Actors, Ruptures, and Continuity. New Socialist Order or Legacy of the War Economy: The Hungarian Vehicle Industry around 1950

Zsombor Bódy
Eötvös Loránd University
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 10 Issue 3  (2021):466-494 DOI 10.38145/2021.3.466

This article investigates the formation of a Hungarian socialist enterprise in the vehicle industry. After giving an overview of the legacy of World War II in a (nationalized) vehicle industry plant, it explores political, production, and wage conflicts on the basis of company and party archives and considers the kinds of resources which workers and engineers could use in their efforts to assert their interests. It also considers how these efforts limited the abilities of the central economic authorities to exert influence. It arrives at the conclusion that the main features of the early socialist enterprises, such as technology, the structure of the skilled workforce, the attitudes of this workforce, etc., were shaped by the industrial boost which had come with the war. Furthermore, the relationship between workers and firms was itself shaped by the shortage of consumer goods during and after the war, because the supply of consumer goods (above all, food) was considered the responsibility of the enterprises. These circumstances set narrow limits within which the central economic administration had to operate in is efforts to create so-called socialist enterprises. So, the early socialist enterprise seems to have had few genuinely socialist elements. It was shaped far more by the prevailing conditions in the postwar context, networks among engineers, and a sense of solidarity among skilled workers which had been inherited from the pre-socialist era.

Keywords: Socialism, Hungary, technocracy, labor history, enterprises.

In December 1951, tensions concerning wages (quite typical of the Rákosi era) in the Ikarus Bodywork and Vehicle Factory on the outskirts of Budapest led to a riot. Barely a week earlier, the trade union secretary of Ikarus had spoken about the tension surrounding bonuses at the meeting of the Hungarian Workers’ Party (MDP) in the sixteenth district.1 As Christmas approached, the conflict became increasingly acute. According to the rules, December 27 would have been the payday at Ikarus. However, chief accountant Jenő Medvei had promised at a trade union event on December 19 that wages due would be paid on December 23, i.e. before the holiday. He allegedly misled the company’s executives by saying he had obtained permission from the Ministry of Metallurgy and Machinery to pay these wages. When the payments were already in progress, Medvei called the ministry to get permission to make the payments before Christmas. The ministry, however, rejected his request and even ordered the suspension of the payments that were already underway. The Ikarus leaders then suspended the payments, and they spent some time on the phone helplessly entreating various representatives of the higher bodies to help until, eventually, Minister of Metallurgy and Machinery Mihály Zsofinyec firmly informed them that they were forbidden from deviating in any way, with the disbursement of payments, from the official schedule.2 At 4:30 that afternoon, the workers, who were eagerly waiting to be paid, were told on the loudspeaker that payments of wages would only be made on December 27. Later, the company management was harshly criticized for not having the courage to stand in front of their employees in person and explain the party’s decision and stance. Financial director Medvei, however, allegedly did approach the angry workers in person and informed them of the instructions he had been given by the party. The crowd of about 500 people, including party members, wanted to beat general manager Szőcs, who fled to the party office. Szőcs was later criticized for having led the angry crowd to the party office.3 The angry mob broke into the corporate MDP office, smashed the equipment, and threw the documents and décor on the ground, but Szőcs was able to escape. The events were brought to an end with the arrival of the state security forces. The crowd was dispersed, and some 100 people were detained.4 By exploring the processes which led to the conflict described above, the present study examines the peculiarities of the formation of a socialist company which, as one of the flagbearers of Hungarian industry, provided buses for the Soviet Union and other Comecon countries for decades and, in some periods, also was a major source of exports from Hungary to countries in the third world.5

The secondary literature on the economics of the state socialist era has always considered large enterprises as important actors, and it was, according to this literature, the relations between these enterprises and the governing superiors (relations which were plagued by communication failures), the often dysfunctional interactions among these enterprises, and the internal conflicts at these enterprises which were responsible for the chaos of the planned economy.6 At the same time, its inefficiency from an economic point of view notwithstanding, the socialist enterprise was an important institution of social integration in state socialism because it linked its workers and employees to itself and to the system through other organizations tied to the enterprise (trade unions, sports clubs, etc.) and through social benefits, in addition to wages, and thus provided them with a specific socialist way of life.7 The more recent literature also emphasizes, in comparison with earlier research, that companies functioned as autonomous institutional actors in state socialist societies, maintaining transnational networks of contacts, often across the Iron Curtain, and that the development of these networks over time did not necessarily follow the same pattern as the development of political relations between East and West, but rather had a distinctive dynamics of its own.8 At the same time, the literature has only rarely dealt with the period of the emergence of the socialist enterprise, the processes that created the familiar features of the socialist enterprise, and the actors who shaped them in the period of nationalization. The present study examines the groups and forces that shaped the image of the enterprise at the turn of the 1940s and 1950s, and it considers the extent to which nationalization and the establishment of the party-state system represented a departure from the earlier path.

The Legacy of the War

“The Uhri siblings showed us that there is an America in Hungary too. They began as entrepreneurs with only small workshops, and we immediately made them into major industrialists.” So said, allegedly, the Deputy Minister of Defense on October 17, 1943. He was referring (or at least so the source in which the statement is found contends) to the tremendous growth which the company founded by the Uhri siblings had enjoyed because of the orders placed by the state for the military.9 The enterprise launched by the Uhri family, which had begun as a low-level undertaking, had grown by 1938 to a middle-level company which, however, still had less than 100 employees. Over the course of the next year, however, as a consequence of the orders placed by the state, the company grew to several times this size, from the perspectives of both production and the number of employees. The company, which in the early 1940s employed a few thousand people, made cable drum carts and superstructures for a wide variety of military vehicles (artillery carts, veterinary and horse disinfection carts, and, later, command vehicles and radio carts) and also pontoons for the army. It was declared a military plant, and the army became the most important source of orders for its products. Furthermore, as a consequence of this change in the status of the company, the important skilled workers were exempted from military service.

They received government loans. In 1942, the state lent 3.7 million pengős to the Uhri siblings for investment in vehicle manufacturing. They had to build a modern factory in Mátyásföld in order to be able to engage in modern large-scale production.10 The creation of a dramatically larger factory site necessitated, of course, a number of other changes. A doctor’s office, a kitchen, and a cafeteria were set up, or in other words, the kinds of social facilities associated with a large enterprise. The company was run by three siblings. Imre Uhri Jr. served as commercial director because he had connections to politics and the Ministry of Defense. Zsigmond Uhri saw to the tasks of technical director and was in charge of production. Matild Uhri (the wife of László Kelecsényi) headed the material procurement department, which may well have been a major task at a time of war.11

In 1938, the Uhri siblings also began to work in airplane manufacture. First, they made a gliding machine on the basis of designs by the Technical University Sport Flying Association. The glider was essentially a matter of small-scale industrial production. The Miklós Horthy National Aviation Fund then placed orders for repairs to school machines made by Bücker Flugzeugbau, a German manufacturer.12 The move into the aircraft industry was made possible by the fact that the production processes for bodywork for road vehicles were technologically similar to the production processes involved in making aircraft bodies. Working with the same machines and tools and similar materials, the skilled workers were able to use the training and experience they already had to perform the necessary tasks. Thus, in addition to the role it played in vehicle production, the factory was also able to take on the repair of aircraft and the production of sports aircraft in small series.

The next step was to establish a relationship with the Bücker Flugzeugbau manufacturer, as the Uhri siblings’ factory was doing repairs to planes produced by Bücker. The other factories in Hungary which were suitable for aircraft production were engaged in production within the framework of a joint program with the Germans, and thus there were no factories which would have been able to address the need to produce planes for training for the Hungarian military. The Ministry of Defense purchased the license for the Bücker 131 and then handed it over to Uhri siblings’ company.13 The Ministry of Defense then ordered 210 training planes from the company, and it provided significant loans for the investments needed to meet the order.14 The Uhri company thus became a kind of government enterprise. Similar enterprises had developed in Germany and overseas as a consequence of government investment programs to combat the world economic crisis, and naturally they continued to grow as a result of production for the war.15

The emergence of a system of contracts for the manufacture of aircraft, which was in the interests of both the Hungarian Ministry of Defense and the German company, involved the mobilization of significant sums of money and thus would not have been possible without persistent lobbying and background work. One of the accusations against Imre Uhri, who in 1945 and later was stigmatized as someone who had been a right-wing friend to the Germans during the war, involved the contacts which he had maintained with extreme right-wing personalities and military leaders, primarily people in the air force and military who were responsible for equipment orders, several of whom were members of the Arrow Cross, a far-right party in Hungary which for a time was even banned by Horthy. Some of these individuals, for instance a retired Deputy Minister of Defense, ended up on the company’s board of directors.16

As the investments were being made, several reports were received by the Ministry of Defense regarding the loans which had been made to the Uhri siblings. According to these reports, the monies which had been provided had been used in part to cover expenses for luxuries. In the course of the subsequent investigations, the Ministry of Defense committee of inquiry found that the original loan agreement according to which the Hungarian Army Treasury had entered the investment had been reached without actually stipulating clear plans for the construction of buildings, the manner of implementation, or the provision of the necessary equipment, though the Ministry itself had called for such plans. Since the very first financial plans had been reached, the credit line which was allegedly needed “had grown like an avalanche to 5, 8, 11, 14.7, 20, and 25 million, and now there is talk of 30–32 million.”17 During the investment, the Uhri siblings charged a number of things to the credit line which were not, strictly speaking, eligible. A total of 1,670,189 pengős were spent on costs which, according to the committee, should not have been charged to the credit line.18 In 1944, however, the Ministry of Defense transferred another quick loan to the company so that construction would not stop, and they even made a proposal to the Council of Ministers to raise the credit line.

The construction of a factory under the leadership the Uhri siblings but financed entirely by the Ministry of Defense bears a close resemblance to the later investments made by the socialist state according to the planned economy with only soft constraints on budgeting. As a consequence of this investment, in 1943 and early 1944, a 11,685 square-meter factory hall was built in Mátyásföld which at the time was one of the largest and most modern factories in all of Hungary.19

In the summer of 1944, factory councils were formed at the company, as indeed was the case at all factories. These councils were established by law in the spirit of the corporate ideas of the far-right government which came to power with the German occupation after March 19, 1944.20 Later, from 1945 onwards, these bodies were referred to as “Arrow Cross factory councils.” However, the actual political views and inclinations of the members of the councils may well have been very mixed (though people who had open left-wing sympathies, of course, would not have been admitted), and there may have been cases in which the elections reflected little more than the popularity of a given candidate among those who were entitled to vote. The factory councils, which had to listen to questions concerning personnel, focused primarily on welfare matters. For instance, they oversaw the distribution among workers and officials of materials which had been taken from shops which had classified as “Jewish.” From the perspective of the provision of goods and wares during a time of war, this was a manner of complementing the company’s forms of social welfare which had been developed earlier.

In the upheaval of the last months of the war, the Uhri factory could hardly escape the fate of most modern enterprises. As the Soviet army drew ever nearer, the government resolved to have all installations of any possible value moved. Some of the workers hid both materials and machines in the cellars of the Mátyásföld factory, in all likelihood with Zsigmond Uhri’s knowledge. At the beginning of December 1944, as it was essentially impossible to transport the machines which had not yet been moved, the Arrow Cross authorities (by this time, the Arrow Cross was in power) ordered that the machines simply be destroyed on site. Some of the middle-level leaders at the company were able to hide some of the motors, and they contended that they were unable to dismantle important parts because they did not have the necessary manpower. The willingness of factory employees to try to protect some of the company machines, materials, and tools was not so much an expression or consequence of principled stance against Nazism on their part as it was an indication of their attachment to the factory itself. For them, the factory was something of value, and it was important that it remain able to function.

In 1945, as the war finally drew to a close, a new era began for a company which was deeply indebted to the state, which was equipped with both the most modern machinery and production facilities, and which had an experienced workforce which was in part bound to the factory and which expected both a livelihood and social benefits from it.

After 1945: The Growing Party-influence, Exculpation Proceedings, Economic Dependency

After the war, in the absence of orders from the military, it no longer made sense to produce aircraft. A new motor vehicle market was emerging for the company, however, first and foremost in the repair of damaged vehicles. As military operations came to an end, the Soviet Army placed large orders for vehicle repairs from the company, which was allowed to keep some of the repaired trucks as a form of payment. The company exchanged some of these trucks for food for its employees.21 The situation after the war created other business opportunities. The company made railway wagons for the Hungarian delivery of reparations to the Soviet Union and pontoons for use as temporary bridges.

Following the siege of Budapest, factory committees were formed which replaced the factory councils which had been in 1944. Former Arrow Cross members were removed from these committees, but there was still some continuity in council/committee membership, as views among the workers and the officials at the company concerning who was worthy of esteem or exerted influence did not necessarily change.22 István Cséfalvay, who became a leading figure at the company in 1945 as a member of the Hungarian Communist Party, had also been a member of the factory council which had been formed in 1944.23 Members of the factory committee which initially had been created at the company belonged, for the most part, to the Communist Party. They then came out in opposition to the continued presence of the Uhri family in the company leadership. At a factory committee meeting in April 1945, they proclaimed that, “it is no longer possible to work together [with the Uhri siblings]. At the time of German and Hungarian fascist rule, they served the army, forcing production to the extreme.”24 Imre and Zsigmond Uhri were reported to the political law enforcement division of the police station with jurisdiction. The factory committee alleged that the work done by the two directors was worthless to the company and their presence at the factory was harmful.25

Imre Uhri made no attempt to defend himself against the contentions that were being made about him by the factory committee. Given his strong right-wing leanings, he simply left the country. First, however, in the presence of a notary he authorized his two siblings, Zsigmond and Matild, to dispose over his possessions, including any divestments.

As a result of the report, Zsigmond Uhri was interned.26 At the plant, however, a conflict broke out between the groups leaning either towards the Communist Party or the Social Democratic Party. As a result, changes were made to the membership of the factory committee, and steps were taken by the new members, most of whom belonged to the Social Democratic Party, to release Zsigmond.27 In their submissions to the police, the Ministry of the Interior, and the Ministry of Justice, they referred only to Imre Uhri as a “friend of the Germans” or “fascist.” They claimed that Zsigmond’s experience was essential to the continued work of the factory, which allegedly had virtually ground to a halt after his internment.28 Zsigmond himself appealed against his internment. His appeal and the steps taken by the factory committee were successful in the end, and the Ministry of the Interior reversed the decision of the Mátyásföld captaincy and released him. In August 1945, Zsigmond Uhri rejoined the management of the factory.29

Parallel with the case involving Zsigmond’s internment, the case concerning whether the acts he had committed during the war were justified was also underway. Similar procedures were introduced in all companies and public service workplaces in 1945. The “justification” processes offer glimpses into what the “Arrow Cross” or other political stances actually meant for workers and how workers were attached to the factory. Most of the employees at the Uhri companies, concerning whom no potentially accusatory observations were made, were automatically certified as “justified” by the committee, meaning that they were no considered under suspicion of having committed questionable acts during the war. Only a comparatively small number of cases were heard at length or with the possible involvement of witnesses. A woman who had worked as an official at the factory admitted during the procedure (and she was, from this point of view, a remarkable exception) that she also had received materials from the stocks taken from people who had been classified as Jewish, which the company, as a military plant, had received. The questionnaire used in the process had one question concerning whether the person involved had received or “purchased any of these clearance-materials.” Almost no one answered yes to this question, though as workers at the factory, they had indeed received these kinds of materials as part of the social benefits provided by their employer. The member of the Factory Council who had been responsible for distributing the food allowances was only censured. One of the complaints made by the Factory Committee against him was that, before Christmas 1944, he had not distributed food supplies in full. Obviously, from the perspective of the workers, who were represented by the committee, this had been an “anti-labor” act. The fact that he had been a member of the Factory Council had not, in and of itself, been a matter of particular interest. In the case of another person who had been a member of the Factory Council involved in the distribution of foodstuffs, mere membership on the Council again was not the grounds on which accusations were brought. Rather, he was rebuked for having favored, in this position, members of the Arrow Cross Party.30 In other words, the notion of having received in some way materials which had once been owned by people classified as Jews seen quite as natural, since almost everyone at the factory did indeed benefit from what was essentially the theft of these materials because they were used by the factory in its efforts to provide forms of social welfare. In the case of everyday industrial goods and foodstuffs, the benefits which were provided by the enterprise were considered natural regardless of where they had come from.31 If someone had gotten his or her hands on some item of value which had once belonged to Jewish neighbors who had been deported, however, this was judged very differently. There is an example of one such case in the “justification” procedures which were held at the Uhri companies.

The “justification” of Zsigmond Uhri took place in this context of procedures after his release from internment.32 During the certification process, it was clearly to his advantage that, in the eyes of his workers, he was not a parasite or abusive boss. Many of the skilled laborers at the factory were on close terms with him, and they sought him out to discuss their troubles. Zsigmond’s efforts to make sure that the factory remained operational fostered a sense of community between him and workers who were tied long-term to the plant. This may explain the position of the company’s social democratic group of workers, who expressed their support for him.33

In the course of the “justification” procedures, the concept of worker identity seems not to have been defined according to the logic of party politics. For them, the work that they did in the factory was not simply a matter of putting food on the table. It was also an essential part of their identities. Anything that threatened operations at the plant threatened not only their livelihoods but also their social understandings of themselves. For this reason, they may very well have opposed the relocation of machinery at the plan abroad, and in 1945, they expected the people with the capital, i.e. the Uhri siblings, to ensure the necessary funds for the relaunch of the factory if they wanted to remain in their leadership positions. Zsigmond Uhri had to provide the working capital necessary to run the company. According to a subsequent audit report which was issued when the company was taken over by the state, Uhri Zsigmond invested a total of 370,000 pengős in the company in 1945.34 The workers were interested in who was promoting the operation of the factory, to which their livelihoods and identities were tied, while the question of whether a given individual had been an “Arrow Cross” (either a member of the party or just someone with extreme rightwing views) was not considered, on its own, a problem.

Thus, by the second half of 1945, in cooperation with Factory Committee, the majority of which belonged to the Social Democratic party, Zsigmond Uhri regained control of the company. The injection of capital helped solve the problems cause by war damages and the need for working capital. In the period of soaring inflation which followed, it was not difficult to finance the company. There were plenty of orders. The period of stabilization which began in early August 1946, however, put the company in a difficult position. Financial stabilization meant a dramatic drop in loan offers.35 Orders also fell, and it was impossible to get credit. This situation became a trap for the company in part simply because the management was unable to reduce the number of employees in parallel with the downturn in business. Government decrees had been issued starting in 1945 which made it impossible to reduce the workforce, which had swollen during the war, by banning layoffs. With the introduction of the forint in the autumn of 1946, a decree was issued allowing companies to reduce the number of employees, but the Factory Committee vehemently opposed it.36 In the aim of reducing the number of people who would be dismissed most of the members of the committee were not guided simply by social concerns which ran contrary to economic considerations.37 The factory communist party group regularly attacked the committee, most of the members of which, as noted above, were Social Democrats, so these Social Democratic members of the committee could not afford to seem if they were not vigorous in their efforts to defend the “interests of the workers.”38 Thus, the layoffs which were implemented following the introduction of the forint remained minimal, which put an extreme burden on the company, because in addition to wages, the company’s welfare department also provided a number of in-kind services for employees (for instance, firewood, boots, and food).39

Zsigmond Uhri made efforts to improve the situation by looking for new credit opportunities and new investors. However, there was simply no capital market in Hungary at the time. Had there been, the company probably would have been able to find adequate financing, must as it had been able to remain profitable at a time of inflation caused in part by an abundance of cash. According to the recollections of János Vörös, the company’s Social Democratic Party Secretary, for a time, the Social Democratic Party bank provided loans for the company.40 In the absence of a financial institution willing to provide serious loans, however, Zsigmond Uhri began looking for an investor who was also professionally interested in the automotive industry and would therefore be willing to cooperate with the company. Under the circumstances at the time, however, this kind of investor could only be a state-owned company, as at the beginning of 1947 there were no longer any serious companies in the vehicle industry that were still in private hands. Due to the lack of working capital and the political situation, it was quite clear that were it to partner with a state enterprise, the company would effectively fall under state control.

Two of the options merited particular consideration, the Heavy Industry Center (Nehézipari Központ, or NIK), which included the largest companies already under state management, and the Hungarian National Car Factory (Országos Gépkocsi Üzem Rt., or MOGÜRT), a vehicle industry and trade company. At the time, MOGÜRT was a communist company controlled by the Ministry of Transport, which was headed by prominent communist Ernő Gerő. In the NIK, which belonged to the Ministry of Industry (which was led by Social Democrats), the Social Democratic Party had slightly stronger positions. By engaging in negotiations in both directions (i.e. with both NIK and MOGÜRT), Zsigmond Uhri became embroiled in the struggle for economic and political influence between the two parties or, more precisely, between the networks which were organized around these parties, and in doing so, he also created conflicts among the workers at his factory.41

According to Vörös, there was pressure from above to hand over the leadership of the Factory Committee to the communists, but this had not yet taken place in 1947, as the Social Democratic Party group was more than twice as big as the Communist party group.42 There were sever conflicts about the future of the company between the various groups of workforces. According to some complaints, some “communist” workers have had even proclaimed that the Social Democrats would have to go “if we become MOGÜRTs.”43

In August 1947, NIK finally took over the company, simply because the company could no longer pay its employees weekly wages. At the time, Béla Zerkovitz, the son of the operetta and pop-song composer of the same name, who was a bodywork design engineer, was placed in Mátyásföld without a specific position, but practically as a factory manager. The legal situation was settled on September 30, 1947, when, in the presence of a notary, Zsigmond Uhri and his sister, Mrs. Matild Uhri László Kelecsényi, granted a call option for their company to a NIK owned Company.44

In the first half of 1948, the series of conflicts which had begun at the company in 1945 between the Communist Party and Social Democratic Party organizations (and the groups of workers who had sympathies with one of these two camps) came to an end, at least on the surface. The two parties were unified (which effectively meant that the Social Democratic Party was swallowed by the Communist Party), and in the course of this process, some of the people who had belonged to the Social Democratic organization simply were not made part of the new party. Others, János Vörös, for instance, who had served as the Social Democratic Party Secretary at the factory simply left the company. As part of the process, the Factory Committee, which had exerted remarkable power, also lost its role under the new management.45

Technocrats and Party Power

The company fell into the hands of the state, or rather the MDP, which had slowly become the only party. Every organized, independent group which or actor who could have had any influence in the life of the company (which in the meantime had been merged with a smaller company and given the name Ikarus) disappeared. Some informal groups remained, however, and the conflicts among them were very important from the perspective of the development of the company. The network of technocratic engineers constitutes one such informal group, while the other was the group of skilled laborers. Each of the two circles had its own practical space for maneuver, and they were in conflict with the party, or more precisely, with the individuals delegated by the party to prominent positions at the head of the company.

As Philip Scranton has noted, citing many examples from Hungary and Czechoslovakia, in the early stages of state socialism, in contrast to the politically appointed company managers who had little weight among employees, the technical management of the factories in many ways had effective local control of the company.46 In fact, technocrats were an indispensable component of the functioning of state socialism, operating according to their own logic, distinct from the political-ideological and power-driven mode of the party, as the history of Ikarus reveals.

In the age of modernity, technocrats seek to establish their positions and legitimize their roles in making investments and economic and technical decisions on the basis of some competence founded on scientific explanations and rational implementation (for example, the standardized knowledge of engineers or the expertise of economists).47 Technocrats are not political utopians, nor could they be considered social engineers in the sense in which Popper, for example, defined these concepts. Utopian thinking first envisions a distant ideal society and only then begins to look for the means to achieve this society (often including violence). Social engineers are captivated by visions of utopias, and they feel themselves called upon to transform society.48 Technocrats, in contrast, base the legitimacy of their own work and endeavors on “technique” itself, i.e. the precise, scientific knowledge of how to do something. Their point of departure is expert planning and implementation founded on the empirical sciences, not a distinct political goal. They work from the presumption that social and economic problems can be addressed with the use of rational procedures based on precise understandings of the sciences. Thus, though they do indeed follow visions which derive from the mentality of their professional surroundings, they are not laboring in the pursuit of political utopias.49

In the state socialist regime, following the nationalization of industry, with the essential liquidation of the market economy, there was more and more space for the emergence of the technocratic ethos. This ethos could also be easily linked in the discourses to the language of the party state. For instance, in connection with Ikarus, the following contention was made: “Yet today, the designer has been given such a vast space to make his wildest dreams come true, a space he never could have counted on in the capitalist economy. […] Nothing is impossible for the engineer if he has the suitable materials in his hands.”50 Technical skill was often linked with socialism in the rhetoric: “Under socialism—the progressive social order—the sciences play a particularly big role. We must concede that this is entirely natural if we keep in mind that the task of the sciences is construction, the search for the new, the systematic summary of natural and social laws, and the use of correct conclusions in everyday life, or in other words, to work in the service of progress and development.”51

After the nationalization of the large enterprise sector, technicians with formal training were able to do far more than link their technocratic manner of speaking (i.e. a kind of discourse that emphasized the need for rational, technical knowledge) with the language of socialist state politics at the time. The owners of the enterprises had disappeared, and the centralized management bureaucracy was unable to perform ownership functions as effectively as the earlier owners had. This gave technocrats considerably more room for maneuver on the level of individual companies. Furthermore, the emerging layer of technocrats was significantly more institutionalized than it had been in the earlier period had been.

One element which was central to the restructuring of the technocratic field in 1948 was the formation of the Alliance of Technical and Natural Science Associations (Műszaki és Természettudományi Egyesületek Szövetség, or METESZ), which gave engineers a shared forum and thus brought them together as a group. In the first presidency of METESZ, university professors, state secretaries, and high-ranking ministry officials met with CEOs of large companies and Ernő Gerő, the politician who was overseeing the entire area. METESZ was an association which included several member organizations. Following the wave of nationalizations, ten scientific associations dealing with branches of industry were formed in 1948 and 1949, and the mining and metallurgy associations which had existed for a long time also joined.

As a member organization of METESZ, the Mechanical Engineering Scientific Association (Gépipari Tudományos Egyesület, or GTE) was responsible for the automotive industry. The founding leaders of the Association included communist engineers, politicians or ministerial leaders, technical manager (Dezső Winkler), who had started his career as an engineer in large-scale industry before the war, a university professor and a member of the older generation, and other mechanical engineers, who had worked as leaders and designers of large enterprises.52 The composition of the leadership of the association made it possible for it to reach groups of technical experts who originally had kept their distance from the Communist Party, and it also enabled the association to create opportunities for these individuals, within the frameworks of the system, for participation in professional public life.

Alongside the association, there was also a surprisingly expansive vehicle research base in Hungary at the time. In addition to the groups at large companies who dealt with such issues, there was also the so-called National Automobile Experimental Station (Országos Autómobilkísérleti Állomás), which functioned under the direction of the Ministry of Transport and Postal Services. More important was the Vehicle Development Institute (Járműfejlesztési Intézet, JÁFI), which was created to further the centralization of technical design in the automotive industry. It was put under the leadership of Dezső Winkler (who remained in this position until 1968). Winkler owed his reputation in the automotive industry to the fact that he oversaw the development of one of the few truly successful Hungarian military innovations in World War II, the Botond all-terrain vehicle. The institution he ran became a kind of hub for engineers who had worked in vehicle development for military purposes during the war, and who worked here for the socialist vehicle industry. Their careers offer examples of the trajectories of the professional lives of technocrats, for whom the year 1945, which was pivotal in so many other respects, did not constitute a break.

Technicians working in research institutes and the corresponding departments of large companies also did not form a homogeneous group in all respects. There were generational differences, for instance. But these difference notwithstanding, together they began to form a technocratic community which was essential for state socialism. This is why this community had comparatively remarkable influence, not to mention room for maneuver, even if the individuals in this community were still vulnerable to the whims of the dictatorship. This layer of technocrats, with its associations and professional journals, was institutionalized in the first years of state socialism and created a sphere where individuals could assert themselves on the basis of the professional considerations, even given the pressures to confirm politically. The role of technocrats has been highlighted in many studies, which have called emphasis to their role in the development of some large companies,53 but it is important to note that in this case it was not just the individual technocrats who shaped the development of the party-state economy, but an institutionalized technocratic network.

At the Ikarus company, by relying on their professional competences, the technocrats could even get into conflicts with the party and some of its representatives. Their place in the larger field of technocrats constituted a source of strength and even authority for them. Drawing on this, they were able and willing to enter into lengthy conflicts with the party’s economic policy leaders over issues concerning the construction of buses. In order to understand this, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the technical and historical turning point in bus production that took place in the 1940s.

After the Second World War, the production of buses all over the world essentially separated once and for all from the production of trucks. Buses with self-supporting bodywork were considered pioneering experiments within the industry. The body was no longer fitted to the chassis (which included all the main units and was capable of propulsion). Rather, the light-metal body itself was designed so that the chassis, the engine and powertrain, and the steering gear could then be built into it.54 This shift in the industry was in part a consequence of a change to the production of airplanes that had taken place during the war, because the self-supporting bus bodywork was based essentially on an adaptation of the construction methods used to make aircraft fuselages. During the war, the Ikarus factory was used for the production of airplanes, and the industrial knowhow gained in this process was then familiar to the engineers at the plant.

As part of their naive vision for cost-effectiveness, however, the politicians responsible for decisions concerning economic policy wanted the engines and the chassis for the buses to be made using the same main parts that were used for lorries (and other vehicles). Therefore, the designers at the factory worked on plans for the buses that they were expected to provide. Nevertheless, Cséfalvay and Zerkovitz did not give up on the idea of using self-supporting bodywork, and they continued to work on designs for these vehicles, while of course also continuing to develop designs as requested by the policymakers. It was not until 1955, with the production of the Ikarus 55 model, that a self-supporting bus was actually made by the plant, and that could be regarded as a success.

Zerkovitz and his engineers achieved this success by coming into conflict not only with ministerial superiors, but also with the organ of the party which had oversight in area and the director of the company. Furthermore, in 1952, the ÁVH (the State Protection Authority) launched an investigation against Zerkovitz on charges of sabotage.

At the meetings of the district party committee, the “technical intelligentsia” working at Ikarus and Béla Zerkovitz himself, who, as a non-party member, never attended the meetings, were regularly criticized behind their backs. Szőcs, the company’s director, who was the fourth person to hold this position since the company had been nationalized, complained at a meeting of the district party committee that Zerkovitz had “already accustomed the workers to working with him, so they believe what he tells them.”55 In its report to the Budapest Party Committee, the XVI. District Party Committee reproached Szőcs for failing to discipline Zerkovitz adequately. “It was also a failure on the part of the director to show opportunistic conduct in removing the hostile elements that had infiltrated the technical management,” according to the committee.56

In the debate over the report of the XVI. District Party Committee, Szőcs accused the technical management of the company of having been responsible for the 1951 Christmas riot at Ikarus.57 The critical remarks concerning Ikarus eventually reached Ernő Gerő, the leader of the MDP who was responsible for economic policy, who went so far as to speak publicly about the “mistakes” which allegedly had been made at the company: “At Ikarus, when designing the bus type 30, which is now so enthusiastically advertised by our papers and I think not without reason, the norms [meaning the expectations according to which an individual’s workers performance was assessed and thus wages were determined] were set for the first series, and they did not take into account that, later, the tools, equipment, and working methods had improved significantly. Of course, this meant a loosening of the standards.”58

The ÁVH also launched an investigation against the technical management of Ikarus under the suspicion sabotage. Their concerns with regard to state defense were focused primarily on Béla Zerkovitz, who had been under continuous observation since 1952. They believed he had been making mistakes that impeded completion of the plans issued by the regime. They also suspected him of hindering the labor competition movement59 and the switch from hourly wages to piece rates, which was one of the most important tools used by the regime in its strivings to improve production.60

However, Zerkovitz was not arrested or even removed from his position as chief engineer until 1957. Relying on his professional competence, he was able to make use of the spaces in which the specialists and technocrats operated. He was able to remain largely independent in technical matters within Ikarus and also had room for maneuver to convey his ideas. According to the recollections of Paul Michelberger, who was his successor at Ikarus, “he was a very good-natured man. Non-party, religious.”61 He seems to have been one of the poles in field of automotive technology in the first half of the 1950s.62 Relying on the institutionalized technocratic field, Zerkovitz was able to overcome the opposition of diveres representatives of the party-power and use his design ideas in series production. Naturally, he was not the only person to work on the designs. A team of engineers led by Cséfalvay worked on the detailed designs of the buses. But Zerkovitz, who (it is worth remembering) was not a member of the party, was the person who regularly published on the subject, represented the idea as the chief engineer at the company, and organized the work process. The engineer and experts did not simply perform tasks directly related to implementation, and with regards to investment decisions and directions of development, they were not limited to a subordinate preparatory function. Rather, by using the technical and scientific forums which were available to them, they also played important roles in initiatives which had consequences with regard to content. They also devoted some of their energies to securing orders, which meant that they assumed entrepreneurial functions, probably because, according to their assessment, they could not rely on the economic management bodies of the party state or the cumbersome foreign trade apparatus to look for a “market” for their technically innovative products.63

The political leadership had an urgent need of technocrats to be able to run the economy of the country. Indeed, with the disappearance of the owners, the technocrats in many ways took over some of the entrepreneurial functions, because these functions had fallen on them and not on the company leadership which represented the party.64 As a clear example of the success of the efforts of the technocrats, beginning in 1953, a separate experimental plant was in operation in Mátyásföld where work was done on the scientific development of new constructions. A design team was also set up at the time.65 With this, the two dominant directions in technocratic professionalism in the automotive industry, technical design and the industrial design, were given institutional form in Ikarus.66

It is not entirely clear just how cost-effective the operations of the technocracy in the socialist economy were or how they were tied to budgeting. During the war, given the exigencies faced by the government and military, investments already functioned according to “soft budgetary constraints.” As the factory reports which were submitted every year to the authorities, Ikarus had needed to take advantage, from year to year, of these “soft” constraints. After nationalization, a larger injection of capital was made to address the remaining debts from the earlier period and the lack of working capital, though even after this it remained necessary, year in, year out, to make up for losses of working capital, while the volume of production was growing rapidly.67

The budget problems, of course, were noticed by the party state leadership, which took steps to address them. In principle, the fight against the creation of excess scrap materials was intended to improve cost-effectiveness, as was the thriftier use of materials and the minimalization of waste in the production process, but the most important measures in this campaign were the effort to keep norms under continuous control, the transition to a system of pay based on performance, the organization of labor competitions. The use of these kinds of tools and the adoption of these approaches, however, necessarily led to conflicts with labor.

Skilled Workers and Party Power

After the nationalizations, it became increasingly clear that the companies were unable to provide the kinds of benefits which workers had managed to acquire in the earlier period. Several benefits in kind which had been considered more rights than benefits were left out of the collective contract, and the number of overtime hours and the amount of overtime pay were both dramatically reduced. The collective contract for 1949 year again had an ominous “echo” among workers, mainly due, for instance, to the obligation to report “obsolescence” of norms as a consequence of improvements in production technology.68 In 1948, the average annual wage among workers was 10,366 forints. By 1949, it had dropped to 7,921 forints.69 And this process did not stop here. As a result of the projected process of “standardization of norms” for the upcoming year (1950), average wages dropped by a nominal 35.5 percent at Ikarus. However, according to a report prepared for the Budapest Party Committee, wages were expected to increase, because workers would see that the norm could be exceeded.70 “Standardization of norms,” which really meant wage cuts, was met with an array of forms of resistance. Accusations concerning “manipulation” of norms were also raised in party disciplinary cases.71 The institution of standardized norms and competition among labor threatened the practical control of workers over work processes. Workers perceived these efforts to exert control as a limitation on and interference with their autonomy in relation to work processes and also as an irrational step from the point of view of production.72 This obviously affected primarily those workers who had been at the company before it was nationalized, especially skilled workers, who were accustomed to their work being important and valued and therefore were also accustomed to enjoying a degree of autonomy. They were also used to having some institutionalized room for maneuver through their trade unions or, after 1945, through the factory committee, but with nationalization, they had also lost this.73 As a result, there was “a certain degree of abstention from work among the workers.”74 The prevailing mood at the plant seemed to suggest the potential for violence, and as was noted, measures taken to ensure calm were not entirely effective: “The raising the factory fences, pulling out the wires, and the erection of watchtowers with floodlights and telephones also did not have a positive influence.”75

As a consequence of these changes, workers at Ikarus showed little enthusiasm for the party-state system. On the basis of the minutes of the XVI. District Party Committee meetings, the MDP seems to have had very little actual influence over the workers at the factory. There were frequent complaints about political indifference among the workers, and a recurring topic of discussion at the party committee meetings was that the party organ at the Ikarus factory was falling apart. Very few people actually attended the meetings, it had no real contact with the workers, and it did little substantive work. Most the workers who were selected at the Ikarus Factory to attend the party school or the various instructional programs never played roles of any prominence or importance.76 The “village tour group” which was organized at the company (these groups were sent to rural communities for propaganda purposes) had to be disbanded because of problems with discipline.77 In 1950, there was also a “shameful” occurrence on May 1, when no one was available to carry the Ikarus placard at the parade, so the placard was simply left in the factory.78

The workers’ demands, which for the most part they only made felt in a diffuse way (felt as something of a prevailing mood), in general were not considered feasible by the party authorities. Furthermore, in the wake of the many conflicts, some party functionaries seem to have thought of the workers as enemies of their party, and probably with good reason at times.79 After the disturbances in December 1951, for instance, when the new party secretary of Ikarus tried at the meeting of the district party committee to represent some demand made by the Ikarus workers, this proposal was rejected. The district secretary of the MDP offered the following argument in opposition to the workers’ demand: “If we fall into the barge of workers, then next week they might demand that we let them do the work for the week in five days.”80 The conflict described in the introduction to this essay may have been smoldering precisely because of these kinds of tensions, though other concrete factors contributed to its eventual outbreak.

According to a factory assessment dated October 3, 1952, only slightly more than half of the manual laborers were employed on a piece rate basis. The rest were paid hourly wages, though the goal was to have as many employees as possible on piece rates, as this was supposed to motivate them to work more efficiently.81 According to a domestic affairs report on Zerkovitz’s performance at the time, he would allow the work to fall behind during normal working hours. He would then need employees to work overtime, for which they were naturally paid more, thus incurring additional costs for the factory.82 The district party committee was also of the opinion that there was too much unjustifiable overtime pay at Ikarus.83 It is quite possible that Zerkovitz used this strategy to alleviate tensions at the factory concerning wages, which also at least in part explains why he enjoyed the support of the skilled workers, as Szőcs noted in his complaint to the XVI. District Party Committee.

The most important problem, however, was that only half of the manufacturing work carried out was done in accordance with an appropriate operations plan.84 According to a long report of chief engineer Antal Hirmann, who was Zerkovitz’s successor, the plant did indeed produce the models in the series, which were manufactured in relatively small numbers, “under the oversight of several of the superb engineers at the plant […] and a relatively large number (considering the number of vehicles manufactured) of first-class skilled workers,” without the technical documentation that would have been necessary for standardized production. The production of the buses rested on an industrial work culture in which the bodywork mechanics were the key figures. At the plant, they were referred to as “emperors of sheet metal,” able to produce any type of bodywork panel with a small amount of mechanized labor.85 Clearly, they were people who did not consider the technical documentation, which specified precise standards, terribly important.86 This skilled workers solved the various problems that arose in the course of the production (which were caused, for instance, by the varying quality of the materials provided by the suppliers) simply in oral consultation with the engineers and on the basis of their own experience in the profession. In other words, when it came to the production of buses, the plant relied to a large extent on the experience and knowledge of its engineers, and first and foremost its skilled laborers, who performed the tasks they were assigned without precise documentation.87

Thus, the engineers who were struggling with the challenges of designing self-supporting vehicle bodies were able to work well with skilled workers who, given their experience, were able to provide individual, even creative solutions to the tasks and who, as long as their financial interests were taken into account, were ready to produce the number of models ordered. Through the maintenance of a work culture that seemed natural for a significant proportion of the skilled workers, a community of shared interests was formed between the technical leadership at Ikarus and the core of the skilled workforce. This community of shared interests came into conflict with the representatives of the party, who were opposed by both the skilled workers and the technicians.88


The story of these tensions at Ikarus offers an example of the ways in which what was in principle a “socialist company” actually functioned according to earlier practices and expectations and had very few new elements in the early stages. In this period of the history of the company, its path had essentially been decided by the earlier events. Nationalization only made dependence on the state an undeniable fact, but this dependence had become a practical reality during the war. As the new owner, the party could do little to shape the company, the profile and work culture of which (which made skilled workers indispensable) had been formed in the first half of the 1940s. Instead of the state party, which in theory had ownership rights, the technocrats were in fact in charge of determining the development of the company. Though they were compelled to adapt to the party-state, the technocrats constituted an independent component of the regime which was of a fundamentally different nature from the ideological-political logic, and they were able to prevail in conflicts with the political power. However, the power of the party in the factories was limited not only by the presence of technocrats in the early socialist enterprise. When the party took measures to implement changes, it ended up threatening the identity of the workers (which was strongly linked to the factory and which had a solidarity which was rooted in wartime experiences) and provoked violent conflict in which the technocrats, who had their own conflicts with the party authorities, acted as allies of the workers.

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Budapest Főváros Levéltára [Budapest City Archives] (BFL) Budapest

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XXXV.95.a. The Budapest Party Committee of the Hungarian Workers’ Party

XXXV.157.a. (Budapest) XVI. Distric Party Committee of the Hungarian Workers’ Party

Fővárosi Szabó Ervin Könyvtár [Metropolitan Ervin Szabó Library] (FSZEK)

Budapest Gyűjtemény

BQ 0910/365 Jenei, Károly, and József Szekeres. Az Ikarus Karosszéria és Járműgyár története” [The history of Ikarus Body and Vehicle Factory]. Manuscript, 1971.

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Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltára [National Archives of Hungary] (MNL OL) Budapest

Z 517. Uhri Siblings’ Bodywork and Vehicle Factory, 1934–1950.

Z 1192. Uhri Siblings’ Bodywork and Vehicle Factory. Factory commitee, 1945–1948.

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1001. interview with Sebestyén Endre Bakonyi


Vörös, János. “Az életutam” [My life]. Unpublished manuscript, last modified 2006,


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Közlekedéstudományi Szemle [Transportation Science Review], 1953, 1954.

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1 “Bonus for reaching the production target: Yes, but it doesn’t work well. The trade union, for instance, only learns of it afterwards. There was a case in which Chief Engineer Zerkovitz promised the workers overtime pay, and when they went to get it, they were told that there was no money for overtime pay anymore.” BFL XXXV.157.a.3. 257. December 14, 1951.

2 At the time, pay days at different companies were scheduled at different times so as not to overwhelm commerce with a sudden surge in demand on a single payday for a potentially huge customer base.

3 Szőcs was harshly reprimanded in party disciplinary proceedings. BFL XXXV.95.a. 52/b. the meeting of the Budapest Party Committee on April 15, 1952.

4 At the same time, there was a strike at the Csepel Car Factory for the same reason. According to a report of the state secret police, in front of the CEO’s room, the crowd made “statements which were pornographic, anti-democratic, and insulting to the leaders of our government.” Cited Belényi, Az ipari munkásság, 161–62. For an analysis of the events in Szigetszentmiklós, see Kiss, “A Csepel.”

5 Bódy, “Enthralled by Size.”

6 Kornai, A hiány; Germuska, “What Can We Learn;” Steiner, “Zur Anatomie.”

7 See the essays in the following volume: Schuhmann, Vernetzte Improvisationen.

8 Fava and Gatejel, “East-West Cooperation;” Jajesniak-Quast, “The Multiple Interantional Dimension of Comecon.”

9 “Sikeres magyar nagyiparosok,” Katolikus magyarok vasárnapja, November 27, 1977.

10 MNL OL Z 517. 2. Loan agreement.

11 MNL OL Z 517. 1. 6. Instruction of Imre Uhri.

12 Magyar Szárnyak, October 1, 1941, 24.

13 MNL OL Z 517. 32. Minister of Defense’s letter to the company.

14 In 1943, the Ministry of Defense authorized interest-free loans to the Uhri company in several steps. HL HM 1943 eln. 17/b 107819., MNL OL Z 517. 17.

15 Schanetzky, Regierungsuntermeher.

16 Gazdasági, pénzügyi és tőzsdei kompasz, 1943–1944, 531. HL HM 1944 eln. 17/b. 203893. Accounting report of the Airplane Factory on January 26, 1944 to the Ministry of Defense.

17 HL HM 1944 eln 17/b. 203893. Report for the Deputy Ministry of Defense on April 4, 1944.

18 HL HM 1944 eln. 17/b. 209074 and 1944 eln. 17/b. 203893. 3. Report of the commitee of inquiry, and cost accounting.

19 The cost accounting of the construction, which was still in progress at the time, from January 1944, contains the main data concerning the site: MNL OL Z 517. 2.

20 28900/1944. Ip. M. and the 29000/1944 Ip. M. regulations.

21 Géza Tóth, a worker at the plant, made trips using the company’s trucks to his own hometown to procure food. Interview with Géza Tóth.

22 A government decree gave the factory committees extensive powers over company management. In practice, the factory committees became representatives of the Hungarian Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party within companies, where the two parties, which both regarded themselves as labor parties, were often in sharp conflict with each other. Bódy, “Többpárti totalitarizmus?”

23  BFL XVII.1625 Budapest justification committee (a forum for political accountability which was created to hold people responsible for their conduct in the past) number 268/b. 2.

