Hungarians and their attitude toward their own history

In an interview with Pécsi Stop, an Internet newspaper, Krisztián Ungváry said something in passing about the interconnection between history and politics. He brought up the example of the Rákóczi Rebellion (1703–1711). For the most part the interpretation of this failed war of independence is of no great interest to ordinary citizens. Yet when we hear the words “kuruc” and “labanc,” the contemporary descriptions of the patriots as opposed to those who stood by Vienna, history enters the vocabulary of everyday politics.

I talked about the “kurucok” who fought the “labancok” in an article entitled “A distorted past haunts Hungarians.” These two words are bandied about in Hungary practically daily. There is the notorious neo-Nazi Internet site that calls itself “” Surely, the editors are convinced that they stand for true Hungarian values and for patriotism. Even the Hungarian prime minister turns to the kuruc/labanc comparison. In his formulation, his government stands on the side of the nation and thus conducts a kuruc foreign policy while he calls his political opponents traitors, “labancok.”

I recently read a book that was written six years ago, but the data Mária Vásárhelyi, a sociologist, gathered over the years and presented in this book about Hungarians’ views on their own history is still timely. The book is entitled Csalóka emlékezet (Deceptive memory). The overarching feeling of Hungarians toward their history is that it has been a continuous story of victimization of the country by others. Over the centuries Hungary was often abandoned by the great powers, and the country’s failures are mostly due to outside forces. Past greatness is exaggerated and Hungary’s weight on the world stage overemphasized.  For example, according to one poll 58% of adult Hungarians are certain that “without Hungary there is no Europe” and about 50% think that “Europe ought to be grateful to Hungary.” An overwhelming majority are convinced that during the past century Europe let Hungary down time and time again.

Very few Hungarians doubt that Hungary has always been part of Europe, and by Europe they understand Western Europe. But we know from research done by Jenő Szűcs in the 1970s and 1980s that even early Hungarian development was different from the western type. The region has features that separate it from the regions both to its west and to its east.

This is also the conclusion Thomas Schmid of Die Welt came to by looking at the Hungary of today. In an opinion piece entitled “Unsere traurige Ahnungslosigkeit von Europa” he points out that Western Europeans don’t know much about the countries of Eastern Europe. As for Hungary, he talks about the resentments of Hungarians, “resentments that spring from [former] traumas,” including Trianon. Although “we should not accept these resentments … we must understand that they are there.” And they will be there for a long time. “Europe is not united,” he warns.

Distorted Viewby Cathlon / Flickr

Distorted View by Cathlon / Flickr

So, while Western Europeans sense that East or Central Europe is different because of the region’s historical development, Hungarians themselves seem to be blissfully ignorant of this fact. 95% of the adult population look upon Hungary as the very center of Europe; the proof is the map of the continent.

Considering that so many people have definite opinions about the course of Hungarian history, it is amazing how little they know about the most often talked about topics like Trianon or the Horthy regime. Only 29% of those asked could identify the year that the Treaty of Trianon was signed; 42% couldn’t even guess. When it came to the Horthy period, only 11% could remember the dates of the beginning and the end of Miklós Horthy’s governorship.

But let’s return to the territories lost as a result of the Treaty of Trianon. Sociologists asked which cities that belong to the successor states have a Hungarian majority. The answers identified twenty-four such cities, but in fact there is only one where there is a slight Hungarian majority and that is Marosvásárhely/ Târgu Mureș (52.4%). The two most often mentioned cities were Kassa/Košice and Kolozsvár/Cluj when actually in Kassa the size of the Hungarian speaking population is only 12.6% and in Kolozsvár 22.8%. Irredentist impulses are aided by politicians, starting with József Antall who kept talking about 15 million Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin; this number by now is firmly planted in the minds of the population. Naturally, few people would bother to look at the recent census numbers to realize that this number is no longer accurate.

As for Hungary’s participation in World War II, three major interpretations are currently in circulation. The first, supported by 47% of the population, blames Hungary’s allies for dragging [belesodorták] her into the conflict. This theory is held by the more conservative elements. The second opinion holds that Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany and thus entered the war on its own volition. This second interpretation is favored by the more liberal people. Only 8% of the population think that Hungary entered the war in order to ensure the possession of territories regained as a result of German and Italian arbitration.

