Changing nationalities: A natural development in East-Central Europe

A few days ago, the ombudsman who is supposed to defend the rights of minorities announced that the assimilation of non-Hungarians to the Hungarian majority has been so rapid that soon enough no minorities will be found within the borders of Hungary. Of course, he wasn't talking about the Roma population but Germans, Slovaks, Croats, Romanians, and so on. Their numbers were small in the first place because, as I mentioned yesterday, territories with mixed populations were given to the successor states. Moreover, assimilation of small populations is pretty well inevitable, especially during periods of rapid modernization and with it accelerated mobility.

Historically, the best metric for measuring assimilation and shifting nationalities has been language. In pre-Trianon Hungary there were mixed patterns. In Transylvania, despite government efforts, the number of Romanian speakers actually grew. In ten years, between 1900 and 1910, the increase was almost 150,000. By contrast, the number of Germans and Slovaks decreased during that decade. The Germans were scattered throughout Transdanubia. They did not live in compact regions like the Transylvanians, so their assimilation was probably natural. The Slovaks' situation was slightly different. The northern regions inhabited mostly by Slovaks were poor, and Slovaks in great numbers either emigrated (the favorite destination was the United States) or moved to Budapest where within a generation they became Hungarian speaking. But there was also a less than natural assimilation fostered by Budapest: only Hungarian-language gymnasiums were allowed to exist, so if a Slovak boy (in those days few girls ever ended up in a gymnasium) wanted to enter high school and from there go on to university, he had to continue his studies in Hungarian. As one Hungarian politician somewhat cynically remarked, these Hungarian-language gymnasiums were like sausage-stuffers. Little Slovaks entered and not so little Hungarians emerged.

The elementary schools were almost exclusively in the hands of the churches, most often the Catholic Church. The churches were free to choose the language of instruction and usually they picked the local language. Because of immobility, poverty, and lack of education, the vast majority of the Ruthenian, Romanian, and Slovak village children never learned Hungarian. It was in 1907 during the tenure of Albert Apponyi as minister of education that a law was passed mandating that every non-Hungarian-speaking child must learn the language of the majority within four years. Of course, there was an outcry on the part of the nationality leaders as well as French and English commentators.

The fact is that the "Apponyi Law," as it became known, was a total flop. Imagine a Romanian or Slovak village with absolutely no Hungarian speakers. The central government sent a Hungarian teacher. The classes were huge, the kids had no opportunity to use their probably marginal language skills. In the Rákosi period there was a much favored Hungarian writer, Béla Illés, who was born in Kassa (Kosice) in today's Slovakia. Kassa in Illés's days was predominantly Hungarian, but the family moved to Beregszász (today Berehove in Ukrainian) that in those days was a town of 12,000. The language of instruction in his elementary school was Hungarian even though a number of children were Ukrainian-speaking. Illés recalls the total failure of the teacher to make himself understood by the non-Hungarians in the class. Of course, they learned nothing. Illés did their homework, and thus they were passed on from year to year. Most likely the teacher knew about the ruse but could do nothing to remedy the situation.

Today's Hungarians often complain about the shrinking number of Hungarians in the neighboring countries; they talk as if it were somehow the result of a planned, forcible assimilation. During the Ceausescu regime that was indeed the case, but even with a much more liberal minority policy there is natural assimilation. Mixed marriages, attending Romanian or Slovak language schools simply because parents decide that it might be more advantageous for their children's future career. And if a child goes to a Romanian- or Slovak-language school from grade one on, he or she will feel more comfortable using that language. Not long ago I spent an evening with a group of people from Transylvania. Their "mother-tongue" was Hungarian, but they had gone to Romanian schools. Although they spoke Hungarian well, I had the feeling that they were more comfortable speaking Romanian. So who are these people? Romanians or Hungarians?

