The Hungarian nation concept in the 20th century

Radical changes and their translation into politics

Bachelor Thesis, 2006

51 Pages, Grade: 9,00 (niederländ. Notenskala)



Author’s note

I. Introduction

II.1 Different concepts of nationality and the Hungarian nation concept before the 1st World War
II.2 The shock of Trianon- rigid adherence to St. Stephen’s realm
II.3 The historical narratives and the deriving revisionist argumentation line
II. 4 The old nation concept wants its old framework back- revisionist policies during the early 1920’s
II.5 Revisionist propaganda

III.1 Prescribed silence under Communism and national reawakening during
III.2 The new nation concept
III.3 Reflection of the new nation concept in a consensus cutting across party divides

IV. Conclusion


Annex I – Short description of Kovács-Bertrand’s “Der ungarische Revisionismus nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg“ and de Daruvar’s „Das Dramatische Schicksal Ungarns“, short note on Spohr’s „Die geistigen Grundlagen des Nationalismus in Ungarn“

Annex II Statistics: Hungarian territory and population losses, different numbers of Hungarians living in neighbouring states

Annex III – Maps of Hungary from the interwar period

Annex IV- Revisionist posters and postcards from the inter-war period

Annex V- Hungarian national coat of arms 50

Author’s note

Those parts of my work, which analyse irredentist and revisionist movements, and argumentation lines of these movements of the interwar period in Hungary, are dominated by the use of two books. I would like to foreclose reservations of the reader that the analysis may be one-sided and therefore I added a short introduction to the books in Annex 1.

Furthermore, in contrast to many authors, I will not make a distinction between the terms ‘Hungarian’ and ‘Magyar’, because ‘Magyar’ simply means ‘Hungarian’ in the Hungarian language, and the distinction is mainly used as a helping tool when writing about the Hungarian kingdom before the First World War, which contained many non-Magyar Hungarians-in this context the distinction is helpful. Since the underlying paper focuses on post-First World War time periods, I will only use the term ‘Hungarian’ except for quotes. If a distinction has to be made between Hungarian as citizenship and as ethnic affiliation, I will use the term ‘ethnic’ to make clear the difference.

The two terms ‘revisionist’ and ‘irredentist’ have to be understood as both referring to a movement that wants revision of the Trianon Treaty, however the term ‘revisionist’ refers to peaceful attitudes while ‘irredentists’ want revision by all possible means, thus also accepting the possibility of reaching goals by the use of weapons.


The political structure of the European continent is characterised by nation states since more than two centuries. The process of nation-building and the emergence of nationalism is characterised by most scholars as having been a different and more complicated process in the Central and Eastern European regions than in Western Europe. There exist several factors that made nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe a very peculiar issue: the maintenance of the multinational Habsburg empire during a time period when the people living on its territory already defined their belonging on the basis of nationality; the relative territorial dispersion and intermingling of these national groups; the repeated (re)drawing of borders during the first half of the 20th century; and finally more than 40 years of Communist rule during the second half of the 20th century, which was in essence opposed to nationalism due to its theoretically internationalist ideology.

The underlying essay deals with the Hungarian nation, one of the current Central and Eastern European nations that underwent the mentioned developments during the 20th century. What distinguishes the Hungarian nation from most of its neighbours in the region is the fact that following the dissolution of the Habsburg empire after the First World War, Hungary did not gain sovereignty at long last over its territories and an own nation state, but lost a considerable part of its territories and ethnic nationals. One has to qualify the last sentence concerning two aspects: strictly speaking, it was not the Habsburg but the Austro- Hungarian empire that dissolved after the First World War; and of course Hungary became a sovereign nation state, however its borders were significantly different from the borders of Transleithania , the Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. This massive reduction of the country’s size and population left a deep mark on Hungarian national consciousness, and the Hungarians inevitably had to redefine their concept of the Hungarian nation. They had to redefine not only because they were ultimately freed from dominance of the Austrian monarchs after almost four centuries, but also because the question what or who constituted the Hungarian nation became obvious precisely since one third of the ethnic Hungarian population was left outside the borders of the new Hungarian state.

