pdfVolume 3 Issue 1 CONTENTS

Stanislav Holubec

Between Scarcity and Modernity: Working Class Families in Prague in the Interwar Period


This study investigates the life experiences of working class families in Prague in the interwar period with particular emphasis on processes of family formation and sustainment. With regards to the notion of “family formation,” I examined in particular the search for partners, patterns of cohabitation, and sociological aspects of partner’s choice. I analyzed the life course of workers´ families with a focus on child births, questions pertaining to health, and divorces and other non-traditional forms of family. Working class families are interpreted as having undergone and reacted to different aspects of modern social change. These include demographic transition (declining infant mortality, declining fertility), the adoption of modern values (individualization, rise of divorce rates, secularization, female emancipation, multiple identities), the effects of World War I (material scarcity, high mortality), local circumstances (housing shortages), and persistent traditional patterns and values in the mentality among the working class (gender inequality and family hierarchies).

Keywords: Prague, interwar period, working class families, life experiences, life course


In the following article I investigate the life experiences of working class families in Prague1 in the interwar period with particular emphasis on processes of family formation and transformation. In the first part I will outline briefly the socioeconomic development of Prague between 1870 and 1940, concentrating on the surroundings in which workers lived, the factors that, in my view, exerted a substantial influence on their family lives, and complex questions regarding identity. In the second part I will present the life experiences of working class families in Prague with emphasis on the processes involved in the formation of a family, including dating, cohabitation and marriage, in their sociological context. The family lives of workers, which includes child births, questions pertaining to health, mortality and the disintegration of families, will be analyzed in the last part. As there has been little research on these topics in the Czech context, I occasionally draw on comparisons with the situation in Germany.

The practice of writing about the everyday lives of workers and their families has a long history. It was strongly ideological under state socialism. The historiography concentrated on the political and social “struggles,” particularly in communities of heavy industry and mining workers, and simultaneously ignored the workers in other branches of the economy, such as agriculture. The official historiography tended to combine very pessimistic descriptions of the prevailing conditions based primarily on statistical data with idealized descriptions of workers as politically highly conscious and supportive of the Communist Party.2 The predominance of class and class struggle in peoples´ identities and life courses was taken for granted. In the studies on working class family histories, the statistical or folklorist perspective prevailed.3 Since 1990, Czech historiography has almost completely abandoned “workers” as a category of study, and only a small group of historians of the older generation has attempted to promote the social history of the lower classes, with emphasis on the nineteenth century.4 The interests of mainstream historiography shifted to the social history of the everyday lives of “elites” or members of the middle classes, sometimes presented as “typical citizens,” or to gender history and the history of ethnic relations. Attention was also paid to the history of the most marginalized social groups (prostitutes, Roma). The political history of the interwar period shifted from class struggle to the clash between democracy and totalitarianism. The history of industrial work remained as insignificant as it had been before 1989. The German scholar Peter Heumos was one of the few exceptions.5 Only in recent years have we begun to experience a return to the history of workers. The pioneering work by Martin Jemelka on everyday life in the miners´ colony in Ostrava until 1950,6 followed by the monograph on the interactions between the middle classes and workers in Moravia at the turn of the century by Lukáš Fasora,7 my monograph on everydayness and the social status of the Prague workers in the interwar period,8 and most recently the monograph on the everyday life of Czech workers during World War I by Rudolf Kučera.9 The problems faced by Czech workers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also started to interest young non-Czech historians.10

Prague and Members of the Working Class During Industrialization

In the late nineteenth century, Prague, the historical capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia, was the third largest city in the Habsburg monarchy and one of its most important industrial centers.11 At the time, it had experienced the greatest period of industrial and demographic growth in its history. The population growth in the period between 1870 and 1914 was 25 percent every ten years. Because of the influx of migrants from the Czech-speaking countryside, like other cities of Central and Eastern Europe, Prague started to lose its multicultural character.12 Symbolically, in 1868 the Czech administration enforced the replacement of German street names with bilingual versions and in 1894 exclusively with Czech names.13 Prague was still described as provincial in comparison with the imperial charm of Vienna or Budapest. It had neither the power nor financial resources to develop edifices comparable with those of Budapest. The Prague National theatre (1883), National Museum (1891), and Municipal House (1912) hardly rivalled the Hungarian parliament, the Budapest subway (the first in continental Europe), or St. Stephen´s basilica.

After 1918, as the capital of the new Czechoslovak Republic, Prague became the seat of the central authorities. The influx of migrants to the city continued, although it was slowing. Due to an administrative reform, in 1922 Prague expanded its territory eight fold and its population grew to 676,000 inhabitants, and in the late 1930s it reached 900,000. The historical center was unified with industrial suburbs, residential districts, and in some cases even with villages that had not yet been integrated into the infrastructures of the city. The creation of greater Prague weakened the power of the National Democratic Party (Československá národní demokracie), which was comprised of liberal nationalist forces that had dominated Prague in previous decades. After the administrative reform, the proportion of workers and members of the lower middle classes in the city increased significantly, and power shifted to the hands of centrist Socialists (Československá strana socialistická) and Social Democrats (Československá sociálně demokratická strana dělnická). Prague was not spared post-war political radicalization, and the Communist Party become an important representative of the professionally less qualified and poorest strata of Prague inhabitants. The creation of Greater Prague also further contributed to its ethnic homogenization. Jews and Germans, who lived primarily in the city center, now comprised less than 8 percent of the population, and as a political force they held onto influence only on the level of the central districts. Even increased migration to Prague from Slovakia, Polish Galicia and revolutionary Russia after 1918 did not modify the prevailing ethnically Czech character of the city.14

In spite of the rapid industrialization that had begun in the 1860s, as the country´s capital Prague maintained a strong proportion of middle and upper classes and was never perceived as an unambiguously industrial center, in comparison to Brno (Brünn in German) or the centers in northern Bohemia and Moravia. Its character as a regional capital and its proximity to northern and central Bohemian industrial centers and coal districts promoted industrialization, but the simultaneous growth of administration and the service sphere kept the social structure more balanced, so even after unification with the industrial suburbs, the number of workers and their families did not surpass 40 percent of the population according to statistics. The center of Prague never lost its high social status during the process of industrialization, and it remained home primarily to members of the middle classes,15 who also established the residential districts around it, such as Vinohrady, Bubeneč and Střešovice.16 Proletariats arriving to the city had to look for places to live comparatively far from the city center, close to the factories in the northeast or southwest of the city. As of the early twentieth century, the industry of Prague was oriented primarily around the production of machines, electric equipment and carriages. Textile production and glass production were less important. Industry in Prague was strongly diversified, with predominantly small places of production in comparison with the urban centers established during the period of rapid industrialization from 1870 to 1914. Only eleven plants in the city had more than 500 workers in early 1920s, and two of them were publically owned (the railway heating plant and a tram depot).17 The relative diversity of industry in Prague also meant a diversity of workers and less influence of trade unions.18

In combination with the general housing shortage, the migration of large segments of the agrarian population to Prague created serious social conflicts in the early 1920s. The presence of new workforces allowed owners to cut wages. The lack of appropriate housing led to crowding in apartments and the spread of slums. However, economic growth, which as of 1923 was increasingly rapid, helped to ameliorate the situation.19

The interwar urban slums, which were referred to as “poverty colonies” (nouzové kolonie), are an interesting phenomenon widely discussed in the literature. They came into existence shortly after 1918, as the plots of wasteland at the outskirts of Prague began to be rented to the migrants to the capital for the construction of provisory wooden cabins (old carriages were also used). Their inhabitants were sometimes people from the eastern parts of the republic or refugees from Galicia or revolutionary Russia.20 The colonies, with their picturesque appearance, soon attracted the attention of journalists and writers, and numerous reports on the conditions in them were written. Also the Prague municipal governments began to perceive the colonies as a problem primarily because of hygiene and crime. The illegally built cabins were sometimes destroyed in the presence of the police, creating conflicts between the inhabitants of the slums and the organs of public administration. The political left used the defense of slum dwellers as part of its own political agenda. Later, even the municipal administration of Prague attempted to start its own project of provisional housing for the families in need. Although the colonies are the subject of many documents in the archives and the secondary literature,21 their inhabitants in fact comprised only a small portion of the population of Prague, about 2 or 3 percent.

Even for workers’ families not living in the colonies, the housing situation was not easy. The average workers’ household in Prague was truly overcrowded. The families lived either in one-room apartments or (for the more fortunate) an apartment with a separate kitchen. Two-room apartments with separate kitchens were affordable only for the small numbers of workers who had the best jobs, such as typographers.22 The workers’ families sometimes even offered other people a place to stay, mainly grandparents.23 Occasionally other relatives lived together with the partner’s family, either new arrivals from the countryside or boyfriends or girlfriends who lived together with the family before they could establish their own households. Under these circumstances, not everyone had his or her own bed.24 Most children shared their beds with siblings, and older siblings sometimes slept on the floor.25 The only modern technologies Prague workers enjoyed at the time was the water pipe line to the houses (but only rarely to the apartments) and sometimes electrical lighting, which gradually became more common after the war (in 1931 about half of the workers´ households already had it).26 Other modern technologies already common in the middle class apartments, such as water lines, gas stoves, central heating, separate toilets and bathrooms, and refrigerators were rare in workers’ households until the 1950s.27

The high level of spatial stratification in Prague contributed to the fact that working class families lived primarily in the local neighborhood on the outskirts of the city.28 While workers made up only 10 percent of the inhabitants of the city center according to the censuses in 1921 and 1931, they often comprised more than 50 percent of the population in the peripheral parts of Prague. Although public transportation and bicycles were affordable to all social groups, the lower strata did not frequently go to the city center to indulge in amusements or cultural events, or even to shop, but preferred rather the local facilities. Much of social life also took place in the yards of the houses. The apartments had shared laundry rooms where the women met, and the modest size of the apartments pushed their inhabitants outside, where they spent time interacting with other neighbors (woman doing the laundry, men doing a little craftsman’s work, and children playing).

Those who lived without much contact with their families were mainly the newcomers to Prague from the countryside. In some cases these people commuted on Sunday to visit their relatives, or their work in Prague was of a seasonal nature (construction workers), so they spent the winters at home. If their families lived at greater distances, they would visit them even less frequently. If the grandparents and other relatives lived in the countryside, contact was kept with them only sporadically. Short workers´ vacations, which lasted only about one week (in contrast with the longer vacations enjoyed by state employees or managers), and high transportation costs did not allow workers to take regular visits to relatives. People compensated for the lack of personal contact by writing letters, a practice that was already significant at the time.29 In contrast, families with grandparents living in Prague kept regular contact with them. The grandparents helped with the children and household, while the parents, who had paying jobs, supported them financially, as the elderly often had no pensions.

Due to the character of Prague industry and the character of modern society (which was slowly approaching the phase of mass consumption), the identities of Prague workers were more diverse than the pre-1989 historiography used to claim. It is likely that the inhabitants of Prague recorded in the statistics as “workers” (dělníci) often did not like to use this term to describe themselves. It had a negative connotation for them, and they preferred to call themselves “craftsmen” (řemeslník). They called themselves workers only if they had a job that required no training. The register books that were kept by every district of the city contain interesting information in this respect. Couples who were getting married were obliged to state their professions, along with other data. One could consider, for example, the register book from the district of Karlín from 1923–24. In this district, according to the statistical survey the percentage of workers was about 38 in 1921, roughly the Prague average.30 The wedding book contains 456 marriages, a total of 912 people, which can be considered representative. Surprisingly, in this sample only 13 percent of the people describe themselves as “workers” (dělník, dělnice), and there is no significant difference between males and females. Sometimes male respondents added an adjective, such as “factory,” “shoe,” “brick,” or “mill.” The other employees with manual jobs described themselves as “craftsmen“ or mentioned their trade, e.g. “locksmith,” “plumber,” or “joiner.” This group, which can be referred to as manual trained professions, comprised about 40 percent of the sample among males. Among females the proportion was much lower (only about 10 percent). In the register book no one described his or her job as “day laborer” (nádeník), the term used in the statistics for the untrained workers who worked without contracts at jobs that had the least prestige.

The reluctance of young workers to identify with this term is also visible in the personal ads, which as a practice was quite widespread at the time. We can cite here several ads that were published in the Prague women’s magazine Hvězda in 1930 showing the contrasting worlds of the middle and upper classes and the world of the workers. The first placed clear emphasis on the importance of property, while the second stressed personal characteristics: “A factory owner would like to marry an intelligent woman of gentle character possessing adequate capital. Replies with photographs are welcome and will be given back discretely.” “25-year-old farmer, in possession of 300,000 crowns, with the duty to care for his old parents, would like to marry a woman with a farm of at least 70 acres or a pub with its own farm. Widows are not excluded.” “40-year-old owner of factory, villa and car, intelligent and not unattractive would like to meet an intelligent lady, widow, possessing capital in the amount of 600,000, I offer a marriage and dowry, mortgage ensured.” Sometimes the personal ads were difficult to distinguish from the job ads: “I am looking for a female sales assistant for my shop, who will contribute by deposit 5,000 to 10,000 crowns. Latter marriage to me not excluded.”31

If one looks at ads taken out by people who had less assets, as is the case in the register books, the authors did not like to describe themselves as workers. In the case of males looking for females, they preferred to refer to themselves as “craftsmen” (řemeslník) or “employed.” Sometimes they did not mention their profession at all and stated only their age, along with descriptions of their character and physical appearance. Their ads were also shorter, because the cost of an ad depended on its length: “a blonde with a tall figure would like to meet a nice boy, preferably a craftsmen.” “28-year-old craftsman would like to meet a nice girl.” “25-year-old employed girl would like to meet a railway man, or someone with a similar profession who does not need money, but rather a good housewife.” Obviously the workers could neither offer nor expect money or assets and concentrated instead on character, sentiments or physical appearance.32

Although unattractive in everyday life, the term worker as a collective political identity still had its appeal. Social democratic forces used it in the name of their party and in the names of the affiliated organizations (Workers’ Academy, Workers’ Sport Association),33 while the Communists preferred the more radical term “proletariat.” Those who were reluctant to label themselves “workers” obviously had no difficulties voting for “workers’ parties,” which regularly got one-third of Prague’s votes in the interwar elections. The parties were conscious of this contradiction and strove to educate their members to become more “class conscious.” The party publications appealed to young members not to be ashamed of the word “worker” when they had to state their profession.34

Young Workers Dating and Marrying

Young people from working class families usually had jobs before they were married. For working class boys and girls it was natural to take a job after leaving school or completing an apprenticeship, while for members of the middle class about half of the girls did not have any job before marriage. They either pursued studies or helped at home. The girls from working class families of Prague did not have much chance of getting a job as a house servant, since middle and upper class families tended to prefer girls from the countryside (who were in abundant supply) over girls with a working class background (who were perceived as unclean, frivolous or otherwise having bad habits).35 Workers’ wives did not stay at home after their weddings either, but rather had jobs until they bore children. In contrast, in many cases middle class girls who worked as clerks did not wait until they were pregnant to quit their jobs, but rather quit immediately after having gotten married “to take care of their husbands.”

As it was unusual to send children to a nursery, women had to stay at home with them until they reached school age. This time span was as long as seven to ten years, if one takes into consideration the average number of children and the differences in their ages. As the children began to attend school, only a minority of working class women sought out regular paid work in the factories, as the factories offered jobs primarily to childless women. Instead, mothers in working class households took part-time jobs, mainly as helpers and cleaners in middle class households or as wash-women (a task that was time-consuming; one had to set aside one day a week to clean the clothes for a single family).

Concerning the places where one could find a future partner, the dancing room was a well-known option, but there were other places as well, such as outdoor swimming pools, the workplace, sport organizations (for instance the numerous but middle class and nationalist leaning Sokol [Falcon], which resembled the German Turnvereine, or the less numerous Dělnické tělocvičné jednoty [Workers’ Sport Association], which was close to the Social Democratic Party). Sometimes shared quarters also offered people a chance to get acquainted. An activity that was specific to Czech culture and that allowed young people a chance to meet one another was weekend camping, referred to in Czech as “tramping” (“tramping” usually took place from Saturday afternoon to Sunday, as Saturday morning was still a workday). Tramping is considered the first Czech youth subculture,36 taking form in Prague in the early 1920s, imitating in its dress code and leisure-time activities the life of the American mountain man known from Westerns and adventure novels by Karl May and Jack London. In comparison to the scout movement, it was anti-authoritarian, not divided by gender, and its social base was more working class than middle class. While scouts were mainly for pre-adolescent and early-adolescent kids, “tramping” was popular among late teenagers and young adults. At the time, the only similar subculture seems to have been found in Germany, the so called “wilder Wandervogel” (Wild wandering birds), which was an anti-authoritarian split from the German Wanderfogel movement.37 Czech tramping profited from the hilly landscape covered by forests in the south of Prague, which was easy to reach by local trains. Tramps would stay overnight in tents or improvised wooden cabins, wearing cowboy-like clothing and playing guitars by camp fires and singing their “tramp songs.” Naturally this all created an ideal atmosphere for young people to fall in love. The authorities were alerted by the shocked moralists of older generations (who complained that tramping was a site of “free love,”), and in 1931 the regional government issued a regulation prohibiting unmarried people from spending the night together in a tent or a cabin, bathing together without proper dress, or singing “obscene songs”.38 This was soon followed by police raids against tramps. In response, the movement organized protests, including demonstrations and a press campaign, and the regulation was repealed four years later.

As the working class youth started to date, it was not uncommon for them to have sex.39 Again, the world outside offered more suitable sites for trysts than the overcrowded apartments. The prevalence of premarital sex among members of the working class contrasted sharply with the prevailing expectations of the middle classes, according to which a bride had to be a virgin,40 which was still common at the beginning of the interwar period. Middle class boys had their first sexual experiences as visitors to the brothels, although this habit among middle class students and soldiers, though strong before the war, started to decline after 1918, not least due to the spread of venereal diseases caused by the war.41 It seems that in the 1920s middle class girls also become more liberal in terms of sexuality. In the 1930s all urban youths may well have had similar experiences of premarital sex.

Cohabitation was also quite common among young workers, while it was taboo for the Prague middle classes. This pattern of cohabitation existed at the time primarily among the poorer segments of the working class in Prague, while the “workers’ aristocracy,” like the middle class, rejected cohabitation as unacceptable. From our sample of the 456 couples who married in 1923–1924 in the Žižkov district (who could be identified as workers, at least as far as their professions were concerned), about 15 percent lived at the same address on the day of the wedding.42 Among the 101 couples at least one member of which characterized himself or herself explicitly as a “worker” the proportion of cohabition was about one-third. Cohabitation sometimes preceded dating in cases in which young people met each other as inhabitants of the same apartment. Cohabitation among workers was sometimes criticized by the middle class journals and authorities. One of the complaints of the Prague municipality regarding the urban slums was that many of the inhabitants lived together without having gotten married.43 The young workers active in the Communist Party were similarly scandalized by allegations made in the right-wing press that they lived in a “concubinate.”44 It is worth stressing that unmarried cohabitation often was not a consequence of love but rather of necessity. According to the most common model, due to the lack of apartments one of the partners moved into the home where his or her partner lived with the parents.45

Conservative middle class authors tended to offer shocking descriptions of the sex lives of young members of the working class in the late nineteenth century, characterizing workers as promiscuous, rash, and prone to incest. This discourse was still used in the 1920s and 1930s, mainly with regards to the sexuality of “socially difficult” families, but not anymore with regards to workers, who were perceived in the mainstream discourse almost as “normal citizens.” On the other hand, leftist authors tended to present the sex lives of young workers as “clean” and “honest,” in contrast with the “cynical” sexuality of the sons of the bourgeoisie.46 The two main political forces representing the workers—the Communists and Social Democrats—had different views on the sex lives of young people. The Communists, who were influenced by the radicalism of the Russian revolution, seemed to be more liberal, while the Social Democrats remained quite conservative. For example, in 1922 the Social Democratic brochure recommended that people begin to have sexual relations only after having gotten married and secured employment.47 The question of contraception was not mentioned at all.

Contraceptives that were commonly used by members of the middle classes already in the early 1920s came into use more slowly among the working class. They seem to have entered widespread use first among youngsters. An article entitled “How to avoid unwanted conception,” printed in the women’s communist magazine Rozsévačka (female sower), popularized contraceptives among workers in 1930 as something entirely new. Condoms were recommended as the safest method of contraception. Contraceptives were propagated in Prague with the argument according to which they were already in widespread use in the Soviet Union and they would allow women to be more active in the revolutionary struggle.48 Interestingly, the article was not approved by the police censorship, and only its title and the last sentence were published. The editorial board, however, did not give up, and they let it be read as a speech in parliament by a Communist MP, which meant it could be published again uncensored.49

If contraception failed, abortion was fairly widespread. Although it was prohibited by the law inherited from Austria (approved in the Czech lands in 1852),50 abortion was quite common in the interwar period in Prague, and practitioners ranged from luxurious clinics where it was performed officially as a treatment of the appendix or an inflammation of the peritoneum to backstreet abortionists. The Social Democrats and Communists protested against the law primarily by noting its “class” character. According to them, it brought harm primarily to poor women, because they could not afford good treatment and they were forced to ask for help from amateur backstreet abortionists.51 Also biological arguments were used. For instance the claim was made that too many births would weaken a woman. The Communists argued that women should not produce “slaves for the bourgeoisie” or “soldiers for imperialist wars,” and they referred, in support of their argument, to the legality of abortion in the Soviet Union, at least they did until 1933, when abortion was prohibited there.52 Interestingly, the individual right of a woman to choose (which today is perhaps the most important argument in favor of the legality of abortion) was not cited as an argument.53 The left-leaning MPs even repeatedly initiated the abolishment of abortion laws, but they were unsuccessful in their efforts. The state authorities, however, were quite tolerant in putting the law into practice. They did not actively search for cases of abortions, and they pursued charges only if they had been informed by a doctor, which was usually only the case if an amateur abortionist had endangered a woman´s health and she found herself compelled to ask for professional medical treatment. According to the health statistics, of the estimated 100,000 thousand annual abortions, only about 600 were prosecuted in Czechoslovakia.54 The common penalties ranged from a couple of weeks to six months in prison, though mothers of children generally were given milder sentences.

Many young male and female workers became parents as unmarried couples.55 The extramarital births (referred to as “illegitimate” in the public discourse at the time) were more frequent in Prague than in the rest of the country (about 13 percent of births between 1921 and 1931 in Czechoslovakia were “illegitimate,”56 whereas the figure in Prague was 22 percent). Extramarital birth rates were higher in the capitals all over Europe, because many unmarried pregnant girls from rural areas left for the city to give birth in order to avoid social stigmatization in their communities. The illegitimacy rate was somewhat higher in Prague among the working class than it was among the middle classes. It can be estimated at one-fifth of the total number of births.57 However, most children were “legitimized” by later weddings, which were very informal in these cases. Only very rarely did children grow up living together with both the unmarried parents.

Members of the working class in Prague married at a relatively young age and at a relatively high rate in comparison with members of the middle classes or the Czech Germans and Jews. They also married earlier than the rural population. A typical age at marriage of a working class girl was around 23. Members of the middle class in Prague married on average four years later. The age gap between the workers´ brides and grooms was about two years, lower than among the middle classes, where it was about seven years. This was the result of the middle class custom according to which a man first had to obtain a position and accumulate wealth before entering a marriage. A working class girl who was not married at age 25 was considered an old maid, while the public was much more tolerant of men who remained unmarried. The number of women who never married was much higher than the number of men, in part because of the tremendous casualties suffered by men in World War I. In the cohort born between 1890 and 1900, one in ten males died in the war and one in ten was permanently disabled.58 About one-fifth of the females born between 1880 and 1900 therefore remained unmarried and childless, the highest proportion since the introduction of statistical records until today.

People tend to marry people of similar social, demographic and economic backgrounds (this is known as endogamy). On the other hand, marriage is also considered a channel of upward social mobility, which leads to a certain exogamy. There are numerous discussions regarding the factors that lead to shifts in patterns of exogamy and endogamy, how to categorize different societies, and the thesis according to which there was a shift from endogamy to exogamy during the transition from pre-modern to modern society.59 Although comparisons are always difficult, the inhabitants of Prague in the period under discussion seem to have been more exogamous than the rural population. Of course, a working class girl could not hope to find her millionaire (a common plotline in penny novels and movies at the time), but there was a chance of marrying a bit higher on the social ladder. Men who worked in public service were regarded as a “good catch” for working class girls. They included policemen, subordinate officers, tram conductors, railway men, or qualified workers in the private sector (typographers or electrical workers). A working class man could hope to marry his foreman’s daughter or possibly a widow with some wealth but few other endearments.

Although class barriers were strong in Prague at that time, some marriages were sealed between two people of differing social status. The prevailing marriage pattern of socially unequal partners followed the pattern typical in other modern societies, meaning that a marriage between a bride of lower status and a groom of higher status was more acceptable than vice versa. A young woman with a working class background had somewhat higher chances of marrying someone from the middle classes than a young male worker. In 1925, 9.1 percent of the marriages were partnerships between a female worker and a male clerk, while only 1.8 percent of the marriages involved a male worker and female clerk.60 The barriers between the social classes, however, seem to have been more permeable than the barriers between the Czechs and Germans or Jews, as ethnic identity was considered more important than class identity, and members of different social classes were more likely to meet one another than people belonging to different national backgrounds were, due to a rather clear geographic line dividing ethnic Czechs and Germans.61 Interethnic marriage was almost nonexistent among workers in Prague, as Germans or Jews were not numerous in the city. Although the Prague workers and their families belonged to different Christian denominations (about half of them were baptized as Catholics, a third were atheists,62 and one-sixth was protestant), it was not considered a problem to marry a member of a different church, as the working class in the capital city was already highly secularized.

The political orientation of grooms was sometimes a big problem for the families of brides. There was a significant rift between the Communists and the rest of the community.63 Some girls were explicitly warned not to marry a Communist, and in some cases this led to a break with other family members.64 There was some rational basis for this attitude, since a Communist Party activist sometimes had to face the loss of work, and in military production there was an explicit prohibition against giving members of the Communist Party a job. In contrast, if one had a membership card for the Socialist Party (bearing since 1926 the name National Socialist Party), which dominated Prague, this could prove helpful in the search for a job in publically owned enterprises.

Working class girls were also warned not to marry an alcoholic or a man who liked to play the cards, a habit considered (along with alcohol consumption) the worst social evil.65 For example, one female who wrote a letter to the journal Hvězda on her personal troubles, expressed her appreciation of her husband, since he neither drank nor played cards.66 Consorting with prostitutes, which was particularly common among students and soldiers, was not a big issue among workers.67 All in all, in contrast with the middle classes, working class parents did not have much influence on their children’s choice of partners. The last obstacle to marriage was age. One was only allowed to marry without parental permission at the age of 21. Couples between the ages of 17 and 21 were only allowed to marry if they had the permission of their fathers or legal guardians.68

Family in the Life Course

The period under discussion was marked by the end of a demographic transition in the Czech lands. In 1880, the average woman gave birth to 4.7 children. This figure declined in 1900 to 4.1, in 1920 to 2.8 and in 1938 to 1.9. The working class people of Prague were average in this respect. The birth rate was lower than in the countryside, but higher than among the middle classes. The prevailing model among workers was a family with two or three children.69 The one-child model was not preferred due to child mortality, which was still high.70 The social surveys on the working class people of Prague revealed more nuanced views. According to a survey conducted by Marie Nečasová in the late 1920s, the average clerks’ family had two children, the average workers’ family71 had 2.8, and the average day laborers’ family had 3.8.72 Other authors have consistently confirmed that a lower social position means more children. This was also the case according to a criminological survey on prostitutes with many brothers and sisters,73 as well as a pedagogical survey on schools, according to which “neglected [pupils] who were in danger of being ruined” usually came from the largest families.74 We do not have any data on the basis of which we could compare birth rates among atheist, protestant and Catholic workers, but denominational belonging does not seem to have played a significant role, as social workers did not pay any attention to it. Although the statistics indicate a decline in fertility, even in the 1930s working class women in Prague complained that they gave birth to more children than they actually would like to have had.75

Another aspect of the demographic transition was the decline in infant mortality, which fell from 15 to 9 percent in the Czech lands in the period between 1920 and 1940.76 However, this figure indicates that even towards the end of the interwar period the death of an infant was not uncommon. Although the statistics do not offer any breakdown of infant mortality rates according to social class, the data from different districts of the city clearly show social stratification. Prosek, the district of Prague with the highest proportion of workers and the highest concentration of slums, also had the highest infant mortality rate, 23 percent in 1935, while the suburbs with the highest percentage of “independents and landlords” had rates of only about 10 percent.77 Higher infant mortality was also recorded among children born out of wedlock, whose chances of reaching adulthood were two times lower than those of children of married parents.

Even the children of working class parents who survived infancy often were in poor health according to doctors, primarily as a result of malnutrition. About half of the children at the schools in the working class districts were characterized as unhealthy. The most frequent findings were rickets, anemia, “backward body development,” “weakness,” “nerve instability” and “hypertrophied chest glands.”78

Fathers were often absent from working class families. Female mortality rates were lower, and many men had died in the war. The death of a woman in childbirth, which had been frighteningly common only a few decades earlier, became less frequent, occurring in no more than 5 out of 1,000 of births. The most common cause of death in working class families was tuberculosis, which reached its peak during the war, but steadily declined afterward. In 1914, 26 of 100 deaths in the Czech lands were caused by tuberculosis. By 1937 this proportion had declined to 9 of 100.79 Tuberculosis was truly a “malady of the proletariat,” affecting primarily young adults. According to the statistical bureau of Prague, it was the cause of one in four deaths among male workers, but only one in ten deaths among people employed in liberal professions.80 Even successful medical treatment meant a long period of time and a considerable financial burden for the family.

Two other reasons for the absence of fathers were single motherhood and divorce.81 The Austrian legislature only allowed divorces in the sense of separation (Scheidung/rozvod), but without the right to remarry. Divorce (Trennung/rozluka), meaning that the parties to the process would have the right to remarry, was rarely allowed. The Czechoslovak Republic liberalized the laws regarding divorce after 1918, making divorce (rozluka) much easier and taking the procedure out of the hands of church. Consequently, the divorce rates began to rise: In 1921 they rocketed to 4.7 percent, possibly in part because the option had only recently become available and many people who had already separated from their spouses chose to finalize their separations with divorce. Although the rise in the divorce rate slowed down soon, as of the latter half of the 1920s it began to grow again, reaching 7.9 divorces annually for every 100 marriages in 1935–1937.82 Among the working class people of Prague, divorce was by no means unheard of. However, the statistical evidence shows that divorce was less widespread among working class families than it was among the middle classes, who might have had better proficiency in the use of the law. Members of the middle classes were also better able to afford divorce, since the breakup of a household represented a less threatening economic burden for them than it did for working class families. According to the statistics, divorce was twice as frequent among the middle classes in Prague than among the workers.83

Concerning the reasons for divorce recorded by the court of justice, domestic violence was more common among workers, while adultery was more common among the members of the middle classes.84 This could mean either that adultery was actually more common among the middle classes, who had more opportunity (more leisure time, better apartment conditions), and that domestic violence was more common in the working class families, or that adultery was not as frequently perceived as grounds for divorce among workers.

The outcome of a divorce was the separation of the household and a ruling regarding alimony, which could be a big financial burden to a male worker.85 However, Nečasová noticed in her survey that in the majority of cases divorced working class fathers did not pay anything. According to her, although the court of justice declared it the duty of the father to pay alimony, in many cases the fathers did not meet this obligation and their ex-wives had no legal means of compelling them to do so.86 The impact of the great depression on divorce rates was ambivalent. On the one hand, the rise in unemployment and increasing financial uncertainties frequently led to conflicts within families, while on the other among members of the working class divorce rates declined, presumably because the financial burdens were too great.

Combining divorce and the death of a parent, one can estimate that about one-third of the school-age children of working class parents in Prague came from “incomplete” families. According to research by Stejskal, in three-fourths of the cases the father was absent because he had died. The other one-fourth were cases of unwed mothers or divorced parents.87 The relatively frequent “incompleteness” of the family is confirmed by Apetauer. According to him, about 20 percent of Prague apprentices had lost their fathers, and 10 percent had lost their mothers. In the 1930s, as World War I become a more distant memory, the ratio of deceased fathers and mothers equalized somewhat.

The death of a father created a situation of extreme difficulty for a working class family. One strategy to minimize the disastrous consequences was to move in with grandparents or take in sub-tenants, who sometimes became new partners, as one sees on the basis of the information collected by the authorities about the widows of the 46 men who died during the collapse of construction works of the new shopping mall in the city center in 1928 (street Na Poříčí), the biggest catastrophe of this sort in the interwar period in Prague. Many widows found new partners astonishingly quickly.88 In the case of the death of his wife, a husband usually preferred to turn the children over to the care of relatives or sometimes institutions than to try to combine child care with paid work.

While first marriages were based on personal preferences and sympathies among workers, a marriage after the death of partner or after a divorce was generally a way out of a difficult situation, and the expectations placed on a potential partner were much lower. In particular, children from the previous marriage were instructed by their mothers to behave respectfully in the presence of their stepfathers. Records from the 1920s indicate that mothers even pressured their children to kiss their stepfather’s hand, a practice that was no longer common at the time, or to greet him with the words “praise the lord Jesus Christ” (pochválen buď pán Ježíš Kristus).89 This greeting was already out of fashion before the First World War, and after 1918 it was abolished from the schools and other public spaces, but still was perceived by some people as more polite than the civil “Good day” (dobrý den).


The family-lives of the Prague workers can be interpreted in light of the different transformations at the time. These include a demographic transition (declining infant mortality rates, declining fertility, rise of divorce rates), the adoption of modern values (individualization, secularization, female emancipation, emotionalization), combined with the effects of World War I (material scarcity, high mortality), local circumstances (housing shortages), and persistent traditional patterns and values (gender inequality and family hierarchies). The crucial aspect of the everyday lives of workers’ families seems to have been material scarcity, which was particularly significant at times of economic depressions (in other words roughly half of the period under discussion), resulting often in the malnutrition of children. The welfare system still existed only in rudimentary forms, so changes in the nuclear family, such as the death of a spouse or serious illness, could have disastrous effects on the family. Although the emotional bonds were important aspects of a marriage, in order to minimize the consequences of such catastrophes emotions sometimes had to be put aside, and remarrying was not always a sentimental so much as a rational choice.90

Living standards did not improve much during the period under discussion, and real average wages grew above the pre-1914 levels only for a short period of time, in the second half of the 1920s. World War I and the subsequent economic depression had disastrous effects on every segment of society, but particularly on the urban workers. The spread of “incomplete” families and the “marriage squeeze” for females were two of its consequences. On the other hand, the foundation of the Republic brought an improvement in the living conditions of workers due to the passage of new socially conscious legislation, including the reduction of work hours and the introduction of vacations, pensions and unemployment benefits, not to mention the emancipation of women during the war.

1918 also marked a shift in the values of the generation of young workers, who seemed to bear more affinities with their middle class counterparts than their parents had. In leisure-time activities, the formation of subcultures, dating practices, pre-marital sex, and the free choice of partners, the young workers even seem to have adopted these practices more rapidly than the middle class youth. The youths were also reluctant to accept the exclusive identity as “workers,” as the register books and personal ads illustrate. Also marriages between members of different social classes probably became more common than they had been in the past. The levels of social inequality and perceptions regarding these differences nonetheless remained strong at the time, separating the social strata in terms of consumption, space or demographic behavior. In this respect Prague did not differ from other cities of Central Europe. Due to our limited knowledge of the social history of Polish and Hungarian working class families, comparisons can only be drawn with well-researched life histories of German and Austrian working class families. In this context, Prague was not unusual, differing primarily only in housing welfare policy, which was more developed in the case of Germany or Austria.


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1 The classic sociological work on working class families: Mirra Komarovsky, Blue-Collar Marriage (New York: Random House, 1964). On the interwar period: Steve Humphries, Pamela Gordon, A Labour of Love: the Experience of Parenthood in Britain, 1900–1950 (London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1993). More recent: Kathe Fisher, Birth Control, Sex, and Marriage in Britain 1918–1960 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). The English historiography of working class families, however, put emphasis on the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century was regarded rather as a field of sociology. Both disciplines bore witness to a shift in interest in the past two decades to questions on gender and ethnicity, although the history of the working class was never abandoned, see: Andrew August, The British Working Class, 1832–1940 (Harlow: Pearson education limited, 2007). The German historiography seems to have experienced even more radical development: While in the 1990s the histories of working class families were as much in vogue as they had been in the 1980s, in the 2000s the subject nearly disappeared from the research, replaced by questions of gender or ethnicity. The best examples dealing with topics similar to those in this article are: Michael Seyfarth-Stubenrauch, Erziehung und Sozialisation in Arbeiterfamilien im Zeitraum 1870 bis 1914 in Deutschland: ein Beitrag historisch-pädagogischer Sozialisationsforschung zur Sozialgeschichte der Erziehung (Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 1985). Heidi Rosenbaum, Proletarische Familien: Arbeiterfamilien und Arbeiterväter im frühen 20. Jahrhundert zwischen traditioneller, sozialdemokratischer und kleinbürgerlicher Orientierung (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1992). Bettina Günter, Schonen – Schützen – Scheuern: zum Wohnalltag von Arbeiterfamilien im Ruhrgebiet der zwanziger Jahre (Münster: Waxmann, 1995). Christina Benninghaus, Die anderen Jugendlichen: Arbeitermädchen in der Weimarer Republik (Frankfurt am Main: Campus-Verl., 1999).

2 Antonín Chyba, Postavení dělnické třídy v kapitalistickém Československu (Prague: Svoboda, 1982). Václav Veber, Postavení dělnické třídy v českých zemích 1924–1929 (Prague: Práce, 1965).

3 E.g. the best work written from the statistical perspective: Pavla Horská, Kapitalistická industrializace a středoevropská společnost: příspěvek ke studiu formování tzv. průmyslové společnosti (Prague: Academia, 1970). The most substantial work from the folklorist perspective: Antonín Robek, Mirjam Moravcová, and Jarmila Šťastná, Stará dělnická Praha (Prague: Academia, 1981).

4 Jiří Matějček and Jana Machačová, Nástin sociálního vývoje českých zemí 1781–1914 (Prague: Karolinum, 2010).

5 Peter Heumos, “Die Arbeiterschaft in der Ersten Tschechoslowakischen Republik: Elemente der Sozialstruktur, organisatorischer Verfassung und politischen Kultur,” in Der tschechische Weg: Transformation einer Industriegesellschaft (1918–1998), ed. Dirk Tänzler (Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag, 1999). However, the situation had been different in other countries of Central and Eastern Europe, during the period of Socialist industrialization where workers in particular were thematicized, in the 2000s, see: Błażej Brzostek, Robotnicy Warszawy. Konflikty codzienne (1950–1954) (Warsaw: Trio, 2002). Mark Pittaway, The Workers’ State: Industrial Labor and the Making of Socialist Hungary, 1944–1958 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012). Malgorzata Fidelis, Women, Communism, and Industrialization in Postwar Poland (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

6 Martin Jemelka, Na kolonii: život v hornické kolonii dolu Šalomoun v Moravské Ostravě do začátku socialistické urbanizace (Ostrava: VŠB–Technická univerzita Ostrava, 2007).

7 Lukáš Fasora, Dělník a měšťan: vývoj jejich vzájemných vztahů na příkladu šesti moravských měst 1870–1914 (Brno: Centrum pro studium demokracie a kultury, 2010).

8 Stanislav Holubec, Lidé periferie: sociální postavení a každodennost pražského dělnictva v meziválečné době (Plzeň: Západočeská univerzita v Plzni, 2009).

9 Rudolf Kučera, Život na příděl: válečná každodennost a politiky dělnické třídy v českých zemích 1914–1918 (Prague: NLN, Nakladatelství Lidové noviny, 2013).

10 Adina Lieske, Arbeiterkultur und bürgerliche Kultur in Pilsen und Leipzig (Bonn: Verlag J. H. W. Dietz Nachf, 2007).

11 The population of the capital of Hungary was twice that of Prague (in 1910 the population of greater Budapest was 1,178,000, while the population of Prague and its boroughs was only 600,000; the municipality of Budapest had 870,000 inhabitants, whereas the municipality of Prague had only 224,000, due in part to postponed administrative reform, which was implemented only in 1922). Tamás Faragó, “Die Budapester Bevölkerungsentwicklung und die Zuwanderung 1870 bis 1941,” in Wien–Prag–Budapest: Blütezeit der Habsburgermetropolen, ed. Gerhard Melinz and Susan Zimmermann (Vienna: Promedia, 1996). For more on pre-1939 Budapest see: Gábor Gyáni, Parlour and Kitchen: Housing and Domestic Culture in Budapest, 1870–1940 (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2002). Péter Hanák, The Garden and the Workshop: Essays on the Cultural History of Vienna and Budapest (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998). The best synthesis on the history of Prague in German: Jiří Pešek, Václav Ledvinka, Prag (Prague: NLN, 2000).

12 Jaromír Korčák, Vylidňování jižních Čech: studie demografická (Prague: Spolek péče o blaho venkova, 1929). Josef Pohl, Vylidňování venkova v Čechách v období 1850–1930 (Prague: Masarykova ak. práce a Čs. ak. zemědělská, 1932).

13 Václav Ledvinka and Marek Laštovka, Pražský uličník (Prague: Libri, 1997), 14–16.

14 Antonín Boháč, Hlavní město Praha: Studie o obyvatelstvu (Prague: Státní úřad statistický, 1923), 50.

15 I understand the middle classes as those families whose bread winner had an average or slightly above average income and held a position that required professional qualifications (clerks, managers, professionals, intellectuals) and who could have, due to their economic and cultural capital, a lifestyle different from the lifestyle of a working class family. Such a family typically had an apartment with more rooms or a separate house, and the wife was able to stay at home, money was available to finance tertiary and secondary education for the offspring, holidays were taken at hotel resorts, and help was hired for housework.

16 Josef Šiška, Statistická zpráva hlavního města Prahy za léta 1930 – 1933 (Prague: Statistický úřad hl. m. Prahy, 1937), 66.

17 NA ČR, ÚV KSČ, 1921 – 1938, VII/2. Zpráva o odborovém hnutí v Praze, p. 2.

18 For international secondary literature regarding the position of unions in interwar Europe see: Gregory M. Luebbert, Liberalism, Fascism and Social Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991). On the position of trade unions in Czechoslovakia in the interwar period see:  Peter Heumos, “Die Arbeiterschaft in der Ersten Tschechoslowakischen Republik: Elemente der Sozialstruktur, organisatorischer Verfassung und politischen Kultur,” in Der tschechische Weg: Transformation einer Industriegesellschaft (1918 – 1998), ed. Dirk Tänzler (Frankfurt am Main: Campus-Verl., 1999).

19 For more on the economic history of interwar Czechoslovakia: Václav Průcha et al., Hospodářské a sociální dějiny Československa 1918–1992 (Brno: Doplněk, 2004). On the economic history of interwar Europe: Charles H. Feinstein, Peter Temin, and Gianni Tonniolo, The European Economy Between the Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

20 AHMP, KP, III/7177. Referát o prohlídce provisorních kolonií v obvodu hlavního města Prahy, 22.

21 Vanda Tůmová, Pražské nouzové kolonie (Prague: Ústav pro etnografii a folkloristiku ČSAV, 1971), 23.

22 Josef Šiška, Sčítání bytů v Praze ze dne 1. prosince 1930 (Prague: Vydal Statistický úřad hlavního města Prahy, 1935), 3. The situation in Prague seems to have been worse than in Germany at the time, where apartments with more rooms were common among members of the working class. (Benninghaus, Die anderen Jugendlichen, 69.)

23 Life expectancy, which grew from 55 to 60 between 1918 and 1938, meant that most of the children of working class families knew their grandparents. (Life expectancy among the working class was possibly five years lower than among the middle classes, but somewhat higher than among the rural workers, because medical care was nearby.)

24 Josef Apetauer, Příspěvek k psychologii a pedagogice puberty českého dítěte (Prague: Ústav pro výzkum dítěte a dorůstající mládeže Českého pedologického ústavu hlavního města Prahy, 1927), 19–20.

25 Marie Nečasová, Školní prospěch a sociální poměry dítěte (Prague: Sociální ústav RČS, 1929), 12.

26 Šiška, Sčítání bytů, 65.

27 Holubec, Lidé periferie, 112.

28 Holubec, Lidé periferie, 98. In the attempts to reconstruct the social structure of interwar Prague, we have to rely on the statistical surveys conducted at the time. They defined three categories of Prague inhabitants according to their positions in the labor market: “the independents and landlords” (samostatní a nájemci), “employees” (zaměstnanci) and “workers and day-laborers” (dělníci a nádeníci). Concerning the first group, it might have been very heterogeneous, including owners of small shops and self-employed craftsmen, but also owners of large enterprises. The line between “employees” and “workers” is the line between intellectual and physical work. On the basis of the statistics regarding the apartments inhabited by these three groups, we can assume that the groups were marked by the different incomes, although there were undoubtedly overlaps.

29 ANTM 791/ 275, Paměti Václava Kindla.

30 Šiška, Statistická zpráva hlavního města Prahy za léta 1930–1933, 66, 67, 247.

31 Hvězda československých paní a dívek, 1930, 929/1, 5. Hvězda československých paní a dívek, 1929 217/46, 4. Hvězda československých paní a dívek, 1929, 162, 5. Hvězda československých paní a dívek, 1929, 108/4, 5.

32 The study on personal ads in Germany and France came to similar conclusions concerning the importance of property in personal ads in the first half of the century: Monika Kraemer, Partnersuche und Partnerschaft im deutsch–französischen Vergleich 1913–1993: eine empirische Analyse zum Wertewandel anhand von Heirats- und Bekanntschaftsanzeigen (Münster: Waxmann, 1998). The most recent work on the history of personal ads: H. G. Cocks, Classified: The Secret History of Personal Column (London: Random House, 2009).

33 Dělnická akademie, Dělnické tělocvičné jednoty.

34 Dělník gentleman (o společenské výchově) (Prague: Dorostový odbor výchovného výboru svazu D. T. J.Č., 1922), 13.

35 Ludmila Fialová, “Domácí služebnictvo v českých zemích na přelomu 19. a 20. století ve světle statistik,” Historická demografie 26 (2002): 150. Naďa Machková-Prajzová, “Profese služky v Praze na sklonku 19. a v prvních desetiletích 20. století: služebná na trhu práce,” Pražský sborník historický 39 (2011): 155.

36 See: Jan Pohunek, “Kultura trampů,” in Folklór atomového věku, kolektivně sdílené prvky expresivní kultury v soudobé české společnosti, ed. Petr Janeček (Prague: Národní muzeum, Fakulta humanitních studií Univerzity Karlovy v Praze, 2011).

37 However, this subculture did not survive long. See: Jonas Kleindienst, Die Wilden Cliquen Berlins: “Wild und frei” trotz Krieg und Krise. Geschichte einer Jugendkultur (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2011).

38 Marek Wajc and Jiří Kössl, Český tramping 1918–1945 (Prague–Liberec: Práh–Ruch, 1992), 52.

39 For more on workers’ sexuality see: Carrola Lipp, “Die Innenseite der Arbeiterkultur: Sexualität im Arbeitermilieu des 19. und frühen 20. Jahrhunderts,” in Arbeit, Frömmigkeit und Eigensinn. Studien zur historischen Kulturforschung, ed. Richard van Dülmen (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Verlag, 1990). Detlev Peukert assumes that young workers began to become sexually active around 17 or 18 years of age in the Weimar Republic: Detlev J. K. Peukert, Jugend zwischen Krieg und Krise: Lebenswelten von Arbeiterjungen in der Weimarer Republik (Cologne: Bund Verlag, 1987), 241.

40 Milena Lenderová and Karel Rýdl, Radostné dětství: Dítě v Čechách devatenáctého století (Prague–Litomyšl: Paseka, 2006), 263.

41 Milena Lenderová and Karel Rýdl, Radostné dětství, 6.

42 AHMP, SM, MG KAR 03.

43 AHMP, RHM V/24, Stížnost obyvatel domů družstva Domov, 2.

44 Pavel Reiman, Ve dvacátých letech (Prague: SNPL, 1966), 133.

45 Karel Čapek, Obrázky z domova (Prague: Československý spisovatel, 1959), 80.

46 Reiman, Ve dvacátých letech, 134.

47 Dělník gentleman, 12.

48 “Nechceme děti, jež nemůžeme uživiti,” Rozsévačka, 1, January 23, 1930, 5.

49 This practice, referred to as “immunization,” was used in cases of important texts, as according to the law everything said in Parliament could automatically be published.

50 The Czechoslovak Republic, however, somewhat expanded the cases in which abortion was legal, in contrast to the Austrian law, which allowed abortion only if the mother’s life was threatened. According to the republican law, abortion was allowed if the pregnancy was the result of rape, if the girl was younger than 16, if the pregnancy endangered the mother’s life, if the fetus was deformed, or if the woman was poor and had more than three children already.

51 “Odstraňte potratový paragraf,” Rozsévačka, 21, 1926, 4–5.

52 See: Cynthia Hooper, “Terror of Intimacy: Family politics in the 1930s Soviet Union,” in Everyday Life in Early Soviet Russia: Taking the Revolution Inside, eds. Christina Kaier, Eric Naiman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006). Frances Lee Bernstein, The Dictatorship of Sex: Lifestyle Advice for the Soviet Masses (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2007).

53 Melissa Feinberg. Elusive Equality: Gender, Citizenship, and the Limits of Democracy in Czechoslovakia, 1918–1950 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006), 130.

54 “Sociální pathologie,” Sociologická revue 4, no. 2–3 (1933): 277–79. The estimated number of abortions was even higher than the rate at the peak of the abortion wave in late socialism.

55 See the most recent history of illegitimate children in Germany: Sybille Buske, Fräulein Mutter und ihr Bastard: eine Geschichte der Unehelichkeit in Deutschland 1900 bis 1970 (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2004). For the United Kingdom: Alysa Levene, ed., Illegitimacy in Britain, 1700–1920 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

56 Josef Nechamkis, “K otázce nemanželských dětí u nás,” Sociální problémy 2, no. 1 (1932): 197.

57 Šiška, Statistická zpráva hlavního města Prahy za léta 1930–1933, 117.

58 Vladimír Srb, Tisíc let obyvatelstva českých zemí (Prague: Karolinum, 2004), 205–6.

59 Marco H. D. van Leeuwen, Ineke Maas, “Endogamy and Social Class in History: An Overview,” in Marriage Choices and Class Boundaries: Social Endogamy in History, eds. Marco H. D. van Leeuwen, Ineke Maas, Andrew Milles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

60 Josef Šiška, Statistická zpráva hlavního města Prahy za rok 1925 (Prague: Statistická komise hl. m. Prahy, 1930), 38–39.

61 Concerning Czech–German marriages, although the Germans made up as much as one-third of the inhabitants of the Czech lands, the interethnic Czech–German marriages constituted less than 5 percent of the total. See more on Czech–German marriages: Chad Bryant, “Občanství, národnost a každodenní život. Příspěvek k dějinám česko–německých smíšených manželství v letech 1939–1946” Kuděj. Časopis pro kulturní dějiny 2 (2002): 43–54. Benjamin Frommer, “Expulsion or Integration: Unmixing Interethnic Marriage in Postwar Czechoslovakia,” East European Politics & Societies 14 (2000): 381410. On Jewish–Czech and Jewish–German marriages: Gaby Zürn, “Religion Nebensache. Intermarriage between Biological Integration and (Self-)Destruction,” Bohemia. Zeitschrift für Geschichte und Kultur der böhmischen Länder 1 (2005): 108–119.

62 Only after 1918 was it permissible to become an atheist. Atheism spread mainly among unskilled workers and activists of the leftist parties. Even the politically moderate Social Democrats were militantly atheist. The form of its party functionaries contained a column: “To which date he/she left the church?” (NA ČR, ČSD, XVIII/ 9, Osobní dotazníky zaměstnanců sociální demokracie.) Catholic or Protestant working class families were in the decisive majority, but many of them were very secular in their everyday habits. Protestant workers belonging to the Czechoslovak church were numerous among the better qualified workers and supporters of the centrist National Socialist Party. (Antonín Boháč, “Hlavní město Praha,” 121.)

63 Jana Kosáková, “Příspěvek ke studiu způsobu života dělníků v Praze v Malém Břevnově” (Master thesis, Charles University Prague, 1975), 200.

64 Josef Spilka, ed., Šípek u haldy: Karolina Štiková vypravuje a ilustruje (Prague: Práce, 1964), 260.

65 Vašek Káňa, Válkou narušeni (Prague: SNDK, 1953), 111.

66 “Dopisy jež nás došly,” Pražanka, 59, 1925, 12.

67 Thomas Nipperday, Deutsche Geschichte 1866–1918 (Munich: Verlag C. H. Beck, 1990), 100. Andreas Gestrich, Geschichte der Familie im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2007), 32. According the contemporary statistics of the Prague’s hospitals the workers were rather underrepresented among the sexually infected males. NA ČR, SPPCP, VI/218. Zpráva o činnosti dispenzáře prof. Janovského, 2.

68 Emil Svoboda, Rodinné právo, Prague, Vesmír, 1921, 32.

69 “Znáte viníky, suďte je,” Rozsévačka, 28, July 10, 1935, 2.

70 “Nechceme děti, jež nemůžeme uživiti,” Rozsévačka, 1, January 23, 1930, 5.

71 She did not give a precise definition of “workers,” but she seems to mean people who had regular jobs and even jobs for which they required professional qualifications, because she also writes about “day laborers”.

72 Marie Nečasová, Školní prospěch a sociální poměry dítěte (Prague: Sociální ústav RČS, 1929), 28.

73 Jan Schneider, Cestou k prostituci (Prague: Spolek pro péči o slabomyslné v RČS, 1928), attachment, 6.

74 Cyril Stejskal, “Poznatky z všestranného výzkumu žactva pokusných škol v Praze,” Pedagogické rozhledy 1 (1932): 119.

75 “Otrokyně otroka”. Rozsévačka, 21, 1933, 5.