One final observation based on data presented by Vásárhelyi about acceptance of the regime change in 1989-1990. There is general dissatisfaction with the way Hungary handled the political change. Close to 40% of the people don’t think there was real change either because the former elite kept power in its own hands or because the communists were not excluded from future participation in political life. But what is more frightening is that 53% of those asked are convinced that “Hungary today still serves the interests of foreign powers,” 55% think that “Hungarian interests still don’t come into full play in Hungary,” and 59% believe that “real regime change will take place in Hungary only when all that belongs to Hungarians is in Hungarian hands.” Finally, 39% percent believe that “”those who live in Hungary but who are not considered Hungarians have too great an economic and political influence.” Only 38% believe that this is untrue while 23% have no opinion. I assume I don’t have to elaborate on the meaning of this finding.

So, Viktor Orbán knows what he is doing. He is appealing to the worst instincts of Hungarians that stem from their distorted view of Hungary’s past and present. Hungary, the victim, wants to turn inward because today just as in the past foreigners take advantage of Hungarians. These foreign elements must be fought off to ensure that Hungarian interests are protected. Orbán pretty well follows this course. The results, alas, amply prove that this distorted Hungarian view leads straight to economic and social disaster.

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A historian mentioned today,

that Matolcsy’s uncle was a nyilas (Nazi) member of Parliament 1939-1944.
Minister Matolcsy reacted in an angry letter.

Here is what I dug up so far.

According the not always reliable wikipedia, Minister Matolcsy’s father was born in 1930.

From Elek Karsai’s two-volume book on the forced labor in Hungary and other sources:

There were two Matolcsy brothers who represented the “Nyilaskeresztes Front” in Parliament.

Tamas (born 1901, representing Monor) and
Matyas (born 1905, representing Nagykata).

Tamas on November 26, 1940:
Jews should be sent not into labor camps but into internment camps.

“Jewry should leave this country and this Earth”

Matyas on February 9, 1942:
Jewish doctors should be sent to labor camps to do physical work. “I know the argument that they are needed because of the shortage of physicians. But this is an invalid argument.
We, the 9,200 Christian doctors of Hungary can satisfy the public health needs.”

I’m not sure this is just about Hungarians’ poor understanding of history. I suspect that in most (if not all) countries you would find the average citizen’s understanding, or even just knowledge of, their history is equally poor or slanted. That’s certainly true of the UK, where the average person’s knowledge of our history is practically zero, or is based entirely on popular fiction (e.g. films) – and therefore almost entirely incorrect. If you talk to the average Brit about WWII, for instance, you’ll hear about how we ‘stood alone’, how we survived the Blitz (with absolutely no knowledge of how we pounded German cities to dust), and how we beat the Germans almost single-handedly (almost no one seems to be aware of the part the Russians played in WWII, and the American contribution is usually dismissed as “too late, as always”). Two recent events illustrate just how warped (or non-existent) our knowledge of our own history is – Richard III and the 1812 War with the US. The skeleton of Richard III (the last Plantagenet king) has just been discovered and verified, and it turns out he was nothing like the Richard III of popular ‘knowledge’. And why? Because… Read more »

Is it so bad?
Can the Hungarians escape from this deep trap?
Will it be eternal?


“The two most often mentioned cities were Kassa/Košice and Kolozsvár/Cluj when actually in Kassa the size of the Hungarian speaking population is only 12.6% and in Kolozsvár 22.8%. ”

Actually the number of Hungarians in Kolozsvár/Cluj is estimated to be around 50,000 which is only 16% of the population of 309,036 (counted during the 2011 census).


By the way, according to the Wikipedia entry for Marosvásárhely/ Târgu Mureș the Hungarians make up only 48% of the population. Now if one adds the 2.5% of the Roma and the 0.05% of the Jews to the Hungarian population, the majority becomes Hungarian. The question is: do these groups want to be counted as Hungarians?


2011 Romanian census:

The population of Hungarian origin amounted to 1,238 thousand persons, accounting for
6.5% of the country’s stable population, and the number of those who indicated that they
were of Roma origin was 619 thousand (3.2%).

The population is mostly of Hungarian origin in

Harghita County (84.8%) and
Covasna County (73.6%).

The Hungarians are also numerous in the following counties:
Mureş (37.8%),
Satu Mare (34.5%),
Bihor (25.2%) and
Sălaj (23.2%).

Carei 55%
Satu Mare 37.6%
Oradea 24.5%
Cluj: 16.0%

The persons of Roma origin make up 3.2% of the total stable population.

Mureş County (8.8%).
Călăraşi (8.1%),
Sălaj (6.9%) and
Bihor (6.1%).

Kosice’s population according to the 2011 Slovakian census:

73.8% Slovak
2.7% Hungarian
19% undeclared


London Calling!

I’m sure Hungarians would be able to face up properly to her history – if ALL the archives were opened for scrutiny.