An analogical turning point occurred in 1989/1990, when the Communist party that governed Hungary since the end of the Second World War dissolved and democratic freedoms, most importantly in the underlying context being the freedom of speech, were introduced. The nation concept that included the Hungarian minorities beyond the border had been forbidden during Communism, and the issue underwent a massive public revival alongside democratic transition. Hence, the nation concept changed again, and was reflected in the policies of the new democratic governments.

Besides short-lived border revisions in 1938 and 1940 respectively, the country’s borders have remained the same since the Treaty of Trianon. During both of the described periods, the existence of large Hungarian minorities beyond the borders constituted and constitutes an integral part of the concept of the Hungarian nation. In the immediate period following the Trianon Treaty, the Hungarian state was simply incapable of accepting the territory and population losses. Since 1989, the location of the border seems to be accepted, while definition of the Hungarian nation without taking into account the minorities living in the neighbouring countries seems hardly possible. This is even more so because the Communist regime forbade even the talk about the Hungarian national minorities.

Thus in the Hungarian case, the issue of the national minorities outside the state is intimately connected to the concept of the Hungarian nation, while, however, there exist of course several other profound aspects that define the nation concept, such as culture and traditions or the so-called historical ‘myths’. This concept of the nation in turn influences how the Hungarian state deals with its minorities, and how it handles minority politics in the framework of its foreign politics, but also in the sphere of domestic policy and concerning ethnic minorities living on the territory of the Hungarian state. Finally, the concept of ‘Europe’ as a cultural entity as well as the potential influence of the Western European powers on Hungary and the CEE region in general, also play an important role in the image of the ‘national self’ as well as in its translation into actual politics.

Against this background, the underlying paper analyses how the concept of the nation influences and is worked out in actual minority politics. The analysis will focus on those two time periods when the Hungarian elite could lead its country relatively independently, namely the period after the First World War, and the period after the fall of the Communist party in 1989. At the same time, the focus will be on the years immediately after these two events because both events caused a major change in the perception of the Hungarian nation, hence it is highly interesting to evaluate how the governing elite translated these changes into actual politics during the first years.

First, general theories about nation and nationality concepts as well as Hungarian perception of the nation before the First World War is described in Chapter II.1. This is followed by an evaluation of the effect of the border changes following the First World War on the nation concept in Chapter II.2, and the analysis of the actual translation of these concepts in the revisionist politics of the government under Prime Minister István Bethlen in Chapter II.3 and II.4. The content and methods of revisionist propaganda is presented in Chapter II.5 in order to show how the nation concept triggered a revisionist movement. Chapter III.1 will shortly describe the issue of the minorities during the Communist period and the emergence of a new, post-communist nation concept in III.2. Chapter III.3 deals with the reflection of the new nation concept presented through the consensus among different party elites, and is followed by the overall conclusion of the paper in Chapter IV, which compares parts II and III with each other.

II.1 Different concepts of nationality and the Hungarian nation concept before the 1st World War

In order to provide a theoretical background for the discussion of the Hungarian nation concept, different concepts of nationality that dominate related discussions will be shortly introduced, followed by a short summary of the Hungarian nation concept before the 1st World War, which is essential in order to understand its nation concept developed after 1918.

-ne of the oldest and probably most well known concepts is the distinction between the civic and the cultural or ethnic nation. As Dunay (2000) points it out, the cultural nation “constitutes itself through ethnic ancestry” and common cultural values, while the civic nation “constitutes itself through equal individual civic rights and the practice of the democratic legitimacy of rule through the citizens”[1] (p. 16)[2]. This concept is mainly based on the historic observation of the development of different nation states, and corresponds with contrasting the examples of France or Great Britain with Germany and Italy. In the former states, the framework of the state existed before the emergence of nationalism, while in the case of the latter, nationalism contributed to the unification of smaller political units into a modern state. The concept of the cultural nation was indeed invented by the German 19th century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, who claimed that language and culture, rather than the state, were the essential basis of the nation (Alcock, 2000, p. 8). At the same time however, the cultural nation strives to convert its self-perception as a distinct nation “into political self-determination as fast as possible …”[3] (Spohr, 1936, p. 11). However, it is debatable if the cultural nation seizes to be a cultural one and develops into a civic nation as soon as it realises its goal of political self-determination and establishes an own state.