76 Also the practice of giving birth in the clinics contributed to the decline in infant mortality. Two-thirds of the births in Prague in 1926 took place in the hospital. Zprávy Státního úřadu statistického republiky Československé (Prague: Státní úřad statistický, 1927), 21 (8), 149. The recommendation to give birth at home was considered old fashioned. Znáš své dítě? Rozsévačka, 3, January 15, 1936, 6.

77 Emanuel Hruška, Rozbor zdravotních a osídlovacích poměrů velké Prahy (Prague: Ústav pro stavbu měst při Masarykově akademii práce, 1935), 83. This was also confirmed by Otto Lehovec, Prag: eine Stadtgeographie und Heimatkunde (Prag: Volk und Reich Verlag, 1944), 78.

78 Cyril Stejskal, “Poznatky z všestranného,” 16.

79 Atlas obyvatelstva ČSSR (Prague: Ústřední správa geodézie a kartografie, 1962), 56.

80 Šiška, Statistická zpráva hlavního města Prahy za léta 1930–1933, 186.

81 Kristin Celello, Making marriage work: a history of marriage and divorce in the twentieth-century (Chapel Hill, Univ. of North Carolina Press: 2009).

82 Ludmila Fialová et al., Dějiny obyvatelstva českých zemí (Prague: Mladá fronta, 1996), 395.

83 Josef Šiška, Statistická zpráva hlavního města Prahy za rok 1925 (Prague: Statistická komise hl. m. Prahy, 1930), 101–11. Josef Šiška, Statistická zpráva hlavního města Prahy za léta 1930–1933, 98–107.

84 Ibid.

85 “Zn. Jediná spása”. Hvězda československých paní a dívek, 11, 1930, 12.

86 Marie Nečasová, Školní prospěch a sociální poměry dítěte, 18.

87 Cyril Stejskal, “Poznatky z všestranného,” 119.

88 VA, OSČ. Zpráva o sociální poměrech pozůstalých po katastrofě na Poříčí, 168/ 2173–97.

89 Tůmová, Pražské nouzové, 75.

90 In Czech historiography no research has been done on urban widows. The secondary literature has concentrated until now on the lives of rural widows in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In English see: Bettina Bradbury, Wife to Widow: Lives, Laws, and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Montreal (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2011).

pdfVolume 3 Issue 1 CONTENTS

Mónika Mátay

The Adventures of Dispute: a Marriage Crisis


Various developments in the study of history over the past few decades have borrowed theoretical assumptions and methodological innovations from cultural anthropology. Similarly, some of the leading scholars in the field of legal history have done the same.

In this article I investigate the avenues of dispute within a Calvinist burgher family from Debrecen, the biggest Hungarian city at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I try to reconstruct the individual strategies they adopted in order to achieve their goals and the means and tactics they used against each other in business, defamation conflicts or a divorce case. I approach the legal construction as a creative moment, a formative period in which the combination of central legislation and local statutes offered a space for individual strategies and legal maneuvering. In the analysis, I scrutinize both the disputing habits and the internal motivations of a quarreling couple, the Ladányis, to take their private matters and conflicts to the court, as well as the mutual influences of social actors and increasingly modern social institutions, more precisely, the city court and the legal profession.

Keywords: Calvinism, family, gender, marital dispute, divorce


In the 1970s, a harsh debate erupted among anthropologists over legal theory and practice in which the rule-centered or functionalist paradigm and the processual paradigm were juxtaposed.1 Representatives of the first model concentrated on formal written law and legal institutions as the only legitimate objects of legal analyses, and they thought that only laws and norms “from above” could define the boundaries between deviant and acceptable social behavior. Supporters of the second paradigm emphasized individual decisions and the legal competence of social actors, and they refused to view conflicts as “pathological phenomena.” For them, conflict is a natural ingredient of everyday life and it is unavoidable when the individual attempts to realize his or her goals. These anthropologists accept that “order” in a society provides the basis for stability, but they believe that order is not a well-defined structure, but rather a shifting and dynamic environment shaped by the members of the community.

In the end, the scholarly debate led to more ambitious considerations than the mere challenge to traditional views grounded in the coercive power of law and legal institutions. According to Sally Falk Moore, Simon Roberts, John L. Comaroff, Laura Nader and other anthropologists, the processual paradigm as a primary approach to legal life has the potential to pose more radical questions than the subordination of the formal, institutional perspective to individuals’ manipulative strategies and legal competence. In general they argue that the analyses of legal norms should rely on social behavior, because this is the formative context in which social norms and rules are determined. In other words, social behavior is more dependent on social relations than on the regulative authority of any political or social institutions. The shift of focal points led these anthropologists into a new arena in which they paid more attention to concrete conflicts among individuals or social groups as well as to the possible resolutions of these conflicts. That means that social practices are not subordinated to rules, but that they have equally important power in shaping social conditions.

According to the functionalist model, law determined the lives of ordinary people, and historians who applied it ignored the possibility that there might exist a less hierarchical structure and failed to articulate a more mutual correlation between regulations and actors. In the new framework, however, the reductionist interpretation of the law is replaced by a more flexible and complex paradigm in which social historians focus on individuals’ legal competence and manipulative capacities. Undoubtedly, the liberation of ordinary historical actors from the constraints of political, economic and social structures is not an entirely novel approach to history. Microhistorians, among others, Carlo Ginzburg, Nathalie Zemon Davis and Judith Brown, contributed to this “deliberating” process to a large degree. Ginzburg illustrated the contours of self-fashioning, the freedom of individual actions and decision-making strategies in the example of the miller, Menocchio, who even confronted the much-feared Inquisition and sacrificed his life to have a chance to discuss his strange ideas with competent people.2 Davis excellently crafted the personality of Martin Guerre and his rival, the impostor Arnaud du Tihl alias Pansette, who tried to make his fortune by slipping into another person’s skin.3 Brown, in a genuinely new fashion, showed the possibilities a unique female character had to gain public attention in Renaissance Italy.4 After reading these historical analyses, no one would think that these actors of the past were helpless puppets whose actions were dictated entirely by contemporary social and economic conditions. Just the opposite was the case; they seemed to be remarkably creative and active in shaping their own lives. The new paradigm in the study of legal practice made it possible to apply the findings of social and microhistory in a new field, legal history, which has been neglected by most social historians, including the representatives of the Annales School.

One of the most successful attempts to apply the findings of legal anthropology in social history is Thomas Kuehn’s collection of essays that claims to explicate a “legal anthropology” of Renaissance Italy.5 Although the ambitious endeavor remained incomplete in the sense that instead of Renaissance Italy the author focused only on one Italian city (Florence), this does not reduce the value of the work. Kuehn argues that laws and statutes attempted to diminish the freedom of action of the individual within a coherent and logical structuralist framework. Legal practice in real everyday life, however, was very different and contained many irrational, chaotic and contradictory elements. Kuehn paid particular attention to individual choices and decisions even if they did not seem cogent.

Using published and unpublished notarial records and private sources (such as letters and diaries), Kuehn demonstrates that the citizens of Florence were not only familiar with the ever-changing legal statutes, but also knew that the law had an immense influence on people’s everyday lives. For Kuehn, quattrocento Florentine law was incoherent and fluid; therefore, it left space for individual creativity and for the application of alternative methods of dispute in addition to formal litigation. “My desire has been to understand how, or how much, the very sophisticated and complex apparatus of law could serve the interests of litigants and to see how law functioned in a context with other mechanisms of disputing and settling disputes, ranging from fairly formal arbitration to violence.”6 The inherently ambiguous laws created a broad horizon for social actors, individuals and kinsmen, in which they could find ways of accomplishing their goals and interests in competition with other members of the community.

Kuehn’s vision of the relationship between law and society as a formative process, combined with his aim of integrating alternative legal habits into his investigation, provides his readers with a new understanding the legal authority of certain social groups, especially women. He admits that women’s legal activity was circumscribed by the immanently oppressive, patriarchal order of the period. At the same time, he also explains the manifest contradiction between formal legal regulations and everyday legal practice, and the interpretation and application of law in matters such as female inheritance or, more generally speaking, women’s legal authority.

Simona Cerutti, in her work on the summary court of seventeenth and eighteenth-century Torino, examines the day-to-day operation of this peculiar form of jurisprudence.7 She demonstrates that legal practice could serve as a major source of law, because the summary court excluded all forms of professional juridical intervention, including legal experts and written law, and was grounded purely in non-professional individuals’ sentences. Cerutti’s focus on this ancient institution made it possible to pay closer attention to the practical consequences of the ideological assumptions that were articulated by the followers of the processual legal paradigm. In Domestic Dangers, Laura Gowing attempts to reconstruct the litigation and, most importantly, the complex motives outside the court that inspired seventeenth-century Londoners to seek justice and initiate civic legal cases.8 Like Kuehn, Gowing warns against overemphasis on the patriarchal order of early modern society and illustrates in various ways how legal instruments could become powerful weapons even in the hands of women.

Legal anthropology provided several theoretical and methodological findings for historians that I consider in my work. The present inquiry, restricted to an examination of the squabbles of a Debrecenian couple in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, is an attempt to uncover the importance of lawsuits by integrating into its methodology historiographical developments. As opposed to “rules-oriented” legal historians, who were reluctant to apply the law in actual cases and focused either on structural institutional changes or legal theory, my goal is to provide a more nuanced understanding of the couple’s litigation. Of course, I acknowledge that legal norms and rules are “ranges of discourse” which set constraints on disputants as they argued over marriages, wealth and honor.9 However, I try to avoid imposing on my understanding of litigation a sharp distinction between “theory” and “practice.” I approach the legal construction as a creative moment, a formative period, in which the combination of central legislation and local statutes opened up space for individual strategies and legal maneuvering. In the analysis, I scrutinize both the disputing habits and the internal motivations of the quarreling couple, the Ladányis, to take their private matters and conflicts to the court, and the mutual influences of social actors and modernizing social institutions, more precisely, the city court and the legal profession.

The Husband, the Wife and the Marriage

János Ladányi and Erzsébet Diószegi got married on April 27, 1774.10 Both of them were born in Debrecen, the biggest Hungarian city at the time. Debrecen is a former trading center located in the Hungarian plain, about 150 miles to the east of the present-day capital, Budapest. The city lay far from rivers, quarries, forests, and mountains that could have supplied it with raw materials for development and provided natural defensive borders. There was hardly reason to build a city on this empty plain, with the exception of the endless supply of space for expansion. Throughout the early modern era, and even today, visitors have always been struck by the stark contrast between the city’s large size and density and its rural characteristics. In 1715, it was the largest city in the country, and in 1787, when Joseph II ordered a census of the total population of Hungary, Debrecen, with its 29,000 inhabitants, was still ahead Pressburg (27,000; Pozsony in Hungarian, today Bratislava in Slovakia) and Buda (25,000).

Both János and Erzsébet were scions of noble families.11 Within the urban community nobles formed a somewhat closed and particular social group. Fleeing the plunders of Turkish soldiers, they began to move to Debrecen in the 1500s. During the following centuries the Debrecenian nobility permanently grew in size. Most of them never owned estates, but were so-called armalis nobles; in other words, they were ennobled without land, which in practice meant that they enjoyed tax exemption but had to work for a living.12 Most noblemen were farmers and artisans, others were Debrecenian merchants and intellectuals. Some of the nobles of Debrecen had estates outside the city, but regardless of that, none of them were allowed to invoke their noble privileges within the city; like the burghers, they were required to pay ranks and taxes. Although they preferred to marry among themselves, according to profession and residence, they integrated themselves well into the city. According to contemporary national and county records, 132 noble families lived in Debrecen in 1715, and during the reign of Joseph II (in the late 1700s) this number rose to 207. Despite the slow growth of the Debrecenian nobility, their proportion within the total urban population remained around one or two percent.13

The groom’s father, János Ladányi, was a native of Debrecen. Little is known about his background except that he was a hard-working citizen who contributed considerably to the family’s assets. His grandmother, Anna Rácz, made a last will and testament in which she praised her son, János the elder:


…he suffered with me much cold and warm, he rushed and troubled himself with my matters and helped me a great deal […] for these reasons all the money I lent to him once or twice [100 Forints] and the vineyard which I bought together with him I leave to János, and my other children should not demand any part of that wealth.14

The elder János Ladányi was probably an artisan, but the available sources do not indicate his craft. Due to the fact that he did not make a last will and testament and did not leave his son valuable properties, I assume he was not particularly wealthy. Affluent members of the urban community usually left behind a written will and made scrupulous decisions about their properties. Mihály Jándi, a tanner and member of a prestigious noble family, was undoubtedly rich, and his last will and testament documents his wealth. He was well-off, and this obliged him to make a number of final decisions. He had a house, several mills, a vineyard, a large piece of land, animals and movable assets.15

Many Debrecenian noblemen spent most of their income on their children. They spent their earnings on their sons’ education and their daughters’ dowries. The elder Ladányi provided his son with reasonable schooling. After completing his compulsory years of apprenticeship, at the very young age of 18, he joined the highly esteemed guild of tanners in Debrecen.16

There is more information about the bride’s background. She was a child of the illustrious Diószegi family.17 Her great-great-grandfather was István Diószegi, who had been a prominent professor of the city’s College for more than three decades. Among her ancestors, Sámuel, the famed chief justice of Debrecen, was a particularly prominent personality. He also headed the highly esteemed postmaster’s office and led the city during wartime at the beginning of the eighteenth century. He was well connected with contemporary European political elites and his exploits were legendary among the citizens of Debrecen. According to a popular anecdote he hosted the Swedish king, Charles XII, for an evening of entertainment.18 István Szücs, the nineteenth-century chronicler of Debrecen, noted that the king spent an amusing evening and a peaceful night in Diószegi’s house, where he met members of the Magistrate, Protestant pastors, and professors from the College.19

Erzsébet’s father was Pál Diószegi, a teacher at one of the ten girls’ schools in the city.20 Noblemen who did not possess extensive estates had to learn a trade or enter the world of industry or the intellectual professions.21 Debrecenian elementary school teachers established the Teachers’ Association in 1708, which increased their prestige, but this still did not mean financial recognition. Teachers in Debrecen lived under miserable conditions. They received their salaries directly from the parents, which resulted in endless complaints on behalf of the teachers: “[…] they brought their children from one school to the other and so they avoided paying tuition-fees. They did not pay, so we could not even afford our basic everyday necessities.”22

Although Pál Diószegi registered his daughter at one of the girls’ schools in the city, Erzsébet apparently possessed no more than a very basic education—typical of elementary schools of that time.23 She learned to read and write and she probably acquired primary mathematical skills and a fundamental understanding of the Bible. Decades later, a letter she wrote as an adult indicates that she could write, but she made many grammatical and spelling mistakes. Like many girls at the time, she most probably learned the necessary skills of a housewife, and later she became an assiduous housekeeper.

Erzsébet had two brothers, Mihály and Sámuel. Mihály married into the nationally recognized Fazekas family. His brother-in-law was a writer and the author of one of the most popular satires of the early nineteenth century, Ludas Matyi, which is still required reading for Hungarian school children. Erzsébet’s other brother, the twelve-year younger Sámuel, taught at the city’s College. Later he moved to a neighboring town, Hajdúböszörmény, where he worked as a schoolmaster. He then moved on to a bigger city in the Hungarian Plain, Kecskemét. He attended the University of Gottingen, where he studied geometry, physics and medicine. He completed his university degree in the 1790s and became a Protestant pastor in his native Debrecen. Sámuel co-authored the first Hungarian botanical treatise and was member of the enlightened intellectual workshop, the Debrecen Assembly. His sermons, entitled Moralistic Teachings in Preaching, were published in Debrecen in 1808.24

We do not know whose idea the marriage was, nor can we know how and when they met first. Both the Ladányi and the Diószegi families resided in the heart of Debrecen, and most likely the couple had already known each other as children. There are no references to mutual attraction or love in the archival documents, but neither physical attraction nor emotional commitment was considered a prerequisite for marriage in the waning years of the eighteenth century. The surviving archival sources on divorce cases suggest that marriages were usually arranged by the parents or relatives and sometimes the couple hardly saw each other before the wedding.

Marriage was considered the first real step into adulthood. In order to be accepted as a “mature man,” János had to get married. He was already 26 and had been guild master for eight years at the time of his wedding. Most likely he was following public expectations when he decided to marry Erzsébet. The bride was almost the same age, 25, anything but too young to marry by the standards of the time. Examining registers of marriage from this period, the data suggest that most women married about five years earlier, around the age of 20.25 For a woman, marriage was almost compulsory: in the traditional Protestant views of Debrecenians, it was shameful, dangerous and immoral for a woman to live alone.26

In Debrecen, parents or relatives arranged marriages. They introduced the couple and controlled the necessary fiscal negotiations. Documents of divorce cases suggest that economic motivation provided a weak bond to sustain a bad marriage, and mere financial ties were not enough to prevent separation or divorce. Many plaintiffs in divorce cases complained that they disliked their spouses from the first time they met and reluctantly yielded to parental pressure, resulting in a forced wedding. They used this circumstance to convince the court that the marriage had not been the result of a voluntary decision. Erzsébet Böszörményi, the wife of János Szilágyi, a cobbler, argued during her divorce trial that “boundless parental power forced her to marry János Szilágyi,” but after nine doleful years of her marriage she preferred to try the life of the lonesome female than suffer the hardships of living together with her husband.27

Presumably, in this case money did not serve as a primary motivation for the marriage.28 Neither of the two families was particularly wealthy. Despite the lack of economic motivation, the parents thought this an acceptable match because of the noble origins of both families. Nobles in the market towns of the Hungarian Great Plain lived in closed communities and preferred to marry among themselves. In most cases, noble families refused to allow their children to marry to non-noble citizens.29

The couple had been living in lodgings for more than twenty years and could afford a house only as late as 1798, when they received Erzsébet’s inheritance.30 It is true that in Debrecen many young people, even scions of wealthy citizens, often began their adult lives in a sublease. That did not necessarily mean that they were poor. But the fact that the Ladányis were unable to buy a house for more than two decades indicates that they were not financially prosperous. Ultimately, they could only afford the house when they received Erzsébet’s inheritance.

Once they were able to buy their own home, they purchased it along with a very small piece of land. In nineteenth-century Debrecen houses were surrounded by land. Actually, the value of the property was dependent on the size of the adjacent estate, not the building itself. The Ladányis bought their house with a plot that was a bit smaller than the average size on their street.31

A document about the renovation of the house in 1823 offers a rough sketch of the ground plan. It was a typical Debrecen home, neither rich nor poor. There were two rooms in the house. The main room, which was bigger and more comfortable, was the multipurpose tisztaszoba (clean room). The window in this room afforded a glimpse of the street. The members of the household rarely used this room; it was a combined living and dining room, and visitors were entertained here. The only bedroom of the house, reserved for the spouses and their daughter, was in the back of the building. The family spent most of their time in the kitchen, located between tisztaszoba and the bedroom, which also served as the main entryway from the yard.

Unfortunately, the sources do not indicate why the couple was in such dire financial straits. Whatever the case, they were unable to accumulate much wealth despite the fact that Ladányi was a recognized master craftsman. After entering the guild in 1766, he made something of a name for himself as a talented artisan by producing high quality leatherwork.32 The Magistrate rewarded him for being more productive than his fellow-artisans in the guild by bestowing monetary recognition on him. His products earned a special prize from Joseph II, the emperor in 1785, furthering bolstering his reputation.33 When making his testament, he displayed with pride to the witnesses and the notary “that golden medal […] which weighs about 10 ounces and which [he] received from late glorious Joseph II for exemplary knowledge of his trade.”

Erzsébet contributed substantially to his work as an artisan: “in the practice of the craft she took an active part.”34 In the everyday life of an artisan family, women always played an important role. In addition to performing the traditional tasks of women, which included cooking and looking after the servants and the apprentices, they were also expected to work the land, trim and hoe the vines, and feed domestic animals. As legal documents suggest, Debrecenians harshly criticized “lazy and neglectful” housewives. Mária Zefer, a cobbler’s wife, “worked in the craft like a man, as much as she could.”35 Besides assisting their husbands in the workshop, artisans’ wives also sold the products at local or even distant fairs. If the husband joined the army, left his family, or squandered the family’s earnings, women often took over the craft as if they were masters. We also know of a few examples when women, although they lived together with their husbands, were independent artisans. Although her husband was a well-off quilt-maker, János Kapros’ wife brought in a huge amount of money by herself according to her husband: “she has always lived on independent earnings.”36

Erzsébet’s contribution to the family’s income was essential because Ladányi did not hire apprentices. Certainly he could have had assistants, and he was competent enough to supervise the workshop with multiple apprentices. Sámuel Teleki, a royal representative in Debrecen and a well-known, enlightened figure of contemporary public life, noted in his report on the work of tanners in the city that masters should send their apprentices to the house, where they could profit from Ladányi’s knowledge of the craft. Still, in the documents of the guild no assistants were ever registered with the tanner. Erzsébet later testified during the trial that young men were afraid of her husband’s “cruelty and rigor.” There were many rumors in the city regarding his unruly behavior. How could she live together with a man who alienated potential apprentices and seemed so uninterested in furthering their economic means?

Dilemmas of a Bad Marriage

The marriage was anything but a good emotional match, at least by the second decade. Erzsébet wrote a statement around 1806 or 1807 that was fashioned in the style of a last will and testament and bears further witness to the hardships of their relationship. We do not know to whom she addressed her writing. Most likely, she just wanted to document the miserable conditions under which she lived. Although this unique reflection on her circumstances is informal, she prepared it as part of the legal maneuverings that she used against her husband, or rather as part of a strategy to ensure that she would be able to defend herself from him when necessary. She complains that, with her husband, “[she] suffered much, and in particular in the course of the past four years I underwent enormous torments.”37 She does not go into the details, but the bitter tone of her letter attests to endless miseries. Most likely, Ladányi brutally struck and possibly tortured his wife. At the end of her one-page long note, Erzsébet crafts a statement in a convention meant to leave a record of her misery. She complains about her husband’s control over the family house and his intent to distribute her wealth. Ladányi refused to give her either the wealth she had inherited from her parents or the goods they had accumulated together. She declares that she wishes to leave all her belongings to her daughter and grandchildren. The letter suggests that she had decided to leave her husband: “that from now on I not suffer further disasters.”38 Such an act would make her a social outcast.

Erzsébet’s letter shows that her relationship with her husband was irrevocably ruined, and yet they did not separate. We learn from Ladányi’s last will and testament that the couple split-up several times. He laments that his wife “was unfaithful to him, she left him many times, on at least 13 occasions.”39 Finally, in 1818, at the age of 69, she fled from the house, three years before he made his will and testament. Why did she wait so long? Why did she return to her “devilish husband” over and over? And most importantly, why did she fail to initiate divorce proceedings against Ladányi?

Were there any economic considerations behind her reluctance to leave? In Debrecen, an independent life for a woman was hard, but possible. Compared to their counterparts in small villages, where women could only find work jointly with their husbands or male relatives, Debrecenian women had opportunities to work outside the family circle. At times, widows could make respectable incomes, and when they made their wills, they proudly emphasized how much they had amassed after their husbands’ deaths. Mária Ferge, the widow of a carpenter, acquired money through net making.40 Women also worked as servants, midwives, bartenders and innkeepers. They spun thread for weavers and made loaves of bread or cakes to sell. One young girl made her living by painting furniture. Between 1820 and 1830, more than 400 spinners were registered as artisans working outside of guilds, and most of them were women. In all likelihood, Erzsébet could have managed to live independently from her husband. She probably had skills in some traditionally female work. Still, she decided to stay. Why? If divorce was legally possible and socially acceptable, why did Erzsébet Diószegi not decide to write a petition and start divorce proceedings against her husband? One possibility was that, while divorce was considered acceptable, it clearly was not looked on favorably at the time, and this may have influenced Erzsébet.

In 1791, Leopold II, the Habsburg Emperor, passed a law that permitted Protestants to be granted a divorce in a secular court for the first time. The law was liberal by the standards of the time, since it allowed divorce on a broad range of grounds and divorce was made available both for men and women. Still, Leopold II’s enlightened policies did not lead to a divorce revolution in Debrecen. Between 1793, when the first petition for divorce was submitted to the court, and the middle of the nineteenth century 201 couples in Debrecen decided to get divorced. 41

Leopold II’s legislation was similar to statutes in Germany, where people could also get divorced regardless of their social status or gender.42 A divorce law was introduced in France during the revolution in 1792 that prompted thousands of French couples to turn to the courts.43 In England, the situation was not that liberal. For the overwhelming majority, legal divorce was not available. A Divorce Reform Act was introduced in 1857.44

To initiate a divorce case in Debrecen, first the couple had to go to their pastor and request a certificate asserting that reconciliation was impossible. Then the main plaintiff called on a barrister and initiated the divorce proceedings in the local court. In this sense, the ecclesiastical authorities played an important role in the legal procedure, but the decision was made by a secular assembly.

Remarks that were made in the course of trials and the arguments that were made by the magistrates when the issued their decisions suggest that the courts were adamantly opposed to divorce. They were well aware that citizens of Debrecen paid close attention to the outcomes of divorce trials: “Many eyes watch at this scandalous trial in the local Public and eagerly await its outcome […].”45 Clearly, the judges attempted to discourage divorce among Debrecenians, and whenever possible they rejected petitions for divorce.

A high number of divorce petitions were withdrawn, which suggests that the vast majority of ordinary people were somewhat hesitant about divorce. As is often the case in the study of history, sources yield little insight into the opinions individuals had regarding the dissolution of a marriage. Still, on the basis of the plentiful archival documents, we can attempt to reconstruct views about divorce expressed by the couples involved and by the witnesses, who most often were parents, relatives, servants, tenants or neighbors. Like the judges of the city, most of the petitioners said they were reluctant to divorce and contended that the drastic step had been forced upon them by external circumstances. They complained about their spouses’ misconduct, which included multiple attempts to poison and physical and psychological torture, alcoholism, adultery, and absence. Despite the hostility of the legal elite and the reluctance of the general public to accept divorce, the number of court cases that ended in divorce and the attitudes of defendants suggest that someone living in an impossible marriage could find a sympathetic ear and persuade the courts and society in general to accept divorce as one possible solution to a marital breakdown.

In addition to the doubts she may have had regarding the attitudes towards divorce, Erzsébet may well have had several other considerations on her mind. For a while, she might have hoped that Ladányi’s coarseness would pass. Perhaps she thought of her family, especially her brother, Samuel, the respected scholar, and did not want to involve them in a scandalous family battle. She had a daughter, Julianna, whom she certainly did not want to leave under the care of a brutal father. Gathering her belongings, leaving the house, and starting a new life under someone else’s roof was anything but appealing in the eyes of a lonely mother with a child. The probability that a divorce decree would give her back her ancestral property was very low. Not that the court was reluctant to respect women’s property rights, but Erzsébet’s inheritance had been spent when the couple had purchased their house. Even if the divorce sentence was favorable to her, due to her husband’s extremely aggressive behavior, she would never see a penny of her money. Finally, she had invested not only her money but also her energy into the shop and the household. She may have been unwilling to leave everything behind. Last but not least, though she might not have put it in these words, she certainly was concerned about her reputation as a woman. She was no longer young and did not have significant economic resources, so her chances of marrying again were very small. For whatever reason(s), she learned to accept life with her husband for almost fifty years. What can we know about the person with whom she decided to live for so long? Did he have any redeeming qualities that persuaded her stay, or did she remain with him simply because of the factors enumerated above?

János was vindictive, bitter, and peevish. As a young man, he worked as a tanner. In the census of 1792, twenty years into their marriage, when all the members of the tanner guild of Debrecen were registered (including the widows), he was listed as “inactive”: “They are masters, but they do not work in the trade themselves, neither do they have assistants who would work for them, and they do not bring profit to the guild.”46 Why did Ladányi decide to stop practicing his trade? We know about special cases when an artistan went into bankruptcy or was too incompetent or helpless to work alone. Many artisans of Debrecen were engaged in agriculture in the city’s extended adjacent lands.47 They purchased farms outside the borders of the city and worked in the fields, in addition to working as members of the guild. Sometimes the wife took over the trade while the husband devoted his energies to cattle breeding and other peasant work. None of this was true of Ladányi. Unquestionably, he was a very talented tanner, and neither in wealth registers nor in the legal documents is there evidence indicating that he pursued work in agriculture.48

It is impossible to know why he stopped working as a tanner, but in all probability he thought that he would raise more money and better succeed in life as a casual businessman than as a hard-working artisan. We know for certain that he abandoned his craft sometime in the 1790s, and, as the surviving legal documents of his multiple conflicts with fellow citizens suggest, most likely his earnings came from fishy business dealings.

A Quarrelsome Nobleman

Ladányi started his first legal case against a certain András Nagy, a local salesman, in 1815.49 They were involved in a honey hoarding business together, but, as Ladányi argued in court, Nagy had cheated him and refused to give him his share.50 Nagy, on the other hand, firmly stated that he had never asked Ladányi to take part in the transaction because Ladányi had no talent and he was also far too vehement and “impetuous.” Still, he required the money for the transaction. Nagy called the tanner a person “who was well-known for his unruly behavior” and “made a judge of himself and took revenge without any consideration of the consequences.” The court rejected Ladányi’s request on the basis of the lack of a written contract. Further evidence about his court cases suggests that he was engaged in several business dealings in which he became entangled in interpersonal conflicts and gained quite a few enemies in Debrecen.

The tanner was unbearably aggressive, a real scandal-maker. In 1816, one of the city representatives began a defamation case against him because he had publicly called him a bastard. Ladányi was sentenced to pay a considerable fine, and the judges, who usually were impartial, used extremely derogatory language when talking about him. They described him as “hideous-tongued, blatant, and disobedient.”51 Undoubtedly, the city authorities were tired of the intractable old man’s disruptive behavior. The Magistrate was especially sensitive to a haughty demeanor and the flaunting of noble origins.52 Clearly Erzsébet lived with an irresponsible husband who abused her and all those around him. Enough was enough. In 1821, after 47 years of marriage, she called on a well-known attorney, Gábor Keresztessy, and asked him to draft a petition for divorce.

The brief for Erzsébet was a masterpiece, both in its style and its content. The petition effectively captured the attention of the judges and no less effectively infuriated Ladányi (these two goals went hand in hand for a well-written legal petition at the time). Many of the most successful petitions were first-person narratives created on the popular notion that putting one’s life on display in all its details was automatic proof of virtue and honesty. One was not compelled to address the court, but this could be a very convincing tactic. So, Keresztessy composed a first-person account that studiously imitated the tone of a humiliated, tortured and guileless elderly woman: “A single day has not passed without me suffering from his [Ladányi] violent nature, either because I am chased or because I am tortured. At times, he forced me to take my clothes off and then he laid me down naked on the floor and, standing next to me, beat my naked body with a wooden stick until he finally got tired. I remained half-dead on the floor, he kicked me several times... A year before last Christmas he hurt me so badly with a ripping iron that I lost one of my eyes; other parts of my body have also been injured. Considering that it is impossible to share a house with such an inhuman husband, who has threatened to kill me one day, a year ago I had to flee, and I moved in under someone else’s roof to escape his fury.”53

The opening gambit of the petition was unquestionably dramatic and artistic, at least according to standards at the time. Lawyers attempted to sway the magistrates by appealing to their sense of compassion, indignation, and horror. They therefore composed sensationalistic narratives of the tragic turns of a simple life. These narratives demanded a unique vocabulary consisting of extravagantly excessive terms. Contemporary lawyers almost routinely adorned their briefs with hyperbolic language, and they presented the two parties to the case as moral polar opposites: complete innocence on the one hand, the embodiment of evil on the other.

Keresztessy’s rhetorical efforts harmozined with the everyday realities of early nineteenth-century Debrecen. The most common manifestation of family breakdown, at least according to the evidence presented to the court, was domestic violence. Offended wives and eyewitnesses gave testimony indicating cases of brutal physical torture. Usually violence was directed at women and can simply be described as wife beating. Although men did not have a monopoly on rage, examples of women using violence, even to defend themselves, were rare. While it is impossible to provide a catalogue of the various forms of violence used by men against their wives, the offenses included frequent punches and kicks, beatings with sticks, stones, and whips, and the use of knives or whatever else happened to come to hand, not to mention starvation, imprisonment, the binding of various body parts, and murder. This list, though surely not complete, gives an impression of the many ways in which husbands vented their fury. Legal testimony made frequent mention of women’s cries of pain and calls for help, which indicates that physical violence against wives was a common pattern of masculine behavior. Was this really true, or were the varieties of brutality fictive contrivances, little more than a rhetorical strategy used by shrewd attorneys who were seeking favorable rulings for their female clients? The truth is perhaps somewhere between the two extremes. Women may have exaggerated their complaints in their statements to the judges, but at the same time, divorce and criminal documents attest to widespread male violence against women and indicate that the charges that were levelled against husbands and fathers for unusual brutality could not possibly all have been inventions, and indeed may well have been mostly true.

Contemporaries considered wife beating a proper and accepted form of discipline and punishment for a woman’s misbehavior. Relatives and neighbors did not interfere in this kind of domestic strife unless the wife’s life was in danger. Erzsébet Somogyi complained that her husband struck her so brutally, and “without any true reason,” that she needed medical treatment for weeks.54

Keresztessy’s brief, although somewhat manipulative, was not exaggerated at all. The certificate of pastoral reconciliation, which had to be attached to the petition, confirmed the allegations of brutality. Ladányi acknowledged his wife’s accusations: “He confessed to me the cruel acts he had visited on his wife several times. He also declared that he did the right things to his wife when he beat her, so I do believe that there is no hope for improvement.”55

Erzsébet also accused her husband of adultery, saying that “my murderous husband met with bad women and squandered our money …”56 If the plaintiff had a good lawyer and was able to provide satisfactory evidence, these allegations were enough to persuade the court in Debrecen to grant a divorce. In the Ladányis’ case divorce was never granted. A few months after the beginning of the case, Ladányi made a last will and testament, and shortly after that he died.

Last Farewell as Punishment

The tanner’s last will and testament caused as much distress after his death as his presence had during his life. He decided to punish his unruly family members and left the house, which he had purchased together with his wife, to the city. “Forgetting about his fatherly duties,” Ladányi also excluded his daughter, Julianna, and his grandchildren from the inheritance.57 His daughter’s behavior had been a great disappointment to him, because, despite his wishes, she had left a suitable and auspicious marriage that he had arranged for her, and after her divorce she had married a second time, taking a lowly pastor as her husband, although her father harshly opposed the union.

Ladányi sent a letter to the council written in a humble tone in which he said that he wanted to make a last will and testament. He named the people he wished to be present for the act. Usually, the chief justice designated five or seven members of the council and neighbors or friends of the person making the will to execute the process. As always, the tanner’s case was exceptional. He had so many enemies in the city that he was cautious about including his friends as members of the testament committee. He knew very well that his wishes ran contrary to the law. In all probability, he must have realized that the members of his family were likely to challenge the testament after his death.

The process of drawing up his will was a magnum opus, a melodramatic performance. Ladányi moved those who were present to pity, but at the same time, he remained dignified. He made it clear that he was well aware of his extraordinary skills. He was sitting on his bed when the officials entered the room. He then stood up clumsily and crawled to his trunk. He opened it and produced the major piece of evidence of his family’s cruelty: “a torn and blood-spoiled shirt,” which he had been wearing when his granddaughter’s husband, Bálint Szetsey, had attacked him. In tears, he described to the officials his family’s rogueries and his loneliness, calling his wife and his daughter “disloyal, unjust, and his murderers.” Then he got to the point. He declared that he “had always lived in this city in peace and quietly.” He also reminded the committee the Magistrate had once rewarded him for his extraordinary talent. To ensure that he would be remembered as an upright citizen, he had chosen to leave his house, which was so dear to his heart, to the city. He gave the medal that he had received from the emperor to the Reformed Church under one specific condition: “the pastors should make a small golden plate of the medal with his name engraved on it....”

As of the first half of the nineteenth century, personal memory became a much more prominent concern among Debrecenians. Testators had a strategy for the afterlife: they made decisions regarding how to be sure their names would be remembered. Some of them established special scholarships in the city’s College, others made pious gifts to the Calvinist church. In Ladányi’s case, his self-fashioning included stressing his noble origins, to which the family documents attested. Finally, although “they do not deserve it,” he was “generous” with his family and forgave them for their hostile behavior. He gave the chattels to his wife and daughter, but “the people who took care of him should get a reasonable portion of that wealth.”58

A City against a Widow

A few days after making his last will and testament, Ladányi died.59 His testament was read aloud in the presence of his widow’s new attorney, Sándor Sinay, who “challenged the document as a whole and in all of its details.” Sinay argued that the house that Ladányi had left in his will to Debrecen was a common property with his wife, and when the couple had purchased it, they had used Erzsébet’s inheritance. The widow initiated a case to revoke the testament, while the representative of the city ordered it finalized.

A few months earlier Ladányi had tried a very unusual trick to cheat his heirs. He tried to exchange the house for one outside of the city. Alarmed by her husband’s plans, Erzsébet had immediately turned to the court and asked the judges to prevent the transaction.”60

It is hard to imagine that Ladányi, who was current in legal matters and knew how quickly gossip spread in the city, seriously believed that he would be able to pull off this transaction behind Erzsébet’s back.61 Most probably, he hoped that his wife, who was weak and was struggling with financial troubles, would be unable to exercise her legal rights. Even with a lawyer’s help, if the real estate were no longer in the city, it would have been much more difficult for her to stake her claim to it. The transaction was registered in the city’s real estate records, but since the court ruled in her favor, she could take some satisfaction in the fact that she had hindered her husband’s attempt to defraud her at the last moment.

Still, the old woman was in a weak position, because her husband’s last will and testament caused her a great deal of trouble. She had to fight against the city, against commissioners with whom, while her husband had been alive, she “had apparently experienced […] good will.” In the legal petition, her attorney, Sinay, marhsalled the whole arsenal of eloquent romantic rhetoric.62 He reminded the judges that they had previously expressed their compassion for the weak and defenseless woman when she had suffered from her husband’s “brutal cruelty.” He described Erzsébet’s torments in detail, the horrors of her decades-long marriage. He asked the judges not to withhold their compassion now in a time of need that matched her misery during the divorce case. He also reminded the jury that Ladányi had deliberately caused confusion with his last will and testament, which had created the conflict of interest between the city and Erzsébet. Based on the man’s history and the evidence against him, Sinay claimed that the will should simply be nullified and that the court should allow the homeless widow to move back into her house. Two days later, Erzsébet received permission to move back home.63 She had every reason to hope that neither she nor her family would ever be disturbed again by any questions concerning its ownership.

This, however, was not the case. Although the court was well aware of Ladányi’s malicious intentions, the widow’s interests conflicted with the interests of the city. In the end, Erzsébet was allowed to remain in the house for the rest of her life, but the city retained half of its ownership. This essentially meant that after her death the house had to be sold at public auction and the heirs were only entitled to half of the total price. Erzsébet had no other choice than to accept the ruling. Legal restrictions made it impossible to open the same case again, but even had they not, she herself had neither the money nor the energy to renew struggle against the city. She was old and weak and could hardly survive on the money she received from her tenants. She died in 1825 at the age of 75, in a “miserable state,”64 according to the register of deaths.

The Stalwart

After her father’s death, Julianna, who had also been widowed, decided to leave her own household and move in with her mother.65 Her children had already grown up, so this seemed like a rational choice, since it would have been financially wasteful to maintain two separate households for two single women.66 After her mother’s death, for five peaceful years nothing happened to the house. Finally, in 1830, the Magistrate decided to enforce the ruling. The sale of the house was announced by the beat of a drum, in the typical fashion, and the property was turned over to the buyer who offered the highest price. A local artisan purchased it for a reasonable price that exceeded the opening bid.67

Julianna brought a suit against the city immediately. She claimed that nine years earlier, in 1821, Ladányi had violently taken her money and invested a large amount into a precarious brandy business. Since the city now held her father’s estate, she contended that it was also responsible for his debts to her. She argued that the business in question caused her immense losses, and now she demanded compensation. She also demanded a huge amount as reconstruction expenses. Once she had moved in with her mother, she had initiated major reconstruction of the old building. Moreover, in an attempt to appeal to people’s sense of compassion, she requested funds to cover her mother’s funeral expenses.68

The next step in the legal procedure was to collect information from the witnesses named by Julianna. She listed people who stated that they knew about the brandy conflict and remembered the scandalous event very well. Julianna gathered enough evidence to prove that she finally had had to sell the brandy for only one-third of the original sum her father had stolen from her. Although Ladányi had promised in front of other people to compensate her, he had never lived up to his word.69

She went too far and her apparent greed made the jury irate. For five years after her mother’s death, she lived rent-free in a house that was owned by the city. The lawyer representing the city rejected Julianna’s request and indignantly lectured her on the “impudence” of her suggestions. Legally, the demands were unfounded because she had already received her maternal inheritance, half of the price of the house.

Again years passed. In 1835, as a final step, Julianna played her last card. She alarmed her adult son by explaining that the case did not seem very promising, and she asked him to address a letter to the jury. Her well-educated son used an age-old trick when he tried to play on the jury’s empathy. He described his mother’s lonely life in detail, the torments of an atrocious father, the sacrifices she had made for her mother, and in general he convincingly portrayed Julianna’s life as a permanent struggle for survival. He argued that she needed the money she was seeking from the city badly. Otherwise, the judges risked committing the cruel sin of sentencing a lonesome and deprived woman to starvation.70 The Ladányis’ legal skirmishes came to an end in 1836, more than twenty years after János Ladányi had first sought to exact his form of justice in the city court. In their final ruling, the judges rejected all of Julianna’s requests for money, stressing that the widow had been disrespectful of the jury’s generosity. She should have been satisfied with half of the price of her homestead. Any further demand was unrealistic and surely demonstrated her infinite greed.71 There is no evidence indicating that either Julianna or her children were involved in any further legal fights in Debrecen.


My interest in Ladányi’s case was piqued by a series of legal conflicts and cat-and-mouse games that he played with his family and the city authorities. I had been working with last wills and testaments from Debrecen, collecting statistical data from the documents in order to study the mental changes of the Calvinist burghers. In the meantime, however, I began to understand the limitations of the quantitative approach. János Ladányi appeared in my database as an old, married male who had one daughter, who was a Calvinist by religion, a tanner by profession, and a nobleman, and whose most important decision was to will his house to the Magistrate. Shortly after reading about the circumstances of his decision, I realized that by forcing his life into a column of figures I lost useful information about his motives and I misinterpreted his acts. After all, he was not a generous donator, but a vengeful Debrecenian tanner who wanted to vex his wife and daughter, and he was fairly successful in doing so.

In fact, preparing a last will and testament was not a particularly widespread practice among Debrecenians. Although this was one of the most important privileges of the city, granted to Debrecen as early as the fifteenth century, until the mid-1700s it remained rather sporadic. Even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was not common. No more than 5 percent of the adult population prepared written wills.72 Although it was not obligatory to provide a reason for making a will, most people explicitly named their reasons for doing so. The overwhelming majority of Debrecenian testators were obsessed with potential conflicts among their successors, and included clauses and conditions in their wills to avoid fights over their wealth. Many will-makers stated that they actually decided to leave behind a written testament because they thought that the family members and relatives would not be able to agree about how to divide up their belongings. Most burghers only referred to these possible “battles” in general, but some explained their family circumstances in detail and named the potential enemies. Mihály Csonka, a farmer, declared in his last will and testament that he had had two wives, that he had living children from both, and that he wished “to avoid competition and litigation” among them.73 Csonka tried to explain his circumstances as clearly as possible, and he described in detail what he had accumulated with his first and second wives, how they had raised the children, how much they had spent on them and what they had already received in their adult years. These explanations served as justifications for his decisions. Meticulous testators enlisted not only the members of their nuclear families, but also their cousins, uncles, aunts, brothers-in-law, and sisters-in-law, not to mention other legatees, such as friends, servants, journeymen, neighbors, mentors, doctors and lawyers. The most common reason for making a will was to prevent “disturbances,” and other factors (such as war, epidemics, illness, old age or enlistment) were mentioned much less frequently. What should one think of this rhetoric, that placed such emphasis on order and peace?

It should not be taken for granted. Reading the testaments more closely, one has the impression that conflict-management rhetoric was only a “facade” and actually concealed the real motivation of will-making: in many cases the testament served to reward and to punish surviving family members, relatives and other relations.74 Most testators made decisions that were favorable to one or more heirs, while leaving significantly less to others or even completely excluding them from the inheritance. These acts did not prevent conflicts, they generated them. We can identify various grounds for privileging or punishing heirs that were a mix of emotional causes and rational considerations.

Those children—both sons and daughters—who “showed cold behavior” and neglected their parents were more likely to receive less of the inheritance. Parents often accused their adult children of “never showing up on the doorstep anymore,” although they provided them with financial means for their professions and weddings.75 The archival sources suggest that emotional alienation had the biggest role in the decisions, but other factors could also play an important part. Testators kept personal offences in evidence and often mentioned them in wills, which were tools with which they could inflict punishment for what they saw as improper behavior. István Dobszai complained that his elder sons did not respect him and that once one of them had even struck his beard.76 As a consequence, the aggressive child was excluded from the inheritance. In addition to physical violence, other forms of abuse were mentioned in the complaints, including verbal abuse and theft. István Horváth had two adult daughters. The younger, Erzsébet, “once called him a bad father and old man in front of the maid.”77 Her punishment was severe: she did not get a penny of her father’s possessions. An old widow, Anna Oláh, left her soldier son nothing because “when he enlisted in the army, he stole 70 Forints from her.”78

Parents rewarded children who had learned trades, built careers, and accumulated wealth. They scathingly commented on half-wit, alcoholic, vagrant, and prodigal offspring, who received less than their siblings because of their misbehavior. In most cases, testators did not consider the causes of successes and failures, but simply punished “losers” by leaving them trifling amounts or excluding them entirely from the family wealth.79 Deviant children were regarded as unworthy of “parental benevolence,” both because they were unable to attain much in life and because they were a source of shame for their families. Idiots got less or nothing, and they were often left in the care of their healthy family members. Sons were punished for frequenting pubs and daughters for immoral sexual behavior. János Csarnai, a potter, endlessly grumbled about his children. His sons were journeymen, but he could not expect much of them (so he lamented), because they spent more time in inns than in the workshop. His daughter, Erzsébet, stole from him several times and, even worse, wasted her life in taverns, engaging in “sinful conversation with strangers, causing her father much bitterness and pain.”80

Of all the possible sins a child could commit against his or her parents, entering a match that did not have the approval of the parents was the worst. Péter Mélius, the city’s most influential pastor in the sixteenth century, defined marriage as the following: “Marriage is a contract that is dependent on the free and legal consent of the uniting parties and their parents.”81 By the nineteenth century, parents had somewhat less influence on their children’s decisions to marry, their approval remained an important consideration. An advantageous match could secure the family more wealth and stability, and children who resisted their parents’ instructions could suffer exclusion. John Gillis has argued that early modern parents regarded the marriage of one of their children as a capital investment; 82 in nineteenth-century Debrecen this perception was still dominant. Although in the early 1800s Sámuel Diószegi, the protestant pastor and professor of the city’s College, preached that parental coercion was the worst possible foundation of a marriage, in everyday practice fathers and mothers continued to meddle in their children’s affairs, and they used the testaments as a means of enforcing their will.83 János Kováts’s widow openly blackmailed her son: “if he does not marry that girl from Somogy with whom he had a secret relationship against his mother’s and relatives’ will, he will receive 40 Forints as a reward; if, however, he marries her, he gets nothing for his wedding.”84

Testators also mentioned their spouses in their wills. Although wives and husbands received less attention than sons and daughters, the distribution of an inheritance could serve as the pronouncement of final judgment on the spouses’ behavior. Debrecenians made a very clear distinction between good and bad marriages; from the testaments we can more or less reconstruct the criteria of both. In a good marriage the spouses lived together peacefully and diligently accumulated wealth. In this case, the surviving mate could at least expect access to common properties for a lifetime; if there were no children, he or she could count on full property rights. When the union was less successful, the will was often written in a bitter tone and dwelt on the everyday details of the bad marriage, resembling more at times a petition for divorce than a last will and testament. An artisan, György Horváth, took five wives in the course of his long life. When making his last will and testament he had an opportunity to compare them to one another. While his second mate was “hard-working and modest,” his last spouse was a rover who neglected him in his final days: “she does nothing but take her baby in her arms, and she stays out of the house with him all day.”85 She was excluded from any inheritance by her husband for her misbehavior. Many people punished their spouses in their testaments. The causes varied, but drinking, laziness, prodigality and infidelity were the most common.

One might be tempted to ask at this point whether Ladányi’s will was, after all, really so extraordinary. The fact that so many people used their last will and testament to exact vengeance or bestow rewards suggests that his ploy was not exceptional. He adered to an old and widespread tradition by punishing the members of his family, especially his daughter, Julianna, who married against his will, and his wife Erzsébet, who may well have been acting on her daughter’s advice when she initiated divorce proceedings against him. The testament is a formal legal action, but also a social practice which serves to address private conflicts.

The tanner consciously induced and cannily seized on the conflict of interest between the city and his family, maximizing the avenues of revenge. His story also allows us to pose questions about the authority and role of a last will and testament, and it offers insights into a historical phenomenon usually overlooked by social historians who tend to end their analysis where, one might suggest, they should begin. They interpret testaments as documents that settle earthly matters, taking for granted the idea that the words of the testament, cloaked in legal authority, are a terminal point, and not the beginning of new conflicts between the surviving heirs.86 Their focus on the last will and testament as a reflection of social reality blinds these historians to the underlying tensions, motivations, and goals of the testator and ultimately to the aftermath of human conflict. Closer study of inheritance legal cases offers new perspectives on people’s everyday lives and daily squabbles. These questions remind us that the dead have an afterlife in human affairs and that death does not remove people from the stage of history. We can explore a lively human space filled with tensions and hostility on behalf of the successors.

The analysis of the tanner’s will and the subsequent legal battles is an account of an exceptional person’s life and his influence on those who were unfortunate enough to be members of his family. The story extends beyond the borders of Ladányi’s personal narrative and opens avenues of further investigation into the social structures, legal practices, marriage and divorce, cultural values, conflict and solidarity among the burghers of Debrecen. This case study allows us to pose questions about how Debrecenian burghers tried to fashion their lives in unexpected and extraordinary ways and how they used legal means to do this.


Archival Sources

Tiszántúli Református Egyházkerületi és Kollégiumi Levéltár [Archives of Tiszántúl Reformed Church District and College]:

Tt.REL. I. 99. a. Keresztelési és házassági anyakönyvek 1703–1948. [Registers of Baptism and Marriage 1703–1948].

Hajdú-Bihar Megyei Levéltár [Archives of Hajdú-Bihar County]:

IV.A. 1011.b. Register of Civic Legal Actions.

IV.A. 1011.v. Czegléd utcai vagyonösszeírások 1811–1838 [Wealth Register of Czegléd Street 1811–1838].

IV.A. 1011.y. Örökbevallási jegyzőkönyvek 1636–1848 [Records of Civic Properties 1636–1848].

IV.A. 1011.z. Végrendeletek 1518–1848 [Testaments 1518–1848].

IV.A.1018. Debrecen szabad királyi város törvényszéki iratai 1604–1848 [Court Records of the Free Royal City of Debrecen 1604–1848].

IV.A.1018.b. Polgári és büntető törvénykezési jegyzőkönyvek 1726–1848 [Registers of Civic and Criminal Court Records 1726–1848].

IV.A.1018.c. Polgári peres iratok, 1760–1850 [Civic Court Records, 1760–1850].

IX. 35. Debreceni tímár céh iratai 1599–1825 [Records of the Tanner Guild of Debrecen 1599–1825].

Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár [National Archives of Hungary]

C-53. Departamento publicum-politicom. Relationes by count Sámuel Teleki.


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1 For more on the debate: John Comaroff and Simon Roberts, Rules and Processes. The Cultural Logic of Dispute in the African Context (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), 5–17; Simon Roberts, Order and Dispute. An Introduction to Legal Anthropology (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), 11–29; Simona Cerutti, “Normes et pratiques, ou de la légitimité de leur opposition,” in Les formes de l’experience. Une autre histoire sociale, ed. Albin Michel (Paris: Éditions Albin Michel, 1995), 127–49.

2 Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms. The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980).

3 Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983).

4 Judith Brown, Immodest Acts: the Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

5 Thomas Kuehn, Law, Family and Women: Toward a Legal Anthropology of Renaissance Italy (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1991).

6 Ibid., 11.

7 Cerutti, Normes.

8 Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words, and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

9 Kuehn, Law, 97.

10 Tiszántúli Református Egyházkerületi és Kollégiumi Levéltár (hereafter Tt.REL) Registers of Baptism and Marriage. I. 99-a 6 VI. 1772–1778, 30. “János Ladányi from Péterfia Street married Pál Diószegi’s daughter from Csapó Street on April 27, 1774.”

11 János Ladányi was born on Csapó Street on June 23, 1748. His father was János Ladányi the elder, his mother was Sára Hadházi. Tt.REL. Registers of Baptism. I. 99-a vol. n. 35, 1742–1757, 283. Erzsébet Diószegi was born on the same street on November 24, 1749. Her parents were Pál Diószegi and Erzsébet Szappanos. Ibid. 372.

12 Rácz István, Városlakó nemesek az Alföldön 1541–1848 (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1988), 83.

13 Rácz István, “A cívis fogalma” in A Déri Múzeum Évkönyve (Debrecen: Déri Múzeum, 1986), 77–111, 104. and also see Herpay Gábor, Nemes családok Debrecenben (Debrecen: published by the author, 1925).

14 Anna Rácz’s last will and testament, August 6, 1746. Hajdú-Bihar Megyei Levéltár (hereafter HBmL) IV.A. 1011/z. 206. Anna Rácz was first married to János Ladányi’s the elder’s father, István Ladányi, a native of Debrecen. Her second husband was a well-to-do nobleman in the neighboring Közép-Szolnok county.