24 MNL OL Z 1192. 1. Protocol of the factory committee.

25 MNL OL Z 1192. 1. Protocol of the factory committee.

26 This took place on August 11, 1945 on the basis of the decision of the Mátyásföld captaincy.

27 The minutes of subsequent factory meeting show that the chair of the factory committee, and Zsigmond Uhri were able to work together, as they had a similar understanding of the interests of the company. According to the recollections of Vörös, who was the secretary of the Social Democratic Party at the factory, he considered himself almost an ally with Zsigmond Uhri in the fight against the communists. Vörös, “Az életutam.”

28 MNL OL Z 1192.1. Letter of the factory committee to the Ministry of Justice.

29 BFL XVII.1625 Budapest justification committee no. 268/b. Box 2. Session minutes.

30 Ibid.

31 Vörös, “Az életutam.”

32 BFL XVII.1625 Budapest justification committee no. 268/b. Box 2. Session minutes.

33 According to the recollections of Géza Tóth, Zsigmond Uhri had a good relationship with the local leader of the trade union even before 1945, although naturally there was not an officially recognized trade union group at the factory. Interview with Géza Tóth.

34 MNL OL Z 517. 1, 5. Audit report.

35 Pető and Szakács, A hazai gazdaság.

36 On the political and economic context of dismissals see Bódy, “Többpárti totalitarizmus?”

37 MNL OL Z 1192. 1. Factory meeting on March 5, 1947.

38 November 6, 1946. Committee disciplinary meeting MNL OL, Z 517, 18.

39 MNL OL Z 5171. Session minutes of the factory committee.

40 Vörös, “Az életutam.”

41 On party political divisions in the NIK, see the interview with Sebestyén Endre Bakonyi, who worked at the center at the time (and who had been a part of the illegal Communist Party since the early 1930s): “Q: And what was the focus of the debate between the Social Democrats and the Communists? Beyond the struggle for power. A: All the questions concerning the struggle for power in the end. So whatever economic question happened to arise, it was triggered by a power struggle.” OHA 1001. 107.

42 MNL OL Z 517. 20. Vörös’s letter dated October 23, 1946 and the list of members of the Hungarian Communist Party factory group.

43 MNL OL Z 1192.1. Factory meeting on May 27, 1947.

44 Ibid.

45 This was the case in other factories that were put under the management or ownership of the state.

46 Scranton, “Managing Communist Enterprises.”

47 Doering-Manteuffel, “Ordnung.”

48 Popper, “Utópia és erőszak.” Leucht, “Ingenieure.”

49 This understanding of the technocracy differs in part from the way in which technocratic-minded business leaders were distinguished from managerial-minded or bureaucratic ones in the Kádár era. Szalai, Gazdasági mechanizmus. On the technocracy: Renneberg and Walker, “Scientists.” Laak, “Planung.” Caldwell, “Plan.”

50 Valent, “Autóbuszközlekedésünk.”

51 Prohászka, “Gépjárműközlekedésünk,” 250.

52 Ki kicsoda az 50 éves Gépipari Tudományos Egyesületben.

53 Fava and Vilímek, “The Czechoslovak Automotive Industry.”

54 Michelberger, “Előszó.” Pál Michelberger, who originally was an airplane engineer, became an engineer at Ikarus in 1957.

55 BFL XXXV.157.a. 3. 257. December 14, 1951. Sitting of the XVI. District Hungarian Workers’ Party Committee.

56 BFL XXXV.95.a. 52. Minutes of the March 18, 1952. Sitting of the Budapest Party Committee.

57 Ibid.

58 Gerő, “A döntő tervév,” 232.

59 A strategy used by the regime to motivate workers by placing them in competition with one another and offering rewards to those who outdid their peers.

60 ÁBTL 3.19. V-141867. Dr. Emil Hant’s investigation dossier.

61 Szentgyörgyi, Mérnök – tudós, 128.

62 For the debate see: Közlekedéstudományi Szemle from numbers 11–12, 1953 until number 5, 1954.

63 FSZEK BQ 0910/365. Jenei and Szekeres, “Az Ikarus Karosszéria és Járműgyár története,” 156.

64 Boldorf, Governance in der Palnwirtschaft.

65 Jenei and Szekeres, Az Ikarus.

66 At the same time, during the period when Imre Nagy served as Prime Minister, steps were taken in other areas to institutionalize the technocracy, to “rationalize the organization and operation of economic policy.” Rainer, “A szocializmus újratervezése,” 27.

67 MNL OL XXIX F 187–r. 178. d. Factory assessment.

68 Jenei and Szekeres, Az Ikarus, 86.

69 Ibid., 107.

70 BFL XXXV.95.a. 23. The report prepared for the August 11, 1950 meeting of the Budapest Party Committee on the effects of “standardization of norms.” See Varga, “Pártunk nem ismerte a csügge­dést,” 55.

71 BFL XXXV.95.a. 47. The Budapest Party Committee of the Hungarian Workers’ Party.

72 “220 buses are parked in the courtyard, they all are parked because they are missing glass clocks, speedometers, and bodies for the wheels.” Why would they work, then, in pursuit of work-competition goals if the buses would then just sit in the courtyard. This is how the attitudes of the workers to the work competitions were described. BFL XXXV.157.a-3. 257. December 14, 1951.

73 On the process and consequences of the Gleichschalting of trade unions, see Varga, “Pártunk nem ismerte a csüggedést,” 34–58.

74 Report of leading director Kálmán Urda on June 13, 1949. Jenei and Szekeres, Az Ikarus, 89.

75 FSZEK BQ 0910/365. Jenei and Szekeres, “Az Ikarus Karosszéria és Járműgyár története,” 150.

76 BFL XXXV.157.a.1. 6. March 21, 1954. XVI. Secretary’s report to the district party meeting.

77 BFL XXXV.157.a.3. 65. May 26, 1949. Sitting of the Mátyásföld Budapest MDP.

78 BFL XXXV.157.a.1 3. Minutes of the XVI. District MDP Party Conference. June 4, 1950.

79 Mark Pittaway calls attention to the paradoxical fact that the regime, which was in principle a collectivist system founded on the promotion of equality, sought to implement a system of individualized performance pay. This was perceived by the skilled workers as an attack on them, and they strove to maintain the traditional hierarchy in the workshops which was based on skill level, age, and gender. Pittaway, “The Social Limits.”

80 BFL XXXV.157.a.3. 290. Sitting of the XVI. District Party Committee. March 13, 1952.

81 MNL OL XXIX F 187–r. 178. Factory assessment.

82 ÁBTL 3.19. V-141867. The investigation dossier on Dr. Emil Hant and associates.

83 BFL XXXV.157.a.2. 18. July 9, 1951. Session minutes of the XVI. District Party Committee. Here, he repeated his contention that, “it was a mistake not to have been adequately consistent in the question of the technical intelligentsia.”

84 MNL OL XXIX F 187–r. 178. Report of chief engineer Hirmann.

85 On “emperors of sheet metal,” see Michelberger, “Előszó.”

86 “The workers consider the documentation completely unnecessary […] This leads to particularly challenging problems in the case of a few of the old trained laborers who really can work.” MNL OL XXIX F 187–r. 178. Hirmann’s report.

87 Ibid.

88 As Mark Pittaway has emphasized, in contrast with the notion that the influential skilled workers at the workshops gained some autonomy only in the Kádár era, skilled workers actually enjoyed room for maneuver even in the period of the most rigid Stalinism. They had this degree of autonomy specifically because of the shortage economy, as their cooperation was necessary in order to ensure that the plants could reach the expected levels of production. Pittaway, “The Reproduction of Hierarchy.” But the dominant groups of skilled workers were able to cooperate not only with the general management. At least at the Ikarus, the groups of skilled workers were able to work with the technocratic wing directly responsible for the management of production.


Foreign Investments and Socialist Enterprise in Slovenia (Yugoslavia): The Case of the Kolektor Company

Zarko Lazarevic
Institute of Contemporary History, Ljubljana / University of Primorska, Koper
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 10 Issue 3  (2021):556-580 DOI 10.38145/2021.3.556

In this article, I examine foreign investment in the socialist enterprise in the former Yugoslavia based on the case study of Kolektor in the context of the liberalized communist social and economic order. Foreign investments were allowed in the form of joint ventures. I present these investments from the viewpoint of economic reforms, the concept of socialist enterprise, and the concept of economic development, which enabled foreign investments and shaped regulation and the structure of foreign investments in Yugoslavia. The history of the case of Kolektor began at a time when Slovenia still belonged to the former Yugoslavia, which was arguably a liberalized type of communist economic system. This was during the Cold War, when both Europe and the rest of the world were divided essentially along the lines of the communist east and the capitalist west. The Kolektor Company was established in 1963 as a state socialist enterprise for the manufacture of the rotary electrical switches known as commutators. From the outset, the company tried to establish international cooperation to acquire modern technology. In 1968, it reached an agreement with the West German Company Kautt & Bux, which at the time was the technological and market leader in the production of commutators. Kautt & Bux invested in Kolektor and became an owner of 49 percent of the company. The investment proved very profitable for both partners. The Slovenian side got access to modern technology and expertise, and the German side got additional production facilities, skilled workers, and low-cost production, which increased its competitiveness on international markets.

Keywords: Yugoslavia, Slovenia, communism, commutator economic reforms, socialist enterprise, joint ventures


In this article, I examine foreign investments in Yugoslav companies during the communist period. Yugoslavia was among the first communist countries to allow foreign investments in the form of joint ventures in 1967. Later, it was followed by other communist countries. Yugoslavia attracted a larger volume of foreign investments than all other communist countries put together. It differed from the other Eastern Bloc countries because its economic and political system was decentralized, the state was better integrated into the global economy, its foreign economic relations were liberalized, and individual companies were responsible for their own success. This paved the way for foreign investments once they were allowed. The system of self-management was introduced with reforms in the early 1950s. It prospered thanks to a significant level of decentralized decision-making at the political and economic level. In the middle of the 1960s, it was decided that foreign investments in Yugoslav companies should be allowed, together with the integration into the international division of labor. The decision was strategic and pragmatic. In close cooperation with foreign partners, domestic companies would get access to modern technologies and management know-how, and they thus would be better able to penetrate Western markets. Also, foreign investments were cheaper than the importation of foreign capital through state borrowing. After that, the idea of attempting to attract foreign investment persisted in the Yugoslav territory until the dissolution of the state in 1991. Over the course of a period of twenty years, regulations would keep changing, becoming increasingly favorable to foreign investment, depending on the political circumstances.

The article is divided into six shorter sections. The first section summarizes the economic reforms and development periods during the existence of communist Yugoslavia. The second section analyses the distinctive characteristics of Yugoslav companies, which must be taken into consideration if one seeks to understand the positions of foreign investors. The third section traces the institutionalization of foreign investments. The fourth focuses on the regulation of foreign investments with emphasis on the essential aspects of regulation and changes over time. The fifth section examines the scope of foreign investments in view of the sectoral structure, regional distribution, and origins of foreign investors. A detailed case study of foreign investment follows in the sixth section, specifically the Western German Kautt & Bux company’s joint venture with Kolektor from Slovenia. The case study illustrates the pattern of investment in a Yugoslav company and of cohabitation between a foreign partner and a self-management company. This company’s experiences, however, were not typical of the practice of foreign investment into Yugoslav companies. Its long-term success makes it an exception, as most of the joint ventures were of a comparatively short duration and were of limited expansion and innovation. Kolektor, rather, offers a good example of what the Yugoslav authorities envisioned and hoped for when they decided to allow foreign investors to partner with domestic enterprises.

Economic Models

Economic development in Yugoslavia can be divided into four periods, each of which saw the emergence of a distinctive economic model. The first one lasted from 1947 to 1951. This period saw the rise of a centrally planned economy. In other words, it was the period in which administrative planning was implemented according to the Soviet example. The top priority was to develop heavy industry even if it meant neglecting other sectors, including sectors which had a direct impact on people’s living standards. In the second period, central administrative planning was abolished (1952–1965). The plan became a mere orientation concerning how the economy was supposed to develop. Furthermore, it became polycentric, as the individual republics attained the right to specify the priorities when it came to their economic development. In the context of the goals specified in such a manner, the companies would supposedly pursue their interests. Partial competition among companies was enabled. Companies were allowed to establish horizontal connections, i.e., communicate among themselves according to their business interests. Thus, hierarchic communication with the ministries in the framework of the centrally planned company activities was abolished. With reforms, decision-making was divided between the political and economic level. Companies became responsible for their own success, and their leaderships could make business decisions autonomously. The new economic model emphasized the development of the consumer goods industry and intensive rather than extensive development, i.e., productivity growth, business efficiency, and the liberalization of international trade. The third period (1965–1975) was called the period of “market socialism.” It saw the use of so-called indicative planning. Companies set their own business objectives in line with the national economic development plan. The focus of economic policy was on boosting consumer spending and income growth. The strengthening of the secondary and tertiary sectors, the integration of Yugoslavia into the international economic space, and the international division of labor were also emphasized. The intention was to strengthen the functioning of the market and the productivity and efficiency of the economy, to increase the level of general education, and to enhance the role of business research and development, either independently of or in connection with the academic sphere. The fourth and last period (1976–1991) was characterized by the consolidation of “workers’ self-management.” A turning point came when the society and the economy were reorganized according to the principles of the so-called “contractual economy,” which was supposed to strengthen the influence of workers (through self-management) in the management of economic entities. From the strategic point of view, the country changed its model and focused on the promotion of basic industries, energy, and raw materials. Attention was also paid to export growth, the reduction of the deficit in the balance of payments, efficient energy use, higher productivity, and closing the regional and economic gaps. The general decentralization of decision-making altered the nature of social planning. The planned goals became a synthesis of the planning by different actors, including companies, associations, and public authorities. Due to measures which were taken to further decentralization, which in turn diminished the power of the state authorities (especially the federal ones), the role of the renamed Communist Party became very important. With its cells in all of the social and economic units, the Communist Party, the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (LCY), became an informal integrating element of a fragmented society and economy.1

Yugoslav Companies

Foreign investments were also determined by the structure and concept of socialist enterprises in Yugoslavia, where there was a system of ownership that was unique in the Socialist Bloc. With the abandonment of the centrally planned economy and the introduction of “workers’ self-management,” the concept of state ownership and hierarchical management of socialist enterprises was abolished as well. In the context of the reforms, companies were becoming responsible for their own success. They were able to establish connections and engage in cooperative business endeavors according to their own interests and the demands of their activities. The transfer of responsibilities to companies took place in the context of the general decentralization of the state. At the same time, the transfer to lower units also meant a change in the ownership concept. The concept of state ownership was replaced by that of “social ownership.” According to this concept, the company was the property of society, i.e., of the entire population. Meanwhile, the workers were intended to run the company. The concept of social property was linked to the concept of “workers’ self-management.” This meant that company employees had the right to manage the company, determine its activities, production volumes, sales prices, marketing strategies, investments, and the use of profits.2

In Yugoslavia, a company could be set up by a municipality, a republic, the federation, another company, a bank, or even a group of citizens. New companies could also be created by merging or splitting up existing enterprises. The founder was obliged to provide the necessary capital. Companies were autonomous in determining their business policies. The power in the company hinged on the working community. With their employment in the company, all workers acquired the right to comanage the company. The working community would elect the highest management body in the company: the “workers’ council.” The workers’ council decided on all business strategies and implementation orientations. It also appointed the company’s management, board of directors, and the director. Board members were accountable to the workers’ council. The director was appointed by the workers’ council. The decision was formally based on the council’s public call for candidates, but the local party leadership initially made the choice. The period of tenure was four years, and there were no limitations on the number of terms. The director managed and administered the company on behalf of and by the authority of the workers’ council. In his work, he had to pursue the interests of the “working community,” to which he was ultimately accountable. The director had the right and obligation to participate in the workers’ council meetings, but he or she was not supposed to play a decisive role. The question of the realistic distribution of power, responsibility, and authority in Yugoslav companies was crucial for foreign investment decisions. Individual directors would successfully lead companies through the strength of their personalities and persuasive abilities. However, the real power of the workers’ councils also had to be taken into account.3

The notion of workers’ self-management was not merely a matter of abstract conceptual thinking or disingenuous rhetoric. It had to be taken seriously in case of every intention of foreign investment, and the investments had to be negotiated with the company itself or with its management. On the other hand, Yugoslav companies were obliged to secure the consent of the authorities and political bodies. Another important issue also arises in connection with the roles of political bodies: that of political intervention in companies. Foreign investors needed to consider this possibility as well. As the reforms weakened the influence of the central authorities in companies, the influence of the party authorities within the given republic and district survived. The LCY had cells in every social organization, including companies. The political line would thus control the company and supervise the decision-making mechanisms and company management. As party members, the directors had a twofold responsibility. On the one hand, they were accountable to the employees, i.e., to the “workers’ council,” but they were also accountable (as noted above) to the local party leadership.4 In practice, this meant that there were formal and informal levels of decision-making which were sometimes complementary and sometimes conflicting. Meanwhile, the LCY had a monopoly on personnel policy. Decentralization also implied a transfer of social power. Corporate self-responsibility also meant that the social power of company managements grew in strength. The control exerted through the local Communist Party authorities at the company and municipal level was intended precisely to regulate this power. This was necessary to ensure that companies would pursue the overall social objectives rather than just their own aims. However, in this manner, the companies’ “self-management” and self-responsibility for their own economic success was systemically denied. Company leaderships would struggle to balance their political and economic performances, with the former often taking precedence. This dilemma was identified at the time by domestic critics, who also questioned the concept of market socialism.5

The Decision to Accept and Encourage Foreign Investment

Yugoslavia was the first socialist country to allow foreign investment in its economy. Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria followed later.6 Due to the nature of the system, the investments could only take the form of joint ventures. The 1960s were an important period in the economic history of Yugoslavia (and Slovenia). They bore witness to a significant attempt to change the economic and social landscape. Economic reforms were implemented to make the economy more efficient, increase business incomes, and make the economy more competitive in foreign markets. Naturally, everything was done within the framework of the communist ideology, which meant that change was desirable, but only to the point where it did not threaten the existing fundamental postulates of the communist political, social, and economic order. Thus, in the process of phasing out the centrally planned model, the state started to shift some of the responsibility for economic success to businesses and local communities. It only allowed the market to function, but only within limits set by the state, and it refused to give up the mechanisms with which it controlled the economy. The state also promoted the integration of companies into the international environment. In principle, it supported integration into the international trade flows and the international division of labor. The internal and external trade regimes were gradually liberalized, and some measures were even taken to attract foreign capital.7

Foreign investment was one of the major development issues in this process. At the time, after the country’s accession to the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), following the adoption of the Great Economic Reform (1965), the Yugoslav authorities wanted to integrate the country into the international division of labor. The 1965 reform was one of the most comprehensive and profound of the Yugoslav economic reforms. After these reforms were adopted, the concept of market socialism was consolidated. At the time, it was clear that integration into the international division of labor also meant opening up the country to foreign investment. For a short time, a view prevailed according to which it was socially cheaper to allow foreign capital to enter domestic companies than to build economic development solely on foreign loans.8 However, the price of capital was not the only factor. The expectation was that domestic companies would thereby gain swifter access to modern technologies and, by leaning on foreign partners, enter foreign markets.9 It was also expected that the “workers’ self-management” would become stronger, the general economy and individual enterprises would become more efficient and profitable, and the pace of industrialization would accelerate. Furthermore, the balance of payments was also supposed to improve, as foreign investment would boost exports of higher-value products and help the country address its capital shortage. The issue of unemployment was pressing. The decision was adopted in a context of very high levels of recognized unemployment and increasing economic emigration to Western European countries. It was hoped that foreign investments would allow the country to create jobs more quickly.10

Regulation of Foreign Investments

Foreign investment was regulated by specific legislation which was adopted in various stages. At the initial stage, acts which paved the way for joint ventures were adopted. In the subsequent stages, more detailed regulation of the relationships followed. The process started in 1967, when an act was adopted to tax the profits of foreign companies that invested in Yugoslav companies. A second act limited the foreign investor’s share. The domestic company had to hold the majority in the joint venture (at least 51 percent). Foreign investment was not allowed in banking, the insurance industry, domestic transport, trade, and public utility services. The domestic and foreign partner had to conclude a joint venture agreement, define the purpose of the agreement, and determine the mutual relations in terms of capital, management, cooperation, operations in domestic and foreign markets, and, of course, the division of profits.11 The domestic company had to obtain the informal consent of the republic’s authorities even to enter the initial negotiations. After the conclusion of the agreement, it had to be sent for approval and entry in a special register of such companies at the Federal Ministry of Economy in Belgrade. The foreign partner was guaranteed certain rights under the law: the right to retain ownership of its capital contribution and to sell it, the right to a proportionate share of the profits, the right to comanage the company, and the right to access all documentation. It was also very important that the foreign partner had the right to repatriate the majority of its share of the profits. In summary, foreign investors were allowed to manage the company and participate in it based on ownership (investment). Rights went hand in hand with duties. Thus, the foreign partner had to reinvest at least one fifth (20 percent) of the profits in the domestic company or invest them in a Yugoslav bank at the usual interest rate. The foreign partner also had to pay the required taxes: a profit tax of 35 percent, which was supposed to be a more favorable tax rate than in Western European countries, where most of the potential interest in investing in Yugoslav companies was expected to be found.12

The 1970s were a decade of contradictions. In 1971, although the requirement to reinvest part of profits was abolished, the foreign investor could repatriate only one-third of the income earned by exports after having paid the relevant taxes. The individual republics were allowed to set their own tax rates on foreign investments. In 1973, long-term investments and the joint and several liability of Yugoslav companies in joint ventures with foreign investors were regulated in more discouraging detail. In June 1976, conditions for foreign investments were tightened. Only foreign investment aimed at exports for foreign markets would be approved. Contracts needed to be more precise. The volume of exports and the currencies had to be specified for foreign investors to receive their profits. The rights of joint management bodies were also limited in the sense that they were not allowed to interfere with the “self-managing” structure of companies. The responsibility to determine business policy was transferred to work councils. This limited the foreign investor’s right to manage the company. These repeated changes limited growth in foreign investment.

The legislative changes of April 1978 were again more favorable to foreign investment, as special protections were granted to foreign investors. This time, the legislature put foreign investors on an equal footing with domestic companies in terms of the right to manage. The rights of the company’s joint management board were laid out in detail. In addition, foreign investment in banking was allowed, which was to be regulated by a special act. Foreign investment in the insurance industry, trade, and public utility services remained prohibited. A provision that allowed foreign investors to repatriate half of their export profits was important for them. The next step was taken in 1984, when ownership restrictions were lifted. Foreign investors could now also become majority owners. The last change dates to 1988, when a new foreign investment act completely freed up foreign investment. Prohibitions in the military industry, rail and air transport, telecommunications, the insurance industry, and media remained in place. The act put foreign investors on an equal footing with domestic companies in terms of tax reliefs and government incentives. The foreign investor acquired all management rights and the right to transfer all profits, and collective agreements would be concluded with the employees.13

Foreign Investments in Yugoslavia

The Yugoslav joint ventures policy attracted the attention of the international business, academic, and political public. The number of articles and expert analyses on the subject was considerable. This had an impact on the flow of capital into Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia succeeded in attracting investments from the most technologically and economically advanced countries. The data from 1980, compiled by the OECD, indicate that the volume of foreign investment was gradually increasing.14 Among the industrial sectors, metalworking, the chemical industry, and transport equipment manufacturing attracted the most investment. Despite the constantly changing regulatory measures concerning joint ventures, the political-ideological prejudices in the country, and the actual constraints of the political and economic system, the volume of foreign investment should be deemed only a limited success, since its total value remained a small share of capital in all sectors except metal production (see Table 1). The interest from foreign private Western companies was still considerable, especially those that had already established cooperation with Yugoslav companies. The Western companies’ motives for investing in Yugoslav companies varied and, above all, included the low price of labor and the tax advantages, which allowed for the acquisition of the Yugoslav market, sales through Yugoslav companies to other communist countries, and competitive exports to Western markets due to the low price of labor. As a rule, investments would be proposed by Yugoslav companies.15 The main motivation of foreign companies was, therefore, further growth, profitability, and export opportunities to third markets. Foreign companies that strived to understand the Yugoslav ideological-political reality were successful at investing. A survey of a sample of Western companies in Yugoslavia showed that investments in Yugoslav companies met their expectations. Foreign companies would follow several investment goals. The relatively lower return on investment was compensated for by the increase in exports to other communist countries and the conquest of the Yugoslav market.16

While foreign investors were evenly distributed, most came from countries that were also Yugoslavia’s largest foreign trade partners. The main players were companies from the contemporaneous European Economic Community. Unsurprisingly, Germany and Italy were in the first place (see Table 2). They were followed closely by companies from the United States of America, though only in terms of the number of contracts concluded. However, the United States was the top investor by far in terms of capital invested due to their heavy investment in the oil refining industry.


Table 2. Origin of foreign investors in Yugoslav enterprises, 1968–1980

Countries of origin

Number of contracts

Foreign capital invested (millions of dinars)

Share of total foreign capital




32.8 %




17.3 %




16.0 %

West Germany



11.0 %




9.1 %




2.8 %




2.5 %




2.2 %




1.2 %




1.2 %




0.7 %




3.2 %


Source: Artisien and Buckley, “Joint Ventures in Yugoslavia,” 115.

While foreign investments in Yugoslav companies were territorially dispersed throughout the country, they were also regionally concentrated. The idea of the Yugoslav economic development planning that foreign investment would contribute to the more rapid development of the underdeveloped republics was not realized. Most joint ventures were secured by companies from the developed regions of Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia (see Table 3). As the legislation allowed it, a kind of “competition” emerged to attract joint ventures. The underdeveloped republics offered lower tax rates to attract a higher share of foreign investments. Montenegro, Vojvodina, and Kosovo set a tax rate of 10 percent. The Kosovo authorities offered an even more reduced rate of only 5 percent for investments in Kosovo’s underdeveloped municipalities. Serbia and Macedonia set tax rates of 15 percent and 14 percent, respectively. In Serbia, any foreign investor could benefit from a half tax rate if they invested in economically less developed areas. Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina set their tax rates at 20 percent. Croatia taxed foreign investors more, at 35 percent. However, it also recognized reduced rates, for example, in the case of investments in tourism activities, the rate was only 5 percent for the first five years and 20 percent thereafter.17 However, through tax policy alone, the underdeveloped republics could not make up for the advantages of the developed republics, which offered a better educated and experienced workforce, better infrastructure, more efficient companies, and better integration into the international economic space.


Table 3. Regional distribution of foreign investments in Yugoslavia 1968–1980


Number of joint ventures

In millions of dinars


Serbia proper



30.9 %




30.9 %




14.2 %




12.4 %




5.6 %




2.2 %




2.2 %




1.6 %


Source: Prinčič, “Tuja naložbe,” 116.

In the individual republics, special bodies were established to attract foreign investments. In Slovenia, these bodies were a part of the Chamber of Commerce and the state administration. The Chamber of Commerce established a Foreign Capital Investment Commission to provide legal and economic information to domestic and foreign companies and to assist them in making foreign investments. The same role was performed by the Work Group on Foreign Investments of the Ministry of Economic Cooperation with Foreign Countries of the Socialist Republic of Slovenia.18 At the international level, a special organization called the International Investment Corporation for Yugoslavia (IICY) was established to provide support for interested foreign companies. The project idea was developed in the Yugoslav banking circles to facilitate and purposely promote foreign investments in Yugoslav companies. In November 1968, a group of Yugoslav bankers, in cooperation with the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group (IFC), initiated consultations about the new institution. The response among Western bankers was sufficient for a decision to set up an institution aimed at providing assistance for private enterprises regarding their cooperation with Yugoslav companies. It would help them find business partners and raise the necessary capital in the form of loans or venture capital. The primary objective was to bring modern production techniques and management know-how to Yugoslavia. The IICY became operational in December 1969. It was based in London, Europe’s largest financial center, but registered in Luxembourg for tax reasons. The founding capital in the amount of 12 million US dollars was contributed by 12 Yugoslav and 39 foreign banks, with the assistance of the International Finance Corporation. The founding banks described the new institution as a “pioneering type of investment company, through which private business will invest in joint industrial, agricultural and tourism and other services ventures in Yugoslavia.” The largest shareholders included Yugoslav banks and banks from Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France, Italy, and the Netherlands, i.e., from the countries with which Yugoslavia had already developed economic cooperation. However, financial institutions from the USA, UK, Sweden, Japan, and Kuwait were among the shareholders as well. In the early years, the IICY played an important role in attracting foreign capital to Yugoslavia. By 1973, it had participated in 22 percent of the total investments and provided capital support for these investments. It also invested in its own name, partly in the form of loans and partly in the form of risk capital. Its representatives ensured that investments were balanced regionally and by sector. As the Yugoslav banks and their international activities expanded, the IICY’s importance gradually diminished, as had been expected would happen when it was founded.19



“We Worked in Socialism, but We Need to Act and Think as if We Were in Capitalism.”20 The Case of the Joint Venture between Kolektor and Kaut & Bux

The Kolektor Company was established in 1963 as a state socialist enterprise for the production of commutators. From the outset, they tried to establish international cooperation in order to acquire modern technology. In 1968, when for the first time the joint ventures were allowed, Kolektor made an agreement with the West German Company Kautt & Bux, which at the time was the technological and market leader in the production of commutators. Kautt & Bux invested in Kolektor and became the owner of 49 percent of the company. The investment proved very profitable, as both partners benefited. The Slovene side got access to modern technology and expertise, and the German side got additional production facilities, skilled workers, and low-cost production, which increased its competitiveness on international markets. The German side also got the exclusive right to handle marketing. Kolektor was only allowed to sell products under its own brand in the communist part of Europe. The investments in development and technology were always very high, and both partners were obliged to make them. As a foreign partner, Kautt & Bux had to invest at least 20 percent of its profit in order to be allowed to export the rest of its profits. Both partners also made a commitment to decide jointly on reinvesting the profits and on additional investment above the legally set limit of 20 percent. Kautt & Bux regularly reinvested the generated profits. The repatriation of profits represented a mere 2 percent of the profit per year.

The main threat to cooperation with foreign partners was the system of management of Slovenian and Yugoslav enterprises. It was based on the ideology of socialist self-management, according to which all decisions on business processes were to be entrusted to the “workers council.” In Kolektor, they had to deal with this obligation on a daily basis. The company tried to be flexible. On the one hand, they insisted on contractual provisions, but on the other, they strove for balance with the Yugoslav provisions on self-management. Fortunately, Kautt & Bux was equally pragmatic. Two parallel “mind” structures were thus pragmatically established in Kolektor. They differed completely in their origin, backgrounds, and purposes. The “communist” and “capitalist” structures and methods of management intertwined in the company’s operations. The latter structure eventually prevailed. Jožica Velikajne, a long-standing associate of the company, described the split personality of the company: “Half of the time, we lived in socialism and the other half in capitalism.” But a pragmatic solution was found which was respected by both sides and which enabled long-lasting cooperation. With the entering of German investors, Kolektor began to undergo a process of deep economic, social, and cultural changes. Kolektor was partly excluded from the local environment. Kolektor’s management structure was different. It was led by two codirectors, one from Germany and one from Slovenia. Decisions could be made only with the agreement of both sides. Kolektor as a company was faced with an urgent need to adapt to western, namely German business standards and habits, well also dealing with the characteristics of the local communist environment.

Kautt & Bux assured itself control over management of the company and thus protected its interests, but this indirectly brought it into a “systemically built-in” conflict with the self-management system. This is why it was also ready to give certain concessions to the Slovene factory. In one of the provisions, Kolektor received an assurance that Kautt & Bux would guarantee each year a minimum volume of sales of Kolektor commutators on foreign markets. This was a great achievement for the factory, as it made a much-desired expansion possible. They could thus use the revenues from exports to finance the modernization and expansion of production capacities and the import of special tools and indispensable semi-finished parts. Both partners also made a commitment to decide jointly on reinvesting the profits and on additional investment above the legally set limit of 20 percent.

In line with the existing legislation, the contract laid down that the company would be managed by a joint management committee with a full mandate to run the company. Yet the self-management organization of the company had to remain intact. But once again, Kautt & Bux got a concession here. At its request, a provision was added to the contract according to which “the supreme self-management body,” i.e., the “workers’ council,” had to respect all contractual provisions and all decisions taken by the joint management committee. In this manner, the German partner assured itself in advance of the protection of its interests.

Another part of the process of establishing cooperation between the two companies and entering into a joint venture was a financial check-up of the company, which took place in November 1968. The German partner was interested in the structure and method of Yugoslav bookkeeping and accounting, including its everyday practices and categories. It wanted to check the credibility of the financial statements of the Kolektor company. It sent to Kolektor a group of three accounting and tax experts. Their report confirmed the credibility of the financial statements. They even concluded that the bookkeeping and accounting at Kolektor was very good and precise in every detail. The auditors, however, noted certain terminological differences stemming from the Yugoslav system and accounting standards. They recommended standardizing the terms or specifying clearer definitions of individual terms so that their meanings would not be lost in translation. They were extremely satisfied with the financial control exerted by the authorized state services, in particular the audit service of the central bank. They even found a good feature in the management structure of Yugoslav enterprises. They believed that the controlling authority of workers’ councils was a good solution, as such internal control largely prevented the possibility of personal profiteering. They eventually reminded the accounting service of the obligation to send quarterly financial statements to Stuttgart. Thus, the accounting service was subject to additional control. But it was very important that the representatives of Kautt & Bux trusted the accounting service and did not question the credibility of its reports.

Kolektor was one of the first cases of an investment by a Western European partner in a self-managed socialist company in Slovenia and even in Yugoslavia. There were, understandably, many ideological suspicions and idle fears, which were also reflected within the company. Any close connection with a foreign partner was met with great mistrust and concealed opposition, as is evident from the minutes of the meetings of the workers’ council. At its session of July 9, 1968, the council had on the agenda the approval of the contract with Kautt & Bux. After the director read the contract and provided an extensive interpretation of individual provisions, all the hidden fears, distrust, objections, and reservations came to the surface. He was also assisted by the president of the municipality, whose presence at the meeting gave the agreement wider political support and the backing of the local political environment. It was the president who stressed several times that the contract was not the type of contract which allowed the exploitation of workers, and thus he rejected in advance the suspicions that could be felt from the tone of the speakers. The fear stemmed largely from the difference in the levels of wages in Germany and Slovenia and the reservations regarding the real prices of supplied raw materials and semi-finished goods. In modern terms, this meant that some of them saw in the envisioned partnership the danger of the effect of transfer pricing which Kautt & Bux could turn to its advantage in terms of its profit levels. The other reservations concerned technology. Some members were quite impatient and objected to the gradual nature of the transfer of production. According to the plans at the time, they were first to produce commutators which required only minor adjustments to production and only later to switch to the production of more demanding types. After a lengthy discussion, they nevertheless reached a decision that Kolektor should sign the contract.

According to the contract, the Kolektor would invest all its available assets, and the foreign partner would invest cash, machinery, tools, the necessary know-how, experience, and goodwill. The investment ratio between the partners was at the upper limit what was allowed: Kautt & Bux could only obtain a 49 percent equity stake. Although the German partners wanted a majority stake, they had to accept this as the only possible option. But they insisted on a provision stating that, were Yugoslavia to adopt new legislation concerning foreign investment, Kolektor would agree to each of the two parties holding a 50 percent stake. The foreign partner also required additional assurances of the safety of its investment. They therefore negotiated the right to cosign any contract. Each contract had to be cosigned by a representative of Kautt & Bux’s management. The term “codirector” was used in the contract. When responding to the ideological accusations regarding this delicate issue of a “codirector,” Kolektor successfully explained to the authorities that the term itself was merely a “terminological concession.” They explicitly assured that it would not have any consequences for the management of the company, as all other management structures typical of a socially self-managed company would remain in place. These explanations notwithstanding, this provision constituted a significant change in the structures and methods of company management and business.

Both partners were pragmatic enough that the cooperative undertaking proved very successful. In the period beginning with the conclusion of the contract and ending in the early 1980s, production and exports grew at an average annual rate of 12 percent. By the mid-1970s, the volume of production surged around eightfold, and around half of all commutators produced were sold to foreign markets through Kautt & Bux. The share of production for the foreign partner was slowly rising, and Kautt & Bux constantly exceeded the purchase value of commutators set out in the contract. Kolektor became a supplier to numerous European companies, including Philips, Bosch, AEG, Siemens, Vorwerk, and Perles. Moreover, thanks to the new technology, the door to the Yugoslav market was also opened wide. Kolektor had an 85 percent market share of the domestic market.

Kolektor increased its production, technology, and market share rapidly. It also constantly invested in research and development, and it enjoyed successes with a few patents which enabled it to lower production costs substantially. Kolektor also improved the educational qualifications of its employees. At the end of 1980, Kolektor has already surpassed Kautt & Bux by volume of production and overall operation, market share, and profitability. Kolektor went from being a recipient of knowledge to an innovator, a company which generated its own knowledge and started to base its further growth on this knowledge.

Then, in 1988, the first agreement, which had been signed 20 years earlier, came to an end. After initial disagreement, a new contract was finally signed which was very similar to the first agreement from 1968. But there was one important difference. Kolektor would be allowed to sell in markets where its German partner did not have its own company for the production or sale of commutators or its own sales agents. Thus, a small window opened for Kolektor for independent marketing with its own brand.

The 1990s were the challenging years for Kolektor and Kautt & Bux. The transition period in Slovenia and the business troubles faced by Kautt & Bux created a new context. During the post-1989 transition, it was finally possible to transform the Kautt & Bux share in Kolektor into a pure capital investment. Kautt & Bux achieved a majority share, 51 percent, with the lease of the production line to Kolektor. It was stipulated that Kautt & Bux’s majority share should be reduced after Kolektor had paid off the production line. Kolektor did that in two years, so the share of Kautt & Bux decreased to 50.01 percent. Kautt & Bux at that time still held the exclusive sales and marketing rights for Kolektor’s products on Western markets. Kautt & Bux regularly used its majority share in Kolektor as collateral in different credit transactions. In the new contract, there was a provision which later became crucial. Kautt & Bux agreed that for any kind of decision, a three-quarters majority of shareholders was required. This was a concession given to Kolektor in order to protect the interests of the Slovenian side.

In the beginning of 1990s, Kautt & Bux was overburdened with debts, lagging behind Kolektor technologically, and losing its competitiveness, and its market share was in decline. In fact, its business performance was completely dependent on the profitability of Kolektor. Kautt & Bux was at the verge of insolvency. Due to the marketing rights which Kautt & Bux held, which meant that it had direct contacts with customers, Kolektor had an interest in helping Kautt & Bux ease its solvency problems. However, in 1994, the efforts to keep Kautt & Bux afloat proved futile. In fear for its future, Kolektor cancelled the agreement with Kautt & Bux, since Kautt & Bux was not in position to ensure the selling channels anymore. Within the customer’s network, Kolektor was already recognized as reliable, innovative, and excellent producer of commutators. Although Kolektor faced initial troubles, it successfully managed to establish direct ties with its customers and build partnerships with them.

Simultaneously with the decline of Kautt & Bux, another process was going on, specifically, the privatization of Kolektor, or to be more precise, the privatization of Kolektor’s 49.99 percent share, which was in state/social ownership. By the time of Kautt & Bux’s bankruptcy, privatization based on the concept of broad employee co-ownership had started. After a very complicated procedure, two newly stablished companies (FI and FMR), owned by 800 employees with a deciding role in management, privatized the Slovenian part of Kolektor.

After Kautt & Bux declared bankruptcy, there was an offer to the Slovenian side to take over the Kautt & Bux share in Kolektor. At the time, however, the Slovenian side simply did not have enough founds for such a takeover. Finally, Kautt & Bux was taken over by Kirkwood Industries, an American commutator manufacturer, in February 1994. In addition to Kautt & Bux’s total assets, Kirkwood also took over slightly more than a 50 percent share in Kolektor. Kirkwood entered the takeover procedure of Kautt & Bux, and Kolektor unprepared. Kirkwood’s management expected to gain total control of the company. However, they were soon faced with reality. They found out about the contractual provision concerning the need for the assent of a three-quarters majority of shareholders for the adoption and enforcement of decisions. The bankruptcy administrator in Germany had obviously withheld this important information from Kirkwood.

In the 1990s, when Kirkwood acquired a share in Kolektor, Kolektor became even stronger and more independent. By using modern technology, it substantially increased its production capacity. The volume of production surged by 47 percent in the second half of the 1990s, from 66 million to 107 million commutators. In the same period, the volume of sales was up by 40 percent. The company started to establish commercial branches and production facilities in different countries (Germany, USA, Brazil, Mexico, South Korea, China, and Bosnia). In the end, Kolektor even bought Kautt & Bux.

From the perspective of the day-to-day realities, the story was not so smooth. The Kirkwood era at Kolektor was marked by huge misunderstandings concerning the future of both companies, since they were also competitors on the most important markets. The Kautt & Bux and Kolektor management were on close and friendly terms. They trusted each other and were partners. In Kolektor’s relations with Kirkwood, there was no sign of that spirit. From the outset, Kirkwood tried to subordinate Kolektor and degrade it into being a plain production plant, without any other function. This was completely unacceptable for the Slovenian side. Kirkwood attempted to acquire additional shares in Kolektor, but it failed, and it also underestimated the mutual loyalty in the local environment. After this failure, Kirkwood lost interest in Kolektor and in the European market. They offered Kolektor’s owner the option to buy out Kirkwood’s share. Slovenian owners agreed. They finished the procedure in 2002. At the same time, Kolektor also purchased the German company Kautt & Bux from Kirkwood and thus completely dominated the European market.21


Yugoslavia was the first communist country to allow foreign investments in the form of joint ventures as early as the second half of the 1960s. The decision was made as part of the broad reform efforts of 1965. This was a period when the reformist wing of the LCY was dominant. The decision to allow foreign investments was part of the effort to modernize technology and management in the Yugoslav economy. The aim was to further Yugoslav integration into the global economy and the international division of labor and also to enable its competitive entry into the Western markets. Allegedly, the advantages for foreign enterprises of investing in Yugoslavia were the relatively lower investment costs due to cheaper labor and favorable tax rates, satisfactory infrastructure, proximity to the Western markets, a relatively extensive domestic market, and the possibility of exports to third markets, especially the Eastern Bloc countries. This was a pragmatic approach to making the domestic economy more efficient. However, the representatives of the reformist wing, even before they were removed from their positions at the beginning of the 1970s, had to take into account the political realities and the prevailing ideological orthodoxy. Therefore, the regulation of foreign investment was a compromise between pragmatism and the ideological constraints of the communist regime. For foreign investors, the security of their investments, shares and management of joint ventures, and repatriation of profits were vital considerations. There were no ideological prejudices regarding the security of investments. This interest was recognized by the authorities, but there were greater concerns about the co-management of companies and the repatriation of profits. As of the mid-1970s, ideological restraints were tentatively weakening, and the regulation of foreign investments was gradually removing the constraints imposed by the self-management political and economic system. In the late 1980s, Yugoslavia fully liberalized foreign investment. However, at that time, the country’s profound economic and political crisis drastically undermined the efforts to encourage foreign investments in the Yugoslav economy through liberalized regulation.

By 1980, Yugoslavia had managed to attract 200 joint ventures, which meant an average of around 15 foreign investments per year. These investments were rarely extensive, which attests to the caution of foreign investors when it came to joint ventures. 200 foreign investments were not much considering the size of the national economy, but they were a lot for a country with a communist system and regulatory restrictions. Research has shown that foreign investors had no problems with the Yugoslav self-managed corporate structure as long as the local or republic party leadership did not interfere. Investors received half of the management rights, even if they had a smaller share of the capital. Thus, both sides needed to seek consensus to make business decisions. A sort of an informal pattern emerged where the Yugoslav side had more say in setting the employee wages, determining the pricing policy on the domestic market, and focusing on integration into the local environment and relations with the local supplier network. Meanwhile, the foreign partner had a decisive say regarding the technology, the product range, the organization and quality of production, marketing, and sales on the Western markets. Together, they made decisions on recruitment, employee training, and marketing on the domestic market and in other communist countries. The experiences of foreign companies were mostly positive. The self-management of the Yugoslav companies was also not an obstacle. The qualities of the leading operational personnel of both partners were more crucial. The concerns of many investors regarding subordination to the workers’ council as the supreme governing body of Yugoslav companies were unfounded. As a survey among foreign investors revealed, the workers’ councils in joint ventures were more of an advisory body, while the decisions were made by the joint management board.22

The volume of foreign investments shows that the expectations of the Communist Party’s reform wing were justified and that foreign investment could be an important driving force for swifter economic development and the state’s integration into the international economic space.23 However, the restrictions put in place by the communist regime were severe. The ideological-political, social, and economic dilemmas related to foreign investments are evident from the case study presented here. The example of the Kolektor company shows that pragmatism was also needed by foreign investors and domestic companies in their daily business practices. The case of Kolektor also shows that foreign investment in a self-managed enterprise could be very successful when long-term objectives were given emphasis and there was minimal political interference, as was often the case in Slovenia.

As we have already pointed out, Kolektor was not a typical example, but the question remains as to how much of its long-term success was made possible by the investments made by its West German partner. The success of a company cannot simply be attributed to one or two factors. The answer lies in several arguments and their mutual interaction in a historical time and space. Each company is a specific, unique story. It takes place in a specific social context in combination with several favorable circumstances.

The presence of the foreign partner was no doubt a very important factor in Kolektor’s success. It put Kolektor in a specific position and prevented any foreign interference. As for internal relations, here the foreign investor had an important controlling function. Dependence on the foreign markets guaranteed by Kautt & Bux and the ensuing steady incomes were advantages that could not be ignored. The need to adhere to the Western economic standards through Kautt & Bux also had a positive impact on the performance standard of the employees and the leading managers. The foreign partner assured a high level of investment. First, the high investment stemmed from the entry of the foreign partner and the requirements of the Yugoslav legislation, but later, they became a necessity guaranteeing technological progress and growth in the market share. Both sides were aware of this. The level of investments in development (knowledge), technology, and production were constantly high. Kolektor’s success was founded on massive cost-competitive production in the constantly expanding electric motors market.