This would stop all the misinterpretations and allow the people to face up to their collective guilt and innocence. It would also stop the obvious ‘selective memory’ that seems to be widespread.

It would seem that the opposition parties’ pact is moving in this direction.

It would allow a catharsis for all the silent victims and release the latent hurt that must lie at the root of some of these misconceptions.

The archives obviously hide some nasty secrets – Orban’s dad? And now Matolcsy, et al? – The sooner they are expunged – the better; and Hungary can face the future.

We have discussed many times how Germany has come to terms with its shameful past – and also South Africa.

It’s about time Hungary faced up to its shameful past too – and it can look the world in the eye.

Once Hungary faces up to its reality – it can then find the truth.




Tamas & Matyas Matolcsy escaped to Germany in 1944, they were extradited by the Americans to Hungary in the Fall of 1945.

In March, 1946 Tamas, the physician escaped. After Germany, Paris, Sao Paulo, he moved to the US in 1957. He died in Cleveland in 1966.

If Minister Matolcsy’s father was born in 1930, he must have been a late child in the family.


Matyas Matolcsy’s obituary, written by his son:


Matyas Matolcsy Jr is silent about the relationship of his father and the current Minister of Economy, Gyorgy Matolcsy – but he denies that Gyorgy is Matyas Sr’s grandson at the end of his article.

What is the family relationship then, if any?


The family tree of the nyilas MPs at
does not show any Gyorgy.


That the “West” does not know very much about the “East”, is correct. But whose fault is that? If those lucky people who have not been in the Soviet bloc wish to know just that much that this is now the “former” Soviet bloc, it is not that different from Viktor Orban who noticed that he came back from Moscow alive (he is PM, admittedly). As the author also writes implicitely, the average citizen of West Europe does not care that much about the other countries in the West either – but as long as there are no serious problems, nobody knows how little people actually know about each other. Ask them not about the name of the French president or the German chancellor but perhaps the name and party of Dutch PM, when Belgium was founded and why, and they will know nearly as much as about Trianon. The only difference is that they somehow “know” that the Netherlands and Belgium are in the “West”, and therefore “do not make trouble”, while Hungary etc. do. (Paul’s remark about the average British knowledge of the own history I believe without hesitation.)


CharlieH: “The archives obviously hide some nasty secrets – Orban’s dad? And now Matolcsy, et al? – The sooner they are expunged – the better; and Hungary can face the future.”

Rest assured, it is not about daddy, but much more about his nasty and Machiavellian son.


OT, but breaking news – big scandal in football at the moment, with European police saying many games in Europe were fixed by far-eastern gambling syndicates. So far only one game played in England has been involved – the 2009 Champions League match between Liverpool and Debrecen!

London Calling! Turkmenbas! Who knows what is in those archives! More O/T Today British MPs will vote on allowing so-called ‘Gay Marriages’. In England gay couples have been allowed ‘civil partnerships’ which are almost the equivalent of non-religious marriages in registry offices – ensuring marriages have the same legal status as that between a man and a woman. Today MPs will vote on the next step – whether gay couples can have complete equality with a religious ceremony – but religious ministers who don’t want to conduct such marriages won’t be forced to. The only MPs who are objecting are the religious right-wing bigoted old farts whose intolerant views insist that ‘marriage’ can only be applied to a man and a woman – mostly right-wing Tories who form a considerable body of opinion in our parliament. However the vote is expected to be carried in a balanced parliament because most of the opposition agree with gay marriages – and it reflects the views of the population where most people also agree that gay partners should be treated equally. Can you imagine this ever being carried in a Hungarian parliament – in a society where Roman Catholicism is enshrined in the… Read more »

It may all be true, but from Ungvary one would expect more than this family connection thing.

I mean “our” György Matolcsy has not given evidence of being a extreme right winger and he should not be blamed for his shameful ancestors. He could be considered crazy, or an amok runner in many countries, I dont think any self respecting weekly would give him even a column, but that is a different issue.


London Calling!

Yes Paul – Vukasin Poleksic guilty as charged! Career over and an early shower. But he failed to do the dirty.

Shameful Debrecen.