15 See: Younger Mihály Jándi’s last will and testament, February 17, 1837. 1944. Mihály Jándi the younger married the unmarried daughter of Mihály Szabó from Sámson, June 25, 1832. Records of Marriage. Tt.REL. I. 99-a Book 140, 491.

16 Registers of the tanners guild of Debrecen. HBmL IX. 35/9, 234.

17 See the article on the history of the Diószegi family: S. Szabó József, “Diószeghy Sámuel”. Debreceni Képes Kalendárium (1908): 226–34. The Diószegi family was registered as noble in the eighteenth century. See: Herpay, Nemes.

18 S. Szabó, Diószeghy, 228.

19 Szűcs István, Szabad királyi Debreczen város történelme három kötetben ábrákkal. A legrégibb kortól a mai időkig, vol 1(Debreczen: Városi Nyomda, 1871).

20 He was called the praeceptor of Kis-Csapó street. Tt.REL. Registers of Baptism I. 99-a3 vol. 5, 1742–57, 283. I found further information on his profession; István Vecsei mentioned in his last will and testament that his northern neighbor was his daughter’s teacher, Pál Diószegi. István Vecsei’s last will and testament, April 17, 1769. 441.

21 Rácz, Városlakó, 126–37.

22 On conditions of teaching in eighteenth-century Debrecen, see: Mervó Zoltánné, “A leányok iskolai oktatása Debrecenben a polgári forradalom előtt,” A Hajdú-Bihar Megyei Levéltár Évkönyve, vol 1. (1974): 27–58, 35.

23 Mervó, “A leányok”.

24 Diószegi Sámuel, Erköltsi tanítások prédikációkban (Debrecen: n.p., 1808).

25 Mátay Mónika, Törvényszéki játszmák: válás Debrecenben 1793–1848 (Debrecen: Csokonai Kiadó, 2006). 161–73.

26 For Protestants, marriage was a means of maintaining social order, morals, and control over people’s sex lives. The institution was intended to protect the faithful from earthly seductions. As opposed to the Catholics, Protestants did not consider celibacy superior to marriage. They believed that single life was contradictory to human nature and God’s will. See: Roderick Phillips, Untying the Knot. A Short History of Divorce (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 1–27.

27 Divorce case of Erzsébet Böszörményi and János Szilágyi HBmL IV.A. 1018/c. n. 46. Supplement A.

28 Analysis of the Debrecenian divorce and inheritance cases demonstrates that money could play an important role in marriages. See for example: Mónika Mátay, “The Adulterous Wife and the Rebellious Husband: a Marital Dispute in a Calvinist City,” Social History 34 (2009): 145–62.

29 Rácz, Városlakó, 152.

30 The Ladányi couple bought the house for 1,225 Forints, which was the average prize for a middle category house in Debrecen in the late eighteenth century. Records of civic properties 1636–1848. HBmL IV.A. 1011/y/vol. 5.

31 Rácz, Városlakó, 32.

32 His name was mentioned in the register of the guild several times between 1776 and 1785. Registers of the tanner guild of Debrecen, HBmL IX. 35/9.

33 Relationes by count Sámuel Teleki. MOL, C-53:1786/205.pos.1.p.1-58.(=fol.5-34.)

34 Witness record. HBmL IV.A.1018/a, August 30, 1823, 388.

35 Gábor Tsenger, an apprentice’s confession. Divorce case of Gergely Barta and Mária Zefer. HBmL IV.A. 1018/c/1822, n. 48.

36 János Kapros’s last will and testament, April 23, 1763. 300.

37 The letter was attached to Ladányi’s last will and testament. The document is a unique mixture of informal last will and testament and private contract.

38 Ibid.

39 János Ladányi’s last will and testament, August 14, 1822. 1605.

40 Mária Ferge’s last will and testament, October 25, 1806, 1152.

41 See Mátay Törvényszéki, 161–73.

42 L. Abrams, “Crime against Marriage? Wife-beating, the Law and Divorce in Nineteenth-century Hamburg,” in Gender and Crime in Modern Europe, ed. Margaret L. Arnot and Cornelie Usborne (London: UCL Press, 1999), 118–36.

43 On the law see: Roderick Phillips, Family Breakdown in Late Eighteenth-Century France. Divorces in Rouen 1792–1803 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 12–14.

44 Lawrence Stone, Road to Divorce. England 1530–1987 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 368–82.

45 Divorce case of István Steiner and Zsuzsanna Bőhm, September 12, 1816. HBmL IV.A. 1018/c 40/22, 61.

46 Records of the tanner guild of Debrecen 1599–1825. Classificatio. September 17, 1792. HBmL. IX. 35/1.

47 A contemporary journalist reflected on the double activities of artisans: “All residents, with the exception of farmers, have two occupations; the tanner, the cobbler, the salesman, the pastor, the attorney, and the teacher at the same time cultivate their land, sometimes so intensely that their original profession is often secondary.” Helmeczy Mihály, ed., “Debreczen állapotjának rövid rajza,” Társalkodó I. (1837) 35–36.

48 On the basis of wealth registers we can trace most of Ladányi’s activities between 1811 and his death in 1822. In this period, he owned the same house at Czegléd Street, he did not work as a tanner, he did not buy land, and he had a tenant only once. Wealth Register of Czegléd Street (1811–1838) HBmL. A. 1011/v, vol. 6.

49 Civic court records, 1760–1850. HBmL IV.A. 1018/c/1815, May 8 and 16, vol. 21, 231–34, 261–62.

50 Ibid.

51 Civic court records, 1760–1850. HBmL IV.A. 1018/c/1816, July 22, vol. 23, 288–89.

52 See more about the conflicts between the city and the nobility: Rácz, Városlakó, 152–82.

53 Register of civic legal actions. HBmL IV.A. 1011/b, 21, 1821, 281–82.

54 Divorce case of Erzsébet Somogyi and István Czezcei. April 29, 1816. HBmL IV.A. 1018/c/40.

55 Ibid. attachment n. 3.

56 HBmL IV.A. 1018/b/1822, May 21, 282.

57 Civic court records, 1760–1850. HBmL IV.A. 1018/c/1830, February 18, attachment “A.”

58 According to Ladányi’s last will and testament, the chattels consisted of the furniture of the house, the goods in his case, his bed-clothes, dishes, a wall-clock, a pocket watch, and a silver spoon.

59 He died in his house at Czegléd Street on August 17, 1822, three days after making his last will and testament. Usually, the cause of the death was given in the Register of deaths. In his case there was no comment about why or how he died. Considering the fact that when he made his will he did not seem very ill and could still move around in the house, he may not have died a natural death. However, there is no surviving archival evidence of murder or any other malicious acts against him. Tt.REL. 99-a 88, 223.

60 HBmL IV.A. 1018/c/1821, November 22, 581–82.

61 In fact, according to the documents, Ladányi had exchanged the house for “some real estate in a village,” but the court invalidated the contract.

62 Ibid. September 19, 1822, 337–38.

63 Ibid. September 21, 1822, 348. Erzsébet provided a copy of the city’s real estate register that proved that the house was common property with Ladányi. She could also prove along with her two brothers that she inherited money and a vineyard from her mother, Pálné Diószegi. HBmL IV.A. 1018/c/ 1823, 388–89.

64 She died as János Ladányi’s widow at the age of 75 in her house at Czegléd Street on March 19, 1825. Tt.REL. 00-a 88, 327.

65 This information is in a letter written by János Kálmán, who was born from Julianna’s second marriage. He wrote a letter to the city council on March 16, 1830 in which he described his mother’s reasons for returning to her parents’ house. HBmL IV.A. 1018/c, vol. 56, n. 5, August 26, 1830, attachment “t.”

66 Detailed list of the instructions given to the artisans, ibid.

67 On February 22, 1830, Sándor Németh bought the house for 3,056 Forints, while the sale price was 3,000. Ibid., attachment “D.”

68 Sándor Borsai’s confession, Ibid., attachment n. 1.

69 She refers to confessions in which Ladányi had made such a promise to his daughter.

70 János Kálmán’s letter to the Council of Debrecen. HBmL IV.A. 1018/c, vol. 59, n. 7, August 12, 1835, attachment “z.”

71 HBmL IV.A. 1018/c. vol. 60, February 22, 1836, 123–24.

72 Tárkány Szücs Ernő, Magyar jogi népszokások (Budapest: Akadémiai, 1981), 727.

73 Mihály Csonka’s last will and testament, September 6, 1799, 1035.

74 The statements I make in the following paragraphs are based on an examination of 1,000 last wills and testaments drawn up between 1700 and 1875. They include about one-third of the last wills and testaments made by Debrecenian burghers in this period.

75 István Munkácsi used this reasoning in his testament. He stated that although he had five children, four of them refused to take care of him and they did not even knock on his door. “Although all of them were his own children, some behaved as if they were stepchildren, never helped him with anything, except his daughter, Mária, János Kováts’s wife, who had been taking care of him for 17 years, and she treated him properly ... lifted and washed his body, gave him food, while the others did not show up and did not even give him a glass of water.” István Munkácsi’s last will and testament, September 20, 1792, 895.

76 István Dobszai’s last will and testament, February 8, 1738, 133.

77 István Horváth’s last will and testament, July 20, 1744, 226.

78 Anna Oláh’s last will and testament, August 8, 1736, 122.

79 Weak or sick, disabled children could not count on an inheritance from their parents. Their share was mostly left under the supervision of a sibling or relative.

80 János Csarnai’s last will and testament, March 6, 1794, 920.

81 Cited in Bucsay Mihály, ”Méliusz theológiája kátéja tükrében,” in Bucsay Mihály–Czeglédy Sándor–Esze Tamás et al., A második helvét hitvallás Magyarországon és Méliusz életműve (Budapest: A Magyarországi Református Egyház Zsinati Irodajának Sajtóosztálya, 1967), 305.

82 John R. Gillis, For Better, For Worse. British Marriages, 1600 to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 86.

83 Diószegi, Erköltsi.

84 Last will and testament of János Kováts’s widow, July 26, 1783. HBmL IV.A. 1011/z, 724. Somogy is a county in southwestern Hungary.

85 György Horváth’s last will and testament, November 17, 1808, 1274.

86 See for example: Jacques Chiffoleau, La compatibilité de l’au-delà: Les hommes, la mort, et la religion dans la région d’Avignon à la fin du moyen âge, vers 1320-vers 1480. In Collection de l’Ecole français de Rome, vol. 47 (Rome: École Française de Rome, 1980); Samuel Kline Cohn, Death and Property in Siena, 1205–1800. Strategies for the Afterlife (Baltimore–London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988); Samuel Kline Cohn, The Cult of Remembrance and the Black Death. Six Renaissance Cities in Central Italy (Baltimore–London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); Steven Epstein, Wills and Wealth in Medieval Genoa, 1150–1250 (Cambridge, MA–London: Harvard University Press, 1984); Hoffman, Philip T., “Wills and Statistics: Tobit Analysis and the Counter Reformation in Lyon,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 17 (1984): 813–34; Michel Vovelle, Piété baroque et déchristianisation en Provence au XVIIIe siècle. Les attitudes devant la mort d’après les clauses des testaments (Paris: Pion, 1973).

pdfVolume 3 Issue 1 CONTENTS

Sándor Nagy

One Empire, Two States, Many Laws Matrimonial Law and Divorce in the Austro–Hungarian Monarchy1


Following the Compromise of 1867 between the Habsburg House and the parties pressing for Hungarian independence, the territory of Austria and the territory of Hungary constituted separate jurisdictions, thus it is not surprising that matrimonial law developed differently in the newly sovereign Kingdom of Hungary. In Austria the 1811 civil code specifically circumscribed the right of Catholics, who constituted the overwhelming majority of the population and were only able to “separate from bed and board,” and non-Catholics to dissolve the bonds of marriage. In contrast, in Hungary as of the middle of the nineteenth century Catholics were also able to dissolve the bonds of marriage. In this article I examine the evolution of matrimonial law as well as the influence of the economic and social transformations of the nineteenth century on divorce rates and the spread of divorce. The introduction of the matrimonial law of 1895 and the easing of divorce proceedings in 1907 were direct causes of the steep rise in the already higher rates of divorce in Hungary around the turn of the century. While the higher divorce rates in the larger cities were influenced by industrialization and urbanization, in rural areas, where the rise in divorce rates was not negligible, other factors must be sought. After the adoption of the Hungarian matrimonial law, the number of divorces among Catholics grew and the number of divorce proceedings initiated by members of the lower classes, in particular peasants and agricultural workers, also rose. In general, the data indicate cultural divergences in the practice of divorce and reveal the significance of the differences between the lifestyle customs and legal traditions of different denominations on the one hand and on the other the importance of efforts on the part of the state to reconcile these differences and foster social integration.


Keywords: matrimonial law, divorce rates, denominational difference, urbanization, social integration, nationalism, Austro–Hungarian Monarchy


The rise in divorce rates in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is one of the most interesting questions in the history of the family as an institution. How is it possible that while divorce was practiced almost exclusively among Protestants and only in unusual cases up until the nineteenth century, over the course of the next 200 years divorce gained legal acceptance in almost all of the states of the Western world and indeed by the end of the twentieth century had become almost familiar (as it were)? While contemporaries frequently blamed the moral decline of the family for the rise in divorce rates, sociologists and, in their wake, historians have emphasized the importance of economic and social factors. According to the theory of modernization, which gained ground in the decades immediately following World War II, the social structures that existed prior to the nineteenth century, which were necessarily founded on stable family households, were transformed by industrialization. Family bonds weakened and the nuclear family, consisting only of parents and children, became a more characteristic phenomenon. Parallel to this alleged shift, individual preferences began to play a role in the selection of a partner that would have been inconceivable earlier, and people’s expectations regarding marriage also grew, making marriages less stable and in the end leading to the gradual and accelerating rise in the number and proportion of divorces.2

150 years of research that have been pursued in the social sciences and the work that has been done by historians over the course of the past few decades notwithstanding, we still have only a vague sense of the reasons that have led to the current state of affairs regarding matrimonial law and the institution of marriage.3 Modernization theory has proven useful in understanding social processes, but at the same time it has made us aware of apparently unresolvable contradictions as well. Among these, the most important is perhaps the fact that modernization by no means caused a consistent rise in divorce rates outside the Western world,4 which throws into question the causal relationship between economic transformations and changes in the nature of family relationships or rises in divorce rates. In a historical context something that did not as yet seem problematic with reference to the time of the origin of the modernization theory, namely whether the history of divorce can be blurred with that of the dissolution of marriages, and what divorce rates themselves actually signify, has also been questioned. To cite a classic example, the difference in divorce rates in England and France at the turn of the century was striking. Divorce was far more common in France than in England. Gail Savage poses the question, “How is it that at the turn of the century a comparatively rural Catholic nation should have so many more divorces than a Protestant nation that was the most urbanized and industrialized in the world?”5 Her answer, that the legal system can effectively hamper or facilitate the spread of divorce, may be part of the explanation, but the problem makes clear the need for further study of the social uses of alternative solutions, both legal and otherwise.6

If we must be willing for the moment to do without a comprehensive theory that explains the general if varied rise in divorce rates, we nonetheless stand to glean some insights into the phenomenon from a comparative study of states and legal systems in which one discerns not only contradictory tendencies, but also similarities that may shed light on underlying causes for these divergences. An examination of trends in the Austro–Hungarian Monarchy (a state that was the creation of the Compromise of 1867 between the Habsburg House and Hungary) may prove particularly illuminating. A comparison of matrimonial law in Hungary and Austria is revealing not simply because the two states shared a close history and were indeed successors to the same political body (thus one confronts fewer methodological problems), but also because matrimonial laws in the territory of the Monarchy (which was a distinctive political formation in which two states shared power) were both a sign and symptom of the cultural and religious diversity of the population and the attempts of the state to bridge these differences. Thus, while the rise in the number and proportion of divorces corresponded to the general upward trend, the cultural and political-legal factors that either furthered or hindered this rise (and that in the case of other nation-states are perhaps more difficult to discern) are more easily distinguished.


Roads to(ward) Divorce

Austria and Hungary,7 the two constituent yet legally separated states of the Austro–Hungarian Monarchy, were both heirs to the reforms in matrimonial law of Emperor Joseph II, the Marriage Patent of 1783 (according to which marriage was a civil contract, not a religious institution). In the periods of increased centralization (1780–1790, 1850–1860), the differences between the two systems of matrimonial law disappeared, or rather diminished significantly, but in time they became determining. In the Austrian territories the civil code that was introduced in 1811 (the Allgemeines Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch) gave considerable momentum to the efforts to secularize matrimonial law. In the lands of the Hungarian Crown, however, the system of denominational laws was restored following the death of Joseph II, albeit with significant modifications, and state matrimonial law was introduced only a century later with a law that was passed in 1894.8 Originally both systems permitted divorce only in the case of people who were not Catholics. Catholics, who constituted the overwhelming majority of the population, were only allowed to separate, not legally divorce. This similarity in the substantive law changed, however, following the Compromise of 1867, when Hungary introduced laws permitting converted Catholics to divorce. In the Austrian provinces (what is referred to as Cisleithania) the tendency was in the opposite direction. Through the Catholic impediment to marriage the rights of the Protestant spouses of converted Catholics and in general of divorced Protestants were curtailed (they were not allowed to remarry or could only marry a non-Catholic).9 These diverging tendencies were topped by the matrimonial law that was introduced in Hungary in 1895. With the exception of Croatia, it made divorce legal for any Hungarian citizen, regardless of his or her denomination.

A comparison of the divorce rates in Austria and Hungary at the turn of the century clearly illustrates the significance of the differences in the two systems of matrimonial law (Figure 1).10


Figure 1. Crude divorce rates (divorces per 10,000)

As the chart illustrates, divorce rates in Hungary were almost always higher than in Austria. A significant rise in both took place around 1900, but while this rise was considerably less abrupt in Austria thanks to the stability of the legal framework there, in Hungary the legal changes resulted in a far more dramatic growth in the divorce rates. In the wake of the easing of restrictions on divorce in 1895 and the elimination of automatic appeal in divorce cases in 1907, divorce rates in Hungary were proportionally among the highest in Europe in the years leading up to World War I.11

As in the case of France and England, this comparison again throws into question one of the basic assumptions of the modernization theory. How is it that in Hungary, which was considerably less industrialized and held on to denominational matrimonial law for a much longer period of time, divorce rates were higher than in Austria, which was more economically developed and had secularized matrimonial laws as part of its civil code? The answer, of course, is obvious: divorce, which in 1868 was made possible in Hungary for converted Catholics and as of 1895 for every Hungarian citizen, was much more appealing than the institution of separation which was only available for the majority of the population in Austria. While the rise in divorce rates (both in absolute terms and proportionally) in Austria clearly indicates a growing social demand, the question remains: how is it that steps were taken towards the liberalization of the institution of divorce in Hungary a half-century before the secularization of matrimonial law, at a time when denominational laws were still in effect, while in Austria this did not take place until the Austrian state actually ceased to exist (the dissolution of the bonds of marriage was permitted in general only following the annexation of the country by Nazi Germany in 1938).

The divergent tendencies of the evolution of matrimonial law in Hungary and Austria were undoubtedly due in part to the different confessional structures of the two populations and the greater importance in Hungary of non-Catholic denominations for which divorce was permissible. At the turn of the century, the population in Austria was 80 percent Roman Catholic and 12 percent Greek Catholic. Only roughly 5 percent was Jewish, 2 percent was Protestant, and 2 percent Orthodox. In Hungary the majority was also Catholic, but Roman Catholics comprised only 49 percent of the population, while 11 percent was Greek Catholic, 5 percent was Jewish, 13 percent was Orthodox, 7 percent was Lutheran, and 14 percent was Calvinist.12 The importance of these differences, however, should not be overstated, since in Hungary as in Austria matrimonial law was dominated by canon law until the middle of the nineteenth century, supported on the institutional level by the courts of the Catholic Church, which was regarded as the avita religio and enjoyed a special relationship with the Habsburg House. It is worth noting, for example, that until the introduction of reforms by Joseph II, the sphere of authority of the Catholic ecclesiastical courts extended in principle to the affairs of non-Catholic couples as well.

The distinctive confessional structure of the population in Hungary really became important towards the end of the eighteenth century. Following the death of Joseph II, the National Assembly that was held in 1790 rehabilitated in defense of the old constitution, which had been ignored by the late emperor, the rights of the “accepted” religions (receptae religiones), which alongside the Catholic Church also included by then the Orthodox Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Calvinist Church. This included jurisdiction in matrimonial affairs, which in Austria remained within the sphere of the state.13 The only reason that the establishment of the planned Protestant courts in Hungary was never implemented and matrimonial cases among Protestants remained within the sphere of authority of the county and urban courts (which were still under the influence of the Estates and made rulings based on the Marriage Patent of Joseph II) was that the Hungarian law was shelved in Vienna.14 The noble reform movement that began to emerge in the National Assemblies held in the 1830s, which pressed, in the name of liberal and national ideals, for a transformation of the legal system and greater independence for Hungary, saw not the defense of ecclesiastical rights, but rather national integration and the creation of civil society as its primary goal. Prominent figures of the movement took a stand in support of the freedom of religion and equality among the various denominations. In practice, this meant curbing the written and unwritten prerogatives of the Catholic Church, a supra-national institution that enjoyed a kind of alliance with the dynasty. Regarding the question of matrimonial law, it meant restrictions on canon law and the assertion of the newly introduced liberal legal measures.

Fundamentally, the fact that with respect to the legal acceptance of divorce there was a “breakthrough” in the Hungarian half of the empire in the middle of the nineteenth century in that every Hungarian citizen, including converted Catholics, could seek a divorce, was a consequence of this political situation. The key element of this was the liberalization of religious conversion, which was established in a law passed in 1844.15 While the goal of the law was not to facilitate divorce, but rather only to make the free practice of religion a legal reality, the measure nonetheless had this as one of its consequences. In the case of a husband or wife who had converted to a Protestant denomination, when arriving at a ruling in a case of divorce the county and city courts took into consideration the person’s denomination at the time of the submission of the request for a divorce, not his or her denomination at the time of the marriage, and therefore were able to grant a divorce in spite of the Catholic belief in the inviolability of marriage.16 This was all brought to an end by the defeat of the 1848 Revolution, since in 1853 the Austrian civil code was temporarily introduced in Hungary, but after the reassertion of the Hungarian legal system in 1861 and then the passage of new laws in 1868, the courts not only revived these practices but even built on them. Since the Hungarian laws of 1868 specified that “the acts committed by a convert following his conversion should be judged by the teachings of the Church to which he has converted, and the principles of the Church he has left impose no obligations on him,” the Hungarian courts would even grant a divorce in cases in which only one of the spouses had converted, while the other had remained part of the Catholic Church.17

Thus when the Hungarian state resolved, at the end of the nineteenth century, to make questions of matrimonial law entirely the prerogative of the state, it was absolutely clear that divorce would become a matter of civil law, and that the Catholic dogmas would constitute no obstacles to it. The domination of the Austrian civil code, in contrast, ensured a durable legal framework which, with a brief interruption of an ultramontan course taken by the neo-absolutist regime in 1856 to 1868, when the matrimonial affairs of the Empire’s Catholic subjects were relegated to the competence of the ecclesiastical courts, lasted for more than a century. Furthermore it preserved the various systems of different church dogma, which it had adapted and incorporated into the civil code. Thus while Jews and non-Catholic Christians were able to divorce (if according to different rules), the 111th paragraph of the Austrian civil code contained the following stipulation: “The valid bond of marriage between two people of the Catholic faith can only be broken by the death of one of the two. This bond is indissoluble even if at the time of the marriage only one of the two was Catholic.”18 The liberal political initiatives of the 1860s and the social movements that began to gather steam at the turn of the century (and had the reform of matrimonial law as one of their goals) were unable to alter these basic principles, even if, as of the middle of the nineteenth century, it became ever more common for people to circumvent the law (and even if by the first years of the twentieth century this was not unheard of among people belonging even to the highest circles).19

The Frequency of Divorce: Traditions and Modernity

A hasty overview of the evolution of matrimonial law clearly reveals that over the course of the nineteenth century denominational belonging was of tremendous significance for married couples in the Austro–Hungarian Monarchy. The right to marry or divorce depended on the denominations of the spouses, whether the case was held in a Church forum or a secular forum. There were no exceptions to this until the practice changed entirely with the enactment of the new matrimonial law in Hungary on October 1, 1895. This law introduced marriage and divorce as civil institutions and brought matrimonial cases under the purview of the state. Social scientists have not yet examined the ways in which contradictory secularization (in the case of Austria) or belated secularization (in the case of Hungary) influenced the matrimonial or legal behavior of people of different denominations in practice, and the extent to which these processes of secularization contributed to or slowed the rises in divorce rates in different parts of the empire, parallel to the economic and social transformations of the nineteenth century.

If one compares the published statistics on marriage with the denominational composition of the population, in both Austria and Hungary people who belonged to non-Catholic denominations (which had permitted divorce for centuries) were the most active. In the Austrian lands, even if we draw no distinction between divorce and separation, people belonging to the religious minorities (Protestants, Orthodox, Jews), which represented only 8 percent of the population, accounted for 15–18 percent of the divorces. The percentage of Roman Catholics who had “separated from bed and board” corresponded to their percentage of the overall population (80 percent), while the percentage among Greek Catholics fell short of their proportion to the entire population. While one can no longer speak of legal distinctions between the denominations in Hungary following the enactment of the matrimonial law in 1895, in the period between 1898 and 1913 non-Catholics still accounted for 64 percent of the divorces, while they represented only 40 percent of the total population. One discerns the influence of religious proscriptions against divorce in the fact that Roman Catholics accounted for only 32 percent of the total number of divorces and Greek Catholics only 4 percent. In the period under examination the denominational composition of the demographic trend (in other words the rise in divorce rates) was influenced (somewhat surprisingly) only by the growing weight of the Orthodox population living in the peripheral areas of the Monarchy. In Austria their contribution grew from a mere 1 percent at the end of the nineteenth century to 4 percent by 191020 and in Hungary from 4 percent in 1900 to 21 percent in 1913.

The attitudes of the various denominations regarding divorce, however, were by no means uniform. The denominational composition of the population and the divergent political and legal traditions and denominational “popular customs,” all of which varied from region to region, resulted in significant differences in the practical attitudes towards matrimonial law, even among groups of people belonging to the same Church. Thus the regional differences in divorce rates (Figure 2) were not simply products of divergent denominational structures. Transylvania, a province in the southeastern corner of the Monarchy that had the highest divorce rates, is a revealing example. The Hungarian statistics do not provide a breakdown of the divorce rates on the basis of denomination, but we can nonetheless state with confidence that the high rate of divorce was due to the remarkably high proportion of people belonging to non-Catholic denominations (58 percent). This does not explain the high divorce rate entirely, however, since the non-Catholic population of the neighboring region bordering the River Tisza was just as high (57 percent), but the divorce rate was considerably lower.21 The phenomenon was basically due to the special position of Transylvania and the wide-ranging political and legal autonomy that the non-Catholic Churches enjoyed there. In the Transylvanian Principality, which became independent from Habsburg-ruled Royal Hungary at the time of the Ottoman conquest, the ideas of the Reformation found fertile ground, bringing with them an early version of the notion of religious tolerance. Thus the Counter-Reformation that swept through the Hungarian Kingdom in the seventeenth century did not gain much ground in Transylvania, which remained something of a bastion of Protestantism, even after the province became part of the Habsburg Empire at end of the century. The Catholic rulers essentially respected the distinctive political setup in Transylvania, one essential part of which was the maintenance of the rights of the “accepted” denominations (Lutheran, Calvinist, Unitarian, Roman Catholic, and as of 1848 Orthodox). As of the sixteenth century the rights of the Churches included purview of issues pertaining to marriages,22 and this was suspended only briefly (for a few years) in the wake of the reforms of Joseph II.23


Figure 2. Crude divorce rates (divorces per 10,000 inhabitans) in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1910 (1900)

The separate right and practice of divorce in Transylvania brought with it the early spread of the recourse to this institution. It is telling, for instance, that in the middle of the nineteenth century in the Calvinist diocese of Udvarhely there were annually 7-12 divorces for every 10,000 Calvinists, which was double the average in Hungary in the 1910s (see Figure 1) and also considerably higher than the Transylvanian average (see Figure 2).24 The divorce rate among Lutheran Saxons and Unitarians (the smallest Protestant denomination in Transylvania) was similarly high. In the period between 1871 and 1893 the Lutheran Matrimonial High Court in the city of Nagyszeben (Hermannstadt in German, today Sibiu in Romania) granted between 100 and 150 divorces every year,25 which came to an average of 5 to 8 divorces for every 10,000 Transylvanian Lutherans. The records of sittings of the Unitarian Ecclesiastical High Court of the city of Kolozsvár (Klausenburg in German, today Cluj in Romania) in the period between 1869 and 1895 contain similar data. The average of 40 to 70 divorces per year indicates a divorce rate between 8 and 13 divorces for every 10,000 Unitarian people.26 While the Orthodox Church was not included among the “accepted” religions until 1848, the continuously working ecclesiastical courts in Transylvania probably also granted more divorces than those in Hungary. In the decanal district of Torda (today Turda in Romania) at least 10 divorce cases were initiated on average every year in the period between 1880 and 1899, which may have raised the divorce rate among the local Orthodox community to 8 for every 10,000 Orthodox people in the district.

The divorce rates among members of different denominations and the divorce rates in general in the second half of the nineteenth century were influenced not only by denominational structures and legal traditions, but also by accelerating economic and social transformations, which can be discerned most clearly in divergent divorce rates in the expanding cities on the one hand, and among the rural population on the other. The two metropolises of the Monarchy, Vienna and Budapest, offer striking and paradigmatic examples of this. Vienna’s place in the popular divorce movement at the beginning of the twentieth century was on the verge of being extreme: 37 percent of the divorces and separations granted in the Austrian half of the empire were issued by the Wiener Landesgericht. The divorce rate hovered around 4.5 percent, in contrast with 0.5 percent in rural areas. The divorce rate among Catholics living in Vienna at the beginning of the twentieth century was eight times as high as the divorce rate among Catholics living in rural areas (3.9 percent in comparison with 0.5 percent), among Jews living in Vienna it was seven times as high (7 percent in Vienna in comparison with 1.1 percent in the rest of Austria), and among Protestants six times as high (5.9 percent in Vienna in comparison with 1 percent in the rest of Austria). Similarly, in Hungary the divorce rate of 5.8 divorces for every 10,000 people in Budapest was much higher than the divorce rate of 2.1 percent in the rest of the country. Regarding denominational breakdown between the capital city and the rest of the country, the largest difference again is found among Catholics. While the divorce rate among Catholics in Budapest was four times as high as the divorce rate among Catholics in the rest of Hungary (5 percent in comparison with 1.2 percent), among Jews it was two-and-half times as much (7.5 percent in comparison with 3 percent), among Lutherans twice as much (6.2 percent in comparison with 3.3 percent), and among Calvinists one-and-a-half times as much (6.4 percent in comparison with 4.7 percent). The actual differences in divorce rates between urban centers and “rural” areas in both halves of the empire must have been even larger than these statistics suggest (both in general and broken down according to denomination), since the term “rural” in this context actually includes many cities in Austria and Hungary.

Nonetheless, with regards to the question of urban lifestyle and urbanization, the differences between the two countries are at least as telling as the similarities. As the example of Vienna suggests, in Austria the cities played a considerably larger role in the divorce movement than in Hungary. While in Austria cities with populations of at least 50,000 (which served as judicial seats) accounted for approximately 50 percent of the divorces, in Hungary this percentage was only 15.27 It is also worth noting that in Hungary in the first decade of the twentieth century, parallel with the rapid rise of divorce rates, the role of the larger cities in this trend did not grow, but rather declined (from 19 percent in 1900 to 15 percent in 1910). In other words, the rise in the divorce rates was rather fuelled by the “rural” population. In Transylvania, among Unitarians and Lutherans who were seeking a divorce in the second half of the nineteenth century, urban residence and lifestyle certainly did not play an important role (in the case of Lutherans this is particularly surprising given the large proportion of Lutherans who lived in cities).28 For instance, the decisive majority of the Unitarians who were seeking a divorce (a group about which we know more) lived in villages and were probably simple peasants.

Divorces among Jews offer a distinctive but nonetheless revealing example of the interrelationship between “modernization” and denominational belonging with respect to marital relations. The statistics on divorce indicate that attitudes towards and trends regarding divorce among Jews (who had practiced separation for millennia) in the Austro–Hungarian Monarchy and especially Austria were similar to attitudes and trends among Catholics. Marriages among Jews in rural areas rarely ended in divorce, in contrast with marriages among Jews in urban centers. The Jews in Vienna, who constituted 13 percent of the Jews in the Austrian provinces, accounted for 50 percent of the divorces among Jews, while this same figure for Jews in Galicia (where 62 percent of the Jews of Austria lived) hovered around 25 percent. In this case, however, one must be careful with the official data. As the Austrian statistician Karl Hugelmann has cautioned with regards to the figures from 1882 and 1883 (i.e. before the regular disclosure of divorce statistics), “We must compare the Jewry of Vienna and Galicia in order to discover the reason for the differing results, and then we begin to suspect that the difference is merely a matter of appearances. As in the case of many marriages among Jews in Galicia, many divorces never came to the knowledge of the state authorities.”29 Thus the statistics only include divorces that were recognized according to the civil code.

One finds an explanation for this phenomenon in the discrepancies between state and denominational law regarding divorce and the civil and ritual practice of divorce. Before the introduction of the Marriage Patent of 1783 in Austria and the Austrian civil code in 1853 in Hungary, issues pertaining to marriage among Jews were decided by the rabbinical courts (the bet-din), which was autonomous from the state. In accordance with the age-old ritual, divorce was completed when the husband handed the bill of divorce (get) to his wife and his wife accepted it. Over the course of the nineteenth century the expansion of state oversight to include these affairs in general collided with the “quiet” resistance of the Jewish communities. At the same time, some rabbis and some spouses (in particular wives) used the compulsion to adapt as a means of increasing their own influence or bringing about a turn in their seemingly hopeless situation for the better.30 It was primarily Jews who lived in the western provinces of the Habsburg Empire and Jews who lived in cities and had essentially integrated into Christian society who turned to the state to resolve marital issues. In contrast, the vast majority of the Jews of Galicia were able to continue to ignore the state laws regarding marriage and address the questions that arose in accordance with their religious law (halakha). Clearly the growing middle-class Jewry represented an ever larger proportion of the couples seeking divorces, though the available sources yield no reliable estimates of these proportions. It is quite possible that if we could compile statistics regarding the purely ritual divorces (i.e. not acknowledged by the state), then the ratio of divorce rates in Vienna to divorce rates in rural areas would be flipped. Given the dearth of data regarding these ritual divorces, we can mention as a kind of analogy the case of Russia. The frequency of divorce among the Jewry living in the western provinces in the first half of the nineteenth century was strikingly high, and while in time it declined considerably, it remained high at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1901, for instance, there were 12 divorces in Vilno (today Vilnius in Lithuania) for every 10,000 Jewish inhabitants of the city, in other words the divorce rate was roughly comparable with the divorce rate among the Lutherans and Calvinists of Transylvania.31 It is perfectly conceivable that the divorce rates among the Jewish communities of Galicia and even among the Orthodox Jews of the Hungarian counties neighboring Galicia were just as high.

In 1878 the Hungarian government was compelled to pass a separate decree “on the subject of hindering divorces of Israelite couples that were carried out in a careless manner by some rabbis.”32 One decade later Magyar-Zsidó Szemle (Hungarian-Jewish Review) carried a report indicating that of the marriages conducted by rabbis among the Jews of Sáros county, only one-third were recorded in the registry of marriages kept by the representatives of the religious community.33 The periodical, which was neologue in its spirit, may well have exaggerated these “irregularities” and the scale of the alleged flouting of the laws of the state, but the Jewish communities of Máramaros, another county in northeastern Hungary (today Maramureş in Romania) also become notorious for the striking number (and proportion) of illegitimate children and cohabitating but officially unmarried couples, which was due in part to the failure to register marriages with the local organs of the state.34 Considering the fragmentary data, it is quite clear that the statistics do not reflect a significant proportion of the divorces among Jews, as they were not granted by the state courts (much as the marriages themselves had not always been recorded in the official registries). Thus the regional divergences in divorce rates among the Jewry were not so much a product of different attitudes towards marriage or divorce. Rather they reflect varying degrees among the Jewish communities of integration into the larger civil society.

The Role of Law

The peculiarities of marital law and divorce rates that were rooted in differences between denominations, regions, settlement types and legal systems, while accounting for the varying pace of the spread of divorce in the Austrian and Hungarian halves of the empire, shed only limited light on the reasons behind this growth, and fail completely to explain the dynamics of the process. The immediate cause of the steep rise in the divorce rates in Hungary was legal in nature: it was prompted by the adoption of the matrimonial law of 1895 and the curtailment of the process of divorce in 1907. Thus it is clear that, as a next step, one must examine more closely how the legal reforms influenced in practice the spread of divorce and what was happening at the same time in Austria, where the practice of law and the civil code on which it was based ensured a continuously stable legal background.

By way of introduction it is worth noting that the Hungarian matrimonial law of 1894 was not simply a “divorce law,” but rather ushered in a complete change of systems in the sphere of matrimonial law in Hungary. It codified matrimonial law by creating a coherent system that took the place of norms that had been shaped somewhat freely by the courts within a framework created by royal decrees and laws. In doing so, it secularized and civilized matrimonial law, creating a civil law in lieu of norms that varied from region to region and denomination to denomination. The civil law regulated the means of contracting and dissolving marriages in a way that applied to all Hungarian citizens uniformly and exclusively. At the same time, given the complexity of the legal changes it is not easy to venture an answer to the question of what role was played by the matrimonial law in the breaking loose of divorce rates. It is true that the elimination of denominational distinctions led to an abandonment of many formal procedures (priestly mediation, dual litigation in the case of mixed marriages) and informal ones (such as religious conversions before the submission of a petition for divorce) that were a hindrance to divorce (first and foremost for Catholics), but the law also contained many measures that tightened restrictions. It created serious obstacles to hasty divorces, eliminating for instance the practice of divorce by mutual consent. It also introduced the principle of culpability, defined precisely the acceptable grounds for divorce, made the right of action obsolete, and limited the period of time for the initiation and completion of the proceedings for a divorce.

The effects of the matrimonial law on the legal practice at the time developed in a contradictory manner. In the wake of the enactment of the law, the decisions of the courts became unpredictable. In divorce proceedings that had begun earlier and had not been concluded by October 1, 1895 (and were based on grounds for divorce that were no longer compatible with the new regulations), new petitions had to be submitted and in many cases the high courts directed the lower courts to arrive at new rulings. The proportion of rejected petitions also grew, the proceedings lasted years, and the costs of a divorce case grew considerably.35 In the first two years the divorce rate fell to a historical low (see Figure 1), while at the same time the number of petitions for divorce submitted on the basis of the new matrimonial law rose abruptly. As a consequence of the initiation of an enormous number of proceedings by the end of the century there was a huge backlog of divorce cases, as indicated by the court statistics (which were kept as of 1899; see Figure 3).36 Even five years after the enactment of the new matrimonial law only 30 percent of the new or unresolved divorce cases in Hungary were settled in some manner, either with the acceptance or the rejection of a petition for divorce or with a legally binding annulment (or in some cases with withdrawal of the petition). This did not change much until 1907, the continuous rise in the number of divorces that were granted notwithstanding.


Figure 3. Circulation of matrimonial cases in the royal courts in Hungary (1899–1913)

One can get a sense of what this backlog of cases actually meant in practice by comparing the duration of divorce proceedings at the turn of the century in different parts of the Monarchy. Given the sources, this is possible first and foremost in the case of the two capital cities. While only 24 percent of the divorce proceedings that were initiated before the Royal Court of Law in Budapest in 1900 were completed within a year, 34 percent within two years, and 19 percent within three years (and the remaining 23 percent took even longer),37 on the basis of the marital actions approved by the Wiener Landesgericht in 1901, 98 percent of the cases it handled were brought to completion within a single year and only a small fraction took years to be resolved. In general the Austrian courts handled matrimonial cases rapidly. 97 percent of the divorces, annulments, and invalidations that were issued in Austria in 1901 were issued within a year, and this rate did not drop later. And one should note that the Austrian statistics only measured the duration of cases of separation (processuale Scheidungen) and divorce (Ehetrennungen) that were subject to litigation, and these comprised only one-fourth of the total number of divorces. Separations that took place with the announcement and acceptance of the consent of the two parties (einverständliche Scheidungen) took even less time, officially at most only a few weeks or, in the case of a consensus reached in the course of legal proceedings, a few months.

The state of affairs in Hungary became unmanageable at the turn of the century. In time the courts and the government were compelled to submit to the pressure put on them by people involved in divorce proceedings. In a manner that was in clear contradiction with the spirit of the law, the courts began to give ground to people seeking a divorce. In cases of petitions for divorce that were based on “deliberate and unjustifiable abandonment,” they did not examine the circumstances of the break, but simply took cognizance of the fact of the separation itself. In consequence, it became more common for spouses to bring their cohabitation to end by mutual consent, and they were not compelled to air their “dirty laundry” in the courts. They were thus able to free themselves of each other relatively quickly and painlessly. As Figure 3 indicates, soon most divorces in Hungary were proclaimed following cases of abandonment. The proportion of such cases rose from 44 percent in 1899 to 72 percent by 1913. In 1907 the government also contributed to the reduction in the proportion of cases awaiting adjudication by securing passage, at the suggestion of the Minister of Justice, of a law to reduce the burdens of the Hungarian Royal Court of Law, part of which was a restriction of appeals in divorce cases. The law rescinded the obligatory submission of divorce cases to higher courts and limited the right of appeal of an attorney charged with the task of defending the marriage to a second instance.38 The adoption of the law helped to reduce the pressure on the highest court, but it made the proceedings simpler for husbands and wives who in a concealed manner had mutually agreed to seek a divorce and had no intention of appealing, while in the meantime the minority who prolonged marital conflict in the courts frequently sought legal redress. This clearly also pushed spouses who earlier had hoped to resolve their marital disputes in the courts in the direction of divorce by mutual consent. However, mutual consent was not accepted by the courts as legitimate grounds for divorce. The couples could only achieve their goal by requesting divorce on the grounds of abandonment in order to circumvent this obstacle. In the end, the elimination of obligatory appeals and the consequent rise in the number of divorces granted on grounds of abandonment shortened the procedures in divorce cases, thereby also reducing the costs of a divorce, making people more likely to pursue a divorce, and causing an increase in the proportion of completed divorces (which rose to 54 percent by the outbreak of World War I). In consequence, divorce rates rose steeply.

What considerations prompted legislators to give in to the “pressure” applied by those seeking a divorce? In response to a note of caution made during the discussion of the 1907 bill, that the abolition of the compulsory supervision of divorce cases would make separation much easier, the representative who had submitted the bill noted, “the goal of this law is not to make divorce more cumbersome, or divorce cases more difficult or more costly, but rather to ease the burdens on the Royal Court of Law.”39 This may seem like a cynical reply, but one cannot deny its logic. Easing the burdens on the Royal Court of Law and the civil courts in general, one of the consequences of which was the steep rise in the number of divorces, was intended to facilitate the effective enforcement of state law. The effective enforcement of state law was particularly important in both halves of the Monarchy, since the law was one of the most important tools in the hands of the government with which to integrate the ethnically and denominationally variegated peoples into one at least legally uniform society. In Austria the civil code of 1811 asserted the authority of the state in questions of matrimonial law. In Hungary this process was unquestionably belated, but Hungarian nationalism, which by the end of the nineteenth century had gathered considerable strength, made etatist tendencies more pronounced and placed tools at the disposal of the state in the interests of furthering not only social integration, but also cultural assimilation.40

The big question that remains, however, is what caused the sudden jump in the number of petitions for divorce in Hungary after 1895 and the subsequent continuous rise. For it was this jump that diverted the courts to a road that ran contrary to the intentions of the legislators, and eventually broke the resistance of the legal system. We should not delude ourselves with the hope that we will find an entirely adequate answer to this question on the basis of the contemporary statistics, but an examination of the changes that took place around the turn of the century in the composition of the groups of people seeking a divorce may offer some insights regarding the underlying reasons for this phenomenon. It may not provide us with any understanding of the expectations of the husbands and wives who sought a divorce, nor may it help us grasp their motivations, but it will enable us to learn more about the group of people who hoped to resolve their marital disputes once and for all in the civil courts. The statistics reveal two very important tendencies. One is the denominational shift in the composition of this group, the other is the social shift.

The extension of the right to divorce to include Catholics after 1895 undoubtedly gave momentum to the rise in the number of petitions for divorce and the number of actual divorces. True, we do not really have any statistic with which we can compare the proportion of Catholics among those seeking a divorce (they comprised 35 percent, this proportion rose to 40 percent only towards the end of the period under examination), but the change should be regarded as revolutionary, since for Catholics the dissolution of the bonds of marriage had previously been legally impossible. While we have no figures for the number of separations issued by the ecclesiastical courts, the mere appearance in the civil courts of people who had sought separations from the ecclesiastical courts could not possibly have caused the increase. One finds further confirmation of this in the fact that while legislators supported the assertion of Catholic dogma in civil law by maintaining separation from bed and board as a legally recognized option, until the outbreak of World War I a total of only 23 petitions for separation were approved in the entire country, which indicates that there was hardly any interest in this civil variant of the legal institution. The example of the Hungarian capital clearly indicates that with the enactment of the matrimonial law, the rise in the proportion of Catholics among the people seeking a divorce was not caused simply by the emergence among them of those who would previously have opted for conversion. In the matrimonial disputes over which the Budapest Royal Court of Law presided in the period between 1866 and 1895, the proportion of people who were either Catholic or who had converted to Catholicism in order to facilitate the procedure was 41 percent of the total number of people pursuing litigation. Following the enactment of the law of 1895, with the rise in the number of petitions for divorce this grew to 52 percent.41 (It is hardly likely that the number of conversions that took place in order to enable a couple to divorce in other parts of the country would have come close to the number in Budapest.)

The other important shift, alongside the removal of legal distinctions between denominations with regards to matrimonial law, was the broadening of the social base of the people seeking divorce. If one examines the national statistics regarding divorce, which go back to 1898, the rise in the proportion of industrial workers and agricultural day-laborers at the end of the nineteenth century is striking. The proportion of people subsumed under the statistical category that included industrial workers, day-laborers employed in industry, and factory workers rose from 4 or 5 percent to 11 percent. The proportion of agricultural day-laborers among people seeking a divorce, which before 1904 never went even as high as 10 percent, was consistently above 25 percent in the years leading up to World War I. At the same time, the proportion of people with characteristically middle-class occupations, who earlier had comprised a significant share of the people seeking a divorce, as well as the proportion of land-owning peasants dropped significantly. In the case of Budapest, the written documentation of divorce cases indicates that while the proportion of people from lower social strata among those seeking a divorce had already begun to grow earlier, this proportion grew significantly after 1900.42

In contrast with the shift that took place in the denominational composition of the group of people seeking a divorce, this transformation was by no means unique to Hungary. In Austria there was also a rise in the proportion of manual laborers (the category included factory workers, journeymen, miners, day-laborers and pieceworkers, and people employed in other non-independent occupations) among men seeking a divorce at the turn of the century. While in the period between 1884 and 1886 they comprised 17 percent of the divorcees and 18 percent in 1890–1892, in 1900–1902 and 1906–1908 this figure rose to 27 percent. The strikingly high proportion of agricultural workers among those seeking a divorce, however, was peculiar to Hungary. The proportion of peasants with small-holdings, for instance, dropped to 25 percent in the years just before the outbreak of World War I, but this figure nonetheless surpassed the corresponding figure of 9 percent for the category of “farmers, small-holders” in Austria.43 Thus the “democratization” of divorce in Hungary, which was one of the most important factors in the rise in divorce rates, cannot be as closely linked to enactment of the matrimonial law as the transformation in the denominational composition of the group of people seeking a divorce. Perhaps it was due in part to shifts in mentality, possibly something of a “renaissance” of marriage and the spread of the middle-class cult of the family. Whatever the hypothetical causes, it is quite clear that the formulation and realization of aspirations for social change were facilitated by a legal change that was not directly tied to the regulation of divorce, namely the expansion of litigation by right of poverty in forma pauperis.

While for the moment we are compelled, in the absence of the necessary statistics, to base conclusions about the rise in the use of litigation in forma pauperis on the complaints of the attorneys who were officially ordered to take up the defense of paupers, the tendency connected to the “demand” for social justice and the acknowledged function of the law as a tool of integration is unmistakable.44 Otherwise it would be impossible to explain how spouses who belonged to the lower social strata were appearing in ever larger numbers in the chambers of the royal law courts precisely at a time when people seeking a divorce were faced with obstacles that were entirely new and that naturally added to the costs of the litigation. Because the court files survived in a more complete form in Vienna, which accounted for more than one-third of the total number of divorces (which as noted earlier includes separations and annulments) in Austria, we know that after 1900 many husbands and wives involved in divorce cases requested free legal aid, although the costs they would have had to cover without free legal aid did not even come close to the costs in Hungary.45

Conclusion and Discussion

An examination of the evolution of matrimonial law in the Austro–Hungarian Monarchy, the divorce rates in Austria and Hungary, and judicial practice in both halves of the empire strengthens the doubts that have arisen recently concerning the modernization theory and the spread of divorce, at least with regards to the early stages of this process. The theory presumes and implies the homogeneity of “traditional societies” in that it presupposes the general stability of the family as allegedly necessitated by exterior forces and characterizes the destabilization of the institution of the family, which is the alleged cause of the spread of divorce, as a process that was closely intertwined with economic and social transformations. The use of this model to explain the demographic shifts that took place in the Austro–Hungarian Monarchy with regards to divorce, however, is encumbered by numerous problems. For instance, the different directions in which the legal systems in Austria and Hungary developed with respect to matrimonial law and the differing legal regulations regarding divorce resulted in higher divorce rates and a more abrupt rise in divorce rates in Hungary in spite of the fact that the economic and social transformations in the (western) Cisleithanian provinces were considerably more advanced than in Hungary. As an examination of the regional divorce rates demonstrates, there is no connection between the rise in divorce rates within the individual systems of jurisprudence and economic development, or if there is, it is only discernible in the case of the larger cities. The high rate of divorce in Bukovina (in the case of Austria) and Transylvania or Banat (in the case of Hungary) can hardly be explained by the modernization theory.

The example of Hungary, a country in which the rise in divorce rates at the turn of the century was abrupt, is revealing. Not only do the distinctive trends in divorce rates broken down by region not corroborate the suppositions of modernization theory, the social factors behind the spread of divorce also do not correspond to the expectations one would have. Seemingly paradoxically, in Austria, where divorce rates rose much more slowly, the significance of urbanization was much more pronounced than in the other half of the Monarchy. In Hungary, after 1900 the role of the large cities (which was not decisive in the first place) actually declined with the spread of divorce. Regarding the occupational composition of the group of people seeking a divorce, the sources clearly demonstrate that peasants with small holdings, agricultural workers and servants comprised an increasingly large proportion (in time more than 50 percent) of this demographic shift. While the proportion of peasants with small holdings within the agricultural sector declined, in the years leading up to World War I they still accounted for one-fourth of the divorces in Hungary. (In Austria, the rise in divorce rates in Bukovina was also largely the result of divorce proceedings initiated by peasants with small holdings.)

The example of the Hungarian half of the empire is also notable from the perspective of the regulatory role of the law. Unquestionably the rise in divorce rates reflects a shift in the nature of family ties. However, in my assessment the legal system, legal traditions, and legal changes did more than merely facilitate the early spread of divorce. The divorce rates in Transylvania clearly indicate the importance of changes in the concrete political power relations. They also reflect the significance of the extent to which a particular law had become an integral part of the value system of a given community. (The data on Transylvania belie the misconception according to which the low rate of divorce in so-called “traditional societies” can be attributed to structural causes and objective compulsions.) Political factors, including the conflict between the Habsburg House and the Hungarian Estates and the nation-state political ideals of the liberal opposition, all played a role in the breakthrough with regards to divorce in Hungary in the middle of the nineteenth century. In Austria, where there were no similar tendencies and where the Catholic Church remained very influential, the law moved in another direction, or rather it essentially came to a standstill with the introduction of marriage as a civil union. In contrast, the enactment of the Hungarian matrimonial law offers a revealing example of the interrelationship between social forces and legal shifts. While in the stable legal context of the Austrian provinces the rise in divorce rates was consistently moderate, in Hungary legal reforms at the turn of the century caused divorce rates to rise sharply. Matrimonial law put many obstacles in the path to divorce, but by opening wide the legal gates, it set off a process that provided its own momentum. The flood of petitions for divorce resulted in less stringent judicial practice and compelled the state to ease the legal procedures in divorce cases.

With regards to the regulatory power of the law, it is worth noting the culturally different application of the institution of divorce. Economic causes played only an indirect role in the rise in the number and proportion of divorces. In contrast, one can cite several examples demonstrating that not only was social access to the legal institution different denominationally and socially because of legal or financial reasons, but legal divorce itself was different depending on the religious and/or regional traditions and the value systems of the various social groups, what one might call “informal law.” The serious marital conflicts of Transylvanian Protestant peasants probably ended in the majority of cases with the dissolution of the marriage by the court. This may have been true in the case of marital conflicts among Jews as well, though these issues only rarely went beyond the religious communities, which stuck to their traditions, and for the most part never made it to the civil courts. In general members of wealthy social strata were also compelled to settle their marital conflicts by legal means, though this didn’t always necessarily mean a divorce case. However, for the better part of the nineteenth century this was not true of members of the working class who were born in the large cities or the rural (Catholic) peasantry.