Furthermore, according to the analysis of Dunay, there exist several other concepts that are based on the emphasis of the economic, geographical or/and the time factor in the development of nation states[4] (cf. Dunay, 2000, pp. 12-16). Finally, the author also refers to the secessionist type of nation building in the CEE region, which is developed “through enmity against the existing state” (pp. 12-14, citing Hösch).

Interestingly, he concludes that the development of the Hungarian nation state “does not fit into the formulas discussed until now[5] ” (ibid, p. 15). According to Kovács-Bertrand (1997), “the idea of Hungarian nationalism developed in a two-dimensional way since the beginning of the 19th century” (p. 21). In dealing with the Habsburg authorities, Hungarian nationalism entailed features of the secessionist type, made mostly visible through the revolution and the following war of independence of 1848/1849[6], but also through the claiming of cultural and linguistic rights based on the concept of the cultural nation[7]. The Hungarian elite was also frightened by the ideology of Pan-slavism and Herder’s prophecy that the Hungarians will eventually disappear due to their minority as a non-Slavic nation, hence they encouraged the revival of linguistic, cultural and folkloristic traditions- activities typical for a “Kulturnation” according to Spohr (cf. Kovács-Bertrand, 1997, p. 22; Spohr, 1936, pp. 11; 14). In relation to the other national groups living in the Hungarian territories, where the Magyars constituted only around 45% of the population[8], nationalism was characterised by the civic nation concept. Hungarians perceived their nation as being superior to the other nationalities and with the compromise of 1867[9] this seemed to be enshrined legally (cf. Kovács-Bertrand, 1997, pp. 21-22). The Hungarian elite used this chance and started assimilation politics towards the national minorities, which corresponds with the civic concept as far as leading examples of Western European ‘civic nations’ also pursued such policies during the 17th and 18th century (Dunay, 2000, p. 15; De Varennes, 1996, pp. 13-20). The civic rather than cultural understanding of the nation was also reflected in a law passed in 1868 which stated that “based on the constitution, all citizens of Hungary constitute a nation also in the political respect, the indivisible, unitary Hungarian nation, of which every citizen of the fatherland is a member, regardless of which nationality he belongs to”[10] (Kovács-Bertrand, 1997, p. 20). The Hungarian elite thus conceived their nation as a “state-founding nation”, which accepted the other nationalities on its territory as equal citizens, however, in the long run, they should be assimilated and become ‘Hungarian’ in a cultural sense, too (Bihari, 1999, p. 241).

The dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918 and the consequent reorganisation of its former territories into several nation states cut off almost all territories of the former Hungarian Kingdom which had been inhabited by non-Magyar nationalities. The Peace Treaty of the Entente Powers with Hungary is called the Trianon Treaty, because it was signed in the castle Trianon “in the park of Versailles”[11], on the 4th of June 1920 (Borbándi, 1970, p. 11; Encyclopedia Britannica, 2002). The Treaty laid down Hungary’s new borders. The Hungarian state lost 70% of its former territories and one-third of its Magyar population[12] (Kovács-Bertrand, 1997, p. 9). As a consequence, national self-perception profoundly changed:

“Before 1918, to be Hungarian meant the same as belonging to the Hungarian Kingdom as a citizen. So to be Hungarian basically meant common historical past and a well-defined common legal framework, and only in second order language, nationality, culture. With Trianon this thing tipped over. … The former ‘great Hungarian’ self-perception… was increasingly replaced by the “small Hungarian” self-perception which is ethnic in its essence …”[13]

(Kende, 2003, p. 151)

II.2 The shock of Trianon- rigid adherence to St. Stephen’s realm

Virtually no Hungarian was willing to accept the conditions of the Trianon Treaty, least of all the higher middle class and the elites. This intransigent denial can partly be explained by the very hard provisions of the Treaty:

Rothschild (1992) illustrates that “the area lost to Romania alone was larger than the rump Hungarian state” and that “to be distributed among several sovereign states and to see large

fractions of their nation existing as irredentas across international frontiers was for the Magyars, unlike the Germans, an utterly new and psychologically unacceptable condition”

(p. 156)

The numerical losses of population and territory are cited by almost all authors touching upon the topic of the Trianon Treaty, while the ways in which these numbers are presented differ[14]. Some ways to present the numerical losses seem to imply sorrow for the Hungarians or outrage, while some[15] seem to forget that the huge losses partly were a consequence of the fact that the Hungarian elites had denied any kind of compromise with or more rights for the other nationalities during the period of the double monarchy (cf. Rothschild, 1992).

The fact that the end of the war and the drafting of the Peace Treaties happened under the ideological umbrella of Wilson’s doctrine of national self-determination, the Hungarians felt deceived by Wilson’s principle since “more than 3 Million Hungarians came under foreign rule against their will” (Borbándi, 1976, p. 11). Besides the factual loss of great parts of former territories and population, the Trianon Treaty had a strong psychological effect. Kende (2004) highlights the “sensitive factors”[16] as following: “The territories, of which Hungary had been impaired, contained namely ancient sites- cities, castles, battlefields - and cultural ‘foyers’ which belonged to the most profound national identity” (p. 61). Molnár (1999) qualifies the Treaty as a dictate because the Hungarians had «no lawyers to defend their case at the Peace Conference»[17] (p. 365). The use of the term ‘dictate of Trianon’ became a synonym in Hungarian language for ‘Trianon Treaty’, hence illustrating that the Treaty was not perceived as one (cf. Kovács-Bertrand, 1997).

Although the Treaty of Trianon was signed only in 1920, the new borders were already practically existent since the end of the First World War in autumn 1918 when Czechoslovakia, the Serbo-Croatian-Slovenien Kingdom claimed their independence and Romania its union with Transylvania, thereby incorporating former Hungarian territories into their new states (cf. Molnár, 1999, pp. 351-353). From the very moment when it became clear that the borders would change, a revisionist move to re-establish Hungary’s former borders began (Hoensch, 1967, p. 7). According to Ambrosio (2002), “the recovery of Magyar-populated territories outside of the Hungarian borders became an obsession for every interwar government” (p. 39), and Kovács-Bertrand (1997) argues that “concerning the rejection of ‘Trianon’ there prevailed unity in Hungarian society, in no single party program was the claim to revision missing” (ibid, p. 94). According to Rothschild (1992), “passionate revisionism was the general- indeed, universal- response of Hungarian society to Trianon” (p. 157). Similarly, Borbándi (1976) notes that “not only the political ruling classes, but also large parts of the population regarded the new state as an interim arrangement… and hoped that history would sooner or later let justice be served” (p. 11). However, Molnár (1999) argues that “this nostalgic, understandable as well as laming turn towards the past was not shared by the masses” (p. 369). The absolute rejection of the Trianon Treaty was ultimately expressed when, the day of it’s signing, the 4th of June 1920, became a mourning day and “at the moment, when the delegates of the Hungarian government … signed the treaty, life stood still for ten minutes” (Kovács-Bertrand, 1997, pp. 92-93).

-ne can claim that the Hungarians were unwilling to abandon their “great Hungarian” nation concept, and the Trianon Treaty actually forced them to do so. This nation concept was mainly based on two interrelated ‘historical’ pillars, that were both undermined by the Peace Treaty. Thus, the strife for revision of the Treaty and regaining of the former territories became the practical expression of this nation concept. Although, as Kende points out[18], national self-perception shifted towards an ethnicity-based concept, during the decades following the Treaty, all main concepts and ‘myths’ that were attached to Hungarian nationality before the war, remained. However, one has to qualify that the psychological effects of Trianon as outlined by Rothschild and Kende in turn strengthened, exaggerated and brought out those aspects of the nation concept, which were historical and backward looking.

