Ignác Romsics on István Bethlen and Kuno Klebelsberg: the 1920s

I’m taking a break from economics and politics and will turn to popular history.

There are a couple of monthly magazines dealing with history in Hungary: Rubicon and História.  Both are edited by well respected historians and the short articles are written by experts in their fields. Both have been in existence for a long time. Rubicon’s first issue came out in 1990 and História has been in existence since 1979. Both are edited around specific topics; Rubicon often opts for topics that are being discussed in current political discourse. For instance, its last two issues examine aspects of the Horthy regime. The most recent has several articles on Kuno Klebelsberg, minister of education between 1922-1931, whose portrait appears on the magazine cover. The issue before that deals with the life and role of István Horthy, son of Miklós Horthy, governor of Hungary between 1920 and 1944. István Horthy became deputy governor in 1942 but died shortly thereafter in a flying accident in the Soviet Union.

Today, drawing from the latest Rubicon, I’ll spend some time on two men whom I’ve had occasion to write about before. First, Ignác Romsics, the foremost historian of the first decade of the Horthy regime, the Bethlen period, and the author of a recent biography of the former prime minister. And second, Kuno Klebelsberg, minister of education in Bethlen’s cabinet. Although there were a lot of personnel changes during Bethlen’s tenure (1921-1931), Klebelsberg’s position was secure despite his many critics, especially from the far right who found him not a good enough Hungarian. After all, his paternal ancestors were German, even though the first Klebelsberg arrived in Hungary in the sixteenth century.

A few days ago I wrote about the Ignác Romsics-András Gerő debate over the former’s alleged antisemitism. After reading this short article I was struck by Romsics’s conservatism as well as his seeming identification with his subject matter. István Földesi, whose answer to Romsics’s article on Trianon and the Holocaust was discussed on Hungarian Spectrum, called my attention to a recent article on Romsics. The author, Péter Sólyom, points out that Romsics’s problem as a historian is that he hides his own assessment of the era he discusses. Thus, says Sólyom, the reader can attach his own interpretation to Romsics’s text, an interpretation that might not correspond to the author’s own.

Prime Minister István Bethlen (1921-1931)

I found a very good example in the first few sentences of Romsics’s introductory article to the issue on Klebelsberg. According to him, “the three outstanding [kiemelkedő] personalities in building the new Hungary were Miklós Horthy who organized the army, István Bethlen the statesman, and Klebelsberg who was responsible for cultural and education policies.”  The single adjective “outstanding” blurs the vast differences between Horthy, whose ideas were pretty close to the far right, and Bethlen and Klebelsberg, both deeply conservative men. Was Horthy truly outstanding in organizing an army that turned out to be a breeding ground for far-right extremists? Can Horthy’s achievements be compared to those of István Bethlen?

One gets even more perplexed when one reads that under Bethlen’s guidance “within a few years the equality of the citizens before the law was restored” (helyreállt az állampolgári egyenlőség). But was it? After all, the numerus clausus was still in force although “its enforcement was made less stringent because of international pressure.” Romsics explains that the law “restricted the number of Jewish students in institutions of higher learning from 30% before the war to 8%.” This might be factually correct, but mentioning the pre-war figure may give rise to the suspicion that this rather superfluous piece of information serves a hidden agenda. Of course, I might be wrong, but wouldn’t it have been more proper to say that any kind of quota based on race or religion is incompatible with democracy and the equality of citizens?

Kuno Klebelsberg, minister of education (1922-1931)

Romsics provides some figures about Kuno Klebelsberg’s achievements, which are in many ways impressive. By the second half of the 1920s Klebelsberg’s ministry received 9-10% of the total budget. Half of this amount was spent on public education. By way of comparison, between 1890 and 1914 the same ministry received only 2-5% of the budget and only 20-30% of that amount was spent on educating the lower strata of society. As a result of the expanded public education the percentage of the population who were illiterate dropped significantly, from 15% to 7%.

Of course, Klebelsberg also held some thoroughly unacceptable ideas about Hungarian intellectual superiority over the neighboring nations and the former nationalities of Greater Hungary, which Romsics ignores.