Another important element was the stability of management and teamwork. In the period between 1968 and 1994, there were only two Slovenian directors and one German director. This contributed to the necessary predictability of the management and its approach to the business. Long-term goals had priority over short-term goals. This was respected by the foreign partner. Kolektor was a company which from the outset had a clear strategic orientation and clearly defined, realistic, and measurable goals. The loyalty of employees to the company should also be mentioned. The level of employees’ identification with the company was high for a long time. The company tried to understand the employees and their families and help them meet their needs. This has been a constant feature of the company’s policy of social responsibility, regardless of which decade of Kolektor’s development we are looking at. Social responsibility was a key feature in the concept of Yugoslav enterprise, as other cases clearly show.24

Unlike most of the others joint ventures in Yugoslavia, the collaborative undertaking between Kolektor and Kautt & Bux was successful due to pragmatism of the partners, both the foreign and the domestic, and the pragmatism of local authorities, which was very important. Local party and administrative authorities respected the new reality at Kolektor, which was established after the entry of a foreign partner. Primarily, they were interested in economic performance, since Kolektor became an important employer and contributor to the development of the local community.


Archer, Rory, and Goran Musić. “Approaching the socialist factory and its workforce: consideration from fieldwork in (former) Yugoslavia.” Labor History 58, no.1 (2017): 44–66. doi: 10.1080/0023656X.2017.1244331

Artisien, Patrick F. R. Joint Ventures in Yugoslav Industry. Aldershot: Gower, 1985.

Artisien, Patrick F. R., and Peter J. Buckley. “Joint Ventures in Yugoslavia: Opportunities and Constraints.” Journal of International Business Studies 16, no. 1 (1985): 111–35. doi: 10.1057/palgrave.jibs.8490445

Bićanić, Rudolf. Economic Policy in Socialist Yugoslavia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Bozescu, Petru. “Joint-Ventures in Eastern Europe.” The American Journal of Comparative Law 32, no. 3 (1984): 407–47. doi: 10.2307/840423

Bučar, France. Podjetje in družba [Enterprise and society]. Kranj: Moderna organizacija, 1972.

Chittle C. R. “Direct Foreign Investment in a Socialist Labor-Managed Economy: The Yugoslav Experience.” Weltwirtschaftliches Archiv 111, no. 4 (1975): 770–84.

Conner, James. “Joint Ventures in Yugoslavia.” The international Lawyer 10, no. 1 (1976): 45–53.

Conner, James. “Yugoslavia: Laws on Joint Ventures and the Transfer of Technology.” International Legal Materials 18, no. 1 (1979): 229–71.

Dyker, David, Yugoslavia – Socialism, Development and Debt. London: Routledge, 1990.

Flakierski, Henryk. The Economic System & Income Distribution in Yugoslavia. London: M.E. Sharpe Publisher, 1989.

Gnjatović, Dragana. Uloga inostranih sredstava u privrednom razvoju Jugoslavije [The role of foreign loans in economic development of Yugoslavia]. Belgrade: Ekonomski institut, 1985.

Investiranje stranog kapitala u jugoslovenska i talijanska poduzeća [Foreign investment in Yugoslavia and Italian enterprises]. Rijeka: Ekonomski fakultet Rijeka, 1970.

Lamers, E.A.A.M. Joint Ventures Between Yugoslav and Foreign Enterprises. Tilburg: Tilburg University Press, 1976.

Lazarević, Žarko. Kolektor: 50 years 1963–2013. Idrija: Kolektor, 2013.

Milutinovich, Jugoslav, Glen Boseman, and Danica Vrbanovich. “Investment in Yugoslavia: Western Opportunities and Difficulties.” Management International Review 15, no. 1 (1975): 51–60.

Patton, Donald, and Do Anh-Dung. “Joint Ventures in Yugoslavia.” Management International Review 18, no. 4 (1987): 51–63.

Prinčič, Jože. “Direktorski položaj v pogojih socialističnega gospodarstva 1945–1990” [Being director in socialist economy 1945–1990]. Prispevki za novejšo zgodovino 47, no. 1 (2007): 185–97.

Prinčič, Jože. “Tuje naložbe v slovenskem gospodarstvu v času druge Jugoslavije (1945–1991)” [Foreign investment in Slovene economy in Yugoslavia 1945–1991]. Prispevki za novejšo zgodovino 42, no. 1 (2002): 109–20.

Prinčič, Jože. V začaranem krogu [In bewitched circle]. Ljubljana: Cankarjeva založba, 1999.

Ramnath, Narayanswamy. “Yugoslavia: Self-Management or Mismanagement?” Economic and Political Weekly 23, no. 40 (1988): 2052–54.

Sukijanović, Miodrag, and Djura Vujačić. Industrial Cooperation and Joint Investment Ventures Between Yugoslav and Foreign Firms. Belgrade: Jugoslovenski institut za ekonomska istraživanja, 1968.

Woodward, Susan. Socialist Unemployment – The Political Economy of Yugoslavia. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995.

1 Ramnat, “Yugoslavia: Self-Management”; Prinčič, “Tuje naložbe”; Woodward, Socialist Unemployment, 165–90; Bićanić, Economic Policy, 192–210; Flakierski, The Economic System; Dyker, Yugoslavia – Socialism, Develepomnet, Debt, 19–90.

2 Conner, “Joint Ventures in Yugoslavia,” 46.

3 Milutinovich et al., “Investment in Yugoslavia,” 53.

4 Prinčič, “Direktorski položaj.”

5 Bučar, Podjetje in družba, 109–20.

6 Bozescu, “Joint-Ventures in Eastern Europe.”

7 Prinčič, V začaranem krogu, 117–32.

8 Gnjatović, Uloga inostranih sredstava, 90–93.

9 Prinčič, V začaranem krogu, 117–32; Prinčič, “Tuje naložbe.”

10 Chittle, “Direct Foreign Investment,” 771–73.

11 Sukijanović and Vujačić, Industrial Cooperation, 22–38.

12 Investiranje stranog kapitala.

13 Prinčič, “Tuje naložbe,” 112–19; Artisien and Buckley, “Joint Ventures in Yugoslavia,” 117–20.

14 Artisien and Buckley, “Joint Ventures in Yugoslavia,” 114–17.

15 Patton and Do, “Joint Ventures in Yugoslavia,” 53.

16 Lamers, Joint Ventures Between Yugoslav and Foreign Enterprises, 205–16; Artisien and Buckley, “Joint Ventures in Yugoslavia,” 120–32.

17 Artisien, Joint Ventures in Yugoslav Industry, 115.

18 Prinčič, “Tuja naložbe,” 117.

19 Lamers, Joint Ventures Between Yugoslav and Foreign Enterprises, 216–19; Patton and Do, “Joint Ventures in Yugoslavia,” 54.

20 Jožica Velikajne, a former employee of Kolektor, on the joint venture with Kautt & Bux.

21 Lazarević, Kolektor.

22 Artisien, Joint Ventures in Yugoslav Industry, 170–73, 188–93.

23 Gnjatović, Uloga inostranih sredstava, 90–93.

24 Archer and Musić. “Approaching the socialist factory and is workforce,” 44–66.


Table 1. Foreign investments by economic sector, 1968–1980


Number of contracts

Total investments (millions of dinars)

Share of capital

Food, Drinks, and Tobacco



5.5 %

Chemicals and Allied Industries



12.5 %

Industries in Which Metals Were Used



4.8 %

Production of Metals



47.8 %

Wood and Paper Industry



6.7 %

Transport Equipment



12.6 %

Electrical Engineering



2.9 %

Rubber Industry



4.7 %

Other Industries and Activities



2.5 %


Source: Artisien and Buckley, “Joint Ventures in Yugoslavia,” 116.

pdfHypochondria as a Poetic Disease: Medicine and Ethics in the Case of an Early Nineteenth-Century Hungarian Poet

Gábor Vaderna
Eötvös Loránd University / Research Centre for the Humanities
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 10 Issue 2  (2021): 189-210 DOI 10.38145/2021.2.189

Medical knowledge reached a wider range of social strata in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Popular medical books described diseases and how to cure them, and the press regularly addressed the topic of having a healthy body. Meanwhile, representations of the perfect body became an increasingly important problem for neoclassical art. This case study investigates how Dániel Berzsenyi (1776–1836), one of the important Hungarian poets of the early nineteenth century, thought about the human body. For him, the representation of the body was, on the one hand, an artistic problem which raised questions concerning manners of imitation and, on the other hand, an artistic problem which was associated with the display of human virtues and thus with ethical discourse. Berzsenyi gave an account of his illnesses, which can be traced back to hypochondria, in a private letter. His self-analysis has three layers. First, his private letter could be read as part of a sensible epistolary novel. I argue that Berzsenyi introduced himself as a sensible hero, who was ill because of his own uncontrollable emotions. Second, hypochondria has a medical context. Considering the continued influence, in Berzsenyi’s time, of the ancient doctrine of bodily fluids, I demonstrate that this disease may have become a mental illness associated with poets. The reason for this is that the emotions entertained by the sensible man led to the emergence of physical symptoms which were associated with the hardly definable concept of hypochondria. Third, one’s relationship to one’s body could be a moral issue. Berzsenyi attempted to assert his own moral superiority by describing his own illness. Thus, his letter also fit into a moral context of the contemporary theoretical debates in which he was involved. My paper shows how aesthetics, ethics, and medicine were interconnected and how different forms of knowledge circulated between the forums of the arts and other social forums.

Keywords: hypochondria, sensibility, poetry, medicine

Morieris, non quia aegrotas, sed quia vivis
Seneca (Ep. 78,6)

Self-Fashioning and Psychology

“What a task it is to build a bridge between contemporary psychology and the perception of the historical world!” Wilhelm Dilthey wrote enthusiastically in 1894, though he then cautioned that this goal could only be reached step by step. We can capture the individual together with history by looking for the inner meaning that connects them.1 This approach has had a significant influence on modern literary history and theory and also on the ways in which we converse about literature in everyday life. History determines the subject, while the subject’s intellectual achievement influences history. However, what is the relationship between the historical subject’s psyche and the psyche of the person who is now thinking about him? I. A. Richards gave his Cambridge students poems to analyze without telling them anything about the origins or authors of the text. In his 1929 Practical Criticism, he claimed that thanks to the persistent work of his students who first encountered serious difficulties in text comprehension, he became able to conduct a close analysis of the poems. Richards thus distanced himself from the abuse of psychology, and he proposed that the literary text should only influence the reader’s psyche, and we should ignore the psychology of historical subjects.2 Still, can we exclude all factors that lie outside the literary text so easily? Although twentieth-century literary theory, which primarily focused on the linguistic achievements of literary works, tried to relegate the psychological contexts to the background (or at least to tame psychology), talk of history meant that elements of psychology were sneaked back into the discussion, nonetheless.

The problem thus has a dual nature. On the one hand, historical agents thought something about themselves, and they also expressed their opinions about their own essence. This is the problem of self-fashioning, research on which was initiated by New Historicism.3 According to New Historicism, historical subjects construct their identities within the constraints of their opportunities, and they fashion the social image through which others perceive them. On the other hand, pre-modern subjects are very difficult to interpret without considering modern psychological constructs. When historical agents write about themselves, it can easily tempt us to force familiar psychological clichés onto our “victims.”4

In the following, I will present a case that can be understood through the concept of modernity, but which precedes Freudian psychology and its institutionalization.

It is the year 1820, and we will peek into the private correspondence between two Central European poets. One of them was sick, and he was attempting to decipher his illness. We will see how medicine, aesthetics, and ethics were intertwined in his writings.

Sensible Self

In the discussion which follows, I introduce several nineteenth-century Hungarian poets. Hungarian literary history at the beginning of the twentieth century (Geistesgeschichte in particular) paid considerable attention to our protagonist, Dániel Berzsenyi (1776–1836), who researched the relationship between psychology and history. Berzsenyi was an ideal candidate to make this connection. We know very little about his life, and what he claimed about himself is occasionally based on verifiably false facts. He came out of nowhere, no one knew who he was or where he came from, and no one knew how or from whom he had learned to write poems. The best-known poet of the era and the other character in our story, Ferenc Kazinczy (1759–1831), published Berzsenyi’s poems, though they never met in person. Berzsenyi’s volume of poetry was published in 1813, followed by the expanded version in 1816. The poems instantly became an important part of Hungarian poetry (and continue to be so to this day). But no sooner had Berzsenyi arrived on the literary scene in Hungary than he suddenly disappeared from the prying eyes of the public. In 1817, Berzsenyi received a negative review from a young man named Ferenc Kölcsey (1790–1838) which upset him, and so he barely spoke to anyone afterwards. Kölcsey was also a poet (he later wrote the poem that became the current national anthem of Hungary). When Berzsenyi died in 1836, Kölcsey apologized to him in his eulogy.

The lack of sources concerning the details of Berzsenyi’s life became the point of departure for psychological explanations of his poetry. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Dániel Berzsenyi was popular as an author among the supporters of a thriving Geistesgeschichte (as well as among those who, although they distinguished themselves from the adherents of Geistesgeschichte, were still engaged in something very similar). I will mention only a few examples. Gábor Halász attributed the breakdown to the clash between the poet’s true nature and his principles,5 while Ferenc Fejtő attributed it to the lack of self-confidence.6 László Németh analyzed the connections between brilliance and an allegedly melancholic character.7 Mária Rónay, in her article A rejtélyes Berzsenyi Dániel – a pszichopatológia tükrében (The mysterious Dániel Berzsenyi – In the light of psychopathology), described his poetic career as the work of a man who was a sickly father who suffered from anxiety and was also stingy and, in his advanced age, anti-Semitic.8 Henriette Szirmay-Pulszky, in her monograph entitled Genie und Irsinn im Ungarischen Geistleben, classified Berzsenyi as schizoid, and concluded, on the basis of his alleged physical and spiritual characteristics, that he was a psychopath prone to melancholy and was deeply depressed.9 The list goes on and on. One almost gets the impression that Berzsenyi was looking for trouble, as if, even if unwittingly, his life goal had been to gnaw at his own soul and provide work for psychoanalysts, as if the physician and historian Sándor Puder’s following statement made in 1933 were true: “Real literature is analytical, and it was already so at the time when psychoanalysis was nowhere to be found. Even as early as at that time, [Berzsenyi] unconsciously used the method of psychoanalysis in his analytical, psychologizing literature.”10

I disagree with this. If we stick to Dilthey’s original idea, i.e., if we seek not only to define, build out of fragments, or develop the inner ingredients of subjects from an inner meaning (psychology) but also to define the comprehensive framework and meaning (Geistesgeschichte) into which the individuality fits, it does not suffice to provide a psychological portrayal of Berzsenyi. And, although the inner psychological meaning of a personality cannot be uncovered in enough depth in my opinion, no matter how hesitant we are to take the slippery route of psychologization, I will attempt to reconstruct Berzsenyi’s disease, or more specifically, one of his mental illnesses.

Berzsenyi ceased all communication with Ferenc Kazinczy in 1817, following Ferenc Kölcsey’s critical review. He simply did not write to him anymore. Kölcsey was Kazinczy’s student, and when Berzsenyi asked about him, Kazinczy defended him. Thus, the issue at hand was one of human relationships, as is documented in the correspondence until the friends stopped communicating with each other. Three years later, in the winter of 1820, an old friend of theirs notified Kazinczy that Berzsenyi was in Sopron: “We only rarely see each other. He, as he says, became sick two years ago and was mistreated; the consequence of which became one of the greatest building blocks of his hypochondria, which not even the Buda spa could improve, but only the Füred one, or rather, sour water. Now, he says he is in passable condition, but he dare not read: he spends his time in the theater and the café, and we also visit each other sometimes.”11 Possibly after having communicated with this common friend, Berzsenyi grabbed his pen and wrote one of the letters which is cited the most often in the secondary literature on Berzsenyi.

Overall, we do not know much about what Berzsenyi was doing in Sopron. We also do not know too many details about his illnesses beyond what he (and their common friend) claims, namely that he was plagued by hypochondria and that he visited the baths in Buda and Balatonfüred. The contents of the letter are startling and unexpected, and it also rhetorically expresses the state he said he was in. The letter reads as follows:

Dear Sir,

You did not visit your dying friend; and behold, his shadow shall come upon you. His shadow, I say, because the soul you once bothered with so much is no more. Yes, Dear Sir, even though I am beginning to live again, my soul has long since died, and it has been replaced by a new unknown soul, dark and cold as night, and still as the grave. The horrific disturbance that has turned my whole nature upside down could have had no other result than this half-death. And since this half-death can easily become complete, and since my headache still often tolls the bell of death in my ears, I did not want to die as your imagined enemy but wanted to let you know that whatever crime I committed against you, I did it amidst the deepest hypochondria. For the same reason, pity me or laugh at me as you please, but do not hate me, rather attribute everything to my cruel illness, which has often made me half-crazy and half-mad. The causes of my illness were a quinine-treated inflammation of my gallbladder and a dangerous fall in which my shoulder was dislocated, and my shoulder blade was fractured, and my head also suffered a large bruise, all of which caused me to be confined to bed for six months. The rude criticism [by Kölcsey] perhaps also belongs here, which provoked me into thinking in a state when I was most incapable of doing so. You can imagine what a tremendous job it was for me to aestheticize with a confused head, an angry heart, and without any books, even though I have never read aesthetics or poetry other than Rájnis’s Kalauz (Guide to poetry). Now I’m reading and smilingly reviewing my feeble attempts of the time. You should smile at this, too! This is how I have always been: I did not think I needed to study, and therefore I did not study.12

A friend of yours from Pest once told me that you would not even be capable of writing a scholarly work like Kölcsey’s critique. Now I think you could not write such a rude one. But whether you wrote it or not, it does not matter to me now. You could have had dark hours like I have, and you were free to treat me like all my friends throughout my life; you did nothing new to me. This is how I now feel about Kölcsey, whose abuse I would tolerate just as much as I have tolerated that of Mondolat, had I not written that hypochondriac countercriticism;13 but since I did write it, I must also write another, for it would be quite a ridiculous conclusion to my literary life. This is also how I feel about Thaisz, Szemere, and Vitkovics, who mocked me to my face in my miserable state,14 and who found it appropriate to trample on my ashes even in the Tudományos Gyűjtemény (Scientific collection); this is how I feel, I say, because I know very well that those who torture the pitiful with such insults will be helped by neither rhubarb, nor the sour water of Füred, nor my text.

And so, Dear Sir, I live and write again, and behold my very first letter is Yours. Accept my cold hand once again with the calm soul with which I offer it to you. I am well aware that there could be no reason, no desire, for you to fraternize with a deteriorated hypochondriac; but it is not friendship I am coming for, since, believe me, my resignation is also complete both towards you and towards the whole world, and my heart desires, knows no good but the serenity of this resignation; I just wanted to let you know that my state has improved so that you think better of me and do not consider me your enemy, and do not hate me. Be fortunate, be happier than I am, and do not experience the misery I have endured.15


We are between life and death, in a paradoxical half-death: still in this world but already beyond the death of the soul. This is a surprising transmutatio: the immortal soul is already dead, but the mortal body is still alive. And the dead soul is replaced by another, possibly death itself, with its metaphors crowding around it: shadow, darkness, cold, night, the grave, the cold hand. Very much like the protagonists of sensible epistolary novels, Berzsenyi eliminates the difference between life and death, between body and soul. On the one hand, life has become just as problematic as death through his illness; on the other, by this era, the physical and spiritual symptoms of an illness appeared as each other’s complements. It is no coincidence that the poet first lists his physical symptoms and returns to his spiritual problems in the following sentence. Much as the body does not exist without the soul, health does not exist without illness. István Mátyus, the author of a popular medical handbook of the era, a six-volume edition on dietetics, writes “people in perfect health are quite rare in this world, and if someone does manage to step up to this state for an hour or two, he cannot stay there for long, due to the miraculous structure of nature. Instead, good health starts to deteriorate, so that we have to extend health to certain limits.” From the eighteenth century on, the natural state was not the healthy one, i.e., health was not a clearly defined, enclosed whole, “there are smaller and larger illnesses, but there is also lesser and greater health.”16

Part-whole relations also disrupt narration, and metonymic story-building is disrupted in the letter, with metaphorical relations foregrounded instead. This is again a popular method of the epistolary novels of the era: frustrated and fragmented narration. The metaphorical construction of the text (text built on some image and the associations surrounding it) is also present here (through the metaphors of death); however, the train of thought is not coherent, and consecutive paragraphs are only loosely connected to each other (although there is no switch between the topics). The frequency of salutation and the deixes pointing to the addressee are of course not surprising at all, sensibility also viewed openly owning up to one’s feelings and displaying uncontrolled virtuous impulses coming from deep down as an anthropological feature, which also meant the fragmentation of the text.

At times we almost reach incomprehensibility. For example, in the break in thought between the second and third paragraphs: while in the first he dismisses his friendship with Kazinczy, among others, he begins the second by addressing Kazinczy as a friend. Immediately after the impossibility of recovery, only signaling the break in his thought by a line break, he writes about his resurrection: the notion of death alternates with the possibility of a fresh start throughout the letter. Complete death does not take place because it would also mean the end of the self-narrative, and the writer and narrator (uniquely, these two are one and the same here) do not wish that. He does not wish for his story to end with a sick hypochondriac text in front of the public, and so he first needs to write the missing ending to the novel of his life. The act of writing is thus only an excuse for self-fashioning; in other words, a kind of fictitious, imaginary life and a lived life, assumed to be real, are all mixed up here. Evoking the other also directs attention to the self in the letter. Friendship becomes the territory of absence, and the letter may make up not only for the lack of personal encounters but also for the avoidance thereof. Namely, imitating an in-person meeting quickly turns into an analysis of resignation. Resignation thus deletes notions of friendship and animosity and enters the same intermediate borderland located between body and soul, life, and death.

So far, I have listed the characteristics of the Berzsenyi letter that connect it to the popular epistolary novels of the era in terms of narrative technique. However, at the beginning of the paper, I set out to talk about Berzsenyi’s disease and mental illness, so let us thus leave the territory of aesthetics and enter dietetics.


The second half of the eighteenth century was the heyday of medical anthropology, and around this time, philosophical anthropologies were also written by physicians for physicians in large quantities, thus man becomes a patient in a representative manner through anthropological nosologies and the birth of clinics. This is best illustrated by the large number of medical handbooks written for laymen in the second half of the eighteenth century, including in Hungarian.17

If we ask what hypochondria could have meant, at least roughly, in the first decades of the nineteenth century, we will not receive a clear answer. Burgeoning medicine offers so many different solutions; it describes the different symptoms in great detail (often through interesting stories), processes so many different medical ideas and provides so many seemingly sure-fire formulas that we can easily encounter problems upon evaluating a disease.

István Benedek, in his short essay on Berzsenyi’s melancholy, wrote about the difficulties of interpreting hypochondria in 1982. “Just as it will not be easy to orient oneself in the substance and interpretations of today’s schizophrenia in the next century, erstwhile hypochondria is also a large umbrella. It is related to what today lies behind psychopathy, neurasthenia, psychasthenia, neurosis, and many other, less popular expressions, it is related to apathy, melancholy, amentia, and the expression ‘dementia’, used in French-speaking areas. Instead of the many foreign expressions, it is easier to approach it through a simple-minded definition: a melancholic affliction that sinks you into inertia. It is not insanity, not a reaction to external circumstances, but an enigmatic constitutional characteristic, God’s curse.”18 Although these various types of madness may not be as blurred in early modern times as Benedek claims,19 hypochondria is quite a “large umbrella,” and accordingly, a popular topic of contemporary medical literature. A German historian of medicine, for example, counted that in the Jena Journal der praktischen Arzneykunde und Wundarzneykunst edited by Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland, one of the best-known medical professors of the time, ten percent of the literature on nosology is on hypochondria.20 This is a high ratio, and although it is equally interesting, and I do not have precise data on the Hungarian material, the four Latin-language dissertations published in Hungary that discuss hypochondria exclusively, and the chapters of the popular medical handbooks that discuss hypochondria show that the Hungarian medical-anthropological discourse was also keenly interested in the issue.

In the case of hypochondria, even the classification of the disease in terms of nosology is difficult to determine. This is because we cannot disregard the fact that initially, based on the typological classification of ancient humoral pathology, melancholy, which had enjoyed a long career in the history of European medicine and culture, also included hypochondria. Namely, Galen sees the origins of melancholy as lying in a disorder of the hypochondrium, the upper part of the abdomen, and this connection seemed logical until the beginning of the eighteenth century.21 For example, Ferenc Pápai Páriz still wrote about “Hypochondriaca Melancholia” in his popular medical handbook Pax Corporis in 1690.22 Since “in the age of Reason,” a shift of emphasis within the concept of hypochondria can be detected, i.e. “a dynamics of the corporeal space gives way to a moral theory of sensitivity,”23 we can observe how hypochondria and its related feminine disease, hysteria, replaced the pair of melancholy and mania, and how these structures operated and divided in parallel with each other. However, according to Michel Foucault, “physicians of the classical period did try to discover the qualities peculiar to hysteria and hypochondria, but they never reached the point of perceiving the particular coherence, that qualitative cohesion which gave mania and melancholy their unique identity.”24 Hypochondria cannot be defined or located, and it is difficult to specify. For example, in Immanuel Kant’s 1764 treatise Versuch über die Krankheiten des Kopfes we find the following: “The hypochondriac has a disease which, in whatever place it is chiefly located, is nevertheless likely to wander intermittently through the nervous system to all parts of the body.”25 Its seat cannot be located, and it is in constant motion and, thus, difficult to catch.

Let us instead allow Foucault to classify and meticulously analyze “figures of hypochondria”26 and examine the function this disease plays in the patient’s life. Through his disease, the hypochondriac enters the territory between body and soul, life and death, a place that cannot be detected. First, this disease makes life similar to death, which is no surprise after having read Berzsenyi’s letter. This problem is so central that the Hungarian István Mátyus, for example, illustrates the difficulties of defining life with the frequent phenomenon that happens to hypochondriac men and the hysterical women related to them: “What life is, is not as easy to determine as it seems at first glance. Namely, many died a long time ago who were thought to be alive by society; at the same time, many lived who were thought to be dead for sure. Examples of these are the many hysterical women and hypochondriac men who, having fainted […], hardly seemed to be alive, what is more, oftentimes seemingly having died completely, they were placed under the dissecting knife or in the coffin; but after some time, they came back to life on their own or with the help of some external tool, much to everyone’s surprise.”27 The comatose and the hypochondriac are closely related to each other. On the other hand, the close connection between the body and soul also surfaces in hypochondria, and in this period, probably no disease of the mind existed that would be independent of particular physical processes. The hypochondrion (in Latin: hypochondrium), as mentioned above, is the upper part of the abdomen, the right and left part of the abdominal cavity enclosed by the arches of the diaphragm. This was the part of the body where diseases of the mind had been located since Galen. It is still a widespread view in popular medicine to this day that different gastric problems, primarily stomach ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome, are consequences at least in part of an overwrought, stressful life. In his popular handbooks on dietetics, Mátyus looks for the causes of various diseases in the incorrect flow of different humors. Yet, if hypochondria is a disease that also affects spiritual life, the humors also reach the mind; in other words, the direct causes of the illness are the “frequent strong spasms in everyone’s weakened internal parts, driven by the thickened, rancid humors that have collected and settled in them, which wander around the whole body and cause a sudden multitude of changes both in the body and the mind. Its more distant causes, on the other hand, are all that weaken the stomach, thicken and sour the blood, and do not allow it to flow freely inside the internal parts.”28 The internal space of the body is freely permeable, obstacles and obstructions are created at different points, different humors slow down and decrease the speed of life functions and disturb the quality of life,29 for the sensible person pax corporis is already an unattainable ideal. Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland recounts one of the teachings of Dutch professor Herman Boerhaave from Leiden, who lived approximately one hundred years before him and remained a dominant figure in European medicine in the eighteenth century: “Boerhaave says that the blood that flows onto the brain makes people see bloody ghosts and rainbows.”30 This means that physical and mental illnesses are closely related, and we cannot separate medicine from psychology. As Christian Friedrich Richter put it very eloquently at the beginning of the eighteenth century, “The matter or the body is attracted by the soul through the union to such an extent, mixes with it so much, so to speak, as if the soul became material-like or corporeal, and as if the body became spiritual.”31

Material and spiritual things, these two good friends, alternated between tightening and loosening their friendship, and they also drifted apart from each other after a while. This is how hypochondria slowly turned from an illness of sensibility into an illness of the imagination. This change can also be detected in Hungarian popular medicine. For example, in Sámuel Köteles’s Philosophiai anthropologia (Philosophical anthropology), published posthumously in 1839 (and written some time during the 1820s), these two diseases still appear after each other, but they are already separate diseases. As he writes about hypochondria, “This disease is a fear, restlessness, and despondency resulting from some impending indeterminate harm. The hypochondriac indeed experiences some illnesses which originate from the irregularity of bodily functions, especially in the bowels. These illnesses are not such that some serious illness or even death would result from them, but the lively imagination of the hypochondriac nurtures them. Thus, hypochondria becomes the source of many diseases.32 This is how an imaginary invalid becomes a hypochondriac (Molière’s Argan is not yet a hypochondriac but merely a malade imaginaire), and by the second half of the nineteenth century, imaginary illness also became an illness of its own. The expansion of nosological literature first resulted in the appreciation of hypochondria, while soon afterwards, being unable to earn its own place within the framework of this system, it was devalued into a meta-disorder. This place for hypochondria was created by the overgrowth of the system to which it owed its existence. It is no coincidence that hypochondria, i.e., the disease that was looking for its place in the human body, appeared as some kind of civilizational, particularly urban disease.33 While Hufeland could still make fun of one of Boerhaave’s students without mentioning hypochondria, because he literally loved the Dutch professor’s teachings and was thus “an animated lesson,”34 the Viennese physician, Baron Ernst Feuchtersleben already calls hypochondriacs “the volunteers of medicine,” “who have dug themselves into the entire pathology, who write themselves prescriptions from books.”35 It was somewhere around this time when the context of Dániel Berzsenyi’s illness, to be interpreted in the discourse of sensibility, became blurred, and this is where the psychological descriptions of modernity floundered.


Or maybe that context did not disappear completely. A common characteristic of disease and related mental illnesses, which continued for a long time, is that mental instability (the illness of the head or the heart, depending on the person) and abdominal (constipation-related) illnesses are linked. In 1830, József Horvát, a doctor of medicine and arts, translated Franz Richter’s book into Hungarian and rewrote the parts on hemorrhoids and related illnesses, including hypochondria. He discusses the abdominal consequences of madness in the chapter Az aranyérnek gerjesztő vagy távolabb okairól (On the inflicting or other causes of hemorrhoids). He thinks it is obvious that no explanations are needed: “Everyone knows the influences mental illnesses have on health in general and on the functioning of the organs of the lower body in particular so well that we should not say anything it.” According to Horvát-Richter, “people prone to anger and irritation already suffer from illnesses of the lower body anyway, or at least they are on the verge of thereof, and so they are also more or less likely to have hemorrhoids,” while the more hidden mental illnesses, the so-called “discouraging affections,” such as worry, sadness, fear, listlessness, timidity (all of these are characteristic of hypochondria), also influence processes in the lower body, even if more slowly. However, these do not cause any serious physical problems, only digestive disorders and “obstructions”: “These, weakening the circulation of blood, are particularly harmful to digestion, and they cause obstructions especially in the abdomen.”36

The obstructions disrupt the entire body. For example, in Berzsenyi’s letter to Kazinczy, he also mentions his headache: “my headache still often tolls the bell of death in my ears.” Franz Schedel (a Hungarian literary historian known as Ferenc Toldy), in his lecture notes on dietetics prepared for his medical students, still links headaches to gastrointestinal disorders in 1839: “Constipation causes wind and cramps, and if it lasts, it obstructs the unimpeded circulation of blood in the lower body and causes it to amass in some parts and causes aches, more specifically, obstructions towards the head: headaches.”37 In Sámuel Rácz’s 1776 Orvosi oktatás (Medical training), it is sadness that is linked to these physical processes, again without mentioning hypochondria: “Those who often suffer from stomach cramps are glum, sad, withdraw from merry amusements, become weak, are happy to sit, become pale and have difficulty breathing whenever they have to move: the stomach is often obstructed; the digested matter is formed into pellets.”38 A little headache, some sadness, constipation and blockages (obstructions), and occasionally unexpected wind are all not so fatal here anymore, and although nosology has changed here and there, the interfaces and contacts within the system have remained the same.

In my opinion, by emphasizing hypochondria, Berzsenyi provides Kazinczy with a key to reading his letter. He offered it not, or not only, as some weak explanation as to why he committed his crime (that he had written his Countercriticism), rather than offering a way to read his sensible epistolary novel, in which he is also a character. In illness, the border between life and death dissolves, while in the illness of hypochondria, it is the border between physical and mental illness that dissolves. It is no coincidence that Berzsenyi’s (the narrator’s, the hero’s) physical injuries (overturned car, broken bones) and mental injuries (confused head, angry heart, and ignorance) appear next to each other, even if it is somewhat unexpected. The energy of the opposites straining on each other (I live and die, write, and do not write, selfless friendship and no friendship, scholarship and amateurism, etc.) can be channeled into hypochondria. Analyzing Johann Ulrich Bilguer’s 1767 essay entitled Nachrichten an das Publikum in Absicht der Hypochondrei, László F. Földényi concludes that existence thickens around hypochondriacs, but just like in the case of all vortices, everything turns into nothing beyond a certain point.39 If Berzsenyi is heading towards something in his letter, it is the serenity of resignation. The complete dissolution and elimination of opposites.


Berzsenyi’s letter is an unfriendly letter to an old friend: the salutation is formal (“Dear Sir”), Berzsenyi floats the idea that it was in fact Kazinczy who wrote (or at least suggested) Kölcsey’s criticism, etc. In the second paragraph, friendship is presented as a possible opposite to hypochondria. In social life, problems are dissolved, while loneliness creates a sense of absence, and in loneliness, the balance of the body and soul is disturbed. However, a disloyal friend punishes not only us but themselves as well. According to Berzsenyi, “those who torture the pitiful with such insults will be helped by neither rhubarb nor the sour water of Füred, nor my text,” i.e., the disease will catch up with them too. Namely, discarding one of the main spiritual virtues, i.e., friendship, is one of the main symptoms of hypochondria (as this is what the next paragraph is about, i.e., how he replaced Kazinczy’s friendship with resignation). And it is also probably no coincidence that he recommends the water of Füred and rhubarb to András Thaisz, Pál Szemere, and Mihály Vitkovics. Kölcsey agrees that this is no coincidence. He was familiar with the text of the letter, and this is where he sensed the biggest insult: “That he [Berzsenyi] believed that he did not have to study, that he is already studying and he wants to replace his hypochondriac Countercriticism with a better one, that he considers Thaisz, Vitkovics, and Szemere as people who mocked him to his face and who trampled on his ashes, and when talking about them, he keeps mentioning rhubarb and Füred water: these, my dear friend, are the words of deepest hypochondria. But this hypochondria comes not only from the quinine-treated inflammation of the gallbladder, or from tipping over, it is feared that its biggest lair is in the mistaken idea of the pretended invincibility of genius.”40 But why exactly are these the deepest words of hypochondria?

Rhubarb is an old medicine, and in Házi orvos szótárotska (A small dictionary of home medicine), a compilation of sixteenth-century herbaria written by the infamous Hungarian charlatan of the time, Mihály Nedliczi Váli, it is primarily recommended as a remedy for stomachache; what is more, boiled in the juice of Hungarian aszú grapes, it not only eases the dryness of the throat, but it can also be used to treat dysentery, bloating, stomachache, hiccupping, and of course, melancholy.41 And mentioning the Füred water which was considered to be a medical miracle cure in the era in question, may also be of significance.42 The different sour waters and baths often served as treatments for various illnesses of obstruction, such as constipation and the hemorrhoids related to it, as well as melancholy and hypochondria.43 The best-known of these is probably the Füred water, which Hungarian physician János La Langue’s book on waters recommends for curing the most diverse illnesses of constipation, including hypochondria: “this water has strengthening, releasing, and digestive powers, so it helps the weakness of the stomach and the abdomen, third and fourth-day chills, blockages of the liver, spleen, kidney and uterus, and hypochondria.”44

Does Kazinczy understand the language of hypochondria? In a letter written seven years later, he enthuses to an aristocrat friend of his: “Your letter would horrify me with the news that your soul has been plagued by hypochondria. But you lament about it in such a beautifully written letter that if hypochondria was capable of making one write in such a way, I would ask the Gods to release it on me as well; not even the healthiest soul can write such a letter.”45 Hypochondria is thus characterized as a condition which brings up something that had been closed off below, much as the language of Foucault’s déraison, or pain, creates an independent discourse in the era of sensibility.46 In his response to Berzsenyi dated 18 January 1821, Kazinczy rejoices over his fortunate recovery from the illness and the restoration of the balance of his mind: “Truth and time finally lift the fog, and what is clear is known as clear.”47 This is the paradox of hypochondria: the more we want to help the patient, the deeper we push them. Everything can be reversed. We may even behave ethically towards our patient in the long run; at the same time, this cannot be the method to treat the symptoms that are currently perceived.

The end of their friendship is the beginning of the disease. In Berzsenyi’s 1820 letter, we can first read how true friends (Kazinczy and his followers in Pest) betrayed Berzsenyi and pushed him into illness, and then how now there is no point in making friends with him: what is more, it is impossible to make friends with him anymore. The disloyal friends may suffer all that the one they betrayed had to suffer. Kazinczy’s response letter wants to resolve this tension, and as a good friend, he consoles him, since patients always need hope:48 “You call your state a half-death. Your letter exposes this claim as untrue, because you did not write more enthusiastic ones in your healthy days either, life and strength sparkle within. I would be inconsolable if this hope did not revive you. Nec dis amicum est, nec mihi te prius obire, my dear friend.”49 The Latin quote comes from the first strophe of Horace’s ode written to the sick Maecenas (Carm. 2,17), which has been considered the ode of intimate friendship for centuries, and in the next strophe of which Horace attributes half of his soul to his friend. In other words, Maecenas–Berzsenyi’s “half-death” would also bring death to Horatius–Kazinczy: “ibimus, ibimus, / utcumque praecedes, supremum / carpere iter comites parati.” Their friendship, their shared astrological sign (“utrumque nostrum incredibili modo / consentit astrum”) imposes responsibility on both friends, if one of them is sick, their illness is also shared (as the parallel stories of the last three strophes of the Horace ode suggest), and a shared sacrifice is necessary: “Reddere victimas / aedumque votivam memento: / nos humilem feriemus agnam.”

The end of their friendship is the beginning of the disease. The flip side of this may also be true: friendship is a balm for illness. It is literally medicine. Sir Francis Bacon writes this on friendship: “We know diseases of stoppings, and suffocations, are the most dangerous in the body; and it is not much otherwise in the mind; you may take sarza to open the liver, steel to open the spleen, flowers of sulfur for the lungs, castoreum for the brain; but no receipt openeth the heart, but a true friend; to whom you may impart griefs, joys, fears, hopes, suspicions, counsels, and whatsoever lieth upon the heart to oppress it, in a kind of civil shrift or confession.”50 The constipations and stoppages of the body orifices and the constriction of the soul happen parallel with each other, and a good friend can resolve our problems. However, the hypochondriac does not have friends. Kazinczy also knows what can be read in a popular medical book, that “sad, listless persons need to be cheered up, and we should try to take them to merry companies,” but also that “such patients […] are broody, fearful, skittish, mistrustful, and they often become quite dejected if someone contradicts their foolish opinions or does not believe them.”51 Kazinczy wishes to relieve Berzsenyi by listening to him, but an obstruction that he cannot unplug stands in his way.




When Berzsenyi chooses a literary form for his letter (the sensible epistolary novel), he consciously enters a medical discussion in which aesthetics and morality are interconnected. In this essay, I attempted to describe the narrator’s illness with the help of the contemporary practice of medicine and anthropology, and I eventually located its place in a moral-ethical discourse. I concluded that these three seemingly different areas are linked very closely, and those who only reconstruct Berzsenyi’s psyche can only enrich the psychological literature of their own horizon, while they will necessarily draw the wrong conclusions, since Dániel Berzsenyi himself cannot lie on the psychoanalyst’s couch. I tend to believe the cautionary note of the abovementioned Christian Friedrich Richter, who warned that those who “wish to place the body only in the jurisdiction of medicine and the soul in that of the humanities and place intellectual life in the theological faculty are wrong.”52


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Csapó, József. Orvosló könyvetske, melly betegeskedő szegény sorsu ember számára és hasznára készűlt [Medical booklet which was created for the use and benefit of sickly and afflicted people]. Pozsony–Pest: Füskuti Landerer Mihály, 1791.

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Fejtő, Ferenc. “A ‘sinlődő álóé’: Berzsenyi Dániel halálának századik évfordulójára” [The ‘suffering aloe’: For the hundredth anniversary of Dániel Berzsenyi’s death]. Szép Szó 1 (1936): 9–18.

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Hufeland, Christoph Wilhelm. Az ember’ élete meg-hoszszabbításának mestersége [The art of prolonging life]. Translated and expanded by Mihály Kováts. Vol. 1. Pest: Patzko Ferenc, 1799.

Kant, Immanuel. “Versuch über die Krankheiten des Kopfes.” In Kants Werke. Vorkritische Schriften II. 1757–1777. Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 2, 259–71. Berlin: Reimer, 1905.

Kazinczy, Ferenc. Levelezése [Correspondence]. Edited by János Váczy. Vol. 1–21. Budapest: Magyar Tudományos Akadémia, 1890–1911.

Kovács, Janka. “Lélektudományos ismeretek közvetítése a magyar nyelvű orvosi irodalomban a 18. század második felében” [Mediation of psychological knowledge in the late eighteenth-century medical works in Hungary]. In Fenntartható tudomány. Hagyomány és újrahasznosítás a felvilágosodás előtt, edited by Ildikó Mária Bene, Annamária Molnár, Kata Ágnes Szűcs, Csilla Virág, and Márk Vrabély, 121–47. Budapest: Reciti, 2020.

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Köteles, Sámuel. Philosophiai anthropologia [Philosophical anthropology]. Buda: Magyar Királyi Egyetem, 1839.

La Langue, János. A’ Magyar Országi Orvos Vizekről, és a’ Betegségekbenn azokkal való élésnek szabott modjairól [On the medicinal waters of Hungary and the prescribed manners of using them in diseases]. Nagy-Károly: Klemann Iósef, 1783.

Lepenies, Wolf. Melancholie und Gesellschaft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1998.

Linzbauer, Franciscus Xav. Codex Sanitario-Medicinalis Hungariae. Tomus III. Sectio I. Buda: Typis Caesareo-Regiae Scientiarum Universitatis, 1853.

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Mátyus, István. Diaetetica. Vol. 2. Kolozsvár: Páldi István, 1766.

Mátyus, István. Ó és új diaetetica [Old and new dietetics]. Vol. 1. Pozsony: Mihály Landerer, 1787.

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Melius, Peter. Herbarium Az Faknac Fvveknec nevekröl, természetekröl, és hasznairol [Herbarium: The names, nature, and uses of trees and herbs]. Colosuárat: Heltai Gáspárne, 1578.

Németh, László. Berzsenyi Dániel. Budapest: Franklin-Társulat, [1939].

Pápai Páriz, Ferenc. Pax Corporis. Edited by Ferenc Szablyár. Budapest: Magvető, 1984.

Porter, Roy. The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity from Antiquity to the Present. London: Fontana Press, 1999.

Puder, Sándor dr. Mit köszönhet az irodalom az orvostudománynak? Az orvostudomány és a szépirodalom. Művelődéstörténeti és irodalomtörténeti tanulmány [What has literature given medicine? Medicine and fiction. A study in the history of culture and literature]. Az Orvosi Hetilap Tudományos Közleményei. Különlenyomat. Budapest: Centrum Kiadóvállalat R.-T., 1933.

Rácz, Sámuel. Orvosi oktatás, mellyben a’ leg Gyakrabb és leg közönségesebb nyavalyáknak jelei és orvosságai röviden le-iratnak [Medical teaching, in which the signs and medications of the most frequent and common ailments are described briefly]. Vol. 1. Buda: Landerer Katalin, 1776.

Rey, Roseleyne. The History of Pain. Translated by Louise Elliott Wallace, J. A. Cadden, and S. W. Cadden. Cambridge–Massachusetts–London: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Richards, I. A. Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgement. Second edition. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co. Ltd., 1930.

Richter, Christian Friedrich. Erkenntniss des Menschen, sonderlich nach dem Leibe und natürlichen Leben, oder ein deutlicher Unterricht von der Gesundheit und deren Erhaltung […]. Leipzig: Johann Friedrich Gleditsch, 1741.

Richter, Franz. Tanácsadó mindazokra nézve, a’ kik az aranyérben kissebb vagy nagyobb mértékben szenvednek [Guidance for all who suffer from hemorrhoids to a lesser or greater extent]. Translated and expanded by József Horvát. Pest: Hartleben K. Adolf, 1830.

Rónay, Mária. “A rejtélyes Berzsenyi Dániel – a pszichopatológia tükrében” [The mysterious Dániel Berzsenyi: In light of psychopathology]. Pesti Hírlap, February 2, 1936.

Schedel, Ferenc. Dietetica’ elemei: Hallgatói’ számára [Elements of dietetics: For students]. Buda: M. Királyi Egyetem, 1839.