Paul : I think there’s more to it than just knowledge of history. There’s something in the collective Hungarian psyche which makes them see themselves as simultaneously superior and unfortunate victims. If anything, this attitude affects their view of history, rather than the other way round – they will always concentrate on the bad side of Hungarian history, and ignore anything positive. Except, of course, when they are asserting their superiority – then we suddenly hear about all the good and great things that Hungary/Hungarians have done! (By the way, I do appreciate that talk about such things as a ‘Hungarian psyche’ is mumbo-jumbo and not something that any serious historian would go anywhere near! I’m just doing my amateur best to explain something I pick up in Hungary, which I don’t get in other countries.) I share your impression that Hungarians tend to “see themselves as simultaneaously superior and unfortunate victims”, and surely this has an influence on how “they” view history. However, this psychological trait also has reasons in history, it was not just Trianon where they lost out in the past centuries. And inferiority complexes feed tales of superiority – this would be my amateur explanation. As… Read more »

gdfxx :
By the way, according to the Wikipedia entry for Marosvásárhely/ Târgu Mureș the Hungarians make up only 48% of the population.

They make 44.9% in Marosvásárhely/ Târgu Mureș, according to the last census (2011).
Hungarians form the majority in some small towns as Sf.Gheorghe/Sepsiszentgyörgy (77%),
Odorheiu Secuiesc/Székelyudvarhely (96%), Miercurea Ciuc/Csíkszereda (80%).

The issue of Roma-Gypsy is a bit tricky. They do not declare themselves as such during the census but, in the Hargita-Kovaszna-Maros region, they declare themselves Hungarians
Thus in Hargita you have on paper that there are some 2500 Gypsyes while in fact they are some ~20 000, and thus the percent of true-Hungarians in ~80% not 85%.


I’m not following this Matolcsy business at all, to a non-Hungarian speaker/reader it is utterly confusing.

But surely (unless I am completely misunderstanding it) the key question is in tappanch’s first post, where the two brothers were born in 1901 and 1905, but Matolcsy’s father was born in 1930? It would be a minor miracle if these three men shared the same mother, and even fairly unlikely that they shared the same father.

My apologies if I’ve got this as confused as I suspect I have.


“But let’s return to the territories lost as a result of the Treaty of Trianon. Sociologists asked which cities that belong to the successor states have a Hungarian majority.”

This question, strictly speaking, is not about history, if they asked about the current Hungarian population across the borders (which is probably very different than what it was at the time of Trianon).

This question is more about knowledge of current affairs, and the media and politics have a lot larger role in shaping these perceptions than long-forgotten history classes. I was in high school more than 20 years ago…. even if they were teaching us anything “current” of that time, that information is way outdated by now.


Andres :
slightly OT. The Guardian on the Hungarian right:

Thanks for the link, Andres – an impressive article. Not the easiest read, but well worth the effort. It gives an interestingly different perspective on Fidesz-Jobbik, but draws an even more depressing conclusion.


Wow! That Guardian article is really scathing – but on the spot. Some highlights for those who haven’t read it:

” The final piece in the puzzle is its direct emulation of modern US Republicanism, with its toxic brew of intolerance, fundamentalist Christianity and xenophobic nationalism. Fidesz national symbolism is strongly redolent of redneck Southern nationalism …”

“Ranged against these “good things” are cosmopolitans (Jews), criminals (Gypsies), sexual deviants (homosexuals) and people who want to give prisoners an easy time (liberals). This straightforward approach defines the opposition as a set of grotesque caricatures before it has a chance to mount any kind of challenge. ”

Really impressive and spot-on!

Does anyone here know more about the author ?

“However, this psychological trait also has reasons in history, it was not just Trianon where they lost out in the past centuries.” That’s the usual explanation, Maria, and one I had thought pretty obvious until recently. But, after nearly 12 years of living in Hungary off and on and being in daily contact with Hungarians, I am left wondering if this isn’t too simplistic. Other nations have had pretty awful histories as well, without it generating the same mixture of assumed superiority and fatalistic victimhood. For instance, the Irish have had a far worse time than the Hungarians, and also have a heartfelt territorial ‘injustice’ dating from much the same time. But chat to an Irish person and they don’t come across as thinking they are superior or seem bowed down by the injustice of history. I have no detailed knowledge of other countries’ history, but there are plenty of others, even just in Europe, who have been through terrible historical injustices, and yet none of them seemed to have developed a ‘Hungarian’ national psyche. Perhaps it’s not just the history, but the attitudes and assumption through which that history is viewed? Perhaps it’s not that Hungary, alone amongst nations,… Read more »

Dieter666 – According to the Guardian: “Carl Rowlands is an activist and occasional writer based in Budapest”

and (from their own website): “New Left Project is dedicated to producing high quality comment and analysis on issues of concern to the political left (broadly defined). We are not affiliated to any particular party, tendency or strand of thought. Rather, we seek to contribute towards a lively, inclusive culture of left-wing discussion, appealing both to those who already consider themselves to be of the left, and to any others who have an interest in its ideas and priorities.”