. One of these was that Hungary's reunification and independence were not achieved after the country, sundered into three in the 16th century, came under one ruler again at the end of the 17th. The territories reclaimed from Ottoman rule did not form part of a sovereign Hungarian state: instead, they ended up as provinces of the Habsburg Empire. What once used to be Hungary was divided into three administrative units from the 18th century to 1848, namely the so-called Kingdom of Hungary, the Transylvanian Principality and the Marches, which remained under military governance. The most heated debates in the country about state and nationhood centred around the relationship between these three provinces and their status vis-ŕ-vis the Habsburg Empire. What would be the best national policy-this question underlay most debates-should Hungarian independence, or at least separation, be pursued, should one strive to achieve the reintegration of the country, or would it be better to fight against staunchly conservative historical particularism and provincial separatism, accepting a programme of imperial centralization?

A central component of this dilemma that historiography usually addresses is
the language question. Latin was used as the official language and was obviously becoming unfit to function as such; consequently there were debates over what language should be chosen to replace it. Neither an integrated cultural community, nor an economy could function without a living language as an effective channel of communication. In the western half of the Empire, German had been accepted as a lingua franca, but, in Hungary, the language most widely spoken was Hungarian, by masses of the peasantry as well. Vienna preferred German, ultimately pursuing a kind of Germanization, by Maria Theresa perhaps more tactfully, by her son, Joseph II, more vehemently. "How many great advantages are to be won," his diary says, "through the use of a single language in the whole empire, in intercourse of all kinds, in all professions, tying the parts of the realm closer together, uniting its populace with the bond of brotherly love-this is amply demonstrated by the examples of France, England and Russia, amply enough to convince us or anyone."
Administrative centralization, together with linguistic and cultural homogenization proposed by Vienna, was supported, however, only by a very small minority, recruited typically from the ranks of the bourgeoisie and bureaucrats of the central administration. One of them, the lawyer Samuel Kohlmayer, scion of a German family settled in Pest, expressed the opinion that Hungarian was "only fit for swearing," and were it to become the official language, it would set back cultural development by two centuries. On the other hand, he thought that "German relates more advanced German morals and science."6 However, the greater part of the Hungarian elite, first and foremost the nobility, did not accept Vienna's proposition. Partly under the influence of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, partly as a counter-reaction to the policies of Joseph II, they opted to modernize and standardize Hungarian. "Never on this globe had a
nation acquired wisdom before assimilating the sciences to its language. Every nation became savant in its own language, never in some other's," wrote György Bessenyei as early as 1778, pointing the way for many that were to follow.7 Language as the focal point of the national question had become an axiom of the new Hungarian nationalism by the beginning of the 19th century.
Latin and German were put on the defensive for the first time in the Education Acts of 1791/92, and the victory of Hungarian became complete with the passing of the Language Bill of 1844. This made Hungarian the language of legislation, administration and the judiciary. Along with this, a struggle unfolded aimed at the unification of Hungarian provinces, and at achieving a higher degree of autonomy within the Empire. This led to the armed conflict between the Imperial Court and the Magyar nation, which erupted at the time of the revolutionary wave which shook Europe in 1848.
The question of nation and state was further complicated by the ethnic and linguistic heterogeneity of the peoples inhabiting the Hungarian Kingdom. Reasonable estimates show that of the 8 million inhabitants of the Hungarian Kingdom, Croatia and Slavonia, as well as the Marches, at the outset of the 19th century, only 42 per cent spoke Hungarian as their mother tongue: 18.5 were Croats or Serbs, 14 were Slovaks, 10 were Romanians, 9 Germans, while Ruthenes accounted for 4 percent, with Slovenes and others making up the remaining two and a half per cent. In the Transylvanian Principality, with a total population of slightly more than one and a half million, the Magyar population had an even smaller share. They accounted for 36 per cent of the total, while Romanians were in the majority with 53 per cent, and German Saxons 9 per cent. Counting all the provinces of historic Hungary, Magyars made up 39 per cent of the population; even if we disregard Croatia and the Marches, that figure still only rises to 48 per cent.9
Travellers and educated men, who made up a minuscule group of perhaps twenty to thirty thousand people, were of course fully aware of the linguistic and ethnic heterogeneity of Hungary. Márton Schwartner, the first notable Hungarian representative of political arithmetic in Hungary, wrote in one of his books (1798) that "In keinem Lande der Welt sind vielleicht mehrere Sprachen-und eben deswegen auch so viele Nationen-einheimisch, als in Ungern". ("In no other country of the world are so many languages and, therefore, nationalities, at home than there are in Hungary.") One of his disciples, János Csaplovics, held in high esteem by ethnographers, anthropologists and statisticians alike, registered a similar picture two decades later in 1822:

Hungary is a miniature Europe, not only due to its varied landscape and resources, but also by right of its population, as almost all European tribes, languages, confessions, professions, almost all degrees of cultural development, mores, morals and customs can be observed here.