The fact that, as of the end of the nineteenth century, legal solutions to marital conflict and, among them, sooner (Hungary) or later (Austria) the dissolution of the bonds of marriage began to prevail was due first and foremost not to the influence of economic processes, but rather to the complex interplay of power relations, social demands, changes in the law, and shifts in jurisprudence. Thus an ever-larger proportion of failed marriages ended in legal divorce, washing away the aforementioned cultural differences and gradually making strikingly divergent social practices more uniform to some degree. The cultural diversity of the Austro–Hungarian Monarchy on the one hand and the efforts of the state, in particular in Hungary, to promote social and national integration on the other cast the problem in a particularly sharp light and show the responses and reactions with which it met. In this regard, the assertion and strengthening of state purview of Jewish marriages, which took place parallel with the process of emancipation, is paradigmatic. This expansion of state authority resulted in an increase in the number of divorces, but only according to the official statistics. But this constituted not simply an attempt to undermine the competency of the organs of the Jewish religious communities, but rather the displacement by the state courts of their Church rivals, as well as, in the case of Hungary, the assertion of a civil code that was independent of denominational traditions and the expansion of the authority of the state to include the affairs of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant married couples. Parallel with legal regulation and official intervention that was intended to facilitate the “normalization” of family relations, the assurance of the ability of members of lower social strata to pursue legal action was an additional factor, alongside the shifts that took place in role of denominational difference. In this context it is understandable that the government and the courts did not take more aggressive measures to reduce the unquestionably alarming rise in the number of divorces. As a legal institution, divorce paradoxically was a tool of social integration, and the state saw the rise in the number of divorces as at most an unpleasant but necessary concomitant of this process.


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Márkus, Dezső, Sándor Kolosvári, and Kelemen Óvári, eds. Magyar Törvénytár. 1540–1848. évi erdélyi törvények [Hungarian Legislative Records. Transylvanian Laws from 1540–1848]. Budapest: Franklin-Társulat, 1900.

Márkus, Dezső, ed. Magyar Törvénytár. 1836–1868. évi törvényczikkek [Hungarian Legislative Records, Statutes from 1836–1868]. Budapest: Franklin-Társulat, 1896.

Márkus, Dezső, ed. Magyar Törvénytár. 1894–1895. évi törvényczikkek [Hungarian Legislative Records, Statutes from 1894–1895]. Budapest: Franklin-Társulat, 1897.

Márkus, Dezső, ed. Magyar Törvénytár. 1907. évi törvényczikkek [Hungarian Legislative Records, Statutes from 1907]. Budapest: Franklin-Társulat, 1908.

Oesterreichische Statistik. Die Ergebnisse der Civilrechtspflege in den im Reichsrathe vertretenen Königreichen und Ländern im Jahre [1884–1909]. Vienna: K. K. Statistischen Central-Commission, [1888–1912].

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Szél, Tivadar. A budapesti házasságok [Budapest Marriages]. Budapest: [1935].

Wandruszka, Adam, and Peter Urbanitsch, eds. Die Konfessionen. Vol. 4 of Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1985.


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Dubin, Lois C. The Port Jews of Habsburg Trieste. Absolutist Politics and Enligthtenment Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Freeze, ChaeRan Y. Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia. New England–Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 2002.

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Harmat, Ulrike. Ehe auf Widerruf? Der Konflikt um das Eherecht in Österreich 1918–1938. Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1999.

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Phillips, Roderick. Putting Asunder. A History of Divorce in Western Society. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

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Tomka, Béla. Családfejlődés a 20. századi Magyarországon és Nyugat-Európában: konvergencia vagy divergencia? [Family Development in Hungary and Western Europe in the Twentieth Century: Convergence or Divergence?]. Budapest: Osiris, 2000.

Vikström, Lotta, Poppel, Frans, and Putte, Bart Van de. “New Light on the Divorce Transition,” Journal of Family History 36 (2011): 107–17.

1 This essay was made possible by the Balassi Institute – Hungarian Scholarship Board, which provided a fellowship for residence at the Collegium Hungaricum in Vienna in the summer of 2005, the spring of 2012, and the autumn of 2013.

2 William J. Goode, World Revolution and Family Patterns (New York: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1963), 27–86. Roderick Phillips, Putting Asunder. A History of Divorce in Western Society (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 361–402, 591–600.

3 Phillips, Putting Asunder, 582–83. Lotta Vikström, Frans Poppel, and Bart Van de Putte, “New Light on the Divorce Transition,” Journal of Family History 36 (2011): 107–9.

4 William J. Goode, World Changes in Divorce Patterns (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 214–50. Japan is a paradigmatic example. In the era of capitalist development leading up to World War II, divorce rates continuously declined. See Harald Fuess, “Als Japan die Welt anführte. ‘Das Land der schnellen Eheschließung und der schnellen Scheidung,’ 1870–1940,” Nachrichten der Gesellschaft für Natur- und Völkerkunde Ostasiens e. V. 171–172 (2002): 75–92.

5 Gail Savage, “Divorce and the Law in England and France prior to the First World War,” Journal of Social History 21 (Spring 1988): 500.

6 Olive Anderson, “State, Civil Society and Separation in Victorian Marriage,” Past and Present 163 (1999): 161–201. Samuel Pyeatt Menefee, Wives for Sale. An Ethnographic Study of British Popular Divorce (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981); Ginger S. Frost, Living in Sin: Cohabitating as Husband and Wife in Nineteenth-Century England (New York: Manchester University Press, 2008), 96–122.

7 My use of the term “Hungary” in this essay does not include Croatia, which constituted a distinct jurisdiction. Regrettably, there are neither contemporary statistics nor the necessary historial inquiries for an examination of demographic shifts related to divorce in Croatia. Until the middle of the nineteenth century Hungarian matrimonial law was in effect. After this essentially the Austrian matrimonial law of 1856–1868 was adopted. See Ljiljana Dobrovšak, “Ženidbeno (bračno) pravo u 19. stoleću u Hrvatskoj,” Croatica Christiana Periodica 29 (2005): 77–104. An examination of demographic shifts in Bosnia, which was occupied and then annexed by the Monarchy, is also not possible due to a similar dearth of sources.

8 1894: Statute XXXI in Magyar Törvénytár. 1894–1895. évi törvényczikkek, ed. Dezső Márkus (Budapest: Franklin-Társulat, 1897), 174–93. To date, the best survey of the evolution of matrimonial law in Hungary is the general part of the ministerial justification of the proposed law: Az 1892. évi február hó 18-ára hirdetett Országgyűlés Főrendi Házának irományai, vol. 8 (Budapest: Pesti Könyvnyomda-Részvény-Társaság, 1894), 201–64. With respect to Austria: Werner Ogris, “Die Rechtsentwicklung in Cisleithanien 1848–1918,” in Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, ed. Adam Wandruszka and Peter Urbanitsch, vol. 2, Verwaltung und Rechtswesen (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1975), 591–93.

9 Ulrike Harmat, Ehe auf Widerruf? Der Konflikt um das Eherecht in Österreich 1918–1938 (Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 1999), 17–24.

10 Figure 1 and the published statistics on which this essay is based: Karl Hugelmann, “Die Ehelösungen in Oesterreich in den Jahren 1882 und 1883,” Statistische Monatschrift 11 (1885): 1–21; Oesterreichische Statistik. Die Ergebnisse der Civilrechtspflege in den im Reichsrathe vertretenen Königreichen und Ländern im Jahre [1884–1909] (Vienna: K. K. Statistischen Central-Commission, [1888–1912]); Österreichisches Statistisches Handbuch [1910–1913] (Vienna: K. K. Statistischen Central-Commission, [1912–1916]); Statistisches Jahrbuch der Stadt Wien für das Jahr [1884–1913] (Vienna: Verlag des Wiener Magistrates, [1885–1916]); Tivadar Szél, A budapesti házasságok (Budapest: n.p., n.d. [1935]), 302; A M. Kir. Kormány [1901–1913.] évi működéséről és az ország közállapotairól szóló jelentés és statisztikai évkönyv (Budapest: [1902–1915]); Budapest Székes Főváros Statisztikai Évkönyve [1894–1912] (Budapest: Budapest Székes Főváros Statisztikai Hivatala, [1896–1914]). It is worth noting that I am consistently including among the divorces in Austria the “separations from bed and board” and the annulments, which because of restrictions on research on the ecclesiastical archival material is only possible in the case of Hungary as of 1895, at which time the number of these kinds of matrimonial cases dwindled to virtually nothing. It is also important to note that the raw figures for divorce in Hungary before 1896 were much higher.

11 On the international comparison of divorce rates, see Phillips, Putting Asunder, 585. For ratios of newly concluded marriages, see Béla Tomka, Családfejlődés a 20. századi Magyarországon és Nyugat-Európában: konvergencia vagy divergencia? (Budapest: Osiris, 2000), 127.

12 Adam Wandruszka and Peter Urbanitsch, eds., Die Habsburgermonarchie 1848–1918, vol. 4, Die Konfessionen (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1985), Tabelle 3. (Die Konfessionelle Gliederung der Bevölkerung Cisleithaniens 1869–1910), and 282–83. A Magyar Szent Korona Országainak 1910. évi népszámlálása. Első rész: A népesség főbb adatai községek és népesebb puszták szerint (Budapest: Magyar Kir. Központi Statisztikai Hivatal, 1912), 8.

13 The 1790: Statute XXVI, point 11 proclaims the reassertion of the jurisdiction of the Church in marital affairs. Dezső Márkus and Kálmán Csiky, eds., Magyar Törvénytár. 1740–1835. évi törvényczikkek (Budapest: Franklin-Társulat, 1901), 175–77.

14 Kornél Sztehlo, A házassági elválás joga Magyarországon és az ország erdélyi részeiben (Budapest: Franklin-Társulat, 1890), 32–33.

15 1844: Statute III, paragraphs 5–11. Dezső Márkus, ed., Magyar Törvénytár. 1836–1868. évi törvényczikkek (Budapest: Franklin-Társulat, 1896), 199.

16 Sztehlo, A házassági elválás joga, 87.

17 1868: Statute XLVIII Addressed the question of divorce in cases of mixed marriages. Magyar Törvénytár 1836–1868, 500–1. On conversions and their legal force, see 1868: Statute LIII, paragraphs 1–8, ibid., 501.

18 Allgemeines Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch für die gesammten Deutschen Erbländer der Oesterreichischen Monarchie, I. Theil (Vienna: k. k. Hof und Staatsdruckerey, 1811), 41.

19 Waltraud Heindl, “Aspekte der Ehescheidung in Wien um 1900. Grenzen und Möglichkeiten der Erforschung des Problems,” Mitteilungen des Österreichischen Staatsarchivs 33 (1980): 218–46. Harmat, Ehe auf Widerruf?, 24–72. Margarete Grandner and Ulrike Harmat, “Begrenzt verliebt. Gesetzliche Ehehindernisse und die Grenze zwischen Österreich und Ungarn,” in Liebe und Widerstand. Ambivalenzen historischer Geschlechterbeziehungen, ed. Ingrid Bauer et al. (Vienna–Cologne–Weimar: Böhlau Verlag, 2005), 287–304; Ulrike Harmat, “Divorce and Remarriage in Austria–Hungary: The Second Marriage of Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf,” Austrian History Yearbook 32 (2001): 69–103; Sándor Nagy, “Osztrák válások Erdélyben 1868–1895. Otto Wagner erdélyi házassága,” Fons. Forráskutatás és Történeti Segédtudományok 14 (2007): 359–428.

20 As of 1910 the statistics on divorces in Austria do not indicate the number of divorces among Orthodox separately, so it is not possible to assess the potential increase in their significance. Oesterreichische Statistik, Die Ergebnisse der Civilrechtspflege [1884–1909.], Österreichisches Statistisches Handbuch [1910–1913.]

21 A M. Kir. Kormány [1901–1913]. évi működéséről.

22 Réka Kiss, Egyház és közösség a kora újkorban. A Küküllői Református Egyházmegye 17–18. századi iratainak tükrében (Budapest: Akadémiai, 2011), 99–145; Sztehlo, A házassági elválás joga, 37–44.

23 The 1791: Statute XXXIV in Transylvania reestablished the jurisdiction of the Churches in the province. See Dezső Márkus, Sándor Kolosvári, and Kelemen Óvári, eds., Magyar Törvénytár. 1540–1848. évi erdélyi törvények (Budapest: Franklin-Társulat, 1900), 529. Later the enactment of the Austrian civil code did not affect the Protestant Church courts: “Kaiserliches Patent vom 29. Mai 1853,” Reichs-Gesetz-Blatt für das Kaiserthum Oesterreich, 31(1853) (Stück. 7, Juni 1853). Following the Compromise of 1867 cases involving marriages between Protestants in Transylvania remained within the sphere of authority of the Churches. 1868: Statute LIV, paragraph 22, Magyar Törvénytár 1836–1868, 511.

24 Zsuzsanna Kolumbán, “A házasságok felbontásának joga és az erdélyi református egyház a 19. században,” in Jogi néprajz – jogi kulturtörténet. Tanulmányok a jogtudományok, a néprajztudományok és a történettudományok köréből, ed. Barna Mezey and Janka Teodóra Nagy (Budapest: ELTE Eötvös Kiadó, 2009), 450.

25 Bogdan Crăciun, “Three paradoxes of the Family History or Divorce, Lutheran Style,” in Families in Europe between the 19th and the 21th Centuries. From the Traditional Model to Contemporary PACS, ed. Antoinette Fauve-Chamoux and Ioan Bolovan (Cluj-Napoca: University Press, 2009), 651.

26 Erdélyi Unitárius Egyház Központi Gyűjtőlevéltára. Főpapi Törvényszék ülésjegyzőkönyvei 1869–1895. When compiling the statistics I made every effort not to include divorces that had been obtained through migration or conversion (in other words divorces that had been granted by Unitarian courts, but initiated by couples who had not initially been Unitarians and had either migrated and/or converted).

27 In Austria the divorce statistics for 1907 and 1908 include the number of divorces pronounced by the courts in the large cities, but the territorial jurisdiction of these courts (with the exception of Vienna) extended far beyond the administrative area of the city. The divorces that were pronounced constituted 59 percent of the total number of divorces (data from the court in Innsbruck for 1907 were not published), hence the estimate of 50 percent. Cities that numbered more than 50,000 inhabitants but did not have a court were: Pilsen, Königliche Weinberge, Zizkow, Pola, Przemysl, Smichow.

28 Among the Saxons divorce rates in some of the entirely rural seats in the period between 1886 and 1890 were higher than the divorce rates in the city of Nagyszeben or Sebes: Crăciun, “Three Paradoxes,” 652.

29 Hugelmann, “Die Ehelösungen,” 9.

30 Lois C. Dubin, The Port Jews of Habsburg Trieste. Absolutist Politics and Enligthtenment Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 174–97. Lois C. Dubin, “Jewish Women, Marriage Law, and Emancipation: A Civil Divorce in Late-Eighteenth-Century Trieste,” Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society 13 (2007): 65–92.

31 ChaeRan Y. Freeze, Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia (New England–Hanover: Brandeis University Press, 2002), 157, 148–59.

32 Decree 17619 of the Ministry of Religion and Education, issued in September 27, 1878: Magyarországi Rendeletek Tára 12 (1878): 774–83.

33 Magyar-Zsidó Szemle (1889): 28–29.

34 Dávid Kohn, “Zsidó népmozgalmi statisztika,” in Az Izraelita Magyar Irodalmi Társulat Évkönyve, ed. Vilmos Bacher and Ferenc Mezey (Budapest: n.p., 1895), 35–40.

35 For more on the example of Budapest, see Sándor Nagy, “A házasság felbontása Budapesten (Pest-Budán) a 19. században” (PhD diss., Eötvös Loránd University, 2012), 201–3. Reaching similar conclusions regarding the judicial practice of the Royal Court of Pécs: Csabáné Herger, A nővételtől az állami anyakönyvvezetőig. A magyar házassági köteléki jog és az európai modellek (Budapest–Pécs: Dialóg Campus Kiadó, 2006), 192–95.

36 A M. Kir. Kormány [1901–1913]. évi működéséről.

37 Budapest Főváros Levéltára, VII.2.c. Budapesti Királyi Törvényszék peres iratai, 1900, V. irattári osztály; Nagy, “A házasság felbontása Budapesten,” 201.

38 1907: Statute XVII, paragraphs 6–7, in Magyar Törvénytár. 1907. évi törvényczikkek, ed. Dezső Márkus (Budapest: Franklin-Társulat, 1908), 174–78.

39 Az 1906. évi május hó 19-ére hirdetett országgyűlés Képviselőházának naplója, vol. 7 (Budapest: Pesti Könyvnyomda-Részvény-Társaság, 1907), 207–8.

40 It is characteristic that at the time the Hungarian matrimonial bill and the necessity of the introduction of marriage as a civil institution were justified with the following argument: “the individual Churches, both in their organization and in their liturgies, rest on foundations of national belonging, and the Churches’ jurisdiction over matrimonial law also emerges as the jurisdiction of the nationalities.” Justification of the bill “on matrimonial law.” General justification: Az 1892. évi február hó 18-ára hirdetett országgyűlés Képviselőházának irományai, vol. 15 (Budapest: Pesti Könyvnyomda-Részvény-Társaság, 1894), 44.

41 Nagy, “A házasság felbontása Budapesten,” 28–29.

42 The proportion, among the people involved in divorce proceedings in Budapest, of artisan assistants, shop assistants, day-laborers, office workers and attendants, as well as other tradesmen who were probably also not professional independent was (taken as a group) 29 percent in the cases initiated in 1866–1880, 34 percent in 1881–1895, and 50 percent in 1896–1910. Nagy, “A házasság felbontása Budapesten,” 32–33, 181.

43 One cannot compare the entire agricultural sector, because the Austrian court statistics include agricultural day-laborers, servants, and domestics among the workers.

44 Nagy, “A házasság felbontása Budapesten,” 96–97. According to this, in the 1890s the administrative practice of issuing certificates of poverty became more consistent and the countersignature of a clergyman, which had been customary, was no longer necessary. This was particularly significant for poor Catholics who were preparing for a divorce case.

45 Heindl, “Aspekte der Ehescheidung in Wien,” 228. My research on divorce cases in Vienna in the period between 1898 and 1910 confirms the spread of divorce cases initiated with free legal aid.

pdfVolume 2 Issue 3 CONTENTS

László Szarka

Hungarian National Minority Organizations and the Role of Elites between the Two World Wars Addenda to the History of Minority Nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe

This article examines the history of the Hungarian minorities formed in three multiethnic nation states between the two world wars: the Czechoslovak Republic, the Kingdom of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia and the Kingdom of Romania. The analysis focuses on options for political organization and the role of ethnic parties and political elites, highlighting the example of János Esterházy and his work as chairman of the Czechoslovakian Hungarian ethnic party. It specifically discusses Hungary’s “kin-state” relations with the minorities and its revisionist foreign policy. It also shows the key role of assimilation policy in the ethno-political model of the three nation states. In these twenty short years, the separate interests of the three Hungarian minority groups, as distinct from the kin state and the domicile states, emerged only at the conceptual level. The minority Hungarian ideologies which forged a program out of micro-community and multiethnic ideas—Romanian Transylvanism, “Upper Hungarian autochthonism” and “couleur locale” in (former) Southern Hungary—found no support from either Budapest or the governments of the three nation states.

Keywords: minority nationalism, “triadic nexus” of nationalism, ethnic parties, ethnopolitical models, Hungary, Slovakia

Historiographical Contexts

After World War I the centuries-old multiethnic imperial structure of Central and Eastern Europe collapsed. The victorious great powers’ subsequent support for national self-determination led to a nation-state structure of extreme ethnic complexity. The multiethnic states of Poland and Romania, the pseudo-federative Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and the new state of Czechoslovakia all displayed the severity of the ethnic problems faced by the new Central Europe. Even the Kingdom of Hungary, despite losing two thirds of its territory, had minorities making up ten per cent of its population in 1920. The peace system of Versailles presented the autonomy-seeking Croat, Slovene, Muslim, Slovak and Ruthene “co-nationalities” with some degree of progress, if not a complete solution, but imposed on certain groups of Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Slovenians and other nationalities a “minority” status that was hard to accept. These minorities hoped for a solution to their troubles in reunion with their national communities, through the citizenship option permitted in the peace treaty, referenda on disputed territories, and the revision of borders. Instead, the problems were soon compounded as “victorious” and “defeated” nation states developed acrimonious relations and institutionalized them in the form of the Little Entente and, later, the Pact of Rome.1

Below, we examine four aspects of self-organization among Hungarian minorities in three multiethnic nation states of Central and Eastern Europe: the Republic of Czechoslovakia, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and the Kingdom of Romania. First we will analyze the role of minority Hungarian parties and of János Esterházy, chairman of the Czechoslovakian ethnic party, then the effects of the policies pursued by the governments of Hungary and the “nationalizing” domicile states, and finally the alternatives and dilemmas of minority self-organization.

Various narratives have emerged in Hungarian twentieth-century historical memory and historiography to describe the formations of the “divided nation” created by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon. Few of the analyses of the creation, situation and development of Hungarian minorities, however, have been taken up by historians outside Hungary. By contrast, international historiography approaches the region in the context of the nation state, which it regards as the region’s natural form of existence.2 Consequently, in dealing with the twentieth-century minorities of Central and Eastern Europe, international historians inevitably apply different attitudes and concepts than their Hungarian, Romanian, Czech, Slovak, Serbian, Croatian or Slovenian counterparts.3 In Hungarian public opinion, national memory and historiography, the subject is dominated by the ethnic injustice of the way the borders of the new Hungarian nation state were marked out and codified in 1919 and 1920, and by the trauma dealt to Hungarians by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon.4 Although these were treated in various different ways, a long time passed before a more sophisticated account emerged, going beyond the injustices of the 1920 peace treaty and taking into account the factors and processes behind the formation of these nation states.5 Although a few emigrant and minority Hungarian authors during the interwar period did discuss how the errors, transgressions and missed opportunities of the Hungarian political class contributed, internally and externally, to the decay of the Habsburg Monarchy and the 1867–1918 dual state of Austro–Hungary, the public mind in Hungary was too concerned with the loud demands for border revision and a post-colonial discourse-based revisionist cult to give any thought to “self-revision.”6 National historiographies are still very divided as regards the formation of the Central and Eastern European nation states in the early twentieth century. Hungarian and Austrian historians stress the great powers’ prescriptions for constitutional reorganization on nation-state lines and the contradiction, bias and injustice inherent in these. They draw attention to the conditions and conflicts imposed on the large number of resulting “national minorities,” and point out how the strategic aspects behind the territorial allocations set into the peace treaties deepened the region’s economic defencelessness. By contrast, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian and Romanian historians highlight the realization of the national self-determination provided by international law and the justification for dismantling the multiethnic Habsburg, Ottoman and Russian empires.7

Communities of Necessity, Destiny or Practicality?

The most dramatic Hungarian-minority reading of the consequences of the Treaty of Trianon appeared under the title Kiáltó szó [Appeal] published by representatives of the newly-organizing Transylvanian Hungarian political elite. Cast into a minority position following the break-up of historical Hungary only half a century after reunification with Transylvania (1867), Transylvanian Hungarians turned their sights on Transylvanian autonomy.8 The fortunes of the Hungarian minorities in Romania, Czechoslovakia, and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croatians and Slovenes form a dominant strand in Hungarian twentieth-century history. The legal grievances of the minority Hungarian communities, their continuous demographic decrease, and their separation from the people, language and culture of Hungary engendered separate development tendencies, but also fired a demand for cooperation with Hungary and other groups in similar situations. The idea of the “united,” “universal,” “divided” or “multipolar” Hungarian nation was mostly latent, unspoken, coming out only through allusions in endless debates, but nonetheless became the foundation of constructive community formations.

It was difficult from the outset to interpret the minority communities’ relationship with their counterparts in post-Trianon Hungary in terms of whole and parts. It was not just that the host nation states did everything they could to restrict contacts; the regions and towns detached from the Hungarian state very quickly bolstered their multiethnic character. Bilingualism soon led to dissimilation or re-assimilation. The thinning of the Hungarian population in cities and peripheral areas is evidence that the twentieth-century nation states were much more effective in their pursuit of homogenization than the nineteenth-century Hungarian nation state had been.

The Carpathian Basin may be the geographical metaphor for the historic state of Hungary, but it is a fundamentally multiethnic region where stable interethnic relationships and ethnic contact zones were always accompanied by lasting double bonds and multiple identity structures, and has experienced gradual changeovers of language and identity. Much more appropriate to the constantly transforming relationship between Hungary and the Hungarian minorities after 1920—the changing relations among members of a family bearing mutual responsibility—are the concept of the “mosaic nation” and the five-legged whistle metaphor used by the two Hungarian poets Gyula Illyés and Sándor Csoóri.9 Others saw the “internal” and “external” Hungarian “worlds” as being a kind of sun-and-planets system held together by cultural gravitation and linguistic cohesion. The definition of minorities as “parts of the nation,” however, inevitably ignored regional precedents, the interethnic context, the internal dynamics of community organization, and the variable nature of mutual and majority-minority relationships.10

In addition, the position of minorities has usually, throughout the last ninety years, been interpreted as ongoing retreat, shrinkage, and loss. The “moral impossibility” of the minority paradigm, which emerged in the early twentieth century in the wake of world-scale changes, imposed situations, and the homogenizing ambitions of nationalizing nation states may be described as a permanent identity crisis and a process of depravation leading to the extinction of minority communities.11

The historical study of “external” Hungarian societies and communities has undoubtedly been most thorough in the world of culture (particularly literature, theatre, and history of ideas). Hungarian culture is generally approached as unitary or universal, with a concentration, particularly in the case of literature, on values. Set against that, the “multicentric Hungarian world” concept has occasionally—similarly to the study of Hungarian language use—spawned narratives and interpretations which incorporate the tendency to diverging development.12 The political history of minorities constructed around their own political organization, the nationality policy of the Hungarian government and the minority policy of the majority nations has by now developed to fill most of the gaps in what is otherwise a continuous account. More or less the same may be said for the history of mentalities.13

The minorities developed a national memory and historical self-image that diverged in many respects from the image of minorities presented by historical constructions within Hungary.14 From the outset, writers among the minorities diverged from those in Hungary, displaying more internal criticism and greater understanding of neighboring nations and being open towards the frequently parallel, if more often opposed, nation-building by Romanians, Slovaks, Serbs, Croatians, and others. In the decades between the two world wars, it was mainly minority writers on public affairs who addressed the opening of links to majority nationalities, displayed a realism derived from minority experience, and discussed the reforms and Central European orientation demanded by the minority situation.15

Only in the international historical literature did any sign appear of a supra-ethnic consensus in the assessment of the new system of shrunken or expanded nation states in the interwar period. There are as many differences regarding the role of opposition between victorious and defeated small states and the French and later German great-power interests in the historical assessment of the Central European nations as there are in the assessment of the operation, effectiveness and government performance of the nation states. In particular, Rogers Brubaker’s book on the nation states of Central and Eastern Europe between the two world wars provided an impulse to the reassessment of the process of nation-building under the constraints of the “new Europe”. The book examines Weimar Germany’s “kin state nationalism,” Poland’s “nationalizing policy” and the phenomenon of migration from Turkish and Hungarian ethnic groups which had recently been cast into minority status. It points out how the modernizing effect of the nation-state framework became the basis for the unchallenged role of nation states in the Europe of today.16 Scholars and workshops concerned with Hungarian minority history, both in Hungary and elsewhere, have made considerable progress in researching and analyzing sources in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The main driving forces of the formation and first period of existence of the Hungarian minorities have been thoroughly explored. Examination of the sources presents a rich and varied picture with many valuable partial results, successes and failure; awareness of these, however, is still mostly confined to the historical discourse, and we can expect a slow process of many stages before they are usefully built into public awareness.17

Functions of the Hungarian Ethnic Parties

Historians of the Hungarian minorities use the term “forced community” to denote the status of Hungarian ethnic groups which—after the military events and border demarcations of the 1918–1920 period and the refusal of the neighbors and the great powers to allow referenda—found themselves on the other side of the Hungarian frontier in newly established or enlarged countries. Hungarians in Romania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia almost without exception considered minority status to have been forced upon them by international constitutional and geopolitical changes. They hoped it would be a temporary condition, and as far as possible protested against the new constitutional arrangement. At the same time, minority Hungarian politicians in all three countries made much of their law-abiding behavior and loyalty as citizens. A sign of this was their involvement, wherever possible, in national, regional and local politics via their political parties.

The regional dimension would have had much greater significance if the Hungarian-inhabited regions had not been gerrymandered and divided into administrative units so as to keep Hungarians in a minority everywhere. The division of the Voivodina of Yugoslavia, for example, into two regions (oblasts), greatly obstructed the towns and villages of the Hungarian block along the River Tisza/Tisa from uniting to press their interests, despite Hungarian success in provincial elections.18

Even Hungarian government circles realized after the signing of the peace treaty that minority status was going to remain for a long time, or indeed permanently. Consequently, both the Hungarian government and the minority Hungarian elites had to draw up a new doctrine of “national policy” based on the acceptance of minority status. Crucial to this were the launch, government support and internal implementation of political organizations among the minority Hungarian communities. The founders of the Romanian, Czechoslovakian and Yugoslavian Hungarian parties had to face several challenges in this respect, including increasing pressure for assimilation by the majority regime and the appearance of “activist” groups willing to sacrifice strong opposition positions for economic advantage and political collaboration. In all three countries, the minority Hungarians lived in ethnically compact and varied regions of different levels of economic development. There were great differences in wealth and mentality, and diverging life strategies. Along with the Hungarian writers László Németh of Hungary and Kornél Szenteleky of Yugoslavia, and many Transylvanian political writers, the Romanian Hungarian journalist Dezső László considered the “emotional distance” (“lelki távolságok,” which means “mutual alienation,”) emerging among different groups of Hungarians as the most negative new development.19

Certainly, most Hungarian-majority areas consisted of agrarian villages, and most of the Hungarian population were smallholders, farm laborers or wage laborers. In the towns, however, there was a strong and well-organized population of Hungarian and German workers. For a substantial part of the interwar period, they lent their support to the left-wing parties. The Communist Party was allowed to operate only in Czechoslovakia throughout the interwar period, but even among the Hungarians of the Voivodina, for example, where the Communist Party was banned, the election lists in some local Hungarian communities contained purely workers’ party candidates.

The land reform implemented between the wars in all three countries openly discriminated against Hungarians and other minorities, and this raised support for minority parties.20 There was a narrow section of Hungarian society, however, which benefited from the reform. Hungarian officials in the new state and municipal apparatus and some of the teachers and inspectors in state schools created a relatively strong Hungarian base for the majority government parties. The radical curtailment of Hungarian land ownership in all three “successor states” was fertile ground for Hungarian grievance politics: having suffered discrimination as citizens of their new country, people lost hope in the option of reaching out to the majority nation.21

The newly formed opposition Hungarian-minority parties enjoyed substantial support from Hungary, exposing them from the outset to powerful Budapest influence. When the process of adaptation and integration was beginning, this several times caused severe clashes of interest and identity. These parties—although usually basically powerless—quickly attained a dominant place in the “triadic nexus” described in detail by Rogers Brubaker. In the Central Europe of classic nation states that took form between the wars, each state was a “kin state” or “external homeland,” assuming the role of protective power with respect to its minorities in other countries, and at the same time a “nationalizing state” aiming for national homogeneity through assimilation. There was thus a mixture of roles: “nation-building,” involving defense of minorities and radical revisionism, and “nationalization,” involving hardline etatisme and assimilation.

“Caught between two mutually antagonistic nationalisms—those of the nationalizing states in which they live and those of the external national homelands to which they belong by ethnonational affinity though not by legal citizenship—are the national minorities. They have their own nationalism: they too make claims on the grounds of their nationality. Indeed it is such claims that make them a national minority.”22

Within the constraints of the “triadic nexus,” the minority Hungarian political parties’ community-organizing, “nation building” policies inevitably generated political conflicts in the domicile state. At the same time, the kin state, in our case Hungary, attempted to subordinate this community organization to its own revisionist foreign policy. Thus a distinctive atmosphere of conflict immediately formed up around the operation of Hungarian ethnic minority parties in Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

The minority parties had several basic functions, but placed the highest priority on defending rights and interests. They stood up for the individual and collective rights of the minority community they represented, challenging rights violations and promoting minority interests. The program of the Yugoslavian Hungarian Party, like those in Transylvania and Czechoslovakia, attempted to demand separate linguistic, educational, cultural and political rights, stressing the loyalty of the Hungarian minorities and taking advantage of every available legal and political avenue in the framework fixed by the peace treaty.23 The same was true when it came to maintaining and developing strong links to the kin state. The main channel of Hungarian government support was the Central Office of the Alliance of Social Associations, a political coordination organization created in 1921 and supervised by the Hungarian Prime Minister, István Bethlen. An illustration of the Budapest government’s tense relations with its neighbors and its strong-handed minorities policy was the foreign ministry’s instruction (until 1925) to the Belgrade embassy to avoid direct contacts with Hungarian minority politicians.24

Furthermore, ethnic parties, and especially those of the Hungarian minorities, acquired regional influence in their own historical and ethnic areas: Transylvania, the Partium and the Banate in Romania; Bácska (Bačka), the Banate and Syrmia (among others) in Yugoslavia; and Slovakia and the Hungarian-inhabited southern parts of Subcarpathia in Czechoslovakia. In this sense, therefore, the Hungarian parties were simultaneously furthering ethnic (or rather national) and regional aims. At the same time, they had to create a stable ethnic electoral constituency in order to reinforce the Hungarian communities and maintain and develop a network of community institutions. This in turn required them to build contacts with civil organizations, churches and the cultural sphere and come up with programs that appealed to Hungarian intellectuals and peasants as well as Hungarians in the urban middle and working classes. This strategy was followed in particular by the Hungarian National Party of Romania (OMP) and the National Christian Socialist Party of Czechoslovakia (OKSzP).

The first Hungarian political parties—in some cases separately in Slovakia and in Subcarpathia—were formed for the parliamentary elections in Czechoslovakia in March 1920. On the national scale, the Social Democratic Party succeeded in retaining its dominance for the last time before the Communist Party was founded in 1921. This was a major challenge for the Hungarian national parties. The National Christian Socialist Party became a competitive Hungarian minority party through its sensitivity on social issues, which appealed to the conservative section of the peasantry and the workers. By contrast, the Smallholders, Craftsmen and Middle Class Party (Kisgazda, Kézműves és Kispolgári Párt) effectively aimed itself at better-off Hungarians in Slovakia, especially after it became the Hungarian National Party (MNP) following changes in 1925.25

In Subcarpathia, in addition to these two Czechoslovakian parties, there were the Hungarian Rights Party and the Autonomic Party of Original Inhabitants (Őslakosok Autonóm Pártja). These were national, right-wing parties headed without exception by politicians who had started their careers after the border changes. In 1924, they took over ten per cent of the vote under the name Rusynsko Original Inhabitants’ Party (Ruszinszkói Őslakosok Pártja). Hungarians in Slovakia were roughly equally divided between right and left, but in Subcarpathia, right up to 1935, the Communist and Social Democratic parties had a much stronger base among Hungarians than opposition and government-aligned Hungarian parties.26

In Transylvania, the Hungarian minority’s political elite first had to grasp the point of founding a national party. After the peace treaty, they soon renounced the ambivalent weapon of passivity and began to form parties of various orientations. First there was the Hungarian Alliance, more of a movement than a party, and then the Hungarian People’s Party and National Party, “ethnic” or “national” parties representing Transylvanian Hungarians. The Hungarian Alliance was banned in October 1922. On December 28, 1922, the People’s Party merged with the National Party to form the OMP. From the outset, Transylvanian Hungarian politicians bolstered their electoral constituency by an inventive combination of pacts with the Romanian parties and ethnic politicizing.27

The declaration of citizens’ loyalty—the citizen’s oath that caused painful personal and moral contradictions, severe sacrifices and existential reorientations—restructured minority society and values in all three countries. Recognition of the new form of state and the dominance of majority society engendered a new kind of ethnic identity as the minority community faced up to, and rejected, the assimilative aspirations of the nation state. The expression “minority” did not have the negative connotations it had in Hungary between the two world wars, and simply meant “not Czechoslovakian,” “not Romanian” and “not Serbian,” i.e. Hungarian.

In the critical year of 1939, János Csuka, in his collection of essays Kisebbségi sorsban [Minority Destiny], came up with an idealized characterization of the minority existence in the extremely difficult ethno-political circumstances of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (KSCS), similar to the ideas of Transylvanism in Romania and vox humana in Czechoslovakia: “…a minority citizen cannot be conservative, but neither can he be extreme. He is ‘minority’. He is free of all ‘isms’ and abstruse worldviews. The minority outlook is coherent and indivisible, separate and Hungarian.”28 The minority political parties became the main representative institution for the minority Hungarians as they faced up to the new situation, refusing to assimilate and endeavoring to preserve their threatened and decimated educational and cultural institutions and uphold minority rights. Parliamentary representation was in fact the area of greatest success for the Hungarians of Transylvania, Czechoslovakia and the KSCS in the interwar period. A forced community, sharing experience and suffering as a national minority, evolved into a true community whose internal organization achieved political weight—and respect from the majority—in the form of the ethnic parties.

“Nationalism with a Human Face” and Hungarian Minority Policy in Czechoslovakia

The Hungarian minority parties in Czechoslovakia between the world wars (fusing into the United Hungarian Party [EMP] in 1936) tied themselves to the intentions and financial support of the “kin state”. Czechoslovakian governments set up what was undoubtedly the most permissive ethno-political model in Central and Eastern Europe between the wars, and “nationalism with a human face,” as formulated in Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk’s idea of the Czechoslovakian state was, despite mounting assimilative tendencies, to some extent preserved.29 Because of the Hungarian parties’ strategy, however, relations with the Czechoslovakian government were intensely acrimonious from the beginning. The need for an autonomous political line did arise from time to time, because direct contacts with Budapest, involving constant consultations there, were a burden on daily decision-making. The Budapest government gave its blessing to actions in pursuit of minority protection, but tried to strangle at birth any “activist” ventures involving cooperation with the majority nation. Throughout the period, Hungary’s revisionist policy was best served if the Hungarian ethnic parties took the position of eternal opposition and attacked every move by the Prague government.

The Hungarian government’s ideas in Czechoslovakian Hungarian party politics and foreign relations gradually became clear in the final period of István Bethlen’s prime ministership. Rigid, hands-on control gave way to cooperation based on regular consultation, and the parties—although subordinated to Hungarian foreign policy aims—were provided with freedom of movement in internal affairs. The guiding idea behind this is clear from Budapest’s moves to encourage party fusion and coherent action in interior and foreign affairs in the early 1930s.

At a Budapest consultation called in 1930 to address the tensions between the two Hungarian ethnic parties (OKP and MNP), the Prime Minister, István Bethlen, the Foreign Secretary, Gábor Apor, and the head of the minorities department of the Prime Minister’s Office, Tibor Pataky, made it clear that “the dismantling of Trianon is not the job of the ‘detached’ Hungarians, but of the Hungarian government.”30 The minority parties were advised on the subject of the Treaty of Trianon to say, “it is unjust, but we hold it to be an established fact which we recognize. We have no intention of being irredentist and certainly not of making violent changes.”31 It was made clear to the minority politicians that if they hoped for material and political support from the Hungarian government they would have to coordinate their policies. The minority party leaders were also tasked with sounding out the compatibility of the predominantly Hungarian “original inhabitants” concept with Slovakian autonomy, the central plank of Andrej Hlinka’s Slovak People’s Party, and then forcing Hlinka to declare whether or not he was willing to cooperate with the Hungarian parties.32

In January 1932, Géza Szüllő, Chairman of the National Christian Socialist Party (OKSzP), called in vain for party union; the Hungarian government leaders considered it premature.33 The two Hungarian parties were drifting apart in any case, and were concentrating on internal problems. József Szent-Iványi, under attack for his activist leanings, was replaced as leader of the Hungarian National Party by Andor Jaross.

That was the background to Szüllő’s replacement at the head of the OKSzP by János Esterházy in December 1932, mostly at the urging of Budapest.34 At Starý Smokovec on December 14, 1932, the new party executive elected 31-year-old Esterházy as chairman, along with two new vice chairmen, János Dobránszky and Tibor Neumann. The first signs were not encouraging: Esterházy’s inexperience, youth and aristocratic title were hard for many people to swallow.35 Embassy reports show relations between the two parties to have been at a low point in 1932, with almost no chance of improvement.36 In 1933 and 1934, the new party chairman had his trial by fire when political and police pressure on the national parties became increasingly manifest (temporary closure of the Hungarian opposition newspaper Prágai Magyar Hírlap and direct pressure on Esterházy – personal attacks, surveillance and withdrawal of his passport).37

Esterházy gradually managed to separate out the basic issues of minority community-building and address them individually. He did, however, communicate to the Czechoslovakian government as a single package the demands of the party, and those emanating from the field of culture and education and the civil sphere. He approached self-organization within the minority community as a provisional aim pending the success of Hungary’s revisionist policy, but also clearly perceived its intrinsic importance.

The party memoranda which Esterházy submitted to President Beneš and the Czechoslovakian government, his speeches to parliament and his joint submissions to official discussions on the budget and other affairs (during the years he shared chairmanship of the EMP with Andor Járos) show that in issues of culture, language, the economy and institution-building, Esterházy attempted to combine traditional grievance-raising activity with a new type of community organization. In the key issues of identity policy, he set out to obtain community self-government rights. He took the clearly discernible view that even from the minority position, it was not permissible to permanently bend to forced historical situations and to subordinate the self-organization of Slovakian and Subcarpathian Hungarians to diplomatic maneuvers of uncertain duration and outcome.

In the second half of the 1930s, the most pressing tasks were to unify minority Hungarian parties, rethink the Hungarian social frameworks in Slovakia, stabilize the system of cultural and education institutions, provide a structured basis of political and financial support from Hungary for the political program and explore the prospects for collaboration with Slovakian autonomists. After the unification of the OKSzP and MNP following the decision of June 21, 1936, parliamentary work became secondary for the minority Hungarian political elite.38

During the Czechoslovakian crisis of 1938, the center of gravity of political representation of the Hungarian ethnic group shifted to the EMP, led by Esterházy and Jaross. This firstly enabled preparations for revisionist changes to be directed from the center, avoiding hysteria, and secondly withdrew the party’s members from the front line of majority-minority conflicts. Finally, with the backing of its political hinterland, the party acted as political intermediary between the Prague and Budapest governments. In this respect, 1935 brought substantial progress in all three of these areas. Contesting the parliamentary elections of May 19 on a joint list, the two Hungarian parties reaped considerable success.39 The major distinctive features of Hungarian politics in Czechoslovakia in the second half of the 1930s were undoubtedly the unconcealed clashes—developing into irreconcilable confrontation—between activism and political opposition on one side and revision and defense of minority rights on the other.40

Esterházy’s unqualified refusal of the ministerial post offered to him by President Beneš in 1937 indicates that his aims as chairman of the EMP were not confined to the radical transformation of nationality policy in the Czechoslovak Republic. He was also preparing for revisionist changes. Just as the chances for the realization of Hungarian interests within the framework of Slovakian autonomy were dwindling, he found all the more reason for a political approach harmonized with Hungarian foreign policy. Unlike Szüllő, however, he did not wait for instructions from the Hungarian prime minister’s office or foreign ministry, but negotiated their leaders as an equal partner, trying to persuade Budapest of the need to support the measures he was proposing.

Esterházy had definite opinions on a possible alteration of Czechoslovakia and how the Czechoslovakian crisis would develop. He considered as out of the question a request by Beneš, repeated several times after January 1936, for the Hungarian parties, and subsequently the unified EMP, to enter the Czechoslovakian government, citing the failure to meet Hungarian linguistic, cultural and political demands. But alongside Hungarian cultural and linguistic demands he was determined to put increasing political emphasis on preparing for the autonomous status of the Hungarian minority. He entered into talks in which Czechoslovakian–Hungarian relations were interpreted in the wider international context, but with the proviso that the Czechoslovakian Hungarian question had ultimately to be resolved by intergovernmental and international negotiations. In this respect, the recognition of Hungary’s equal international ranking via the compromise embodied by the Hungarian–Little Entente negotiations in Bled in 1938 would have followed the fundamentally illusory scenario of a Central and Eastern Europe without Germany, and from the outset, every participant was aware of its alternative character.41

Right up till September 1938, Esterházy did not commit himself to open support for revision, but it was no secret either to Beneš or Czechoslovakian Prime Minister Milan Hodža that his collaboration with Hungarian governments in the late 1930s was unquestionably subordinated to that aim. For Esterházy, unification with Hungary of the whole of Slovakia and the whole of Subcarpathia would have been the ideal solution, but he admitted the impossibility of that by summer or autumn 1938 at the latest.

Was János Esterházy an irredentist, revisionist politician? It is time to address this question unambiguously, with due respect to the realities of the time. Border revision was a central issue of Central European intergovernmental relations between the two world wars. Neither Czechoslovakia’s founder T. G. Masaryk nor Beneš, who succeeded him, rejected all of the options outright, but naturally they sought to maintain the status quo and thought in terms of mutual agreements. Esterházy regarded revision on the principle of national self-determination as an evidently legitimate aim if it did not involve violence or the curtailment of the rights of the other nation. Esterházy’s revisionism was a synthesis of populist, national, ethnic and historical elements, an idealistic and, in several respects, unrealistic concept. The documents of the Hungarian National Council, set up prior to the First Vienna Award, show that he attempted—admittedly with little success—to integrate the experiences of Czechoslovakian Hungarian politics during its twenty years of minority status into a revisionist program conceived as a return to Hungary.42

Until the closing phase of the Czechoslovakian crisis, starting in August 1938, Esterházy primarily attempted to interpret the Czechoslovakian Hungarian issue in the terms of the Prague–Bratislava–Budapest triangle. Only after the Munich Treaty did he try to become personally involved in international preparations for border revision on terms favorable to the Hungarians, and he held talks to that end in Warsaw and Rome. Nonetheless, the social, cultural and political organization of the Czechoslovakian Hungarian minority and efforts to improve the legal and political status of the Hungarian minority remained at the center of gravity of his activities as party leader.

The Ideas and Political Construction of Minority Self-Organization

In all three countries, by defending the language and national identity of the Hungarian communities and securing citizens’ and minority rights, the ethnic parties succeeded in holding back the deluge of assimilation. Looking from the historical perspective, this in itself was a substantial achievement during the first decade of minority in Romania, and even more so in Yugoslavia.

In the brief period before royal dictatorship in Yugoslavia, the Hungarian minority’s representation in the national and provincial parliaments was very limited, indeed little more than symbolic on the national scale, while the alternative of cooperation with democratic or radical parties constantly divided the Hungarian political elite and the voters. There were occasional attempts at activism with the majority parties and sometimes also with the Romanian and Czechoslovakia governments. At no time during the interwar period, however, was there a substantial popular base for consocial minority politics aimed at collaboration with the majority, owing to the difficulties of reconciliation with Hungarian community interests.

Nonetheless, the first and second generations of the Hungarian minorities in Transylvania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia—fathers born in the late nineteenth century and the first generation of sons educated in minority schools—developed a political outlook which strove for equal rights within the framework both of the Hungarian cultural nation and the state community of the country. They emphasized the protection, dissemination and pursuit of regional interests, demanding fair positions for themselves.

This multidimensional minority nation-building was full of failures, partial successes, retardations and restarts throughout the twentieth century. In the constantly changing conditions of Brubaker’s “triadic nexus,” the minority Hungarian elites usually failed to realize their will when the community was put to the test. Their situation and everyday experiences caused them to pursue pragmatic politics, but they endeavored in vain to underpin their community-organization efforts with realistic, lifelike or compromise-seeking constructions that were also plausible to the titular nations. They were frequently bypassed or ignored when decisions about them were made by the majority elite and the Hungarian government.

The successful ideologies of minority-Hungarian self-interpretation between the two world wars were those which focused on regional aspects: Transylvanism, various right- and left-wing versions of “minority messianism” in Czechoslovakia, and the conception linked to the Voivodina writer and literary organizer Kornél Szenteleky (1893–1933) and the Subotica journal Kalangya, attempting to put regional values and couleur locale into the center of Hungarian literary self-interpretation in Yugoslavia. These purely community-building functions, despite their idealism, proved more realistic conceptions in both the short and long term than the theory of peaceful revision which sought to restore the historical Hungarian state with the help of world powers. Although none of these theoretical constructions originating from within a minority could have been capable of transforming majority society’s attitudes to that minority, they had an indisputable practical usefulness in organizing minority society and reforming attitudes within Hungarian identity politics.

Only to a very small extent was the self-organization of Hungarian minorities in the interwar period accompanied by integration into the new state communities. Many reasons for this may be identified. At that time, the injustice of control of their towns and countryside passing to another state was felt more keenly by most minority Hungarians than by Hungarian citizens. Following the Treaty of Trianon, ignorance of the majority language, unaccustomed forms of administration, legislation and justice, often discriminatively implemented, and the frequently tense relations between Hungary and the neighboring countries were heavy burdens on the process of adaptation and integration. Each of the “host” states from the outset defined itself as a nation state with a constitution, political apparatus, administration and legal system which—with the exception of the Czechoslovak Republic—left the minorities very little room for maneuver.

That minority citizens and communities developed little loyalty or identification with the new community of citizenship is not surprising in such circumstances. Even in Czechoslovakia, with its relatively generous nationality policy, the non-Slav minorities were not won over to the idea of the single “Czechoslovak” political nation. What is more, the united action of Slovakian and Carpathian Ruthene “native inhabitants” must for a while have seemed like a realistic counter-alternative against the incoming Czechs. The “native inhabitant” concept in Slovakia, which would have bound together the region’s original Hungarian, Slovak, German and Ruthenian inhabitants against the majority Czechs, and the “autonomist” block conceived as its continuation, had little chance of success given the unspoken but irresolvable historical conflicts between Slovaks and Hungarians.43 The concept even gained the support of the Budapest government and was finally dropped only in the weeks leading up to before the Vienna Award, upon the realization that the Slovaks were not prepared to return to Hungarian dominion under any circumstances. Opposition to the new states also proved to be an important community-forming factor in the early stage, although passive resistance proved to be a source of serious losses for the Hungarian minorities: government employees refusing to take the oath of loyalty to the new state were dismissed, and most of them joined the roughly three hundred thousand refugees who left for Hungary.

The rudimentary regional self-awareness of minority groups, which gradually unfolded in all three countries, represented a higher level of community organization. In Transylvania, the “pacts policy” pursued by the National Hungarian Party, with somewhat modest success, was aimed at laying the social-psychological foundations, given the narrow options of the minority existence, for attaining more effective self-organization in the framework of national unity. In Yugoslavia, after the royal dictatorship imposed in 1929 closed down the Hungarian Party, the journals Kalangya and Híd attempted to fill the gap by their own means. In all three of the Hungarian minority groups, efforts of representation and legal protection—to a certain extent owing to the restrictions on political activity—had to concentrate considerable energy into building up their own cultural, educational and religious institutions.

All efforts towards self-organization suffered from difficulties in maintaining links with the kin country, and particularly the Budapest government circles who reserved the right of decision in most major issues. Such links were initially banned and always obstructed. They only became well organized at the highest political level, and were otherwise disorganized and awkward. The relationships between Hungary and the Hungarian minorities have changed many times in the last ninety years. Between the two world wars, the main aim was to defeat the dominant feeling among minority Hungarians of having been cut off and ruined.

The rejection of Trianon and the increasingly radical demands for border changes as formulated in the revisionist public discourse and Hungarian foreign policy and propaganda enjoyed broad support throughout Hungarian society, and was not confined to the political class of reduced Hungary. Among Hungarian minorities, however, radical Hungarian irredentists had a relatively narrow base up to the mid-1930s. The second main group of factors influencing the self-organization of minorities concerned the political, economic and cultural rights provided by the new states and the general attitudes of majority society to the minorities. Here, as in the other areas, no true breakthrough or constitutional solution was reached during the first period of minority, and proposals got no further than the drawing board.

Grievance and Community Narratives

For most Central and Eastern Europe nations, the twentieth century—despite all of the destruction and suffering—brought real progress in terms of national politics: Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenians, Croatians and Romanians experienced restoration or establishment of state independence, if in some cases only partially. By contrast, the breakup of the multiethnic Kingdom of Hungary, which had been reunited in 1867 after long centuries of separation, and the passage of one third of the Hungarian-speaking population into minority status, especially when taken together with being on the losing side in two world wars and going through short-lived and ambiguous revolutions in 1918–1919, 1945 and 1956, have caused Hungarian historians and the Hungarian public to view the twentieth century as on a par with the ruinous period of Ottoman occupation.

By the internal logic of Hungary’s twentieth-century self-image, dominated by losses, and conflicts and contradictions of domestic and foreign origin, the restoration of the independent Hungarian state in 1918, 1945 and 1989 hardly registers in the story. The incongruences of Hungarian national society with Hungarian territory and state authority have proved irreconcilable. Neither the revisionist successes of 1938–1941 nor the ideological internationalism of the post-war one-party state brought any solution. Short-lived tolerance and positive minority policies by one or two neighboring nation states and the sluggish development of Hungarian national-cultural institutions have only sketched out the potential for progress. The effect of policies on integration, good neighborliness and minorities in the quarter of a century since the 1990 political transition has been similar.44

The history of Hungarian minorities in the “short twentieth century of the nation states” has three readings or patterns. The grievance discourse, which appears in most analyses and depictions in every age, rests on the prolific experience of grievances arising from rights and property deprivations, continuous demographic decrease and individual stories of suffering, with the appropriate heroic or negativist orchestration. At its extreme, it has produced individuals and groups at various periods of minority history who have stressed the absurdity and unlivability of the minority existence.45

An authoritative section of minority intellectuals in the consolidation period of the interwar period, however, urged their fellows to set aside the grievance approach and come to terms with legal inequality. Instead, they encouraged the minority Hungarians to self-organize, participate in political and public life and take a formative role in their own history. From the outset, their approach was dominated by an interpretation concentrating on the successes of community-building, active legal defense and interethnic communication. As a way of dealing with restriction of rights and majority pressure for assimilation, this discourse looked to survival and the ethos of the quality of Hungarianness, and to the measurable achievements of transmission and self-organization.

