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.