Schwanitz, H. J. Die Theorie der praktischen Medizin zu Beginn des 19. Jahrhunderts. Cologne: Pahl-Rugenstein Verlag, 1979.

Störck, Anton von. Orvosi praxis [Medical practice]. Translated and expanded by Sámuel Rácz. Vol. 1. Buda: Pesti Királyi Universitas, 1801.

Szirmay-Pulszky, H. von. Genie und Irsinn im Ungarischen Geistleben. Munich: Ernst Reinhardt, 1935.

Váli, Mihály. Házi orvos szótárotska [A small dictionary of home medicine]. Győr: Streibig József, 1792.

Zacharides, Georgius. Dissertatio Inauguralis Medica de Diaeta et Regimene Hypochondriacorum. Halae Magdeburg: Joannis Christiani Hendel, 1750.

Zákonyi, Ferenc. Balatonfüred: Adalékok Balatonfüred történetéhez a kezdetketől 1945-ig [Balatonfüred: Additions to the history of Balatonfüred from the beginnings until 1945]. Veszprém, 1988.

Zay, Sámuel. Falusi orvos pap, vagy olly orvosi útmutatás, mellynél fogva leginkább a’ Falukon uralkodni szokott nyavalyák orvoslatnak [Village physician priest, or medical guidance through which diseases dominant mainly in villages are remedied]. Pozsony: Wéber Simon Péter, 1810.

1 Dilthey, “Ideen über eine beschreibende und zergliedernde Psychologie,” 240.

2 Richards, Practical Criticism, 321–23.

3 Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning.

4 For criticism on the problem see McGann, “Rethinking Romanticism.”

5 Halász, “Berzsenyi lelkivilága.”

6 Fejtő, “A ‘sinlődő álóé.’”

7 Németh, Berzsenyi Dániel, 87–129.

8 Rónay, “A rejtélyes Berzsenyi Dániel.”

9 Szirmay-Pulszky, Genie und Irsinn im Ungarischen Geistleben, 20–22.

10 Puder, Mit köszönhet az irodalom az orvostudománynak, 55.

11 “János Kis to Ferenc Kazinczy, Sopron, December 10, 1820.” In: Kazinczy, Levelezése, vol. 17, 299.

12 Berzsenyi suggests that he wanted to respond to Kölcsey’s criticism, for which he had to study aesthetics. Rájnis’s Kalauz is a collection of poetic examples, and so it is not a regular work on aesthetics.

13 Mondolat was an infamous pamphlet published in 1813 which criticized both Kazinczy and Berzsenyi in a satirical manner. Countercriticism was the first version of Berzsenyi’s response to Kölcsey. Berzsenyi withdrew his text, but the manuscript reached Kölcsey, who published it in his journal. This was not nice of him. In any case, Berzsenyi refers here to his bad reputation after the incident.

14 András Thaisz, Pál Szemere, and Mihály Vitkovics were followers of Kazinczy and friends of Kölcsey.

15 “Dániel Berzsenyi to Ferenc Kazinczy, Sopron, December 13, 1820.” In: Berzsenyi, Levelezése, 532–34.

16 Mátyus, Ó és új diaetetica, 40.

17 In the wake of the medical reform measures launched in the mid-eighteenth century, both the Habsburg government and physicians realized that disseminating knowledge in the vernacular could improve health consciousness, foster trust in “official” medical practices, and consequently advance the overall health of the population. From the 1780s onwards, as part of the general tendencies of the medicalization of society, psychological knowledge was gradually filtered into medical books written in the vernacular to rationalize and normalize everyday experiences with mental illnesses. See Kovács, “Lélektudományos ismeretek közvetítése.”

18 Benedek, “Berzsenyi búskomorsága.”

19 See for example Immanuel Kant’s classification: Kant “Versuch.”

20 Schwanitz, Die Theorie der praktischen Medizin, 27. Cited by Birtalan, “A felvilágosodás mentál­hygiénéje,” 49.

21 Földényi, Melancholy, 49–55.

22 Pápai Páriz, Pax Corporis, 239–40.

23 Foucault, History of madness, 286. The popularity of hypochondria and hysteria in Foucault’s description is just one sign of the end of the Age of Reason (l’âge classique). (Foucault’s l’âge classique is ahead of the era I am studying, in Racine’s century.)

24 Ibid. 280.

25 Kant, “Versuch,” 266.

26 Foucault, History of Madness, 277–96. Eighteenth-century medical discourses were characterized by the inconsistency and eclecticism of the concepts of health and disease, such as mechanistic theories, animism, vitalism, neurophysiology, and -pathology. Consequently, the place and function of the soul, its impact on the human body and vice versa, or the boundaries of different mental disorders or rather clusters of symptoms were hard to define. On these discourses see: Porter, “The Greatest Benefit to Mankind,” 245–303.

27 Mátyus. Ó és új diaetetica, vol. 1, 16–17.

28 Mátyus, Diaetetica, vol. 2, 1766, 363.

29 See Zacharides, Dissertatio, 16.

30 Hufeland, Az ember’ élete, 172.

31 Richter, Erkenntniss des Menschen, 80.

32 Köteles, Philosophiai anthropologia, 216.

33 See for example Zay, Falusi orvos pap. For the philosophical-sociological context of melancholic diseases see Lepenies, Melancholie und Gesellschaft, 76–114.

34 Hufeland, Az ember’ élete, 175.

35 Feuchtersleben, Die Diätetik der Seele, 71. Cited by Birtalan. “A felvilágosodás mentálhygiénéje,” 53.

36 Richter, Tanácsadó, 43.

37 Schedel, Dieteica’ elemei, 56.

38 Rácz, Orvosi oktatás, 128. Rácz later translated and rewrote Baron Anton Störck’s Praecepta medico practica (1776), in which the famous Viennese doctor tried to complete the system with a list as detailed as possible by mixing different theories. He collected eight possible causes of melancholy (one of which is “hypochondriac disposition” and another “abdominal congestion,” but he also includes, for example, scabies, sadness, or “device defects” in the brain). Störck, Orvosi praxis, 469–70.

39 Földényi, Melancholy, 200.

40 “Ferenc Kölcsey to Pál Szemere, Cseke, April 6, 1823.” In: Kölcsey, Ferenc. Levelezés II, 49–50.

41 Váli, Házi orvos szótárotska, 141. Mihály Váli was a notorious charlatan, almost summoned before the Milan Inquisition for befriending the devil, although he was patronized by influential Hungarian aristocrats. Count György Erdődy even recommended him to the ruler, and he eventually became Prince Miklós Esterházy’s court physician and accompanied him on his western tour. See Magyary-Kossa, Magyar orvosi emlékek, 98–99. The plagiarized works: Beythe, Fives-könüv; Melius, Herbarium.

42 At Maria Theresa’s instructions, Henrik Crantz prepared a report on mineral waters in Hungary, where the water of Füred was given a prominent role (Cranz, Analyses, 88). Under the instruction of Joseph II in 1782, Jakab Antal Winterl and Ignác Ádám Prandt prepared a mineralogical report (see Zákonyi, Balatonfüred, 305–11). In his decree of January 18, 1784, Joseph II regulated the consumption of sour waters (Linzbauer, Codex Tomus III., Sectio I., 70–80). After that, the introduction of one royal decree after another indicates a growing interest in mineral waters (between 1783 and 1800, Linzbauer collected 27 decrees regulating the use of medicinal waters in Hungary, ibid. 930). On the waters of Füred, see Daday, “A régi Balatonfüred.”

43 It recommends spas against strains and melancholy e.g. Csapó, Orvosló könyvetske, 21–25; Frank, Az orvos mint Házi-Barát, 75.

44 La Langue, A’ Magyar Országi Orvos Vizekről, 74–75.

45 “Ferenc Kazinczy to Count József Dessewffy, January 10, 1828.” In: Kazinczy, Levelezése, vol. 20, 452.

46 See Rey, The History of Pain, 89–131.

47 “Ferenc Kazinczy to Dániel Berzsenyi, Széphalom, 1821.” In: Kazinczy, Levelezése, vol. 27, 364.

48 The often cited ancient example of this behavior comes from a letter of Cicero to Atticus: “aegroto dum anima est, spes esse dicitur.” Ad Att. 9,10,3.

49 “Ferenc Kazinczy to Dániel Berzsenyi, Széphalom, 1821.” In: Kazinczy, Levelezése, vol. 17, 363–64.

50 Bacon, “Of Friendship,” 113–14. Contemporary Hungarian translation: Bacó, “Gondolatjai.”

51 Frank, Az orvos mint Házi-Barát, 75, 73.

52 Richter, Erkenntniss des Menschen, 412.


Making Sense of Madness: Mental Disorders and the Practices of Case History Writing in the Early Nineteenth Century

Janka Kovács
Eötvös Loránd University
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 10 Issue 2  (2021): 211-242 DOI 10.38145/2021.2.211

The article focuses on interpretations of madness in early nineteenth-century Hungary medical practice from a comparative perspective. By relying on the methodological approach of the anthropology of writing and the analytical considerations offered by Michel Foucault’s 1973–1974 lectures on Psychiatric Power, the article discusses the formalized and standardized practices of case history writing. It draws on sources from the teaching clinics at the universities of Pest and Edinburgh, as well as the largest mental asylums in the Habsburg Monarchy in Vienna (est. 1784) and Prague (est. 1790), and the ideal type of mental asylums at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the York Retreat (est. 1796). In doing so, an attempt is made to reconstruct both the physicians’ gaze and (to a certain extent) the patients’ view, and by examining the therapeutical regime of each hospital and its correlations with the institutional background, uncover whether madness was perceived as a pathological somatic or psychological state in the medical practice of these institutions. This is in and of itself a fundamental question if we seek to understand changing attitudes towards the mad and their curability in a period of transition from a “world without psychiatry” to a “world of psychiatry,” when specialized care was still not an option for many, especially in the East Central European region.

Keywords: history of psychiatry, case history, medical gaze, clinical practice, medical writing

On July 20, 1812, Anna Maria Navratil, a 50-year-old female patient afflicted with a serious illness, was taken to the teaching clinic of the Medical Faculty at the University of Pest. Upon admission, she was diagnosed with an enigmatic disease, hysteria, the interpretation of which requires caution.1 She was undernourished and had a weak bodily posture, and she presented the following symptoms: heavy palpitation and pulse, stiffness in the neck, slow metabolism, hard stool, plentiful but watery urine, and globus hystericus, the suffocating feeling of a lump in the throat, typical of hysteric patients. She was also melancholic, sad, and sensitive, and her face mirrored desperation. The woman’s road to recovery (or at least an asymptomatic state) was followed closely by the medical students completing their clinical practice in the wards, as was done in the cases of hundreds of patients treated at the clinic. These day-to-day observations were recorded in case histories, the length and detailedness of which varied according to the personal habits and preferences of each student. The structurally strict and tight narratives consisted of the following standard elements: the day of admission and basic personal data (age, sex, occupation, religion), the anamnesis encompassing the patients’ family history and life events pertaining to illness, the diagnosis and etiology of the disease, the progress of the disease, and the day of death or discharge. In case of discharge, the patient’s current condition was also recorded (perfectus or imperfectus).

Observation as the practice of collecting and interpreting data is age-old. In medicine, however, the epistemic method of writing, the aim of which is the accumulation, recording, and structuring of information, became common only in the sixteenth century, and in medical education it was introduced as a formalized practice as late as the eighteenth century.2 Compulsory case history writing was introduced at the teaching clinic at the University of Pest in 17843 in order to counterbalance the dominance of “bookish knowledge” in dissertation writing, and it remained a prerequisite for a medical degree until the 1840s. Beginning in the 1810s, mentally ill patients, among them hysteric or melancholic individuals, were admitted to the clinic in increasing numbers, and their progress was recorded in the standardized and prescribed observational categories of case histories. This study delves into these materials and by juxtaposing them to case histories written in diverse institutional settings, It also explores patterns and tendencies in the interpretations of “mental” disorders in an era when the early forms of mental normalization were already underway.

In the case of Hungary, the insights offered by the case histories are unique in certain respects. First, there are comparatively few hospital case histories which shed light on the day-to-day experiences of healing. Second, since Hungary had no special institution (either an asylum or a designated hospital ward) to provide at least rudimentary care for the insane until the establishment of the first wards in the Buda hospital of the Brothers of Mercy in the 1830s, the Schwartzer Private Lunatic Asylum (which opened in 1850), or the Lipótmező Royal National Asylum (which opened in 1868), municipal general hospitals, policlinics, and hospitals operated by religious orders (the Brothers of Mercy and the Sisters of Saint Elizabeth) admitted them. Therefore, however sparse the available materials are (and thus the number of mentally ill patients on which some information has survived), the diagnostic and healing practices of the Pest policlinic can be taken as representative for “mental normalization” in Hungary in the period under study.

The primarily somatic approach to mental disorders might also be a direct consequence of the way in which knowledge concerning psychology was disseminated in medical education. From the early 1800s onwards, gradually replacing the dominant approach of Hippocratic and Galenic medicine, more modern theoretical and practical approaches were introduced at the medical faculties at the universities of Vienna, Prague, and Pest. Though individual courses on psychology/psychiatry were not offered until the 1840s, when in Prague and Vienna the first proposals were sent to the Court Commission of Studies (Studienhofkommission) by the primary physicians at the Vienna and Prague asylums, increasing attention was being paid to knowledge concerning psychology. Knowledge of psychology was part of the compulsory training in philosophy (itself a prerequisite of medical education) at the two-year and three-year programs offered by colleges and the philosophy faculties of the universities, either incorporated into courses on logic or taught individually as empirical psychology. Furthermore, from the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, basic psychological knowledge was filtered into core medical courses on physiology, pathology, therapy, medical police, and forensic medicine, with the body-soul problem and the problem of mental disorders often being explained from neurological and “social” points of view.4 The latter, gaining ground in the subsequent decades, viewed mental disorders either as diseases of civilization (for example, the consequences of an urban or scholarly lifestyle) and considered the mentally ill in their broader social contexts as individuals to be defended from and also a “danger” to society at large. This, however, as the case histories reveal, rarely surfaced in the context of hospital practice. It remained within the domain of theoretical discourses in textbooks or dissertations.

In attempting to grasp the interpretations of mental disorders recorded in case histories, I focus on the case histories’ layout, seriality, formalized structure, and the cognitive practices written into the narratives and their links with knowledge production and the interpretation of different phenomena in medical practice. The means of interpretation, however, cannot be understood without paying close attention to the correlations between the methodology of writing and the institutional background, which could shed light on whether the “mental” disorders appearing in the case histories under discussion were indeed understood, approached, and handled as mental disorders with a psychological elucidation in mind or whether they were seen and treated as first and foremost somatic diseases disguised as mental maladies. To make sense of the practices at the teaching clinic in Pest, comparative materials, among them the records of hospital administration, statistics, case histories, and patient records will be explored from different types of institutions, ranging from the teaching clinic at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, which operated in a similar configuration as the Pest clinic, to the early asylums of the Habsburg Monarchy in Vienna and Prague and the model of mental asylums in the period, the York Retreat, which was founded in 1796.

In addition to drawing on the methodological approach of the anthropology of (medical) writing, the study’s inquiries are also informed and inspired by Michel Foucault’s lectures on psychiatric power held at the Collège de France between 1973 and 19745 and Roy Porter’s seminal 1985 article advocating the inclusion of a patient’s view in medical history writing,6 which has been introduced and applied in research with more or less success for the past few decades.7 Taking their argumentation as a starting point, I will focus on the following aspects: 1. the ritual of questioning and confession, and the incorporation of the physician’s gaze and the patient’s perspective into the narratives, 2. the importance of pathological anatomy and “family history” in making diagnoses, 3. the applied therapeutical regimes and the length of stays in hospitals, which could be revealing with regards to the preferences of either a psychological or a somatic approach in “mental” normalization.

Managing Mental Disorders: Approaches from Teaching Clinics to Lunatic Asylums

As the layout and structure of the case histories and patient records on the basis of which conclusions can be ventured concerning the physicians’ gaze, the patients’ progress, and the interpretations of diseases depended heavily on the given institutions’ administrative practices, the following section will provide a summary of the most significant institutional tendencies and the nature of the surviving sources.

The richest collection of case histories survives from the teaching clinic at the University of Pest, where the purpose of recording the patients’ cases was twofold. First, case histories were written in partial fulfilment of medical degrees from 1784, following the Viennese example. For his final exam, each student had to summarize the progress of two or three patients chosen from a larger pool with a wide array of diseases.8 The structure of these narratives is in most cases clear and logical, and the main points are well articulated. Second, case history writing was also a compulsory part of clinical practice for fourth-year and fifth-year medical students, as testified by a diverse group of materials on hospital administration (patient records, statistics, case histories, meteorological observations) in Ferenc Bene’s (1775–1858) collection, which was preserved in the Manuscripts Archive of the National Széchényi Library in Budapest.

The teaching clinic was led by Ferenc Bene, chief physician of Pest, dean of the medical faculty (1807–1809) and rector of the University of Pest (1810), and a propagator of smallpox vaccination in Hungary between the 1810s and the middle of the 1840s. In this period, students were required to write case histories on a monthly basis, and these histories were then handed in to him for evaluation (in many cases, the documents were signed by him). In comparison with the exam materials, these narratives are less detailed and less well-structured, but in all cases they mirror the given medical student’s individual style, preparedness, and diligence, and they also show the everyday “raw” experiences involved in working in close proximity to diseases, the students’ progress, and the physicians’ approaches to the students.9 In addition to the longer case histories, on which the second part of this study draws, shorter summaries and reports (synoptica relatio), sometimes reflecting on the same cases as the longer narratives and clinical journals encompassing hospital statistics, were also prepared, in most cases by the assistant physicians at the clinic. Depending on the habits, erudition, and individual preferences of the physicians, the clinical journals had different layouts, and they often varied in the extent to which they went into detail, but their structure remained the same, including statistics (the number of all admitted patients in the previous six months or year, as well as the number of discharged and remaining patients and deaths) and a narrative part summarizing “interesting” or “curious” cases arranged into seven categories.10

As highlighted earlier, the two types of case histories, the practice and exam materials, were similar in their structure but could mirror different everyday experiences of hospital life and the progress of individual cases, as well as the physicians’ individual approaches to health, illness, and therapy. However, both types offer a glimpse into how, sometimes breaking with the “bookish” tradition of medical education, medical students, observing their patients’ progress, documented and at the same time interpreted and approached “madness” and the most frequently described and diagnosed mental maladies in the period and the connections these interpretations had with the content of their curriculum.

From among the case histories written at the teaching clinic at Pest between 1787 and 1847, I have chosen to focus on a narrower period between 1812 and 1828. Prior to 1812, no case histories were written on mental patients, while after 1828 the approach to mental disorders altered in medical education, with changes in both quantitative and qualitative factors, as shown, for example, by the number of admissions, changes in the curriculum, and the thematic spectrum of dissertations. I chose cases for further exploration in which the diagnoses were fully or partially related to mental disorders, mostly the four most common “traveling concepts,”11 hysteria, hypochondria, melancholy, and mania, which were familiar since Antiquity but which have been reimagined and interpreted over the course of the centuries in light of newer theories, such as dualism, mechanical theories, animism, vitalism, and the findings of neurology. As revealed by the Hungarian clinical cases, these maladies were still commonly diagnosed in the early nineteenth century, even though this period saw a slow and gradual transition towards a more nuanced classification of mental disorders (at least in Western Europe and, as we will see in the discussion of diagnostic practices at the Vienna and Prague asylums, to some extent in the East Central European region too) with the work of German physician Johann Christian August Heinroth (1773–1843), the French Philippe Pinel (1745–1826), and his pupil, Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol (1772–1840). According to their classifications, some of the categories partly became devoid of their original meaning or were reconsidered and “fell apart.”12

In some of the cases I have selected, mental disorders were concomitant with other diseases and developed in relation to or as a consequence of either neurological (debilitating headaches, epilepsy, St. Vitus’s dance, also known as Sydenham’s chorea) or gastrointestinal diseases. However, the neurological disorders that were not identified as mental maladies and were not accompanied by mental symptoms were not considered. After taking these factors into consideration, I chose 22 longer case histories which include the standard categories of observation (anamnesis, diagnosis, etiology, prognosis, the progress of the disease, therapy).13

As the policlinic of the University of Pest mostly admitted surgical cases, pregnant women, patients with fevers, skin diseases, or inflammations that could make good teaching cases, the low number of mental patients in the statistics, clinical journals, and case histories should not come as a surprise. Furthermore, if we consider the dominance of one particular disease, hysteria (and to a lesser extent its “male counterpart,” hypochondria), the number of mental diseases approached from and diagnosed based on a psychological framework are even fewer in number. As opposed to mania or melancholy, which were primarily diagnosed based on mental and behavioral symptoms, at the time hysteria and hypochondria could easily be interpreted as somatic diseases that could yield physical therapeutics if we consider their symptomatology, even though they were more often than not accompanied by mental symptoms. The dominance of the somatic approach, thus, is pinpointed by the low proportion of mental maladies and high incidence of maladies disguised as such. From among the 22 patients, 18 were diagnosed with hysteria, one with hypochondria, one with erotomania (a disorder characterized by an individual’s delusions of another person being infatuated with them), one with melancholy, and one with delirium tremens.14 Hence, the case histories of the teaching clinic of Pest shed light on interpretations of hysteria and the practice of diagnosing and healing along the lines of somatic medicine, lacking a psychological approach which was, to some extent, already in use in the diagnostic and therapeutic practices in the first asylums of the Habsburg Monarchy or in model institutions, such as the aforementioned York Retreat.

Among the universities operating a teaching clinic in Europe at turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,15 the teaching wards at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh showed remarkable similarities with the policlinic in Pest. Very much like the reform measures launched by Gerard van Swieten (1700–1772) in the mid-eighteenth century in Vienna, which also had a profound impact on medical education in Hungary, the reform of the Medical Faculty of the University of Edinburgh established in 1726 was also implemented by three pupils of Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738), Alexander Monro primus (1697–1787), John Rutherford (1695–1779), and William Cullen (1710–1790). Following the Leyden model, both in Vienna (and later in Pest) and Edinburgh emphasis was put on bedside teaching and empirical observation, creating the most modern spaces of medical education in Europe.16 By this time, Edinburgh diverged from the English model still followed in Cambridge and Oxford, which relied on an outdated system of theoretical lectures and observation, eliminating clinical teaching almost completely.17 As for the practices of admission, capacity, and patient numbers, there are further similarities between the teaching wards of the Royal Infirmary and the teaching clinic of Pest: in Edinburgh, 20 to 50 patients were admitted on a monthly basis, whereas in Pest the figures were between 20 and 40.18 The clinical case histories written in Edinburgh between the 1790s and the 1810s19 reveal rather similar tendencies to what we have observed in the case of the Pest policlinic. Though medical students in Edinburgh played a somewhat more passive role in the actual treatment of patients, empirical observation, the recording of day-to-day experiences, and the practice of case history writing were at the heart of medical education from the mid-eighteenth century onwards.

The collections of case histories, however, were preserved in a different format: while in the case of Pest, student reports were edited into volumes posteriorly, in Edinburgh, each medical student kept his own books, in which they recorded (or in some cases, copied) their case histories in a different structure from what we have seen in the case of Pest. Though the standard categories of observation also prevail and govern the physicians’ gaze here, medical students in Edinburgh followed different editorial practices. They recorded their daily observations chronologically in the form of diary-like entries in volumes, which allowed them to follow the treatment of different patients simultaneously. Therefore, the case histories follow a rather fragmented structure, with cross-references and indices. This less clear-cut structure, however, allows the researcher to catch a glimpse into the cognitive practices written into the broken narratives. As for the representation of mental disorders in the casebooks, though the Royal Infirmary admitted mental patients in lesser numbers, I have found similar ratios as in the case of Pest. The notebooks of John Abercrombie (1780–1844), who later practiced medicine in Edinburgh, William Pulteney Alison (1790–1859) and Thomas Charles Hope (1766–1844), the two Presidents of the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh in the following decades, and David Lithgow (?–?), a practitioner in Dublin, reveal that even though neurological diseases, especially epilepsy, counted as fashionable diagnoses in Edinburgh at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,20 mentally ill patients were either not admitted or were not properly diagnosed in the teaching wards. Altogether, seven patients were admitted with hysteria, two with hypochondria, and one with mania.

As a counterpoint to the policlinics and their primarily somatic approach, the early mental asylums of the Habsburg Monarchy in the late eighteenth century began to use a partially psychological approach in diagnostics and healing by the first decades of the nineteenth century. As we will see, the asylums of the Monarchy occupied a middle ground between the policlinics and model asylums, such as the York Retreat, which played a pioneering role in introducing moral therapy. Furthermore, since the hospital network and the early asylums of the Habsburg Monarchy provided the most important model for the organization of Hungarian hospitals and also the first (private) psychiatric institutions later in the nineteenth century, their practices must be taken into consideration as an immediate context of the trends in Hungary.21 Though it would be ideal to compare the general wards of the Vienna General Hospital (Allgemeines Krankenhaus) to the teaching clinic of Pest, the number of available case histories written by medical students is rather low, and the number of mental patients among them is even lower. Short case histories and the summaries of therapeutic measures in the general hospital were published based on the courses of Anton de Haen (1704–1776) and Maximilian Stoll (1742–1787). These narratives, however, rarely deal with either mental or neurological diseases, and even if they do, the “case histories” often do not follow the standard categories of observation that would enable us to fully grasp the ways in which the maladies were interpreted.22

As for the two most significant mental asylums in the Monarchy, only printed case histories remained, which require a somewhat different approach than the manuscripts from the teaching clinics in Pest and Edinburgh. The first decades of the operation of the first purpose-built asylum on the continent, which was established by Joseph II (1780–1790) as part of the Viennese General Hospital in 1784, and the asylum, the establishment of which was initiated by Joseph II and opened under the reign of Leopold II (1790–1792) in 1790 in Prague, were summarized in two accounts published by Joseph Gottfried von Riedel, the secondary physician of the Prague asylum, in 1830 and by Michael von Viszánik, the Hungarian-born primary physician of the Viennese asylum, in 1845.23 The printed accounts reflecting on the spatial organization, operation, healing activities, and patient statistics of the asylums contain twelve and 13 long case histories each, following the diagnostic categories included in the seventeenth-century, eighteenth-century, and early nineteenth-century nosologies of Thomas Willis (1621–1675), the English physician who played a pioneering role in neurology, François Boissier de Sauvages (1706–1767), the professor of physiology and anatomy at the University of Montpellier, and Johann Christian August Heinroth, the first professor of psychiatry.24 By applying a diverse array of categories and subcategories to describe mental disorders, the narratives of Riedel and Viszánik reveal how early psychiatric diagnostics worked in practice and how the treatments of these ailments were approached. Though Viszánik’s account was published well into the nineteenth century, later than the other materials examined in this study, the structure and logic of his book mirror Riedel’s account, which must have been a source on which he drew. Furthermore, he had been a long-serving physician at the institution by then, with a keen eye to its development from the early years. Also, since the Narrenturm, tcontinental Europe’s first purpose-built psychiatric hospital, found in Vienna, played a central role in the developing network of asylums in the Monarchy and served as a model institution, its diagnostic and therapeutic practice are indicative of the regional approaches to “madness.”

A more specialized approach to mental normalization is revealed by the short case histories included in the patient register of the York Retreat kept from 1796. The Retreat was founded by the Quaker Tuke family, and it remained in their operation in the subsequent decades: the founder, William Tuke (1732–1822), was followed by his son, Henry Tuke (1755–1814), his grandson, Samuel Tuke (1784–1857), and his great-grandsons, James (1819–1822) and Daniel Tuke (1827–1895). According to the somewhat idealized accounts published by Samuel Tuke in 1813 and 1815, the institution and its practices exerted significant influence, and the Retreat served as a model institution for other asylums both in England and on the continent, especially on account of the theory and practices of moral therapy.25 As pinpointed by treatises on medical police and hospital administration, the English model and, especially, the York model had also had an impact in the Habsburg Monarchy.26 The Retreat, which devoted significant attention to religion, philanthropy, a humane approach to mental disorders, the incentive of meaningful occupation, natural environment, and conversations,27 played a vital role in introducing a psychological approach to the treatment of the insane. As for the admission, administration, diagnosing, and recording of the patients’ progress, the York Retreat with its integrated practices serves as a unique example. The rather laconic, usually one-page entries in the casebooks28 of the Retreat briefly summarize the dates of the patients’ admission, readmission, discharge, or death, and also their sex, occupation, the anamnesis, and the progress of their disease. As a sample, I have chosen 100 cases altogether from between 1796 and 1800 and 1815 and 182029 which reveal the almost complete lack of a somatic approach and the dominance of the psychological (moral) approach to diagnostics and therapy.

From Soma to Psyche: Interpreting Mental Disorders

If we seek to identify the differences between the somatic and psychological approaches to the diagnostics and the treatment of “mental” maladies recorded in the case histories, with some modifications, Michel Foucault’s thesis, introduced in his lectures on psychiatric power between 1973 and 1974, could serve as a good point of departure. In his lectures held on January 23, 1974 and January 30, 1974, Foucault called attention to the peculiarities of psychiatric diagnostics which distinguish it from other fields of medicine and medical knowledge in general. He argues that diagnostic practice in psychiatry is only seemingly based on the methodology of differential diagnostics, meaning that a diagnosis is made based on the anamnesis, the observed symptoms, and possible underlying reasons. Foucault argues that, in reality, “medical knowledge in psychiatry functions at the point of the decision between madness and non-madness.”30 Furthermore, he describes psychiatry as a field which does not focus on the body/soma, even though the development of psychiatry was dominated from the beginning by the pursuit of determining the underlying physiological causes of madness (neurological disorders, injuries). But even if psychiatric knowledge is constituted based on the medical observation of signs and symptoms, the question as to whether a patient is mad or not, whether they are simulating their symptoms or not, remain at the core of psychiatric diagnostics. And to determine this, doctors need procedures that could serve as substitutes for the techniques applied in general medicine in order to accept the individual as a patient and for the patient to accept them as doctors.31 This approach, however, disregards the fact that, from the 1820s to the 1860s, especially in the first decades, the very period Foucault discusses, we can only talk about “psychiatric power” and the success of such techniques if the people who were diagnosed with mental disorders were in fact admitted to institutions specializing in psychiatric problems, where madness was evaluated, described, and treated as, first and foremost, a psychological (mental, behavioral) problem. But what about those institutions where “mental” disorders were diagnosed without the intentions and especially the means of psychiatric normalization? How did general physicians approach the problem in the first half of the nineteenth century?

As mentally ill patients with different diagnoses, especially but not exclusively in the East Central European region, were more often than not taken into the care of policlinics, general hospitals, poor houses, and other non-specialized institutions, in short, outside the world of psychiatry, the problem of psychiatric diagnostics and the treatment of patients in need of specialized treatment brings up a set of issues and has further implications for (proto)psychiatric care and institutionalization in the region. To underpin this argument, I have chosen to focus on several factors (the naming of the disease, as well as its description and progress, the anamnesis, including the body of the “suffering family,” the point of view of the narratives, and the length of stays in hospitals) that help us determine whether the diagnostic and therapeutic practice of the different institutions pertained to a somatic and/or a psychological approach to mental disorders.

From among the five institutions examined in this study, it is, not surprisingly, the practice of the York Retreat that conformed more or less to the requirements described by Foucault, as far as one can tell on the basis of Samuel Tuke’s idealistic accounts and the casebooks. In almost all cases, the entries in the casebooks serving both as patient registers and clinical journals with short synoptic case histories contained a diagnosis. These diagnoses,32 instead of using common nosological categories and, if viewed from the Foucauldian perspective, somewhat “artificial” medical terminology, reveal a decision concerning whether the patient in question was mad or not. The patients received their diagnostic labels based on their temperament or behavioral and mental symptoms, such as derangement, deranged; insane, insanity; of the melancholiac kind; melancholic derangement, or mental anxiety.

The practice of the physicians in the early asylums of the Habsburg Monarchy, however, following the nosologies of Willis, Sauvages, and Heinroth, suggest that they relied more closely on differential diagnostics and less on the decision as to whether a given patient was mad or not. This observation on my part might of course be distorted, as both Riedel and Viszánik included model cases in their accounts, including accurate indications of which physicians’ nosologies they were following. The everyday, raw experiences of diagnostic practice are thus lost here. Among the case histories, they labelled patients with (by early nineteenth-century standards) modern categories, such as melancholic monomania (monomania melancholica) and more common and older categories, such as puerperal mania (mania puerperalis), acute mania (mania acuta), pure or simple melancholy (reine Melancholia, melancholia simplex), or mania (reine Tollheit, mania simplex).33 In case of the policlinics, where somatic medicine prevailed, almost all patients were diagnosed either with hysteria, hypochondria, or, in a few cases, delirium tremens (confusion or mania caused by the withdrawal of alcohol). The leading diagnosis, hysteria, an elusive disease which could have significant mental symptoms and was classified as a neurological or mental disorder, could also be interpreted, as underlined by the case histories, as a somatic disease with typical symptoms, such as clavus and globus hystericus, gastrointestinal, and menstrual problems.

Foucault’s other suggestion about the pre-history of patients and its correlations with diagnostic practice, however, could be relevant here with some modifications. According to Foucault, the decision between madness and non-madness (or, depending on the context and situation, the method of making differential diagnoses) required the technique of questioning or the search for signs in one’s family history to identify the moments when madness surfaced in some way or another. This, though rather fragmentarily, surfaces in the case histories, though probably requiring a slightly different interpretation than the original Foucauldian take on the problem.

Closely related to the above point, Foucault also suggests that questioning served as a substitute for the methodology of pathological anatomy in making a differential diagnosis. When it came to mental disorders, as the tools offered by pathological anatomy were not sufficient to decide between madness and non-madness, family history gained a special significance. Constituting the body of the “suffering family” by extending the scale of examination beyond the individual, a physician could discover signs and connections suggesting one’s predisposition to madness.34 Interrogating patients about their family history has been a common method in general medicine for centuries. In psychiatric diagnostics, however, as Foucault argues, it is of vital significance for the right choice between madness and non-madness. As suggested earlier, however, Foucault ignores the frequent use of labels in the 1820s and 1830s (and in Hungary, even later35), such as melancholy, mania, hypochondria, or hysteria, or simply madness, outside of specialized institutions. Even though questioning and the family history were fundamental parts of the case histories, connections between madness, the suffering family, and the patients’ status at the time are rarely revealed.36

At the university clinic of Pest, the medical history of the mentally ill patients’ parents was recorded in 17 cases.37 If we consider those patients only, whose diagnosis was, as revealed by the narratives, based on behavioral and mental symptoms, very laconic references are made to the early signs of madness described by Foucault. Sigismundus Fekete, a 26-year-old patient who suffered from erotomania, a peculiar delusional disorder, was admitted to the clinic on July 19, 1826. Johannes Slavik, a 23-year-old melancholic patient, was admitted two years later, on November 27, 1828. According to his case history, Sigismundus Fekete had healthy parents, and the only health-related event in his anamnesis was that he had received the smallpox vaccine as a child.38 Johannes Slavik, however, had a more detailed family history and anamnesis: according to the records, his father died of tuberculosis (phthisis), and ten years prior to his hospitalization he had already had a melancholic episode, and his current episode had begun ten days earlier.39 Here, the signs to which Foucault referred are clearly identifiable both in terms of the distant past and recent events. The hereditary nature of the disease surfaces in only one anamnesis: the mother of Anna Nagy, a 25-year-old hysteric patient, also suffered from hysteria (“ex mater hysterica”), however, as hysteria was approached as a primarily somatic disease in these case histories, the phenomenon described by Foucault applies to this case with restrictions.

References to the patients’ mental state in other significant, standard sections of the case histories, such as their health status upon admission (status praesens) and the progress of the disease (decursus morbi), are also relatively scarce. In early nineteenth-century medicine, which did not have modern diagnostic measures and tools, the patients’ own reflections on their conditions and symptoms were vital for making the correct diagnosis. In cases of mental disorders, getting to know the inner world of patients is all the more important, as the observable (behavioral) phenomena are insufficient to give a reliable account of their condition, its seriousness, and its curability. At this point, the patients’ or their relatives’ perspective40 often filtered into the narratives. In the case histories of the teaching clinics of Pest and Edinburgh, the patients’ complaints are often recorded in the third-person singular (accusat, complains). And even though these utterances are filtered and mediated by the physicians’ perspective and are organized into coherent narratives by them, in these instances, however rare they may be, the physician’s gaze orienting the narration and the “lived” experience of patients are juxtaposed.

In most cases, the physicians’ perspective prevails. When the hysteric or hypochondriac patients’ mental symptoms are reflected on briefly, we have characterizations like “choleric, nervous and anxious behavior and proneness to sadness” in the case of Elizabeth Szabó,41 who was admitted to the clinic on January 30, 1815, or “sadness with misanthropy” in the case of Ferenc Schober,42 admitted on December 19, 1823.43 Sometimes, however, the patients’ complaints are clearly discernible from the narratives, and though they mostly give accounts of their physical pain, they sometimes reflect on their mental state, such as Elizabeth Enzmann, a 40-year-old patient, who was admitted to the teaching clinic of Pest on November 25, 1817 with severe emesis and hysteria. Enzmann complained of anxiety (“accusat anxietates”) to the medical student examining her. As for the teaching wards of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, the patients complained of a wide array of symptoms, from toothaches to globus hystericus. However, their inner lives, feelings, and mental pain either remained concealed from their doctors or the doctors did not consider them important enough to record in the case histories. Whichever the case, this clearly indicates the absence of a psychological approach, and even though there are counterexamples to this tendency, by and large, the same conclusions hold for the teaching clinic of Pest.

The case histories recorded in the asylums, also in the third-person singular, allowed slightly more space for the patients’ own perspectives. In the casebooks of the York Retreat, in the synoptic summaries of the patients’ condition, complaints were rarely included, and even if they were, the entries mostly gave accounts of physical pain. Michael Viszánik and Josef Gottfried von Riedel, however, often devoted more space to the patients’ experiences of (mental) pain and recovery. These tendencies are most discernible from the anamneses and the progress sections. The anamneses not only detail the health-related events of the patients’ lives from childhood to adulthood but also reflect on the sociocultural settings from which they came. Their path to the asylums, organized into a narrative by the physicians, reveal much about the conditions, family background, and chances of (re)integration into society. Some of the experiences point towards the accidental nature of madness and its underlying reasons, such as changes in one’s personal environment. This is well illustrated by the case of an unnamed female patient admitted to the Prague asylum on January 28, 1828. Her melancholic sadness, boredom, and suicidal tendencies were induced by her husband’s alcoholism, even though she had led a happy, cheerful life before.44 On the other hand, through these narratives, we can catch a glimpse into how a patient’s attitude and mental condition changed over the course of treatment and how they gradually opened up to their caretakers. A female patient admitted to the Prague asylum in December 1829 with pure madness (reiner Wahnsinn, ecstasis simplex), completely unaware of her condition, responded well to the treatment, and on the seventh day of her stay, she shared the unknown details of her path to the asylum and began to accept her condition.45 And even if she is not heard, the narrative, the case history’s progress and therapy sessions illustrate that moral therapy and one of its most important components, conversation with patients, was known and practiced in the Prague asylum, in a setting still dominated mostly by somatic medicine.

Observation and therapy at the policlinics of Pest and Edinburgh were often influenced by the bookish knowledge which the students were expected to acquire during their theoretical courses, neither of which were specialized in the practical approaches to empirical psychology or psychiatry.46 Though mental symptoms, along with lifestyle and sociocultural dimensions, were part of the textbook definition of hysteria, in the clinical setting, these aspects were seemingly negligible and were not considered fundamental for identifying and diagnosing a certain disease. In case of both Pest and Edinburgh, there seem to have been two dominant sets of symptoms. One of these clusters included gastrointestinal symptoms, excessive stool and urine, pains, and severe cramps. Though it is not mentioned explicitly in any of the sources, this was probably understood in the context of the theory of vapors, which (it was thought), by rising from the stomach and bowels, were responsible for disturbing the mental faculties.

On the other hand, case histories point to the unyielding persistence of the gynecological interpretation of hysteria, with regular references to the disturbances of the menstrual cycle. From among the 18 hysteric patients in Pest, the date of the first period is recorded (between 11 and 17 years of age), and the changes or disorders of the cycle (excessive bleeding or the lack of periods for longer of shorter intervals) were directly linked to the appearance of hysteria and its progress. Other textbook symptoms included lockjaw or trismus, globus and clavus hystericus, and the so-called hysteric fits, the nature of which are rarely reflected on in the case histories, even though they were rather common. In Edinburgh, almost all case histories contained some reference to them.47

Therapeutic measures matched the dominant symptoms of the disease at the policlinics. As the therapy sessions in the case histories testify, the theoretical basis of healing was based on the Hippocratic and Galenic system of medicine, still dominant in the early nineteenth century, aiming to restore the balance of the four humors with bloodletting, clysters, and emetics (wild senna, ipecacuanha, asafetida). These measures were complemented with herbal remedies (valerian, chamomile, lemongrass, opium, or henbane) and chemically distilled oils (peppermint, cinnamon, and wild orange) serving as sedatives, which became widely popular in the eighteenth century with the spread of the neurological approach.

As for therapeutics, the early asylums of the Habsburg Monarchy were transitional between two poles on our scale, the two policlinics and the York Retreat, where references to the practice of moral therapy surface not only in Samuel Tuke’s accounts, but also in the case histories.48 In Viszánik’s and Riedel’s case histories, the more traditional, somatic approach is complemented by some components of moral therapy, typically those that were feasible in an urban setting. In the two asylums, in addition to the abovementioned therapeutics, cold baths were also in use as an early form of hydrotherapy.49 Since one of the cornerstones of moral therapy, the assignment of activities to the patients in a natural setting and useful occupation in, for example, gardens, was not necessarily possible in Prague or Vienna, the two physicians, especially Riedel, paid attention to conversations with patients and to the task of making the environment more bearable by, for example, furnishing and equipping the wards in a “friendlier” manner.50

As a final aspect, it is worth looking at the lengths of stays in hospitals. By the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most physicians realized that mental disorders could be rather persistent, and since healing (if possible) or at least subduing symptoms in general took much longer than the treatment of other (somatic) ailments, patients usually needed longer periods of hospitalization. The length of stay (LOS) is thus a good indicator of both the approaches to mental normalization and the possibilities hospitals had in offering treatments for patients inflicted with mental disorders. From the perspective of this last consideration, the average length of hospitalization underpins the tendencies observed in the respective sections of case histories, such as the anamnesis (illness-related events in one’s family or personal history), diagnosis (especially the naming of the disease), or the progress and therapy sections including the applied curatives and other measures (conversation, change in environment, etc.).

The teaching clinics of Pest and Edinburgh were on the low end of the scale: in the case of Pest, the length of hospitalization can be calculated in 19 of the 22 cases, with the average length of stay (ALOS) being 47 days (approximately 1.5 months). The shortest period of hospitalization was five days (Rosalia Hany, diagnosed with hysteria51), while it was the melancholic Johannes Slavik52 who spent the longest time in the clinic, 228 days altogether. This, at the same time, reflects on the differences between the interpretations of hysteria (primarily a somatic disease and curable as such) and melancholy (primarily a mental disorder, identifiable on the basis of mental and behavioral symptoms). Similar tendencies prevailed in Edinburgh, with the average length of stay being even lower (23 days). The shortest stay was the hysteric Elisabeth Erskine’s53 (six days), whereas the maniac John Williamson54 stayed for 50 days in the teaching ward of the Royal Infirmary.

As for the two asylums considered “transitional” institutions, the ALOS differed significantly: in Vienna it was only 62 days (ca. 2 months) and in Prague it was twice this, 134 days (ca. 4.5 months). The highest ALOS was, as expected, in the York Retreat. However, it must be noted that the dates in the casebooks are rather unreliable due to the frequent readmissions and follow-up care provided for the patients (when it was possible, the superintendents of the asylum paid attention to their patients even after they were discharged). It is therefore in most cases impossible to work with exact numbers, and that is why I have chosen to rely only on 42 cases in which the dates of admission and discharge were given precisely (a further twelve cases ended with death, among them one suicide). Basing my calculations on the selected cases from between 1796–1800 and 1815–1820, the ALOS was 632 days (ca. 21 months), with the lowest stay being 34 days and the highest being 2,790 days (ca. 93 months).


Table 1.

Lengths of stay and average lengths of stay in the hospitals


Shortest LOS

Longest LOS


University clinic of Pest




University clinic of Edinburgh




Vienna asylum




Prague asylum




York Retreat





If we consider the length of stay a good indicator of the seriousness of a disease and the efficacy of mental normalization, these numbers clearly show that, from among the institutions under discussion, it was indeed the model asylum that could fulfil its function of conducting therapy, the two asylums of the Habsburg Monarchy integrated the newest approaches and older methods (purging, bloodletting etc.), while the two policlinics only took on the responsibility of subduing (somatic) symptoms and offering a temporary asylum for those showing the symptoms of disorders classified as “mental.” As for the teaching clinic of Pest in the focus of my inquiry, both the methods of identification and therapy indicate that the medical students who were completing their practical semesters and who did not take practical courses on psychiatry could only rely on knowledge they gathered from the rather scattered material in diverse courses (introductory courses on empirical psychology focusing on the basic outlines of the cognitive faculties, physiology, pathology, therapeutics, medical police, and forensic medicine). Thus, even though psychological knowledge gradually filtered into the curricula and textbooks of the Medical Faculty of the University of Pest, in the absence of a specialized institution, a psychological approach would have been impossible to implement in practice, and this necessitated the fundamentally somatic approach to the treatment of patients labeled as mentally ill (or diagnosed with maladies disguised as such). However, it must also be underlined that the period between the end of the eighteenth century and the 1830s marks a turning point in the history of psychiatry in Hungary, and even if we can only talk about a belated introduction of the psychological approach in medical practice, the mere fact that patients with these conditions were even accepted into the policlinic after the 1810s was a great step towards reconsidering the attitudes towards their treatment, which was addressed in both theoretical approaches and practice more intensely after the 1830s.