It was an approach which placed more importance on down-to-earth everyday achievements than grievances and national narratives rooted in past greatness and symbolic victories. The most realistic reading combined these two approaches, treating the minority existence as a process of permanent adaptation. It saw demographic decrease, emigration, isolation, language deprivation, language loss and violation of rights as mobilizing factors which kept the self-organization of minority communities on permanent alert. The diverse formations of bi- and multilingualism, double and multiple identity meant protection against pressure applied by the majority and competence in adapting to circumstances.

What these and other related interpretations had in common was a concept of minority Hungarian communities couched in terms of a forced community in a non-dominant numerical, economic and political position in the country. The primary duties of this community were to preserve and regenerate its own linguistic and cultural heritage and identity, to maintain religious, educational and cultural institutions, and to continuously cooperate with the other parts of Hungarian national society without obstruction. This was a self-interpretation that fundamentally originated among minority intellectuals. It enabled them to identify, in terms of the obstacles, tasks and successes of national community-building, the experiences and situation of the minority population in areas of life less obviously distinguishable than language and culture, and present these to members of the majority nation. All three Little Entente countries signed a treaty on the protection of minorities. This had some positive consequences in Czechoslovakia and to a certain extent in Romania, above all in the granting of language-use rights, the retention of a reduced system of Hungarian cultural and educational institutions and the consolidation of the legal position of minority churches. Czechoslovakia endeavored to incorporate the principles of the minorities treaty into its nationalities legislation, but Romania and Yugoslavia tended in the opposite direction, trying to restrict the scope of these principles. This difference showed up most strikingly in the operational freedom and productiveness of Hungarian minority parties. The partial success of Hungarian political representation in Czechoslovakia in the thirties was partly due to concessions which were granted on a larger scale in Masaryk’s republic than any other Little Entente country, as the three and a half million strong German minority, orchestrated by Hitler, caused Prague increasing troubles.

All three Hungarian minorities endeavored to make the most of the opportunities provided by the League of Nations’ minorities protection system. Interestingly, it was submissions by the Romanian Hungarians that came off best in this area, several times forcing the Bucharest government to retreat on anti-minority measures. This channel was important in redressing grievances concerning all three successor countries’ agrarian reforms and related land redistribution, and the state supervision of Hungarian-language schools.46

The basic conditions usually identified for Hungarian self-organization were economic-business life organized on ethnic lines, ethnically-oriented school education, and a working press and cultural life. The comprehensive grant of minority rights was regarded as a priority by Budapest governments from the outset. Although Budapest never gave up hope of shifting the borders in the interwar period, it tried to persuade all three neighboring countries with substantial Hungarian minorities to sign bilateral minority protection treaties. Thereafter, it was mostly through League of Nations minorities protection and interparliamentary union and other international legal forums that Hungarian government policy stood up for the Hungarian minorities, all the while admitting that it saw the true solution of the matter as the alteration of the borders.47

Revisionist Vision and Reality

Hungary unceasingly kept alive its ideal of border revision, but for a long time found only an indirect echo among minority Hungarian groups. Belief in the prospect of great-power decisions delivering border adjustments would in any case have implied passively waiting for a miracle. Such changes were of course a constant subject of private and family conversations, but everyday actions tended to take their cue from the challenges of adaptation. In other respects, all three large minority communities were constantly aware of Hungary’s role as “kin country” or active protector. Although the departure for Hungary by tens of thousands of people lacking citizenship or settlement permits, the relaxation of procedures for bringing in newspapers and books, and the spread of radio reception in the 1930s all had the effect of increasing the awareness of revisionist ideas among minority Hungarian societies, it was only in the late 1930s that people began to follow political developments surrounding the question and appreciate the impending prospect of border adjustments.48

Minority Hungarians were much less moved than the public within Hungary by integrationist ideas, ethnic revision scenarios, vociferous Hungarian government propaganda for internal consumption (tempered for outward purposes), obstacles to obtaining great-power support for peaceful border corrections, and contradictions between desire and reality.49

The Vienna Awards of 1938 and 1941, despite the brief euphoria of the “re-annexations” and “territorial expansion,” engendered an almost immediate sobering-up among the “returned Hungarians,” who perceived the unrealism of the “Everything back” slogan, the extreme dangers of the conflicts which revisionist foreign policy had stoked up, and not least the divergences of interest between them and the kin country.50 Even the suicide of Prime Minister Pál Teleki in 1941 failed to awaken the Hungarian elite to the ruinous connection between revisionist logic and the fate of a country descending into the horrors of war. Hungary continued to drift. Having hoped for national reunion, the country instead found itself confronting every one of its neighbors and indeed—through its commitment to the war—the rest of the world minus the Axis powers. Every problem of the peace treaty showed up in the development of the Hungarian minorities between the wars. Trianon did not only grant self-determination to Hungary’s former non-Hungarian nationalities, it implemented the strategic and economic aims of the victorious great powers and the alliances of small Central and Eastern European nations. In consequence, Hungary, like Germany, found itself plying a fatal course, and despite every effort of foreign policy and all the military calculations and apparent caution, the revision of the peace treaty and the territorial gains permitted by Germany between 1938 and 1941 swept the country and the Hungarian people into another global conflict. The great-power settlement following the Second World War attempted to create a lasting peace by eliminating the possibility of minority and border-revision conflicts. Its limited success, and the risks it implied for further regional conflicts, were pointed out by István Bibó as early as 1946.51

Epilogue: the Place of Minorities in the Hungarian Nation Concept

The interpretation of the facts and tendencies of separate minority development is a constant subject of debate in the description of twentieth-century Hungarian–Hungarian relations. There is a question which has arisen in literary scholarship from time to time ever since the 1920s: is there such a thing as Transylvanian or Slovakian minority literature? The first approaches to the social history of minorities concentrated on regional, interethnic and multicultural aspects, indicating that community-building among minorities could benefit from new identity and loyalty strategies based on regional differences carried over from the time before they were cut off by new frontiers and given new citizenship.

The experience of political, cultural, legal, financial and linguistic changes following the constitutional changes of 1918–1920 were formative on the first minority generation. After much of the old Hungarian middle class left for Hungary, minority Hungarian societies were left to their own devices. Gábor Kemény, born in Kassa (now Košice, Slovakia) identified the intellectual essence of community organization among the Hungarian minority in Czechoslovakia (“the motivation for intellectual development in the detached lands”) as the emergence of a “minority mentality,” the spirit of a community facing permanent threats and thus forming a special sense of reality. The minority community way of life was the basis of a “new social concept” which “made the life of the detached Hungarian masses more human and more European.”52

Minority communities attempted to counterbalance their abandoned, peripheral status by mobilizing their own past, turning to older regional—and sometimes central—Transylvanian, Upper Hungarian and southern Hungarian traditions. Thus the mentality of the Czechoslovakian Hungarians gradually turned them into “the most Westernized Hungarian outpost,” and every Hungarian self-organization acquired auxiliary justification via the buoyant regionalism of Transylvanism and couleur locale.

For the Hungarians in Slovakia, the boldest, most autonomous phenomenon of the first twenty-year period of minority was the left-wing Sarló movement launched by the Hungarian poet Dezső Győri (1900–1974). This proclaimed “the new face of Hungarianness,” and depicted the minority life as a school of progress; it was the most audacious assertion of the break from the old Hungarian world. Ultimately absorbed into the Communist Party, Sarló’s “finest chapter started when it disappeared as a movement.”53

Although no theoretical constructions were capable, from a minority position, of transforming majority society’s attitudes to the minority, they had an indisputable practical usefulness in organizing minority society and reforming positions in Hungarian identity politics. Progressive circles in Hungary, despite their ambivalence, constantly kept track of the value created by the minority Hungarian generations, and in number of cases gave it due credit. The outcome of Zsigmond Móricz’s tour of the Hungarian-inhabited areas of Czechoslovakia and Sándor Márai’s laudatory comments following the First Vienna Award show that they were always aware of the significance of minority community-building during the Horthy era. Márai explained this minority “added value” in terms of the social openness of the second minority generation, with their more urban way of life.54

Similarly, the minorities’ “bridge role” was not in itself illusory or a dead end, but became so because the majority side viewed it as the role of the interpreter, and with the exception of a few celebratory moments did not take up the offer of mediation. The rallying of progressive elements in the majority and minority populations and of the intellectual elites of the Danube lands, was one of the more utopian ideals circulating in the Hungarian left wing. It serves as a model of role confusion and false assessment of the minorities’ position, a conceptual search for alternatives to the capitalist and Communist cul-de-sacs which was itself a cul-de-sac, a confusion of the theoretical and practical dimensions.

The critical period for all three of the Hungarian groups discussed here was the decade of the 1930s, when the lessons of minority existence became apparent, the overoptimism of the “minority mission” and the sterile hope for a revisionist miracle were abandoned, and the activism of government parties petered out.55 Progressive circles and the intellectual elite in Hungary in both the first and second halves of the twentieth century were constantly aware of the rapidly changing contexts and core issues of social, economic and identity politics among the Hungarian minorities. Nonetheless, even those writers and thinkers in Hungary who were open to the minority question allowed their analyses and intellectual efforts to be dominated by the dilemmas of domestic policy on social, interior and foreign affairs. These always forced attention away from the issues that could have brought real and rapid remedies to the problems of minority communities. And there was even one writer on public affairs from Transylvania who saw the social burden of the three million poor peasants in Hungary as a Hungarian national issue of greater weight than the cause of the three million minority Hungarians.56


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Romsics, Gergely. Nép, nemzet, birodalom. A Habsburg-birodalom emlékezete a német, osztrák és magyar történetpolitikai gondolkodásban, 1918–1941 [People, Nation, Empire. Memories of the Habsburg Empire in German, Austrian and Hungarian Political Historical Thought, 1918–1941]. Budapest: Új Mandátum Könyvkiadó, 2010.

Romsics, Ignác. Dismantling of Historic Hungary: the Peace Treaty of Trianon, 1920, translated by Mario D. Fenyo. Wayne, N.J.: Center for Hungarian Studies and Publications, 2002.

Romsics, Ignác. Magyarország története a XX. században [History of Hungary in the Twentieth Century]. Budapest: Osiris, 1999.

Romsics, Ignác. Nemzet, nemzetiség és állam Kelet-Közép- és Délkelet-Európában a 19. és a 20. században [Nation, Nationality and State in Central and South-East Europe in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries]. Budapest: Napvilág Kiadó, 2004.

Romsics, Ignác. “The Dismantling of Historic Hungary.” In Essays on World War I: Total War and Peacemaking, a Case Study on Trianon, edited by Béla B. Király, Peter Pastor, and Ivan Sanders. New York: Brooklyn College Press, 1982.

Sajti, Enikő A. “A sérelmi politikától az együttműködésig.” In Integrációs stratégiák a magyar kisebbségek történetében, edited by Nándor Bárdi and Attila Simon, 11–22. Somorja–Šamorín: Forum Kisebbségkutató Intézet, 2006. Accessed August 29, 2013. www.mek.oszk.hu/08000/08023/08023.pdf.

Sajti, Enikő A. “Between the Two World Wars 1921–1938, Yugoslavia.” In Minority Hungarian Communities in the Twentieth Century. Edited by Nándor Bárdi, Csilla Fedinec, and Nándor Szarka. 214–17. Boulder, Colo.: Atlantic Research Publications, 2011.

Sajti, Enikő A. Impériumváltások, revízió, kisebbség. Magyarok a Délvidéken 1918–1941 [Changes of Imperium, Revision, Minority. Hungarians in Yugoslavia 1918–1941]. Budapest: Napvilág, 2004.

Sándor, Erzsébet Szalayné. A kisebbségvédelem nemzetközi jogi intézményrendszere a 20. században [International Legal Institutions for Minorities Protection in the Twentieth Century]. Budapest: Gondolat Kiadói Kör, 2003.

Simon, Attila. Egy rövid esztendő krónikája. A szlovákiai magyarok 1938-ban [Chronicle of a Short Year. The Hungarians in Slovakia in 1938]. Somorja–Šamorín: Fórum Kisebbségkutató Intézet, 2010. Accessed August 29, 2013. http://mek.oszk.hu/08900/08988/08988.pdf.

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Szarka, László. “Artificial Communities and an Unprotected Protective Power: The Trianon Peace Treaty and the Minorities.” In Hungary and the Hungarian minorities (Trends in the Past and in Our Time), edited by László Szarka, 14–35. Boulder, Colo.–Highland Lakes, N.J.: Atlantic Research and Publications, Inc., 2004.

Szarka, László, ed. Hungary and the Hungarian minorities (Trends in the Past and in Our Time). Boulder, Colo.–Highland Lakes, N.J.: Atlantic Research and Publications, Inc., 2004.

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Zeidler, Miklós. A revíziós gondolat [The Revisionist Idea]. Pozsony: Kalligram, 2009.


Translated by Alan Campbell

1 There are many misunderstandings and disputes surrounding the concept of “national minority”. Hungarians tend to use it in the sense of part of the nation, whereas it appears in the constitutions of Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Ukraine and Romania, primarily as meaning – in our case Hungarians – a group belonging to a neighbouring nation but divided from it by a national frontier and living in the country as a minority. Slovakia uses the expression “minority of a nationality” (národnostná menšina), and Austria, “traditional ethnic group” (Volksgruppe).

2 We should also, however, mention the increasing frequency of positive exceptions in recent times. See for example Holly Case, Between States: The Transylvanian Question and the European Idea during World War II (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2009), accessed October 21, 2013, http://www.sup.org/book.cgi?id=9197.

3 One of the comprehensive overviews of twentieth-century Hungarian minority history is Stephen Borsody, ed., The Hungarians: A Divided Nation (New Haven: Yale Center for International and Area Studies, 1988); Nándor Bárdi et al., eds., Minority Hungarian Communities in the Twentieth Century (Boulder, Colo.: Atlantic Research Publications, 2011).

4 The Treaty of Trianon was signed between the Allies of World War I and Hungary in 1920. Post-Trianon Hungary had 72 percent less territory and 64 percent less population than the pre-war kingdom. See Ignác Romsics, Dismantling of Historic Hungary: the Peace Treaty of Trianon, 1920, trans. Mario D. Fenyo (Wayne, N.J.: Center for Hungarian Studies and Publications, 2002). A debate on the Treaty of Trianon in the left-liberal weekly Élet és Irodalom in 2010–11 is summarized in Ferenc Laczó, The ‘Trianon’-Debate in the Hungarian Left-Liberal Weekly ‘Élet és Irodalom’, accessed August 29, 2013, http://www.imre-kertesz-kolleg.uni-jena.de/index.php?id=414.

5 For this, see e.g. Romsics, “The Dismantling of Historic Hungary”, in Essays on World War I: Total War and Peacemaking, a Case Study on Trianon, ed. Bela B. Kiraly, Peter Pastor, and Ivan Sanders (New York: Brooklyn College Press, 1982).

6 On revisionism, see Miklós Zeidler, A revíziós gondolat (Pozsony: Kalligram, 2009); on the inescapable need for Hungarian self-revision, see the book written in Vienna and published in London by Oszkár Jászi, minister for nationalities in the 1918–1919 Republic of Hungary: Oszkár Jászi, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Hungary (London: P. S. King and Son, 1924); for a view from the minorities, see the highly influential essay by Sándor Makkai, who was a Reformed Church bishop in Transylvania between the two world wars. Sándor Makkai, Magunk revíziója (Csíkszereda: Pro Print, 1998 [1931]).

7 For contrary views, see Walter Hildebrandt, “Die Problematik der Nation als totalisierende Matrix im Kontext des Strukturpluralismus Südosteuropas” in Ethnogenese und Staatsbildung in Südosteuropa, ed. Klaus-Detlev Grothusen (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1974), 230–53; Ignác Romsics, Nemzet, nemzetiség és állam Kelet-Közép- és Délkelet-Európában a 19. és a 20. században (Budapest: Napvilág Kiadó, 2004); Gergely Romsics, Nép, nemzet, birodalom. A Habsburg-birodalom emlékezete a német, osztrák és magyar történetpolitikai gondolkodásban, 1918–1941 (Budapest: Új Mandátum, 2010); Marián Hronský, The Struggle for Slovakia and the Treaty of Trianon 1918–1920 (Bratislava: Veda, 2002). On the ethnic mobilization of the South Slav nations, see Mark Cornwall, “The Experience of Yugoslav Agitation in Austria–Hungary, 1914–18,” in Facing Armageddon. The First World War Experienced, ed. Hugh Cecil et al. (London: Cooper, 1996), 656–77.

8 “We want to build up our national autonomy in the new conditions for two million Hungarians as a foundation; the law passed in Romania has by its own free decision promised part of this to us: the decision of Alba Iulia, and the other part will be obtained by our own will and strength and the better judgement of Romania.” Károly Kós et al., Kiáltó szó. A magyarság útja. A politikai aktivitás rendszere (Budapest: Idegen Nyelvű Folyóiratkiadó, 1981 [Kolozsvár, 1921]), 6–11, accessed August 29, 2013, http://www.hhrf.org/mk/802mk/802mk10.htm.

9 Gyula Illyés began his career as a poet in the populist movement, where he was a dominant figure. Later, in the Kádár era, he spoke up against legal violations suffered by the minorities and in favour of the linguistic and cultural community of the universal Hungarian nation, often overstepping restrictions on what could be publicly voiced. It was as a metaphor for the latter that he used the expression “five-legged whistle”. Continuing Illyés’ work on behalf of the minorities, the poet Sándor Csoóri, through the concept of the mosaic, expressed completeness in the same sense. On the minority Hungarian aspects of Csoóri’s concept of the nation, see András Görömbei, “Az elveszített hazák csikorognak. Csoóri Sándor a kisebbségi magyarságért,” Új Forrás 3 (2000): 46–56, accessed September 16, 2013, http://epa.oszk.hu/00000/00016/00053/000313.htm.

10 Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed. Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 55–59.

11 Gábor Biczó, “Megjegyzések Vetési László: Szórványstratégia – nemzetstratégia című tanulmányához,” Magyar Kisebbség 3, no. 21 (2003): 172–214, accessed August 29, 2013, www.jakabffy.ro/magyarkisebbseg/index.php?action=cimek&lapid=16&cikk=m000301.html.

12 The preponderance of cultural history research is related to the special role of literature among the minorities, and its power of resistance against central interference. Erzsébet Dani, “Minority Hungarian Management of Conflicting Cultural Identities in Post-Trianon Intercultural Romania as Reflected in Literature,” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science 3, no. 8 (Special Issue – April 2013): 316–26, accessed August 29, 2013, http://www.ijhssnet.com/journals/Vol_3_No_8_Special_Issue_April_2013/33.pdf. Hungarian-language analyses include: Ernő Gáll, Tegnapi és mai önismeret (Bucharest: Kriterion, 1975); Béla Pomogáts, A transzilvánizmus (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1983); Péter Cseke, A metaforától az élet felé. Kisebbségi értelmiség – kisebbségi nyilvánosság (Bucharest–Kolozsvár: Kriterion, 1995); András Görömbei, Létértelmezések (Miskolc: Felsőmagyarország Kiadó, 1997).

13 On history-of-mentality approaches to minority self-interpretation see e.g. Nándor Bárdi, “Generation Groups in the History of Hungarian Minority Elites,” in Regio – Minorities, Politics, Society (2005): 109–40, accessed August 29, 2013, http://epa.oszk.hu/00400/00476/00005/pdf/10.pdf. Among Hungarian-language works see Éva Cs. Gyímesi, “Gyöngy és homok,” in idem, Honvágy a hazában (Budapest: Pesti Szalon, 1993); Péter Cseke, ed., Lehet – nem lehet? Kisebbségi létértelmezések (1937–1987) (Kolozsvár: Mentor, 1995); Zsolt K. Lengyel, A kompromisszum keresése (Csíkszereda: Pro-Print, 2007); László Öllős, Az egyetértés konfliktusa: A Magyar Köztársaság alkotmánya és a határon túli magyarok (Somorja–Šamorín: Fórum Intézet, 2008).

14 In the first two decades, the principal framework for interpretation was the relationship between minority Hungarians and Hungary. Several leading thinkers in Hungary—writers and historians such as Dezső Szabó, Mihály Babits, Gyula Szekfű, László Németh, and Zsigmond Móricz—considered that Hungary’s main task was to protect minority Hungarian communities. Németh said, “after Trianon, the Hungarians have no greater task than to keep alive, in the place where they are, those of their brothers and sisters who have fallen into foreign hands.” László Németh, “A magyar élet antinómiái,” in idem, Sorskérdések (Budapest: Magvető és Szépirodalmi Kiadó, 1989), 104; Szekfű and László Németh’s views are discussed by András Görömbei, “A kisebbség nembelisége. Grezsa Ferenc a határon túli magyar irodalmakról,” Tiszatáj 1 (2008): 84; Iván Zoltán Dénes, Eltorzult magyar alkat. Bibó István vitája Németh Lászlóval és Szekfű Gyulával (Budapest: Osiris, 1999); László Kósa, “A magyar nemzettudat változásai,” Európai Utas 4, no. 41 (2000), accessed August 29, 2013, http://www.hhrf.org/europaiutas/20004/18.htm.

15 This was basically the line represented by members of the Helikon circle in Transylvania. For example, Mária Berde, who set off the “Admit and Accept” (Vallani és vállalni) debate which reviewed Transylvanist ideas, or the leading editor of the journal Aladár Kuncz. See e.g. Aladár Kuncz, “Az erdélyi gondolat Erdély magyar irodalmában”, vols. 1–2, Nyugat 21 (1928): 20–21; Lajos Kántor, Vallani és vállalni: Egy irodalmi vita és környéke (1929–1930) (Bucharest–Kolozsvár: Kriterion, 1984); Makkai’s Magunk revíziója may be regarded as the basic document from the interwar period on the extended responsibility of minorities.

16 Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed, 84–86, 112–17, 156–60.

17 A review of historical research into Hungarian minorities: Nándor Bárdi et al., Minority Hungarian Communities; on the institutionalization of Hungarian government minorities policy see Nándor Bárdi, “A budapesti kormányzatok magyarságpolitikai intézményrendszere és stratégiája,” Kisebbségkutatás 1 (2007): 7–18, accessed August 29, 2013, http://www.hhrf.org/kisebbsegkutatas/kk_2007_01/cikk.php?id=1769.

18 János Csuka, A délvidéki magyarság története, 1918–1941 (Budapest: Püski Kiadó, 1995), 277–80.

19 “Hungarians are frighteningly uninformed; they know nothing of the world and hardly anything about themselves. They jump hither and thither in history, and do not look at the ditch they have been pushed into. We complain that the land and the people are dwindling, and we do not see what remains. (…) The fate of Hungarian minorities depends on how they can orient themselves in their situation, truly come to know themselves and their environment, and manage to transform their misfortune into a mission,” “Letter by László Németh to Károly Szirmay,” Kalangya 4, no. 4 (1934): 284–86, Délvidéki Digitális Könyv- és Képtár, accessed August 29, 2013, http://dda.vmmi.org/kal1934_04_11. Cf. László Dezső, A kisebbségi élet ajándékai. Publicisztikai írások és tanulmányok 1929–1940 (Kolozsvár: Minerva Művelődési Egyesület–Szabadság napilap kiadója, 1997), 77–85.

20 Enikő A. Sajti, “Between the Two World Wars 1921–1938, Yugoslavia,” in Nándor Bárdi et al., Minority Hungarian Communities, 214–17.

21 On the issues of grievance politics, see Enikő A. Sajti, “A sérelmi politikától az együttműködésig,” in Integrációs stratégiák a magyar kisebbségek történetében, ed. Nándor Bárdi et al. (Somorja–Šamorín: Forum Kisebbségkutató Intézet, 2006), 11–22, accessed August 29, 2013, www.mek.oszk.hu/08000/08023/08023.pdf.

22 Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed, 5.

23 Enikő A. Sajti, Impériumváltások, revízió, kisebbség. Magyarok a Délvidéken, 1918–1941 (Budapest: Napvilág, 2004), 43–47.

24 Nándor Bárdi, Tény és való. A budapesti kormányzatok és a határon túli magyarság kapcsolattörténete (Pozsony: Kalligram Könyvkiadó, 2004), 40–46; Nándor Bárdi, “A budapesti kormányzatok magyarságpolitikai intézményrendszere.”

25 Andrej Tóth, Lukáš Novotný, and Michal Stehlík, Národnostní menšiny v Československu 1918–1938. Od státu národního ke státu národnostnímu? (Prague: Universita Karlova, Filosofická Fakulta–Vydavatelství TOGGA, 2012), 79–87; Béla Angyal, Érdekvédelem és önszerveződés. Fejezetek a csehszlovákiai magyar pártpolitika történetéből 1918–1938 (Galánta–Dunaszerdahely: Fórum Intézet, 2002), accessed July 17, 2013, http://mek.oszk.hu/01800/01869/; Csilla Fedinec: „Magyar pártok Kárpátalján a két világháború között,” Fórum Társadalomtudományi Szemle 1 (2007): 83–110, accessed September 10, 2013, http://mek.oszk.hu/01800/01843/01843.pdf.

26 Ibid.

27 György Béla, Az Országos Magyar Párt története 1922–1938 (PhD diss., ELTE BTK, 2006), accessed August 29, 2013, http://doktori.btk.elte.hu/hist/gyorgybela/diss.pdf; Nándor Bárdi, “A romániai magyarság kisebbségpolitikai stratégiái a két világháború között,” Regio 2 (1997): 32–67; Ferenc Horváth Sz., Elutasítás és alkalmazkodás között. A romániai magyar kisebbségi elit politikai stratégiái (1931–1940) (Csíkszereda: Pro-Print, 2007).

28 János Csuka, Kisebbségi sorsban. A délvidéki magyarság húsz éve (1920–1940) (Budapest: Hatodik Síp Alapítvány, 1996 [1941]), 38.

29 Expression used in: Roman Szporluk, The Political Thought of Thomas G. Masaryk (Boulder: East European Monographs, 1981); Idem, “Masaryk’s Republic: Nationalism with a Human Face” in Masaryk in Perspective: Comments and Criticism, ed. Milič Čapek et al. (Ann Arbor, Mich.: SVU, 1981), 219–39. On Czechoslovakian ethno-policy, see Peter Haslinger, Nation und Territorium im tschechischen politischen Diskurs 1880–1938 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2010), 312–15, 294–99, 323–25; Andrej Tóth et al., Národnostní menšiny, 208–25.

30 Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltára [Hungarian National Archives] (MOL), Külügyminisztérium – Politikai osztály, Reservált iratok 1918–1944, K 64, 1930–52. res.

31 Ibid.

32 MOL K64, 1930–52. res.

33 MOL K64, 1932–42. res.

34 Andrej Tóth, “Zemská křesťansko-socialistická strana v Československu pod vedením hraběte Jánose Esterházyho v letech 1933–1935,” Moderní dějiny 19, no. 1 (2011): 67–103; Gyula Popély, “A kisebbségi magyar pártpolitika megújulása a harmincas évek első felében,” Regio 3 (1990): 97–132.

35 Ibid., 1932, 594. res.

36 Ibid., 1932, 660. res.

37 Andrej Tóth, “Nástup hraběte Jánose Esterházyho do čela maďarské Zemské křesťansko-socialistické strany v Československu na sklonku roku 1932,” Moderní dějiny 18, no. 1 (2010): 77–101.

38 “The United Party, under favorable psychological and historical conditions, built up Hungarian cultural bodies, internally isolated every attempt at splitting, won over deserters among the peasantry and the workers by clarifying its social principles, and organized youth. It remedied the errors of the reactionaries, endeavored to clarify neglected economic issues and set up an elite, thus making the Hungarians an autonomous entity, and awaited the hour of decision.” Pál Szvatkó, A visszatért magyarok. A felvidéki magyarság húsz éve (Budapest: Révay, 1938), 110–11.

39 The parties on the joint candidates’ list polled a total of 254,943 votes, returning nine members of parliament and five senators. Béla Angyal, “A csehszlovákiai magyarság választói magatartása a két világháború között,” Fórum 3, no. 1 (2001): 3–48.

40 Géza Szüllő eloquently conveyed this contradiction in a report to the Budapest government: “… I do not want to create a satisfied national group out of the Hungarians in Czechoslovakia. My aim is that the Hungarians should not remain in Czechoslovakia and it is not Hungarian politics but the politics of Hungary that I am engaged in in Czechoslovakia.” Béla Angyal, ed., Dokumentumok az Országos Keresztényszocialista Párt történetéhez 1919–1936 (Dunaszerdahely: Lilium Aurum, 2004), 373.

41 Hungary held talks with the Little Entente countries from 1937 on the observance of minority rights, recognition of Hungary’s equal re-armament rights and the ban on revisionist actions. The Bled convention signed on August 23, 1938 was accepted by representatives of the four countries at the urging of the increasingly-isolated Czechoslovakia, but did not come into effect. Magda Ádám, “The Munich Crisis and Hungary: The Fall of the Versailles Settlement in Central Europe,” Diplomacy and Statecraft 10, no. 2–3 (1999): 82–121;
Thomas Spira, “Hungary and the Little Entente: The Failed Rapprochement of 1937,” Südost Forschungen 40 (1981): 144–63. 

42 Accordingly, an ideal aim emerged in the EMP’s political program, building on the social integration manifested in party union, of an autonomous Hungarian community which would integrate every section of society and every orientation, and thus have the Hungarian minority represented to a proportion of greater than five percent among both Slovakian politicians and the Prague government.

43 Attila Simon, Egy rövid esztendő krónikája. A szlovákiai magyarok 1938-ban (Somorja: Fórum Kisebbségkutató Intézet, 2010), accessed August 29, 2013, http://mek.oszk.hu/08900/08988/08988.pdf.

44 In this respect, one of the first single-author histories of Hungary to be written in the twentieth century comes to similar conclusions as the last. Both authors stress the need for a realistic historical self-image free of ethnocentric illusions and taking proper heed of the nation states as they have formed in the region. Gyula Szekfű, Három nemzedék, és ami utána következik (Budapest: ÁKV–Maecenas, 1989), 388–95 and Ignác Romsics, Magyarország története a XX. században (Budapest: Osiris Kiadó, 1999), 518.

45 Authors far from each other in style and looking from completely different viewpoints have come round to a rejection of the minority paradigm. Among the most influential writers are Sándor Makkai, “Nem lehet,” Láthatár 5, no. 2 (1937): 49–53. On Makkai’s writing after he renounced his episcopacy and moved to Hungary and the debates it set off, see Péter Cseke et al., ed., Nem lehet. A kisebbségi sors vitája (n.p.: Héttorony Könyvkiadó, 1989). Lajos Jócsik, born in Nové Zámky, and of left-wing orientation, identified the lack of institutions for a full life as the most serious deficiency of the minority life. Lajos Jócsik, Iskola a magyarságra. Egy nemzedék élete húsz éves kisebbségben (Budapest: Nyugat, 1939), 65.

46 On minority protection see Artúr Balogh, Jogállam és kisebbség, ed. Ernő Fábián (Bucharest–Kolozsvár: Kriterion, 1997); Zoltán Baranyai, A kisebbségi jogok védelmének kézikönyve (Berlin: Voggenreiter, 1925); Lajos Nagy, A kisebbségek alkotmányjogi helyzete Nagyromániában (Reprint: Székelyudvarhely: Haáz Rezső Kulturális Egyesület, 1994 [Kolozsvár, 1944]); Erzsébet Szalayné Sándor, A kisebbségvédelem nemzetközi jogi intézményrendszere a 20. században (Budapest: Gondolat Kiadói Kör, 2003)

47 Magda Ádám, “A kisantant és a magyar kisebbségi kérdés,” História 13, no. 2­–3 (1991): 26–28.

48 László Szarka, “Artificial Communities and an Unprotected Protective Power: The Trianon Peace Treaty and the Minorities,” in Hungary and the Hungarian minorities (Trends in the Past and in Our Time), ed. idem (Boulder, Colo.–Highland Lakes, N.J.: Atlantic Research and Publications, Inc., 2004), 14–35.

49 Zeidler, A revíziós gondolat, 157–76.

50 In a contemporary report, Márai related his experiences of the first conflicts of Hungarians “returned” from Czechoslovakia with the motherland. “What should we feel, we who have returned, and in the corner of our eye the tears of joy at reunion has still not dried, and what the rest feel, who are still on the other side of the borders, when the hate-orchestra tunes up, when people who yesterday were still working together for the Hungarians now stand in the whistling chorus of a savage political and press war, when absolutely loyal and honourable Hungarians, from one day to the next, are drowning in the seaweed of hate.” Sándor Márai, Ajándék a végzettől. A Felvidék és Erdély visszacsatolása (Budapest: Helikon Kiadó, 2004), 152.

51 “…whereas Hungary cannot even look forward to gaining ethnic borders, the entire historic area of Bohemia, with international assistance, is being cleared of minorities, and Poland is being similarly compensated for its lost historic territory with land freed of minorities. Thus in Hungary we can expect a severe psychological crisis affecting the future of democracy, while Poland and Czechoslovakia may figure in a large-scale European crisis of conscience concerning mass resettlement.” István Bibó, “A kelet-európai kisállamok nyomorúsága, in idem, Válogatott tanulmányok, vol. 2, 1945–1949 (Budapest: Magvető Kiadó, 1986), 185–265, accessed August 29, 2013, http://mek.niif.hu/02000/02043/html/206.html#216. See also Bernard Crick, “Introduction to István Bibó,” Hungarian Review 2, no. 6 (2011), reprinted from István Bibó, The Paralysis of International Institutions and the Remedies (London: The Harvester Press, 1976) http://www.hungarianreview.com/article/intorduction_to_istvan_bibo.

52 Gábor Kemény, Így tűnt el egy gondolat. A felvidéki magyar irodalom története 1918–1938 (Budapest: MEFHOSZ, 1941), 12–13.

53 Pál Szvatkó, Visszatért magyarok, 180–89. On the Sarló Movement see Deborah S. Cornelius, In Search of the Nation: The New Generation of Hungarian Youth in Czechoslovakia 1925–1934 (Boulder, Colo.: East European Monographs, 1998).

54 “In recent decades, young Hungarians born in Upper Hungary have been at the forefront of intellectual and social movements in Hungary. The Upper Hungarian soul is above all a social soul. The man of Upper Hungary is a town-dweller, a town-builder, and lives in an intellectually more direct and practical milieu than the people of the puszta.” Márai, Ajándék a végzettől, 88.

55 Ibid., 141.

56 “That a three million-strong Hungarian minority has been wrenched form the unity of the national soul is a serious problem, but much more serious is the question of how the three million village proletarians of pure Hungarian blood in Hungary can be taken into the body of the nation, and how they can be kept within its unity.” Dezső László, A kisebbségi élet, 196.

pdfVolume 2 Issue 3 CONTENTS

Gábor Egry

Navigating the Straits. Changing Borders, Changing Rules and Practices of Ethnicity and Loyalty in Romania after 1918


This study investigates the emergence of Greater Romania from below, paying attention to certain aspects of ethnicity and nationalizing. The establishment of the new state, with its rules and practices, was a slow process that left considerable room for local groups and individuals to negotiate their positions vis-à-vis the nationalizing efforts. The analysis of how citizenship options were used to individual advantage, the conflicts that arose regarding the nationalizing of border zones and their inhabitants, and the local differences of symbolic conquests reveal the importance of local contexts and their social elements. From the perspective of these events the realities of Greater Romania are best described as an overarching legal fiction that disguised a series of local settlements and compromises regarding the nationalizing attempts. Encounters usually interpreted as expressions of national indifference were also driven by ethnicity, only the meaning and content of ethnicity remained permanently contested. One can detect two types of “nationally indifferent” behavior. One was prevalent primarily among the middle class, a claim for the right to define one’s ethnicity, and another was characteristic of the lower urban social strata and the peasantry, where it could have meant real indifference not only to the norms of proper behavior, but also to the categories used by the state, but not negligence of differences.


Keywords: ethnicity, nationalizing, national indifference, Romania, Transylvania


The railway mechanic Alexandru (Sándor) Czitrom arrived in Romania from Hungary in a period in which the traffic was supposed to be heavier in the opposite direction. Czitrom crossed the line between the territories under Hungarian and Romanian control in November 1919 and headed to Bucharest. His police file did not preserve the details regarding how he ended up in the city of Pascani in Moldova working in the important railway facilities. The state security police became suspicious of his presence only in 1924, but the final decision on his expulsion as a suspected spy had not yet been made even in 1930. However, the police recorded some interesting data on Czitrom, an ethnic Jew according to the official categorization, a Hungarian citizen who still spoke bad Romanian andas the police file registered—a man who had crossed the border both at Oradea (Nagyvárad in Hungarian) and Predeala mountain resort south of Braşov (Brassó, Kronstadt in German).1

Some of these details—unusual as they are in the light of the dominant perception of the period—raise intriguing questions concerning individual strategies in the changing world of post-World War I Central and Eastern Europe. Czitromwho spoke Hungarian but no Hebrew or Yiddishtraveled to a country where he became part of one of the minorities, yet he made no effort to acquire citizenship, worked at a strategically important company in a strategically exposed facility for at least a decade (there is no information on his fate after 1930) despite suspicions regarding his loyalty, and—and this reveals something interesting about the perspectives of the Romanian nation state—entered the country twice during one journey, at border crossings that did not exist at that time.2 According to the general perception of Greater Romania, it was a nationalizing state that encountered and overcame regionalist and minority resistance to its efforts.3 Czitrom’s journey, however, points to the existence of a certain space for individuals who were not complying with the rules of nationalizing and still were able to negotiate their position. Furthermore, it reveals the difficulties faced by the state (more precisely of its agents) in its efforts to act in accordance with its self-perception, while even its seemingly fixed and stable borders were becoming fluid and insecure.

The change of borders between states and sovereignty over vast territories in the wake of World War I, accompanied by the resulting mass migration, generated a rather fluid situation in territories that previously had belonged to Hungary. It did not simply mean a change of state authorities and legal frameworks, bringing new rules, norms and expectations. In addition to the adaptation efforts that were necessary as a result of the changes, the gap between old and new, between legal norms and executive capacity, between imaginary societies and the realities on the spot opened up new possibilities to exploitafter a long war that already has taught people how to gain individual advantages in the face of an ever-growing state apparatus.

The focus of this study will be the adaptation process and this gap, and how the historical actors made use of it in Greater Romania. Individual and local cases showing how certain actors exploited the opening space and how certain social aspectsprimarily ethnicity and national categorizationfound expression. The overall framework of these cases remains a triadic relationship between nationalizing states and minorities,4 with the slight modification that here the third pole of the relationship is not just one minority, but a periphery of both centers with many competing elites, often acting against their national centers.5 But the main question does not concern the centers and state actors, but rather individuals and local communities who were trying (often forced to try) to negotiate their position after the collapse of one state and the slow emergence of another, with different rules, norms and expectations. It is also my aim to point out what is visible in terms of social agency, values and social structures beyond mere ethnic or national attempts to create a national state at every level.

Floating Borders

The transposition of the Romanian–Hungarian border and the change of sovereignty over more than 100,000 square kilometers of territory did not simply mean a new division of the geographic space and the reconfiguration of contacts between people, cultures and economies or simply new laws and rules of ethnicity and loyalty.6 One of the most important legal aspects of the change for individuals was citizenship, an institution that conferred rights and entitlements in one country but restricted movement and rights in the other. Without the possibility of dual citizenship, the issue created an exclusive bond, assigning each person to a single country, but the Trianon Treaty (1920) provided for a longer period during which individuals could make a choice and opt to move to the other country. In this case—theoretically—they were allowed to take with them their belongings and sell their real estate. It was not a complete ethnicization of citizenship, but as a substitute for the plebiscite demanded by the Hungarian actors its primary aim was to enable people to leave behind minority status and join their nation states. The idea was that more and not fewer national states would emerge as a result of this, and thus it bound citizenship more strongly to ethnicity.7

The most discussed aspect of the citizenship issue in the scholarship is the migration of Hungarians from the ceded territories to the rump country.8 This is usually seen as forced or semi-voluntary movement at best, the result of the rapid and mass-scale loss of jobs among those employed in the state administration and public services. Despite the high standards of these publications, this uni-dimensional perspective bears strong affinities with the interwar propaganda and completely neglects any movement to Romania—apart from the case of leftist political émigrés—, or the possibility of moving between the two countries. Even if we lack a systematic survey of the latter phenomena, some individual cases point to the existence of a space offered by the system of citizenship options and the scarce resources of the state to control the population effectively. Some of these are very similar to the Greek–Bulgarian cases discussed by Theodora Dragostinova,9 which show how people tried to negotiate their citizenship choices according to what seemed advantageous and how they used arguments based on their perceptions of what decision-makers expected with regards to their ethnicity.

One such case was “discovered” by the police in 1923 in a village in Sălăj (in Hungarian Szilágy) county, relatively close to the border. The 25-year-old Károly Rácz was interrogated by the police because it turned out that he had opted for Hungary in 1921, when he had been conscripted in the Romanian army, but never actually attempted to move there. Rácz explained his behavior with reference to the influence of Samu Bartha, the Calvinist schoolteacher in the village, who also tried to avoid conscription by renouncing his Romanian citizenship. According to Rácz, Bartha prompted others to follow his example.10 Bartha basically verified part of the story, though he denied having instigated others. But the details reveal an elaborate way of avoiding conscription without losing the potential benefits of being in Romania and not jobless in Hungary. He admitted to renouncing citizenship as early as 1920 in order to avoid being called up for military service. He was given one year to leave the country, but he appeared again in front of the enlistment committee the following May. There he revoked the option and was granted a reprieve until he graduated as schoolteacher. According to his version, the officer in charge of the committee had promised to send the documents by post, but they never arrived. Nevertheless, he was convinced he was a Romanian citizen.11 Even if Bartha was caught red handed in this awkward situation, the decision of the authorities was very protracted; he was only expulsed in September 1924,12 returning later every year as a visitor.

While Bartha obviously tried to gain something from the shift of borders and his decision to remain in one place, the case of Ákos Hirsch, a restaurateur in Aiud (Nagyenyed in Hungarian), exemplifies the potential to move physically between Hungary and Romania. Hirsch was charged with having insulted and beaten an official, an agent of the local State Security Police (Siguranţa) under very dubious circumstances.13 When the investigation started the police realized that Hirsch had neither Romanian citizenship nor a proper residence permit—despite running a restaurant for two years. The investigation discovered that Hirsch had served in the Honvéd regiment in Aiud and had returned from the war in November 1918. A year later he moved to Budapest, as he had not found a job. In Budapest he joined his brother, a bank director, who employed him as a traveling agent. However, he missed the deadline to apply for Hungarian citizenship and even though he lived in Budapest undisturbed until 1926, that year he was asked by the police to “clarify” his legal status. (He suspected a denunciation.) The police instructed him to collect the necessary documentation to apply for citizenship—most importantly a certificate from Aiud, proving his birth and residence there. To travel to Romania he needed a passport, but the Hungarian authorities refused to issue one, as he was not able to prove his Hungarian citizenship. The Romanian consulate also refused to issue him passport on the grounds that he lacked documentation proving his Romanian citizenship.14

Nevertheless, the police—with the help of a personal acquaintance from Aiud—gave him permission to cross the border—valid for 5 days in order to gain the documents. Hirsch entered Romania on June 14, 1926, but did not seem to bother himself too much with the time limits set by the police. It took him six days to reach Aiud. He claimed that it was his friends who had advised him to remain there, where according to them he would have less difficulty finding a job than in Budapest. Here his lack of identification documents was seen as an advantage. At least it would make it harder for the Romanian army to find Hirsch, whom they sought as deserter, at least this was the reasoning. After a police inspection in September, he reported himself at the local branch of the police and was given a certificate and residency permit. The Siguranţa also asked him for clarification, and after a detailed explanation of his situation the local chief ensured him that he could remain in Aiud until he received a different order. A year later he even successfully acquired a soldier’s book and reservist status. The situation only changed after his conflict with the police agent, which led to his expulsion in 1929.15

Although he was expelled from the country, Hirsch’s case—which is only one of many16—points to the potential to use the gaps in bureaucratic control and probably the rivalry between different state organs. He was already under the radar in Budapest—probably avoiding the many duties of a citizen. He admitted to capitalizing deliberately on his lack of documentation in Romania to avoid military service, and it is highly probable that he managed to bribe the Siguranţa chief. This set up enabled him to play a relatively prominent role in the local community, taking over the management of a popular restaurant from his earlier employer, hardly the act of someone hiding from the authorities. Had he not made the mistake of not bribing the insulted police agent, he probably would have been able to remain in Aiud for many more years. However, as soon as he was exposed, his dubious status worked against him. He was Jewish, a non-citizen, and had lived for a long time in Hungary—all factors that proved his non-Romanian nature and made him suspicious. But the most important conclusion to be drawn from these cases concerns not the potential of repressive action from the side of the state, but the surprisingly large room for individuals to exploit the citizenship regimes, the border, and not least of all the apparent incapacity of the state to exert the control it claimed to have over its inhabitants, citizens and territory. It is hard to fail to notice that the lack of coordination among different authorities also played a significant role in the success of individual ventures.

Dangerous Border Zones

In light of such cases, even the spy or irredentist hysteria of the interwar period seems a bit more understandable. All the more so, because in many senses it was just a perpetuation of the hysteric actions of the state during World War I. In particular following the Romanian invasion of Transylvania, the Hungarian authorities tended to treat many Romanian as suspicious, and even if judiciary organs often successfully restored the position of the wrongly accused, the population was definitely instructed to see members of other ethnic groups as enemies, without differentiation.17 Sometimes individuals became victims of this hysteria well after the war, like Sándor Kulcsár from the Szeklerland [Székely Land], who was collecting donations in January and February 1925 in the region around Turda (Torda in Hungarian) and Aiud for a new Calvinist church in his home village. Here he encountered Inocan Clemente, an old Romanian peasant, who—sensing danger in the presence of a foreigner—pretended to be a Hungarian. After their long discussion on Kulcsár and his mission, when Kulcsár also spoke of his confused views on international politics, Clemente concocted a weird story of a large scale conspiracy, rooted in Kulcsár’s village. Even if the gendarmes in the Szeklerland warned against this pure nonsense, Kulcsár was forced to “admit” to being part of an irredentist network.18 Not only was geographic and ethnic “foreignness” turned into proof of a crime, but Clemente used his knowledge of Hungarian to lure Kulcsár into a trap, highlighting how national belonging became an issue of secrecy, confidence and security for many “ordinary people” with the events of the war and its aftermath.

However, foreigners and strangers were not necessarily specific persons, they could have been everywhere, in particular in the border zones. These areas were usually seen as exposed to the danger of denationalization or even already having suffered the process of denationalization, which from Bucharest’s perspective meant a de-Romanianization. Such assumptions were usually based on a series of individual encounters, revealing differences between Old Kingdom and Transylvanian Romanians, Hungarians and Romanians.19 One of the most notable cases was that of Vasile Gioara, who, having begun but not completing his secondary school studies, arrived in the northwestern corner of Greater Romania on December 1, 1922. After finding employment at the local court he supplemented his earnings by teaching Romanian to minority officials—quite successfully according to his self-evaluation. Half a year later he was accused of stealing underwear from a local merchant. During the investigation he was abused and insulted, and also beaten up by the accuser and the Romanian gendarmes. Even if Sieni (Szinérváralja in Hungarian) was a marketplace with a Romanian majority and a local center of Romanian cultural and political activity during the dual monarchy of Austria–Hungary, he saw around him Hungarians and Jews and Romanians whose “souls” had been completely Magyarized, i.e. they had pro-Hungarian sentiments or were at most a “mixture” of ethnicities. In a complaint and request submitted to Queen Mary, in order to emphasize how foreign these regions were in Romania he contended that there were only three Old Kingdom Romanians in Sieni, and according to him the population assumed that Old Kingdom rule would soon disappear.20

Lack of proper knowledge and the failure of locals to meet expectations of travelers concerning how proper Hungarians or Romanians should behave were not specific to Romanians. Hungarian travelers were sometimes misled too. Mihály Török, an inhabitant of Budapest and an engineer by profession, was so enraged by his fellow traveler between Oradea and Cluj (Kolozsvár) that he submitted a complaint at the border police after returning from Cluj in 1939. He described a conversation with a certain Antal Kornél, a decent person who talked to him all the way. However decent the companion was, Török concluded that he must have been a Romanophile Hungarian, since during their journey he narrated the Romanian version of Transylvanian history. The fact that such a Hungarian can exist outraged the official in the Prime Minister’s office who read the report, but before having Antal Kornél expelled he requested information on his person. It turned out that he was in fact not Antal Kornél, but Cornel Anton, a Romanian lawyer from Lugoj (Lugos in Hungarian), an old member of the Romanian National Party.21 He spoke perfect Hungarian (as demonstrated by the fact that Török had not noticed any accent) because he was socialized before World War I and kept close contacts with the local Hungarian middle class. Furthermore, indirectly reinforcing the claim of many Romanians that these areas were denationalized, his wife—a “dame of fashion”22—loved to wear clothes bought from Budapest tailors. This was the reason for his frequent trips to the Hungarian capital.

These individual cases exemplify how fixed expectations of proper ethnic behavior encountered realities on the ground. But the result was not a reassessment of what it meant to be Romanian or Hungarian (for example accepting proper national history, speaking Romanian, favoring co-ethnics over others etc.), but rather an even stronger desire to transform people into proper nationals. It was similar in the case of many state organs, and these attitudes often mutually reflected each other. At least people very soon learned what their superiors expected from them, and even when they acted differently, they usually tried to justify their behavior with explanations garbed in the proper national language.23 On the other hand, the closeness of the border and the distance from Bucharest provided for a certain freedom from the power of the center, at least in the early years of Greater Romania. This was expressed by defiant gestures, such as that of Matei Gheorghe, a judge in Oradea. He was presiding over a case in which the court wanted to auction the house of the accused in order to pay the costs of defense. In the face of protest from the accused, the judge told him not to nurture any hope of avoiding his fate, he—the judge—had earlier dealt with ministers from Budapest, who were all counts, not nobodies like General Avarescu (the prime minister), and nonetheless he had not given ground. Maybe—the judge advised—it would be better for him to seek refuge in Hungary.

But the dangerous nature of border zones made state organs intervene often enough to encounter again and again the resistance generated by their lack of knowledge of local contexts. The most telling example of this kind of conflict is probably the attempt of the army general staff to ban every single firefighter organization in Transylvania. The soldiers argued that these organizations were popular in Transylvanian towns and villages, but even though they were recruited from among the locals they offered charitable services only in limited cases. Furthermore, during the period of Hungarian rule they had served as a means of Hungarian propaganda, so Romanians had been excluded from these associations in the Romanian villages. They continued to function in 1919–1921, with the exception of Satu Mare (Szatmárnémeti), where well known Hungarian irredentists reestablished the association only in September 1921. They spread the network of associations into pure Hungarian villages, especially along the border. For the army staff this often false information seemed to prove irrefutably that these organizations were the backbone of a dangerous irredentist organization that posed a threat to the security of Romania, all the more so because in the villages they were useless without the necessary facilities.24

The order caused a scandal, practically all of the prefects in Transylvania protested. It was revoked, but the general staff received a long letter from the mayor of Caransebeş (Karánsebes in Hungarian), a German–Romanian city. The anger of the official is palpable in every word of the text, in which he contests everything presumed by the general staff. He was infuriated by the categorization of the firefighters as irredentists, especially as Caransebeş had been free of Hungarians when they had established the association in the mid-nineteenth century, and during its fifty years of its existence it had been dominated by Germans and Romanians. But he also protested the allegation of uselessness and portrayed the association as the embodiment of utmost altruism and humanist heroism.25 “Every good son of the country should have a place among the voluntary firefighters, irrespective of his language”—concluded the letter. Given this courageous defense, it is not surprising that the Caransebeş Voluntary Firefighter Association still existed a decade later and its members still used Hungarian as their internal language, both in formal and informal situations.26

Despite occasional setbacks, like the firefighter problem, the border zone remained an area of constant danger to the security of the state in the official imaginary. It was transformed in this sense not only by the threat from abroad, but also by perceptions of its inhabitants, who in general were seen as not Romanians or “bad” Romanians. On the other hand, somewhat surprisingly, Hungarian officials tended to invoke a similar view of the respective area, with the difference that for them it was the nationalizing activity of Romania that represented danger. It threatened the national consciousness of Hungarians, and as a result it threatened to separate Hungarians from Hungary. However, the greater the danger posed by these zones, the less well they were known. Increasingly they came to be seen by both sides as alien areas that needed to be transformed into safe and secure sites of national existence—places to reconquer. In this struggle, language and loyalty became crucial for everyone, setting expectations that too often remained unfulfilled. This kind of simultaneous—spatial and social—liminality and the permanent tension between the self-confident nationalizing attempts on the one hand and the very different local realities on the other contributed to the emergence of a space that enabled individuals and locals to find a different modus vivendi, often more relaxed than the legal fictions of Greater Romania.

Symbolic Conquests and Uneasy Peaces: The Renaming of Streets

In order to transform the border zone, its symbolic conquest seemed part of the solution. Especially as the symbolic reconfiguration of the whole province had already started in 1919. The changes of memorials and statues, the building of “national” edifices, the new language regimes in the cities—these were all aimed at demonstrating Romanian presence and conferring a sense of Romanian homeland to the otherwise alien areas. The desired result was a new urban and rural space that would fulfill expectations in this regard, losing its foreign character. Many small details were taken care of, many devices used to achieve this goal, shop signs in Hungarian or German were replaced with Romanians or bilingual ones, street names were changed, statues and memorials were replaced, administrative buildings were furnished with warnings: We only speak Romanian! But again, local realities often visibly contradicted nationalizing projects. Shop signs, inscriptions, and advertisements were grammatically incorrect even after two decades, prompting repeated complaints from the local authorities.27 Statues were hard to finance based only on private donations, and often polite state pressure was ineffective.28 The use of Romanian street names was sometimes deemed impractical, for example when public health issues were at stake and the authorities did not want to risk the outbreak of an epidemic.29

The conflict between full fledged nationalizing projects and individual efforts or local realities was as frequent in this respect as in the cases above. The importance of local contexts is best shown by a comparison of street renaming practices across Transylvania. In some cities it started in 1919, and the regional inspectorate of the Ministry of Interior urged localities in May 1920 to finish renaming. They also gave instructions regarding the new street names. Historical names, such as the names of members of the royal family or significant personalities of Romania from past and present, were seen as the best choice. For practical reasons they also ordered the indication of the old street names in minority languages.30 Despite the central instructions, the outcome of the process of renaming varied in every locality, reflecting not only the different nationalist inclinations of the new Romanian leaders, but also their own relationship with the local space and society.