At the time of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 politicians made the most outrageous pronouncements in support of their territorial claims. One especially stuck in my mind. When the Allies were less than enthusiastic about ceding large territories north of the Danube almost solidly inhabited by Hungarians to Czechoslovakia, Benes announced that in the nineteenth century about 300,000 Slovaks had moved to Budapest. Therefore the Hungarians living in Csallóköz (in Slovak: Žitný ostrov) were simply compensation for the Slovaks who had emigrated to Budapest. First of all, the 300,000 figure is most likely exaggerated, but even granting the number for the sake of argument, the two cases simply cannot be compared. The Slovaks moved to the capital on their own volition while the Hungarians of Csallóköz were forced to become inhabitants of Czechoslovakia. Benes had another brilliant idea: anyone with a Slovak family name must be considered Slovak. But life doesn't work that way.

I'm going to give two examples of how complicated these nationality questions can be. The great Hungarian Romantic poet, Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849), was a chauvinistic Hungarian born of a Serb father and a Slovak mother (Maria Hruz) in the middle of the Great Hungarian Plains in the town of Kiskőrös. His original name was Petrovics (Hungarianized spelling). He was baptized Lutheran, which reflected his mother's nationality. Protestant Slovaks were Lutheran while Hungarian Protestants were Calvinist. Petőfi himself was so aware of that distinction that he changed not only his name but also his religion.

The other example is Lajos Kossuth (1802-1894), a great Hungarian patriot. It is clear even from his name that the family was originally Slovak. Just think of all those Kohuts and Kosuts in today's Slovakia. Although Kossuth was born in Monok (today in Hungary), the family originated from the county of Turóc (Turiec in Slovak) in the north of Hungary. The Slovak ancestry of Kossuth never became the topic of political debate because the family became part of the Hungarian nobility at the time when ethnicity was not a paramount consideration. In any case, Kossuth considered himself an ethnic Hungarian and even stated that there was no such thing as a Slovak nationality. Yet the other branch of the family considered itself Slovak and as far as I know Kossuth had a cousin who became a minor Slovak poet.

But the change of nationality worked the other way around as well. Pavol Országh-Hviezdoslav, apparently the greatest Slovak poet, originally wrote in Hungarian and was a Hungarian patriot, but in the 1860s he switched both allegiance and the language of his poetry.

It is hard to predict how open borders and the tendency to develop regions spanning former borders will impact the nationality composition of the area. It seems to me that Romanians are less worried about the  rather large Hungarian minority because most of the Hungarians live in the middle of Transylvania surrounded by solidly Romanian areas. The Slovak situation is different because the Hungarians live closer to the Slovak-Hungarian border and therefore the proximity of Hungary might be a magnet that reinforces the Hungarian predominance in that region.

Yet, again, the open borders work the other way around as well. More and more Slovaks from Bratislava are buying houses on the Hungarian side where real estate prices in villages close to the border are a great deal lower than in Bratislava. These villages are only about 12 kilometers from the capital. It is an easy commute. The mixing of nationalities most likely will continue.

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
M.J.
Guest
Eva, just for the fun: “In Transylvania, despite government efforts, the number of Romanian speakers actually grew.” Was there less poverty in Transylvania, less emigration to the US than for example for: “The northern regions inhabited mostly by Slovaks were poor, and Slovaks in great numbers either emigrated (the favorite destination was the United States) or moved to Budapest where within a generation they became Hungarian speaking.” ??? Futher: “The Germans were scattered throughout Transdanubia. They did not live in compact regions like the Transylvanians, so their assimilation was probably natural.” Did Germans not living in compact regions (unlike, you say, Romanians in Transylvania) both in Transylvania or in today’s Slovakia decrease to the same extent in those decades? Now to the schools’ issue: “The fact is that the “Apponyi Law,” as it became known, was a total flop.” Because poor people didn’t learn Hungarian. You’re assuming that was the real goal? You’re saying poverty sometimes helps to get assimilated (you move to a big town or emigrate thus breaking up/diluting linguistically compact areas) but sometimes it shelters from assimilative pressure (Illes case). What the apponyi laws meant was to get hold of the whole inteligentsia, to control the rich.… Read more »
M.J.
Guest

And just for your information: there’s nothing Hungarian about Pavol Orszagh except the fact that he studied in Miskolc, in Hungarian, and started to write in Hungarian, before realizing, as a poet from another linguistic world, it just wasn’t it.
Sure Orszagh is a Hungarian name, but that isn’t enough to use the figure of Pavol Orszagh as an example of the alleged “natural switches” people were forced by the regime to perform if they wanted to make a career or artistically create.
Rather make use of Orban (Urban), Jeszenszky (Jesensky) or even Csurka (Čurka) 😉