Archival Sources

Archiv der Universität Wien (UAW)

Sonstige Archive, Josephsakademie (k. k. medizinisch-chirurgische Militärakademie) und Garnisonsspital, Wissenschaftliche Elaborate, Krankengeschichten.

Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York

York Retreat, Casebooks, 1–3.

RET 6/5/1/1/A (Volume 1, 1796–1828)

RET 6/5/1/1/B (Volume 2, 1803–1820)

RET 6/5/1/2 (Volume, 1828–1838)

Budapest Főváros Levéltára [Budapest City Archives] (BFL)

1103.a. St. John’s General Hospital, General Administration, vols. 4–15. Patient Records (1857–1873).

Országos Széchényi Könyvtár Kézirattár [Manuscripts Archive of National Széchényi Library] (OSZK Kt.)

Quart. Lat. 2165. Historia morborum, in clinico medico... Scientiarum Universitatis ab anno scholastico 1815/1816. usque ad annum 1838/1839. tractatorum, descriptae per candidatos medicinae, Pestini.

Quart. Lat. 2166. Relationes de aegris in instituto chirurgico-practico... Universitatis Scientiarum... tractatis Pestini ab anno scholastico 1816/1817. usque ad annum 1840/1841. descriptae per assistentes ac auditores.

Quart. Lat. 2168. Conspectus synopticus in clinico medico practico Regiae Scientiarum Universitatis Hungaricae ab anno 1814. usque ad annum 1824. pertractatorum, per assistentes et auditores conscriptus, Pestini.

Quart. Lat. 2169. Synopsis observationum practicarum circa aegros in instituto medico-practico Regiae Scientiarum Universitatis Hungaricae, sub auspiciis domini professoris Joannem Pozsonyi assistentes. Pestini, 1818–1821.

Quart. Lat. 2172. Brevis eorum expositio, quae et quomodo in clinico medico Regiae Scientiarum Universitatis Hungaricae manu ducente... professore Francisco Bene acta sunt... Descripta per Josephum Krieger (1818).

Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh Archives (RCPE)

DEP/ABJ/1–2: Men’s Cases (1800–1801)

DEP/1/1/5–9: Women’s Cases (1801)

DEP/AWP/2/1–6: Cases taken from the Clinical Journals of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh (1809–1811)

DEP/AWP/2/7–8: Clinical case notes (1811)

DEP/HOT/1: Clinical Casebook (1796–1797)

DEP/LID/1: Clinical Case notes (1812)

Semmelweis Egyetem Levéltára [Semmelweis University Archives] (SEL)

1/g, Annual Reports of the Clinics of the Medical Faculty, 1825–1835, Boxes 1–3.

50/a, Historiae Morborum


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Table 2.

Cases of the York Retreat




Margaret Holt


Rachel Raw


John Ellis



Sarah Merill



Anne Noble



Joseph Reynolds



(falsely diagnosed as a lunatic at first)

Mary Evens


melancholic insane

Mary Pyle



John Bower


disorder is of the melancholy kind

Mary Bayes


religious insanity

Elizabeth Thompson


insanity of the melancholy kind

John Waltonford


Thomas Ellein


religious melancholy

Sarah Delves


insanity, lowness of spirits

James Hashold



William Carcott



John Richardson



Mary Atkinson



Susanna Reynolds


Hannah Dumbleton

n. a.


John Fawcett



John Gundrey



Hannah Ponsonby



Abigail Sheppard


Mary Prideaux



Katharine Patchett


Joshua North

n. a.

violent derangement

James Blouse


disorder of the melancholy cast

Hannah Forster


Solomon Chapman


a mixture of melancholy and mania alternating

Sarah Wood



Samuel Clemesha



Ann Wallis



John Baker



John Young



Nathaniel Samms



Ann Gibbins



Judith Robert


insanity due to epileptic fits

Charles Spencer


his disorder is of the melancholic kind

Thomas Wellington


hypochondriacal melancholy

Richard Gunn



Mehitabel Moore



Elizabeth Flint


of the melancholic kind

Elizabeth Frith



Hannah Woodewille


Susannah Winter


epileptic fits, mental derangement

Hannah Bradshaw

c. 30


Mary Dearman


melancholic Insanity

Hannah Young



Joseph Lupton


of the melancholy kind

Abigail Smith


in a state of insanity

John Fawcett



John Akins



George Simpson


religious enthusiasm

John Lees


weak capacity, insanity

Sarah Cork



Lydia Brown



Elizabeth Bagg


melancholy derangement

Mr [?] Simmson


great confusion of ideas

Samuel Merill


Mary Mantle


many nervous affections

Charles Lloyd



John Smith


John Littlewood


melancholy kind

John Curtis Bentley


insanity of the melancholy kind

Rachel Evans



Chris Choat


palsy fit

Elizabeth Hamburg


John Coleby



Henry Perkins


melancholy derangement

Sybela Mallinson


insane, melancholia

Elizabeth Lancaster


imbecile state of mind

Jane Heslop


disordered imagination, insanity

Thomas Broadbent Bland


nervous & hypochondriacal symptoms

Mary Simms



Henry Bearle


furious mania

John Hall



Martha Broadhead



George Tichell


mental derangement

Mary Fletcher


mental derangement

Ann Anderson


Elizabeth Jardine


low melancholy state

Susan Woodwille



Owen Weston



Ann Groves


Joseph Ruston




Joseph Russel Warwick


religious melancholy

John Payne


maniacal symptoms

Sarah Midwinter


Elizabeth Dickinson


Jane King


Edward Night



George Arger


Aaron Richardson



Jane Biggs


aberration of mind

Hannah Laycock



Mary Oddie


weak intellect

Edwin Swan Rickman



Sarah Field



John Kingston


imbecility of mind

Rebecca Bland


mental anxiety



Table 3.

Cases of the Prague Asylum




N. N.


reiner Wahnsinn (ecstasis simplex)

N. N.

Wahnsinn mit Tollheit (ecstasis maniaca)

S. W.


Wahnsinn mit Wahnwitz (ecstasis paranoia)

J. F.


Wahnwitz (ecnoia)

P. J.


Verrücktheit mit Tollheit (ecnoia maniaca)

B. M.


reine Tollheit (mania simplex)

R. R.


religiöse Melancholie (melancholia religiosa, melancholia supersitiosa)

W. B.


reine Melancholie (melancholia simplex)

H. D.


Blödsinn mit Krämpfen (anoia simplex)

F. R.


reine Willenlosigkeit (abulia simplex)

F. S.


melancholia metamorphosis, melancholia zoantropica

A. U.



R. A.


reine Scheue (panphobia)


Table 4.

Cases of the Vienna Asylum




A. Fr.



W. J.


delirium tremens potatorum

B. G.



W. Al.


mania acuta

M. Th.


melancholia cum convulsionibus

K. Al.



V. Const.


mania ex onania

F. Fr.



H. M.


mania acuta

P. T.


monomania melancholica

G. J.


mania puerperalis

S. J.


monomania anglica



Table 5.

Cases of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary




Elizabeth Erskine



Betty McKay


hysteria (incurable)

Jane Murray



Pringle Young



Jane Mitchell



Margaret Christie


cephalagia from hysteria

Daniel Hill



John Williamson



Christiane Scroggie



Barbara Johnstone




Table 6.

Cases of the teaching clinic of the University of Pest




Elisabetha Szabó


epilepsiae cum hysterismo

Anna Obst


hysterismo cum infarctibus abdominalibus

Klara Werl



Cunigunda Gramlin



Julia Tergoth


hysteria cum methrorragia

Elisabeth Enzman


vomitus chronicum cum Hysteriasi

Barbara Roletsky


Hysteria cum Epilepsia

Rosalia Hany



Maximilianus Hirschl


Delirium Tremens

Anna Skarlein


Hyperkinesia Hysterica

Maria Havrekerin


Hyperkinesia hysterica

Susanna Schedner


Gastralgia cum Hyperkinesia Hysterica

Catharina Koháné


Hyperkinesia hysterica

Maria Steiner


Hyperkinesia hysterica

Franciscus Schober


Hyperkinesia hypochondriaca

Anna Streditzin


Hyperkinesia hysterica

Fekete Sigismundus



Juliana Koszonits


Rheumatismus cum hyperkinesia hysterica

Anna Beck


Hysteria spasmorum hystericorum

Johannes Slavik



Anna Nagy


Paralysis rheumatica extermitatum superiorum et hysterismus

Anna Maria Navratill




1 SEL, 50/a, Historiae Morborum (referred to henceforth as HM), 246.

2 On this, see for example: Becker and Clark, Little Tools of Knowledge; Blair, “Reading Strategies”; Daston, “Taking Note(s)”; Daston, “The Empire of Observation”; Goody, The Logic of Writing. On the anthropology of writing and psychiatry, see Aaslestad, The Patient as Text; Andrews, “Case Notes, Case Histories”; Andrews and Scull, Customers and Patrons of the Mad-Trade; Berkenkotter, Patient Tales; Craig, “Enquire into All the Circumstances of the Patient Narrowly”; Hess, “Formalisierte Beobachtung”; Hess and Ledebur, “Taking and Keeping”; Hess and Mendelsohn, “Case and Series”; Hunter, Doctor’s Stories; Hurwitz, “Form and Representation”; Ingram, The Madhouse of Language; Kennedy, A Curious Literature; “Empiricism in the Library”; Pomata, “Sharing Cases.” On the historical anthropology of medical writing in Hungary, see Krász, “Az adatoktól az információig”; Krász, “Táblázatokba zárt tudás?”; Krász, “‘Observing to describe, describing to observe’.”

3 Krász, “Theoria medica és praxis medica,” 1035–36; Rédei, Historiae morborum.

4 On psychological knowledge in medical education in the Habsburg Monarchy at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, see Kovács, “Az orvostudomány ‘legsetétebb mezeje’.”

5 Foucault, “23 January 1974”; Foucault, “30 January 1974.”

6 Porter, “The Patient’s View.”

7 See Bacopoulos-Viau and Fauvel, “The Patient’s Turn”; Condrau, “The Patient’s View Meets the Clinical Gaze”; Reaume, “From the Perspectives of Mad People.”

8 SEL 50/a, Historiae Morborum. See the two case histories on hysteria: SEL HM 246, HM 313.

9 The longer case histories written during clinical practice were later organized into 44 volumes. Today, they are held in OSZK Kt., Quart. Lat. 2164. Vols. 1–44.

10 The categories (for example, fevers, inflammations, rashes and skin diseases, the disorders of the excretory system) are based on Johann Peter Frank’s classification used in De curandis hominum morbis (1792–1820). This is referred to in OSZK Kt., Quart. Lat. 2168. Vol. I, 2v. See the clinical journals and patient statistics in OSZK Kt., Quart. Lat. 2166; Quart. Lat. 2169; Quart. Lat. 2172; SEL, 1/g, Annual Reports of the Clinics of the Medical Faculty, 1825–1835, Boxes 1–3.

11 In approaching disease concepts, especially those classified as “mental,” I find it useful to apply the term introduced by Dutch cultural theorist Mieke Bal. Bal characterizes concepts as intellectual tools which, by traveling from one context or discipline to another, could gain new meanings in their different cultural, linguistic, and social settings. At the same time, they can retain some of their older interpretations in the process. The representations of the age-old concepts of mania, melancholy, hysteria, and hypochondria, which were still the four most commonly diagnosed mental disorders at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, can be interpreted in this framework. Cf. Bal, Travelling Concepts, 22–55.

12 Chase, The Making of Modern Psychiatry, 29–30.

13 From among the 22 cases, the progress of four patients was recorded in both the longer case histories and the brief, synoptic summaries. Cf. OSZK Kt., Quart. Lat. 2168. Vol. I, 36r–38r. (Elisabetha Szabó); Quart. Lat. 2168. Vol. III, 44r–v. (Anna Obst); Quart. Lat. 2168. Vol. XI, 30r–v. (Anna Skarlein); Quart. Lat. 2172. Vol. II, 7r–v. (Barbara Roletsky).

14 OSZK Kt., Quart. Lat. 2165. Vol. I, 336v–359v (Elisabetha Szabó); Vol. III, 326r–330v (Anna Obst); Vol. V, 134r–136r (Klara Verl); Vol. V, 229r–231v (Cunigunda Gramlin); Vol. V, 235r–240v (Julia Tergoth); Vol. VI, 69r–70v (Elisabeth Enzmann); Vol. VIII, 165r–169v (Barbara Roletsky); Vol. VIII, 295r–296v (Rosalia Hany); Vol. XII, 170r–171v (Maximilianus Hirschl); Vol. XIII, 176r–178v (Anna Skarlein); Vol. XV, 139v–140v (Susanna Schedner); Vol. XVII, 136r–136v (Catharina Koháné [Mrs. Catharina Koha]); Vol. XVII, 219r–220v (Maria Steiner); Vol. XIX, 252r–253v (Franciscus Schober); Vol. XXI, 119r–124r (Anna Streditzin); Vol. XXIII, 43v–45v (Fekete Sigismundus); Vol. XV, 196v–198v (Julianna Koszonits); Vol. XVI, 161v–163r (Anna Beck); Vol. XVIII, 122r–125v (Johannes Slavik).

15 On Berlin and Paris, see Hess, “Formalisierte Beobachtung.”

16 See Risse, “Clinical Instruction in Hospitals.”

17 Craig, “Enquire into All the Circumstances”; Geyer-Kordesch, “Comparative Difficulties”; Risse, Hospital Life.

18 Risse, Hospital Life, 272; SEL, 1/g, Boxes 1–3.

19 Risse, Hospital Life, 272–73; Craig, “Enquire into All the Circumstances.” See the case histories RCPE DEP/ABJ/1–2: Men’s Cases (1800–1801); DEP/1/1/5–9: Women’s Cases (1801); DEP/AWP/2/1–6: Cases taken from the Clinical Journals of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh (1809–1811); DEP/AWP/2/7–8: Clinical case notes (1811); DEP/HOT/1: Clinical Casebook (1796–1797); DEP/LID/1: Clinical Case notes (1812).

20 See for example the following cases RCPE DEP/ABJ/1 78–81. (Andrew Smill); DEP/ABJ/1/1/2 29–31. and DEP/ABJ/1/1/3 18–25. (Robert Brown); DEP/ABJ/1/1/3 56–60. (Adam Armstrong)

21 On the hospital network, see Krász, “From Home Treatment to Hospitalisation”; Scheutz and Weiss, “Spitäler im bayerischen und österreichischen Raum”; on the institutional treatment of the insane, see Watzka, Vom Hospital zum Krankenhaus; Watzka, Arme, Kranke, Verrückte.

22 See for example Stoll, Heilungsmethode 2/1, 103–4 (Phrenesis); 111–14 (Raserey); 162–65 (Hysteria); Stoll, Heilungsmethode 3/1, 230–32 (Hypochondria); Stoll, Heilungsmethode 5/1, 23 (Hypochondria); 131–33; 1775–78. (Hysterie) Further case histories were written by medical students in the wards of the Josephinian Military Academy of Surgery, see for example the following cases: UAW Sonstige Archive, Josephsakademie (k. k. medizinisch-chirurgische Militärakademie) und Garnisonsspital, Wissenschaftliche Elaborate, Krankengeschichten, JOSEF I, no. 60; no. 61; JOSEF 3, no. 13; no. 37.

23 Riedel, Prag’s Irrenanstalt; Viszánik, Leistungen und Statistik.

24 Heinroth, Lehrbuch der Störungen des Seelenlebens; Sauvages, Nosologia methodica; Willis, Pathologiae cerebri et nervosi generis specimen, 1667.

25 The most thorough summary of the York Retreat’s operation and principles is found in Digby, Madness, Morality, and Medicine.

26 See Kovács, “Elmebetegügy.”

27 See the idealistic reflections on the operation of the asylum and the theory and practice of moral therapy in Tuke, Description of the Retreat; Tuke, Practical Hints.

28 See the casebooks of the York Retreat in: Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York, York Retreat Casebooks, 1–3. RET 6/5/1/1/A (Volume 1, 1796–1828); RET 6/5/1/1/B (Volume 2, 1803–1820); RET 6/5/1/2 (Volume, 1828–1838). In the article, I focus on 100 cases chosen from the first volume.

29 Borthwick Institute for Archives RET 6/5/1/1/A, no. 1–50; no. 183–236.

30 Foucault, “23 January 1974,” 251.

31 Foucault, “23 June 1974,” 250–51.

32 See the naming of the diseases in Table 2.

33 Riedel, Prag’s Irrenanstalt, 50–109; Viszánik, Leistungen und Statistik, 91–143. See the cases in Tables 3 and 4.

34 Foucault, “30 January 1974,” 271.

35 In Hungary, even after the first asylums were opened (such as the Schwartzer Private Asylum or the Lipótmező Royal National Asylum), patients diagnosed with mental disorders, mostly insanity, hysteria, and delirium tremens, were admitted to the wards of general hospitals. After admission and observation, they were either referred to the Lipótmező asylum or remained in the general hospital, so several of them were treated and discharged from institutions that provided care for them but were outside the realm of psychiatry. See for example the patient records of the St. John’s Hospital in Buda: BFL 1103.a. St. John’s General Hospital, General Administration, vols. 4–15. Patient Records (1857–1873).

36 At the Edinburgh policlinic, the anamneses contained references neither to family history nor to mental symptoms. Only the physical symptoms preceding hospitalization were recorded. See the cases of the Royal Infirmary in Table 5.

37 See the cases of the teaching clinic of Pest in Table 6.

38 OSZK Kt. Quart. Lat. 2165. Vol. XXIII, 43r.

39 OSZK Kt. Quart. Lat. 2165. Vol. XXVIII, 122r–v.

40 SEL 50/a, HM 313. 8.

41 The role of relatives is clearly discernible from the anamnesis of the eleventh case of the Prague asylum (reine Willenlosigkeit, abulia simplex). According to this, nobody in the family had paid attention to the mental problems of the patient, only her older sister, who had also provided the necessary details for the anamnesis. (“Sie war traurig, doch achtete Niemand auf ihrer Zustand, als eine ältere Schwester, die die Erzählerin der hier gegebenen anamnetischen Verhältnisse ist.”) Cf. Riedel, Prag’s Irrenanstalt, 92.

42 OSZK Kt. Quart. Lat. 2165. Vol. 1, 336v–359v.

43 OSZK Kt. Quart. Lat. 2165. Vol. XIX, 252r–253v.

44 Riedel, Prag’s Irrenanstalt, 80–87.

45 Ibid., 57–58.

46 The pathology textbook of Johann Nepomuk Raimann (1780–1847), which was in use in Pest, Vienna, and Prague, contained the distilled definition of hysteria based on popular descriptions of the disease. Raimann classified hysteria as a neurological disorder and considered it essentially the same as hypochondria, but while hypochondria was considered as the disease of young male patients, hysteria was seen as exclusive to women. In Raimann’s description, the nature of the disease was rather changeable and elusive, and diagnosing it was a challenge, only possible when a cluster of symptoms could be observed together. As their naming shows, hysteria allegedly originated in the womb (hyster), whereas hypochondria was the result of disturbances in the upper two regions of the abdomen (hypochondrium). Their common symptoms were fear of (abnormal) bodily changes, delusions, pain, and cramps localized at certain points of the body (periodic or permanent), gastrointestinal symptoms, changes in temperature, skin problems, weak and uneven pulse, nausea, hearing loss, changes in taste and smell. Typical of hysteria were globus hystericus (lump in the throat) and clavus hystericus (sharp headache localized at one point as if a nail was driven into the skull). Cf. Raimann, Handbuch, 634–35.

47 The 14-year-old hysteric patient, Jane Murray, who was admitted to the Royal Infirmary on March 3, 1801, suffered from multiple fits during her 22-day hospitalization (she then ran away from the hospital). One of these fits was induced when she saw another patient falling into a hysterical fit. Its nature, however, is not detailed by the case history. Cf. RCPE DEP/ABJ/1/1/9, 30–37.

48 Rachel Raw, a 43-year-old patient haunted by wild visions, could take walks regularly and was given smaller tasks during her long stay in the asylum, while the 36-year-old Abigail Smith spent her time making pincushions, a meaningful activity that was supposed to advance her recovery. The 54-year-old Mary Atkinson and the 46-year-old John Young, both of whom were labeled “deranged,” were cured with baths in the sea. There were, however, cases in which the superintendents of the asylum had to turn to restrictive measures and punishment due to the danger the patients posed for themselves and the people around them. The 29-year-old maniac Lydia Brown, for example, was restrained and observed continuously, whereas the 43-year-old John Baker was put in a straitjacket. Cf. Borthwick Institute for Archives RET 6/5/1/1/A, no. 2 (Rachel Raw); no. 18 (Mary Atkinson); no. 34 (John Baker); no. 35 (John Young); no. 183 (Abigail Smith); no. 189 (Lydia Smith).

49 Viszánik, Leistungen und Statistik, 115–16 (melancholia cum convulsionibus); 141–42 (monomania anglica).

50 “Nun (den 16. Februar) war der Zeitpunkt gekommen, wo von einer Aenderung des Lokals aus der düstern Kammer in ein freundliches Zimmer in voraus eine günstige Wirkung erwartet werden durfte.” Riedel, Prag’s Irrenanstalt, 83.

51 OSZK Kt. Quart. Lat. 2165. Vol. VIII, 295r–296v.

52 OSZK Kt. Quart. Lat. 2165. Vol. XXVIII, 122r–125v.

53 RCPE DEP/ABJ/1/1/5, 37–39.

54 RCPE AWP/2/5, 90–94.


Liberating Pathologization? The Historical Background of the 1961 Decriminalization of Homosexuality in Hungary*

Judit Takács,
Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences Centre of Excellence; KWI Essen
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Tamás P. Tóth
Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences Centre of Excellence; Artist & Researcher in Residence Guiniguada, Canary Islands
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 10 Issue 2  (2021): 267-300 DOI 10.38145/2021.2.267

Analyzing the principles, considerations, and official explanations underpinning the
(de)criminalization of sexual relations between same-sex partners can highlight that around the mid-twentieth century medicalizing references were used in legal and societal judgments on same-sex intimacy in Hungary (and elsewhere). In this study, we want to illustrate the medicalization process of social issues that otherwise seem difficult to “solve” (i.e., these issues, in this case, were put within a psycho-medical ambit) by focusing on a twentieth-century historical example from Hungary. The background of the decriminalization of consensual sexual acts between adult men in the 1961 Hungarian Penal Code will be explored in detail using previously unknown original archival material from 1958. This article will introduce the changes proposed by the Neurology Committee of the Health Science Council (HSC; Egészségügyi Tudományos Tanács) in 1958 leading to the HSC’s unanimous support for a proposal to decriminalize “unnatural fornication” between consenting adults and to the actual decriminalization of homosexuality (i.e., decriminalization of consensual sexual acts between adult men) in 1961. The empirical foundation of the present study includes archival records from the National Archives of Hungary and other primary sources.

Keywords: homosexuality, (de)criminalization, social history, state-socialism, National Archives, Penal Code, Neurology Committee of the Health Science Council


It would be pointless to look for homosexuality anywhere in the criminal codes that were in force in Hungary. This term, which was coined, together with the term “heterosexuality,” by Károly Kertbeny, 1 an Austrian–Hungarian writer and journalist in the late 1860s, does not appear anywhere in these codes. In the second half of the nineteenth century, homosexual practices began to be punishable under the heading of “unnatural fornication” or literally “perversion against nature” (természet elleni fajtalanság) in the chapter on crimes and offences against sexual morality in Article V of the Criminal Code of 1878, the first Hungarian-language criminal code of the Hungarian Kingdom, which was drafted by Károly Csemegi, State Secretary of Justice of the Government of Kálmán Tisza.2 Here paragraphs 241 and 242 drew a distinction between the offences of unnatural fornication committed between men or by a person to an animal on the one hand and the more harshly punished crime of unnatural fornication that involved violence or the threat of violence.3

The most important antecedent to the Csemegi Code of 1878 is the work of Tivadar Pauler, who served as Minister of Justice between 1872 and 1875, on criminal law studies, which was first published in 1864, just a few years before the Austro–Hungarian Compromise of 1867. Here, in paragraphs 396–400, unnatural fornication, i.e., crimen sodomiae or the crime of sodomy, is defined as “sexual intercourse contrary to the natural order,” which should be punished because of its “gross violation of moral sentiment, irrational ignorance of the natural order, demeaning of human dignity, and the withering and harmful effects on one’s intellectual properties and physical health.”4 Pauler’s approach reflects a potential Austrian influence in terms of the offenders’ gender, as according to the Austrian penal code sodomy could be committed not only by men but also by women (the “Tribadie” provision of the Austrian penal code was introduced in 1852 and remained in effect until 1971).5 Pauler distinguished between three main forms of unnatural fornication: it was defined not only as sexual intercourse conducted with an animal or with a same-sex partner but also as a sexual intercourse conducted with a different-sex partner in an unnatural way. At the same time, “serious violations of morality and prudency” within family life were considered only petty offences.6

The Csemegi Code, which remained in effect for more than 80 years, differed in two major points from the legal text proposed by Pauler (1870): its prohibition of unnatural fornication affected neither different-sex partners nor same-sex female partners. However, the precise scope of what exactly constituted unnatural fornication was hard to determine, as was shown in the penal code interpretations by Károly Illés Edvi, a skilled prosecutor who took part in the writing of the Csemegi Code. In his view “in a broad sense it refers to the unnatural satisfaction of any kind of sexual lust,” including “self-contamination and the use of inanimate objects […] these cases, however, have been ignored even by the old legal doctrine and legislation that distinguished three main forms of what could be interpreted as sodomy in a strict sense: sexual intercourse conducted with a) an animal […] b) a person of the same sex […] and c) a person of different sex in an unnatural manner. The case under b) included various unnatural activities that can be conducted among women (lesbian love), too. The present law completely ignores the latter case, which also divided the opinion of the old criminalists, and renders unnatural fornication between different sex partners punishable only as far as it was covered by § 233 [of the Penal Code on sexual assault].”7

Even a quarter of a century later, several points remained contentious regarding the exact scope of unnatural fornication. For example, Pál Angyal, a criminal lawyer who specialized in issues concerning sexual morality and a leading figure of the Hungarian lawyers’ society in the early twentieth century, outlined the desirable changes regarding the future criminal policy in the following way:

de lege feranda [...] 1. onanism should remain unpunished, 2. punishment of fornication between men should be sustained [...] 3. unnatural fornication between women should be criminalized 4. punishment of bestiality should be sustained only because it is morally undesirable to delete an existing ban [...] 5. necrophilia [should be punished] only in the case of causing scandal (possibly under the heading of desecrating a corpse or crime against religion) 6. criminalizing unnatural fornication conducted between different sex persons is unreasonable (except for the cases covered by 233 § of the Criminal Code) because these acts quite often precede or follow normal intercourse […] but fornication conducted by a woman with an adolescent boy should be punished […] 7. seduction to commit homosexual acts or offering these services, however, should be rendered punishable.8

In Angyal’s argument, it is striking to see the double standard applied to non-reproductive sexual practices in terms of the sex of the alleged fornicators: if the acts were conducted by same-sex partners, they were seen as having the potential to cause social harm. At the same time, non-reproductive sexual practices conducted by different-sex partners were depicted as belonging to a broader repertoire of sexual activities or sexual play (such as foreplay), which in the worst case could be interpreted at an interpersonal level as morally wrong. This is why Angyal would have preferred to introduce the criminalization of same-sex “fornication” between women in addition to maintaining the prohibition of same-sex “fornication” between men, while avoiding the criminalization of fornication between different-sex partners.

Criminalization: A Contested Issue

Criminalization of consensual sexual practices between same-sex individuals, especially between adult men, has been a contested issue in Central Europe since at least the second half of the nineteenth century. There had been no discussion of legalization up to this point in time, because for centuries, any queer act transgressing the ostensibly God-given authority of the Church and the monarch had been covered by the broad category of sodomy or unnatural fornication. In the period before the concepts of homosexuality and heterosexuality had been invented, sodomy was understood as an act that could be committed by anyone, regardless of that person’s sex or the sex of the person with whom the act was committed.9

In the 1860s, the German writer and jurist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs argued for decriminalization in a biologically essentializing manner: in his view, urnings, i.e., men who loved men, characterized by a certain degree of femininity of the soul, made up a third sex.10 Thus, according to Ulrichs, adult men in a consensual sexual relationship with each other should not be prosecuted for acting upon their nature-given innate drive. Ulrichs and Kertbeny had known each other since 1864: in that year, Kertbeny’s book on the Austrian American writer Charles Sealsfield was published, in which Ulrichs found “the first mention of my theory in print.” Ulrichs considered Kertbeny one of his first “comrades.”11 They regularly corresponded until 1868, when their disagreement about the practicality of their urning/homosexuality concepts in the argument for decriminalization reached its peak. One of their points of dispute concerned the issue of gender inversion, which Ulrichs presented as an all-encompassing explanation for same-sex desire: in his view, the “truly feminine nature” of urnings would render them biologically more like women than men. In contrast, Kertbeny, while he also observed that homosexual men “like to socialize with women, with whom they behave not as men, but rather as though they were women, loving gossip, domestic work, and concerns, and devoted to each other like sisters,” did not see gender inversion as an essential feature of homosexuality.12

While at first, they both seemed to agree about the necessity of looking for the scientific proof of the inborn nature of homosexuality, Kertbeny later saw this as a useless argument, because of its limited power to persuade legislators. In fact, the first known appearance of the new terms homosexual and heterosexual can be traced to the private letter written by Kertbeny to Ulrichs in 1868, in which Kertbeny put forward a classic liberal argument of non-intervention by the modern state in the intimate lives of its citizens:

To prove innateness [...] is a dangerous double-edged weapon. Let this riddle of nature be very interesting from the anthropological point of view. Legislation is not concerned whether this inclination is innate or not, legislation is only interested in the personal and social dangers associated with it [...] Therefore, we would not win anything by proving innateness beyond a shadow of doubt. Instead, we should convince our opponents—with precisely the same legal notions used by them—that they do not have anything at all to do with this inclination, be it innate or intentional, since the state does not have the right to intervene in anything that occurs between two consenting persons older than fourteen, which does not affect the public sphere, nor the rights of a third party.13


In 1869, however, in an anonymously published open letter to the Prussian Minister of Justice, Kertbeny called for the elimination of the Prussian penal code criminalizing same-sex sexual activities by emphasizing that “homosexual impulses are not optional […] but rather congenital,” which “excludes the thought that homosexuals in time, can be made to join the ranks of the majority, which has been born with the stronger drive, normalsexualism.”14 This was the first time that the word homosexual, created from the Greek homo (“same”) and the Latin sexus (“sex”), was publicly used. In this political pamphlet, which was reprinted in 1905 by Magnus Hirschfeld as “one of the best works on the homosexual problem,”15 Kertbeny tried to merge Ulrichs’ innate drive argument with that of privacy:

It is obvious to thinkers educated in anthropology that those who are constrained by such [homosexual] drives either meet with individuals of their own nature, and, therefore, there is absolutely nothing at all to justify objecting to such reciprocal inclinations, because both are lacking normalsexuality by nature, and, therefore, it would be asking too much of them to live their whole life long in absolute chastity, and to submit their existence to a penalty because, through no fault of their own, nature organized them with this very constraint. Or however, such homosexuals turn their inclinations to normalsexuals; and if the modern constitutional state makes a concession to the latter, in principle, in all cases in which no rights of others are injured by it, that they will be allowed to do with their bodies as they please, then it will not be necessary to differentiate between acts, whether the same are natural or would-be unnatural, if they are practiced by the opposite sex or the same sex.16


Despite the opposition of Ulrichs, Kertbeny and others, including even the Royal Prussian Scientific Commission for Medical Affairs, in 1871, after the first German unification, the Prussian anti-sodomy statute was introduced as Paragraph 175 into the new German Imperial Criminal Code.17 The introduction of Paragraph 175 facilitated the continuation of criminal prosecution in some parts of Germany, such as Prussia, while it meant the re-criminalization of consensual homosexual acts in other parts of Germany, including Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden, Hanover, and Brunswick.

At the very end of the nineteenth century, decriminalization arguments surfaced in Hungary, too. For instance, in 1894 András Eördögh, a Hungarian lawyer, challenged the article on unnatural fornication by pointing out that it is nonsense to outlaw acts that cannot be prevented and take place mostly in publicly concealed ways, including “the act of consensual sodomy conducted by adults in secrecy that makes the act inherently unpreventable.”18

In the early years of the twentieth century, Hungarian abolitionist lawyers were of the opinion that unnatural fornication should not be rendered punishable by law because it was increasingly seen as a medical rather than legal issue. Instead of legal expert involvement, abolitionists argued for shifting the social responsibility to medical experts, as only physicians would be able (they thought) to distinguish between the symptoms of an inborn mental illness and illicit intemperance. For instance, in 1905, Péter Reich, an abolitionist lawyer, argued for “deleting pederasty from all modern penal codes” on the basis of the “fully elucidated medical notions about pederasty deriving from a degenerate mental disposition” and the recognition that “punishment does not contribute to the improvement of the pederasts’ condition: they cannot resist their inclination no matter how long they would be imprisoned […consequently] deterrence is out of the question.”19 Applying a “cure instead of imprisonment”-framework potentially involved prescribing social isolation that practically meant that the person had to be locked up in specialized medical or mental institutions, an increasingly popular view across Europe (see, for instance, the case of Oscar Wilde).20

It is not difficult to see that abolitionist arguments, common in the medical literature of the period,21 were far from recognizing individual rights and liberties or reflecting the social acceptability of same-sex attraction-based relationships. Rather, their main point was about letting these forms of behavior and relationships, which were typically conducted secretively due to their stigmatization by society, remain concealed so that the chances of social exposure would be minimized, while through criminalization, these cases could easily attract more widespread attention, for instance, by media representations focusing on the “scandalous” details of suspects’ lives. While Hungarian abolitionists did not achieve their goals for more than half a century, some of their arguments resurfaced at the 1958 meeting of the Neurology Committee, which will be discussed later in detail.


Changing Decriminalization Landscapes in Twentieth-Century Central and Eastern Europe

To appraise the Hungarian developments in a regional context, we will give a quick overview of the decriminalization landscapes in the former Eastern Bloc countries, where we can see a diversity of approaches to (de)criminalization of same-sex sexual practices. For example, after the reintroduction of a comprehensive anti-homosexuality legislation in 2013, prohibiting the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”22 at the Russian state-level it is perhaps hard to believe that there was a Russian sexual revolution in the early twentieth century.23 The first Soviet-Russian criminal code of 1922 abolished the sodomy laws of tsarist Russia. Indeed, the very first Penal Code proposal of January 1918, only months after the October Revolution, no longer contained the old sodomy legislation, and it set the age of consent for both homosexual and heterosexual acts at 14 years of age.24 The Soviet-Russian sexual revolutionary period and the transitional legalization of same-sex relationships as part of it came to an end with Stalin’s rise to power. The 1934 Soviet Criminal Code recriminalized consensual sexual acts between same-sex adults, and re-decriminalization took place only in 1993. The temporary decriminalization of homosexuality between 1922 and 193325 reflected the rejection of moral standards based on religious belief,26 and the Bolsheviks’ transient position about the criminalization of homosexuality being a bourgeois relic. Stalinism, by contrast, “relied on an intolerant and negative view of sex,” and “for the sake of both the nation and the Communist Party,”27 Stalinism demanded marital and family stability from its citizens. Framing of homosexuality as detrimental to the nation was also a familiar argument used in Nazi Germany about sexual life to serve the goal of preserving the race and the nation, and homosexuality was heavily condemned due to its “asocial” character and its “adverse effects on the German birth rate.”28 We can also observe similarities in the treatment of communists and homosexuals during McCarthyism in the US in the 1950s, comparable with state-socialist considerations of homosexuals being “unreliable elements,” characterized by high levels of “blackmailability”29 and limited (reproductive) contributions to building state-socialism.

Poland took up a unique position in this regard, since in the period between the 1930s and the 1980s, it had “a more progressive legislation towards homosexuality than some Western Bloc countries.”30 In fact, the Polish Penal Code, based on the French example (i.e., the Napoleonic Penal Code of 1810, based on the French Penal Code of 1791) never forbade sodomy. However, Russian, Prussian and/or Austrian criminal law was applied depending on the particular jurisdiction of the various Polish territories. Today it might sound surprising, but, disregarding the Soviet-Russian criminal code of 1922, the Polish criminal law of 1932 was the first in Europe to decriminalize homosexuality in the twentieth century.31

Romania can also be considered an exceptional case. Here, criminalization of consensual homosexual acts for both men and women was introduced for the first time, coincidentally, just two years after homosexuality was re-criminalized by Stalin in the Soviet Union. The 1936 Romanian Penal Code came into effect during the chaotic years preceding World War II, when the Kingdom of Romania was more aligned with Nazi Germany than Soviet Russia.32 New Romanian legislation entered into force in 1996, criminalizing homosexual acts performed in public places or in a scandalous manner; in addition, the legal regulations opposing “homosexual propaganda” also restricted gay and lesbian people’s freedom of expression and association:33 the infamous “section 200” (i.e., Article 200 of the 1968 Romanian Penal Code, criminalizing public manifestations of homosexuality) was abolished only in 2001.

The notion that homosexuality is a pathological phenomenon and therefore ought not to be punishable by law was essential to the state-socialist governments’ decisions to legalize consensual homosexual sex in Czechoslovakia and Hungary in 1961, but they each relied on different medicalized approaches. Sexology research flourished after the opening of a Czech sexology institute by Josef Hynie in 1921 in Prague, which remained in operation during the state-socialist period. Hynie and his colleagues applied medical rather than criminal approaches to sexual deviations; regarding the sexological treatment of homosexuality, Czech physician Kurt Freund played an especially important role.34 After his failed aversion therapy experiments of the 1950s, Freund came to the conclusion that homosexuality is not “curable” with medication or any other form of therapy, such as electroshocks. He became increasingly convinced that homosexuality ought to be decriminalized, and thus he came to feel that counseling self-acceptance is advisable. Freund admitted that he was not happy about his “therapeutic experiment which, if it has ‘helped’ at all, has helped clients enter into marriages that later became unbearable.”35 Freund took part in organizing a legal-psychiatric seminar, where psychiatrists, sexologists, legal experts, and representatives from the police drafted a consensual proposal about the unnecessity of the prohibition of homosexual acts, which contributed to the renewal of the Czechoslovak Penal Code in 1961.36 The initial draft of the new Czechoslovak Penal Code in March 1961 maintained the general penalization provision for homosexual acts, but its final form criminalized only homosexual acts between adults and minors (youths under eighteen), prostitution, or sexual acts performed under circumstances regarded as a public scandal.37 The law came into effect on January 1, 1962, half a year earlier than the Hungarian provision, and an equal age of consent at the age of 15 was introduced as early as 1990, much sooner than it was in Hungary.

In 1968, Bulgaria and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) decriminalized male same-sex sexual activity on the grounds that homosexuality is a medical matter rather than a police matter.38 However, Bulgaria retained laws against acts that “cause public scandal or entice others to perversity,”39 and Bulgaria set a higher age of consent for homosexual acts than it did for heterosexual sex (18 and 14, respectively), while in the GDR the prohibition of consensual homosexual acts was removed only between adult men, although this prohibition had not been enforced in practice since the end of the 1950s.40

In the same year, Yugoslav legal experts argued against repressive measures for dealing with “deviant sexual behavior of two consenting adults” and defined homosexuality as a “less dangerous social phenomenon” in an official report.41 This led to the first Yugoslav decriminalization wave in the Socialist Republics of Croatia, Slovenia, and Montenegro and in the Socialist Autonomous Province of Vojvodina (in the northern part of Serbia, with a considerable Hungarian ethnic minority) in 1977. In Slovenia and Montenegro, the age of consent remained 14 years of age for all, while in Croatia and Vojvodina the age of consent for homosexual acts was set at 18.42 A second wave of decriminalization took place only after the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the former Yugoslavian republics that had not repealed their relevant laws earlier, starting with Serbia in 1994.

As the Soviet Union maintained criminalization from the 1930s until its collapse in 1990, decriminalization could start only in its successor states, including Ukraine in 1991, Estonia and Latvia in 1992, Lithuania and Russia in 1993, Belarus in 1994; followed by Albania and Moldova in 1995, and Romania in 1996.43

The diversity in the timing and forms of decriminalization (and in some cases, re-criminalization) of homosexual practices challenges interpretations of the region as a homogeneous bloc. Several factors contributed to the heterogeneity we found, including varying cultural, legal, and religious traditions, criminalizing and/or pathologizing approaches, as well as democratic and economic conditions. In the discussion below, we offer a closer look at the specific details of the 1961 decriminalization in Hungary.

Legalizing Same-sex Sexual Acts between Consenting Adults in Hungary

The “decriminalization of homosexuality,” as the legalization of same-sex sexual acts between consenting adults has often been referred to, was not realized in Hungary until Act V of 1961 of the Hungarian Penal Code of the People’s Republic of Hungary came into effect. In the state-socialist criminal code, which entered into force on July 1, 1962, “unnatural fornication” was discussed under Paragraphs 278–279, alongside other crimes against sexual morality. One of the main novelties of this new legislation was what was left out of it: in particular, the “general, i.e., completely unrestricted, penalization of unnatural fornication.”44 With the introduction of this legislation, consensual homosexual activity between adult men ceased to be criminalized in Hungary, as did bestiality. Additionally, the definition of potential perpetrators and victims also changed: gender equality was introduced in the sense that from this point on, both men and women could be prosecuted equally for “unnatural fornication.” According to the official reasoning justifying the bill presented to the Hungarian Parliament on December 15, 1961,

[H]omosexuality is either an inborn sexual perversity rooted in a developmental disorder or an acquired anomaly that develops mainly within neurotic people as a result of some sort of sexual impression during childhood, adolescence, or at a young age. According to medical observations, even in the case of acquired homosexuality or of those who wanted to free themselves (from homosexuality), the soundest therapy could hardly ever lead to the desired result. Homosexuality is a biological phenomenon and can therefore not be handled legally as a crime. Finally, in the course of its legal regulation, the practical point should be considered that criminalization of such behavior would provide a wide scope for blackmail.45


The medical(ized) definition of homosexuality that was used as a main reference point in introducing the new legislation offers one indication that, by 1961, the disease models of homosexuality had also reached Hungarian policy-makers. While we cannot be sure exactly how this happened, we can certainly assume that it was the combined effect of several causes, including a wider sense of political relief at the end of the totalitarian Rákosi era (the historical period named after Mátyás Rákosi, the General Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party between 1948 and 1956), followed by a process of modernization in family policy,46 starting with the liberalization of the previously very strict abortion regulation, and the gradual reinstating of psy-sciences, which had been practically banned during the Rákosi era.47

With the crystallization of psychology and psychiatry as sciences, several disease model variations, some promoting fixed biological determination, others emphasizing the inhibited development or trauma-drivenness of homosexuality, had become increasingly widespread since the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the Western world,48 and these ideas and models were adopted and adapted by Hungarian psy-scientists too. Medicalization in legal practice may have proven useful because it provided apologetic arguments to protect those found to be involved in illegal (homo)sexual acts from imprisonment. However, the long term effect of applying medicalized and often pathologizing models of homosexuality and other non-reproductive forms of sexuality was that essentialist interpretations of sexuality became so widely palatable and socially acceptable that attempts to get rid of them seem to have been largely unsuccessful, even today.49

The novelties of the Penal Code of 1961 that was in force between July 1962 and June 1979 included setting the age of consent for same-sex sexual relations at 20. The main goal of this clause within Paragraph 279 was to protect the youth aged between 14 (as the age of consent for heterosexual relations) and 20 from “homosexualization” (i.e., becoming homosexual) since, at least according to the legislators’ argument, this is “the age when the sexual drive, due to perverted experiences, can easily be skewed in a distorted direction.”50

Youth protection was one of the main goals of another clause of Paragraph 279 on unnatural fornication committed in a “scandalous manner” (though the definition of what could constitute a “scandal” was rather elusive), for which one could be sentenced to up to three years in prison in cases provoking “disgust, indignation, anger etc. in others.”51 Although the text of the law referred to “others” in the plural, according to the official legal interpretation, a crime had been committed even if the acts were witnessed by only one person who felt disgusted or offended. (This clause could be used as a reference, for instance, by police officers raiding a hotel room where a same-sex couple would have had a tryst in the 1960s.52)

As has already been mentioned, the new Penal Code put gender equality into legal practice in the sense that homosexual acts conducted by women with a partner younger than 20 and/or in a scandalous manner were criminalized too, while homosexual acts between female partners had been beyond the scope of the previous criminal codes. As an additional novelty, all children under the age of 14 could become a victim of sexual assault, not only “decent maidens,”53 while previously the idea of protecting young boys from sexual assault or women perpetrating sexual assault had not even occurred to legislators.

The new Hungarian Penal Code of 1961 introduced many significant changes, among which “decriminalizing homosexuality” is a remarkable one, even though it clearly held same-sex sexual relationships to a different set of standards than heterosexual relationships and provided legal means for the authorities to press charges against people involved in homosexual acts. (For instance, the age of consent for same-sex relationships, irrespective of gender, was set at 20, considerably higher than 14, the age of consent for heterosexual relationships. In 1978, the age of consent for homosexual relationships was reduced to 18, but it was not until 2002 that an equal age of consent was set at 14 for all consensual sexual relations.)54 However, the question of what led to this turn of events in 1961 remains at least partly open.