At the end of the article Romsics summarizes the views of Klebelsberg and Bethlen on the link between education and democracy. “Klebelsberg agreed with Bethlen that before the introduction of political democracy the people must be raised culturally and intellectually because otherwise the result of universal and secret electoral law will not be democracy but chaos and demagoguery. And naturally for them the improvements in the universities, the establishment of Hungarian institutions abroad, and the new scholarship system was a politically conscious goal.” In awarding scholarships the goal was “to refresh the historical elite first and foremost with the children of the Christian Hungarian middle class.” What does Romsics think of all this? Does he agree with them? After all, he seems to have a very high opinion of both Bethlen and Klebelsberg.

When it comes to the overall assessment of the collaboration of István Bethlen and Kuno Klebelsberg Romsics states that “as far as the harmonization of the values of the past and the demands of the present even today it is exemplary and well worth imitating.”

It seems, therefore, that this deeply conservative and undemocratic regime that came into being through the joint effort of Bethlen and Klebelsberg “is exemplary.” Is this what Romsics really wants to say? Does he think through what he is saying or is he in too much of a hurry to knock off as many articles and studies as possible? I think that is worth pondering. Especially by Romsics himself.

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Guest

Győr Calling!

First there was Klebelsberg – then Rózsa Hoffmann!

Regards

Charlie

Member

Fidesz slogans for 1984+30:

“Your slavery is our freedom,

Your ignorance is our strength,

We make you live in a state of war just to survive,

so we can have our peace to rule over you”

[And the new Klebersberg program makes a financial anti-Klebersberg by cutting 40% from the budget for higher education.]

spectator
Guest
“I might be wrong, but wouldn’t it have been more proper to say that any kind of quota based on race or religion is incompatible with democracy and the equality of citizens?” Indeed, it would. But, than again, it would need democracy first, to be incompatible, first. Whatever the present sentiments today toward the ‘Glorious Horthy era’, I rather reluctant to call it democracy – I have a picky taste, obviously… Reading the excerpts from Romsics I couldn’t help the feeling that this article – just as well as the previous one we have discussed here – another attempt to give a present government a historically sound foundation, by drawing parallels – thence presenting a ‘continuum’ between the ‘achievements’ of Horthy, Bethlen and Klebersberg. Another telltale detail: “Klebelsberg agreed with Bethlen that before the introduction of political democracy the people must be raised culturally and intellectually because otherwise the result of universal and secret electoral law will not be democracy but chaos and demagoguery.” Seems to me as a clear reference to the necessity of the coming electoral registration law – uneducated masses shouldn’t vote freely at will – as we have heard a number of times already. Sounds far… Read more »
Member

For the sake of a rhyme, let me modify my lullaby:

“Your slavery is our freedom,

Your ignorance is our strength,

We make you live in a state of war just to survive,

so we can have our peace to rule countrywide”

Ms KKA
Guest

Very OT, but important…be well, dear Éva, and know we understand if you are absent from the airwaves for awhile post-Frankenstorm.

Member

Ms KKA :
Very OT, but important…be well, dear Éva, and know we understand if you are absent from the airwaves for awhile post-Frankenstorm.

I second it. The landfall is expected to occur in 26 hours. Fortunately, Yale is in Connecticut, not on the New Jersey shore.

Bee Movie
Guest
Romsics’ articles should be interpreted in light of and viewed as being part of an ongoing and strategic discourse to rehabilitate and sanitize Horthy (left always unsaid, perhaps because it is much too obvious, is the fact that he was a self appointed autocrat who remained in power without any possibility of contestation), to make him more likeable and human. These texts (in Rubicon and Historia) are not so much popular science articles reflecting the current state of research, but constitute an essential element in making Horthy and his era normal, accepted, obvious. So that high school or elementary school teachers could talk about him more freely, with less inhibitions, could express their professional interest in him without getting branded as an extreme right-winger etc. In order to start a discourse, of course you first need to make the subject an acceptable subject of a discourse. That is happening now. And once he can be talked about completely freely, new views can emerge, which over time, may become a majority view, a kind of new consensus e.g. reflected in the canonical texts, such as obligatory historical text books. You may rewrite the history text books now (as it is happening),… Read more »
Leo
Guest
Péter Sólyom, points out that Romsics’s problem as a historian is that he hides his own assessment of the era he discusses. Thus, says Sólyom, the reader can attach his own interpretation to Romsics’s text, an interpretation that might not correspond to the author’s own. I would say that it’s not a bad thing a historian is somewhat reticent about his opinions. And I hold that especially true in Hungary, where fancy ideas about history are widely accepted. Some common basis is needed to make a discussion of interpretations possible. More than once I could only save a discussion by referring to Romsics, who seems to be accepted as an authority by people of different political views. Romsics merit is that his prolific production in the last twenty years has given the general public a new, and at least sane basis for historical reflection. At the same time I believe that a certain superficiality in his interpretation and a lack of style will limit his ultimate importance as an historian. More than his conservatism (most great historians were rather conservative – it’s an occupational hazard). Still I agree that Romsics seems to be especially partial to the Horthy regime. I… Read more »
Leo
Guest