The two extremes were Cluj and Oradea.31 In the former a commission consisting of 12 people proposed eighteen street names for immediate change. After long planning, every street was renamed in March 1920.32 The prefect signed the decree on March 15, 1920, the Hungarian national day, stressing the symbolic importance of the act. The result was peculiar, as neither Hungarian personalities nor original street names were preserved, but the new system of street names was an almost exact mirror image of the Hungarian nomenclature. Not only did the main arteries retain the names of the Romanian counterparts of the Hungarian dignitaries after whom the streets had been originally named (for instance the street leading from the railway station, Francis Joseph, was renamed King Ferdinand), but in every other case the committee tried to find the corresponding Romanian personality or institution. Honvéd Street (the Hungarian word for “home defense,” or the military) was renamed strada Dorobanţilor, after a Romanian infantry unit. Gróf Kun (Count Kun) street, named after the founder of a famous secondary school in Oraştie (Szászváros), was renamed Gojdu, after Emanoil Gojdu, a nineteenth-century lawyer from Pest-Buda, who established a foundation supporting Romanian students in the Hungarian capital. Hunyadi Street, named after the fifteenth-century military leader and a hero in the wars with the Ottoman Empire, was renamed Stefan cel Mare, the Prince of Moldova, who also fought against the Turks in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The symbolic text of the city remained very similar, but was completely re-nationalized. It preserved the local specificities, the geographic distribution of different types of names in a city where Romanians were not numerous enough to have had an impact on such decisions, but simply “flipping” it, from Hungarian to Romanian.

Simultaneously, the new leaders of Oradea embarked on a street renaming project, but with a more limited scope.33 Their list consisted of only fifty streets, and the names were clearly selected with less sophistication and consideration. The city council even retained some Hungarian names, for example Ferenc Deák or Kálmán Rimanóczy, and proposed other ones that were very much at odds with the “nationalization of street names”, as the decision claimed. As street names, Saint Ladislaus or Calvin would not convey “Romanianness.” Nevertheless, the changes were enough to erect a new symbolic space, fundamentally different from the pre-World War I space, highlighting the city’s alleged Romanianness, but leaving a hodgepodge of symbolic geography, with large areas still bearing Hungarian street names.

But these extremes were far from being the mainstream solution, especially as both Cluj and Oradea were basically Hungarian cities, with predominantly Hungarian and assimilated Jewish populations. Other cases reveal much more clearly how the local Romanian elites—if there was one—navigated between nationalizing efforts and local traditions. In Făgăraş (Fogaras in Hungarian), a small county seat with a Romanian majority, surrounded by Romanian and German villages, and featuring a seventeenth-century fortress, the new city council finished the renaming spontaneously as soon as October 1919. Thus they could refute the abovementioned request of the Ministry concerning the indication of the old street names in the language of the minorities. Their argumentation frankly expressed the nationalizing aim: there were too many chauvinist Hungarian names among them, contrary to the spirit of the new Romanian state.34 However, the new system of street names was still not entirely Romanian and—and this was probably even more important—it addressed some symbolic deficiencies of the Hungarians. The strategy of the council was to merge the local, traditional Romanian street names with more symbolic new ones. Often they re-baptized the streets, simply making the local name official (like Tobacconists Street or strada Galatului). In other cases they just translated and preserved the nationally neutral one (Mill Street, strada Inului, Livezii – Meadow Street). There were the usual additions of Romanian national figures, although here the selection was made from Transylvanian and cultural figures, neglecting the politicians and the personalities of the Old Kingdom. And finally, two street names referred to the German and Hungarian minorities, strada Luterana (Lutheran Street) and strada Săcuilor (Szekler’s [Székely] Street). The latter was the object of the symbolic elevation of the Hungarians. A street with this name had existed before the war, but its local Romanian name was—probably not without reason—Ţigania de Jos, Lower Gypsy quarter. Now the council renamed this street Cemetery Street and transferred the name Szekler’s [Székely] street to another street in a more decent part of the city.35

A bit surprisingly, the Romanian elite from Lugoj, which had strong civic traditions and enjoyed a relatively high, middle-class social status (exemplified by Cornel Anton), executed the central order almost to the letter, adding only a small number of local Romanian personalities to the new nomenclature of streets,36 unlike their counterparts from Caransebeş, where the street names reflected the strong local consciousness already shown by the mayor’s letter concerning the voluntary firefighters. Here the new names consisted of only a handful of personalities, mainly local ones, and the council usually translated the original, mostly neutral names into Romanian. It was all the more simple, as quite a few Romanians had figured among the earlier street names too, due to the strong Romanian presence in the city before the war.37 Probably the most conscious effort to employ street names in the attempt to transform the border zone from a foreign area into a “Romanian” zone was made in Sânnicolau Mare (Nagyszentmiklós in Hungarian, Groß Sankt Nikolaus in German), a city with a 40 percent Romanian, 20 percent Hungarian, 30 percent German and 10 percent Serbian speaking population. Here the local Romanian schoolteacher, who drafted the proposal, suggested exclusively Romanian historic figures. He argued that street names are means of educating the people, and the city should be made Romanian. He thought that everyday encounters with street names would make the inhabitants learn Romanian history.38

Another different pattern emerged in localities without significant Romanian populations, where the local administration was not taken over by Romanians. All around the Banat in German villages the main thrust of street renaming was to replace the Magyarizing street names, which in general dated from the last two decades of dualism, with the ones they had born precedingly, and these proposals were usually approved by the county administration.39

In general the first factor influencing the outcome and nature of the renaming process was the presence and size of a Romanian middle class that would be able to take over the administration of the cities easily. Their stance regarding the expectations of Bucharest and the Ruling Council (Consiliul Dirgent) and regarding the minorities partly depended on the pre-history of the change of sovereignty. In Făgărăş, where Hungarian–Romanian political competition had even led to violence in the late dualist period, the relatively strong Romanians implemented a more exclusivist symbolic map than their counterparts in Caransebeş, where the Hungarian challenge was weaker earlier. Meanwhile in Lugoj, a city similar to Făgărăş the new nomenclature was more nationalistic and laid more emphasis on Old Kingdom personalities. It was probably a result of the stronger Hungarian presence than in Caransebeş and the protracted change of sovereignty, both of which made external help indispensable.40 In the case of Cluj and Oradea, neither of which had had any socially or symbolically significant Romanian presence before 1918, the symbolic importance of Cluj and the closeness of the border to Oradea could have been decisive in determining the outcome of the street renaming.

Nevertheless, the transformation of city nomenclatures brought about neither the inevitable reconfiguration of mental maps nor the practical use of the new street names. Even if publicly the new names were used, often only due to the pressure of the administration, individuals could choose either set of names, and many users, irrespective of their nationality, often shifted between new and old names in everyday usage.41 Despite the efforts of the authorities, the postal service rarely refused to deliver letters and parcels with non-Romanian addresses, including street names. This practice lasted well into World War II, when the Făgăraş State Security Service reported the arrival of “irredentist” postal materials that were labeled with pre-World War I addresses.42

It is worth noting, without going into detail, that local factors also affected the fate of statues and memorials. In cities that were seen as crucial for the nationalizing project Hungarian signs were soon removed and replaced with Romanian ones. In other places—here Caransebeş, where the local citizenry defended the statue of Francis Joseph from being removed,43 again is a good example—the local civic culture deflected these efforts. Once again there were localities in which either the weight of Romanians or the connections binding different groups of the local society led to a more balanced topography of memorials, like in Oradea.44

As in the case of the efforts to pacify the allegedly dangerous border zone, expectations regarding symbolic practices and rituals on the one hand and local realities on the other often contradicted each other. The demand and obligation to flag houses at festive occasions with pennants kept in a proper state was inherited from pre-World War I Hungary and kept intact by the Romanian administration. (Even the Hungarian legal provision remained in force.)45 Nevertheless, to execute such an order was always problematic. Not only did the inhabitants rarely care for the flags, there were again informal local arrangements that reduced the burden on the population. In this regard, Hungarians or Germans were relieved of this burdensome duty, but so were Romanians, even if the authorities devoted more attention to the deviant practices of minorities. In the city of Abrud (Abrudbánya in Hungarian), at the heart of the symbolic Romanian area of Ţară Moţilor, the display of flags was limited to the main arteries. As Vlad Florian, a gendarme (!), explained in 1941 when he was indicted for having failed to display a flag on his house on Constitution Day, he did not even have a pennant, as local custom did not expect this from inhabitants of secondary streets.46

In other cases the unfamiliarity of Old Kingdom Romanians with Transylvania caused misunderstandings. Hungarian and German priests tended to refuse to officiate masses on the occasion of Romanian national holidays, including Kings Day.47 Nevertheless, when the prefect of Timişoara (Temesvár) proposed the indictment of the Hungarian Roman Catholic Bishop, Gyula Glattfelder, on charges of slander against the nation, the Ministry of Justice refused. The county chief objected, contending that Glattfelder had refused to celebrate a mass on the name day of the king, but he always did hold mass to honor Hungary’s first king, Saint Stephen. The experts in the ministry concluded that the “prefect has no idea of the principles of the Catholic religion” and this practice is “neither an insult nor the expression of malevolence.”48

In the end, full-fledged Romanianization of the dangerous border zone was exchanged for a series of local compromises, sometimes uneasy balances between competing claims. Shop signs written in incorrect Romanian and accompanied by flawless Hungarian and German inscriptions, Hungarian and German memorials and statues scattered over the cities, or the extremely varied use of different street names were all signs of the partial failure of nationalizing efforts, at least temporarily. However, what emerged was not a stable and lasting solution, but rather an uneasy peace that was too influenced by local and regional factors and definitely contradicted the legal fiction of the state. It rested on informal arrangements, on how certain local or regional actors tried to find a space between the nationalizing claims of the central state and the possibilities on the ground, and it was too easily swept away by any sudden turn of fortunes.

Loyal Servants

In this confusing world of strangers and suspicions loyalty became crucial for the success of nationalizing projects. But as we have seen not many ideal typical Romanians (or Hungarians) were to be found, while public services nonetheless had to be provided. As the new administration faced a serious lack of human resources, it was often forced to retain even people who refused to take the oath or pledge of obedience demanded in 1919. This was particularly true in public services where professional knowledge and experience was necessary for smooth operation. This situation inevitably raised some questions, such as how to ensure one’s loyalty or how to prove suspicions regarding some officials.

It was impossible to make ethnic belonging a decisive criterion, at least at the time. Thus language use emerged as the crucial factor, much as it had in dualist Hungary. This was in line with the symbolic efforts and the emerging language regime too, making it an obvious choice. Nevertheless, given the high number of public servants without sufficient knowledge of Romanian and the lack of resources to provide them with opportunities to learn the official language,49 in the first few years an effort to learn the basics of Romanian turned out to be enough. After the mid-1920s, the situation was informally settled. Minority officials could remain at their posts with a basic knowledge of Romanian.

Nevertheless, this issue was easy to raise and soon became a favorite method of contesting someone’s loyalty. The case of the Post Office in Reşiţa (Resicabánya in Hungarian) is a telling example in this regard. Here the district administration was taken over by Cornel Grofşorean, a Romanian notability from Severin County (Krassó-Szörény in Hungarian). His office communicated with the seat of the county, Caransebeş, by post and over the telephone, the latter of which was also managed by the post office. The postmaster was Antal Heinrich, and the officials who were mentioned in the case were Anna Velcselán (or Velcelan) and Emilia Papp (or Pop). After a series of conflicts, Grofşorean submitted a complaint against Heinrich and the officials in early 1920. He described an occasion on which his call to the county seat was supposedly sabotaged by Velcselán, who had not been available for 20-30 minutes. According to Grofşorean, Heinrich showed opposition from the first day of Romanian administration. He refused to install Romanian inscriptions, put a Romanian sign over the entrance, display the Romanian flag, or learn Romanian. He infused his subordinates with this spirit, who also refused to sign the pledge of obedience, and Velcselán, whose name was Romanian, was filled with pro-Hungarian sentiment,50 just like Emilia Papp, who traveled to Budapest after refusing the oath.

It is hardly surprising that the testimonies of Heinrich and Velcselán painted a different picture of the case, emphasizing the brutish and uncivilized behavior of Grofşorean and his companions, who even called Velcselán a “bitch.”51 Heinrich’s superior, V. Cornea, the regional postal director, refused to accept Grofşorean’s accusations and denied his claim to replace Heinrich with a Romanian. His main argument was the lack of sufficient Romanian personnel, since the post demanded educated professionals. Nevertheless, the whole encounter offers insight into the different interpretations of (dis)loyalty when someone’s ethnicity was not considered “sufficient.” Grofşorean’s claims and accusations offer a list of criteria, of which the use of Romanian was only one, followed by the refusal of the pledge, the use of Hungarian letterhead and the Hungarian uniform, the lack of Romanian flags on the edifice of the post, and not least of all the lack of enthusiasm in the post. Furthermore, he perceived Velcselán and probably also Papp as renegade Romanians.

These claims were countered with a multiplicity of arguments. Firstly, Heinrich stressed his professional loyalty to the postal service and emphasized that every time Grofşorean requested something he had not refused to do it, but rather had dutifully consulted his superiors in order to avoid a conflict of loyalties before fulfilling the demands. Secondly, they highlighted how Grofşorean maintained an uncivilized regime, how he or his colleagues used swearwords and shouted at female employees. Probably it was also quite pointed when Velcselán mentioned that she responded in Hungarian because Grofşorean’s office had requested the connection with Caransebeş in this language, turning one of his accusations against him. Thirdly, Cornea highlighted that, contrary to Grofşorean’s assumption, Emilia Papp was the daughter of an Orthodox priest, thus completely reliable and beyond all doubt concerning her loyalty.

But all of these arguments still accepted Grofşorean’s implicit assumption that ethnicity has something to do with loyalty. However, Heinrich’s closing argument shed light on a different concept, a civic one, deriving from the traditional Landespatriotismus of Banat Swabians. Closing his report, he refuted Grofşorean’s charge that he would have been an “angry Hungarian chauvinist” before the war, especially as he was descended from German parents and he had never abandoned his German roots, even when he had been called upon to Magyarize his family name. But—he continued—this self-consciousness made it comprehensible that he did not become an “angry Romanian chauvinist” either. “I want to be a loyal citizen of my new country, I want to work in my homeland, but I do not want to make politics,” he wrote, pointing to honest work as a public servant, the introduction of Romanian language instruction at the post office and the fulfillment of his responsibilities as a reservist lieutenant as proof of his loyalty.

Nevertheless, ethnicity remained the key to loyalty, and language use, as its most easily detectable aspect, became the central criterion of its assessment. Hence the frequent reference in reports to the practice of speaking Hungarian as a sign of disloyalty, especially among those whom the observers saw as Romanians.52 But if being Romanian equaled being loyal, then nationality could serve as the foundation for many types of different claims—opening up a specific model of justification. In this argumentation, Romanianness meant sharing the sufferings of the nation and its glory, irrespective of the real life stories of individuals.

An excellent example is given by the complaint of the members of the Timişoara police from 1922.53 In this document the rank and file and non-commissioned officers of the police listed their material hardships and grievances, the low salary, the lack of suitable winter clothing, and poor housing. They asked the Minister of Interior to intervene. In order to make their demand more justified, they detailed how they were suffering under Hungarian rule and how they expected the new, free Romania to provide them with a better standard of living. However, they painstakingly added the details of their service records to the petition, thereby revealing that most of them had been employed at the city police under Hungarian rule—not really proof of having been oppressed.

This kind of argumentative strategy did not even require Romanian ethnicity from the petitioners. Under certain circumstances communities organized around other characteristics of identity could also employ it. For example, people living on the outskirts of the city Turda, who were often harassed by armed groups in 1918–1919, requested a new gendarme post in order to ensure their protection. In their petition they invoked the role their forbears had played in the glorious days of Horea, Cloşca and Avram Iancu—typical historical references for Transylvanian Romanians.54 However, among the petitioners one finds a significant number of Hungarian names, and as the region was mixed in the ethnic sense it is reasonable to think that not all of the petitioners were Romanian, much as in the case of an initiative to erect a statue for Avram Iancu in Târgu Mureş (Marosvásárhely in Hungarian), a predominantly Hungarian speaking city.55

Taking ethnicity and using as an argument was primarily a practical issue, but it also betrays a more relaxed attitude towards nationality, as was the case among the middle class.56 Still, it is worth noting that while in most cases national indifference or amphibiousness is detected in the form of rejection of strong ethnic statements or overly rigid expectations,57 subscribing to an exclusivist national argumentation could also suit and simultaneously disguise such attitudes as well. Both non-compliance and compliance with expectations could serve the purpose of negotiating the exact form and content of nationalizing projects, opening up an unexpectedly large room for individuals in their quest for a place between nationalizing states.


In this study I attempted to discover how individuals and local societies negotiated their places vis-à-vis nationalizing projects in interwar Transylvania, especially in the first few years of Romanian administration. The new border brought a new citizenship regime, a fear of instability, and insecurity among the part of the state that was represented by the new agents of state power, who were often unfamiliar with local contexts. The former enabled individuals to capitalize on the changes, escape state control and gain personal advantages. The latter often materialized in ill-devised attempts to restructure society. The common characteristic of both aspects was a failure to meet or conform to expectations that were based on a normative view of ethnicity: how members of certain ethnic groups “should” behave.

Something similar accompanied the attempts of symbolic conquest, and the half-success of these projects certainly reinforced the permanent state of war felt in the centers. Under these circumstances loyalty gained significance beyond its usual importance and was fused with ethnicity in the eyes of many, making it a useful tool of argumentation used to obtain personal advantages. However, it was possible to cross supposed ethnic boundaries and use this ethnic argumentation on behalf of members of different nationalities too.

In the light of this situation, the realities of Greater Romania are best described as an overarching legal fiction that disguised a series of local settlements and compromises regarding the nationalizing attempts. The local situation often deviated from what the legal framework would have implied and what its initiators would have imagined—contributing to the failure to meet their expectations.

What does this story tell us about ethnicity? Given the importance of nationalizing in Greater Romania, any deviation is easy to interpret as a sign of national indifference or amphibiousness. Paradoxically, the state the national nature of which is often challenged by later analytical approaches acted with similar premises, trying to “correct” faulty national behavior according to what they saw as properly Romanian, for instance by writing Romanian names into declarations that were later signed differently by the individuals who were supposed to submit them.58 Such gestures suggest that it was not necessarily the existence or acceptance of categories like Romanian, Hungarian or German that was being challenged, but rather its content that was being contested. Differences seen as ethnic peculiarities played a significant role in most of the cases outlined above, but the dividing lines were not necessarily identical with the lines imagined by state actors. Furthermore, the content of ethnic categories was usually related to specific social groups, mainly the middle class,59 who were as eager to reassert their ethnicity as they were ready to transgress the borders set by actors from outside. In this process of negotiation they were often helped by the structures crystallized during the dualist era, and the readiness for compromise also depended on the symbolic importance of localities.

Taking into account this social aspect of ethnicity, at least two different types of nationally indifferent or amphibious behavior emerge. One was prevalent primarily among the middle class, where it was rather a claim for the power to define one’s ethnicity, and another was characteristic of the lower urban social strata and the peasantry, where it could have meant real neglect or indifference not only to the norms of proper behavior, but also to the categories used by the state. Nevertheless, it was still not necessarily a lack of the sense of difference along ethnic lines.

Beyond the wider phenomena of indifference, the key to an understanding of why Greater Romania was a series of local compromises and negotiated (although often changing) balances is familiarity with the society of the region. Given the scarcity of resources at its disposal, the state often was confronted with the limits of its power, and in such situations local elites were able to influence realities. It also brought about a redefinition of loyalty that was less focused on ethnicity as the official one and provided for an integration of people from the ranks of minorities who were ready to accept the basics of the existence of the new state.


Archival Sources

Arhivele Naţionale Istorice Centrale [Central Hisorical Archives of the National Archives]

Consiliul Dirigent, Secţia Administraţia Judeţene şi Comunale [Ruling Council, Department of County and Communal Administration]

Consiliul Dirigent II, Secţia Siguranţa Generală [Ruling Council, Department of General Security]

Direcţia Generală a Poliţiei [General Directorate of the Police]

Ministerul Justitiei Direcţia Judiciară [Judiciary Directorate of the Ministry of Justice]

Ministerul Propagandei Naţionale, Presa Interna [Ministry of Propaganda, Homeland Press]

Ministerul de Interne, Cabinetul Ministerului [Ministry of Interior, Cabinet of the Minister]

Arhivele Naţionale Secţia Judeţenă [Braşov County Section of the National Archives]

Prefectură Braşov, Serviciul Adminsitrativ [Braşov County Prefecture, Administrative Department]

Prefectură Judeţului Braşov, Cabinetul Prefectului [Braşov County Prefecture, Cabinet of the Prefect]

Prefectură Judeţului Făgăraş, Serviciul Administrativ [Făgăraş County Prefecture, Administrative Department]

Arhivele Naţionale Secţia Judeţeană Cluj [Cluj County Section of the National Archives]

Inspectoratul de Poliţiei Cluj [Police Inspectorate of Cluj]

Arhivele Naţionale Secţia Judeţeană Mureş [Mureş County Section of the National Archives]

Prefectură Judeţului Mureş [Mureş County Prefecture]

Arhivele Naţionale Secţia Judeţeană Timiş [Timiş County Section of the National Archives]

Legiunea Jandarmilor Severin [Severin County Legion of the Gendarmerie]

Prefectură Judeţului Severin [Severin County Prefecture]

Chestura Poliţiei Municipiului Timişoara [Municipal Police, Timişoara]

Prefectură Timiş-Torontal [Timiş-Torontal County Prefecture]

Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltára (MOL) [Central Archives of the Hungarian National Archives]

K 28 Miniszterelnökség Nemzetiségi Ügyosztály


Ablonczy, Balázs. “Sérelem, jogfolytonosság, frusztráció. Alsó-Fehér vármegye menekült törvényhatósága Budapesten 1919–1921” [Slights, Legal Continuity, Frustration. The Refugee Municipality of Alsó-Fehér County in Budapest 1919–1921]. In Balázs Ablonczy. Nyombiztosítás. Letűnt magyarok [Securing Evidence. Vanished Hungarians], 435–52. Pozsony: Kalligram, 2010.

Asztalos, Lajos. Kolozsvár. Helynév és településtörténeti adattár [Kolozsvár. Reference Book of Geographic Names and History]. Kolozsvár: Kolozsvár Társaság–Polis Könyvkiadó, 2004.

Bárdi, Nándor. “A budapesti kormányzatok magyarságpolitikai intézményrendszere és stratégiája, 1918–1938” [The Institutional Setting and Strategy for Hungarian Minorities of the Budapest Government, 1918–1938]. Limes 25, no. 1 (2012): 69–110.

Bencsik, Péter. “A kisebb határszéli forgalom Magyarország és a szomszédos államok között” [The Smaller Border Trade between Hungary and the Neighborhood States]. Magyar Kisebbség 5, no. 2–3 (1999): 357–72. Accessed July 5, 2013. http://www.jakabffy.ro/magyarkisebbseg/index.php?action=cimek&lapid=12&cikk=m990227.htm

Brubaker, Rogers. “National Minorities, Nationalizing States and External National Homelands in the New Europe.” In Rogers Brubaker. Nationalism Reframed. Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe, 55–76. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Bucur, Maria. Heroes and Victims. Remembering War in Twentieth-Century Romania. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.

Dragostinova, Theodora. “Speaking National: Nationalizing the Greeks of Bulgaria 1900–1939.” Slavic Review 67 (2008): 154–81.

Egry, Gábor. “A Crossroad of Parallels: Regionalism and Nation-Building in Transylvania in the First Half of the Twentieth Century.” In Hungary and Romania Beyond National Narratives. Comparisons and Entanglements, edited by Anders E. B. Blomqvist, Constantin Iordachi, and Balázs Trencsényi, 239–76. Oxford–Bern–Berlin–Bruxelles–Frankfurt am Main–New York–Vienna: Peter Lang, 2013.

Egry, Gábor. “Két pogány közt? Régió, nemzet, őslakók és gyarmatosítók a két világháború közti Erdélyben” [Between Two Pagans? Region, Nation, Natives and Colonizers in Interwar Transylvania]. Múltunk 57, no. 4. (2012): 66–88.

Egry, Gábor. “Keresztező párhuzamosok. Etnicitás és középosztálybeli kultúra a két világháború közti Erdélyben” [Intersecting Parallels. Ethnicity and Middle-Class Culture in Interwar Transylvania]. In Határokon túl. Tanulmányok Mark Pittaway (1971–2010) emlékére [Beyond Borders. Studies In Memoriam Mark Pittaway (1971–2010)], edited by Eszter Bartha and Zsuzsanna Varga, 282–301. Budapest: L’Harmattan, 2012.

Egry, Gábor. “An Obscure Object of Desire: the Myth of Alba Iulia and Its Social Functions in Past and Present.” In Proceedings of the Conference Myth-Making and Myth Breaking in History and the Humanities, edited by Claudia-Florentina Dobre, Ionuţ Epurescu-Pascovici, and Cristian Emilian Ghiţă. Accessed August 29, 2013. http://www.unibuc.ro/n/resurse/myth-maki-and-myth-brea-in-hist-and-the-huma/docs/2012/iul/02_12_54_31Proceedings_Myth_Making_and_Myth_Breaking_in_History.pdf

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Mócsy, István I. The Effects of World War I: The Uprooted: Hungarian Refugees and their Impact on Domestic Politics, 1918–1921. New York: Brooklyn College Press, 1983.

Romsics, Ignác., ed. Magyarok kisebbségben és szórványban. A magyar Miniszterelnökség Nemzetiségi és Kisebbségpolitikai Osztályának válogatott iratai 1919–1944 [Hungarian Minorities and Diasporas. Selected Documents of the Minority Policy Section of the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office 1919–1944]. Budapest: Teleki László Alapítvány, 1995.

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Seres, Attila, and Gábor Egry. Magyar levéltári források az 1930. évi romániai népszámlálás nemzetiségi adatsorainak értékeléséhez [Hungarian Archival Sources to the Evaluation of the Nationality Data from the Romanian Census in 1930]. Kolozsvár: Nemzeti Kisebbségkutató Intézet–Kriterion, 2011.

Szüts, István Gergely. “Barakkok és tisztviselővillák. A trianoni menekülteket befogadó telepek helyzete Miskolcon az 1920-as években”[Barracks and Villas of Officials. Settlements of Refugees after the Trianon Treaty in Miskolc during the 1920s]. Kisebbségkutatás 18, no. 3. (2009), 435–52.

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Note on Nomenclature: City and Place Names

I have used place names in this article either in their English form—if one exists—or in the form officially adopted by the states in control (Romania) during the time period in question. For the first reference to each place, I give alternative versions of the place name for that location. Here are the most frequently mentioned city and other place names in their various forms, for quick reference.


Abrud (Hungarian: Abrudbánya)

Aiud (Hungarian: Nagyenyed)

Banat (Hungarian: Bánság, German: Banat)

Braşov (Hungarian: Brassó, German: Kronstadt)

Caransebeş (Hungarian: Karánsebes, German: Karansebesch)

Cluj (Hungarian: Kolozsvár)

Făgăraş (Hungarian:Fogaras)

Lugoj (Hungarian: Lugos)

Oradea (Hungarian: Nagyvárad)

Oraştie (Hungarian: Szászváros, German: Broos)

Reşiţa (Hungarian: Resicabánya, German: Reschitza)

Satu Mare (Hungarian: Szatmárnémeti)

Sălăj (Hungarian: Szilágy)

Sânnicolau Mare (Hungarian: Nagyszentmiklós, German: Groß-Sankt Niklaus)

Severin (Hungarian: Krassó-Szörény)

Sieni (Hungarian: Szinérváralja)

Târgu Mureş (Hungarian: Marosvásárhely)

Timişoara (Hungarian: Temesvár, German: Temeschwar)

Turda (Hungarian: Torda)

1 Research for this article was funded by the postdoctoral research grant PD 100502 from the Hungarian Scientific Research Fund (OTKA) and the New Europe College, Institute for Advanced Study, Bucharest. Arhivele Naţionale Istorice Centrale, Bucharest, (ANIC) Direcţia Generală a Poliţiei (DGP), dosar 53/1920, 40–41 f.

2 In November 1919 the Romanian army still controlled the Eastern part of today’s Hungary, up to the line of the river Tisza and the old border control in Predeal, on the border between Austria–Hungary and Romania, was already lifted and the facilities eliminated. Thus the officials who filled the formulary in 1924 projected back the actual border line with a crossing at Oradea (Nagyvárad in Hungarian), but probably realizing the ambiguity of the situation they also registered where Czitrom did enter the territory of the Kingdom of Romania. Even if it could have been true according to international law (the peace treaty was not signed and ratified at the time), it contradicted the legitimizing claims of Romania, which connected the sovereignty over Transylvania to the expression of popular will as early as December 1918.

3 See Irina Livezeanu, Cultural Politics in Greater Romania: Regionalism, Nation Building and Ethnic Struggle, 1918–1930 (Ithaca–London: Cornell University Press, 1995).

4 Rogers Brubaker, “National Minorities, Nationalizing States and External National Homelands in the New Europe,” in Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed. Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 55–76.

5 For a more detailed explanation see Gábor Egry, ”A Crossroad of Parallels: Regionalism and Nation-Building in Transylvania in the First Half of the Twentieth Century,” in Hungary and Romania Beyond National Narratives. Comparisons and Entanglements, ed. Anders E. B. Blomqvist et al. (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2013), 239–76; and Gábor Egry, “Két pogány közt? Régió, nemzet, őslakók és gyarmatosítók a két világháború közti Erdélyben,” Múltunk 57, no. 4 (2012): 66–88.

6 For a summary of the border regime between Romania and Hungary see Péter Bencsik, “A kisebb hatérszéli forgalom Magyarország és a szomszédos államok között,” Magyar Kisebbség 5, no. 2–3 (1999): 357–72, accessed July 5, 2013, http://www.jakabffy.ro/magyarkisebbseg/index.php?action=cimek&lapid=12&cikk=m990227.htm

7 For the effects of the system of citizenship options see also Annamarie H. Sammartino, The Impossible Border. Germany and the East 1914–1922 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), 105–6; 118–19.

8 Still the best overview is István Mócsy, The Effects of World War I: The Uprooted: Hungarian Refugees and their Impact on Domestic Politics, 1918–1921 (New York: Social Sciences Monographs–Brooklyn College Press, 1983). See also István Gergely Szüts, “Barakkok és tisztviselővillák. A trianoni menekülteket befogadó telepek helyzete Miskolcon az 1920-as években,” Kisebbségkutatás 18, no. 3 (2009): 435–52; Balázs Ablonczy, “Sérelem, jogfolytonosság, frusztráció. Alsó-Fehér vármegye menekült törvényhatósága Budapesten,” in Balázs Ablonczy, Nyombiztosítás. Letűnt magyarok (Pozsony: Kalligram, 2010), 159–76. However, all of these works are based on the official statistics compiled by the National Office of Refugees (Országos Menekültügyi Hivatal, OMH), which tends to give much higher figures regarding occupations in the state sector among the refugees than the official statistics show for the last years of Hungary as the total number of state employees.

9 Theodora Dragostinova, “Speaking National: Nationalizing the Greeks of Bulgaria 1900–1939,” Slavic Review 67 (2008): 154–81, esp. 174–79.

10 Arhivele Naţionale Secţia Judeţeană Cluj (ANSJ CJ), fond 209, inventar 399, Inspectoratul de Poliţiei Cluj, dosar 786. f. 1.

11 Ibid., f. 27.

12 Ibid., f. 14.

13 ANSJ CJ fond 209, inventar 399, Inspectoratul de Poliţie Cluj, dosar 182, f. 63. The agent tried to blackmail Hirsch, who refused and threw him out.

14 Ibid., f. 60–62.

15 Ibid.

16 A striking example of how easily some people avoided state control or at least the implementation of orders was Antal Papp, an important Hungarian official in Cluj (Kolozsvár), who later became a high official in the Prime Minister’s office responsible for policymaking regarding Hungarian minorities. Papp was expulsed five times in 1919–1920, but he simply ignored the decision. In the end it was the Hungarian government that requested Papp’s expatriation, and he duly complied. Nándor Bárdi, “A budapesti kormányzatok magyarságpolitikai intézményrendszere és stratégiája, 1918–1938,” Limes 25, no.1 (2012): 69–110; 104, endnote 70.

17 The cases of Romanian schoolteachers from Braşov county are very instructive in this sense. Here the county administration and the educational authorities fired everyone on the basis of the slightest suspicion, often against testimonies supporting the case of the indicted, while higher authorities or the courts usually acquitted them. See Arhivele Naţionale Secţia Judeţeană Braşov (ANSJ BV), Fond Prefectură Braşov, Serviciul Administrativ, dosar 44/1918, 51/1918, 56/1918.

18 ANIC Ministerul Justiţiei Direcţia Judiciară, Inventar 1116, dosar 91/1925.

19 See Gábor Egry, “A Crossroad of Parallels,” 251–60.

20 ANIC Ministerul Justiţiei Direcţia Judiciară, Inventar 1116, dosar 103/1923, f. 6–7.

21 Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár Országos Levéltára (MOL) K 28 155. csomó 260. tétel 1939-O-15375, f. 2–4. It is highly ironic that simultaneously the Romanian State Security also kept note of Cornel as a suspicious adherent of Iuliu Maniu. Arhivele Naţionale Secţia Judeţeană Timiş (ANSJ TM) fond 193, inventar 828, Legiunea Jandarmilor Severin, dosar 16/1940, f. 89–90.

22 MOL K 28 155. csomó 260. tétel 1939-O-15375. f. 2–4.

23 See the case of state prosecutor Fabius Rezei, who did not thoroughly censor some issues of the journal Magyar Kisebbség, very probably because of his personal ties to its editor in chief, Elemér Jakabffy, a prominent figure in Lugoj’s middle-class world. But when he was denounced in June 1924, Rezei denied even being acquainted with him. He pointed out instead his credentials as a faithful Romanian, in this capacity as chauvinist as Jakabffy was a chauvinist Hungarian. ANIC Ministerul Justiţiei Direcţia Judiciară, inventar 1116, dosar 103/1924, f. 15. However, a report of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry from the same month on censorship in Lugoj listed other reasons. First, the local military commander requested self-censorship from the press instead of effective censoring by the authorities. Second, the officials in the county were adherents of the Romanian National Party and they hated the liberals in power so much that they allowed any kind of attack on them to be printed, even if it was harmful to Romania, too. Ignác Romsics, ed., Magyarok kisebbségben és szórványban. A magyar Miniszterelnökség Nemzetiségi és Kisebbségpolitikai Osztályának válogatott iratai 1919–1944 (Budapest: Teleki László Alapítvány, 1995), 168–70.

24 ANSJ TM fond 223, Prefectură Judeţului Severin, dosar 24/1924, f. 172–73. The firefighters in the Old Kingdom were subordinated to the army.

25 Ibid., f. 190–91.

26 ANSJ TM, fond 223, Prefectură Judeţului Severin, dosar 40/1932, f. 1.

27 ANSJ BV fond 2, Prefectură Judeţului Braşov, Cabinetul Prefectului, dosar 57/1941, f. 24; ANIC DGP dosar 56/1921, f. 69; ANIC Ministerul Propagandei Naţionale, Presa Interna, dosar 186, f. 98.

28 Arhivele Naţionale Secţia Judeţeană Mureş (ANSJ MS) Prefectură Judeţului Mureş, inventar 460, dosar 17/1921, f. 1–2; Ibid., dosar 11/1923, f. 42.

29 ANSJ TM fond 160, Chestura Poliţiei Municipiului Timişoara, inventar 122, dosar 12/1934, f. 102. The order of the interim mayor of the city regarding the location and time of vaccination gave Romanian and Hungarian street names in six cases.

30 ANSJ TM fond 233. Prefectură Judeţului Severin, dosar 162/1920, f. 1, f. 31.

31 For the street names in Cluj see Lajos Asztalos, Kolozsvár. Helynév és településtörténeti adattár (Kolozsvár: Kolozsvár Társaság–Polis Könyvkiadó, 2004).

32 ANIC Consiliul Dirigent (CD), Secţia Administraţia Judeţene şi Comunale, dosar 66/1920, f. 44, f. 221–27.

33 ANIC CD, Secţia Administraţia Judeţene şi Comunale, dosar 46/1920, f. 130–35.

34 ANSJ BV fond 3, Inventar 672, Prefectură Judeţului Făgăraş, Serviciul Administrativ, dosar 20/1922, f. 5.

35 Ibid. Despite the obvious gesture, the relocation instead of the elimination of the street name and thus the concession to the symbolic presence of Hungarians were still part of the symbolic conquest and made this attempt even more profound. While before World War I the prestige of certain parts of the city was decided by the Hungarians, now the Romanians successfully claimed authority over this.

36 ANSJ TM fond 223, Prefectură Judeţului Severin, dosar 162/1919, f. 4–8.

37 ANSJ TM fond 223, Prefectură Judeţului Severin, dosar 162/1919, f. 9.

38 ANSJ TM fond 69, Prefectură Timiş-Torontal, dosar 1/1919, f. 42.

39 Ibid., f. 17–41.

40 Lugoj was among the cities where the French occupation forces reestablished Hungarian administration under the terms of the Belgrade military convention in the Spring of 1919. See Elemér Jakabffy and György Páll, A bánsági magyarság húsz éve Romániában (1919–1939) (Budapest: Stúdium, 1939), 29–30.

41 Gábor Egry, “Keresztező párhuzamosok. Etnicitás és középosztálybeli kultúra a két világháború közti Erdélyben,” in Határokon túl. Tanulmányok Mark Pittaway (1971–2010) emlékére, ed. Eszter Bartha and Zsuzsanna Varga (Budapest: L’Harmattan, 2012), 282–301.

42 ANIC Ministerul de Interne, Cabinetul Ministeriului dosar 22/1941, vol. I, f. 56.

43 ANIC DGP dosar 8/1919, f. 240.

44 ANIC DGP dosar 56/1921, f. 311.

45 ANSJ MS, Prefectură Judeţului Mureş, inventar 460, dosar 28/1923, f. 1.

46 ANSJ CJ fond 209, inventar 399, Inspectoratul de Poliţiei Cluj, dosar 69, f. 6.

47 ANSJ MS, fond Prefectură Judeţului Mureş, inventar 460, dosar 11/1923, f. 20–22.

48 ANIC Ministerul Justitiei Direcţia Judiciară, inventar 1116, dosar 98/1922, f. 15.

49 ANSJ BV fond 3, inventar 672, Prefectură Judeţului Făgăraş, Serviciul Administrativ dosar 6/1921, f. 1–4. The vice-prefect of Trei Scaune county made a request to his counterpart in Făgăraş, asking whether the localities could host Hungarian officials who would like to learn Romanian as trainees. Even though the number of candidates was small, only 6, the village authorities refused due to the lack of necessary financial means.

50 ANSJ TM fond 223, Prefectură Judeţului Severin, dosar 19/1919, f. 12–13.

51 Ibid. f. 6, f. 14–15, f. 17–18.

52 For example ANIC Ministerul Justitiei Direcţia Judiciară, inventar 1116, dosar 160/1920, f. 11. In this report the Romanian leaders of Abrud were described as renegades, primarily because they used Hungarian publicly, usually in defiance of the Old Kingdom rule.

53 ANIC CD, II: Secţia Siguranţa Generală, dosar 1/1922, f. 28–29, f. 30–31.

54 See Maria Bucur, Heroes and Victims. Remembering War in Twentieth-Century Romania (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), 98–143 and Gábor Egry, “An Obscure Object of Desire: the Myth of Alba Iulia and Its Social Functions in Past and Present,” in Proceedings of the Conference Myth-Making and Myth Breaking in History and the Humanities, ed. Claudia-Florentina Dobre, Ionuţ Epurescu-Pascovici, and Cristian Emilian Ghiţă, accessed August 29, 2013, http://www.unibuc.ro/n/resurse/myth-maki-and-myth-brea-in-hist-and-the-huma/docs/2012/iul/02_12_54_31Proceedings_Myth_Making_and_Myth_Breaking_in_History.pdf.

55 ANSJ MS, fond Prefectură Judeţului Mureş, inventar 460, dosar 11/1923, f. 42.

56 See Attila Seres and Gábor Egry, Magyar levéltári források az 1930. évi romániai népszámlálás nemzetiségi adatsorainak értékeléséhez (Kolozsvár: Nemzeti Kisebbségkutató Intézet–Kriterion, 2011), esp. 39–47.

57 See Pieter M. Judson, Guardians of the Nation. Activists on the Language Frontiers of Imperial Austria

(Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2006), 2–11; Tara Zahra, “Imagined Noncommunities: National Indifference as a Category of Analysis,” Slavic Review 69 (2010): 93–119.

58 ANSJ BV fond 2, Prefectură Judeţului Braşov, Serviciul Administrativ, dosar 60/1940, f. 1–55. Here the Romanian authorities collected declarations from villages along the new Hungarian–Romanian border in 1942. These documents were supposed to express the experience of locals regarding the good treatment of minorities. The name of the Romanian individuals was inserted by a clerk into a previously prepared text and later signed by the respective inhabitant. In many cases the signature differed from the name inserted, often in a way that not only suggests problematic literacy, but also “name analysis”, a common practice that was supposed to discover “Magyarized” Romanians. For example, the declaration from V. Crihălmean Maria was signed by Király Halmi Mári. But even when the individuals signing the declaration might well have been Romanians, the fact that they still used their names in the form they perhaps had started to use in the dualist era (Fekete instead of Negru, Földvári instead of Feldioreanu) suggests a less straightforward and complicated relation to this issue than was presumed by the authorities.

59 Seres and Egry, Magyar levéltári források; Egry Gábor, “Keresztező párhuzamosok.”

pdfVolume 2 Issue 3 CONTENTS

Stefano Bottoni

National Projects, Regional Identities, Everyday Compromises Szeklerland in Greater Romania (1919–1940)1


This article analyzes the social and cultural impact of the dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy on the overwhelmingly Hungarian-inhabited Szekler region. Although the half-million strong Szekler community found itself in the geographical center of Greater Romania, most people considered the Versailles peace settlement temporary. This created a paradoxical situation, for as the Szekler minority began to develop separately from the culture of post-Trianon Hungary, Hungarian intellectuals and former civil servants living within the borders of post-1918 Romania started to promote a cult of a supposedly “pure” and untouched Szeklerness. The first part of the article places the question of Szekler identity-building in a general theoretical framework and briefly sketches the political, social and demographic background of the community. The second part will analyze specific strategies of identity building that were pursued from outside the Szeklerland (e.g. the Szekler renaissance under the Horthy regime in Hungary) and from above (e.g. the constructions of “Szeklerness” by the intelligentsias in both Hungary and the Szeklerland). Finally, I will assess the influence of early Transylvanism on the building of Szekler identities in the interwar period.


Keywords: Szekler, Greater Romania, local nationalism, ethnic identity, autonomy plans


After the end of World War I the creation of Greater Romania forced the most compact Hungarian-speaking Transylvanian community to find its place in the Romanian nation-state. Since the political history of the Hungarian minority in the interwar period and the Romanian–Hungarian conflict over Transylvania have been covered extensively in the historiography,2 this paper will instead concentrate on the representation of the Szekler community by elites both inside and outside the Szeklerland. A peasant community at the periphery of the Austro–Hungarian Monarchy enjoying a broad level of autonomy in the Middle Ages, the Szeklers faced the challenges of modernization and the centralization of Hungarian state-power from the nineteenth century onwards. When Transylvania was separated from Hungary after World War I, the Szeklers found themselves in the geographical center of another country, Greater Romania, but they remained a “majority minority” in their home counties. These unprecedented historical circumstances stimulated an intellectual debate on the long-term fate of this group, which could not be defined as a separate minority from the Transylvanian Hungarians, yet had its own specific social history and a different sense of belonging to the Hungarian nation.3

Following John Hutchinson’s model of cultural nationalism, one could argue that the Szekler modern self was constructed starting from the last decades of the nineteenth century against the centralizing tendencies of both the Hungarian and the Romanian elites, through a process of conscious isolation and “self-orientalization,” which resulted in a deeply interiorized and assumed remoteness.4 Recently, a new wave of interest has risen in the international scholarship regarding Szekler identity and competing Hungarian and Romanian nationalisms. Young students of the origins of modern Szekler identity point out that the very core of these identification codes could go back to widely-circulating nineteenth-century narratives regarding “remote borderlands”,5 while Eric B. Weaver analyses the evolution of the national discourse on the Hungarian minority communities during the interwar period.6 Taking László Kürti’s book as their point of departure (a book which represented a potentially very valuable contribution, but which failed to identify clearly the perspective from which Transylvania constitutes a remote borderland—i.e. a Romanian, Hungarian, or European perspective—and also neglected to examine the impact of changing political context on the province’s imagery), these authors concentrate on the myth-producing role of Hungarian cultural elites, such as ethnographers, anthropologists, writers and artists—who envisioned the Szekler region as an ideal, isolated and “pure” land.7

The first part of the article places the question of Szekler identity-building in a general theoretical framework, and briefly sketches the political, social and demographic background of the community. The second part will analyze specific strategies of identity building that were pursued from outside the Szeklerland (e.g. the renaissance of myths related to the Szekler past under the Horthy regime in Hungary) and from above (e.g. the constructions of “Szeklerness” by the intelligentsias in both Hungary and the Szeklerland). Finally, I will assess the influence of early Transylvanism on the building of Szekler identities in the interwar period, and furthermore explain why plans for and conceptions of Szekler autonomy failed to arouse any significant public interest in either Romania or Hungary, leaving only one solution on which there was any consensus in Hungarian public: a border revision that would make Hungarian-inhabited areas of Transylvania part of Hungary.

The Szekler Question in a Historical Perspective

The Szekler question is a complicated and highly disputed issue. In a regional perspective, their massive presence in territorial Romania since 1918 was at the heart of a political and diplomatic battle with Hungary over the possession of Transylvania. The issue of identity is at least as crucial if one is to place the Szekler issue into the more general framework of competing nationalisms. Over the last century professional historians and archaeologists, ethnographers, novelists, journalists, and politicians have put forth a number of theories on the origins and ethnic belonging of the Szeklers.8 As with most public debates on Transylvania, as well as the case of the Hungarian-speaking Csángós of Moldavia, the issue of ethnic and national identity corresponded to concrete political aims pursued both by the Romanian and the Hungarian elites.9 Competing theories on the origins of the Szeklers could therefore be used to justify their administrative belonging to Hungary and then Romania. Although standard Hungarian accounts disagreed on the ancient ethnic origins of this population, these accounts maintained that the Szeklers belonged culturally and biologically to the Hungarian nation. Challenging this, many Romanian authors argued that the Szeklers had little or nothing to do with the Hungarians, as they were, in fact, denationalized Romanians who formed a separate ethnic group with longstanding economic ties to the Romanian Old Kingdom.10

Whatever the predominant ethnic background of the Szeklers might have been, their historical experience as a community did not entirely fit into either of the competing nation-buildings projects.11 In the Middle Ages, Szekler identity had an egalitarian content, and the social pyramid was more democratic than in any other Transylvanian estate.12 In the Middle Ages a considerable number of the Szeklers lost their personal freedoms and became servants.13 As a consequence of the progressive decline of their traditional institutions and the functional crisis of the ancient model of warrior society in the age of empires and emerging nation-states, Szekler political identity dissolved into the Hungarian political identity.14

Unlike the German-speaking Saxons, who preserved very homogeneous, closed ethnic and religious communities, Szekler societies evolved from a privileges-based feudal nationalism to local identification codes, which did not conflict with the “standard” Hungarian identity narrative, but operated in growing symbiosis with it.15 With the Revolution of 1848/49 the Szeklers became part of the modern Hungarian nation: now they not only spoke the “reformed” literary Hungarian, but also made conscious use of Hungarian national symbols, such as the tricolor flag and the national anthem.

From an administrative and economic point of view, however, the Szeklerland could not keep up with the rapid economic development taking place in Budapest—and in the non-Hungarian areas of Transylvania and present-day Slovakia—and therefore remained an internal periphery within the Habsburg Monarchy. Around 1910, an overpopulation of almost 100,000 plagued this mostly rural region, where a cold climate limited the amount of arable land in comparison with forests and grazing grounds. Difficulties were worsened by structural contingencies such as delayed urbanization and the poor railway system, but also the economic crisis provoked by the customs war between Hungary and Romania (1891/93).16

The cultural level within the Szeklerland, measured in terms of literacy and school attendance, was higher than in other peripheries within the Austro–Hungarian monarchy. However, the political influence of the Szeklers was disproportionally lower because local voters tended to support the opposition parties struggling for greater independence and opposing the 1867 Compromise with Vienna. At the same time, its position as a borderland exposed the Szekler region to the economic and cultural influences exerted by the Romanian Old Kingdom. The “purest” Hungarians, as depicted by Hungarian official propaganda, were those geographically the furthest removed from Budapest. These outlying Hungarians could easily become a military target as well, as the 1916 Romanian offensive against Transylvania showed, which led to the short-lived occupation of the Szeklerland. But even in peacetime, as a political unit, the Szeklerland was negatively affected by its traditional micro-scale autonomy (the szék system), and conditions worsened because of the lack of a true political center. Although the largest Szekler town, Marosvásárhely/Târgu-Mureş, was overwhelmingly Hungarian (with an increasing Jewish presence), it was situated in the western corner of the Szeklerland. In addition, the Szeklerland’s western countryside (extending towards Kolozsvár/Cluj and the ancient Saxon Segesvár/Sighişoara/Schässburg was predominantly Romanian-inhabited.17

The popular dissatisfaction with the Hungarian political elite and the liberal economic policies it pursued found expression primarily in a massive wave of migration. Between 1880 and 1940 over 150,000 people left the Szeklerland. Half of them did so under Hungarian rule. Between 1901 and 1915, over 45,000 Szeklers emigrated, mainly to Romania (around 20,000 Hungarians lived in pre-World War I Bucharest) and the United States.18 In 1902 some 150 local politicians and scholars gathered in Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tuşnad for a “Szekler Congress.” In an unusually open and lively debate, participants criticized the economic policies of the ruling Hungarian elite, called for the restoration of Székely autonomous institutions, and asked Budapest to pay more attention to this strategic region.19 However, their claims were in many ways contradictory: while they complained about centralization they also called for increased state intervention in the economic life of the region. This basic variance—being economically dependent on Budapest or Bucharest yet pursuing greater cultural and regional independence—would remain a feature of Szekler politics throughout the twentieth century.

The Szeklerland in Greater Romania: Demographic Trends and Social Grievances

The incorporation of the Szeklerland into Greater Romania produced a threefold crisis – demographic, political and cultural. According to the 1910 census, 637,000 persons lived the territory of the ancient széks in the south-eastern corner of Transylvania.20 The exact number of Szeklers who came under Romanian rule after 1919 is not easy to assess because, in the decades preceding World War I an accelerated process of assimilation of ethnic Romanians into the Hungarian state and society had taken place in a number of Transylvanian counties. The unforeseen and contested territorial changes following World War I caused serious long-term demographic losses in Transylvania (around 200,000 persons up to 1924). The level of migration from the Szeklerland towards Hungary was high, particularly among teachers, civil servants, policemen and military staff. The loss of significant portions of the urban middle class had two major effects on the social structure of the Szekler population. The more immediate and dramatic one was a halting of the urbanization process. Sepsiszentgyörgy/Sfântu Gheorghe, an industrial center 30 km north of Brassó/Braşov/Kronstadt, had 9,000 inhabitants in 1910, and had gained only 1,000 more by 1930. Other small cities suffered even greater losses.21 The only city that increased in population, from 26,000 to over 38,000 thousands inhabitants, was the ancient Szekler capital, Marosvásárhely/Târgu Mureş, although several thousand of these newcomers were Romanian public officials replacing their Hungarian predecessors. During the 1920s and the 30s, the high birth rate and the impossibility of emigrating to countries other than Hungary contributed the demographic recovery of the Szeklerland’s total population, which reached 636,112 in 1930 and nearly 700,000 on the eve of the 1940 border revision. The total population fell slightly in Háromszék/Trei Scaune and Udvarhely/Odorhei counties, remained stable in Csík/Ciuc County, and increased in Maros/Mureş County, where significant Romanian immigration was occurring.22

Emigration, motivated more by social and economic needs than ethnic harassment, remained the only solution to chronic rural overpopulation. Throughout the interwar period almost 10 percent of the regional population was estimated to have left the Szeklerland, at least temporarily.23 The majority of Szekler emigrants did not choose Hungary, as had the cultural élite in the early 1920s. Rather, they settled down in the capital, Bucharest, and other industrial centers. The 1930 census found 24,000 ethnic Hungarians living stably in Bucharest, but internal statistics issued by the Roman Catholic and Calvinist parishes showed nearly 50,000 Hungarian churchgoers out of a total population of 700,000 in the Romanian capital.24 In the 1930s, Bucharest probably had the largest Szekler community in the country, while thanks to Szekler migration to the southern Transylvanian city of Brassó/Braşov, the Hungarians—who were traditionally marginalized by the dominant Saxons and the dynamically expanding Romanians—became by 1930 the largest ethnic group in the city, forming the bulk of the city’s industrial population.