Psychiatrists in Action

The notion that homosexuality is a pathological phenomenon was essential to the legalization of consensual homosexual sex in Hungary: it was reflected not only in the official reasoning of the bill but also in reports reciting such arguments.55 However, though no mention of the following fact is found in the earlier secondary literature on the subject, the political decision about decriminalization was informed by prominent Hungarian psychiatrists’ expert opinion. Based on previously undocumented archival records found in the National Archives of Hungary, it is clear now that, in 1958, the Neurology Committee of the Health Science Council (HSC; Egészségügyi Tudományos Tanács) provided unanimous support for a proposal to legalize same-sex sexual acts between consenting adults and therefore most probably contributed significantly to the actual decriminalization of consensual sexual acts between adult men, which followed in 1961. It has also become clear that this process was triggered by a single individual’s petition, even though additional details regarding this individual’s original submission, identity, and exact motives remain unknown for the time being.

The Health Science Council began to function in 1951 within the Ministry of Health, which had been established a year earlier.56 Its tasks included “proposing solutions for the management of theoretical and practical medical work [...] preparing resolutions on the application of new medical procedures and new diagnostic approaches,” etc.57 In 2015, in one of the several hundred boxes containing HSC-related material in the National Archives of Hungary, we have found the minutes of a HSC Neurology Committee meeting which took place on March 21, 1958,58 the presentation of Antal Csorba on “Medical and criminal problems of homosexuality,” which was discussed in that meeting,59 and an official report summarizing the expert opinion of the Neurology Committee, written by Zoltán Alföldy, the secretary of HSC, to Comrade Rostás,60 a high commissioner of the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party. These documents are significant primary sources. To a certain extent, they reflect social and legal discourses. Thus, by discussing their content, we contribute to an understanding of the arguments, both pro and contra, which shaped the political decision on decriminalization in 1961.

In the HSC meeting of March 21, 1958, which was chaired by Professor Gyula Nyírő, only six psychiatrists took part, including Sándor Fodor, Lilly Hajdu, 61 Pál Juhász and Pál Fodor. Here, we focus on one item of the agenda about the proposal to modify homosexuality-related criminal clauses.62 First, Colonel Antal Csorba, chief neurologist of the Hungarian People’s Army, general secretary of the Hungarian Society of Neurologists and Psychiatrists, and member of the Pavlov Neurology Panel, gave a presentation on the medical and criminal problems related to homosexuality.

The relatively long (seven and half pages) text was thematically divided into eight main sections. These sections included a definition of homosexuality, a brief “literature review” on congenital and acquired homosexuality, prevalence estimates, an overview of modern European criminal practices, a detailed description of abolitionist arguments, a description of arguments for maintaining criminalization, and possible objections to such arguments, followed by the author’s own objections and completed with written proposals for the amendment of the existing law. In general, the proposal seems shaped by the conviction (reflecting and affirming social homophobia) that homosexual acts should be decriminalized not to promote social acceptance, but because the natural aversion deriving from the “healthy heteronormativity” of society is in itself enough punishment for those concerned. Table 1 in the Appendix provides an overview of the pro and contra arguments for (de)criminalization listed in Colonel Csorba’s presentation.

Csorba used a broad definition of homosexuality which included not only actual sexual acts but also the contents of sexual dreams, feelings of fondness, sexual attraction, and love.63 In the presentation, it was pointed out that it is as difficult for a homosexual individual to initiate heterosexual contact as it is for a heterosexual the other way around. It was also stressed that the case histories of homosexual relationships often include severe mood swings, depressive reactions, suicide attempts, and even violent acts. At the same time, Csorba admitted that “prohibition might also play a role in maintaining a constant psychological tension.”64 Csorba distinguished between homosexuality and bisexuality, defining the latter as “two-way sexuality,” when in addition to the main heterosexual interest, occasional homosexual episodes might occur, typically under the influence of alcohol.65

The two-page “literature review” drew attention to the distinctions drawn in textbooks among forms of congenital and acquired homosexuality, as well as bisexuality. In the context of acquired forms of homosexuality, Csorba referred to Freudianism and to Alfred Binet’s and Konrad Lorenz’s approaches, especially in relation to the early stages of instinctual life, when imprinting might play an important role in human sexual development: “it is often the case that memory material reveals the decisive influence of first experiences.”66 Here, Csorba also mentioned the possibility of seduction by adult homosexuals, briefly reporting two unusual examples from his “own material” of a homosexual father who influenced his child’s sexual development. In other cases, he added, it is not about “rough seduction”, but fine involvement and the feeling of sympathy developed in the family (or a familiar) environment that can affect the direction of sexual interest.67 However, he emphasized, new studies seriously challenged the idea of “genetic predetermination,” and he brought up the Turner-syndrome as an example, where “external feminine genitalia are possible with a male chromosome set without the person psychosexually identifying as a man: this person identifies as a woman as she was raised, thus psychosexuality does not seem to be dependent on the sex chromosome” (it is worth noting that this is a complete misunderstanding of what Turner-syndrome, in which a female is partly or completely missing an X chromosome, actually is).68 When highlighting the potential weaknesses regarding the biological-genetic determination of homosexuality, he questioned the validity of Theo Lang’s theory, reviving Richard Goldschmidt’s association of homosexuality with intersexuality,69 by quoting up-to-date medical findings. These findings included an article in The Lancet about the Chromosomal Sex in Transvestites, published by Canadian medical professors in 1954, pointing out that male transvestites have male chromosomes, refuting the contrary “working hypothesis” of Danish professor, Christian Hamburger;70 and another article published by a Swiss psychiatrist and a German geneticist in 1956, challenging the direct link between chromosomal sex and psychosexual development.71 Csorba’s conclusion reflected the conviction that the etiology of homosexuality cannot be reduced to either a congenital or an acquired condition or state: the “innate” form can also result from specific environmental effects, he pointed out at the end, but even in this case, sexual direction would be completed for the most part in early childhood.72

Regarding the prevalence of homosexuality, Csorba indicated that, based on police records, only a small proportion of the true prevalence can be revealed, and it was impossible to gather accurate statistical data because of the socially concealed nature of homosexual relations.73 Yet, in this part he included estimates of Hirschfeld and Kinsey with prevalence figures between 2 percent and 50 percent. Csorba stressed that prevalence data, if it could be collected, would be important for two main reasons. First, “the more common the anomaly, the more desirable it is to withdraw penalization.”74 Second, with the accessibility of reliable statistics, by comparing results from countries where homosexual acts are criminalized and countries where homosexuality is not criminalized, it would be possible to test whether criminalization can be a practical solution at all.

The overview of the modern European criminal practices stressed, as a potential example to be avoided, that “in Hitler’s Germany, [homosexuality] was persecuted with severe penalties but without any particular success.” Regarding the Soviet Union, the text emphatically stated that “the 1927 Soviet Criminal Code did not punish [homosexuality],” while it would have been enough to communicate only the second half of the sentence, where it turns out that, later, homosexuality became a prohibited act punishable “in accordance with subsequent amendments.”75 It was then pointed out that, as in the rest of Europe, in other state-socialist People’s Republics there was no unified position on the criminalization of homosexual acts (here it was erroneously indicated that the Romanian Penal Code of 1948 prohibited homosexual acts only in the case of public scandal and that in Yugoslavia homosexuality has not been criminalized), adding that “the Austrian Criminal Code is the only one that recognizes and at the same time criminalizes female homosexuality.”76

In the next paragraphs, some of the representatives of the abolitionists were introduced, including the German lawyer and self-declared homosexual, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, who had fought by legal means against the criminalization of homosexuality already in the 1860s, as mentioned earlier. Here, Csorba referred to the fact that, since the era in which Ulrichs had been waging his campaign, countless articles, submissions, and proposals had been prepared by homosexual persons demanding the abolition of criminalization, and he added that “this was a still ongoing process, since one such submission gave the opportunity to compile the present work, too.”77 This sentence clearly indicates that the issue of decriminalization was pushed on the Health Science Council’s agenda by a homosexual individual’s official submission, and since only male homosexuality was criminalized in Hungary, it can be safely assumed that this individual was a man.

It should be noted that the legal overview part did not contain any reference to the 1957 Wolfenden Report, which was compiled by a more diversified committee than the Hungarian one, including officials, churchmen, lawyers, scientists, and psychiatrists, even though its conclusions largely corresponded to the main points presented by Csorba.78 This could be explained by Csorba’s medical background or his focus on other state-socialist countries. It is also possible that Csorba was unaware of the report, which helped to facilitate the decriminalization of homosexuality in the United Kingdom, or he may have been familiar with it but may have decided not to quote it for some reason.

After the remarkable revelation about the Health Science Council’s agenda-setting having been triggered by a homosexual man, Csorba listed the detailed abolitionist arguments, arranged in ten points, followed by the arguments and counterarguments for maintaining criminalization. Table 1 (in the Appendix) gives an overview of these three types of arguments, which are raised in various parts of the text and which we can group according to the thematic categories below.

1. Biological phenomenon and social threat: the prosecution of biological phenomena by law is not logical. However, punishment is necessary to protect the purity of the sex life. At the same time, the purity of society’s sex life will not be damaged if homosexual acts are not penalized. A healthy society with heterosexual preferences has a natural aversion to this disorder. Thus, it is not necessary to have a separate penalty. Homosexuality leads to revulsion and disgust, and it does not tempt imitation, and if homosexual acts are not committed in public, there is no question of any social threat.

2. Lack of objective proof and seduction: the offence cannot be proven objectively. However, it is prohibited because it can corrupt the youth by diverting their sexual development in an abnormal direction. At the same time, in the context of heterosexual relations, protection of the youth is covered by other articles in the criminal law, which can be supplemented with regards to homosexuality.

3. Victimless crime and the protection of family life: an offence which has no victim does not pose any danger either to individual rights or to the interests of society. There is no social harm if the acts are committed by consenting adults and not in public. However, these acts can ruin family life. At the same time, penalization cannot guarantee the protection of family life. “Innate” homosexuals are unable to lead a regular heterosexual family life. Among non-heterosexuals, only bisexuals can perhaps lead regular heterosexual family lives. In this context, penalizing extramarital sexual relations would not be logical, since having an extramarital heterosexual relation is not considered a criminal offence either.

4. Population growth: the defendants do not feel guilty. They see their conduct as natural, and their homosexual acts are only repulsive to heterosexuals. However, these acts inhibit population growth. At the same time, the interest of protecting population growth cannot justify penalization, because in this case contraception should be penalized, too.

5. Doubtful treatment outcomes: punishment has no deterrent effect, nor does it have corrective or educational effects, because it cannot affect a deep-seated biological disorder. On the other hand, it is well known that imprisonment facilitates homosexual inclinations by providing an exclusively same-sex environment for a longer term. However, at least treatment could be provided for the duration of the prison term. At the same time, prisons or prison hospitals are not suitable environments for the treatment of homosexual disorders. Also, this disorder can be treated successfully only rarely (only in the case of bisexual persons who wish to free themselves from homosexual tendencies).

6. Blackmailing: penalization can be the basis of criminal blackmail. However, lack of penalization would not stop blackmailing activities altogether, since public contempt also makes blackmails possible. At the same time, though lack of penalization would not eradicate blackmail completely, it could significantly reduce its probability.

7. Homosexual marriage: the goal of protecting population growth cannot justify penalization, because in this case, contraception should be penalized, too. However, if we acknowledge the legitimacy of homosexuality, homosexual marriage should also be allowed. At the same time, the marriage of homosexual persons as an act attracting public attention and lacking essential instrumental features that constitute the institution of marriage is certainly undesirable (the need for authorizing same-sex marriage does not follow from the lack of penalizing homosexual acts).

8. Relative prevalence and violation of public tastes: the relative prevalence of homosexuality suggests that punishment should be limited. However, public opinion is for penalization. At the same time, the enlightened and educated public does not demand penalization. The situation of homosexuals is quite tragic even without penalization, because even if the law would not penalize this instinctual anomaly, homosexuals would have to continue to hide, because homosexuality would remain a violation of public taste, not to mention the fact that homosexuals are deprived of having offspring, etc.

9. Inconsistency, lack of reliable data, and the negligibility of the risk of “psychological contagion”: it is not consistent that homosexuality only be penalized in cases involving men, while it occurs among women in the same way. However, lack of penalization implies permissiveness that can lead to rampant proliferation. At the same time, the risk of rampant proliferation should be assessed only in a statistically reliable way, but unfortunately, there are no comparable datasets available. In the absence of reliable data, the only thing one can say is that in adulthood, the direction of sexual orientation is permanently fixed, and homosexual impulses would affect the normally oriented not in an attractive but in a repulsive way, thus the risk of psychological contagion seems negligible.

10. Sexual needs: all adult individuals have the right to satisfy their sexual needs, even if the mode of satisfaction is irregular. Thus, homosexuality cannot be rendered a crime given that it does not violate individual or collective interests. However, penalization can limit the frequency of the acts, even if it cannot eradicate the inclination. At the same time, the struggle between the dread of being reported, exposed, and punished and the enhanced instinctual drives almost inevitably leads to the exhaustion of the nervous system and neurosis. Even the fear of punishment cannot restrain the homosexuals’ quest for sexual satisfaction. They feel that the law cannot deprive them of their sexuality. Thus, the notion that punishment would limit the frequency of homosexual acts is highly unconvincing.

Looking through the list of thematic categories emerging from the text, while there were a few references to psycho-medically relevant content, such as the limited risk of “psychological contagion,” doubtful treatment outcomes, and the danger of neurosis, most points were connected to social institutions, concepts, and practices, such as (heterosexual and homosexual) marriage, family, population growth, youth protection, public opinion, avoiding extortion, etc. Additionally, certain legal and methodological problems were also raised by referring to the absence of victims (in the case of victimless crime), lacking consistency regarding the gender of the prosecuted, as well as the lack of objective proof and reliable data concerning the prevalence of homosexuality among the general population. We can also observe that the text was dominated by the arguments concerning decriminalization, which were often rooted in social rather than medical considerations. Consequently, it is not surprising that the proposal concluded that a resolution against criminalization seems “(more) appropriate and fair.”79

At the end of the text, the author presented two proposals regarding how to modify the current text of the law: according to the first option, sexual acts by same-sex partners, whether men or women, should be punishable only if they constitute an assault on or violation of public decency (i.e., if they cause public scandal) or if one of the two participants is younger than 18. According to the second option, zoophilia (or bestiality) should remain punishable, but an equal age of consent of 16 should be introduced for both heterosexual and homosexual relations. Finally, Csorba referred to negative therapeutic experiences and expressed his complete rejection of the potentials of coercive treatment.

Csorba’s submission on March 21, 1958 was followed by a brief discussion during which one committee member suggested that the content which had been presented should be published in the Neurology Review, a Hungarian scientific journal. However, this suggestion was rejected by the chair of the committee: in Professor Nyírő’s view it would not be advisable to give too much publicity to this issue. He and Pál Juhász agreed about the acquired nature of homosexuality (according to the minutes “based on three observed cases of cure, he [Nyírő] does not consider homosexuality either incurable nor innate”80), and thus suggested to increase the age of consent to 20 for “(youth) protection purposes.”81 Lilly Hajdu,82 the only female committee member, disagreed with this proposal, arguing that “setting the protected age limit at 20 years is excessive, especially in the case of women whose sexual maturity is completed by the end of puberty.”83 The discussion ended with the general consensus that the law should be amended according to Colonel Csorba’s first proposal, which set the age of consent for same-sex relations at 20 (six years higher than for heterosexuals). Some of Csorba’s language and arguments did, in fact, reappear in the 1961 Penal Code.

On July 11, 1958, Zoltán Alföldy, the Health Science Council’s secretary, sent only this amendment proposal (together with the list of arguments and counterarguments for decriminalization, shown in columns B and C of Table 1) to Comrade Rostás, who most probably conveyed the neurologists’ expert opinion to the party leadership. The arguments discussed by the HSC Neurology Committee appeared again only in a slightly modified form on December 16, 1961, during the parliamentary discussion of the draft of the new Penal Code, leading to the decriminalization of consensual homosexual acts between adults, implemented on July 1, 1962.


One of the ways of tracing socio-historically changing perceptions of homosexuality is to examine the criminal laws in a country. Since criminal law is supposed to prohibit or constrain the violation of widely accepted codified norms with the support and the power of the state, the criminalization of certain forms of transgressive behavior can indicate the importance attached to certain norms, in our case, to heteronormativity, in a society. Analysis of the principles, considerations, and official explanations underpinning the criminalization of sexual relations between same-gender (male) partners reveals that, around the mid-twentieth century, medicalizing references were used in legal and societal judgments concerning same-sex intimacy in Hungary (and elsewhere).

In the present study, we wanted to offer examples of the medicalization process of social issues that otherwise seem difficult to address (i.e., in this case, these issues were put within a psycho-medical ambit) by focusing on a twentieth-century historical example from Hungary. However, when analyzing the sources, we also identified psycho-medical arguments often interwoven into social arguments. Our investigations revealed that models of homosexuality which pathologized it as a disease and which had been present since at least the end of the nineteenth century exerted an influence on changes to the criminalizing approach to homosexuality in the late 1950s in Hungary. Thus, we can probably state that pathologization brought a certain degree of liberation (at least in a legal sense), while we must also acknowledge that “the 1961 (Hungarian) decriminalization and the 1973 (international) depathologization of homosexuality did not change the pathologizing-normative discursive framework deployed by experts.”84

One of the most well-known critics of the pathologization of homosexuality and, in particular, the role played by psychiatrists in this process was American psychiatrist Thomas Szasz. In his 1961 book The Myth of Mental Illness he touched on ideas which bear affinities with Michel Foucault’s views on how “madness forged a relationship with moral and social guilt.”85 Szasz argued that, by developing and popularizing the concept of mental illness, psychiatrists tried to monopolize functions of moral control over society that had previously been practiced by religious institutions.86 The moral supervision function of psychiatry is especially salient in the ways in which psychiatry contributed to keeping homosexual practices criminalized and pathologized for many decades by providing “scientific” arguments concerning the alleged social harmfulness of homosexuality.87

This approach can be applied only with some limitations to the Hungarian state-socialist context, where both religious institutions and psy-sciences were repressed to a certain degree. However, as was the case in other societies characterized by a strongly antisexual culture, the promotion of compulsive heterosexuality, according to which “natural” sexual practices are somewhat ideal-typically defined as involving genital intercourse and having conception as their main goal, the symbolic significance of homosexual acts could be seen as a real threat88 in state-socialist Hungary.

The main focus of Szasz’s argument was the role played by psychiatrists in the regulation of personal morality in the name of the public good, a central point also raised by the Wolfenden Report (officially the Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution, chaired by Sir John Wolfenden), which was originally published in 1957 in the United Kingdom. This was the most comprehensive legal review of homosexuality-related issues in mid-twentieth-century Europe. The report also addressed more general questions, such as the connection between crime and sin and the extent to which criminal law should concern itself with the enforcement of morals. By examining the function of criminal law, the Wolfenden Committee adopted an approach according to which it did not recommend criminalization in regard to matters of personal morality unless they were seen as directly affecting the public good.89

As discussed previously, Colonel Csorba’s submission neglected to reference the Wolfenden Report when giving an overview of the contemporary European legal landscape. In addition to the possible explanations given above, we can add that even if Csorba was aware of the Wolfenden Report, perhaps he chose not to acknowledge its findings due to their somewhat limited relevance and applicability to state-socialist contexts. On the other hand, we can argue that the Hungarian Neurology Committee’s expert opinion contributed to the introduction of legislative change which ceased regulating homosexuality-related personal morality by criminal sanction and limited the scope of legislation to specific issues, including the control of “youth corruption,” with the aim of protecting society from what was perceived by the expert committee and the policymakers as acts and conduct with socially harmful consequences.

In a recent study on sexual criminal law liberalization initiated by the international forensic community after World War II, Wannes Dupont challenged the perception of the 1950s as an “era of homophobia and sexual repression” 90 in Western Europe. Thus, we can see the Hungarian Neurology Committee’s activities and the following legislative change as coinciding with, and at the same time fitting into, a broader trend and an emerging approach to homosexuality characterized by “a fundamental legal distinction between the private realm of consensual sexual discretion and a public sphere of enforced propriety (effectively understood as heteronormative familialism).”91

The Soviet 1950s were also recently reinterpreted by Rustam Alexander, who explored the “bottom-up movement for decriminalization of sodomy among Soviet leading legal experts and their scholarly arguments.”92 By examining archival documents, he noticed that from the late 1950s, several Soviet legal academics kept listing arguments for the abolition of the Soviet anti-sodomy law, but representatives of law-enforcement agencies did not listen to them. This could be explained by the divide between academic and law-enforcement opinions on the criminalization of homosexuality. The main abolitionist arguments included similar ones to those listed in Colonel Csorba’s Hungarian text, such as the “biological” nature of homosexuality and difficulties in controlling it because of its intimate nature. However, in a 1973 Russian manual, there was a new argument introduced about the decriminalization of consensual homosexual acts in other state-socialist countries, including Hungary: “the development of criminal legislation over recent years testifies to the gradual departure from criminalization of consensual sodomy, not only in capitalist countries (England and West Germany), but also in socialist countries (East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Poland).”93 These new findings can raise the possibility of cross-fertilization of legal approaches from different directions within the (not at all homogeneous) group of state-socialist and Western bloc countries, in the realm of supranational organizations, and among these entities as well.

In conclusion, various forms of pathologizing were reflected in the 1958 arguments of the Hungarian Neurology Committee and in the official reasoning of the 1961 bill presented in the Hungarian Parliament. The fact that the issue of (de)criminalization was discussed and decided by a group of psychiatrist experts can in and of itself reveal the functioning of psycho-medicalization. However, this framework provided support for ending the criminalization of consensual sexual acts conducted by adult men. Moreover, the submission, carefully prepared by Antal Csorba, the chief neurologist of the Hungarian People’s Army, was dominated by social rather than medical considerations, and it presented homosexuality as an “anomaly” to which imprisonment was not seen as an effective solution or treatment.

Though we were able to present many pieces of previously unknown information in this study, many questions remain open regarding the timing (i.e., what happened to Colonel Csorba’s submission between 1958 and 1961?), the circumstances, and the causes of the 1961 Hungarian decriminalization of homosexuality. As is often the case with original archive research material, we have found some important pieces of the puzzle, but we are far from seeing the whole picture.

Additionally, we cannot state that, on the basis of our insights, the 1958 opinion of the Neurology Committee or the 1961 Penal Code reform could be interpreted as a sign for the more favorable social treatment of homosexuality than previously. As various forms of media and cultural artifacts and commodities from state-socialism reveal94 and as participants in documentaries report,95 many people who were attracted to members of the same sex continued their mostly closeted life after the 1961 legal reform, and finding partners, for instance, remained difficult for them.

Finally, an unexpected finding of our present study is that the issue of decriminalization may well have been pushed onto the political agenda by a homosexual individual’s official submission, and if this was the case, it can be safely assumed that this individual was a man (since only men were affected by criminalization in Hungary). Unfortunately, assuming there was such an individual, additional details regarding his submission and its path to the Neurology Committee remain unknown for the time being, as no relevant archival data could be found regarding these details. However, on the basis of the documents presented here, the assumption that the decriminalization process of consensual homosexual acts leading to the Penal Code reform in 1961 was triggered by a determined, probably gay, abolitionist’s activities seems well-founded. Assuming this was the case, this can be considered a unique feature of the history of the decriminalization of homosexuality among the state-socialist countries in the 1950s and perhaps even beyond.

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Kirchknopf, Johann Karl. “§ 129 I b) Fornication against nature, this is with persons of the same-sex”: The practices of criminal prosecution of male and female homosexuality in Austria in the course of the 20th century. Presentation at the “Sex and Sexuality in East-Central Europe, Past and Present” conference; Budapest: Central European University, October 16–17, 2015.

Kon, Igor S. Sexual Revolution in Russia: From the Age of the Czars to Today. New York: Free Press, 1995.

Kondakov, Alexander. “Rethinking the Sexual Citizenship from Queer and Post-Soviet Perspectives: Queer Urban Spaces and the Right to the Socialist City.” Sexualities 22, no. 3 (2019): 401–17. doi: 10.1177/1363460717737770.

Kovai, Melinda. Lélektan és politika: Pszichotudományok a magyarországi államszocializmusban 1945–1970 [Psychology and politics: Psy-sciences in Hungarian state socialism 1945–1970]. Budapest: Károli Gáspár Református Egyetem–L’Harmattan Kiadó, 2016.

Lang, Birgit and Katie Sutton. “The Queer Cases of Psychoanalysis: Rethinking the Scientific Study of Homosexuality, 1890s–1920s.” German History 34, no. 3 (2016): 419–44. doi: 10.1093/gerhis/ghw038.

Linczényi, Adorján, Béla Radnai, and György Vikár. A szexuális élet zavarai [Disorders of sex life]. Budapest: Medicina, 1977.

Long, Scott. “Gay and lesbian movements in Eastern Europe: Romania, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.” In The global emergence of gay and lesbian politics: National imprints of a worldwide movement, edited by Barry D. Adam, Jan Willem Duyvendak, and André Krouwel, 242–65. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.

McLellan, Josie. Love in the Time of Communism: Intimacy and Sexuality in the GDR. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

McLellan, Josie. “Glad to Be Gay Behind the Wall: Gay and Lesbian Activism in 1970s East Germany.” History Workshop Journal 74, no. 1 (2012): 105–30. doi: 10.1093/hwj/dbs017.

Magyar Törvénytár. 1877–1878. évi Törvényczikkek [1877–1878 Articles of law]. Budapest: Franklin Társulat, 1896.

Moss, Kevin. “The Underground Closet: Political and Sexual Dissidence in Eastern Europe.” In Genders 22: Postcommunism and the Body Politic, edited by E. E. Berry, 229–51. New York: New York University Press, 1995.

Murai, András and Eszter Zsófia Tóth. “Női szerelmek a filmvásznon a rendszerváltás előtt és után” [Women’s loves on the movie screen before and after the regime change]. In Homofóbia Magyarországon, edited by Judit Takács, 69–79. Budapest: L’Harmattan.

Pauler, Tivadar. Büntetőjogtan [Criminal law]. Vol. 2, Anyagi büntetőjog különös része. Alaki jog. Pest: Pfeifer Ferdinánd, 1870.

Pine, Lisa. Nazi Family Policy, 1933–1945. Oxford: Berg Publisher, 1997.

Pretsell, Douglas Ogilvy. The Correspondence of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, 1846–1894. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

Reich, Péter K. “A természet elleni fajtalanság büntethetőségéről” [On the criminality of unnatural fornication]. A jog 24, no. 12 (1905): 89–91.

Seidl, Jan. “Decriminalization of Homosexual Acts in Czechoslovakia in 1961.” In Queer Stories of Europe, edited by Kārlis Vērdiņš and Jānis Ozoliņš, 174–94. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016.

Sokolova, Vera. “State approaches to homosexuality and non-heterosexual lives in Czechoslovakia during state-socialism.” In The Politics of Gender Culture under State Socialism: An Expropriated Voice, edited by Hana Havelková, and Libora Oates-Indruchová, 82–109. London: Routledge, 2014.

Sótonyi, Péter. “Az Egészségügyi Tudományos Tanács története (1863–2009)” [The history of the Health Science Council, 1863–2009]. Egészségtudomány 54, no. 3 (2010): 17–26.

Stella, Francesca. Lesbian Lives in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. Post/Socialism and Gendered Sexualities. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. doi:10.1057/9781137321244

Szasz, Thomas. The Myth of Mental Illness. New York: Hoeber-Harper, 1961.

Szasz, Thomas. “Legal and Moral Aspects of Homosexuality.” In Sexual inversion: The multiple roots of homosexuality, edited by Judd Marmor, 124–39. New York: Basic Books, 1965.

Szikra, Dorottya, Cristina Rat, and Tomasz Inglot. Continuity and Change in Family Policies of the New European Democracies: A Comparison of Poland, Hungary and Romania. Part 1, Institutional Legacies and Path Dependence in Family Practice – 1945 to 2000 (NCEEER Working Paper). Seattle, WA: National Council for Eurasian and East European Research, 2011.

Szulc, Lukasz. Transnational Homosexuals in Communist Poland: Cross-Border Flows in Gay and Lesbian Magazines. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-58901-5

Takács, Judit. “The Double Life of Kertbeny.” In Past and Present of Radical Sexual Politics, edited by G. Hekma, 51–62. Amsterdam: UvA–Mosse Foundation, 2004.

Takács, Judit. “Disciplining gender and (homo)sexuality in state socialist Hungary in the 1970s.” European Review of History: Revue européenne d’histoire 22, no. 1 (2015): 161–75. doi: 10.1080/13507486.2014.983426.

Takács, Judit, Roman Kuhar, and Tamás P. Tóth. “Unnatural Fornication Cases under State-Socialism: A Hungarian–Slovenian Comparative Social-Historical Approach.” Journal of Homosexuality 64, no. 14 (2017): 1943–60. doi: 10.1080/00918369.2016.1273719.

Tobin, Robert Deam. Peripheral Desires: The German Discovery of Sex. Philadephia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. doi:10.9783/9780812291865

Torra, Michael Jose. “Gay rights after the Iron Curtain.” The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 22, no. 2 (1998): 73–87.

Ulrichs, Karl Heinrich. [1864–79] Forschungen über das Räthsel der Mannmännlichen Liebe. Edited by Hubert Kennedy. 4 vols. Berlin: Verlag Rosa Winkel, 1994.

Wolfenden, John et al. The Wolfenden Report: Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution. New York: Stein and Day, 1963 [1957].


Table 1. Pros and cons of decriminalizing homosexual acts in Hungary (1958)

A) Abolitionist arguments for decriminalization

B) Arguments to maintain criminalization

C) Arguments against maintenance
of criminalization

1. The prosecution of biological phenomena by law is not logical1 […]

BUT punishment is necessary to protect the purity of sex life.2

AT THE SAME TIME the purity of society’s sex life will not be damaged, if [homosexual acts are] not penalized. A healthy society with heterosexual preferences has a natural aversion to this disorder, it does not appear necessary to have a separate penalty. [Homosexuality] leads to revulsion and disgust, and it does not tempt imitation, and if homosexual acts are not committed in public, there is no question of any social threat.3

2. The offence cannot be proven objectively4 […]

BUT it is punishable, because it can corrupt the youth by diverting their sexual development in an abnormal direction.5

AT THE SAME TIME, in the context of heterosexual relations, protection of the youth is covered by other articles of the criminal law, which can be supplemented with regard to homosexuality.6

3. An offence which has no victim does not pose any danger either to individual rights or to the interests of society. There is no social harm if the acts are committed by consenting adults and not in public7 […]

BUT it can ruin family life.8

AT THE SAME TIME, penalization cannot guarantee protection of family life. “Inborn” homosexuals are unable to lead regular heterosexual family life. This [heterosexual family life] can be observed in the cases of bisexuality. In this context, penalizing extramarital sexual relations would not be logical since extramarital heterosexual relations are not considered a criminal offence either.9

4. The defendants do not feel guilty. They see their conduct as natural, and their (homosexual) acts are only repulsive to heterosexuals10 […]

BUT [these acts] inhibit population growth.11

AT THE SAME TIME, the interests of protecting population growth cannot justify penalization, because in this case contraception should be penalized, too.12

5. Punishment has no deterrent effect, nor does it have corrective or educational effects, because it cannot affect a deep-seated biological disorder. On the other hand, it is well known that imprisonment facilitates homosexual inclinations by providing a long-term same-sex environment13 […]

BUT at least treatment could be provided for the duration of the prison term.14


AT THE SAME TIME, prisons or prison hospitals are not suitable environments for the treatment of homosexual disorders. [...] Also, this disorder can be treated successfully only rarely ([only] in the case of bisexual persons who wish to free themselves from homosexual tendencies).15

6. Penalization can be the basis of criminal blackmail16 […]


BUT lack of penalization would not stop blackmailing activities altogether, since public contempt also makes blackmails possible.17

AT THE SAME TIME, though lack of penalization would not eradicate blackmail completely, it could significantly reduce [its probability].18


7. The goal of protecting population growth cannot justify penalization, because in this case, contraception should be penalized, too19 […]

BUT if we acknowledge the legitimacy of homosexuality, homosexual marriage should also be allowed.20

AT THE SAME TIME, the marriage of homosexual persons as an act attracting public attention and lacking essential instrumental features that constitute the institution of marriage is certainly undesirable, [but] the need for authorizing [same-sex marriage] does not follow from the lack of penalizing [homosexual acts].21

8. The relative prevalence of homosexuality suggests that punishment should be limited22 […]


BUT public opinion is for penalization.23


AT THE SAME TIME, the enlightened and educated public does not demand penalization. The situation of homosexuals is quite tragic even without penalization, because even if the law would not penalize this instinctual anomaly, homosexuals would have to continue to hide, because homosexuality would remain a violation of public taste, not to mention the fact that homosexuals are deprived of having offspring, etc.24

9. It is not consistent that homosexuality only be penalized in cases involving men, while it occurs among women in the same way25 […]


BUT lack of penalization implies permissiveness that can lead to rampant proliferation.26


AT THE SAME TIME, the risk of rampant proliferation should be assessed only in a statistically reliable way, but unfortunately, there are no comparable datasets available. In the absence of reliable data, the only thing one can say is that in adulthood, the direction of sexual orientation is permanently fixed, and homosexual impulses would affect the normally oriented not in an attractive but in a repulsive way, thus the risk of psychological infection seems negligible.27

10. All adult individuals have the right to satisfy their sexual needs, and even irregular modes of satisfaction cannot render the act a crime given that it does not violate individual or collective interests28 […]

BUT penalization can limit the frequency of the acts, even if it cannot eradicate the inclination.29


AT THE SAME TIME, the struggle between the dread of being reported, exposed, and punished and the enhanced instinctual drives almost inevitably leads to the exhaustion of the nervous system and neurosis. Even the fear of punishment cannot restrain the homosexuals’ quest for sexual satisfaction: they feel that the law cannot deprive them of their sexuality. Thus, the notion that punishment would limit the frequency of homosexual acts is highly unconvincing.30


1 MNL OL, A homoszexualitás néhány orvosi és büntetőjogi problémájáról, 5.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid. 6.

4 Ibid. 5.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid. 6.

7 Ibid. 5.

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid. 6.

10 Ibid. 5.

11 Ibid.

12 MNL OL, Feljegyzés Rostás elvtársnak, 2.

13 MNL OL, A homoszexualitás néhány orvosi és büntetőjogi problémájáról, 5.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid. 6.

16 Ibid. 5.

17 Ibid. 6.

18 Ibid. 7.

19 Ibid. 5.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid. 6.

22 Ibid. 5.

23 Ibid. 6.

24 Ibid. 7.

25 Ibid. 5.

26 Ibid. 6.

27 Ibid. 7.

28 Ibid. 5.

29 Ibid. 6.

30 Ibid. 7.

1* The authors gratefully thank Johann Karl Kirchknopf for his insightful comments on a previous version of the manuscript.

Takács, “The Double Life of Kertbeny.”

2 For more details about this historical period in Hungary, see Fónagy, “The Age of Dualism.”

3 Magyar Törvénytár.

4 Pauler, Büntetőjogtan, 121.

5 Kirchknopf, “Ausmaß und Intensität”; Kirchknopf, Fornication against nature.

6 Pauler, Büntetőjogtan, 126.

7 Edvi, A magyar büntetőtörvénykönyv magyarázata, 294–95.

8 Angyal, Szemérem elleni bűntettek, 78.

9 As Foucault points out, “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.” Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 42.

10 Kennedy, Ulrichs, 63–64.

11 Ibid.,189.

12 Tobin, Peripheral Desires, 125.

13 Translated by the author from Kertbeny, Levéltöredék. For the English translation of the full document, see Pretsell, The Correspondence of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, 199–205.

14 Kertbeny, “An Open Letter,” 72.

15 Kennedy, Ulrichs, 186.

16 Kertbeny, “An Open Letter,” 72.

17 Beachy, “The German Invention of Homosexuality,” 804.

18 Eördögh, “A büntetőtörvény 241. §-áról,” 4.

19 It should be noted that Reich used Ulrichs’ urning terminology in his text, in which he refers to urnings as being characterized by (gender) inversion and thus, from their perspective, driven by their feminine inclination, homosexuality might seem to be a natural state of affairs. Reich, “A természet elleni fajtalanság büntethetőségéről,” 90.

20 Janes, “Oscar Wilde.”

21 Borgos, Nemek között.

22 Kondakov, “Rethinking of the sexual citizenship,” 402.

23 Stella, Lesbian Lives in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia.

24 Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia; Healey, “Homosexual Existence and Existing Socialism.”

25 Healey, Homosexual Desire in Revolutionary Russia.

26 Hildebrant, “Routes to decriminalization.”

27 Herzog, Sexuality in Europe, 100.

28 Pine, Nazi Family Policy, 122.

29 Moss, “The Underground Closet,” 230.

30 Szulc, Transnational Homosexuals in Communist Poland, 91.

31 It should be noted that in quite a few European countries, homosexual activities were decriminalized already in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, including France (1791), Belgium and Luxembourg (1795), the Netherlands (1811), Spain (1822), and Italy (1890).

32 HRW, Public Scandals.

33 Long, “Gay and lesbian movements in Eastern Europe.”

34 Davison, “Cold War Pavlov”; Sokolova, “State approaches to homosexuality.”

35 Freund, “Should homosexuality,” 239.

36 Sokolova, “State approaches to homosexuality”; Davison, “Cold War Pavlov.”

37 Seidl, “Decriminalization of Homosexual Acts.”

38 McLellan, “Love in the Time of Communism.”

39 Torra, “Gay rights after the Iron Curtain,” 75.

40 McLellan, “Glad to Be Gay Behind the Wall.”

41 Takács, Kuhar, and P. Tóth, “Unnatural Fornication Cases under State-Socialism,” 1949.

42 Torra, “Gay rights after the Iron Curtain.”

43 Hildebrant, “Routes to decriminalization.”

44 OGyI, 270.

45 Ibid.

46 Szikra, Rat, and Inglot, Continuity and Change in Family Policies.

47 The Stalinist-style political repression of psy-sciences was reflected by the silencing and stigmatization of psychoanalysis as a “bourgeois pseudo-science.” For a detailed overview of the state of psy-sciences under state-socialism in Hungary, see Kovai, Lélektan és politika.

48 For a detailed discussion on how psychoanalysts “queered” the scientific study of homosexuality in the German speaking world from the 1890s to the 1920s, see Lang and Sutton, “The Queer Cases of Psychoanalysis.”

49 See also Borgos, “Homosexuality and psychiatry.”

50 OGyI, 271.

51 Ibid.

52 In an interview conducted by the authors in 2015, one of the retired police officer interviewees spoke of these police procedures being used against homosexual men in particular.

53 Paragraph 236, Act no. V of 1878 (Hungarian Penal Code) rendered sexual assault conducted by men against “decent maidens” under the age of 14 punishable with a prison sentence up to five years.

54 Takács, “Disciplining gender and (homo)sexuality.”

55 See, for example: Linczényi et al., A szexuális élet zavarai.

56 Sótonyi, “Az Egészségügyi Tudományos Tanács története.”

57 Source: 193/1951. (XI.01.) Decree of the Council of Ministers.

58 MNL OL, Jegyzőkönyv.

59 MNL OL, A homoszexualitás néhány orvosi és büntetőjogi problémájáról.

60 MNL OL, Feljegyzés Rostás elvtársnak.

61 In the minutes, she was mentioned by her married name, Mrs. Gimes (“Gimes Miklósné”).

62 MNL OL, Jegyzőkönyv, 1.

63 MNL OL, A homoszexualitás néhány orvosi és büntetőjogi problémájáról, 1.

64 Ibid.

65 Ibid.

66 Ibid. 2.

67 Ibid.

68 Ibid.

69 It should also be noted that “Lang’s selection of homosexuality as a problem for genetic research was part of a deliberate effort to win a high place in the National Socialist hierarchy.” Dietrich, “Of Moths and Men,” 241.

70 Barr and Hobbs, “Chromosomal Sex in Transvestites,” 1110.

71 Bleuler and Wiedemann, “Chromosomengeschlecht und Psychosexualität.

72 MNL OL, A homoszexualitás néhány orvosi és büntetőjogi problémájáról, 2–3.

73 Ibid., 3.

74 Ibid.

75 Ibid., 4.

76 Ibid.

77 Ibid.

78 Borgos, “Homosexuality and psychiatry,” 929.

79 MNL OL, A homoszexualitás néhány orvosi és büntetőjogi problémájáról, 4.

80 MNL OL, Jegyzőkönyv, 1.

81 MNL OL, Jegyzőkönyv, 2.

82 We should note that Lilly Hajdu, a significant Hungarian psychoanalyst in the pre-war years and director of the Institute of Psychiatry and Neurology in the mid-1950s, was one of the main initiators of the modernization and humanization of psychiatric methods in Hungarian mental health institutions from the late 1950s onwards. See: Borgos, “Homosexuality and psychiatry,” 929.

83 MNL OL, Jegyzőkönyv, 2.

84 Borgos, “Homosexuality and psychiatry,” 936.

85 Foucault, Mental Illness and Psychology, 69.

86 Szasz, The Myth of Mental Illness.

87 Ibid.

88 Szasz describes this threat in the following way: “Like the political subversive who undermines the value of established political institutions or the religious subversive who undermines the value of established religious institutions, the homosexual undermines the value of heterosexuality. […] The homosexual thus threatens the heterosexual on his own grounds. He makes the heterosexual fear not only that he too may be homosexual but also that heterosexuality itself is not as much ‘fun’ as it has been made out to be. Many people behave as if sexual satisfaction were one of their main interests in life. If the value of their favorite game is undermined, they may lose interest in it, and then what will they do?” Szasz, “Legal and Moral Aspects,” 135.

89 According to the report, criminal law’s function “is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation or corruption of others, particularly those who are especially vulnerable because they are young, weak in body or mind or inexperienced, or in a state of special physical, official or economic dependence. […] It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private lives of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour, further than is necessary to carry out the purposes we have outlined.” Wolfenden, Wolfenden Report, 23–24.

90 Dupont, “The Two-faced Fifties,” 394.

91 Dupont, “The Two-faced Fifties,” 358.

92 Alexander, “Soviet Legal,” 52.

93 Alexander, “Soviet Legal,” 46.

94 See for example Murai and Tóth, “Női szerelmek a filmvásznon.”

95 See for example the Hungarian documentaries Secret Years (2009; http://www.uk.eltitkoltevek.hu, accessed April 11, 2021.); Hot Men, Cold Dictatorships (2015; http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4070672/, accessed April 11, 2021).


“To Maintain the Biological Substance of the Polish Nation”: Reproductive Rights as an Area of Conflict in Poland

Michael Zok
Deutsches Historisches Institut, Warsaw
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 10 Issue 2  (2021):357-381 DOI 10.38145/2021.2.357

On October 22, 2020, the long-term dispute about reproductive rights in Polish society had a comeback. The Constitutional Tribunal declared the embryo-pathological indication of abortions guaranteed by the law of 1993 to be unconstitutional. The tribunal’s ruling was met with widespread protests, as it effectively forbade almost all reasons for terminations of pregnancies. While members of the Church’s hierarchy and pro-life activists celebrated, politicians began once again to discuss the law, and different suggestions were made (including a draft law similar to laws in effect in other European countries like Germany, and a law which would allow the termination of a pregnancy if the fetus were likely to die, or a law forbidding them in the case that the fetus had been diagnosed as having down’s syndrome). The debates are hardly new to Polish society and history. On the contrary, they date back to the recreation of the Polish state after World War I. This article concentrates on the developments in the Communist People’s Republic that led to the legislation of 1993, which is commonly referred to as a “compromise.” It focuses on the main actors in this dispute and the policymakers and their arguments. It also contextualizes these discursive strategies in a long-term perspective and highlights continuities and ruptures.

Keywords: Catholicism, demography, reproductive rights, Poland

Some Remarks on Actors, Sources, and Figures

In this article, I focus on the last two decades of Communist reign in Poland and the first decade after its downfall as the beginning phase of the country’s transformation from a socialist to a post-socialist society. I have chosen this timeframe because considerable research has already been done on the years immediately after World War II and on the 1950s and 1960s.1 Since this research has tended to concentrate on organizations such as the Polish Family Planning Association2 and the discourses in scientific periodicals3 and advisory literature,4 I focus on other actors and materials. The main agents on which I focus in this study are the institutions of the state bureaucracy, including both ministries and political parties, and Catholic organizations, e.g., the Clubs of Catholic Intelligentsia (Kluby Inteligencji Katolickiej; KIK ). I have also had to reframe my inquiry in response to limitations created by the COVID-19 pandemic, which have made it difficult to access archival materials. Luckily, I was able to collect and analyze some sources from the Archive of Modern Records in Warsaw (Archiwum Akt Nowych; AAN) in periods when the circumstances allowed limited access to its collections containing the sources relevant to the abovementioned organizations and institutions. If one wishes to consider the roles of the actors involved in the discourse on reproductive rights, it would be fruitful to examine the materials of the Polish Medical Association (Polskie Towarzystwo Lekarskie) and the debates on reproductive rights and behavior that were held among physicians. Unfortunately, this is not possible, not only due the pandemic, but also because the materials are stored in the organization’s archive—with the exception of medical journals that were analyzed, for instance, by Agata Ignaciuk.5 Thus, this article concentrates on the (at times public, at times behind-the-scenes) discourse among representatives of the state bureaucracy, political parties, and Catholic organizations.