“Klebelsberg agreed with Bethlen that before the introduction of political democracy the people must be raised culturally and intellectually because otherwise the result of universal and secret electoral law will not be democracy but chaos and demagoguery.”

Well, that seems a correct prognosis of what happened after 2006. ‘Realdemokatie’ is a very bad system, and should be cancelled the moment something better is discovered. But until that time we just have to muddle on.

ambator
Guest
You quote Romsics about the numerus clausus thus: “Romsics explains that the law “restricted the number of Jewish students in institutions of higher learning from 30% before the war to 8%.” This might be factually correct, but mentioning the pre-war figure may give rise to the suspicion that this rather superfluous piece of information serves a hidden agenda.” This entire episode was and remains a disgrace, no matter how strenuously anyone, even Romsics tries to fudge it over. To begin with, the 8% figure is fudging itself because implicitly it was only 5%. At the time of the enactment the lost territories’ Jews were no longer counted, therefore the number of available Jewish candidates was reduced even further. In practice the anti-Semitic student bodies, by protests and by jew-beatings accomplished that the Budapest university virtually excluded Jewish students. When it came to a vital help of international loan arrangement in the mid twenties, Hungary severely strapped for cash, Klebelsberg went to Geneva, to grovel for a Ligue of Nations loan and committed the government to repeal the numerus clausus law. He did this with the explicit support of the patriotic Hungarian Jewish Community, who sent with him a statement in… Read more »
Member
The ACTUAL numbers at two Budapest universities as I calculated once were as follows: 1913 1925 Spring Budapest University of Sciences 34.1% 7.7% Budapest University of Technology and Economics 31.9% 8.8% Source: http://mek.niif.hu/04000/04093/html/0571.html Let me remind you that in Budapest, more than 23% of the population were Jewish, so the 8-9% de facto limit meant real discrimination. Let me add that the eligible Jewish population was much wider than the general population. 31.7% of the Jewish population in Budapest had a high-school diploma in 1930, while only 5.8% of the overall population of Hungary possessed the same.
Member

OK. I just calculated from the census data of 1930:

Jewish with high-school diploma 105,600 (21.0%)
Non-Jewish with high-school diploma 398,100
Total with high-school diploma 503,700

Jewish with university degree 28,300 (15.5%)
Non-Jewish with university degree 154,100
Total with university degree 182,400

Eligible := Someone with a high-school diploma, who did not have a university degree

Eligible Jewish students 77,300 (24.1%)
Eligible non-Jewish students 244,000
Total eligible students 321,300

So a non-discriminatory enrollment policy would have allowed 24% of the students to be Jewish vs the official limit of 5% or the actual enrollment of 8-9%.

Remark: Jewish in 1930 meant Jewish by religion, the term still excluded those who converted to Christianity.

Member

Remark 2: the numbers in my previous note referred to the entire country, not just Budapest.

Member

Another piece of data you can calculate from the same source, the Hungarian Jewish Lexicon of 1929. In 1925, 25.4% of the students receiving high-school diploma (érettségi) were Jewish, since high-schools did not have mandatory anti-Jewish discrimination.

Member

Last interesting piece from the same page. The University of Pecs was the only university in Hungary that permitted a much higher Jewish percentage in 1925. This is mainly due to their Medical School, where 299 of the 680 students were Jewish.

Member

Is it possible that the numerus clausus was not applied in Pecs because Pecs was still under Yugoslav occupation when the rule was introduced in 1920?

