The national question in contemporary Hungarian politics

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002

15 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The ‘national question’ and actors in Hungarian politics
a) Communist governments from Kádár to Németh
b) The first democratic elections and the Democratic Forum (MDF)
c) The second post-communist government (1994-98): The Socialists (MSzP) and the Free Democrats (SzDSz)
d) The Fidesz-Government
e) Right-wing opposition: The Justice and Life Party (MIÉP)
f) Cleavages in the Hungarian party system and the impact on the ‘national question’

3. Constraints on the reemergence of revisionism

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliograhy

1. Introduction

Hungary, one of the most sucessful countries in Central Eastern Europe with regard to the political and economic transformation, carries a longlasting legacy concerning her ‘national question’: the ‘trauma of Trianon’[1]. This term refers to the loss of two thirds of Hungary’s historic territory with half of the ethnic Hungarian polpulation in 1920 as a result of the First World War. This fact, one of the biggest historical disjunctures of state and ethnicity in Eastern Europe, has been the major issue of 20th century Hungarian politics. Greater parts of the lost territories (Transylvania, Slovakia, Vojvodina, Transcarpathia) were briefly regained between 1938 and 1941 as a reward for Admiral Horthy’s revisionist collaboration with Nazi Germany. The pre-Trianon Hungary was definitively lost in the peace treaty of Paris in 1947, which is often referred to as the ‘second Trianon’.[2]

This essay is intended to outline the importance of the national question in contemporary Hungarian politics with special emphasis on the issue of Hungarians in the neighbouring countries. Moreover, internal and external constraints that prevent political actors from an outright pursuit of revisionist tendencies shall be highlighted. On the basis of the Hungarian party system it will be argued that a inter-war style revisionism is unlikely to return, whereas new concepts of a special kin-state-relationship towards the Hungarians abroad in a European context are being developed.

2. The ‘national question’ and actors in Hungarian politics

a) Communist governments from Kádár to Németh

Since the failed revolution of 1956, which was to a large extent a national revolution, the Kádár leadership was anxious to avoid any national rhetoric. Inspite of the farreaching economic reforms and the opening of the country since 1968, public discussion of the situation of Hungarian minorities abroad had remained suppressed or muted. But a strong national awareness continued to exist under the surface of communist internationalism.

Only in the 1980s senior communist politicians such as the Central Committee’s secretary on foreign affairs, Mátyás Szürös, stressed in several speeches and articles Hungary’s own national interest that might not always correspond to a common Soviet bloc interest, implicitly refering to the situation of Hungarians in neighbouring Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.[3] In the last years of the communist rule the opposing views between Romania’s Nicolae Ceaucescu and Hungary’s Károly Grosz became a barely concealed issue. Thus, in 1988 the first spontaneous mass demonstration since 1956 took place in Budapest with the tacit endorsement of Grosz when hundreds of thousands of Hungarians took to the streets to demonstrate against Ceaucescu’s nationality policies. Also the Németh government in 1989/90 made some first changes towards asserting the national interest in front of the new governments in Czechoslovakia and Romania and demanded autonomy for Hungarian minorities.[4]

b) The first democratic elections and the Democratic Forum (MDF)

After the victory of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) in the first free elections of 1990 new political actors entered the stage. National rhetoric had contributed to the victory of the catch-all liberal and christian-conservative MDF. During his time in office, Prime Minister József Antall increasingly set national tones. His famous remark that he was feeling ‘prime minister for 15 million Hungarians in spirit’[5] (there are only about 10 million Hungarians within Hungary), alarmed Hungary’s neighbours and demonstrated the explosiveness of the issue. Antall saw himself as acting within the framework of Hungary’s Constitution which declares a responsibility by the state for the fate of Hungarians abroad.[6]

The prime minister also refered to the continuity of the post-communist Hungary with the post-Habsburg interwar Hungary and called Admiral Horthy a patriot.[7] The so-called ‘Antall-doctrine’ declared the benign treatment of the Hungarian minorities a precondition to the establishment of good relations with neighbouring countries.[8] Although the Antall government clearly renounced any intentions to change borders by force it did not do so for peaceful changes,[9] a fact that raised fears among the neighbouring countries. This came at a time when the multinational states of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, that contained large Hungarian minorities, broke up.

In 1993 a law on the minorities in Hungary was adopted.[10] This law can be seen as a progressive achievement of the first post-communist government in the field of the ‘national question’ and a first move towards a de-territorialized national concept. This legislation grants farreaching individual and collective rights to the (rather small) minorities living in Hungary. One of its most remarkable achievements is the right to form local and country-wide self-governing bodies for the minorities, a form of cultural autonomy. Minority activities in the spheres of culture, education and media are being encouraged and supported.