I should make a second remark concerning the statistical data used in this article. After the liberalization of abortion in April 1956 and the implementation of new liberal instructions in 1959 (which made it possible for a woman to get an abortion on request),6 the state-run hospitals kept records of the procedures that were performed. Opponents of the liberalized law often made references to these records in their public statements, but the figures they cite should be called into question given the striking inconsistencies. They also used other figures of unknown origin. For instance, in 1970, the Catholic NGO Polish Committee on the Defense of Life and the Family (Polski Komitet Obrony Życia i Rodziny, PKOŻiR) estimated the number of “Polish citizens who have not been born because of the existing law” at 800,000 in the time period between 1956 and 1970.7 Also in 1970, the leader of the Polish Episcopate, Primate Stefan Wyszyński, wrote in an aide-memoir addressed to the government of the “dangers to the biological and moral substance of the nation.” Wyszyński claimed that every year one million abortions were carried out in Poland.8 These estimates show how difficult it is to determine with any precision how many abortions were actually performed in Poland. Of course, the accuracy of any given figure may well depend on the person who is citing it and his or her political agenda. A study which draws on the experiences of women by interviewing them may yield some insights on this question.9

Another question comes up concerning the number of abortions performed in Poland. Some historians have argued that the decrease in the number of abortions carried out in state-run hospitals in the 1980s was the consequence of the broad commercialization of abortions.10 In my opinion, this statement is rather problematic for three reasons. First, as mentioned above, the figures cited by opponents of the existing law were often very different and perhaps sometimes exaggerated. Second, the 1980s were a decade of economic and political crisis, leading to the downfall of Communism in Poland. Thus, it would be surprising if, under these dire circumstances, (expensive) private clinics had flourished. It is also impossible to give a definite answer to this question because there are no broad studies on the health and welfare systems in People’s Poland during the 1980s and in the first decade of the so-called Third Republic. And third, some statistics include terminations of pregnancies carried out at private clinics.11 However, it is hard to tell if all abortions in private clinics were reported, or if even there was any obligation to report these procedures.

Therefore, in this article, I use the official numbers as indicators, but I keep in mind that there may have been a high number of abortions performed in private clinics.





A Short Overview: Abortions in the First Half of the Twentieth Century in Poland

The recreation of the Polish state after 123 years under Prussian/German, Austrian, and Russian rule made it necessary to reunify political institutions, infrastructure, education, etc. This included the unification of the juridical systems. Regarding the question of the termination of pregnancies, the so-called “Makarewicz codex” from 1932 legalized abortions in extreme cases of danger to the mother’s health or life or if the pregnancy was the result of a crime (rape, incest, or sexual intercourse with minors).12 This legislation was upheld and reestablished (after a short time during World War II, when the German occupiers allowed Polish women to have abortions on request),13 and it remained in force until 1956.14

This changed in 1956 after a public discussion about the necessity of liberalizing women’s access to abortions on request. The main argument for this was the number of illegal abortions performed in back-alley clinics that led to women being injured or dying. An estimated 300,000 of such abortions were performed per year.15 Although met by heavy resistance from the Church and Catholic MPs in the Sejm, who condemned abortions as “murder” and accused supporters of the liberalization of the existing law of being “neo-Malthusians” who sought to pass a “genocidal” law,16 the majority of the Polish parliament voted to change the law in effect and give women easier access to abortion.

Needless to say, this step was criticized by the Church, especially by Primate Stefan Wyszyński, who called the Sejm’s decision a “monstrosity” and declared that it was in contradiction with a woman’s “innate and national mission.”17 In the aftermath, he tried to use his authority as the highest Church dignitary to influence doctors and nurses. Thus, women’s requests were denied, even though they were legal according to the law of 1956.18

The Parliamentary Circle ZNAK (Sign), which was formed after the political liberalization in 1956 and was tightly connected to the KIK, also argued against the new law. At the end of the 1960s, the (all-male) members of ZNAK sent a submission to the Ministry of Health in which they claimed that “a woman’s absolute freedom” would inevitably lead to misuse, and they demanded the introduction of new restrictions.19 Jan Kostrzewski, the Minister of Health at the time, rejected their request. He argued that the law in effect would guarantee “women’s right to self-determination,” and he rejected any restrictions, because “as experience shows, prohibitions and compulsion only lead to illegal procedures and moral as well as biological damage.”20

This is one of the few examples in which there was explicit reference to women’s reproductive rights and a woman’s right to self-determination. The discourse, including the discourse used by the ruling Polish United Workers’ Party (Polska Zjednocznona Partia Robotnicza; PUWP), relied heavily on references to the dangers posed to women’s health and lives.21 Party experts argued that “terminations of pregnancies are not the healthiest method” of limiting the number of children, but they were aware that, because of the prevailing circumstances (i.e., the lack of effective contraceptives due to the Socialist economy of scarcity and the low level of knowledge concerning methods of contraception), abortions were a “necessary evil.” They argued that a ban on abortion would only drive women to seek illegal abortions.22

These examples show the opposing sides in this dispute. In the decade and a half following the Sejm’s decision of 1956, the ruling party defended the law as just and underlined that it was a “necessary evil.” In the 1970s, however, the dynamics of this issue shifted.

Debates on Reproductive Rights in the 1970s: The Perception of “Crises”

The debates dating back to the 1970s saw the rise of different “crises.” Especially in the late years of the decade, “demographic and social disturbances” were addressed, e.g., in the (Catholic) press. Studies by sociologists, e.g., in (new) urban centers, underlined the transformation of the family, which included “decreased size of family, diminished authority of husband/father, increase in extramarital sexual contacts, increased numbers of wage-earning married women, greater personal freedom of family members [etc.].”23 The Church was also alarmed. It saw a “crisis of marriage,” although the numbers of divorces in communist Poland were very low compared to other European or Western countries. In 1960, there were 2.3 divorces per 1,000 marriages. By 1975, this number had risen to 5 per 1,000.24 In fact, the 1970s bore witness in Poland to a rising number of marriages. In the period between 1971 and 1978, 2.85 million couples were married, of whom 85 percent were “young” couples, i.e., both partners were younger than 30 years old.25

The state and party experts on family and demography did not agree with the Church’s interpretation. The Ministry of Justice in particular argued that the new Family and Welfare Code, introduced in 1964, was designed to “ensure the durability of marriage and family.”26 It therefore made it harder for couples who had separated to get a juridically sanctioned divorce. This was especially true if the couple had young children. The Ministry reminded the judges that divorces were “socially undesirable phenomena”27 and should be treated as an ultima ratio to prevent “social pathologies.”28 Thus, the Ministry had a negative stance with regard to divorces which was very similar to (if not as negative as) the Church’s attitude, which considered them a “plague.”29

However, neither the Church’s negative attitude nor the administrative measures stopped the increase of juridically sanctioned divorces in the 1970s.30 In 1979, the courts acknowledged 40,300 demands for abortions. 31 percent of the women requesting a divorce were younger than 30 years old and had at least one child.31

Another threat, according to the Church, was the “disappearance” of the Polish people, because the postwar baby boom had ended, and an average family, especially in urban centers, wanted to have only one or two children.32 Although compared to other European countries, the percentage of the population of Poland that could be considered young was still very high (52 percent was under 30) and the number of young married couples was increasing in the 1970s, the figures regarding childbirth oscillated. In 1970, 546,000 children were born, and this number increased to 582,000 in 1973,33 a higher figure than in 1967, when only 520,400 children were born.34

The Episcopate saw these shifts as a danger to the “biological substance of the nation.” Two aides-memoir, addressed to the government in 1970 and 1977, summed up the Church’s perception of this threat.35 One main reason to which the documents alluded was the liberal law on abortion and working women who could not devote their lives to providing care for their loved ones. The Episcopate also accused the government of willingly limiting the number of children through the means of “anti-natalist” propaganda and “a broad front of contraceptives,”36 although there was a lack of effective contraception in Poland throughout the communist period.37 The Episcopate’s aide-memoir advocated a ban on contraceptives, in particular on the sale of contraceptives to young people.38

As noted above, Primate Wyszyński cited a figure of 1,000,000 abortions per year39 and the allegedly decreasing fertility of Polish women as his main arguments against the existing laws, and he advocated a “proactive demographic [read: pro-natalist] policy.” His contentions are contradicted by the numbers registered by the state-run hospitals: The official numbers of registered abortions dropped from 196,000 in 1962 to 133,000 in 1977.40

But state and party experts also disagreed with the other accusations made by the Church concerning the government and its policies. They argued that, in 1970 and 1977, the Church had offered some dramatically misleading references to the official numbers given by the Main Statistics Office (GUS, Główny Urząd Statystyczny). E.g., Mikołaj Latuch, professor at the Main School of Planning and Statistics (SGPiS, Szkoła Główna Planowania i Stastyki, today the SGH Warsaw School of Economics), was convinced that the aide-memoir had a “propaganda” purpose and was not designed to give scientifically proven answers or interpretations.41 Another expert, Zbigniew Smoliński, who was responsible in the GUS for demographic issues, stated that “the aide-memoir is full of errors with regard to its content” and that, in general, the Episcopate was not able to understand demographic developments or to interpret the numbers correctly. Another expert was convinced that the Church’s aim was to challenge the law on abortion, and that it had made its (selective) arguments in an attempt to discredit the existing legislation, which was “to us a tool of birth regulation, not its cause.”42 Kazimierz Kąkol, the chief of the Office for Confessional Issues (Urząd do spraw Wyznań), who was responsible for maintaining the dialogue and observing the Church’s activities, argued in his statement on the aide-memoir from 1977 that the Episcopate was “doctrinaire” and that it “refuses [to acknowledge] arguments on a rational basis.”43

Furthermore, the state experts stated that the drop in family size, especially in urban centers, was not an effect of the existing laws or the lack of an efficient housing policy. Instead, they argued it was a normal development in industrialized countries. E.g., Kazimierz Romaniuk was convinced that “the 1960s brought Poland back to the [demographic and reproductive] circumstances that are characteristic for all developed countries in Europe,”44 and his colleague Jerzy Piotrowski argued that “a demographic catastrophe has occurred in none of the countries with similar developments.” The latter also contended that “the world’s main problem is rather the excessive growth of the [global] population.” Regarding the aide-memoir, he stated that its authors had chosen the numbers they used in their statement selectively. In particular, the Episcopate’s focus on families with many children was problematic, as Piotrowski explicated, because in his opinion, “having many children was seldom the result of a [willful] decision, [and occurred instead because of] carelessness, alcoholism, inattention to children.”45 He argued that a ban on divorces would not eliminate the problem of couples living separately, and outlawing abortions would lead to illegal procedures. Instead, it was necessary to raise the people’s “culture,” and this could only be achieved through education.46 This was a common argument in defense of the 1956 law.47

Statistics from the 1970s indicated that 45 percent of couples had only one child, and almost 28 percent had two children. Couples without offspring accounted for 18 percent of the total.48 One problem with this statistic is its lack of a subdivision of the numbers according to the ages of the couples and the duration of marriage. As a survey from this period shows, 60 percent of married couples wanted to have two children, which they considered “ideal.” 27 percent wanted to have three children, and only 0.2 percent did not want any children. Unsurprisingly, the number of desired children was closely linked with the educational attainment, especially the woman’s educational level.49 Economic circumstances (particularly housing problems) also played a major role, as did thoughts concerning the ideal way of bringing up children. The government, for its part, advocated the formula “2+3” as the ideal family size.50

But this reasoning convinced neither the Church and its representatives nor Catholic lay organizations like the abovementioned KIK or the Polish Committee for the Defense of Life and Family (PKOŻiR). Although the Committee was a small lay organization, it was closely connected to the Church, and it organized pilgrimages and functioned as a fund-raising group. Its members, mostly men (though there were also some couples), estimated (as mentioned above) that “800,000 Poles” had not been born because of the existing law. The committee argued that the legislation was responsible for the “ill fate of millions of women” who were not able to bear children. Furthermore, its members alleged that there was a connection between the law on abortion and Nazi atrocities during the war.51 The latter became an integral part of the discourse on abortion.

Closely connected to the question of the permissibility of terminating pregnancies on request, infertility was perceived as a threat to the sustainability and growth of the Polish population. The Clubs of the Catholic Intelligentsia estimated that 20 percent of Poland’s young newlywed women were infertile because they had decided to terminate their first pregnancy, although they did not indicate the source or sources on which they based these figures. The Clubs concluded that abortions were the main reason for the “bad quality of children born,”52 and they argued that “with regard to the concern about the quality of the population, the termination of the first pregnancy in particular is extremely harmful, as is commonly known [emphasis mine – M. Z.].”53

The question of infertility was one of the major problems perceived with regard to abortions by the state bureaucracy and the Church, as noted above.54 And it was the core argument for both sides in their support for a ban on abortions in the case of the Church and the liberalization of the law in order to end illegal procedures on the part of the state. Therefore, the Ministry for Health and Welfare had its own numbers, based on its broad network of resident physicians. Although the total number of women who died as a consequence of an abortion was very low (12 cases per year in the 1970s), the alleged effects of the termination of the first pregnancy troubled the Ministry. After the procedure, 2 percent of subsequent pregnancies ended in a preterm delivery and 4 to 8 percent ended in a late delivery. However, the termination of the first pregnancy was estimated to have led to spontaneous abortion of the next pregnancy in 38 percent of the cases. Even if it was not the first pregnancy but rather a later one that was terminated, 30 percent of the next gravidity was concerned. The study came to the unsurprising result that women using contraceptives had less abortions.55

The Clubs accused the government of deliberately trying to destroy the Polish nation by allowing abortions and the use of contraceptives. Functionaries of the state bureaucracy characterized these statements as “absurd” and emphasized the “progressive nature” of the law. Although not denying the negative effects entirely, they highlighted that the number of women assumed to have died in the aftermath of an abortion was very low because the abortions were performed in hygienic surroundings.56

But in the 1970s, concerns about demographic trends began to appear in documents taken from different branches of the party. The Administrative Department of PUWP’s Central Committee, for example, called the abovementioned “dominance of families with only one or two children” “alarming.”57 The figures from this decade showed that while the percentage of children and youth was falling, the number of old people in the “post-productive age” was increasing because of improvements in the healthcare system.58 One document estimated that from 1985 onwards, Polish society would become too old, demographically, to support itself.59 To overcome these problems, voices in the party underlined that it was necessary to restrict abortions to the requirements stated in the law of 1956. This was aimed at private clinics in particular.

During the 7th Party Congress in 1975, party member Barbara Sidorczuk from Kalisz argued that because of women’s double burden (children and work), they decided to have fewer children and at an older age. She referred to the conclusions of demographers who warned that “the decrease in the number of births can become a dangerous trend for the biological future of the nation.” Furthermore, she argued that the decision to have less children “was not taken because of a woman’s genuine convictions” but was influenced by the “problems of fulfilling the many roles” women had.60 Even Edward Gierek, the party leader of PUWP at the time, addressed the demographic problems during a meeting with female representatives in March 1975. The year had been declared an international women’s year by the United Nations Organization; women’s problems regarding in connection with work, children, society, and culture were broadly discussed. During the March meeting, only days before International Women’s Day, Gierek declared that “demographic prognoses indicate that, by the end of the century, the number of Poles should surpass 40 million. To continue the work we have begun, a correct development of the nation and an optimal structure of the population and age are needed. To surpass or even only to reach the figure of 40 million by the end of the century, population growth has to increase. Our state did not always have to introduce an active demographic policy. Today, it has become a necessity.”61 These examples show that, despite their rivalry and ideological differences, Church and party perceived similar threats to the “biological substance of the nation,” especially towards the end of the 1970s.

The Catholic actors in this discourse criticized more than the liberal law on abortion. They also held a grudge against “artificial” contraception, like condoms, IUDs, or the “pill.” Their argument was based on the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, which banned “artificial” methods of contraception and which had a major impact on Catholic countries.62 Thus, the so-called rhythm method was the only method of contraception that was taught during pre-marriage courses held by the Church and lay persons from KIK. While the courses described the issue in detail using various graphs, for example, concerning the days of a woman’s cycle when she is ovulating, etc.,63 other methods of contraception either were not mentioned or were described as “harmful.” One example is a review by a priest who criticized the proposed outline of such a course to be erroneous, because the part about artificial methods “lacks the basic argumentation against contraceptives[,] that the marital act of connecting and uniting” would suffer.64 Proposed courses and texts by sexologists cooperating with the Clubs were criticized, as one example highlights. The reviewer’s critique focused on the author’s concentration on “artificial” contraception and on the fact that he did not mention “natural” methods. The author’s generally liberal perspective on contraception was perceived as “appropriate for students of medicine,” but not for the courses organized by the Clubs.65 According to one proposal intended for the course instructors which also discussed the structure of the courses, the problem of the termination of pregnancies should be addressed twice: immediately during the first session and during the session about children.66 In the 1980s, the Clubs added that “contraceptives created an anti-natalist attitude among parents,”67 and they advocated “natural methods,” because “they are reliable, cheap, and they do not cause harm.”68

The “Conservative Backlash” in the 1980s and Early 1990s

The 1980s, the last decade of communist rule in Poland and the decade prior to the law of 1993, saw a shift in power. Factors influencing this development included the election of Krakow’s Archbishop Karol Wojtyła as pope John Paul II and the Church’s role first as a sanctuary for dissidents and, later, during the social and economic unrest, as a mediator between the “Party” and “society.” The aforementioned Catholic lay organizations, especially the KIK but also ZNAK as the parliamentary representation of Catholic Social Thought, were very active during this decade. They used their growing influence to challenge the existing law and to submit several draft bills to restrict abortion and, in some cases, even contraception, despite the fact that the number of registered procedures in state-run hospitals had sunk to about 58,000 abortions per year69 and was therefore only a fraction of the figures from the 1960s.

Agata Ignaciuk argues that the decrease in registered abortions in state-run hospitals was accompanied by an increase of procedures in private clinics and that the actual figures concerning the numbers of abortions performed had remained the same or had increased. In one of her articles, she refers to a survey undertaken after 1989 showing that a high percentage of women had an abortion. The 2013 survey indicated that one third of women between 45 and 54 years of age at the time of the study had had an abortion. The percentage for women between 55 and 64 years was even higher (42 percent).70 This is surprising, especially for the 1980s, which was a decade of almost permanent political as well as economic crisis but which interestingly saw growth in the number of private clinics.

The argument provided by Catholic actors was essentially a continuation of the discourse from the 1970s and referred to “biological” reasons. In an aide-memoir from 1987, the Szczecin branch of the KIK repeated the contention that the law in effect endangered the “biological substance of the nation” and its moral foundations. Its wording and content were very similar to the aides-memoir of the Episcopate from the 1970s. The Club’s argumentation also invoked international treaties, such as the United Nations Resolution condemning genocide (1948), and it contended that abortion was a means to conduct such mass atrocities.71 The reference to genocide was commonly used by pro-life-activists in Poland, as noted above. This notion was closely connected, of course, to the experiences of World War II and the Nazi plans to exterminate the Polish elites.

Furthermore, the Szczecin branch argued that it was “a scientific fact that life begins with conception.” Hence, every “artificial termination is a murder with willful intent.”72 In Gdansk, the branch underlined that a law “that enables every person to decide about a human life is injustice,” and it emphasized the personal rights of the fetus, which was seen as an autonomous being independent of its mother. Therefore, the argument went, a pregnant woman should not have any power over the “unborn.”73

These demands were met with resistance from (state-run) women’s organizations. Like other supporters of the status quo, the Women’s League (Liga Kobiet) underlined in its statement dated April 1989 that restrictions on abortion would lead to an increase in illegal termination of pregnancies. It warned of a return to pre-1956 conditions, when the procedures were performed in back-alley clinics instead of “aseptic hospitals.” This return would multiply the dangers to women’s health and lives. As a possible solution, the League underlined the importance of sex education and effective contraception, while at the same time rejecting the Catholic side’s exclusive insistence on “natural methods.” The League’s arguments were based in part on the uncertainties women faced and their “shattered living conditions.”74

However, the modified political system of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which was the result of negotiations between the party and the opposition supported by the Church, experienced a power shift that neither side had foreseen.75 After the partly free elections on June 4, 1989, the reestablished Upper Chamber, the Senate, consisted entirely of members of Solidarity (Solidarność), which had been founded as an independent trade union in 1980 and which was converted, after it had become legal again, into a political actor. In addition to the seats won in Senate, its members also won every free mandate in the Lower Chamber, the Sejm, and they made up 35 percent of the total MPs. The result was a political stalemate which could only be solved by electing Tadeusz Mazowiecki Prime Minister. Mazowiecki was the first non-communist government leader in Poland since World War II, and he was a member of ZNAK and the Warsaw branch of the KIK.

In April 1990, the new Solidarity-dominated Senate was working on a new law on abortion. The draft bill that was discussed in the Upper Chamber, which was based on a paper written by an experts’ commission of the Episcopate76 and anticipated a prohibition on abortions (except in the case of a risk to the life of the mother) and contraceptives (such as the pill and IUDs),77 was very similar in its goals to the demands made in the Church’s aides-memoir in the previous decade.78 A few members of the Senate tried to include “social indications” (which was part of the existing law of 1956) as a reason for a request for an abortion, but they were outvoted.79

The beginning of the transformation was perceived as a period of massive insecurity. This probably influenced the Second National Medical Assembly’s decision to vote for a more conservative codex in December 1991.80 Because of this, the numbers of registered abortions decreased even more, from more than 30,000 in 1991 to 11,640 in 1992.81

Two years after the partly free elections, the first free popular vote took place. It was a victory for the traditionalist “Christian democratic” and “Christian nationalist” parties, which would form a government coalition. The question of abortion was central, despite the social and economic hardships which Polish society experienced in this period.

New and Old Supporters of Liberalization and Restriction

After the first completely free elections in 1991, the first two right-wing governmental coalitions sped up the adoption of a new law on abortion. The parties that were members of these coalitions had been founded during the beginning of the political transformation in 1989 and 1990. Most of them saw themselves as heirs to the legacy of the opposition movement Solidarity, and they described themselves as “Christian democratic.” These parties included, for instance, the Centre Alliance (Porozumienie Centrum; PC), the first party of Jarosław Kaczyński, today’s leader of the governing Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość; PiS). Another example is the Christian Democratic Labor Party (Chrześcijańsko-Demokratyczne Stronnictwo Pracy; ChDSP) which considered itself the reincarnation of the Christian democratic party from the interwar years. Others who joined the coalition explicitly called themselves “Christian national,” such as the Christian National Union (Zjednoczenie Chrześcijańsko-Narodowe; ZChN).

The new political system and the first free elections in 1991 did not lead to immediate stabilization. Because of the fragmentation of the votes during the election, the formation of government coalitions was problematic and necessary. Therefore, concessions and compromises had to be made. During Jan Olszewski’s tenure as Prime Minister (December 1991–July 1992), when the idea of a new law on abortion was discussed, the coalition consisted of four parties (the aforementioned PC and ZChN and two even smaller conservative parties representing rural interests). Their number in the governing coalition increased during the tenure in office of Olszewski’s successor as Prime Minister, Hanna Suchocka (July 1992–October 1993). The seven (and for a short time eight82) parties83 had very different ambitions. Unsurprisingly, the governing coalition lasted only 15 months.

The parties had different views on the future course of the so-called Third Republic, and they quarreled over specific political problems, e.g., the political system, the competences of the state president, etc.84 However, the “Christian” parties had a common stance on abortions and wanted to outlaw them,85 while the liberal and centrist parties were split when it came to this question. The emphasis placed on the question of regulating terminations of pregnancies is most obvious in a flyer by ChDSP. Here, the party’s pro-life-attitude and its demand for the “protection of life” has the second highest priority, surpassed only by the sovereignty of the Polish state.86 Also, different actors on the political right constructed themselves as representatives of a nation which “is 95 percent Catholic” and which hence had to be ruled by Catholic morals and defended against “secularization,” “communism,” “liberalism,” and “nihilism.”

As noted above, the centrist and liberal parties were split on this issue. One obvious example was the Democratic Union (Unia Demokratyczna; UD) that was part of the governing coalition in 1992–1993. The party’s women’s circle referred to the resolution of the European Council from 1990 guaranteeing women the right to reproductive self-determination, and it advocated a liberal law. Some of the party’s MPs, for instance Barbara Labuda, represented this position in parliament, for which she was attacked by male party members87 and by delegates from the Christian democratic parties.88 On the political left, the parties opposed a more restrictive law. This included the Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland (SdRP; Socjaldemokracja Rzeczypospolitej Polski), the successor of the Communist PUWP, and the Polish Socialist Party (PPS; Polska Partia Socjalistyczna), a reestablished version of the left-wing party that had been forced into fusion with the Communist Party in 1948.

The PPS was strictly against the new law. In a flyer entitled “Down with police law! We are against the ban on abortion [...],” the party stated that the new law would “interfere with a woman’s right to family planning” and that the conservative-dominated parliament, [its attempt to] try to take control over the private lives of individuals, takes the path of Stalin, Hitler, Ceauşescu, dictators who were against the right to abortions.” The PPS concluded, as the PUWP expert had in earlier decades, that “police and prison will not solve the problem.”89 Although the PPS believed that “abortions are a barbaric act,” it was, in its opinion, wrong “to try to have them eliminated by prohibitions based on parliamentary decisions.” It argued that the numbers of interventions prior to the legalization of abortion in Poland in 1956 (and also in other countries) showed the ineffectiveness of such restrictions. Furthermore, the party feared that in an impoverished society like the Polish one, illegal abortions would become a large-scale phenomenon once again. It favored contraceptives and sex education as the only means to master the situation, and it underlined that a ban on abortion would lead Poland back to the Middle Ages, especially in comparison to the rest of Europe.90

In September 1990, the SdRP criticized the aforementioned Senate draft bill to restrict abortions as an “unrealistic promise that nobody is able to realize.” Furthermore, the party stated that this “fatal draft” would turn women into “aboulic birthing machines,” and it lamented the fact that there was no public discussion on the issue.91 It rejected the penalization of abortions and proposed that (sex) education and contraceptives were the best means to limit the number of interventions. It concluded that “the dramatic decision which a woman [in such a situation] has to take should be based on moral and not juridical categories.”92 The party made the following declaration in its election program: “We believe that women should be in charge of deciding how many children they will bear.”93 Instead of a restrictive law, the SdRP was in favor of a solution similar to the German one: the terminations of pregnancies should be legal in cases of medical and criminological indication and non-punishable on request during the first trimester. Furthermore, a pregnant woman was obligated to have a counseling interview before the procedure. The authors of the SdRP draft bill argued that abortions should be regarded as an exception in extreme cases to the fundamental principle of the protection of human life and not as a contraceptive method, as it allegedly had been used by several women in the communist period.94 As a solution to settle the political dispute, the SdRP favored a referendum.95

The “Compromise” of 1993: Science, Conscience, and Faith

The idea of a national referendum on the legislation on abortion was met with heavy resistance from pro-life-activists and Catholic organizations. Both the Clubs of Catholic Intelligentsia and the Episcopate rejected the idea of any discussion of this issue because, in their assessment, “the protection of life” was not negotiable.96 The Warsaw branch of the KIK denied the request for a referendum because it argued that such a law belonged in the hands of experts and the parliament. It was convinced that it was unwise to entrust such an “emotional question” to the population, because the “easiest way” was often chosen, and this would “open the doors to human feebleness.”97 Therefore, the different views clashed in parliament, especially during the debate prior to the Sejm’s decision on January 7, 1993.

As noted above, pro-life-activists, right-wing politicians, and publicists used (pseudo-) scientific, biological arguments to underline their demands for restrictions in the case of abortion. As the unauthorized stenograph of the Sejm’s 18th session shows, even before the main clash in January, this argumentation was used. ZChN member Jan Łopuszański insisted that the moment of conception as the beginning of human life did not “depend on somebody’s personal beliefs,” but was “a fact.”98 Here, the supporters of a restriction referred to discursive strategies that had been used in Catholic pro-life-discourse before. The KIK in Gdansk stated in its declaration from 1987 that “it is an objective scientific fact that the life of a human being begins with conception” and that “contemporary genetics proves that the zygote is in possession of all the inherited features of a new human individual.”99 Mariusz Grabowski, also from ZChN, used similar arguments based on “biological facts,” as he told the audience during the parliamentary debate in January 1993. Furthermore, he denied that religious motivation was essential for the authors of the new law. Instead, he enthusiastically contended that the new restrictions would protect women, because they would render it difficult to get an abortion.100

Another example of the “biologization” of the debate was the statement made by the chairwoman of the special commission which drafted the new bill. Anna Knysok referred to the abovementioned “facts” concerning the beginning of life, and she criticized the opponents of the new law and maintained that it would not interfere in a woman’s right to self-determination, and she referred to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.101 She also rejected the demands for a referendum and stated that it was the parliament’s function to decide on issues concerning the common good.102 Opponents of the new law like Danuta Waniek from the Democratic Left Alliance (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej; SLD), to which the post-communist SdRP also belonged, argued that the law would lead to an increasing numbers of illegal abortions and, in the worst cases, to infanticide. She concluded that the law had the potential to “turn a child into an enemy of its own mother.”103

Andrzej Wielowieyski, member of the governing UD party and a long-term member of the Clubs of Catholic Intelligentsia, was against the law in its form at the time because it was not “well-thought-out.” Regarding questions of biopolitics, he is an interesting actor, since he attended meetings at which pre-marital courses were organized by the KIK, and he had served as one of the editors of the Catholic paper Connection (Więź) since the 1960s. During the parliamentary debate in January 1993, he warned that restrictive laws had led to pregnant women taking trips to countries with liberal laws. Furthermore, he was convinced that, if the Parliament were to decide in favor of the law even though surveys indicated that the vast majority of the Polish society was against it, that this could lead to irreversible damage to the young Polish democracy.104 Jacek Kurczewski, a member of the centrist Liberal Democratic Congress (KLD, Kongres Liberalno-Demokratyczny), which was also a governing party at the time, offered a similar argument. In his statement during the debate, he did something very uncommon in this discourse at that time. He separated the medical procedure and the question of its permissibility from the moral considerations. On the one hand, i.e., morally, he declared that abortions were “bad” and that “nobody could doubt that life begins at the moment of the unification of the male and female cell.” However, he favored settling the question of whether or not someone should be penalized for performing an abortion by referendum. 105

But he did not prevail. Instead, the majority of the Sejm voted in favor of the new restrictive law, which was commonly called a “compromise,” because it restricted the availability of abortions but it did not ban them in general. But a closer look at the wording opens up another perspective: officially entitled Law on Family Planning, the Protection of the Fetus, and the Circumstances of the Permissibility of the Termination of Pregnancies, its wording highlights the enforcement of the Catholic pro-life-discourse of earlier decades. The law refers to its subject almost entirely as the “conceived child.” The term “fetus” is only used once in the text (apart from when it occurs in the title), in the passage concerning abortions because of embryo-pathologic reasons. This passage was deemed unconstitutional by the Constitutional Tribunal on October 22, 2020.


The so-called “compromise” of 1993 can be interpreted as a short “truce” in a long-term conflict which can be called (borrowing a metaphor from international relations) a “frozen conflict.”106 This means that the (in this case ideological, moral, and juridical) conflict has not been solved and is smoldering and can therefore flare up at any given moment. That happened after 1993 on several occasions. On the one hand, the first left-wing government attempted to liberalize the law between 1993 and 1997. They did not succeed, because the draft bills were first vetoed by Lech Wałęsa, who was serving as State President at the time, and then ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Tribunal.107 On the other hand, right-wing parties and NGOs tried to enforce a complete ban on abortions and the introduction of the obligation to “protect unborn life” into the constitution,108 similarly to the Republic of Ireland, where such a passage was introduced in 1983.109 Until 2020, none of them succeeded in Poland. But the verdict of the Constitutional Tribunal had a major impact and generated a new dynamic which is observable in the current mass protests.

If one looks back at the decision of 1993, two things might be kept in mind. First, it was the unity of the “Christian” parties (despite their quarrels) that led to the introduction of the restrictive law. As I mentioned, the two right-wing governmental coalitions lasted for only 23 months. But they were successful in transforming their (and their allies’) political aims into reality. This is most obvious in the law on the termination of pregnancies and its wording, which resembles the “Catholic” pro-life-discourse more than it does the discourse of a “compromise.” But this includes not only the legislation on abortion, but also the introduction of religious education in schools (via Ministerial decree, without the parliament’s approval) and the signing of a concordat with the Holy See. These were highly controversial steps which indicate that these political struggles go deeper: they can be interpreted as cleavages concerning the essential nature of the Polish state after 1990. In the aftermath of the 1993 decision, the supporters of liberalization (the SLD was the most active) depended on their partners in the governmental coalition. It was therefore difficult to reintroduce a liberal version of the law, especially since, when one such new law was approved by the Sejm, it was vetoed, either by Wałęsa or by the Constitutional Tribunal.

The second intriguing observation is that the discourse, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, was mainly (or better, observably) shaped by (“Christian”) politicians and publicists. Priests also had an influence on the discourse during sermons “in defense of the unborn,” in pastoral letters, or in the interviews they gave. Even in the later years of the Third Republic, the influence of the Church and its representatives had to be taken into considered, e.g., on the eve of Poland’s entry into the European Union.110 The Episcopate looked skeptically at the processes prior to entry and perceived the EU as “godless” and “not compatible” with “Polish Christian values,” especially on the questions of abortion and marriage.111 Therefore, the then left-wing government had to soothe the Church’s mistrust to avoid imperiling Poland’s entry into the EU.112 Since then, the question returns intermittently.

Quo vadis, Polonia? Whither goest thou, Poland? It is difficult to foresee what the next stage in this ongoing, at the moment “unfrozen” conflict will be.

Archival Sources

Archiwum Akt Nowych w Warszawie [Archive of Modern Records in Warsaw] (AAN)

Ogólnopolskie Biuro Komitetu Frontu Jedności Narodowej [All-Polish Bureau of the Committee of the Front of National Unity] (BOK FJN)

Komitet Centralny Polskiej Zjednoczonej Partii Robotniczej [Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party] (KC PZPR)

Centralny Urząd Planowania [Central Planning Office] (CUP)

Porozumienie Centrum [Centre Alliance] (PC)

Chrześcijańsko-Demokratyczne Stronnictwo Pracy [Christian Democratic Labour Party] (ChDSP)

Zjednoczenie Chrześcijańsko-Narodowe [Christian National Union] (ZChN)

Klub Intelligencji Katolickiej [Clubs of Catholic Intelligentsia] (KIK)

Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej, Rada Krajowa [Democratic Left Alliance, National Council] (SLD RK)

Unia Demokratyczna [Democratic Union] (UD)

Ministerstwo Zdrowia i Opieki Społecznej [Ministry for Health and Social Warfare] (MZiOS)

Urząd do spraw Wyznań [Office for Confessional Issues] (UdsW)

Polskie Forum Chrześcijańsko-Demokratyczne [Polish Forum of Christian Democracy] (PFChD)

Polska Partia Socjalistyczna [Polish Socialist Party] (PPS)

Socjaldemokracja Rzeczypospolitej Polski [Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland] (SdRP)


Chwalba, Andrzej. Kurze Geschichte der Dritten Republik Polen 1989 bis 2005. Wiesbaden: Hassarowitz, 2010.

Czajkowska, Aleksandra. “O dopuszczalności przerywania ciąży: Ustawa z dnia 27 kwietnia 1956 r. i towarzyszące jej dyskusje” [About the permissibility of termination of pregnancies: the Law from April 27 1956 and the discussions surrounding it]. In Kłopoty z seksem w PRL.: Rodzenie nie całkiem po ludzku, aborcja, choroby, odmienności, edited by Piotr Barański, 99–186. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 2012.

Earner-Byrne, Lindsey, and Diane Urquhart. The Irish Abortion Journey, 1920–2018. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2019. doi: 10.3224/gender.v12i2.13.

Fidelis, Malgorzata. “A Nation’s Strength Lies Not in Numbers.”’ De-Stalinisation, Pronatalism, and the Law of Abortion of 1956 in Poland.” In Geschlechterbeziehungen in Ostmitteleuropa nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg: Soziale Praxis und Konstruktion von Geschlechterbildern. Vorträge der Tagung des Collegium Carolinum in Bad Wiessee vom 17. Bis 20. November 2005, edited by Claudia Kraft, 203–25. Munich: Oldenbourg, 2008.

Fidelis, Malgorzata. Women, Communism, and Industrialization in Postwar Poland. New York–Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. doi: 10.2307/23354996.

Harris, Alana, ed. The Schism of ’68: Catholicism, Contraception and ‘Humanae Vitae’ in Europe, 1945–1975. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018.

Ignaciuk, Agata. “Abortion Debate in Poland and Its Representation in Press.” MA thesis, University of Łódź, 2007.

Ignaciuk, Agata. “In Sickness and in Health. Expert discussions on abortion indications, risks and patient-doctor relationships in post-war Poland” (Pre-print). Bulletin of the History of Medicine (2021).

Ignaciuk, Agata. “No Man’s Land? Gendering Contraception in Family Planning Advice Literature in State-Socialist Poland (1950s–1980s).” Social History of Medicine 33, no. 4 (2020): 1327–49. doi: 10.1093/shm/hkz007.

Ignaciuk, Agata. “Paradox of the Pill: Oral Contraceptives in Spain and Poland (1960s–1970s).” In Children by choice?, edited by Ann-Katrin Gembries, Theresa Theuke, and Isabel Heinemann, 123–43. Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2018. doi: 10.1515/9783110524499-006.

Ignaciuk, Agata. “Proven and the ZETs. Conceiving contraception in state-socialist Poland, c. 1957–1970” (Pre-print). Technology and Culture (2021).

Ignaciuk, Agata. “Reproductive Policies and Women’s Birth Control: Practices in State-Socialist Poland (1960s–1980s).” In “Wenn die Chemie stimmt ...” Geschlechterbeziehungen und Geburtenkontrolle im Zeitalter der “Pille,” edited by Lutz Niethammer, and Silke Satjukow, 305–28. Göttingen: Wallstein, 2016.

Ignaciuk, Agata. “ ‘Ten szkodliwy zabieg’: Dyskursy na temat aborcji w publikacjach Towarzystwa Świadomego Macierzyństwa/ Towarzystwa Planowania Rodziny (1956–1980)” [“This harmful procedure”: Discussions about abortion in the periodicals of the Society for Conscious Motherhood/Society for Family Planning]. Zeszyty Etnologii Wrocławskiej 20, no. 1 (2014): 75–97.

Ignaciuk, Agata. “The Introduction and Circulation of the Contraceptive Pill in State-Socialist Poland (1960s–1970s).” Medicina nei Secoli-Arte e Scienza, no. 2 (2014): 509–36.

Jarska, Natalia, and Agata Ignaciuk. “Marriage, gender and demographic change: managing fertility in state-socialist Poland.” (Pre-print). Slavic Review (2021).

Klich-Kluczewska, Barbara. “Biopolitics and (Non-)Modernity: Population Micro-Policy, Expert Knowledge and Family in Late-Communist Poland.” Acta Poloniae Historica, no. 115 (2017): 151–74.

Klich-Kluczewska, Barbara. “Making Up for the Losses of War: Reproduction Politics in Post-War Poland.” In Women and Men at War: a gender perspective on World War II and its aftermath in Central and Eastern Europe, edited by Maren Röger, and Ruth Leiserowitz, 307–28. Osnabrück: Fibre, 2012.

Kościańska, Agnieszka. “Humanae Vitae, Birth Control and the Forgotten History of the Catholic Church in Poland.” In The Schism of ’68: Catholicism, Contraception and ‘Humanae Vitae’ in Europe, 1945–1975, edited by Alana Harris, 187–208. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-70811-9_8.

Kosek, Mirosław. “Troska o małżeństwo i rodzinę w memoriałach Episkopatu Polski do Rządu w latach 1970–1978” [The care for marriage and family in the aides-memoir of the Polish episcopate addressed at the government in the 1970s]. Studia Płockie 38 (2010): 259–69.

Kulczycki, Andrzej. “Abortion Policy in Postcommunist Europe: The Conflict in Poland.” Population and Development Review 21, no. 3 (1995): 471–505.

Leszczyńska, Katarzyna. Imprimatur dla Unii? Kościół rzymskokatolicki w Polsce i Czechach wobec Europy i procesów zjednoczeniowych [Imprimatur for the Union? The Catholic Church in Poland and in Czechia regarding Europe and the unification process]. Kraków: Nomos, 2002.

Lisner, Wiebke. “Hebammen im ‘Reichsgau Wartheland’ 1939–1945: Geburtshilfe im Spannungsfeld von Germanisierung, Biopolitik und individueller biographischer Umbruchssituation.” In Zwischen Geschlecht und Nation: Interdependenzen und Interaktionen in der multiethnischen Gesellschaft Polens im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert, edited by Matthias Barelkowski, Claudia Kraft, and Isabel Röskau-Rydel, 237–63. Osnabrück: Fibre, 2016.

Lynch, Dov. “Frozen Conflicts.” The World Today no. 8–9 (2001): 36–38.

Ramet, Sabrina P. The Catholic Church in Polish History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2017.

Staśkiewicz, Joanna. Katholische Frauenbewegung in Polen? Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2018.

Van Meurs, Wim. “Eingefrorene Konflikte: Wie weiter mit den Quasistaaten?” Osteuropa 57, no. 11 (2007): 111–20.

Zok, Michael. “Körperpolitik, (staatstragender) Katholizismus und (De-)Säkularisierung im 20. Jahrhundert. Auseinandersetzungen um Reproduktionsrechte in Irland und Polen.” Body Politics 7, no. 11 (2019): 123–58.

Zok, Michael. “Wider der ‘angeborenen und nationalen Mission der Frau’? Gesellschaftliche Auseinandersetzungen um Abtreibungen in Polen seit der Entstalinisierung.” Zeitschrift für Ostmitteleuropa-Forschung 68, no. 2 (2019): 249–78.

1 Fidelis, Women, Communism; Ignaciuk, “Reproductive Policies “; Klich-Kluczewska, “Making Up”; idem, “Przypadek Marii.”

2 Ignaciuk, “Introduction”; idem, “In Sickness.”

3 Ignaciuk, “Proven.”

4 Ignaciuk, “Ten szkodliwy zabieg”; Jarska / Ignaciuk, “Marriage, gender.”

5 Ignaciuk, “In sickness.”

6 Czajkowska, “O dopuszczalności.”

7 AAN, UdsW, 1587/127/271, passim.

8 AAN, KIK, 2212/402, n.p. AAN, UdsW, 1587/125/120, f. 43.

9 Such a project is being prepared by Agata Ignaciuk. See Ignaciuk, “No Man’s Land?”

10 Ignaciuk, “In sickness.”

11 According to the Governmental Population Commission, abortions in private clinics hovered in the 1980s between 12,000 and 13,000 per year. See: AAN, CUP, 1779/0/2/2, Tab. 17.

12 Ignaciuk, “Abortion Debate,” 36.

13 Lisner, “Hebammen.”

14 Fidelis, “A Nation’s Strength.”

15 Fidelis, Women, Communism, 192.

16 Czajkowska, “O dopuszczalności,” 137–49.

17 Ibid., 161.

18 Ibid., 162–66.

19 AAN, KC PZPR, 237/XIV-198, f. 36–38.

20 AAN, KC PZPR, 237/XIV-372 [B56687], f. 33–34.

21 Zok, “Körperpolitik.”

22 AAN, KC PZPR, 237/VIII-614, f. 80.

23 Klich-Kulczewska, “Biopolitics,” 151–52.

24 AAN, KC PZPR, 1354/XL-35, n.p.

25 AAN, KC PZPR, 1354/XL-94, n.p.

26 AAN, MS, 285/0/11/1, f. 179.

27 AAN, MS, 285/0/11/16, f. 153.

28 AAN, MS, 285/0/11/20, f. 47.

29 AAN, UdsW, 1587/125/120, f. 55.

30 AAN, MS, 285/0/11/20, Bl. 47.

31 AAN, KC PZPR, 1354/XL-141, f. 19.

32 AAN, KC PZPR, 1354/XI-970, f. 56.

33 AAN, BOK FJN, 183/0/960, n.p

34 AAN, KC PZPR, 1354/XL-94, n.p.

35 AAN, UdsW, 1587/125/119: AAN, UdsW, 1587/125/120; Kosek, “Troska.”

36 AAN, UdsW, 1587/125/120, f. 46.

37 Ignaciuk, “Paradox”; Ignaciuk, “Introduction.”

38 AAN, UdsW, 1587/125/120, f. 53.

39 AAN, UdsW, 1587/125/120, f. 43.

40 AAN, KC PZPR, 1354/XL-98, n.p.; cf. Ignaciuk, “In Sickness,” fig. 1.

41 AAN, UdsW, 1587/125/119, f. 12–13.

42 AAN, UdsW, 1587/125/119, f. 1–3, 6–7.

43 AAN, UdsW, 1587/125/120, f. 25.

44 AAN, UdsW, 1587/125/119, f. 37.

45 AAN, UdsW, 1587/125/119, f. 28–30.

46 AAN, UdsW, 1587/125/119, f. 34.

47 Zok, “Wider der “angeborenen und nationalen Mission.”

48 AAN, KC PZPR, 1354/XL-94, n.p.

49 AAN, KC PZPR, 1354/XL-138, n.p.

50 Jarska and Ignaciuk, “Marriage, gender,” 22–4.

51 AAN, UdsW, 1587/127/271, passim.

52 AAN, KIK, 2212/58, n.p.

53 AAN, KIK, 2212/403, n.p.

54 Cf. Zok, “Körperpolitik.”

55 AAN, KC PZPR, 1354/XL-94, n.p.

56 AAN, KC PZPR, 237/XIV-372 [B56687], f. 34.

57 AAN, KC PZPR, 1354/XI-970, f. 122.

58 AAN, KC PZPR, 1354/XL-98, n.p.

59 AAN, KC PZPR, 1354/LVIII-759, n.p.

60 AAN, KC PZPR, 1354/I-187, f. 22.

61 AAN, BOK FJN, 183/0/978, n.p.

62 Harris, Schism; regarding the encyclical’s impact on Poland, see: Kościańska, “Humanae Vitae.”

63 AAN, KIK, 2212/398, n.p.

64 AAN, KIK, 2212/386, n.p.

65 AAN, KIK, 2212/386, n.p.

66 AAN, KIK, 2212/386, n.p.

67 AAN, KIK, 2212/403, n.p.

68 AAN, KIK, 2212/333, f. 73.

69 AAN, MZiOS, 1939/20/27, f. 1.

70 Ignaciuk, “Ten szkodliwy zabieg,” 83.

71 AAN, KIK, 2212/333, f. 66–69.

72 AAN, KIK, 2212/333, f. 66–69.

73 AAN, KIK, 2212/11, n.p.

74 AAN, KC PZPR, 1354/LII-56, n.p.

75 For a short analysis of the Church’s role during the debate on abortion in the early 1990s, see: Ramet, Catholic Church, 202–5.