Member

Somebody in the Hungarian wikipedia (not me) refers to the ” Magyar Statisztikai Évkönyv, 1920-1935″, about the percentage of Jewish students in Hungary:

1920: 10,4%
1921: 11,6%
1922: 11,2%
1923: 10,4%

1924: 9,5%
1925: 8,9%
1926: 8,2%
1927: 8,0%

1928: 8,4%
1929: 9,0%
1930: 10,0%
1931: 11,9%

1932: 12,0%
1933: 11,1%
1934: 9,7%
1935: 8,1%

Compare these numbers with ratio of Jewish students finishing high-school, which we know was 25% in 1925.

Member

I just found the possible source of the wikipedia article above:

http://bfl.archivportal.hu/id-122-kovacs_m_maria_numerus_clausus_es_az.html

Member

Wow Tappanch. You did a fantastic job. I love how you pt the whole issue into perspective. It is unfortunate that this information will never get out to those who should learn from it. Very interesting data in deed.

Member

tappanch :
I just found the possible source of the wikipedia article above:
http://bfl.archivportal.hu/id-122-kovacs_m_maria_numerus_clausus_es_az.html

You are on a roll.

Wondercat
Guest

@tappanch: I had long wondered how a friend’s grandfather was able — as a Jew — to earn a medical degree in 1920s Hungary. Answer above, and thank you: His degree was awarded in Pecs. If you can shed light on the exemption of that university from the stringent numerus-clausus regulations, I hope that you will.

Leo
Guest

Tappanch: Let me remind you that in Budapest, more than 23% of the population were Jewish, so the 8-9% de facto limit meant real discrimination.

But that was exactly the point! No one in his right mind will dispute the discriminative nature of these measures (therefore I cannnot understand Romsics’s presumed equality of all before the law). On the opposite, these measures were meant as positive discrimination. To stimulate the development of what was seen as a backward group, the ethnic Hungarians.

While I don’t want to resort to Fidesz tactics, I do find it useful here to make a comparison with measures taken by some US top universities at the time: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numerus_clausus#Numerus_clausus_in_the_United_States. The important difference being that in Hungary the initiative was taken by the state, while in the US it was more a private affair (though that is hardly true for the exclusion of the black population).

Member

The mayor of Pecs was Bela Linder from 23 September 1920. Yes, that half-Jewish Linder who had been the Minister of War for 9 days in November 1918 and who said at the end of that 4-year carnage of war:
“No need for armies anymore! I do not want to see any soldiers anymore!
Make an oath that you will bring up your children in such a way that the possibility of war is shut out!”

The SHS, i.e. Yugoslav troops left Pecs only on August 14, 1921.
There was a one-week long Serbian-Hungarian Baranya-Baja Republic in place, but they could not resist Horthy’s troops.

The governor of the region became none other than Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer from October 1921, who was one of the few not-very-antisemitic ministers of Horthy during the ww2, and who was sent to concentration camp by the Germans in 1944.

To summarize, even if the numerus clausus was applied in Pecs starting the 1922-1923 academic year, half of the medical students in 1925 had been enrolled before its application, that helps to explain their ratio of 44% at that university in the Spring of 1925.

Member

@Leo:
There was NO “positive” discrimination, i.e. affirmative action for the Jewish minority among the judges, prosecutors, military officers and other public employees, where they were MUCH underrepresented.

spectator
Guest
Bee Movie : It is also an interesting feature of the Hungarian right wing and conservative movement that they boldly look back to the inter-war years/years of fascism, when this retrospective inspiration would be unacceptable in mainstream Western political and historical circles (although I really don’t know what the Romanian, Polish, Czech right wing does in this respect). What I would be curious about is why is he so popular (already)? Not just in light of his disastrous policies and decisions, but in general, what is his appeal in 2012 is about? Thank you for the valuable insight! I guess, part of the Horthy mania has quite a lot to do with the fact, that he isn’t accepted by by people with liberal and/or democratic values, nor the Jewish and only a very narrow segment of the ethnic minorities – in short, the ones whom today alright to blame and hate – so I see the phenomenon as a countering attempt from the right wing, they want to do something what manifest their opposing. I don’t think that the person is important, rather the fact, that the ‘others’ don’t like him at all, so let’s them have it. Pretty piteous… Read more »