Moreover, the law is a signal to both internal and external critics, as it is intended to show Hungary’s commitment to liberal and progressive minority rights, that even go beyond the requirements of international law and European legislation.[11] Besides, this law is intended to give an example about the extent of minority rights that Hungary sees as desirable also in the neighbouring countries for Hungarians living there.

Under the Antall government the first attempts were also made to move towards more regional multilateral cooperation with neighbouring countries. This was seen as another opportunity to discuss and overcome disputes such as the Hungarian minority issue. One example of regional cooperation is the group of the Visegrad countries, containing Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia (up to 1993 Czechoslovakia) that also form the Central European Free Trade Association (CEFTA).[12] This kind of regional cooperation stands in contrast to the interwar situation of latent conflict and mutual territorial claims.

c) The second post-communist government (1994-98): The Socialists (MSzP) and the Free Democrats (SzDSz)

In 1994 the ‘oversize’ coalition, containing the major successor party to the former communists, the Socialist Party (MSzP) and the erstwhile dissident liberal Free Democrats (SzDSz), under Prime Minister Gyula Horn took over government. Unlike post-communist parties that stayed in power after the end the Soviet system (Romania, Yugoslavia) the Hungarian post-communists embraced an ideology-free modernization programme with social-democratic orientation.[13] Yet, the situation of Hungarians abroad remained an important issue to government politics.

The MSzP-SzDSz government committed itself to the issue in a less symbolic way than the previous government. The socialists were perceived as pragmatic experts in comparison to the amateur politicians from the previous government.[14] Achieving a better relationship with the neighbouring countries was high on the agenda. Instead of supporting territorial autonomy for Hungarians abroad, collective cultural rights were demanded.[15] This can be interpreted as first steps towards a non-territorial concept of a common Hungarian nation, which is less controversial and less alarming for the respective countries. In general, in its foreign policy the government established priority for the political and economic interest of the country, (i.e. integration into NATO and EU), over the national question.[16]


[1] In 1989 78% of the respondents in a survey saw Trianon as the biggest historical trauma of Hungarian history (Gy Csepeli, ‘Competing patterns of national identity in post-communist Hungary’, in: Media, Culture and Society, Vol. 13, L: Sage, 1991, pp 334-335.).

[2] E Niederhauser, The National Question in Hungary, in: M Teich / R Poster (eds.), The National Question in Europe in Historic Perspective, CUP, 1993, pp 264-265.

[3] M Szürös, ‘A nemzeti és a nemzetközi kölcsönhatása a szocializmus magyarországi fejlödésében’, Tarsadalmi Szemle, No. 1, 1984, pp 13-21.

[4] J Kun, Hungarian Foreign Policy, L: Praeger, 1993, pp 44-58.

[5] Interview with Prime Minister József Antall in: Newsweek, 11th Novermber, 1991.

[6] Law: XXXI/1989, ’A Magyar Köztársaság Alkotmánya’, §6 III, p.1389.

[7] W Zellner / P Dunay, Ungarns Außenpolitik 1990-1997, Baden-Baden: Nomos, 1998, pp 208-209.

[8] W Zellner / P Dunay, Ungarns Außenpolitik 1990-1997, Baden-Baden: Nomos, 1998, p 220.

[9] W Zellner / P Dunay, Ungarns Außenpolitik 1990-1997, Baden-Baden: Nomos, 1998, p 224.

[10] Law 1993: LXXVII, ‘A nemzeti kisebbségekröl’,Magyar Közlöny 1993, p.5273.

[11] H Küpper: Das neue Minderheitenrecht in Ungarn, Munich: dtv, 1998.

[12] W Zellner / P Dunay, Ungarns Außenpolitik 1990-1997, Baden-Baden: Nomos, 1998, pp 403-420.

[13] A Bozoki, The Ideology of Moderization and the Policy of Materialism: The Day after for the Socialists, The Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, Vol. 13, No. 3, 1997, pp 56-102.

[14] A Ágh, ‘Partial Consolidation of the East-Central European Parties – the Case of the Hungarian Socialist Party’, in: Party Politics, Vol. 1, No. 4, p 494.

[15] W Zellner / P Dunay, Ungarns Außenpolitik 1990-1997, Baden-Baden: Nomos, 1998, pp 450-454.

[16] W Zellner / P Dunay, Ungarns Außenpolitik 1990-1997, Baden-Baden: Nomos, 1998, pp 230-244.

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The national question in contemporary Hungarian politics
University of Birmingham  (Centre for Russian and East European Studies)
Graduate East European Politics
1 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
500 KB
Nationalismus, nationalism, Ungarn, Trianon, Revisionismus, revisionism, border, Grenze, 1956, Kadar, Csurka, MSzP, MSzMP, SzDSz, Fidesz, MDF, MIEP, Siebenbuergen, Transylvania, Slowakei, Slovakia, Ro
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Maximilian Spinner (Author), 2002, The national question in contemporary Hungarian politics, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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