The strong tendency towards assimilation of minorities who had moved to Bucharest had psychological motivations: people coming from a mono-ethnic world, such as the Szeklers, were not provided with cultural mechanisms of “ethnic immunity.” Being Hungarian was for them natural, as the milieu in which they had grown up was exclusively Hungarian speaking, as opposed to the Hungarians living scattered in Southern Transylvania and the Banat, who were exposed to Romanians and Germans, among other ethnic and religious communities. Once these Szeklers settled in a foreign environment and lost contact with their home community, they tended to assimilate quickly and easily. Bucharest, the vibrant capital of an enlarged country, was to them alien and attractive at the same time. Relinquishing a weak national identity opened up channels for social mobility and personal affirmation.

After the creation of Greater Romania, many minorities who could claim some Romanian ancestry found it more convenient to declare themselves Romanian, or else were encouraged by the authorities to do so through the so-called “name analysis.”25 A state-sponsored campaign was launched to win back individuals who had Romanian-sounding names and belonged to the Orthodox or the Greek Catholic Churches. Under the influence of official Romanian propaganda, about 25,000 persons who supposedly belonged to the Romanian neam [race] but had been denationalized or “Szeklerized” over the course of the previous two centuries had their ethnic affiliation changed in the years in which the Romanian census was taken (1920 and 1930) and were subsequently registered as Romanians.26

More important, the internal composition of Szekler society suddenly changed. The old political and economic élites almost disappeared. Unlike Körösvidék/Crişana and central Transylvania (Mezőség/Câmpia Transilvaniei), where Hungarians had been a powerful landowning class until Romania’s radical land reform of 1921, most landowners in the Szeklerland were simple farmers participating in a system based on community property (közbirtokosság), which was in fact the only consistent remnant of the old feudal Szekler autonomy. The egalitarian and democratic-minded land reform carried out in Greater Romania aimed to strengthen the economic positions of the ethnic Romanian peasantry, especially in the newly acquired provinces.27 Collective property belonging to the Szekler community was confiscated, such as nearly 35,000 acres of Csíki Magánjavak [Private Properties of Ciuc], depriving the relatively egalitarian society of its main economic resources.28

Romanian Minority Policy: Failed Assimilation, Short-Lived Compromises

Throughout the interwar period the Szeklerland and the status of the Hungarian/Szekler community became a permanent source of tension between Romania and Hungary. The Szekler issue was frequently exploited for diplomatic purposes by the Budapest governments struggling for border revision. As will be explained in this section, the Hungarian authorities actively stimulated Szekler cultural identity-production but did not support plans for autonomy or independence.29 Furthermore, the integration of the Szeklerland was a major topic of debate within Romanian political forces. Along with the other new Central European nation-states, in December 1919 Greater Romania signed the Minority Protections Treaty, which provided linguistic rights in relation to education and the administration of towns and districts in which a considerable proportion of the population belonged to racial, religious or linguistic minority. The treaty also envisaged local cultural autonomy for the Saxon and Szekler communities in regard to matters of education and religion. However, failed implementation of this commitment embittered the international quarrel over the status of non-Romanians in Transylvania. Regarding their ethnic kin in Transylvania, Germany and Hungary repeatedly confronted Romania at the League of Nations. Between 1925 and 1938, Szekler representatives also took part in a supranational political organization, the European Congress of Nationalities.30

Romanian policy toward the Szeklers in the interwar period was driven by a confused mixture of different approaches (cultural assimilation versus legal discrimination) that essentially explains the long-term failure to integrate the region and its population into the new Romanian national state. The administrative centralization that followed the dismantling of the Transylvanian provisional autonomous government, the Consiliul Dirigent in 1920 relied on the widely shared acknowledgment that it would be impossible to rule this region without making use of centrally planned nationalizing techniques and reordering the region’s ethnic composition. All Romanian parties – except the Communists and (less vehemently) the Social Democrats, who saw the Paris peace settlement as an imperialist imposition by the Great Powers – were aware that the Szeklerland, a seemingly isolated area, would otherwise remain an “internal periphery,” mostly peaceful but deeply hostile to Greater Romania and committed to a return to Hungarian rule. Integration at all costs became therefore an imperative for the Romanian political élite. As Irina Livezeanu has noted, the initiatives that were undertaken with the intention of dealing with the Szeklers rested on the assumption that many Szeklers were actually “hidden” Romanians. In the early 1920s the Romanian demographer Sabin Manuilă suggested to the Minister of Education that what was needed was “not a policy of aggression, but one of peaceful assimilation. The sacrosanct dogma toward the Szeklers should be that of assimilation.”31

This “separation” approach – whereby Szeklers were culturally and ethnically dissociated from other Hungarians – was also employed to encourage the ethno-national dissimilation of other minorities living among Hungarians in Transylvania: this included promotion of the German-speaking Swabian identity among Magyarized communities living in the northwestern part of Transylvania and the cultivation of a competitive, loyal Romanian Jewish identity among the mostly Hungarian-speaking Transylvanian Jews.32 Romanian policy toward minorities in the 1920s also gave bureaucratic priority to these “cultural zones.” Better salaries, land and other benefits were granted to Romanian teachers willing to take jobs in the multilingual counties that formed an arc from one end of the country to the other: from Szatmárnémeti/Satu Mare in northwest Romania, the Szeklerland in eastern Transylvania, and down to Dobrudja on the coast of the Black Sea.33 However, unlike other small ethnic communities—including the Hungarians and Swabians living in the Banat, or the Russians of Bessarabia—the Szeklers did not live in the periphery of the country, but constituted an absolute majority of a quite large area situated in Romania’s new geographical center. As a result, “Their compact presence over whole districts challenged the legitimacy of Romanian territorial claims.”34

One of the very few common features of the conflicting policies carried out by the governments led by the National Liberal and the National Peasant parties between 1920 and 1938 was the attempt to unify the country. Methods and approaches to the Szekler questions of the Transylvanian Peasant Party (Partidul Naţional Ţărănesc or PNŢ), led by Transylvanian-born personalities such as Iuliu Maniu and Alexandru Vaida-Voievod, who had both started their political careers in the late 1890s and had good personal relationships with members of the former Hungarian ruling class, differed only slightly from the explicitly centralizing Liberal Party elite of the capital. It is not surprising that while the Szeklers made up the majority within their own territory, they were always denied self-government on a municipal or county level in the interwar period. The centralization of Greater Romania was justified first and foremost by reasons of national security and the need for stability. The introduction of the French model based on the prefects, who were named by the ruling party and represented its interests, was part of a strategy to concentrate power in trustworthy hands (ethnic Romanians and those Szeklers who had declared themselves Romanian after 1919, the so-called “renegades”) and to prevent “aliens” from playing any significant role in political decision-making.

This policy, ruthlessly pursued by the Liberal governments of the 1920s, proved successful only in the short run. Micro-level ethnic tensions were frequent, but neither the ruling Romanian nor the defeated Hungarian governments were willing to escalate this to the level of street violence. Furthermore, the local population preferred to resort to political instruments (complaints to central authorities in Bucharest, reports to the Hungarian government and the League of Nations, support for international propaganda carried on the Transylvanian question).

Despite facing many forms of discrimination, a large number of Szeklers could, as Romanian citizens, take part in Romanian national elections. Szeklers voted overwhelmingly for the Hungarian National Party (HNP – Országos Magyar Párt), electing a remarkable number of Szekler-born MPs who battled their Romanian colleagues in order to defend their ethnic community.35 Nevertheless, the HNP, representing a nationwide minority, was not committed to regional autonomy or special rights for the Szeklers. In the 1920s the Szeklers’ specific cultural and economic issues were sacrificed to the general interests of the Transylvanian Hungarians. The HNP signed a secret pact of understanding with the People’s Party (Partidul Popular),36 led by General Averescu, in 1923, and also limited electoral cartels with the National Liberals (1926) and the German Party (1927), before turning back to its original strategy of independence once the royal dictatorship was decreed in 1938.

One consequence of Romanian centralization was a sacrifice of the principle of representation. Unlike the Austro–Hungarian Monarchy—where despite the fact that general elections could easily be manipulated, the real and lively center of local political life was in the city councils and the county assemblies—Greater Romania offered little possibility for settling local issues through institutional compromises. In the period between 1920 and 1938, local elections were held only twice. In 1926 the HNP, which had formed a coalition with the ruling National Liberal Party, came first in 30 out of 49 Transylvanian towns and in all Szekler urban centers.37 Most of the newly elected city councils, however, were dissolved after a short time and replaced by an executive body (comisia interimară) appointed by the central authorities, working side-by-side with the prefect. The successive attempts to mitigate this extreme centralization failed. In 1929 Iuliu Maniu’s “Transylvanian” cabinet introduced a decentralizing administrative reform inspired by the Austro–Hungarian pattern. This moderate measure allowed for the creation of many Hungarian-led local councils in Transylvania after the administrative elections in March 1930, in which the Hungarians were allied with the National Peasant Party.38 However, immediately after Maniu’s government resigned in 1931, the new cabinet led by Nicolae Iorga repealed the reform and replaced all elected bodies.39

While in the 1920s there had been a lively debate among Romanian political actors on decentralization, during the 1930s the issue of internal security prevailed. After the 1938 administrative and constitutional reform issued by King Carol II within the framework of a new, corporatist idea of state power, the older seventy-one counties were merged into ten macro-regions, regardless of ethnic and cultural borders. The four Szekler counties were divided into two regions in which Hungarians came to be a minority.40 The royal dictatorship, facing revisionist waves across central Europe, tried to compensate the Hungarian minority by re-enforcing their citizenship rights (of which more than 225,000 Jews were deprived after 1938) and by granting them some collective rights through a minority statute. However, the belated reversal of previous discriminatory policies could not be regarded by Hungarians as an honest gesture.

Greater Romania alienated the Transylvanian Hungarians and the Szekler community because of discrimination, widespread corruption, legal inconsistency and bureaucratic chaos. As Hungarian authors privately recognized, smuggling and institutionalized bribing could help one “survive Romania,” but the harsh anti-Hungarian rhetoric of almost every Romanian government cabinet made it impossible for Szekler élites (with the exception of the so-called few “renegades,” who ostensibly got full access to the political sphere) to accept their integration into the new, nationalizing Romanian state. When these Szekler elites tried to promote regional interests or reach consensus with Romanian political élites, Romanian authorities often made a purely instrumental, short-sighted use of these attempts.

Most of the discriminative measures had counterproductive effects. As a result of nation-building policies—for example the 1925 educational reform—the first Romanian-born generation from the Szeklerland grew up in a condition of almost complete illiteracy. This was due not to the lack of schools, which did affect literacy in Bessarabia and Moldavia, but to the perverse effect of poorly elaborated nationalism. Pupils taking part in the compulsory state-run school system were forced to pursue their studies in Romanian even if they did not understand the state’s official language. The state was unwilling to acknowledge that so many of its citizens could not speak Romanian, and it made no real efforts to create the cultural basis for political loyalty.41

Autonomy Plans Versus Territorial Revisionism

In the first few years after the end of World War I, Szekler political elites who had not chosen to repatriate to Hungary followed the line of passive resistance suggested by the Hungarian government. Political boycott of Romanian institutions was motivated by the widespread illusion that belonging to Romania was a temporary condition. General hope for border revision unified people of quite different social, religious and political backgrounds and persuasions. Implicit support for Hungarian diplomatic efforts and internal resistance to Romanianization were the basis for the moderate policy followed by the Kolozsvár/Cluj-based HNP, an ideologically eclectic party formed in 1922 with the aim of representing the whole of Transylvanian Hungarian society despite having only narrow, albeit influential, social support.

Old aristocratic elites from Kolozsvár/Cluj, the Banat and the southern Transylvanian diaspora were overrepresented within the party and proved quite insensitive to the Szekler demands for autonomy. Social and cultural differences further deepened the internal cleavages within the Hungarian community. A growing ideological polarization could be observed as of the early 1930s. Albeit the 1933 founded left-wing Magyar Dolgozók Szövetsége (MADOSZ) did not enjoy great popular support, atheism and involvement in the illegal Communist Party were not rare among members of the younger generation of Szekler, whose socialization was no longer inextricably linked to the old “Hungarian world,” despite the influence of religious cults, especially the Roman Catholic Church.42 Bolshevism promised not only a social but also a national revolution for minorities in Romania. Without any direct reference to the Szeklers, the Communist Party called for the people’s rights of secession, and denounced the Treaty of Trianon (1920) as an imperialist peace. Among the first generation of communist activists and sympathizers, there were a significant number of Szekler-born individuals who had migrated to Bucharest, Brassó/Braşov and other industrial centers.43 Vasile Luca, who became finance minister and a Politburo member after 1945, was a typical product of this new integrative pattern. Born in 1898 as László Luka in a small village, he did his political apprenticeship in Brassó/Braşov in the 1920s, first as a syndical leader and then a Communist boss. As a committed internationalist, he downplayed his ethnic identity, which manifested itself only occasionally in personal conflicts with ethnic Romanian Party members. Though he did not think of the Hungarian/Szekler community in “national” terms, he always helped his village and preserved human sympathy for local Szekler/Hungarian people.44 Nevertheless, the influence of communism (and more broadly, of the left-wing parties) on the Szekler community should not be overestimated. The class-based, supra-national integration offered by the communist project to Szeklers joining the Romanian workers’ movement did not become a dominant feature among Szekler migrants and was strongly challenged in small traditionally-minded communities.

More influential was the claim for administrative and cultural autonomy coming from some radical left-wing intellectuals and politicians. In the early 1920s autonomy plans were issued only by the so-called Transylvanianist movement, and only for the Transylvanian region as a whole, as an alternative to political passivity.45 Defining Transylvania as the common land of three constituent peoples, Romanians, Germans and Hungarians, marked an attempt to break up the nation-state logic by emphasizing common roots and long-standing coexistence. It also helped the Hungarian intellectual elites to “define a life-strategy for the members of the community.”46 But as prominent Hungarian writer János Székely was to admit in 1990, this call for a unity of Transylvanian peoples, who allegedly shared common values such as tolerance and goodwill, was no more than a compensatory ideology, echoing Aurel Popovici’s federal plans during the late Dual Monarchy, and it was met with the same negative reception among the respective ethnic majority.

Some intellectuals and politicians went further and imagined a new autonomous framework for the Szeklerland alone within the Romanian state. The HNP took, as starting point of Hungarian complaints, two non-binding legal texts, the December 1, 1918 Resolutions of Gyulafehérvár/Alba Iulia47 and the Paris Minorities Treaty.48 But a group of Szekler politicians attempted to go even further in 1918–22 by giving a modern political content to the Szekler identity for the first time. In November 1918 in both Budapest and Kolozsvár/Cluj, a Szekler National Council was created under the leadership of Benedek Jancsó, Dénes Sebess and Gábor Ugron. Although they declared their loyalty to the Hungarian state, they nevertheless showed a readiness for action in the name of a so-called “Szekler Independent Republic”, a new body modeled on the Wilsonian principles of self-determination, to be created after a mass rally in Marosvásárhely/Târgu Mureş. Their argument for an independent state was based on the political autonomy enjoyed before 1848 by the székely natio and on the cultural and social differences between them and the “standard” Hungarians.49 Although Romanian authorities had prohibited the planned meeting in Marosvásárhely/Târgu Mureş, the journalist and politician Árpád Paál from Székelyudvarhely/Odorheiu Secuiesc endeavored to give the Szekler independence plans a theoretical framework.50 In a December 1918 edition of the newspaper Székely Közélet, he outlined his project for a Szekler Republic. After being arrested and kept under strict surveillance by the Romanian police, he issued a longer draft called Emlékirat a semleges független államról [Memorandum on the Neutral Independent State]. Paál, who was starting his long and controversial career as a fellow of radical democrats Oszkár Jászi and Mihály Károlyi, was at that time under the influence of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic (Tanácsköztársaság) in 1919. For Paál, the image of the Szekler state reflected the popular image of radical egalitarianism: a socialized economy, the increased role of the collective property and a universal social insurance system.51

After the fall of the Bolshevik Republic in Hungary and the beginning of conservative consolidation led by Admiral Miklós Horthy and Prime Minister István Bethlen, such radical political experiments lost popular support. In September 1920 Paál traveled throughout Szeklerland to organize a petition signed by 40 cities and villages addressed to the Romanian government and the League of Nations, but he had no adherents.52 Nevertheless, in 1921–22 Paál’s rejection of political passivism provoked a lively debate in the Hungarian press in Transylvania.53 Although it was clear that his plans for Szekler autonomy did not have any chance of being realized within the framework of the Romanian nationalizing state, they became a good discursive source for others who supported the political activism of the Hungarian minority, such as Károly Kós and István Zágoni, who were trying to build up a new “democratic” ideology for the Hungarian minority. They officially refused the Hungarian–Romanian border revision and claimed cultural and territorial autonomy for the Szeklerland. However, plans for autonomy fell in the same trap as political Transylvanism: they rejected a commonly shared vision of the future (the hope for a return to Hungary) without being able to win any measure of support among the Romanian political élite.54

In 1931, Árpád Paál, who had become a right-wing public figure and a prominent Catholic journalist, issued another plan for Szekler autonomy that referred to Article 11 of the 1919 Paris Peace Treaty. However, unlike his 1919 version, Paál defined what he called the “community” (Székely közület) in terms of an ensemble of different levels of autonomy: the neighborhood, the street, the borough, the city or the village, whose membership only referred to the “community of those residents in the Szeklerland who declare themselves to be of Hungarian mother-tongue.”55 Paál was not a racist ideologue, even if he had gradually shifted towards extreme right positions and political anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, he gave his communitarian Szeklerland an exclusive content: local inhabitants could be Szekler only by language, culture and, albeit not clearly specified, birth. Conservative conceptions of Szekler autonomy, based on cultural rather than territorial claims, were better received in the mainstream of Transylvanian Hungarian politics. The general assembly of the HNP, held in Marosvásárhely/Târgu-Mureş on 2 July, 1933, approved two motions, one calling for Szekler cultural autonomy and another protesting against the Romanian government for having failed to fulfill its obligations under the Minorities Protection Treaty.56 This last motion, despite winning unanimous approval, was never discussed by the Parliament. The last attempts to assert the Szekler cultural autonomy were made between 1934 and 1937 at the initiative of Senator Gábor Pál from Csíkszereda/Miercurea Ciuc. As the recently published minutes of HNP Central executive council meetings show, resistance came not only from the central government in Bucharest and the Romanian parties, but also from the non-Szekler representatives.57 Following the 1937 elections, the introduction of royal dictatorship and the ban on all political parties ended any plans for regional autonomy. Due to the intensification of juridical and social discrimination and the implications of the First Vienna Award of November 1938, which returned the southern strip of Slovakia to Hungary, territorial revision again became a realistic goal, one that was shared by the overwhelming majority of the Szekler population.

Throughout the interwar period internal debates within the Hungarian minority over territorial autonomy to be granted to Szeklerland were influenced by various conceptions of the meaning of “autonomy.” Did autonomy imply a system of privileges (a kind of self-government) limited to the Szeklerland? Or should it be intended as a network of cultural and linguistic rights the exercise of which could not be linked to a specific territory? The restrictive view (Szeklerland as a corpus separatum, being Szekler as opposed to being Transylvanian Hungarian) gained the support of many Szeklers, but was always opposed by the traditional Kolozsvár/Cluj-based Hungarian elite and by Budapest, which had always considered a complete or partial border revision as the only possible solution to the Hungarian question in Transylvania. Moreover, the HNP itself considered Szekler autonomy a contrivance, or at any rate a dangerous issue. Calls for territorial autonomy could also help the Romanian government drive a wedge between the Szekler community and other Hungarians. This risk—real or presumed—weakened the position of Transylvanian autonomists.

Internal debates of the interwar period produced a generational gap between the old élites whose cultural politics were forged in the Austro–Hungarian period, and a younger generation of intellectuals and professionals who had come of age as ethnic and religious minorities in Romanian Transylvania. The latter included notables such as József Venczel and Imre Mikó, who were trained at the Romanian State University of Kolozsvár/Cluj, and the later, very influential Roman Catholic Bishop of Gyulafehérvár/Alba Iulia, Áron Márton, who was born of a Szekler peasant family. They were all inspired by the Hungarian populist movement; by social ethnography (sociography), which was enjoying outstanding literary popularity in Hungary and detailed the arduous living conditions of villagers;58 by the social doctrine of Catholic Church and Christian socialism; and also by the fieldwork of the Bucharest sociological school led by Dimitrie Gusti.59

Their ideological horizon differed from the traditional one because of its unprecedented social openness and its rejection of intellectualism. These young, modest intellectuals and clergymen were less interested in political and legal debates over territorial rights and instead focused their attention on népszolgálat (“serving the people”), an ideology that would influence the collective identity of the Transylvanian Hungarian élites throughout the twentieth century.60

The Szeklerland as a Cultural Battleground: Post-Imperial Trauma and
the Revival of a Mythical Past

Besides the diplomatic struggle between Romania and Hungary for territorial possession of the Szeklerland, the region fueled a complex intellectual competition over the “correct” interpretation of national past and the ethnic essence of Szeklerness. If one adopts the theoretical framework developed by Rogers Brubaker and then adapted by Zoltán Kántor to the case of the Transylvanian Hungarians, the Szeklers were subjected to competing nationalizing projects from above (Bucharest as the center of a new nationalizing state and Budapest as the capital of the external homeland61). After World War I the Szeklers also started to redefine their national identification codes and elaborated a two-level (micro and macro) allegiance system, in which belonging to the Hungarian nation as a whole went along with the promotion of the sense of local community. Following Balázs Trencsényi’s comparative analysis of the interwar discourse on national character, one could argue that the new Szekler normative paradigms did not constitute an exception, but fit into the general search for the “essence” of national belonging.62

As recent scholarship has pointed out, part of this ideological production was a reaction to state-promoted Romanian cultural nationalism. During the interwar period, historians and geographers such as Aurel Nistor, Nicolae Iorga, Sabin Opreanu and Gheorghe Popa-Lisseanu dealt extensively with what they defined as an advanced process of denationalization of the formerly ethnic Romanian population, which had made possible the emergence of a uniform, “Szeklerized” Hungarian-speaking population. According to their theories, biology and not cultural belonging or language determined one’s ethnic affiliation. In the second part of the 1930s and—even more intensively—after the 1940 partition of Transylvania, biologists, anthropologists, and eugenicists also focused their attention on the Szekler question. Racial anthropologists such as Gheorghe Popovici and Petre Rămneanţu compared the average blood agglutination of a Szekler sample with the averages of Romanian and Hungarian samples, with the result that the figures were closer to those of Romanians. As such, most of the Szeklers had to be declared Romanians because their ancestors had likely been “ethnically” Romanian.63 Nevertheless political enthusiasm for ethno-biology did not prevail over scholarly realism. After the crucial 1930 census, a methodological milestone for modern Romanian demography, Sabin Manuilă allegedly explained his refusal to introduce a nationality sheet for Szeklers and Moldavian Csángós (i.e. separate from Hungarians) by noting that there were no separate Szekler or Csángó languages.64

Szekler nationalism—or better, the ideologization of common sense nationalism—was the Hungarian answer to external challenges and—not surprisingly for an over-centralized country like Hungary—emerged first in Budapest.65 The psychological shock of losing their home country had a powerful impact on the tens of thousands of middle-class Szekler teachers, intellectuals and civil servants who took refuge in Hungary after 1919. State-sponsored promotion of a strongly idealized and uncontaminated virtual Szeklerland became for them an instrument to promote cultural revival and struggle against denationalization by Romanians. After Trianon, national imagology supported new identity-building agendas from above and outside: the Szekler came to represent the “purest” Hungarian, who lived uncontaminated in an alien urban culture. This also implied an extension to the Szeklerland—where the Jewish question had always been a non-issue—of the increasingly popular anti-Semitic claims according to which Jewish and German elements had dominated urban environments since the time of Austro–Hungarian monarchy. Thus the Szeklerland became a meta-historical space to be memorialized in living memory, where brave Hungarians restlessly struggled against Romanian oppression. The mythical Szekler king, Csaba vezér was portrayed proudly holding Transylvania’s coats of arms as one of the four characters of the statue composition erected in 1921 at Szabadság square in central Budapest.66 Another powerful instrument of memory building was urban toponomy. Many streets of Budapest and other cities were assigned the name of cities, rivers or mountains that were situated in the territories Hungary had recently lost. As an example, the Hargita/Harghita mountain group was for the first time put onto the mental map of average Hungarian citizens as a symbol of Hungarianness.67

In the early 1920s the Székely Egyetemi és Főiskolai Hallgatók Egyesülete [SZEFHE – Association of Szekler University Students] was founded on the initiative of five refugee students. Their leader was György Csanády, the author of the poem “Szekler Anthem”.68 The poem, the music for which had been composed by Kálmán Mihalik, was first performed in 1922, but only published in 1940 and was secretly played in Transylvania, where it became the second, non-official Hungarian anthem under Hungarian rule between 1940 and 1944.69 The SZEFHE worked independently in Budapest and Szeged until 1939, after which it joined Erdélyi Szövetség [The Transylvanian League]. Through the end of World War II, the SZEFHE played an outstanding role in the promotion of Szekler culture and moral values. Its hierarchy even replicated the ancient Szekler social hierarchy.70

Even more interesting was the promotion of the community of Hargitaváralja (Hargitaváralja jelképes székely község), a virtual Szekler village supposed to perpetuate organically the ancient rites and the social structure of a mythical Szeklerland within post-Trianon Hungary. The Hargitaváralja project was launched in Szeged in 1921 by a group of refugees to Hungary. It immediately won the patronage and financial support of the town’s prefect, Dr. György Imecs, himself of Szekler origin. It organized dances and Szekler parties, collections, and cultural events, and also supported a Szekler library in Szeged. Its public meetings were called falugyűlés [village assembly]. Among its members, one found Szekler-born high ranking army officers, including Lajos Veress Dálnoki, head of the anti-Fascist coalition government installed in Debrecen in 1944, and Vilmos Nagy Nagybaczoni, the wartime minister of defense. Its chief judge was the vice-president of the Hungarian railway company, Gábor Veress, while other prominent members included the Catholic priest Vilmos Apor, who later became bishop of Győr; historian István Kiss Rugonfalvi; and writers Áron Tamási and József Nyírő. From August 1936 to October 1944, Hargitaváralja also published a weekly house organ in one thousand copies.71 The journal not only informed its readers about the cultural events sponsored by the nearly one hundred Szekler communities scattered across Hungary, but also carried out investigations into the condition of Romania’s Hungarian minority and advertised Szekler-owned shops, pubs and restaurants, seen as champions of a “true,” national-minded business spirit.

Parallel to the Szekler revival in interwar Hungary, which was stimulated by private initiative but had been immediately recognized by the authorities as an excellent instrument of propaganda, the Szeklers in Romania began to rediscover and openly discuss their past, beginning of course with their ethnic origins. Although the aim could not have been clearer, namely to reinforce the consciousness of a peculiar Hungarian identity, they did not take up the “bio-political,” eugenic approach of certain Romanian scientists and policy makers, which in the 1930s influenced the Transylvanian Saxons as well. Instead, they preferred a culturalist stance rooted in a complex network of historical myths and popular legends, helping to spread a völkisch, non-urban Szekler identity whose traces can still be found in Szekler popular culture.72 According to semi-professional authors and self-proclaimed intellectuals speaking on behalf of the wider Szekler community, they were the descendants of the noble Hun nation, and not “simply” Magyars belonging to the Finno-Ugric family. To prove that, they made use of scholarly research on the diffusion of Hungarian runic script (rovásírás), the old runic writing with an ancient alphabet which had been used in most parts of Hungary until the sixteenth century, but traces of which had been found in some Szekler villages as late as the mid-nineteenth century.73

Nevertheless, the most durable historical myth was the myth of a supposed medieval chronicle (Csíki Krónika). This chronicle, believed to have been written in 1533, narrated the heroism of warrior Szekler kings, the rhabonbán, and described the mystical, protective function for all Szekler tribes of a Szekler chalice (székely kehely). Although professional historians (among them, the Szekler-born Lajos Szádeczky) had convincingly demonstrated at the beginning of the twentieth century that the Csíki Krónika was in fact a forgery composed in the second half of the eighteenth century, the legendary Szekler past survived in the collective memory. Moreover, it stimulated the reproduction of a collective identity that challenged not only the “negationist” Romanian narrative (the Szekler as denationalized Romanians), but also the integrationist (of all Magyars), Budapest-driven Hungarian national discourse. Nevertheless, polemics with both official Hungarian and Romanian narratives prevented academic historians from constructing an altogether separate national identity. Hesitation and embarrassment are particularly evident in case of István Rugonfalvi Kiss, a reputable Szekler-born professor of history at Debrecen University. While publishing a historical synthesis in 1939 which represented a more ambitious attempt to give the Szekler nation a scientifically based past, Kiss had to admit that the most treasured proof of an ancient, virtuous Szekler past, the Csíki Krónika, was an “infamous falsehood” on which no Szekler collective identity or historical consciousness could ever rely.74

Less controversial and more fruitful for the long-term cultural development of the Szeklerland were the efforts of local intellectuals who worked to uncover and promote Székely cultural heritage. Artistic treasuries and archeological findings represented an ideal link between the past and the present. Hungarians from both Romania and Hungary were encouraged to discover the Szeklerland’s natural beauties and enjoy a still “untouched” Hungarian world. A major proponent of this movement was the outstanding geologist János Bányai, professor at the Székelyudvarhely/Odorheiu Secuiesc Calvinist College and fellow of the Geological Institute of Bucharest, who after 1945 pioneered the Szeklerland’s industrialization. In 1929 he launched the Hargita expedition, an annual summer event for those who wanted to explore the Szekler countryside.75 In 1931 Bányai, along with fellow colleagues of Székelyudvarhely/Odorheiu Secuiesc College, launched a periodical called Székelység [Szeklerness], intended as a national review, and published short essays on a wide range of topics: local history, geology, human geography, folklore, literature, and poetry.76

The difficulties faced under Romanian rule also stimulated a more resistance-based cultural revival, focused on the preservation of some endangered features of the traditional Szekler lifestyle (costume, cuisine, associative life), while also creating new traditions. One example is the Szekler cult initiated by Hungarian ethnographer Pál Péter Domokos, who in 1926 returned to his birthplace, Csíkszereda/Miercurea Ciuc, as a high school teacher and became the promoter of an initiative to make this periphery a place of pilgrimage and ritual for young people. On 7 June, 1931 he organized at the Roman Catholic monastery of Csíksomlyó/Şumuleu Ciuc a holiday called Ezer Székely Leány Találkozó [Reunion of a Thousand Szekler Girls]. The devoted Catholic, Pál Péter, wanted to make the center of Transylvanian Roman Catholicism the spiritual center of the Szekler people, regardless of their confessional belonging. The remarkable success of the first event encouraged the organizers to transform it in annual one. However, in 1935 the Romanian authorities suspected the Ezer Székely Leány Találkozó of becoming a Hungarian nationalist demonstration and therefore had it banned. Nevertheless, this invented tradition reemerged after 1940 and once again in 1990. In fact, in the interwar period the Szeklerland was a multi-confessional environment: in the 1930s only a slight majority of Szeklers (257,009 out of 474,127) were Roman Catholic, with a substantial proportion of Calvinists (around 170 thousand), Unitarians (over 45 thousand), Orthodox (55 thousand) and Greek Catholics (40 thousand).77 But even before the Szekler clergyman was appointed in 1939 as Roman Catholic Bishop, religious faith and national (minority) identity had begun to overlap more strictly than at any time before, as demonstrated by the growing attendance to the annual pilgrimage to the Franciscan monastery of Csíksomlyó/Şumuleu Ciuc. The Catholic Church stood up for minority rights of its Szekler/Hungarian believers, but also started to support charity actions and social projects in the Szeklerland.

Epilogue: Failed State Integration and Its Long-term Consequences

During the interwar period the Romanian authorities regarded the Szeklerland as a corpus separatum the population of which passively accepted what they perceived as “foreign occupation” of their homeland but refused any civic commitment to the state and its local agencies, instead displaying attachment and loyalty to the Hungarian state and Hungarian national symbols. In the interwar period, the cultural and the political debate among the Romanian majority and the Hungarian minority tended to focus on the more theoretical question of the ethnic origin of the Szeklers. Historical, biological and cultural arguments over the “national belonging” of the community collided. Meanwhile, Szekler intellectuals began to rethink their cultural identity and escape competitive grand narratives by presenting the Szeklers as a distinct group among Hungarians, or even the purest group, the former status of which, as an egalitarian warrior community, predestined it to isolation and territorial autonomy. For students of ethnic relations interested in the social construction of national symbols in an internal periphery, the case of the Szeklers within the context of the broader Hungarian Transylvanian population of 1.5 million is an excellent example of how one ethnic community—unable and unwilling to develop its own modern ethnic institutions such as language and national culture—attempted to construct or articulate new identity markers after becoming a minority within another minority.

With the Second Vienna Award the Szeklerland experienced a period of short-lived Hungarian rule (1940–1944) during which Budapest made considerable efforts to re-establish Hungarian social and cultural supremacy (even through the mistreatment of ethnic Romanians) and promote economic development. The lack of sensitivity to local issues, however, stimulated conflicts between the center and the periphery.78 After the controversial Hungarian intermezzo, the early Romanian communist regime provided the Szekler community with some cultural and linguistic rights. Between 1952 and 1960, Soviet-style territorial autonomy was granted to the Szeklerland in the form of the Hungarian Autonomous Region (HAR).79 The collective memory of Hungarians living in the HAR preserved the years following its establishment as a period of cultural development. This could sound rather paradoxical when taking into account the high level of ideological pressure, the massive political reprisals and the extremely low standards of living suffered by a large part of the population in the first decade of the communist regime. One possible explanation can be found in the underlying role of “cultural ghetto” attributed by Moscow to the HAR.80 The Romanian authorities were aware of the fact that a reprisal against Hungarians, at least in the first period, would have given rise to the suspicion of oppressing the nationalities. The administrative umbrella represented by the HAR made it possible to preserve a particular kind of Hungarian cultural tradition for the local majority. Universities, newspapers, reviews, folk dance groups, and professional and amateur theatres played an outstanding role in reproducing elites and preserving Hungarian identity.

At the same time, the national forms of the “greenhouse” offered by Stalin to the Hungarians of the Szeklerland should have softened its socialist content: the “little Hungary” represented by HAR should have strengthened loyalty to the Romanian state. But the enthusiastic reaction of a great part of the population to the Hungarian revolution in 1956/57, which was the first major political test for the region and its leadership after the death of Stalin, revealed all of the internal contradictions of the “Hungarian policy” imposed on Romania by Stalin. The coexistence of a Romanian civic identity (being a loyal citizen of the Romanian state) and a Hungarian cultural one (feeling part of another community) proved to be an illusion. As a logical consequence, the Romanian communists led by Gheorghiu-Dej, who had never been enthusiastic about the HAR, decided to eliminate this “alien body” in 1960.

After the Szekler administrative unit was dismantled, the region’s former capital, Marosvásárhely/Târgu-Mureş, was transformed by the agenda of Romanian national communism. Nicolae Ceauşescu replaced the Hungarian/Szekler élite of the city with a new, ethnic Romanian one. After this, Marosvásárhely/Târgu-Mureş became a bi-national city with a growing Romanian presence. Nevertheless, Ceauşescu’s population policies did not aim to dissolve the Szeklers and their Hungarian cultural identity into the Romanian one, but rather to suppress/subordinate it to that of the ethnic/national majority. According to recent scholarship, during the first ten years of Ceauşescu’s rule a fragile compromise was signed with the Hungarian communist apparatus, allowing bilingualism and the survival of Hungarian social and cultural networks in the newly established (1968) provinces of Harghita and Covasna.81

The relationship between the Romanian state and this minority throughout the last century cannot be regarded as uniform and entirely conflict-dominated. Anthropologists Zoltán A. Biró and Julianna Bodó described well how the socialist system stimulated after the administrative reform of 1968 a local identity, Hargitaiság, with the unveiled aim of weakening the Hungarian master ethnic narrative.82 This fluctuating, often contradictory central policy could also explain why popular dissatisfaction with the Romanian authorities’ actions both in the interwar period and in the communist era did not result in major riots, uprisings or ethnically motivated clashes produced by secessionist movements or terrorist actions (limited violence only occurred during periods of political turbulence or warfare: 1919, 1940, 1944 and 1989–9083). Constraining factors clearly influenced the Szekler population’s passive acceptance of its minority fate after 1918. In addition, Romanian governments soon recognized that the Szeklerland could not be entirely “nationalized” by the establishment of colonizing villages and settlements, discriminative policies against the local majority or forced industrialization.84 The persistent lack of economic development, administrative know-how, and human resources prevented the Romanian state from fully nationalizing this minority-inhabited region. As a result, the Hungarian/Szekler community still numbers roughly 600,000 persons living in a compact ethnic and linguistic mass in the geographic middle of Romania, where they still make up 85 percent of the population of Hargita/Harghita County, 74 percent of Kovászna/Covasna County, and 40 percent of Maros/Mureş County (concentrated mainly in the eastern half of this county and in its capital, Marosvásárhely/Târgu-Mureş). Almost one hundred years after Greater Romania came into being, the Szekler issue still holds the marks of a low-potential conflict and remains politically and culturally unsettled.


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Note on Nomenclature: City and Place Names

For the first reference to each place, we will give alternative versions of the place name for that location. Here are the most frequently mentioned city and other place names in their various forms, for quick reference.


Brassó (Braşov, Romania, German: Kronstadt)

Csík County (Ciuc, Romania)

Csíkszereda (Miercurea Ciuc, Romania)

Csíksomlyó (Şumuleu Ciuc, Romania)

Csucsa (Ciucea, Romania)

Gyergyószentmiklós (Gheorgheni, Romania)

Hargita County (Harghita, Romania)

Háromszék County (Trei Scaune, Romania)

Kolozsvár (Cluj, Romania, German: Klausenburg)

Kovászna County (Covasna, Romania)

Maros County (Mureş, Romania)

Marosvásárhely (Târgu-Mureş, Romania)

Szatmárnémeti (Satu Mare, Romania)

Segesvár (Sighişoara, Romania, German: Schässburg)

Sepsiszentgyörgy (Sfântu Gheorghe, Romania)

Székelyudvarhely (Odorheiu Secuiesc, Romania)

Tusnádfürdő (Băile Tuşnad, Romania)

Udvarhely County (Odorheiu, Romania)

1 This paper was originally presented at the conference “Greater Romania’s National Projects: Ideological Dilemmas, Ethnic Classification, and Political Instrumentalisation of Ethnic Identities,” held at Oxford Brookes University on April 10–12, 2008. I would like to thank R. Chris Davis and Eric B. Weaver for reading drafts and offering insightful feedback. The final version of this paper has been supported by the Hungarian Scientific Research Fund (OTKA), Tender K-104408.

2 Rogers Brubaker et al., Nationalist Politics and Everyday Ethnicity in a Transylvanian Town (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006); Holly Case, Between States: The Transylvanian Question and the European Idea During World War II (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009); Béni L. Balogh, The Second Vienna Award and the Hungarian−Romanian Relations 1940−1944 (Boulder, Colo.: Social Science Monographs, 2011). For an entangled approach to the Romanian/Hungarian conflict in a Central European perspective László Péter, ed., Historians and the History of Transylvania (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992); Balázs Trencsényi et al., eds., Nation-Building and Contested Identities. Romanian and Hungarian Case Studies (Budapest–Iaşi: Regio–Editura Polirom, 2001); Anders E. B. Blomqvist, Constantin Iordachi, Balázs Trencsényi, eds., Hungary and Romania Beyond National Narratives. Comparisons and Entanglements (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2013). For a micro-historical approach focused on a Szekler sub-region, see Gábor Egry, “A megértés határán. Nemzetiség és mindennapok a két világháború közti Háromszéken,” Limes 25, no. 2 (2012): 29–50.

3 Károly Kós, Erdély – kultúrtörténeti vázlat (Kolozsvár: Erdélyi Szépmíves Céh, 1929); Béla Pomogáts, A transzilvánizmus. Az Erdélyi Helikon ideológiája (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1983). A full text bibliography on Transylvanism and ideological debates on the specific features of the Transylvanian identity: Accessed October 3, 2013, http://adatbank.transindex.ro/belso.php?alk=81&k=5

4 According to Hutchinson, cultural nationalism seeks to “rediscover” a historically rooted way of life; cultural nationalists share communitarian concerns and act primarily as moral and social innovators. See his classical book The Dynamics of Cultural Nationalism: The Gaelic Revival and the Creation of the Irish Nation State (London: Allen&Unwin, 1987) and the more recent article “Re-Interpreting Cultural Nationalism,” Australian Journal of Politics & History 45, no. 3 (1999): 392–409.

5 Several doctoral projects recently started at US universities are tackling this issue: Zsuzsanna Magdó (History Department at the University of Illinois), Petru Szedlacsek (Modern history Department at St. Andrews University), and Marc R. Loustau (Religion Department at Harvard University).

6 Eric B. Weaver, “More Hungarian Hungarians, More Human Humans’: Social and National Discourse on Hungarian Minorities in the Interwar Period,” in Re-Contextualising East Central European History: Nation, Culture and Minority Groups, ed. Robert Pyrah and Marius Turda (Leeds: Legenda, 2010), 36–54.

7 The outstanding role of Transylvania for Hungarian ethnography is underlined by László Kürti, The Remote Borderland. Transylvania in the Hungarian Imagination (New York: State University of New York Press, 2001), 49–76.

8 (Turks, Huns, Avars, Scyths, Eszkils, Gepids, more simply Magyars or even Romanians). See the authoritative account of Gyula Kristó, A székelyek eredete (Budapest: Balassi Kiadó, 2005).

9 On Csángó identity building and the national (Hungarian and Romanian) representations of this archaic local identity see the doctoral dissertation of R. Chris Davis: Narrating the Past: Constructing a National History of the Romanian Csangos (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

10 An overview in Judit Pál, “Erdély népeinek eredetmítoszai: a székelyek hun eredetének mítosza,” in Hatalom és kultúra. Az V. Nemzetközi Hungarológiai Kongresszus (Jyväskylä, 2001. augusztus 6–10.) előadásai II, ed. József Jankovics and Judit Nyerges (Budapest: Nemzetközi Magyarságtudományi Társaság, 2004), 814–22; the historical debate has been summarized by Gusztáv Mihály Hermann, Náció és nemzet. A székely rendi nacionalizmus és a magyar nemzettudat a XVIII–XIX. században (Csíkszereda: Pro-Print, 2003), 5–18.

11 In the pre-1526 Hungarian Kingdom, Hungarian-speaking Szeklers lived in the eastern corner of Transylvania as a border guard warrior community, provided with full institutional and cultural autonomy. They were part of the Unio Trium Natiorum (1438), a coalition of the three Transylvanian estates, along with the Hungarian nobility and the Saxon, ethnic German burghers.

12 Only in 1339 a new definition was mentioned in official documents (Tria Genera Saxorum) relating to a new social stratification between seniores, primipili and the communitas, which had broken up the previously egalitarian Szekler society, consisting primarily of free border guards.

13 Hermann, Náció és nemzet, 38–42.

14 When in the late seventeenth century Italian humanist Luigi Ferdinando Marsigli visited the semi-independent principality of Transylvania, he mentioned meetings with Hungarians, Saxons, Romanians, Greeks, Armenians, Anabaptists and Gypsies, but not Szeklers. Among the Hungarians he introduced a further distinction between the “true Hungarians” living in the plain along the main rivers, and those inhabiting the mountainous region of Siculia, speaking Hungarian with a different accent and the sporadic use of “scythian” words. Hermann, Náció és nemzet, 14.

15 The Szekler assimilation into a “national” Hungarian identity run parallel to trends in other European countries – Italian Lombards and Sicilians, French Bretons, or German Bavarians. See also the Transylvanian experience of the merging of the ancient Romanian moţ identity of the Apuşeni mountains into the Romanian national awakening.

16 Károly R. Nyárády, Erdély népesedéstörténete (Budapest: KSH Levéltára, 2003), 86. An overview of Szekler urbanization processes before World War I in Judit Pál: Városfejlődés a Székelyföldön 17501914 (Csíkszereda: Pro-Print, 2003).

17 The historical capital of Szeklerland, Székelyudvarhely/Odorheiu Secuiesc was too small and peripheral: it had no direct railway connection to Marosvásárhely/Târgu-Mureş or Kolozsvár/Cluj, not to mention other major Szekler towns such as Sepsiszentgyörgy/Sfântu Gheorghe) and Gyergyószentmiklós/Gheorgheni.

18 E. Árpád Varga, Fejezetek a jelenkori Erdély népesedéstörténetéből. Tanulmányok (Budapest: Püski, 1998), 125.

19 The proceedings were published shortly after: Barna Buday, ed., A Székely Kongresszus szervezete, tagjainak névsora, tárgyalásai és határozatai. (Budapest: Pátria, 1902). State intervention during the following decade has been studied by Petra Balaton, “A székely akció története, 1902–1914. Állami szerepvállalás Székelyföld felzárkóztatására” (PhD diss., University of Debrecen, 2006).

20 The Szeklerland was historically divided into administrative unities called sieges: Udvarhelyszék, Csíkszék, Háromszék, Marosszék, and the smaller and ethnically mixed Aranyosszék, detached from the proper Szekler territory.

21 Kézdivásárhely/Târgu Secuiesc fell from over 8,000 to 7,364; Székelyudvarhely/Odorheiu Secuiesc lost nearly 20 percent of its population, dropping from 10,244 to 8,518.

22 A demographic overview in Gyula Veress, “A Magyar Autonóm Tartomány népmozgalmáról,” Korunk 1, no. 8 (1957): 1476–83.

23 Stefano Bottoni, Sztálin a székelyeknél. A Magyar Autonóm Tartomány története (1952–1960) (Csíkszereda: Pro-Print, 2008), 209.

24 Ignác Romsics, ed., Magyarok kisebbségben és szórványban. A Magyar Miniszterelnökség Nemzetiségi és Kisebbségi Osztályának válogatott iratai, 1919–1944 (Budapest: Teleki László Alapítvány, 1995), 276–78.

25 Sándor Bíró, The Nationalities Problems in Transylvania 1867–1940 (Boulder, Colo.: Social Sciences Monographs, 1992), 420.

26 Varga, Fejezetek a jelenkori Erdély népesedéstörténetéből, 25.

27 On the 1921 Romanian land reform the best account remains Dumitru Şandru, Reforma agrară din 1921 în România (Bucharest: Editura Academiei Române, 1975).

28 Lajos Kocsis, A csíki magánjavak története, 1869–1923. Erdély Történeti Könyvek 6 (Debrecen: Erdély-történeti Alapítvány, 2006).

29 The extensive financial support of Hungarian institutions by the homeland government has been disclosed by Nándor Bárdi’s archival research, “A Keleti Akció – A romániai magyar intézmények anyaországi támogatása az 1920-as években,” in Magyarságkutatás 1995–96, ed. László Diószegi (Budapest: Teleki László Alapítvány, 1996), 143–90.

30 Ferenc Eiler, Kisebbségvédelem és revízió. Magyar törekvések az Európai Nemzetiségi Kongresszuson 1925–1939 (Budapest: MTA Kisebbségkutató Intézet–Gondolat Kiadó, 2007).

31 Irina Livezeanu, Cultural Politics in Greater Romania: Regionalism, Nation Building and Ethnic Struggle, 19181930 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 139.

32 Attila Gidó, Úton. Erdélyi zsidó társadalom- és nemzetépítési kísérletek (1918–1940) (Csíkszereda: Pro-Print, 2008).

33 Livezeanu, Cultural Politics in Greater Romania, 44–48.

34 Ibid., 138.

35 HNP was an underrepresented but stable force in interwar Romanian politics: 26 MPs in 1926, 9 in 1927, 22 in 1928, 12 in 1931, 17 in 1932, 12 in 1933, and 21 in 1937. Further details in Béla György, ed., Iratok a romániai Országos Magyar Párt történetéhez 1. A vezető testületek jegyzőkönyvei (CsíkszeredaKolozsvár: ProPrint–EME, 2003).

36 According to political analyst Imre Mikó, the secret pact signed on October 23, 1923 at Csucsa/Ciucea with the People’s Party of General Averescu represented the most comprehensive attempt to settle the Hungarian question in Transylvania. Imre Mikó, Huszonkét év. Az erdélyi magyarság politikai története 1918. december 1-től 1940. augusztus 30-ig (Budapest: Stúdium, 1941), 49.

37 Nándor Bárdi, “A romániai magyarság kisebbségpolitikai stratégiái a két világháború között,” Regio 7, no. 2 (1997): 32–67.

38 Dr. László Fritz, “A közigazgatási választások eredményei,” Magyar Kisebbség 9, no. 7 (1930): 234–39, and idem, Magyar Kisebbség 9, no. 15–16 (1930): 554–64.

39 This point was underlined by Joseph Rothschild, East Central Europe Between the Two World Wars (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1974), 302.

40 Mikó, Huszonkét év, 214–15.

41 On the nexus between the 1925 educational reform and the appearance of reformer circles among the Transylvanian Hungarian youth, Miklós Csapody, “Program és nemzedék. (Fejezet az Erdélyi Fiatalok előtörténetéből 1923–1929),” in Az Országos Széchényi Könyvtár Évkönyve 1982–1983, ed. Ilona Kovács et al. (Budapest: Országos Széchényi Könyvtár, 1984), 565–91.

42 Details in Ladislau Bányai, “Uniunea Oamenilor Muncii Maghiari din Romania (MADOSZ),” in Organizaţii de masă legale şi ilegale create, conduse său influenţate de P.C.R. 1921–1944, ed. Ion Popescu-Puţuri et al. (Bucharest: Editura Politică, 1981), vol. 2, 36–79.

43 The interwar communist activity in the Szeklerland is documented by Simon Fuchs, Munkásmozgalom a Maros völgyében. Válogatott írások (Bucharest: Politikai Könyvkiadó, 1975).

44 On the political socialization and the issue of personal identity among the first generation Szekler communists, see Bottoni, Sztálin a székelyeknél, 32–41.

45 Zsolt K. Lengyel: A kompromisszum keresése. Tanulmányok a 20. századi transzszilvanizmus korai történetéhez (Csíkszereda: Pro-Print, 2007). See also Lucian Nastasă and Levente Salat, eds., Maghiarii din România şi etica minoritară (1920–1940) (Cluj-Napoca: Centru de Resurse pentru Diversitate Etnoculturală, 2003).

46 Sata Kinga-Koretta, “The Idea of the Nation in Transylvanism,” in Nation-Building and Contested Identities, ed. Balázs Trencsényi et al., 42.

47 According to the resolution of the Romanian National Assembly, the new Romanian state granted “full national freedom for all the co-inhabiting peoples”. It also stated that each people will study, manage and judge in its own language and led by individuals of its own stock, and each people will have the right to be represented in the law bodies and to govern the country in accordance with the number of its people.

48 Bárdi, A romániai magyarság kisebbségpolitikai stratégiái, 64.

49 Nándor Bárdi, “A szupremácia és az önrendelkezés igénye. Javaslatok, tervek az erdélyi kérdés rendezésére (1918–1940),” in Források és stratégiák. A II. összehasonlító magyar kisebbségtörténeti szimpózium előadásai, ed. Nándor Bárdi and György Éger (Csíkszereda: Pro-Print, 1997), 6768.

50 On Paál’s political and intellectual activity during the transition see Nándor Bárdi, “Impériumváltás Udvarhelyen 1918–1920,” Aetas 8, no. 3 (1993): 76–118.

51 Bárdi, “A szupremácia és az önrendelkezés igénye,” 69.

52 Ibid., 70.

53 See for example Paál’s article on the Szekler question published in Keleti Ujság, September 6, 1921, in which he argued for territorial autonomy.

54 On the internal debates among the Hungarian minorities in the interwar period, Nándor Bárdi: Tény és való. A budapesti kormányzatok és a határon túli magyarság kapcsolattörténete (Pozsony: Kalligram, 2004), 3751.

55 Bárdi, “A szupremácia és az önrendelkezés igénye,” 100–3. On the popular reception of Paál’s project, Sz. Ferenc Horváth: Elutasítás és alkalmazkodás között. A romániai kisebbségi elit politikai stratégiái (1931–1940) (Csíkszereda: Pro-Print, 2007), 11015.

56 Horváth, Elutasítás és alkalmazkodás között, 113.

57 György, Iratok a romániai Országos Magyar Párt történetéhez, 174 (1934), and 191–97 (1936).

58 See Dénes Némedi, A népi szociográfia, 1930–1938 (Budapest: Gondolat, 1985).

59 For a comprehensive account of the intellectual trajectories of Hungarian populism see Gyula Borbándi, A magyar népi mozgalom (New York: Püski, 1983). See also the most recent synthesis by István Papp, A magyar népi mozgalom története, 1920–1990 (Budapest: Jaffa, 2012).

60 Bárdi, Tény és való, 51–55.

61 Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed. National Minorities, Nationalizing States, and External Homelands (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Zoltán Kántor, “Nationalism, Nationalizing Minorities and Kin-State Nationalism,” in Interculturalism and Discrimination in Romania: Policies, Practices, Identities and Representations, ed. Francois Ruegg et al. (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2006), 24976.

62 Balázs Trencsényi, The Politics of National Character. A Study in Interwar East European Thought (London: Routledge, 2011).

63 Marius Turda, “The Nation as Object: Race, Blood, and Biopolitics in Interwar Romania,” Slavic Review 66, no. 3 (2007): 429–36. See also R. Chris Davis, “Rescue and Recovery: The Biopolitics and Ethnogenealogy of Moldavian Catholics in 1940s Romania,” in Local and Transnational Csángó Lifeworlds, ed. Sándor Ilyés et al. (Cluj-Napoca: Kriza János Ethnographical Society, 2008), 95–111.

64 Manuilă’s statement is taken up as a quotation by Gyula Benedek, “Vélemény Varga E. Árpád A romániai magyarság népesség-csökkenésének okairól c. tanulmányáról,” Magyar Kisebbség 8, no. 4 (2002): 9–16.

65 Miklós Zeidler, A magyar irredenta kultusz a két világháború között (Budapest: Teleki László Alapítvány, 2002).

66 Ibid., 18. In 1945 the statue was demolished to make room for a monument that still stands celebrating the Red Army’s victory.