II.3 The historical narratives and the deriving revisionist argumentation line

The two ‘historical’ pillars were the belief in Hungary as a state-founding nation and its thousand yearlong continuity, and the related character of the relation and attitude towards other ethnic groups/nationalities living on its territory. Hungarians and “conventional Hungarian historiography” believe that the Hungarian state has been founded with the “coronation of King (later Saint) Stephen (István) at Christmas 1000 or New Year 1001, with a crown …received from Pope Sylvester II”(Fowler, 2004, p. 59). Although, from the strict historical point of view, the Hungarian monarchy (or principality) existed already during the 10th century, the coronation of St. Stephen is significant because through receiving the crown

from the Roman Catholic pope, Hungary opted for Western Christianism rather than for the Eastern Byzantine empire (cf. Molnár, 1996, pp. 34-42). This act is symbolised through the ‘Holy Crown’ that at the same time stands for the territorial definition of the Hungarian kingdom.


[1] Author’s translation. All citations of Dunay are translated by me from German to English.

[2] Dunay also points to the extension of this classical twofold division to a threefold division developed by Lepsius, who further distinguishes between “Volksnation” (People’s nation) and “Kulturnation” (cultural nation), where Volksnation refers to ethnicity while Kulturnation refers to “cultural equality” (Dunay, 2000, p. 16, citing Lepsius, 1990).

[3] Author’s translation. All citations of Spohr are translated by me from German to English.

[4] Dunay evaluates amongst others the models of Rokkan and Schieder. Rokkan emphasizes socio-economic factors and connects the time when nation states developed to economic development which again results in the distinction into three different geographical regions. Schieder identifies three phases of nation building on a historical time line, of which the latter one refers to Central and Eastern Europe.. These concepts are not relevant to the current analysis because they emphasize how nation states developed rather than how these concepts influenced enduring perceptions of nationality.

[5] Dunay goes on with developing his own scheme of an “Eight-fields-diagram” based on four ethnopolitical nation building strategies, on the basis of the ideas of Brubaker and Deutsch. The scheme connects the different strategies of the different actors of Brubaker’s triadic nexus and analysis its conflict potential.

[6] On 13 April 1849, following the national revolution in 1848, Hungary declared independence and formed an own government under the leadership of the politician Lajos Kossúth and the writer Sándor Petöfi. The new government defended its Republic against the Austrian army in a war of independence, until they were beaten with the help of the Russian army on 13 August 1849 (cf. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2002).

[7] Hungarian became the official language of the Hungarian parts of the empire in 1844 (cf. Bihari, 1999, p. 240)

[8] Statistical data based on Bihari, 1999, p. 239.

[9] In 1876, the Hungarian leadership negotiated a compromise with the Austrian rulers by which the Hungarian kingdom became equal (at least on paper) with the Austrian parts of the monarchy. In reality, the Hungarians won important freedoms in the sphere of domestic politics, however the foreign affairs remained in the hands of the Habsburg house. The compromise was mirrored in the name change from Austrian empire to Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy.

[10] Author’s translation. All citations of Kovács-Bertrand are translated by me from German to English.

[11] Author’s translation. All citations of Borbándi are translated by me from German to English.

[12] See also Annex II, Table 1 and 2.

[13] Author’s translation. All citations of Kende (2003) are translated by me from Hungarian to English.

[14] See Annex II, Table 1,2 and 3.

[15] Borbándi for instance does not distinguish between those parts of the ‘lost population’ who were ethnic Hungarians, and those who were not. He only mentions in a footnote that the Hungarians constituted a minority in all lost territories. See Annex II, Table 1.

[16] Author’s translation. All citations of Kende (2004) are translated by me from French to English.

[17] Author’s translation. All citations of Molnár are translated by me from German to English.

[18] See quote on page 7.

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The Hungarian nation concept in the 20th century
Radical changes and their translation into politics
Maastricht University  (Faculteit der Cultuur- en Maatschappijwetenschappen)
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Das Paper ist Abschlussarbeit meines Minor Cultuurwetenschappen/Arts and Culture, Spezialisierung Politische Kultur. Es erhielt die Benotung 9,00 auf der niederländischen Notenskala von 6 (bestanden) bis 10 (wird äußerst selten vergeben).
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Master of Arts Judith Hamburg (Author), 2006, The Hungarian nation concept in the 20th century, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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