Vándorló
Guest

@M.J.: Or how about Vona Gábor’s (Jobbik,) original name, born Zázrivecz Gábor. And his parentage, ethnicity is continually called into question by opponent’s. Just one example:’Is Vona Gábor, the Jobbik leader, a Gypsy?’ (“Cigány Vona Gábor a Jobbik elnöke?!”) http://baloghartur1.blogter.hu/334873/cigany_vona_gabor_a_jobbik_elnoke

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

MJ, I really don’t feel like answering your last two posts because, I’m afraid, your nationalistic impulses got the better of you. Perhaps it would be a good idea to step back a bit and be a little a more rational.
Just one thing. The Apponyi Law didn’t try to assimilate the non-Hungarians but tried to make them learn the Hungarian language. I assume from the central government’s point of view that was desirable just as much as it was desirable from the Czechoslovak or the Romanian government’s point of view that they learn the official language of the country. This is not a terrible thing, is it? Because then something awful was going on in the successor states.

Horthy
Guest

Vándorló don’t be liar. “Zázrivecz” is not the original name of Gábor Vona. It is his step-gradnfather’s name.
http://hu.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vona_G%C3%A1bor
“Másik meghatározó családi élménye apai nagyapja (szintén Vona Gábor) halála volt, aki Erdélyben esett el a szovjet csapatok elleni tordai harcok során. Apai nagyanyja ezután feleségül ment Zázrivecz Józsefhez, aki nevére vette Vona Gábor apját, így születhetett meg Zázrivecz Gábor néven 1978. augusztus 20-án a Heves megyei Gyöngyösön. Apja eredeti nevét Vona csak egyetemista korában vette fel, valamikor 2000 után.”

Vándorló
Guest
@Eva: The lex Apponyi (1907) only increased the number of hours tuition for Hungarian, but in many cases lessons were allowed to continue in the minority language. Also there was Gyula Andrássy’s bill that changed that language used in training for army units to Hungarian, but only for the Hungarians. The problems stem back not to the laws but, as with most things since in Hungary, how they were applied and the non-existence of accountability and sanctions if the spirit or letter of the law were not followed. The law of the nationalities (1868:XLIV, G. Gratz, A dualizmus kora – 1867-1918 and the first law in Europe to define the rights of minorities – ignoring the laws that existed to allow co-existence of minorities and freedom of religion under the Ottoman’s, of course) provided generation liberal support for minorities to be taught in there own language and, though the official language of state was now Hungarian, each district had the right to use the language of the local’s and demand that documents be translated and communicated in the local language. The problem was the spirit of this law was not applied in this way by authorities and there was no… Read more »
Vándorló
Guest

@Horthy: ” ‘Zázrivecz’ is not the original name of Gábor Vona” You are wrong, he was born Zázrivecz Aug 20th 1978. He changed his name much later to that of his paternal grandfather. So his father was also Zázrivecz all his life. Vona had to dig deep to find himself a Hungarian enough sounding name. Doesn’t inspire confidence. Well, as much confidence as Jobbik’s bookkeeping skills.
Anyway, he admits and clearly states it himself in an interview on the Jobbik website ‘I was, however, at the time of birth Gábor Zázrivecz’ (“én pedig születésemkor Zázrivecz Gábor”).

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Vandorlo: “Anyway, he admits and clearly states it himself in an interview on the Jobbik website ‘I was, however, at the time of birth Gábor Zázrivecz’ (“én pedig születésemkor Zázrivecz Gábor”).”
Not that it really matters. That doesn’t make him better or worse. But, of course, the fact that he felt he had to change his name to Vona tells a lot about him.