67 Ibid., 30–32.

68 No one knows to where fate takes us / on this rough road in the black night. / Csaba, our prince riding in the sky / Show us once more the path / Through triumphant stars! / Handful of Szeklers, ancient remnants / of a fortress in the sea of warring millions / time and time again the waves / close above us / Oh Lord, do not perish our Transylvania! English translation by Angéla Molnos (2000).

69 Ildikó Kríza, “A Székely himnusz születésének háttere,” Honismeret 32, no. 5 (2003): 5768.

70 In descending order: rabombán, lófő, öreg lófő, góbé, gyalog székely.

71 Szegedi Hargitaváralja jelképes székely község hivatalos közlönyeTudományos szépirodami és társadalmi hetilap.

72 On the practices of falsification of Szekler history over the course of the last two centuries by local identity-makers, see Gusztáv Mihály Hermann, Az eltérített múlt – Oklevél- és krónikahamisítványok a székelyek történetében (Csíkszereda: Pro-Print, 2008).

73 Gyula Sebestyén, A magyar rovásírás hiteles emlékei (Budapest: Magyar Tudományos Akadémia, 1915). See also István Vásáry, “A magyar rovásírás. A kutatás története és mai helyzete,” Keletkutatás 2, no. 1 (1974): 159–71.

74 István Rugonfalvi Kiss, A Székely nemzet képe. 2 vols. (Debrecen: Lehotai Pál Kiadása, 1939).

75 On Bányai see Gábor Csíky’s entry in Magyar Tudóslexikon A-tól Z-ig, ed. Ferenc Nagy (Budapest: Better, 1997), 148–49.

76 Lajos András Róth, “A Székelység (1931–1944) néprajzi tárgyú cikkei,” Örökségünk 1, no. 2 (2007): 8–9.

77 Rugonfalvi Kiss, A Székely nemzet képe, 324–55.

78 A policy of economic interventionism and administrative centralization was carried out by the Hungarian governments in all of Northern Transylvania. The situation in the Szeklerland is described well by Sándor Oláh: “Gyakorlati gondolkozásmód és megmerevedett etatizmus (1940–1944),” Korall 5, no. 4 (2004): 98–113, and Sándor Oláh, “Kedvezmények és konfliktusok kora. Gazdasági változások Csík vármegyében 1940–1944 között,” in idem, Kivizsgálás. Írások az állam és a társadalom viszonyáról a Székelyföldön 1940–1989 (Csíkszereda: Pro-Print, 2008), 10–216.

79 Bottoni, Sztálin a székelyeknél, 21–66.

80 This is underlined by Walker Connor, The National Question in Marxist-Leninist Theory and Strategy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 340–42.

81 Zoltán Novák: Aranykorszak? A Ceauşescu-rendszer magyarságpolitikája I. (1965–1974) (Csíkszereda: Pro-Print, 2010).

82 Zoltán A. Biró and Julianna Bodó, “A ‘hargitaiság’. Egy régió kultúraépítési gyakorlatáról,” Átmenetek 2, no. 2 (1991): 77–89. See also Julianna Bodó, ed., Fényes tegnapunk. Tanulmányok a szocializmus korszakáról (Csíkszereda: KAM—Pro-Print, 1998).

83 This circumstance is recognized by postcommunist nationally committed Romanian historiography: Anton Drăgoescu, ed., Istoria României. Transilvania, vol. 2 (1867–1947) (Cluj-Napoca: Editura Gheorghe Bariţiu, 1997), 1255–1394.

84 Since 1919 the Romanian state and Masaryk’s Czechoslovakia had undertaken colonizing policies in southern Dobrogea and southern Slovakia (respectively), but effective measures of ethnic engineering were being carried out during the interwar period in different contexts. Under fascism the Italian authorities transformed the formerly German-inhabited Bozen/Bolzano, the capital of the South Tirol region (formerly belonging to the Habsburg Empire), into a predominantly Italian city through the creation of an industrial area inhabited by immigrants mostly coming from Southern Italy and Veneto. Similar policies were carried out in the Soviet Union after the reversal of the so-called “affirmative action” in 1932–33. Cf. Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire. Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923–1939 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 344–461.

pdfVolume 2 Issue 3 CONTENTS

Klaus-Jürgen Hermanik

Arts and Artists as Intermediaries in Identity Management and Ethnomanagement: Examples from the German Minority in Hungary and the Hungarian and German Minorities in Transylvania


My research on arts and artists in connection with minority issues centers around the fact that both serve as crucial instruments in the creation of the collective identity of a particular ethnic group. Moreover, my results should demonstrate that arts and artists passively are used and actively act as intermediaries in the identity management and ethnomanagement of minorities.

Further issues of this broad heading will be: the visible effects, if an artist belongs to a minority, if an artist feels he or she belongs to a minority, and the influence of this on his or her work. What are the reasons for an organizational commitment to the identity management and ethnomanagement of his/her ‘own ethnic group’ and vice versa?

Answers to these questions are based on research on the German minority in Hungary (Ungarndeutsche) and the Hungarians (erdélyi magyarok) and Germans (Siebenbürger Sachsen, Banater Schwaben) in Transylvania. The examples will be divided on the basis of the different genres of literature and the fine arts: concerning minority literature the focus will be on the interaction of literature and the intentional use of the minority language as an ethnic marker. Furthermore, the reciprocity of minority literature and ethno-political careers will be reflected in some biographical examples. Fine arts have the advantage, unlike literature, that they are a priori a universally understandable medium, and the paper will elaborate on the following topics: the question of which artistic works (e.g. statues, emblems on buildings, monuments) are directly linked to the culture of remembrance of the abovementioned ethnic groups and to what extent is fine arts important as a means of representing the German and Hungarian minorities in public space as a form of the “visual materialization” of ethnic identity and ethnic politics?

Keywords: ethnomanagement, arts, ethnic groups, Germans in Hungary, Hungarians and Germans in Transylvania, minority politics, culture of remembrance

A Theoretical Approach to Identity and Ethnomanagement

A short survey of the notions of identity management and ethnomanagement should be introduced into the theoretical aspects of the topic before I present my research on the role of the arts and artists within the wide range of ethnicity and minority policies.1 This creates a framework for comparison of my examples from literature, the fine arts, and the performing arts in connection with the concept of ethnomanagement, which I have developed in my habilitation thesis.2

Although the two terms, “identity management” and “ethnomanagement” are put on equal footing, I prefer the use of the term ethnomanagement in my research, instead of the notion of identity management, because the common state-of-the-art use of the term identity management was monopolized by the IT branch to delineate the administration of personal data. The first part of the compound ethno-management refers to basic terms like ethnos, ethnic group and ethnicity; simultaneously the term is structured like ethnopolitics or ethnopolicies. The second part of the compound ethno-management refers to the action that what will happen to the first part: the semantic weight of the notion of management finds itself between ‘to service, to guide’ and ‘to administrate, to head’ and, it expresses its close affinity to its close affinity to the term identity management.3

Moreover, this ethnomanagement concept draws attention more to the protagonists, who make use of the constructedness of ethnicity to its full capacity. The protagonists, called ethnomanagers, try to gain influence on important ethnic markers,4 which constitute ethnicity in the end. Both identity management and ethnomanagement are per se active and goal oriented terms or quantities. That means, at a semantic level, that these managers must have had clear intentions.

In my field work the main focus was laid on the protagonists of the societies of the German5 and Hungarian ethnic groups, where ethnomanagers clearly perform their activities, and furthermore, on those of various cultural institutions of the minorities. I ascertained that i) in a narrower sense ethnomanagers intentionally work in the field of minority politics; ii) in a broader sense people who teach in minority schools or work in minority media or in minority arts are themselves actors, as these institutions exert implicit control over minority monitoring and they can be considered ethnomanagers in certain cases.

Another invariable in this context is the adherence to the nation state model and its majority versus minority structure, as well as the assertion of the rights of the particular minority the political participation of minorities within the institutional framework of the nation state.6 The best brief example is the double identity of Germans in Hungary—the German term Ungarndeutsche(r) demonstrates it more descriptively—because any solution that demanded a full commitment to belonging to the minority would misrepresent the everyday culture of the Hungarian–German double identity.7 And one should not ignore the fact that each majority population within a nation state tends towards assimilatory cultural practices, and with regard to the Germans in Hungary Küpper predicts that in the near future the members of the German minority in Hungary will not be fully committed to this minority identity, and even the hitherto “half commitment” would fail to appear.8

So, each ethnic group,9 whether it is a majority or minority, develops specific strategies of ethnomanagement in close interdependence with political, legal and socioeconomic conditions. What they all have in common is that the essential parameters of inclusion and exclusion will be presented as “naturally grown,” very much like the essential ethnic markers, heritage and language. Therefore, ethnomanagers refer simply to these key aspects of preserving their own cultural identity to legitimize ethnomanagement activities in the first place. Furthermore, each symbolic representation of an ethnic group is constituted of overlapping political and cultural symbols, and it seems obvious that this subarea brings the political aspects of ethnomanagement together with arts and artists by developing a particular concern to interfere in the cultural life of the particular ethnic group and its representations.

Examples from German and Hungarian Minority Literature

Concerning the literary genre “minority literature” focus will be laid on the interaction of literature and the intentional use of the minority language as an essential part of ethnomanagement. This mirrors the alternatives of language perception as a dialect and minority language in contrast with majority language, not to mention language as an artistic means of expression and ethnic marker. Further topics and questions include the reciprocity of minority literature concerning the selection of literary themes with regard to the recipients, as well as with regard to subvention funds. Is it enough if an author considers himself “deutsch”, or is it advantageous to address issues concerning the culture or the past of the German minority in Hungary or Transylvania—and does this also apply to the Hungarians in Transylvania and the use of the Hungarian language in literature? However, I do not intend to become entangled in a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of fictional versus non-fictional means of expression.

My few examples begin with the work of a Nobel Prize winner. In 2009, when the German author Herta Müller, who was born in the Romanian village Nitzkydorf, won the Nobel Prize, the Germans in Romania had set a process into operation that aims to monopolize her and her literature for their own ethnopolitical purposes. Hence, Paul Philippi, former chairman and since 1998 honorary chairman of the Democratic Forum of Germans in Romania (Landesforum or just Forum), satirized this monopolizing strategy in his speech given to delegates of the Landesforum in October 2009:

And yes: ‘We’ did not only get the Nobel Prize, which spans the world, but also the most famous German award for literature, the Büchnerpreis – again won by a compatriot from Hermannstadt, who left us a long time ago: Oskar Pastior, who, much as Herta from Nitzkydorf did later, had berthed in Berlin. […] Highlights for us, certainly not by ourselves, highlights by single persons, who belong to us. We, the Forum, may possibly benefit from it, but in relation we contributed little or nothing to it. (Translated by the author.)10

These words should dampen the demonstrations of self-praise by members of the Forum, which rose after these prizes had been given to the writers, who were for them still Germans from Romania in spite of the fact that they had emigrated to Berlin. And Philippi expresses his conviction that the delegates should focus on their obligation to work harder in their political business of ethnomanagement, instead of resting on other’s laurels.

The quotation also shows the commingling of the literature from (famous) members of a certain ethnic group with the political ethnomanagement of the same group. I do not want to dwell on the well-researched work or life of Nobel Prize winner Herta Müller. Instead I give a few examples from the field of the minority literature of Germans in Hungary and their relationships to the ethnomanagement of the German Minority in Hungary (Ungarndeutsche). The following examples show that there have been close connections between production preconditions of German minority literature in Hungary and the ethnomanagement of the German minority. In 1974, after a pause of three decades after World War II, the literary section of the Democratic Alliance of Germans in Hungary11 published an anthology entitled Tiefe Wurzeln [Deep Roots]. Alfred Coulins stated later that this anthology had the ambition of setting a literary and a political goal.12 At the time of publication, many hopes were pinned on that anthology: above all, that it might give birth to an independent literature of the Hungarian–Germans within German literature, and the Democratic Alliance would have played the role of the midwife. Given this, the acceptance of Tiefe Wurzeln was euphoric in Hungary. It culminated in the principal topic of love of the German mother tongue and, at the same time, the Hungarian home.13

During the second half of the 1970s the Democratic Alliance of Germans in Hungary published two further literary anthologies entitled Die Holzpuppe [Wood Doll] (1977) and Bekenntnisse-Erkenntnisse [Denominations-Knowledge] (1979). The reviewer Heidi Ritter assigned the leading role to the Alliance of the Germans in Hungary, when it was about encouraging creativeness within the German minority in Hungary.14

From the perspective of the present the goal of creating an independent Hungarian–German literature within German literature was unsuccessful on the German literature market. This was primarily because the subjects of the Hungarian–German literature innolved the minority itself. This limited the potential readership. Literary forms of expression flattened out because of low demand. Regarding the Hungarian–German literature of the 1980s, János Szabó contended that the publication of crude texts and the absence of a functional public would have made everything more difficult, an overcautious rather than constructive criticism.15 If that was not bad enough, at that time the Hungarian–German author Georg Wittmann postulated that for writers of the German minority in Hungary it was most important to place the literature in the service of Hungarian Deutschtum.16 That claim suggests, more or less, that writers should not only subordinate their literature to Hungarian–German ethnomanagement, but their literature should obviously be even more one-sidedly part of Hungarian–German ethnomanagement itself. In contrast, the present generation of young Hungarian–German authors is well aware of the debate about their artistic and sociopolitical significance. The Verband ungarndeutscher Autoren und Künstler (VUdAK)17 holds workshops every year for that purpose. Furthermore, the Hungarian–German author Angela Korb, who is also an active member of VUdAK, assumed during an interview with me that of the 20 male and female authors within VUdAK there are only two professional writers.18

The targeted use of the language is arbitrary in the focus of a literature of a language minority. The Germans in Hungary have the following options: i) German (Standard German); ii) German (dialectical versions of German – Danube-Swabian dialects); iii) Hungarian.19 Angela Korb noted that dialect versions of German were used more and more rarely and that they served mainly as regional markers.20

The most famous Hungarian–German author was Valeria Koch. She wrote her poems in both languages, German and Hungarian. In the 1980s an academic discussion on the translatability of poetry began, because Koch provoked translation studies in the sense of which word choice she used in which language.21 But it was not only through this bilingual approach that Valeria Koch created a caesura in the history of Hungarian–German literature: she used a different approach from the working man, home-bound, or dialect-authors, who “produced literature” for their consumers.22 Since Valeria Koch rose to prominence, the whole spectrum has shifted. The German philologist Eszter Propszt identifies this shift: “von der Wir-Dichtung der Alten zu der Ich-Dichtung der Jüngsten”23 [from we-poetry of the old generation to me-poetry of the youngest; translated by the author].

In the 1980s the group of Hungarian–German writers that took this direction included e.g. Nelu Bradean-Ebinger, Martha Fata, Claus Kotz, Valeria Koch and Josef Michelisz. In spite of the (assumed) content-related opening of the Hungarian–German minority literature, the audience remained small, and even Valeria Koch could not succeed on the all-German literature market. It sounds like something of a sour grapes excuse when German philologists in Hungary claim today that Valeria Koch did not aspire to make that breakthrough.24

The situation on the literature market did not change until recent times: in her 2006 dissertation on the history of the development of Hungarian–German literature Rita Pável observed that it was an apodictic minority literature. Furthermore, Pável restrains the efficiency of the literature in relation to the local environment. The literature of the German minority in Hungary only exercised local tasks and responsibilities of literature.25 Nevertheless, Hungarian–German literature from her point of view was a corporate body of language identity, and minority literature was still able to play the role of a cultural bridge.26 This awareness coincides with the work of Eszter Propszt, who published a monograph on Hungarian–German literature 2007. She perceives, however, a considerable caesura between the identity characteristics that are determined by the Hungarian language and those that are determined by the German language: in recent times the identity construction of Germans in Hungary has been much more complexly nuanced by the Hungarian language. If anywhere, texts in German have realized their function as a means of identity creation in Hungary with regard to the collective identity of the Germans of Hungary.27 This is the outcome of the development of literary production on the one side and changing language and reading practices of the Germans in Hungary over the course of recent decades. This observation is—from my point of view—another basic requirement for observing the intermediary function of Hungarian–German literature within the larger framework of Hungarian–German ethnomanagement.

And now, let us expand on the activities of Hungarian–German ethnomanagement and their interplay with “their own” minority literatures: the interrelation between the umbrella organization Landesselbstverwaltung der Ungarndeutschen (LdU) [National Self-government of the Hungarian Germans], Magyarországi Németek Országos Önkormányzata in Hungarian, and the literary production of German writers in Hungary is plainly apparent. The aforementioned anthologies and further essential works were published by the LdU itself, so we can conclude with some assurance that the authors accepted that their texts would be published by a forum that is above all responsible for Hungarian–German minority politics. Generally speaking, these anthologies suggest an “ethnic corporate identity” of Hungarian–German writers. One may assume that this was just what the National Minority Self Government (LdU) had intended, and the willingness of the authors to publish their texts in an anthology under the label “ungarndeutsche Literatur” (Hungarian–German literature) meets these requirements.

The most intensive interrelationship between Hungarian–German ethnomanagement and the minority’s creative minds is given in the aforementioned association VUdAK, which was founded in 1992. One main goal was to bring together authors and artists of German ethnic origin for joint workshops and to establish different publication platforms for authors and artists—from the perspective of the ethnomanagement instigated integration into the structures of the LdU. The paper Signale gives an overview of the various activities of VudAK. It is released annually in December as a supplement of the Hungarian–German weekly Neue Zeitung.28 In the case of poetry, VUdAK assigns itself the role of canonicalization of Hungarian–German literature.29 This approach seems to be in accordance with ethnomanagement, because the literary canon is ethnically motivated: boundaries are limited by Germanhood in a Hungarian–German sense.

Signale 2009 lists 12 volumes altogether in the literary book series of VUdAK, Reihe Literatur [Literature Series].30 This series provides an opportunity for publication for authors writing in German because, since the time of the political transformation, the Hungarian government has withdrawn a lot of government support programs for publication houses and the distribution of literature, as well as for authors themselves. A minimum of support comes from German speaking countries, and this might be one more reason for the formation of such a closed production-reception circuit (of which Hungarian–German literature is an example).31

With regard to “competitiveness” Angela Korb stated that members of the youngest generation of writers are too anxious to encourage one another.32 Generally speaking, philologists do not expect a high degree of competitiveness in the literature of minorities: e.g. the Transylvanian scholar of German literature Michael Markel explains this lack of competitiveness in the small number of active writers, and he mentions that a good working climate depends on the number of active writers, because it would advance competitiveness at least.33

Korb also stated that there was strong social control in the literature of minorities, and Hungary itself was easy to overlook.34 Therefore, the National Minority Self Government (LdU) was able to influence Hungarian–German literature easily via subventions and valuation. Even recently both elements, social control and the exercise of influence from LdU, are essential to the choice of subjects in literature. This leads to a strong interrelationship between the identity constructions of the Hungarian–German minority and Hungarian–German literature. Eszter Propszt analyzed the praxis of that interdiscourse and observed the use of German in contrast to the use of Hungarian in Hungarian–German literature:

Identity construction in the (Hungarian) German language goes far beyond simplistic problem reduction with regard to the suspension of fundamental practices […] identity construction in the (Hungarian) German language does not require such a complex socialization of the readers as in the Hungarian language.35

Her conclusion contains considerable significance regarding the reciprocity between Hungarian–German literature and its readers. It also mirrors the present situation, in which the younger generation of Germans in Hungary speaks Hungarian better than German. Therefore, it is not surprising that the German language stands symbolically for simplifying social practices, and this goes hand in hand with the demands of many of the recipients, who still claim that Hungarian–German subjects should be written about in understandable German, and not as part of the German of literary arts.

Another example related to Hungarian–German ethnomanagement affects the search for and recruitment of talented aspiring writers. The primary responsibility in that case is with—not surprisingly—the National Minority Self Government. The LdU tries to create loyalty to their “own” institution as early as possible, and tries to bind pupils and teenagers who write in German to its causes. This takes place primarily in the Nationalitätenschulen (minority schools under the rule of the Hungarian–German minority). Another instrument with which to find young writers is the annual Valeria Koch-Preis [Valeria Koch Award], an essay and diploma thesis competition in German that is open exclusively to adolescents of Hungarian–German origin. The 2011 Valeria Koch Award, for instance, was titled: “Was bedeutet mir, Ungarndeutsche/r zu sein?”36 [What does it mean to me to be Hungarian–German?] This remarkable title is obviously self-referential, because it urges adolescents of the Hungarian–German minority to reflect on their Hungarian–German identity construction. Another aspect linking the Valeria Koch Award closely to Hungarian–German ethnomanagement is institutionally based: the nomination process for this award is highly bureaucratic, e.g. the school nominates the relevant pupils, and academics can be nominated by their department chairs or by a local minority’s self-government or Hungarian–German society.

As stated above, the ethnomanagement of the Germans in Hungary and Romania tried more or less to emphasize a self-contained local originality within the field of German literature and, in contrast with the ethnomanagement of the Hungarians in Transylvania (erdélyi magyarok), tried to affiliate the Hungarian minority literature with the overall literary production in Hungarian. Ádám Bodor puts the position of Hungarian literary studies in a nutshell when he suggests that people have attempted to “smuggle” (visszacsempészni in orig.) the oeuvre of Hungarian authors who lived or live outside of Hungary “back” to the Hungarian literary canon.37 This demand corresponds well with the fact that the Erdélyi Magyar Írók Ligája38 [Transylvanian Hungarian Writers’ League] (E-MIL), which represents the interests of the Hungarian authors in Transylvania, works together with the Magyar Írószövetség [Hungarian Writers’ Union] in Budapest. Moreover, the E-MIL is financed by the Communitas foundation, which is under the roof of the Romániai Magyar Demokrata Szövetség [Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania] (RMDSZ), the political representation of the Hungarian minority in Romania and, of course, in Transylvania.

The most significant difference between German authors in Hungary or Romania and Hungarian authors in Transylvania is illustrated by the fact that the last two chairmen of the above named RMDSZ are poets.

Firstly, I want to name the lyricist, literary critic and translator Béla Markó who entered the executive board of the RMDSZ in 1992 and in 1996 was given the Hungarian József Attila Award for literature. Béla Markó was chairman of the Union from 1993 to 2011, and during his long political career he held the office of a Minister of State in the Tăriceanu cabinet (2004–2007) and Deputy Premier in the Boc government (2009–2012). He wrote his first poetry in 1967 and his first volume of poems, entitled A szavak városában [In the City of Words], was published in 1974. The long list of publications includes the anthology Szétszedett világ. Egybegyűjtött versek, 1967–1995 [Torn World. Collected Poems, 1967–1995], published in 2000, and his recent volumes of poetry, entitled Visszabontás [Reinstate] 2011, Hasra esett a Maros (Gyermekversek) [The Marosch Fallen on the Belly, Poems for Children] 2012, and from same year the volume with Haiku poems entitled Boldog Sziszyphos [Lucky Sisyphos].39 Furthermore, an anthology entitled A feledékeny Európa [A Forgetful Europe], which contains Béla Markó’s speeches, lectures and interviews from 1990 to 1999, was published in 2000.

Secondly, Hunor Kelemen who succeeded him as the chairman of the RMDSZ is a lyricist and poet, too. Kelemen has been a member of the Romanian chamber of deputies since 2000, and he held the office of Minister of Culture during the Boc and Ungureanu governments (2009–2012). In 1995 Hunor Kelemen published his first volume of poetry, entitled Mínuszévek [Minusyears], and he was awarded with the debut prize from the Writers’ Union of Romania (Uniunea Scriitorilor din România) in 1996. A second volume of poetry followed in 2001, entitled A Szigetlakó [The Islander]. Between these two volumes of poetry, in 1999, Kelemen published a novel entitled A madárijesztők halála [The Scarecrows’ Death].40

Another character of Hungarian ethnomanagement in Transylvania is the lyricist and comedy writer György Csávosi who simultaneously fills the position of chairman of the Romániai Magyar Gazdák Egyesülete [Society of Hungarian Farmers in Romania]. He also participates in meetings of the Erdélyi Magyar Egyeztető Tanács [Consensus Forming Council of the Hungarians in Transylvania], which are of strategic relevance to the Hungarian minority in Transylvania. Hungarian lyricists and poets who are directly involved in minority politics include the following individual: from 1992 to 1996 the lyricist Lajos Magyari held the position of senator for the comitate (county) of Kovászna in the Romanian Parliament; István Ferenc, who has published eight volumes of poetry, holds a position on the board of the RMDSZ in the comitate of Csík in the heart of the Szeklerland (Székelyföld). The graphic artist, poet and journalist Éva Emese Gál is a collaborator of the RMDSZ in the Szeklerland as well, and she is also a member of the Hungarian Writers’ Union. The lyricist and dramatist Géza Szőcs has published more than ten volumes of poetry since 1975. In 1990 and 1991 he was General Secretary (főtitkár) of the RMDSZ, and until 1992 he also held a seat as a Senator in the Romanian Parliament. From 1993 to 2010 Géza Szőcs edited the periodical A Dunánál [At the Danube] in Hungary. In May 2010 Géza Szőcs was appointed to the position of State Secretary for Culture at the Ministry of National Resources, and in June 2012 he resigned. His example indicates that the combination of being a Hungarian writer, i.e. writing in Hungarian, together with experiences in Hungarian minority politics in Romania may form an adequate basis to be lifted on the shield in a Hungarian Ministry.

Contrary to an increasing Hungarian national ideology apostrophizing the Hungarian poets as “defenders” of the Hungarian language and culture in Hungary, the bilingual situation in Transylvania generally affects the recent Hungarian literature scene more and more, because the corporate feeling of the Hungarian minority, which was strengthened during the period of political oppression in Socialist Romania, loses its significance and as a consequence the production of literature is shifting towards individuality. The Transylvanian Hungarian Writers’ League (E-MIL) nowadays looks to a greater extent at the quality of the Hungarian literature than the commitment of the author the Hungarian (minority) identity. Nevertheless, one should not forget that E-MIL stands close to the Hungarian Writers’ Union, as mentioned above, and this of course “has a political background,” as noted by the Transylvanian poet Noémi László, who grew up in Kolozsvár/Cluj Napoca, in an interview.41

A different group of writers comes from the elder generation and it ties into the more traditional local cultural backgrounds called “Transylvanism.” It is connected with poets like Árpád Farkas, Aladár Lászlóffi and with the Székelyföld [Szeklerland], where Transylvanian Hungarianness is related to the notion of a “preserved Hungarian language,” “pure soul” and “true Hungarianness.” As a reaction to this Transylvanism, a workshop of young poets under the leadership of the publishing house Előretolt Helyőrség [Avantgarde] goes in the opposite popular, frivolous and sometimes radical direction, and they introduce primarily erotic topics. Until recent times this workshop and publishing house has served as a springboard for young authors in Transylvania.

In recent times one also notes an opening and liberalization towards the Romanian audience, in literature as well as in works for the theater. Regarding this, I continue with a comment of Transylvanian author Imre József Balázs:

If we invite authors to our Literature Academy whose books are also available in Romanian, such as Ádám Bodor, György Dragomán or Attila Bartis, we of course organize a reading in a book store of Kolozsvár/Cluj Napoca for a Romanian audience as well. There are always 30-40 enthusiasts of literature.42

János Dénes Orbán, a Brassó/Braşov born poet, former leader of E-MIL and present owner of the coffee shop “Bulgakov” in Kolozsvár/Cluj Napoca, stated that under communism the majority of the literature written in Transylvania was translated into both languages. In an interview conducted by Judit Schoblocher in November 2011 Orbán noted that in present-day Romanian literature was also translated, and “Romanians are not that active, but they also do some translating.”43

Examples from the Fine Arts of the German and Hungarian Minorities

In contrast to literature, the fine arts have the advantage that they are a priori a universally ‘understandable’ medium,44 and the reciprocity between minority artist and minority audience therefore appears different. The perceived value of the ethnic marker language—which is more or less hyperbolically represented in relation with language minorities—levels off, and there is no further need to deliberate over the question of local dialect versus standard language as another marker. The following examples should not lead to the use of categorizations like ‘folk art’ versus fine arts, and neither do I wish address the question of whether typical ungarndeutsche, rumäniendeutsche or erdélyi magyar (folk) art exists at all.

The relationship between ethnomanagement and the arts is primarily established by the ethnic origins of the artists. Furthermore, the examples illustrate the relationship between the self-localization of the artist within the minority and the thematic motifs of his/her art. The acceptance of a public contract often goes hand in hand with the choice of the motif, and it is therefore frequently rooted somewhere in the culture of remembrance of the minority. Another form of acceptance is given by any system of subventions coming from the public sector, with its contemporary political and sometimes ideological and ethnically motivated guidelines prescribing which types of arts and which artists are eligible for subsidies (and which are not). So far, this is another obvious aspect of ethnomanagement.

In 1992 VUdAK was constituted as an association of the former Ungarndeutscher Schriftstellerverband [Hungarian–German writers association founded in 1990], together with Hungarian–German artists. As is the case for Hungarian–German authors, for some of them VUdAK is the closest tie to the LdU. As was mentioned above, the umbrella organization LdU subsidizes VUdAK activities. Concerning the literature series, VUdAK set up the publication series Kunst [Arts].45 The Hungarian–German Neue Zeitung reports weekly on current and ongoing exhibitions. The abovementioned annual revue Signale gives a broader overview.

The following two examples will show certain interlinkages between ethnomanagement and the fine arts, embedded within the framework of the culture of remembrance of the German minority in Hungary:

Hermanik 1 - Kopie opt

Figure 1. Ferenc Trischler, bronze sculpture in the courtyard of the Lenau house in Pécs/Fünfkirchen, erected in 1995. Photo courtesy of the author

The statue cast in bronze refers to the expulsion (kitelepítés in Hungarian) of the Germans from Hungary, which took place from the end of World War II to June 1946.46 The sculptor, Ferenc Trischler, is of Hungarian–German origin and the statue itself was commissioned for the Hungarian–German cultural center Lenau house in Pécs/Fünfkirchen.

Trischler was born in 1945 in Németbóly/Deutsch-Bohl (today Bóly/Bohl). He first served his apprenticeship as a house painter. Then, after his friend, the sculptor János Meszlényi, had persuaded him to pursue a career as an artist, he graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, where he got his degree in 1975. The human “form” is at the center of his work, and his sculptures express symbolic and allegorical concepts. In most cases Trischler uses bronze. He created many works for public spaces and his bronze sculptures can be found all over Hungary, but primarily in the southwestern part of the country, named Dél-Dunántúl [Southern Transdanubia]. The bronze sculptures are commissioned for communities or public institutions. Ferenc Trischler calls up symbolic and allegorical concepts of Hungarian history by depicting important personalities, such as Szent István király [King St. Stephen] (Heves and Döbrönte, both 2001), István Széchenyi (Pécs 2010), József Rippl-Rónai (Kaposvár 2009), Turul and the Trianon monument (Lajosmizse 2001), and Mátyás király [King Matthew] (Lajosmizse 2003).47

The second example concerns the memorial in Elek,48 a small town in southeastern Hungary close to the Romanian border. The bronze sculptures were inaugurated on August 18, 2001 and commemorate the 5,000 Hungarian–Germans who had to leave Elek in 1946 forevermore. The sculptor, Sándor Kligl, is also of Hungarian–German origin.

After the inauguration ceremony the issue of the Neue Zeitung wrote the following on the memorial: “[…] the stylized street front of a farm house, where the avenging angel stands proudly triumphant in front of the home of a Danube-Svabian family at the very last moment before they were displaced.” (Translated by the author)49

Sándor Kligl calls himself Kliegl, too. The second form is the German spelling of his name and in this way he may symbolically switch between his Hungarian and his German identities.50 Kligl completed his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest in 1975. Like Ferenc Trischler, Kligl has also created many bronze sculptures for the public spaces of Hungarian communities. Furthermore, in connection with the culture of remembrance, Kligl is a specialist in bronze memorial plaques (emléktáblák in Hungarian),51 which have been installed in public spaces of Hungarian communities, too. The motifs of the sculptures and memorial plaques were commissioned for the officials and are interwoven with motifs of Hungarian history. Sándor Kligl has created, for example, the following bronze sculptures: Kovács Béla (Budapest, Kossuth Square, 2002); József Attila (in a center of a group with altogether five sculptures, Hódmezővásárhely, 2005) as well as King Stephen and his wife Gizella (Szeged, 1996).52

Returning to the close connection between works of art—here within the framework of the culture of remembrance—of Hungarian–German artists and Hungarian–German ethnomanagement I would like to give another citation from the inauguration ceremony of the memorial in Elek:

The local German minority self-government and the German society for the Cultivation of Traditions were glad that the chairman of LdU Otto Heinek and Agnes Szauer, senior councilor in the Department for National and Ethnic Minorities, were among them. (Translated by the author.)53

Both examples of sculptors demonstrate the connecting line between the history of the German minority in Hungary—in both cases the traumatic displacement of the Germans after World War II—and the commission of the artists, as well as the Hungarian and the Hungarian–German public, and, last but not least, Hungarian–German ethnomanagement.

At the Hungarian Day of Painting in 2011 in Újbuda art historian Zoltán Vécsi Nagy stated that during the Ceauşescu era the Hungarian artists in Romania were caught between a rock and a hard place because the nationalist education policy at the time eclipsed the minority arts on the one side of the border and the art historians in Hungary were not interested in Hungarian art outside of the borders of the state.54 After the breakdown of communism and during the transformation period one observes a ‘rediscovery’ of the historical past and national affiliation in contemporary Hungarian minority art, if as a supplementary aspect. The main focus—also in the identity formation of minority arts—still refers to the relationship between belonging to a minority and being an artist. Moreover, everything together has to be considered with the role and capabilities of the arts within a certain society and its political and cultural institutions.

The outstanding institution supporting Hungarian fine arts in Transylvania is the Barabás Miklós Céh [Miklós Barabás Guild] (BMC) in Kolozsvár/Cluj Napoca. It serves officially as the Erdélyi Magyar Képzőművészeti Egyesület [Transylvanian Hungarian Art Society], founded after the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 by Károly Kós and Sándor Szonay. The foundation of this BMC was necessary because of basic disparities between Hungarian and Romanian art history. It was simply a question of ethnic boundaries between the two different ethnic groups. It was the history of the arts in general, because the Hungarian art school orientated itself around the Munich school, in contrast with the Romanian art school, which was more tied to Paris. Hungarian art always tended to constructiveness with even more temperament than the German role model, and later on Hungarian art took over elements from the Novacentist school in Rome. So Miklós Jakobovits, the chairman of the BMC, which was reinstalled in 1994 after a long mandatory break, argues that the present value system of the BMC is still founded on this historical basis, but nowadays a Hungarian heritage is not required to become a member of the guild, and it is not required to have graduated from an art academy. Today, the Jury of the BMC is more or less responsible for the recruitment of new members, and they tend to focus on Transylvanian traditions, although they remain aware, of course, that art is international, and Transylvanian artists sometimes became famous in foreign countries.55

The BMC is a member of the Hungarian umbrella society Magyar Képzőművészek és Iparművészek Szövetsége [Association of Hungarian Fine and Applied Artists] (MKISZ) in Budapest,56 but in Transylvania it maintains close relationships with Romanian art associations. The art historian, Júlia Németh, vice chairperson of the BMC, argues that Transylvanian Hungarian artists had to fight against stereotypes like “conservative,” “traditional” or “hermetical” for a long time. At the moment the attribute “Transylvanian,” together with the noun art, may “rather positively imply a crossover of cultures boding something good.” In this context “Transylvanian Hungarian fine arts” (in the Hungarian sense of erdélyi magyar) is at present more a “cultural historical notion, and the formerly stressed attribute Hungarian is shifting towards Transylvanian.”57

From the Romanian point of view art critics nowadays do not only “accept” Hungarian arts from Transylvania, they subsume it easily under the notion of “Romanian art.” Moreover, Hungarian Transylvanian artists can get a lifetime achievement award from Romanian institutions, and they can represent Romania abroad at exhibitions. Under these conditions and preconditions, even the local connections to the abovementioned “Transylvanism” recede within the younger generation of Transylvanian Hungarian artists and open up to the question as to whether nationality will work as a group regulative in a globalizing European society. As an example of an artist collective, one might mention the Bázis csoport [Basis Group] in Kolozsvár/Cluj Napoca, where the absence of official funding led to the formation of this self-organized group. In the beginning, in 2008, the artists Zsolt Berszán, István Betuker, István Duka Kudor and Szabolcs Veres rented the buildings of a bankrupt factory from the (at the time) new owners. The buildings serve as galleries and offer space for dance and theater performances. Furthermore, the Basis Group publishes the bilingual Bázis magazine in Hungarian and Romanian, concentrating on critics and art reviews as well as on their international network. The quick high profile of the Basis Group resulted in the submission of many applications for exhibitions (submissions continue to arrive). Nevertheless, the Basis Group is self-organized, and the main part of the costs could only be covered by the sale on the international market of their own artworks.

Performing Arts

Another example of an essential link between arts and Hungarian–German ethnomanagement is the Deutsche Bühne Ungarn/Magyarorzági Német Színház [German Theater in Hungary] (DBU) in the small town of Szekszárd in the Dél-Dunántúl area. German performing arts started there in 1982 on the bilingual (German/Hungarian) stage Schaubühne [Playhouse] placed in the Mihály Babits Kulturhaus [Mihály Babits Arts Centre]. The name has been transformed into DBU in 1989 and the DBU has moved in the current location in 1994.58

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Figure 2. Main entrance of the DBU in Szekszárd, which is based in the building of the former Világ Mozgó [World Cinema]. Photo courtesy of the author

The theater celebrated its 25th anniversary in June 2009. So, Otto Heinek, the chairman of the LdU, underlined the important role of the theater in his commemorative speech, and he mentioned that it was not only “an integral part of our Hungarian–German cultural landscape but also an important column of our cultural autonomy”59 (translated by the author).

The DBU is the only professional German speaking minority theater. Furthermore, it is integrated into the theatrical landscape in Hungary. When I visited the Deutsche Bühne in 2008 it employed 35 people of Hungarian, Hungarian–German, German, or Romanian–German ethnic origin. The theater management wants to give a vital example to preserve the German language. Every year the ensemble tours Hungary, holding about 40 performances. The language of the performances is strictly Hoch-Deutsch [Standard German], and interpreting equipment with written captions in Hungarian guarantees that everyone in Hungary can understand the plays.

The theater manager Ildikó Frank (an actress from 2001–2004 and manager since 2004) characterizes the principal role of the DBU: “If we do our job well, we’ll win supporters for the German language, identity and culture.”60 A very close connection to Hungarian–German ethnomanagement is based on the fact that Ildikó Frank is the daughter of Gábor Frank, who was the director of the Valeria Koch Schulzentrum [V. K. School Centre] in Pécs before he became director of the Ungarndeutsches Pädagogisches Institut (UdPI) [Hungarian–German Pedagogical Institute] in Pécs; above all he is vice chairman of the LdU for education and he was for many years chairman of the Komitatsselbstverwaltung [self-government of the county] of the Hungarian–Germans in the county of Baranya/Branau in Pécs. Ildikó Frank stated in the interview that she had learned a lot from her father in connection with German with regard to the Hungarian–German identity, and that his experience had had a positive influence on her work.61 This father-daughter constellation shows symbolically the tight-knit inner structure of Hungarian–German ethnomanagement.

The Hungarian theater in Kolozsvár/Cluj Napoca has a long lasting tradition since it was founded in 1792. The house hosts the theater and the opera together, and the opera has been a separate institution since 1948. After the transition, the Kolozsvári Állami Magyar Színház [Hungarian National Theatre in Kolozsvár] tried to tread a new path, breaking with the tradition and becoming predominantly an instrument for national education seeking to evolve into a theater that interacts with the audience. Therefore, three to four times a year the theater management invites local or even foreign directors, who have a talk with the audience after the performance. The language in the theater is Hungarian, but the performances are subtitled in Romanian or if necessary in foreign languages, like English, French or German.62 These dynamics resulted in a move away from local Transylvanian or Hungarian nationalist attitudes, and this was praised in the Romanian press and also won the theater fully booked performances. The writer, art director and advisor of the Hungarian national theater in Kolozsvár, András Visky, stresses that “it has been good to identify with being a city theater and not necessarily a minority theater, because it has been good for the minority to communicate to others and to prevail against each form of closedness.”63 The financial needs of the Hungarian national theater are covered mainly by the Romanian Ministry of Culture, as well as the RMDSZ, the Hungarian political party in Romania.

Another quite different Hungarian theater in Transylvania is the Váróterem Projekt [Waiting Room Project], which calls itself Alternatív színházi törekvések Erdély szívében [Alternative Theatrical Ambitions in the Heart of Transylvania].64 The Váróterem Projekt was founded in 2009 in Kolozsvár/Cluj-Napoca by Zsolt Csepeli, András Visky and Levente Imecs, three friends who met at the Acting school of the University. Since 2010 the Váróterem Projekt has been an official society, and the collaborators are members of this society. At the end of 2011 the staff included seven actors and eight other staff members, such as the dramaturge and the costume designer. In accordance with the financial resources, two new performances per year are within a realistic framework. All performances are in Hungarian, subtitled in Romanian. There is no direct cooperation with the abovementioned Hungarian Theater in Kolozsvár, although András Visky, one of the founders of the Váróterem Projekt, is the son of the homonymous art director of the Hungarian Theater. Levente Imecs put the artistic potential of the Váróterem Projekt in a nutshell:

I am sure that we are able to create performances to our tastes. Classical theater will be performed perfectly by the Hungarian Theater in Kolozsvár. We are not able and we do not want to reach that level, and therefore it is evident that our path is marked by ”direct indirectness”.65

Moreover, the Váróterem Projekt tours with its performances in Transylvania and Hungary, and they participate in festivals too, but when they are asked to perform traditional or popular plays, they refuse.


Each of the three categories—literature, the fine arts and the performing arts—exemplifies a different approach to the ethnomanagement of the German minority in Hungary and the Hungarians and Germans in Transylvania. The poets are strongly obligated to the minority language, and this is likely the key to the question as to why in many cases they have readily assumed the role of sustainers in the sense of “a minority can only survive as long as the minority language is used.” German and Hungarian ethnomanagement takes advantage of the writers’ language dependence and ennobles the poets in this role. But writers do not lodge any (independent culture) protest against this ennoblement. One of the main reasons for this might be that many of them are in certain ways dependent on subsidies granted directly by ethnomanagement societies like the LdU and the Forum to the Germans and the RMDSZ to the Hungarians.

The institutions of the performing arts, namely the Deutsche Bühne Ungarn and the Hungarian Theater in Kolozsvár, are placed in the role of cultural sustainer too, and in comparison to semi-professional writers or artists they are even more dependent on subsidies. Therefore, one observes a much closer conjunction of the German and Hungarian minority theaters to ethnomanagement on a monetary basis. The Váróterem Projekt works in a manner that is more or less out of the ordinary, although it is also a means of embodying and transmitting the Hungarian language in Transylvania via the performing arts.

This leads us to the fine arts, which have no particular obligation to the German or Hungarian language. The ethnic marker heritage with regard to the belonging to the German or Hungarian minority is the key to ethnomanagement. My two Hungarian–German examples, however, show that the abovementioned sculptors created their bronze memorials in the majority of cases for the culture of remembrance of Hungary—I intentionally listed many other bronze memorials of the sculptors in this paper—and only in very special cases for the culture of remembrance of the German minority in Hungary.

An examination of the work of Transylvanian Hungarian artists shows the differences in the sequence of generations of artists. The elder and midlife generation sticks to Hungarian ethnic affiliations and to local “Transylvanism”. The younger generation mirrors much more a social community that has been formed by Transylvanian cultural diversity, where ethnicity stands for one element within the increasingly individualized forms of artistic expression.

As a last note, I wish to underline that poets, artists and performers resemble one another predominantly in their economic relationships to “their” minorities’ ethnomanagement, and furthermore, this dependent relationship is in most cases stronger than any subordination under the terms and conditions of ethnicity.


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1 This article is based on research done during the Austrian FWF-funded project P 20 060; I also wish to thank Judit Schoblocher, MA for assisting me with interviews.

2 Klaus-Jürgen Hermanik, “Ethnomanagement: Deutsche und Ungarn im südöstlichen Europa (im ausgehenden 20. und 21. Jahrhundert)” (Habilitation, University of Graz, 2012).

3 The German version Identitätsmanagement was introduced into the scholarly community in 1981 by Ina Maria Greverus and Christian Giordano. Ina-Maria Greverus, “Ethnizität und Identitätsmanagement,” Schweizer Zeitschrift für Soziologie 7 (1981): 223–32; and Christian Giordano, “Ethnizität: Soziale Bewegung oder Identitätsmanagement?,” Schweizer Zeitschrift für Soziologie 7 (1981): 179–98.

4 Richard McElreath, Robert Boyd, and Peter J. Richerson, “Shared Norms and the Evolution of Ethnic Markers,” Current Anthropology 44 (2003): 122–29.

5 The translated version Hungarian–German or Hungarian–Germans should be closely related to the German original Ungarn–Deutsch or Ungarn–Deutsche(r).

6 On Minority Rights and Minority Rights Practice related to Hungary and Romania see: Sergiu Constantin, “Romania,” in European Integration and its Effects on Minority Protection in South Eastern Europe, ed. Emma Lantschner et al. (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2008), 139–66; Ferenc Eiler and Nóra Kovács, “Minority Governments in Hungary,” in Minority Governance in Europe, ed. Kinga Gél (Budapest: ECMI, 2002), 171–97; Herbert Küpper, Das neue Minderheitenrecht in Ungarn (Munich: Oldenburg, 1998); József Petrétei, “Die verfassungsrechtliche und einfachrechtliche Ausgestaltung des Minderheitenschutzes in Ungarn,” in Minderheitenschutz in Mittel- und Osteuropa, ed. Gerrit Manssen, and Boguslaw Banaszak (Frankfurt am Main: Lang, 2001) 167–89.

7 Cf. Györgyi Bindorffer, Kettős identitás. Etnikai és nemzeti azonosságtudat Dunabogdányban (Budapest: Új Mandátum, 2001).

8 Cf. Küpper, Minderheitenrecht, 259.

9 While Rogers Brubaker demands ethnicity without groups, we have to consider that—especially during/after the times of transformation—in Southeast Europe and Southeast Central Europe ethno-nationalism grew stronger and politics are made first and foremost by ethnic groups. Cf. Rogers Brubaker: Ethnicity Without Groups (Cambridge, Mass.–London: Harvard University Press, 2004).

10 Paul Philippi, “Ohne ‘Wir’ wird es nicht gehen: WIR sind Nobelpreisträger und Fast-premier. Aber was haben WIR dafür getan?,” Allgemeine Deutsche Zeitung für Rumänien, October 27, 2009, accessed October 30, 2009, http://www.adz.ro/m091027.htm#1.

11 The Demokratische Verband der Deutschen in Ungarn/Democratic Alliance of Germans in Hungary was the precursor to the present Landesverband der Deutschen in Ungarn (LdU).

12 Cf. Alfred Coulin, “Neue ungarndeutsche Literatur,” in Ungarndeutsche Literatur der siebziger und achtziger Jahre. Eine Dokumentation, ed. János Szabó and Johann Schuth (Munich–Budapest: Mixtus, 1991), 17.

13 Cf. Helmut Rudolf, “Ungarndeutsche Literatur heute. Ein erster Beitrag zur Positionsbestimmung,” in ibid., 32.

14 Cf. Heidi Ritter, “Schritte im Prozeß literarischer Selbstverständigung. Bemerkungen zu einer ungarndeutschen Anthologie,” in ibid., 52.

15 Cf. János Szabó, “Die ungarndeutsche Gegenwartsliteratur vor historischem Hintergrund,” in ibid., 266.

16 Cf. Georg Wittmann, “In eigener, gemeinsamer literarischer Angelegenheit,” in ibid., 56.

17 Accessed February 17, 2011, http://www.vudak.hu/.

18 Angela Korb in an interview conducted in April 2010.

19 The order corresponds with the frequency of occurrence.

20 Angela Korb in an interview conducted in April 2010.

21 Cf. János Szabó, “Über den Gedichtband von Valeria Koch,” in ibid., 61. The title of Szabó’s paper refers to the bilingual, German–Hungarian volume of poetry titled “Zuversicht – Bizalom” (= Confidence), Valeria Koch’ s first volume published in 1982.

22 Cf. András Balogh, “Deutschsprachige Literatur in Ungarn,” in Deutsche in Ungarn, Ungarn und Deutsche: Interdisziplinäre Zugänge, ed. Frank Almai and Ulrich Fröschle (Budapest: Thelem, 2004), 178–79.

23 Eszter Propszt, “Die ungarndeutsche Gegenwartsliteratur unter literatursoziologischem Aspekt,” TRANS 3 (1998), accessed July 11, 2013, http://www.inst.at/trans/3Nr/propszt.htm, unpaged.

24 Julia Ucsnay, “Das mitschlagende Herz – Valeria Koch und die ungarndeutsche Literatur. Interview with Rita Pável,” Neue Zeitung, June 3, 2005, 4.

25 Cf. Rita Pável, “Entwicklungsgeschichtliche Erwägungen zur ungarndeutschen Literatur. Mit besonderer Rücksicht auf die zweite Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts” (PhD Diss., ELTE University of Budapest, 2006), 257.

26 Cf. ibid., 259.

27 Cf. ibid., 209.

28 Signale volumes 2000–2009 are available online, too: See http://www.vudak.hu/signale.php, accessed August 31, 2013.

29 Cf. Signale, 25, no. 1 (2008): 4.

30 Cf. Signale, 25, no. 1 (2009): 16.

31 Cf. Pável, “Entwicklungsgeschichtliche Erwägungen zur ungarndeutschen Literatur,” 266.

32 Angela Korb in an interview conducted in April 2010.

33 Cf. Michael Markel, “’Ich wohne in Europa/Ecke Nummer vier’: Identitätsprobleme einer Minderheitenliteratur im Spiegel der siebenbürgisch-deutschen Literaturgeschichte,” in Die deutsche Literaturgeschichte Ostmittel- und Südosteuropas von der Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts bis heute. Forschungsschwerpunkte und Defizite, ed. Anton Schwob (Munich: Südostdeutsches Kulturwerk, 1992), 165.

34 Angela Korb in an interview conducted in April 2010.

35 Eszter Propszt, Zur interdiskursiven Konstruktion ungarndeutscher Identität in der ungarndeutschen Gegenwartsliteratur (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2007), 209.

36 See on the web, accessed February 23, 2011, http://www.ldu.hu/de/index_news_01.php.

37 Ádám Bodor, “Előszó,” in A határon túli irodalom kislexikona 1920-tól napjainkig, ed. Erzsébet Erdélyi and Iván Nobel, vol. 6. (Budapest: Fiesta és Saxum 2000). The present lexikon contains eight volumes and keeps a record of about 100 interviews with authors who write in Hungarian and live outside of Hungary.

38 See the following address, accessed August 29, 2013, http://www.irodalom.org/uj/.

39 See the webpage, accessed August 29, 2013, http://markobela.adatbank.transindex.ro/.

40 See the following site, accessed August 29, 2013, http://www.kelemenhunor.ro/magamrol.

41 Noémi László in an interview conducted in November 2011.

42 Imre József Balázs in an interview conducted in November 2011.

43 János Dénes Orbán in an interview conducted in November 2011.

44 Angela Korb in an interview conducted in April 2010.

45 Siehe VUdAK homepage, accessed February 2, 2011, http://www.vudak.hu/literatur.php#kunst.

46 On the displacement of the Germans from Hungary after WWII see Ágnes Tóth, Migrationen in Ungarn 1945–1948: Vertreibungen der Ungarndeutschen, Binnenwanderungen und Slowakisch–Ungarischer Bevölkerungsaustausch (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2001), 125–76.

47 The sculptures are pictured on köztérkép, accessed February 23, 2011, www.kozterkep.hu;


48 See the memorial on the homepage of Elek, accessed February 25, 2011,

http://elek.hu/index.php?p=tartalom&id=5 and http://elek.hu/index.php?p=tartalom&id=6.

49 Translated from edda, “Würdige und erhabene Gedenkstätte,Neue Zeitung 35 (2001): 5.

50 See the personal homepage of Sándor Kli(e)gl, accessed August 31, 2013,


51 See ibid., accessed August 31, 2013, http://www.kligl.hu/05_hu.html.

52 See ibid., accessed August 31, 2013, http://www.kligl.hu/02_hu.html.

53 Edda, “Würdige und erhabene Gedenkstätte,” 5.

54 Endre Penovac, “A festészet napja” [The Day of Painting], Magyar Szó, November 6, 2011, accessed August 31, 2013, http://www.magyarszo.com/hu/2011_11_06/kultura_irodalom/46833/.

55 Miklós Jakobovits in an interview conducted in November 2011. One example of famous Hungarian Transylvanian sculptors is the Homoród-born Viktor Román (1937–1995), who left for Paris, where a couple of his statues had been erected.

56 See the homepage of the Association of Hungarian Fine and Applied Artists (MKISZ), accessed August 31, 2013, http://www.mkisz.hu/.

57 Júlia Németh in an interview in November 2011.

58 Die Geschichte der DBU, accessed October 7, 2013, http://www.dbu.hu/uber_uns/die_geschichte_der_dbu.

59 N.N. (The author’s pseudonym), “‘Ein wichtiger Pfeiler der kulturellen Autonomie’ . Deutsche Bühne Ungarn feierte ihr 25jähriges Bestehen,” Neue Zeitung, June 5, 2009, accessed August 30, 2013, http://www.neue-zeitung.hu/54-19456.php.

60 Ildikó Frank in an interview conducted in February 2008.

61 Ibid.

62 The Hungarian National Theatre in Kolozsvár is member of the Union of Theatres of Europe UTE, which guarantees an exchange of productions.

63 András Visky in an interview conducted in November 2011.

64 See the following page, accessed August 31, 2013, http://varoteremprojekt.wordpress.com/kapcsolat/.

65 Levente Imecs in an interview conducted in November 2011.