76 AAN, KIK, 2212/11, n.p.

77 Kulczycki, “Abortion Policy,” 483.

78 AAN, UdsW, 1587/125/120, f. 53.

79 Staśkiewicz, Katholische Frauenbewegung, 110–1.

80 Kulczycki, “Abortion Policy,” 474.

81 AAN, MZiOS, 1939/19/171, f. 15–17.

82 Chwalba, Kurze Geschichte, 33.

83 Suchocka’s coalition consisted of the three parties which remained in the coalition: the ZChN and the two minor rural parties, while the Polish Christian Democrats (PChD) and the centrist parties Democratic Union (Unia Demokratyczna; UD), the Liberaldemocratic Congress (Kongres Liberalno-Demokratyczny; KLD), and the Polish Party of Beer Lovers (Polska Partia Pryzjaciół Piwa) joined the government.

84 Chwalba, Kurze Geschichte, 38.

85 Christian Democratic Labor Party (Chrzescijańsko-Demokratyczne Stronnictwo Pracy), AAN, ChDSP, 1807/1, f. 10; Polish Forum of Christian Democracy (Polskie Forum Chrześcijańsko-Demokratyczne), AAN, PFChD, 2093/2, f. 62; Centre Alliance (Porozumienie Centrum), AAN, PC, 2764/13, n.p.

86 AAN, ChDSP, 1807/261, n.p.

87 AAN, UD, 2956/11, n.p.

88 AAN, ChDSP, 1807/293, n.p.

89 AAN, PPS, 1969/14, n.p.

90 AAN, PPS, 1969/5, n.p.

91 AAN, SdRP, 1994/3/98, f. 104.

92 AAN, SdRP, 1994/3/98, f. 63.

93 AAN, SdRP, 1994/3/98, f. 297.

94 AAN, SdRP, 1994/15/129, n.p. (f. 4v), f. 8.

95 AAN, SdRP, 1994/3/98, f. 63.

96 Ramet, Catholic Church, 203; AAN, KIK, 2212/11, n.p.

97 AAN, KIK, 2212/39, n.p.

98 AAN, ZChN, 2410/6, f. 462.

99 AAN, KIK, 2212/333, f. 66.

100 AAN, ZChN, 2410/6, f. 82–83, 86.

101 AAN, ZChN, 2410/6, f. 46–47, 50.

102 AAN, ZChN, 2410/6, f. 58.

103 AAN, ZChN, 2410/6, f. 64.

104 AAN, ZChN, 2410/6, f. 68–70.

105 AAN, ZChN, 2410/6, f. 73–74, 76.

106 For an overview of “frozen conflicts,” see van Meurs, “Eingefrorene Konflikte”; Lynch, “Frozen Conflicts.”

107 Zok, “Wider der “angeborenen und nationalen Mission,” 276.

108 Ignaciuk, “Abortion Debate,” 8, 50–1.

109 Cf. Earner-Byrne and Urquhart, Abortion Jouney, 73–82.

110 Ignaciuk, “Abortion Debate,” 47–48.

111 Leszczyńska, Imprimatur.

112 Ignaciuk, “Abortion Debate,” 47–48.


From Business to Central Planning: Cooperatives in Czechoslovakia in 1918–1938 and 1948–1960*

Jan Slavíček
Institute of History of the Czech Academy of Sciences
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Hungarian Historical Review Volume 10 Issue 3  (2021):423-443 DOI 10.38145/2021.3.423

The paper focuses on cooperatives—seen as business enterprises—in the First Czechoslovak Republic (1918–1938) and the period of 12 years after the communist putsch (1948–1960). It compares the functions of cooperatives, the limits placed on their (semi-)independent business activities, and their chances to decide for themselves in the market economy and the centrally planned economy. Drawing on the methods of business history and economic history, the study seeks to answer the following questions: 1. Were the cooperatives in the First Czechoslovak Republic really fully independent companies running their business on a free market? 2. Were the cooperatives in the Stalinist and early post-Stalinist Czechoslovakia really subordinated subjects in a centrally planned economy? 3. Are there any real connections in the functioning of cooperatives in these two eras? In other words, is it possible that something of the independent cooperatives survived and that the traditional interpretations (according to which the two eras were completely different and even contradictory) can be seen in new and more accurate ways?

Keywords: Business history, centrally planned economy, cooperatives, Czechoslovakia, economic history, free market economy, 1918–1938, 1948–1960

Cooperatives were very important economic subjects both in interwar and postwar Czechoslovakia. Their origins go back to the second half of the nineteenth century. Cooperatives played important cultural and national roles in the modernization of society, but they were not major factors in economic development or growth in the less developed regions of East-Central European countries after the 1860s.1 In contrast, in Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia cooperatives were key players in economic development and in the process of economic modernization. In the interwar period, the cooperative network was widespread both in cities and in smaller towns and rural settlements. The membership base reached several million, and cooperatives had enormous assets. Nobody really questioned the fact that cooperatives were an important component of the Czechoslovak economy.

After World War II, the economy of Czechoslovakia was of a mixed type. It was a strongly regulated market economy in which the state authorities interfered and which had a huge share of state-owned enterprises (especially the industrial ones). The cooperatives experienced a big revival in 1945–1948, successfully finding their position in the new era. The communist coup d’état in February 1948, however, created an entirely new situation. With the centrally planned economy on the rise, the roles of the cooperatives as businesses and enterprises were significantly reduced or absolutely eliminated. Nevertheless, even in 1948–1960, the cooperatives played important roles in the Czechoslovak economy and Czechoslovak society.

According to the traditional, “classic” interpretations of the history of cooperatives (which are only rarely found in the secondary literature, as almost no serious scholarly inquiries were done about cooperatives after 1989), the cooperatives were independent enterprises which functioned in a free market without any major state or political interferences during the First Czechoslovak Republic (1918–1938). On the other hand, the period of the centrally planned economy (since 1948) has been seen as an era of absolute state dominance over the economy, in which nothing remained of the autonomy of cooperatives, which are seen as having been absolutely subordinate instruments of state economic policy. 2 I am certainly not going to question the fundamental systemic difference between the two eras. However, in this paper, I am going to ask whether this general view is entirely correct or whether one sees traces of some similarities or even continuities between these two eras. In other words, is it possible that something of the traditional, allegedly independent cooperatives survived in the Stalinist period (1948–1953) or in the early post-Stalinist period (1953–1960) in Czechoslovakia?

The choice of the two periods under comparison is based on a standard periodization of Czech economic and social history.3 In 1918–1938, the First Czechoslovak Republic established a liberal-democratic regime (seen as liberal-democratic from the perspective of the conditions of the interwar period) with a free-market economy. The Second Republic (1938–1939), following the shock of the Munich Agreement, was a very different political and economic system. The starting point of the second period is the communist coup d’état in February 1948. Although the drastic changes in cooperative policy didn’t start immediately (the newly established regime obviously had to deal with other, more important problems), the putsch in February opened the way to these changes. The second period ended in 1960, when a new constitution was adopted. It stated that the process of “establishing and building socialism” had been successfully completed.4 From the economic point of view, this statement was at least partially true, because the vast majority of property was in the hands or under the direct control of the state, and the economy was centrally planned.5

To answer the questions I have posed in this paper, I use traditional approaches of business and economic history. I compare the cooperative laws and principles, their organizational structure, and the forms of state control, regulation, and interference. I also use official statistical sources to analyze the important role of cooperatives in the economy. While these data have been available and published before, they have never been used to analyze the cooperative part of the Czechoslovak economy in this way.6

Cooperatives in the Market Economy of the First Czechoslovak Republic

In the First Czechoslovak Republic, the cooperatives continued to grow, much as they had in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s (depending in part on cooperative types, as the rapid development of credit cooperatives, for instance, started about 10 or 20 years before the growth of others). The rapid prewar growth resulted in a complex network with almost 12,000 cooperatives of various types.7

There is broad consensus according to which the First Czechoslovak Republic met the following two criteria: it was a liberal-democratic political regime (at least in the context of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s)8 and the economy was based on the principles of free market capitalism.9 Thus, the new state was a sort of “playground” not only for cooperatives but also for many other types of businesses. In this playground, the cooperatives built up strong positions, as the data presented below illustrate (Table 1).


Table 1. Cooperatives in Czechoslovakia in 193710




Assets (mil. Crowns)













Production (Workers)




Sales and Purchasing (Traders)








Non-credit total








District credit 10 **









* For Slovak cooperatives deposits instead of assets (which are not available11)

** In 1936

Sources: Statistická ročenka Republiky Československé 1948, XV, 159–60, 199; Statistisches Jahrbuch der ČSR 1938, vol. 5, 186–87; Zprávy Státního úřadu statistického 1937, vol. 18, 221–24, 1104–5, 1166–67; Zprávy Státního úřadu statistického 1940, vol. 21, 32, 261, 507.

As Table 1 shows, the cooperatives were very important for the Czechoslovak economy. There were 15,446 cooperatives which had more than 4.5 million members. However, the number seems to be much higher because of two factors: usually, only one family member was an owner of a share in a cooperative and many people were members of more than one cooperative (e.g. a farmer might be a member of a credit cooperative and an agricultural cooperative, or a worker might be a member of a housing cooperative and a consumer cooperative). Assuming that the average family had approximately five members and that every person was a member of two cooperatives, we can estimate the real number of all “customers” or “users” of cooperatives to approximately 11.5 million people, which was more than 80 percent of Czechoslovakia’s population (14,428,715).12 The assets controlled by cooperatives, which came to more than 35 billion crowns, were about 48.7 percent (!) of Czechoslovakia’s GDP in 1937.13

The legislation passed by the First Republic respected the business and operational independence of cooperatives. It was based on the cooperative law of 1873, which at the time it was passed was outstanding and which remained effective until 1954. The founding of cooperatives was quite simple. The statutes had to be made and the cooperative had to be registered. The cooperative had to report all changes in statutes and all new people on the board of directors, which was elected by the general assembly, where all members could participate (directly or indirectly through delegates), vote, and be elected. The principle of voting was interpreted differently. In some cases, each member had one vote (generally in consumer cooperatives), while in others, the number of votes depended on the individual’s number of shares (generally in other cooperatives). Issues of liability were different for members and for the leadership. Members had liability with all the property (cooperatives with unlimited liability) or with the sum, which was a multiple of the member’s cooperative share. The sum was defined by statutes, and it was at least the same as the share. That meant that a minimum member’s liability was the share plus the same sum. On the other hand, the board of directors always had liability with all their property.14

The cooperative law of 1873 did not regulate the business activities, property, or distribution of profits among members. These matters were subject to the decisions reached independently by each cooperative. In the subsequent decades, only one important regulation was added. The law of 1903 forced the cooperatives to submit to a financial examination every two years. The examination (called “revision”) was done by state inspectors or by the cooperative union (see below).15

From the point of view of the state, cooperatives were seen as useful businesses which helped raise the standard of living of members of the lower social classes. Therefore, the cooperatives were subject to different taxes. While other companies generally paid 8 percent income tax, cooperatives paid only 2 per thousand tax on authorized capital yearly, which was an immensely low or, rather, de facto negligible amount. However, this tax rate applied only to cooperatives that restricted their business activities to members only.16 In other words, the taxes were low if the cooperatives worked as self-help companies which provided services to their members. However, if they acted as open business enterprises and provided services for everybody, they had to pay the same taxes as regular trade companies.

This created a lot of space for clashes between cooperatives and other types of companies. As one would have anticipated, the cooperatives frequently violated this regulation and provided their services to non-members. Their business competitors often made complaints on this matter, and the Czechoslovak authorities then had to deal with these complaints. The cooperatives, however, offered a simple defense in response to these accusations. They contended that the non-members for whom they had provided services were related by familial ties to members of the cooperatives and that the rules thus had not been violated. If this argument did not work, they claimed the problem was merely a mistake which had been made by particular employees (or cooperative officials). The authorities usually accepted this defense and fined the employees, and the cooperatives then compensated the employees for the fines. Obviously, this did not solve the problem. However, it was almost impossible to prove that any particular case was the result of the deliberate action of a cooperative. Generally, the cooperatives had an advantage in such cases. Often, however, the cooperatives and other business companies had good relations and collaborated. For example, in the process of market syndicalization in the 1920s and 1930s, the cooperatives made deals with other businesses to divide the markets.17

The organizational structures of the cooperatives were very complicated and hardly transparent in the First Republic. As early as the 1890s, the cooperatives had founded central cooperative unions to represent and advance their interests. Various unions existed even before 1918, and their numbers increased in the interwar era. Four important factors divided the cooperative movement:

Some cooperatives were organized on a professional basis, e.g., the cooperative of Živnostenská banka’s (the biggest bank in Czechoslovakia) employees. Such cooperatives usually joined apolitical cooperative unions.

In the multinational state of Czechoslovakia, the national cleavage was important in most advocacy (pressure) groups, including labor unions, as well as in the cooperative movement. Czech, Slovak, German, Hungarian, Polish, and Ruthenian cooperatives therefore joined particular unions defined by the nationality (language) of their members.

Some cooperative unions consisted of only particular types of cooperatives. As a result, there were exclusive cooperative unions, e.g., for traders’ cooperatives.

Finally, the cooperative unions were often components of a bigger framework of pressure groups led by political parties. Every important political party organized one or more cooperative union. This was typical for Czech, Slovak, and German cooperatives. In contrast, smaller national groups in Czechoslovakia did not split their strength and organized their cooperatives almost exclusively on the national principle.

There was a total of 85 (!) cooperative unions in Czechoslovakia in 1935 as a result of this diversity.18 The most important were the party-oriented ones. Of the 16,832 cooperatives, 13,399 (approximately 80 percent) were members of only eight of the biggest party-oriented unions (of the Czech and German social-democratic, Czech national-socialist, and Czech and German agrarian parties).19 We can assume that other party-oriented unions had a very significant share of the other cooperatives as members.20

The influence the political parties exerted over cooperatives was therefore quite extensive. However, there is no hint in the archival sources or in the secondary literature so far indicating that the cooperatives were submitted to any significant influence by the political parties in an entrepreneurial way. Their business strategies remained independent.21 However, the political parties often appointed their officials to leadership positions of big cooperatives or cooperative unions (these officials had to be elected by general meetings, which was not a problem because of the connections between the cooperative/union and the party). Among the members of the union leadership bodies (boards of directors or control boards), we often find senators, members of parliament, or even ministers, as well as important individuals with considerable public influence. Moreover, sometimes even the lower posts in cooperatives and unions were given to people who were close to the party’s leadership (their relatives or friends).22 These people were “rewarded” by the party through “good jobs” in cooperatives (much as the party’s VIPs were “rewarded” by being given posts on the board of directors in companies or high official posts in public administration). Indeed, giving (and taking) such “sinecures” was believed to be “normal” practice (or at least usual practice) in the First Republic.

There was, however, one more way for political parties to influence and even directly use the cooperatives. The cooperatives sometimes provided organizational and even financial support for a party’s (or its satellite organizations’) events. Once again, the research on this topic began only a year ago, but some particular findings have already been made. For example, the consumer cooperative Včela (the biggest cooperative in interwar Czechoslovakia, running its business in Prague and Central Bohemia and, after 1929, under the direct influence of the Communist Party) provided the communist “mass” organizations (such as a labor union, a sports union, a youth union, etc.) with more than 700,000 crowns (approximately 0.5 percent of its yearly retail sales) in the single business year of 1931–1932 (i.e., in the middle of a deep economic crisis!).23 When the parties did not influence the cooperatives’ businesses directly, they were nonetheless able to hinder their profitability (and thus influence their business strategies) indirectly.

The free business activities of cooperatives were limited in one more way. The unions (most probably regardless of their political profile, i.e., the apolitical cooperatives included) were aware of the fact that the cooperative network was sometimes too dense and that cooperatives were fighting one another. The unions tried to regulate the cooperatives, forcing them either to merge or to respect one another’s areas. Thus, they created de facto cartels.24 While this was definitely useful for smaller and less effective cooperatives (which were then protected against competition), for the bigger and more effective cooperatives, it was a restriction. The syndicates were quite usual in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s.25 The cooperative market was no exception in this way. On the other hand, this was still more a regulation than it was a means of controlling the cooperatives, which remained fully independent enterprises in other ways.

Cooperatives in the Centrally Planned Economy of the Stalinist and the Post-Stalinist Czechoslovakia (1948–1960)

The communist coup d’état in February 1948 marked the beginning of the 41 years of communist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia. Drastic changes in the economy started almost immediately. The mixed economy of the Third Republic (1945–1948) was replaced with a centrally planned one after 1948. The period between 1948 and 1953 saw the introduction of the first five-year plan, during which the Czechoslovak economy was increasingly transforming into a Soviet model (with the closest match coming in 1953–1958, when the new planning system, inspired heavily by Soviets, was introduced, according to which the whole economy was seen as a single “super-company”).26 This meant the drastic restructuring of Czechoslovak economy and society. Heavy industry (especially machinery, including the arms industry) was highly prioritized, and the primary and tertiary sectors were suppressed or not addressed at all. The whole economy was “nationalized” or “socialized.” Owners were expropriated and were given no compensations (indeed, they were often criminalized). Society started to be seen from the point of view of hereditary class struggle.

In this new context, the “playground” for cooperatives in communist Cze­choslovakia in 1948–1960 had the following characteristics: 1. It was a totalitarian regime (although it got a little “softer” after 1953, especially regarding the intensity of terror as a practice used by the police state).27 2. The economy was of a Stalinist centrally-planned type. Despite the slight “liberalization” of the political regime after 1953, Stalinist central planning in the economy survived in its most rigid form until 1958.28 However, after the monetary reform and the subsequent riots and strikes in June 1953,29 the “New Course” in the economy was announced. The most violent practices were brought to a halt and emphasis shift to some extent from heavy industry to light industry (including consumer products). After 1955, with the start of the second five-year plan (1956–1960), the “New Course” was abandoned, and the new wave of heavy industry build-up began.30


Table 2. Cooperatives in Czechoslovakia in 1937 and 194631




























Production (Workers)





Sales and Purchasing (Traders)
















Sources: Zprávy Státního úřadu statistického 1940, XXI, 507; Statistická ročenka Republiky Československé 1948, XV, 159–60; Smrčka, Vývoj družstevnictví, 211.

If we want to analyze the quantitative development of cooperatives in 1948–1960, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider their situation in the Third Republic (1945–1948). While the cooperatives were more or less suppressed and restricted during the period of Nazi occupation (1939–1945), in the Third Republic, they experienced a new revival. Their typology was very similar to the typology of the cooperatives in the prewar era. The most important figures in 1937 and 1946 are in Table 2. While the other cooperative types remained approximately at the same numbers, the number of credit cooperatives dropped substantially. Taking into account the drastic decline in the Czechoslovak population in 1939–1945 (ca 20 percent),32 the situation seems reversed: in the relative numbers, the strength of credit cooperatives was about the same, while the other types of cooperatives (as well as the whole cooperative movement) were significantly better off.

Inspired heavily by developments in the USSR in the 1930s and 1940s and sometimes under the strict influence of Soviet “advisors,”33 the roles of cooperatives had fundamentally changed during the few years after the communist putsch. Their traditional business, cultural, educational, and other roles were suppressed or even eliminated. The typology of cooperatives was reduced drastically. Credit cooperatives were “nationalized,” restricted in development and activities, and finally dissolved as part of the monetary reform of 1953. The broad variety of agricultural cooperatives was destroyed and only one type existed. The new collective farms (“United Agricultural Cooperative,” Jednotné zemědělské družstvo, JZD) focused on collective production and served as a crucial tool in the “collectivization” of businesses run by private farmers. Housing cooperatives survived, but they were submitted to strict state control, and any autonomous business activities were strictly forbidden. Consumer cooperatives seemed to grow, but this was an illusion created by the “socialization” of private traders and businesses. Their activities were fully controlled by the state. Production (workers) cooperatives were growing, due not only to the support of the state but also to the “socialization” of craftsmen. Sales and purchasing cooperatives were mostly dissolved, and those that remained were integrated into consumer or workers’ cooperatives. The same was the fate of the last group of “other” cooperatives.

As a result of these changes, generally, only four types of cooperatives existed in communist Czechoslovakia: collective farms, consumer, housing, and workers’ cooperatives. Based on the quantitative parameters only, the cooperative system seems to have remained relatively stable. The numbers of cooperatives and of their members in 1966 did not differ dramatically from the numbers in 1946 (Table 3).34 Moreover, if we take the dissolution of credit and traders’ cooperatives into account, the other types of cooperatives seemed to have been growing. However, this growth was mostly artificial and therefore illusory. Hundreds of thousands of people (or maybe millions) did not join the cooperatives voluntarily. They were more or less forced to join, either to avoid being persecuted or accused of a crime or to have a better chance of keeping the rest of their property. Some people were violently forced to join cooperatives during the “collectivization” of agriculture (the creation of collective farms) and “socialization” (a de facto expropriation) of small businesses.

However, recent research has revealed that a traditional paradigm according to which the cooperatives were helpless victims which were forced by the regime to participate in “socialization” of private property is not entirely accurate. At least in the case of consumer cooperatives, some of them were very active in this process, sometimes even more active than one would have expected.35 It is plausible that the situation in workers’ and housing cooperatives could have been similar. After all, the cooperatives were traditional competitors of private businesses, and as noted above, relations between the cooperative and private business ventures were often near to hostile. It is possible (and probable) that many members of cooperatives may have felt that the process of “nationalization” and the creation of a socialist society represented a “final” and well-deserved victory (the fact they were wrong and the cooperatives would not be able to function as independent businesses under the new regime is another matter).


Table 3. Cooperatives and their members in Czechoslovakia in 1946 and 1966


































Sources: Jelínek, 20 let JZD, 50; Archiv Muzea družstevnictví, Družstevní asociace ČR, Statistická ročenka Ústřední Rady Družstev, 1970.

The cooperative legislation was based on two laws. The first was the law about collective farms (JZDs) from 1949, which separated the agricultural cooperatives from other types for four decades. The most important goals of the JZDs were to contribute to the fulfillment of the central economic plan and to unite the lands of individual farmers.36 The law about “people’s cooperatives” from 1954 annulled the law from 1873 and created a new basis for cooperative activities. The goals of the cooperatives were now primarily to help build socialism and raise the living standards of the members of the cooperatives and all “working people.” Their activities were put under the strict control of the state, including the obligatory division of profits (not primarily among members).37 These two laws clearly show the communist perception of the functions of the cooperatives: They were not seen as businesses, but as tools in central planning and a new social and economic policy.

The organizational structure of the cooperative movement was extremely simplified during World War II, and only a few cooperative unions remained in operation.38 After the communist coup d’état in February 1948, these unions were dissolved, and all cooperatives were subordinated to the Central Cooperative Union (Ústřední rada družstev, ÚRD).39 In the subsequent years, the consumer cooperatives were forced to abandon cities (and sell products only in smaller towns and rural areas), and their organizational structure after 1956 followed the administrative division of the country (districts or okresy). This is why, by 1966, there were only 105 huge cooperatives. Similarly, the traditional small workers’ cooperatives were forced to fuse into conglomerates (although not district-based). In contrast, the collective farms originally created were often too small and therefore in many cases not sustainable. Bigger collective farms were founded, either by founding new farms or by merging several cooperatives into one, but only after 1955.40 This meant that the organizational structure was artificial, without any trace of a free development. In other words, the structure was crafted by the state/regime in the hopes that the new cooperatives would be able to fulfill their new roles.

It took the new regime some time to consolidate after 1948. Once it had done this, it started to reorganize the economy into a centrally planned one (as mentioned above). The room for independent or autonomous business activities of cooperatives was quickly shrinking. After 1950, there was generally no room left at all. The cooperatives became state-controlled instruments of the centrally planned economy. They could not plan even the simplest activities on their own. Moreover, they became part of a system of political indoctrination. In 1948–1953, almost all decisions were made on the basis of the state ideology. The “old” leaders were removed, and the new ones were installed into the cooperatives. The most important qualification of these new leaders was not expertise. It was membership in or loyalty to the Communist Party.41 The productivity and profits of cooperatives suffered a drastic setback, and the situation only began to improve since the 1960s.

There were several reasons for the destruction of cooperatives as independent enterprises. First, central planning was supposed to work better than the market economy (this proved an illusion, of course). Second, independent businesses were elements of the capitalist world, which the communist regime claimed to have “defeated.” Third, profit and effectiveness (fundamental for traditional business strategies) were no longer important economic factors. Instead, production was crucial. There was, however, at least one more reason that is often overlooked in the secondary literature. The reason was the practical application of the communist ideology. The cooperatives (as well as all other companies) were submitted to central planning not only in their activities. Importantly, the plan also expected them to be only marginally profitable. The regime did not want highly profitable companies, since according to communist ideology, profits would only have created a new “bourgeoisie,” i.e., a new class enemy.

Even in rare cases when the old leadership of a cooperative could have kept its position or the new leadership consisted of experts, this leadership quickly found itself struggling with the bureaucratic system of central planning, which was dominated by ideology. Despite their expertise and arguments, the leaders lost the disputes and had to comply. The best they could have achieved was to delay some of the decisions that were extremely disadvantageous for the cooperative (and this was possible only if the leaders were important members of the Communist Party and therefore had a strong “political background”).42

On the other hand, it is plausible that cooperative leaders were trying to find some new “quasi-business” strategies, for instance cooperating with other companies, to get better (“softer,” i.e. based on lower figures) plans for the cooperative, etc. This “quasi-market behavior” was quite common in industry, and some of the cooperatives may have used these kinds of schemes too. However, the secondary literature has not yet turned up any sources buttressing this assumption. To summarize, the cooperatives in the first decade of the communist regime were no longer independent businesses. On the contrary, they were de facto instruments of the state-controlled, centrally planned economy. Basically, they were no longer cooperatives. They had the legal form of cooperatives and were called so, but they had almost nothing common with traditional cooperatives. To the extent that there were exceptions, these were little more than oversights or individual gaps in the system.


In 1948–1960, the “playground” for cooperatives in Czechoslovakia was extremely different than it had been in 1918–1938. In the First Czechoslovak Republic, cooperatives were independent businesses which freely chose their business strategies. They experienced continual growth and their economic power was enormous. Their organizational structure was independent of the state and was therefore complex and even chaotic (over 80 cooperative unions existed in the 1930s). In contrast, after the communist coup d’état in February 1948, the cooperatives were not only subjugated by the state but became state-controlled instruments in a drastic restructuring of the economy and society. They were submitted to the centrally planned economy, which left no room for independent business activities.

The general description given above is no doubt valid in broad strokes. However, when seen from a closer view, the situation of cooperatives looks a little more diverse. First, the cooperatives in the First Czechoslovak Republic were under the strong influence of political parties, which sometimes forced them to support their activities (which created costs for cooperatives). Second, the cooperative unions tried to restrain the cooperatives’ areas, thus forcing them to establish some sorts of cartels (or better, syndicates). While this offered some protection for the weaker and less profitable cooperatives, the successful ones were limited in their activities (they could nevertheless always leave the union). And third, it is possible that even in the Stalinist era of 1948–1953 there was some very limited room for cooperatives, in which they could develop some sort of “quasi-market” business strategies of an informal character. However, there is no doubt that this room was very small, and trying to function in these “gaps in the system” was very risky. Further research will perhaps reveal the extent and limits of these activities.

One conclusion is undeniable: though there were some restrictions on cooperatives in the First Republic and there was also some (limited) room for autonomous actions by cooperatives after 1948, the economic and political systems in which they functioned in these two periods were qualitatively different. The cooperatives after 1948 were no longer free businesses. They were “socialist enterprises,” or in other words, tools of centrally planned production, trade, and agriculture, which were organized and controlled by the totalitarian state.


Archival Sources

Archiv Muzea družstevnictví [Archive of the Cooperative Museum]

Družstevní asociace ČR [Cooperative Association of the Czech Republic]

Statistická ročenka Ústřední Rady Družstev, 1970 [Statistical yearbook of the Central Cooperative Union, 1970]

Moravský zemský archiv v Brně [Moravian regional archives]

H 288: Ústřední jednota českých hospodářských družstev úvěrních Brno [Central Union of Czech Credit Cooperatives in Brno]

Korespondence svazu z let 1936–1937 [Business correspondence of
the Union], n.d.

Státní oblastní archiv v Praze (SoaPraze) [State Regional Archives in Prague]

Krajský soud obchodní [Regional Business Law Court], podnikový rejstřík [Business Register]

Družstvo hospodářských lihovarů pro prodej lihu v Praze [Cooperative of distilleries for the sale of alcohol in Prague]

Protokol zápisu z valné hromady Družstva hospodářských lihovarů [General meeting minutes of the cooperative of distilleries], 22. 6. 1931.

Družstvo Včela Praha [Cooperative Včela Praha]

Protokoly zápisů valných hromad družstva Včela, [General meetings minutes of the Cooperative Včela], 1918–1938.


Primary sources

Constitution of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. 2d edition. Prague: Orbis, 1961.

Družstva neúvěrní v Republice Československé v roce 1919 [Non-credit cooperatives in the Czechoslovak Republic in 1919]. Československá statistika. Ř. X, Družstva neúvěrní, Sv. 10, seš. 1. Prague: Státní úřad statistický, 1926.

“Gesetz Nr. 70/1873 über Erwerbs- Und Wirthschaftsgenossenschaften.” In Reichsgesetzblatt 1849–1918. https://alex.onb.ac.at/cgi-content/alex?apm=0&aid= rgb&datum=18730004&seite=00000273&size=45

“Gesetz Nr. 133/1903 betreffend Die Revision Der Erwerbs- Und Wirtschafts­genossenschaften Und Anderer Vereine.” In Reichsgesetzblatt 1849–1918. https://alex.onb.ac.at/cgi-content/alex?aid=rgb&datum=19030004&seite= 00000409

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Peněžní ústavy v Republice Československé roku 1920 [Financial institutions in the Czechoslovak Republic in 1920]. Československá Statistika. Řada IX, Peněžnictví, seš. 1. Prague: Státní úřad statistický, 1924.

Statistická ročenka Republiky Československé [Statistical yearbook of the Czechoslovak Republic]. Vol. 15. Prague: Státní úřad statistický, 1948.

Statistisches Jahrbuch Der Čechoslovakischen Republik. Vol. 5. Prague: Orbis, 1938.

“Vládní nařízení č. 242/1942 Sb. ze dne 3. července 1942 o svazech výdělkových a hospodářských společenstev” [Statutory instrument no. 242/1942 about cooperative unions]. Nové zákony a nařízení Protektorátu Čechy a Morava [New laws of the Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia], [vol.] 4. (1942): 1069–77.

“Zákon č. [Law no.] 53/1954 Sb. o lidových družstvech a o družstevních organizacích” [Law no. 53/1954 about peoples’ cooperatives and cooperative institutions]. Sbírka zákonů a nařízení republiky Československé [Czechoslovak Governent Gazette], [no.] 34, 1. 12. (1954): 203–12.

“Zákon č. 69/1949 Sb. o jednotných zemědělských družstvech” [Law no. 69/1949 about collective farms]. Sbírka zákonů a nařízení republiky Československé [Czechoslovak Governent Gazette], [Nr.] 22, 15. 3. (1949): 207–209.

“Zákon č. 76/1927 Sb. o přímých daních” [Law no. 76/1927 about direct taxes]. Sbírka zákonů a nařízení státu československého [Czechoslovak Governent Gazette], [no.] 37, 1. 7. (1927): 513–602.

“Zákon č. 187/1948 Sb. o Ústřední radě družstev” [Law no. 187/1948 about Central Cooperative Union]. Sbírka zákonů a nařízení republiky Československé [Czechoslovak Governent Gazette], [no.] 67, 3. 8. (1948): 1328–31.

Zprávy Státního úřadu statistického Protektorátu Čechy a Morava [Announcements of the Statistical Office of the Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia]. Vol. 21. Prague: Státní statistický úřad, 1940.

Zprávy Státního úřadu statistického Republiky Československé [Announcements of the Statistical Office of the Czechoslovak Republic]. Vol. 8. Prague: Státní úřad statistický, 1927.

Zprávy Státního úřadu statistického Republiky Československé [Announcements of the Statistical Office of the Czechoslovak Republic]. Vol. 18. Prague: Státní úřad statistický, 1937.


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“Existoval v českých zemích totalitarismus?” [Has the totalitarianism ever existed in the Bohemian lands?]. Soudobé Dějiny 16, no. 4 (2009).

Gecko, Tomáš. Nástroj prospěšný či vražedný? Proces monopolizace na trhu stavebních hmot Předlitavska a meziválečného Československa [A beneficial or a murderous instrument? The process of monopolization of the building materials market of the Cisleithania and the inter-war Czechoslovakia]. Prague: Univerzita Karlova, nakladatelství Karolinum, 2021.

Hůlka, Rudolf, ed. Třicet let české zemědělské družstevní práce [Thirty years of the Czech agrarian cooperative work]. Prague: Ústřední jednota hospodářských družstev a přičleněných kampeliček a družstev, 1928.

Janák, Dušan, and Zdeněk Jirásek. Sovětští poradci a ekonomický vývoj v ostravsko-karvinském revíru [Soviet advisors and the economic development in the region of Ostrava-Karviná]. Opava: Slezský ústav Slezského zemského muzea v Opavě, 1996.

Jančík, Drahomír, and Eduard Kubů. “Zwischen Planbefehl und Markt: Der Diskurs der Zweiten Tschechoslowakischen Wirtschaftsreform.” In Sozialistische Wirtschaftsreformen. Tschechoslowakei und DDR im Vergleich, edited by Christoph Boyer, 63–123. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 2006.

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Jirásek, Zdeněk. “K příchodu sovětských hospodářských poradců do Československa” [To the arrival of Soviet economic advisors into Czechoslovakia]. Acta historica et museologica Universitatis Silesianae Opaviensis, series C, 5 (2000): 324–28.

Jirásek, Zdeněk, and Jaroslav Šůla. Velká peněžní loupež v Československu 1953, aneb 50:1 [The big monetary robbery in Czechoslovakia in 1953–50:1]. Prague: Svítání, 1992.

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Škatula, Emanuel, ed. Dvacet let Ústředního svazu československých družstev: 1908–1928 [Twenty years of the Central Union of Czechoslovak Cooperatives: 1908–1928]. Prague: Ústř. svaz čsl. družstev, 1928.

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1* The study was realized as a part of the Czech Science Foundation’s grant [Grantová agentura České republiky] project Nr. 20-15238S “Družstevnictví a politika za první Československé republiky” [Cooperative movement and politics in the First Czechoslovak Republic].
Lorenz, Cooperatives in Ethnic Conflicts, 24.

2 Hůlka, Třicet let; Täuber, Dílo družstevní svépomoci; Němcová and Průcha, K dějinám družstevnictví; Němcová, The Cooperative Movement; Němcová, Vybrané kapitoly; Smrčka, Vývoj družstevnictví. I do not draw on the secondary literature from the communist era (1948–1989) here, because its ideological character makes it useless for my research goals.

3 E.g., Průcha, “Glosses.”

4 Constitution, 25, Declaration: “The social order for which whole generations of our workers and other working people fought, and which they have had before them as an example since the victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution, has become a reality in our country, too, under the leadership of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Socialism has triumphed in our country! We have entered a new stage in our history, and we are determined to go forward to new and still higher goals. While completing the socialist construction of our country, we are proceeding towards the construction of an advanced socialist society and gathering strength for the transition to communism.”

5 As the shortcomings of the strict centrally planned economy became more and more obvious in the 1950s, the first Czechoslovak economic reform (named after Kurt Rozsypal, the vice-director of the Central Planning Office) was started in 1958–1959. However, after the failure of the 3rd Five-Year Plan in 1961–1962, the economic system based on strict central planning was reestablished. For details, see e.g., Průcha, Hospodářské a sociální dějiny, vol. 2, 378–82.

6 I do not analyze the efficiency of particular types of cooperatives because this is not among the goals of this paper. Similarly, I do not compare the profitability of cooperative types, because different types had different members, goals, business strategies, etc. Finally, it would not, in my assessment, be useful to compare the profitability of efficiency criteria in the two eras under discussion, because the rules for cooperative work and the space for independent activities of cooperatives (which are the topic of this study) were drastically different.

7 There were 11,812 cooperatives in 1919/1920, of which 6,163 were credit cooperatives. The rest were non-credit cooperatives of the following types: consumer, housing, agricultural, and other. The agricultural cooperatives were furthermore very diverse in typology, providing specific services for the rural population. The most important were: 1. warehouse, wholesale, and purchase, 2. machinery, 3. electrification and powerplant, 4. cattle breeding and pasture, 5. processing and other cooperatives. For details see Peněžní ústavy 1920, 59, 79, 154–59, 167–68, 192; Družstva neúvěrní 1919, 3–219; Zprávy státního úřadu statistického 1927, vol. 8, 459.

8 Pánek and Tůma, A History, 395–434; Cabada and Waisová, Czechoslovakia, 26–43.

9 Průcha, Hospodářské a sociální dějiny, vol. 1; Kubů and Pátek, Mýtus a realita.

10 District credit cooperatives were a unique type that developed only in Bohemian Lands. They evolved from an ancient institution of the so-called Contribution funds. These were created by a law passed in 1788

11(but had voluntarily been created perhaps even as much as 100 years before that) in order for the country to be ready for a war or in case of a natural disaster. The peasants were obliged to store some amount of grain according to the law. If the grain was not used, it could be sold, and the financial gains were saved in the fund to be used as assistance for members (peasants, farmers) or as financial support in the state of emergency. In the nineteenth century, the funds were gradually transformed into district credit cooperatives (finally enshrined in law in 1882). They differed from other types a lot. First, they were subject to public law, and their capital stock belonged to municipalities instead of to members. Membership was bound to the particular estate. The goals of district cooperatives, as stipulated by the law, were to provide inexpensive credit, encourage people to keep savings, and help them obtain tools and sources necessary to run agricultural businesses. Since 1920s, the savings in district credit cooperatives were guaranteed (partially or fully) by district municipalities. Therefore, their business strategy was much more conservative than the business strategies of the other types of cooperatives (which were a lot more conservative than other financial institutions). They were very restricted in providing credit and accepting savings, for example, and they were the safest (but generally also the least profitable) financial institutions for the rural population. Basically, they were not cooperatives from their origins or by law, but they fulfilled many economic functions of credit cooperatives and had a similar manner of doing business. In accordance with the contemporary literature, we classify them as a part of the system of credit cooperatives. They were very strong, and they flourished in Bohemia, especially in districts in which the majority population was Czech (they were called District Saving Banks or “Okresní hospodářské záložny” there), while in Moravia and especially in Silesia they were much weaker and less important. See Okresní Záložny Hospodářské 1882–1932; Vencovský, Dějiny bankovnictví v českých zemích, 171; Peněžní ústavy 1920.
According to my research (which has not yet been published), the deposits and assets of credit cooperatives in interwar Czechoslovakia were almost the same (the difference was not bigger than 15 percent, and it was usually between 5 and 10 percent). The deposits of Slovak credit cooperatives in 1937 were 1,423 million crowns. That means that even if the difference between deposits and assets was 15 percent, the change of the total number would be very small, roughly 0.6 percent.

12 Historická statistická ročenka ČSSR, 62.

13 In 1937, the estimated GDP of Czechoslovakia was 72,2 bil. Crowns. See Kubů and Pátek, Mýtus a realita, 50.

14 “Gesetz Nr. 70/1873.”

15 “Gesetz Nr. 133/1903.”

16 “Zákon č. 76/1927 Sb.,” § 68, 75, 83.

17 SoaPraze, Krajský soud obchodní, podnikový rejstřík, Družstvo hospodářských lihovarů pro prodej lihu v Praze, Protokol zápisu z valné hromady Družstva hospodářských lihovarů, 22. 6. 1931. The deal from 1928 between cooperative and non-cooperative distilleries divided the market in a ratio of approximately 46:54. In 1931, the ratio changed to about 53:47. Moreover, both sides declared that even in the case of state intervention, they promised each other internally to respect this ratio.

18 Zprávy Státního úřadu statistického 1937, vol. 18, 785.

19 Zprávy Státního úřadu statistického 1937, vol. 18, 515, 786–89.

20 The structure of cooperative unions changed very often. They were merging and splitting, and their names were not stable. On the basis of the existing secondary literature, it is not possible to identify all the unions which cooperated with political parties. This subject is the focus of a scientific project currently underway.

21 Even in the case of the communist cooperative Včela the Communist party did not directly interfere in its economy and business strategy. See SoaPraze, Krajský soud obchodní, podnikový rejstřík, Družstvo Včela , Protokoly zápisů valných hromad Družstva Včela.

22 For example, in the archival fund of the cooperative union “Ústřední jednota českých hospodářských družstev úvěrních Brno” [Central Union of the Czech credit and agricultural cooperatives in Brno] one finds various letters by important officials of the People’s Party (to which this union was tied) asking for assistance finding jobs for their relatives or VIPs. Moravský zemský archiv v Brně, H 288 Korespondence svazu z let 1936–1937.

23 Slavíček, Spotřební družstvo Včela, 110.

24 For the rules of cartelization in consumer cooperatives and its possible impacts compare Škatula, Dvacet let, 93; Slavíček, Spotřební družstvo Včela, 93–94.

25 Průcha, Hospodářské a sociální dějiny, vol. 1, 277–85; For syndicalization in partial sectors of the economy see e.g., Minařík, V národních barvách, 294–97, a recent publication by Tomáš Gecko, Nástroj prospěšný, či vražedný?

26 Průcha, Hospodářské a sociální dějiny, vol. 1, 378.

27 There is no agreement in the Czech secondary literature concerning the paradigm of totalitarianism. However, most authors (excluding those who reject this paradigm categorically) agree that at least until the 1960s, the Czechoslovak regime was of a totalitarian type. See e.g., the monothematic issue of Soudobé Dějiny (Czech Journal ofContemporary History): “Existoval v českých zemích totalitarismus?”

28 Průcha, Hospodářské a sociální dějiny, vol. 2, 378.

29 Jirásek and Šůla, Velká peněžní loupež.

30 Průcha, “Glosses,” 70.

31 Without district credit cooperatives, therefore the numbers differ from Table 1.

32 According to the official estimations, the population of Czechoslovakia reached 15,186,944 in 1935 and 12,164,661 in 1946. The reasons for the decline were obviously the losses in the war and the loss of the territory of Ruthenia, though the most significant cause for this drop in population was the forced displacement of German (and some of the Hungarian) population after the war. Statistisches Jahrbuch der ČSR 1938, V, 21; Statistická ročenka Republiky Československé 1948, XV, 19.

33 The influence of (outdated) Soviet models can be demonstrated clearly for consumer cooperatives or collective farms in 1950s. The roles of Soviet advisors were analyzed in the 1990s in the secondary literature. See Slavíček, Ze světa, 69–72; Swain, “Eastern European Collectivization Campaigns Compared, 1945–1962”; Kaplan, Sovětští poradci v Československu 1949–1956; Janák and Jirásek, Sovětští poradci a ekonomický vývoj, “K příchodu.”

34 Statistics of cooperatives were no longer published after the communist putsch in 1948. The first available statistics (regarding the current state of research) are from 1970 and refer to 1966. It is probable that the figures did not change significantly in between 1960 and 1966, and it is therefore reasonable to use the statistics from 1966.

35 Slavíček, Ze světa, 212–25.

36 “Zákon č. 69/1949 Sb.,” § 1–2.

37 “Zákon č. 53/1954 Sb.” § 1, 28–31.

38 A total of five cooperative unions were founded in the Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia in 1942 (two of these unions were for agricultural cooperatives, separately for Bohemia and Moravia). All of the traditional unions were dissolved, and all cooperatives had to join these new unions. A new top institution, the Central Cooperative Union (Ústřední rada družstev, ÚRD), emerged in May 1945. Formally apolitical, it was dominated by the Communist Party. Although the ÚRD was not confirmed by law until spring 1948 (i.e., until after the February putsch), it was de facto accepted as a top representative of all cooperatives in Czechoslovakia. See “Vládní Nařízení č. 242/1942 Sb.”; Slavíček, Ze světa, 52–56.

39 “Zákon č. 187/1948 Sb.,” § 12.

40 Smrčka, Vývoj družstevnictví.

41 Slavíček, Ze světa, 295–302; On the general problem of the lack of expertise among the communist “cadres,” see Jančík and Kubů, “Zwischen Planbefehl und Markt,” 97.

42 Slavíček, Ze světa, 270–76.