M.J.
Guest

Eva : “I really don’t feel like answering your last two posts because, I’m afraid, your nationalistic impulses got the better of you.”???
This must be some terrible misunderstanding. I am disclosing the underlying logic of the argumentation you are using (and I know your motives are pure) and rejecting it en bloc – doesn’t matter which side would use it, and I’m afraid the message is not transmitted.
Just to illustrate: well indeed –
the 1921 census made in Czechoslovakia was as much a political tool as the Hungarian one in 1910 and there definitely should be no policies today using it as basis for claiming any kind of rights.
You can play with it as a historian as much as you want, but don’t use it in politics.
What’s nationalistic about that?

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

I’m going to return to M.J.’s points but be a bit patient. I was snowed under today and it is already too late to think straight. I don’t know whether I will be able to answer all of M.J.’s questions fully, but I will try to come up with some hypotheses.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest
I’m trying to answer M.J.’s questions. As I indicated earlier there are a lot of questions or hypotheses concerning the rate of assimilation. Why did the Slovaks assimilate faster than the Romanians, for example? A couple of possible answers. Transylvania was much more backward than northern Hungary and therefore mobility was also very low. Another possibility that Romanians on the whole stay put. Like the French. When the French occupied Canada it was almost impossible to get people to move there. The Slovaks were, it seems, more adventurous and kept moving into larger cities, especially to Budapest. Why did they emigrate? According to some historians there were companies who were actually recruiting people to go, promising them all sorts of things. In certain counties emigration reached huge proportions. Mostly from Saros and Zemplén counties. I don’t know why you question the assumption/fact that within a generation the Slovaks’ children became Hungarian speaking in Budapest. Of course, they were in an entirely Hungarian city. Very possible that the young man who moved there married a Hungarian girl or the girl who worked as a servant with a family managed to find a Hungarian boyfriend. Religion was not a problem. Much less… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest
M.J.: “And just for your information: there’s nothing Hungarian about Pavol Orszagh except the fact that he studied in Miskolc, in Hungarian, and started to write in Hungarian,” Well, I think that it is a good example. If Országh happened to move from Miskolc to, let’s Budapest, then it would have been possible that he would have become a Hungarian writer. “Sure Orszagh is a Hungarian name, but that isn’t enough to use the figure of Pavol Orszagh as an example of the alleged “natural switches” people were forced by the regime” I’m afraid, you look at this from today’s point of view. Yes, it was one country and these people were bilingual. They could go this way or that way. There was a famous Croatian writer (I forgot his name) who was a student at a military academy in Pécs, close to the Croatian border. He among other things did a lot of translations from Hungarian to Croat. Or there was my own father who was sent by my grandfather to Osijek (Eszék) to study and when he found out that the best school there is Croat-speaking he never hesitated. Father was enrolled in the Croatian school. It was… Read more »
M.J.
Guest

Eva, we’re walking in parallel, I’m obviously not managing to make my point understood. I’ll send you a more structured text later.

JCS
Guest

I thought that I sent this yesterday, but since it didn’t show up, I’m sending it again. Sorry, if it already appeared somewhere.
I am interested in knowing where the ombudsman’s comment can be found. I would like to read more of this statement. Thanks!
“A few days ago, the ombudsman who is supposed to defend the rights of minorities announced that the assimilation of non-Hungarians to the Hungarian majority has been so rapid that soon enough no minorities will be found within the borders of Hungary.”

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

JCS: “Sorry, if it already appeared somewhere. I am interested in knowing where the ombudsman’s comment can be found. I would like to read more of this statement. Thanks”
Several media talked about it. Here is MTv’s news about his statement:
http://www.hirado.hu/Hirek/2010/01/24/11/Kallai_Erno_felgyorsult_a_nemzeti_kisebbsegek_asszimilacioja.aspx

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

JCS: “Sorry, if it already appeared somewhere. I am interested in knowing where the ombudsman’s comment can be found. I would like to read more of this statement.”
A footnote to the above. The ombudsman might be exaggerating. I just read today that the Slovak Gymnasium, Elementary School and Kindergarten in Békéscsaba just received 200 million forints woth of assistance. That amount is 90% of the expenses. Then it seems that 70 million forints are going to the Croatian Language Kindergarten, Elementary School and Dormitory for a renewal project. So, it seems that there are still non-Hungarian language institutions and they do get support from the central government.

wpDiscuz