The 2011 Hungarian census: Some startling changes in the last ten years

It’s time to talk about the latest census. When I mentioned to an American friend that the final results of the census were just released, she looked a little puzzled: “When do they take censuses in Hungary?” In the first year of every decade, I answered. Why is it so late? Because the Orbán administration is noted for its incompetence. Why would the Central Statistical Office (Központi Statisztikai Hivatal) be any different? One reason for the delay might be Viktor Orbán’s decision in July 2011 to sequester the 2.5 billion forints set aside for the 2011 census. It was predicted that unless money was found by September, data processing would be delayed. And it was.

I don’t think it surprised too many people that Hungary’s population dropped again in the past ten years, although from media reactions it seems that the size of the decrease was not expected. In 2001 the population of the country was 10,198,000. Ten years later, 9,938,000. So, the decrease was 261,000. Zsolt Németh, not the undersecretary of the foreign ministry but the head of the Statistical Office, claimed that one third of these “missing persons” can be found in western European countries. My feeling is that the number is much higher than indicated by Németh and that some of the people who are currently abroad were actually included by parents or spouses in the census. Especially since answers to the questions from the Statistical Office could be returned online.

nepszamlalasThere were two surprises in the released short summary of the census. The number of Gypsies and other nationalities has grown tremendously while the number of people declaring religious affiliation has decreased across all denominations. The loss was especially large for the Hungarian Catholic Church.

One newspaper came out with this startling headline: “More Gypsies, fewer Hungarians.” But the fact is that not only Roma people felt freer to identify themselves as belonging to a minority, a despised minority at that, but suddenly people with German ethnic roots came forward in much greater numbers than ten years ago.

Here are a couple of figures. In 2001 only 205,720 individuals claimed to be of Gypsy origin. Ten years later the number is 315,583. According to estimates, the actual number of Roma in Hungary is around 700,000 and therefore about 50% of the Gypsies still refuse to identify themselves. Yet the increase is a hopeful sign of greater ethnic self-awareness.

In 2001 Germans numbered 120,344;  ten years later this figure swelled to 185,696. The number of Romanians more than doubled (from 14,781 to 35,541). Even the number of Russians went up from 5,512 to 13,337. In 2001 9.4 million people declared themselves to be Hungarian, today this number is only 8.4 million.

As for the statistics concerning religiosity and church affiliation, they were described by Index as “earthshaking.” In 2001 5.5 million people claimed to be Catholic. Today this number is only 3.9 million. The other churches all registered loss as well, but the Catholic statistics were the most shocking. At the same time those without any religious affiliation grew from 1.5 million to 1.8 million. One ought to add to this number those who simply refused to answer the question regarding religious affiliation. In 2001 1.1 million people; in 2011 2.7 million.

The secretariat of the Conference of Catholic Bishops tried to explain this phenomenon without losing face. They claimed, apparently with some justification, that the questions concerning religious affiliation were differently formulated in 2001 and in 2011. Ten years ago the question read: “Your religion/church?” In the last census the question was much more specific: “To which religious community do you feel you belong?” Therefore, says András Máté-Tóth, professor of theology at the University of Szeged, the two different sets of data cannot really be compared. There is something in that. If a person was confronted with the 2001 question on religious affiliation, he might have considered it an inquiry about his baptismal certificate. But a much more specific question on belonging or feeling close to a specific religious community cannot be answered automatically. And it seems that a lot of people were not ready to commit themselves to a religious community about which they might know nothing. A baptismal certificate is simply not enough when confronted with this question.

As for those who refused to answer. The specificity of the question might be a factor, but there is something else that leads me to believe that the 2011 data more accurately describe the real situation. In 2001 there was no possibility of returning one’s answers electronically. The census taker visited all the households and hovered over members of the family while they were answering the questions. They were empowered to answer queries from members of the household. This assistance might have influenced the answers. This time the Central Statistical Office encouraged online replies and therefore outside influence was more limited. The combination of these two factors most likely resulted in more realistic results.

To repeat, ten years ago about 1.5 million Hungarians claimed no religious affiliation; today it is 1.8 million. While in 2001 1,104,330 refused to answer the question, today it is 2,699,025. Altogether there are 4.5 million people in Hungary who either profess no religious affiliation or refuse to answer. Half a million more than declared Catholics.

These statistics are especially interesting in view of the aggressive Catholic pressure via the Christian Democratic Peoples Party (KDNP) and to some extent the majority government party, Fidesz.  Rózsa Hoffmann, who suddenly discovered her religiosity, clearly favors the policy of handing over more and more schools to the churches. Most of these schools naturally ended up in Catholic hands. Because of pressure by Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, parochial schools receive all sorts of extra benefits from the state , so local communities felt that perhaps their schools would be better off if they were ceded to the churches. Naive parents believe that their children will receive a better education in the local parochial school, which is a doubtful proposition in the first place without taking into consideration that the kind of education their children will receive there might not prepare them well for the modern, secular world. Just the other day I mentioned Iván Sándor’s critique of the education of the 1920s and 1930s that the Orbán government is emulating. It produced non-thinking, obedient robots.

I simply can’t believe that the Orbán government’s efforts to make a religious country out of Hungary can succeed. This is not the trend anywhere in Europe, and it seems that Hungary is no exception.


  1. I really need to read my posts more closely before hitting the Post Comment button:
    look at President Obama, as a perfect example of what I’m saying…he is as much white as he is black, but he somehow became our first black president!!!
    they would probably be much more willing to provide their “non-Magyar” (ain’t that a crock of BS) status, than in a face-to-face interview.

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  2. Some1 :
    On a census, as in every country they try to identify what is the “background” of a person.

    In every country ? There’s no such thing in France, Germany, Italy nor Spain for instance. This is not a matter of common sense.

    Some1 :
    [In Canada] There isn’t a direct question about nationality, but I about mother-tongue and religion.

    Actually, until 2011 the compulsory “long form” of the Canadian census asked several direct questions about ‘ethnicity’, an equivalent to ‘nationality’ in the Hungarian context.

    Those questions – which had existed since 1871 under different formulations – were moved in 2011 from the census to a voluntary “National Household Survey” on a 30% sample of the general population. They’re still out there.

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