Public opinion research in the Kádár regime

While Viktor Orbán is showing his compassionate side to the participants of the World Jewish Congress in Budapest I’m moving back for a day to the Kádár regime and its anomalies. One of the oddities not normally associated with one-party dictatorships was a center where sociologists studied public opinion. The work they produced wasn’t made public. Some of it was done at the behest of Magyar Rádió and Television (audience preferences). Other studies were commissioned by the Agitation and Propaganda Department (Agit-Prop) of MSZMP.

The Mass Communication Research Center (Tömegkommunkációs Kutatóközpont) was established in 1969 under the aegis of the Hungarian Radio. They wanted to know what the Hungarian public wanted. Considering that radio and television were a vital part of the everyday life of Hungarians in those days, it was essential that the authorities produce programs that met demands. Eventually, however, the competence of the research center was widened when the party realized that it might be to the advantage of the leadership to have a sense of the mood of the country. However, according to Mária Vásárhelyi, who is largely responsible for the fact that the material the Center produced didn’t perish, the people who worked in the Agit-Prop Department didn’t realize either the work’s value or its possible dangers. She has the feeling that few people ever bothered to look at the highly technical studies the Center produced.

The Center was closed in 1991 and part of its material eventually ended up in the Open Society Archives attached to the Central European University founded by financier George Soros. Currently 500 sociological studies and public opinion polls from the 1969-1991 period are available for study.

The first question we must ask is whether one can take subject responses at all seriously; after all, Hungarians were living in a dictatorship and might not have been forthcoming. Sociologists who either worked there or who are familiar with the sociological methods used then claim that the results can be considered scientifically sound. Surely, there were taboo topics, like the Soviet troops in Hungary, multi-party political systems, and the nature of dictatorship, but the sociologists simply avoided such questions until the second half of the 1980s. At that point they even inquired about a possible political change in Hungary. By 1989, 70% of the population considered the rule of Mátyás Rákosi deleterious for Hungary while only 40% thought the same about the Horthy regime.

Here are a few interesting findings. First, as to Hungarians’ self-image. It is known that most ethnic groups have a favorable opinion of themselves. But, given all the talk about Hungarian pessimism, it might come as a surprise that “there was no sign of pessimism anywhere” in the 1970s. When asked to describe Hungarians they answered in positive terms: jovial people who like to drink and eat; they like parties; they are friendly and hospitable. They also like to work and are diligent. The respondents admitted that Hungarians tend to be jealous of one another and that they are selfish. The overwhelming majority of them didn’t want anything to do with politics.

In 1971 91% of those questioned were proud of being Hungarian. What were they proud of? That Hungary became a “beautiful industrial country from a formerly agrarian one.” That Hungary can boast “a world famous cuisine, musicians, and animal husbandry.” “Because no other country has such a beautiful history.” “We struggled for centuries until we reached this height. We even have a role in world politics.”

What were they not proud of? Hungary’s role in World War II (32%), the human failings of Hungarians (21%), those who left Hungary illegally (15%), 1956 (11.5%), the reactionary regimes of the past (8.1%), the mistakes after the liberation (7.5%), and finally, the territorial losses (5.0%).

It is somewhat surprising that the MSZMP’s Agit-Prop Department was interested in people’s views of Trianon. The question had to be formulated very carefully. Eventually it read: “The defeat suffered at the end of World War I in its way ended the crisis that pried open the framework of the multinational Hungarian state. Do you know about the Peace of Trianon and if yes what do you see as its cause?” It turned out that 61% of the adult population didn’t know what the Peace of Trianon was all about. Mind you, 44% of them didn’t know what the Warsaw Pact was while 21% had wrong information about it; 40% had no idea about the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance or Comecon either. 64% didn’t know what the words “nationalist/nationalism” were all about and 76% didn’t know the meaning of antisemitism. Oh, those were the days!

It is not true, despite Fidesz propaganda to the contrary, that during the Kádár period people didn’t even know that there were Hungarians living in the neighboring countries. An overwhelming majority did know. However, they didn’t consider them to be part of the nation. Many, especially people in their twenties, felt no kinship with them.

By 1985 the research center cut its ties to Magyar Rádió and changed its name to Magyar Közvéleménykutató Intézet (Hungarian Public Opinion Institute). Why did the Antall government decide to close it in 1991 and disperse its archives? According to Mária Vásárhelyi, there were at least two reasons. One was that the Antall government (1990-1993) was rapidly losing popularity and the Institute’s results reflected this uncomfortable political reality. The government might also have thought that its researchers were just a bunch of communists whose findings were influenced by their political views. In fact, if anything, the opposite was true. Because these people were in the forefront of sociological research, which itself was a taboo discipline in the socialist countries, most of them were close to the opposition forces of the late Kádár regime. The second reason was practical. The Institute occupied a very valuable building in downtown Pest which the state sold to a German bank. It was at this point that Mária Vásárhelyi rushed to Domokos Kosáry, president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, who being a historian immediately realized the value of the material gathered by the sociologists between 1969 and 1991. He was the one who rescued the material which otherwise would (at best) have ended up in a cellar.

By now all the material is digitized and researchers can study the dominant opinions of Hungarians during the last two decades of the Kádár regime. Historians claim that it is an invaluable collection that will help us understand not only the Kádár period but, perhaps even more, the present.

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Gwen Jones

So that people can peruse the digitized materials themselves, OSA’s Collection on the Hungarian Institute for Public Opinion Research is here:

I hope that it will be possible to return to this topic at some later point, because it could be indeed of interest to see how such opinions developed over time. There is a book from 1992 about “ideology and political beliefs in Hungary”, most likely drawing on these data as well. At that time there was already a not too small (but also not too large) group of people that considered extreme right-wing ideas correct. So some tendencies in beliefs can be traced back to those times, but the opinions are not always coherent, so I do not think that even if one stated nationalist or socialist leaning in the early 1990s, this has remained unchanged from that time or is the most decisive aspect for support or not of OV. (I was thinking whether it is on purpose that in the question about which political movements of developed industrial societies people would find desirable for Hungary also, “liberal” is not mentioned, only communists, greens, conservatives, social democrats and right-wing extremists…) But because the ideas were varied before (and people even did not consider themselves “pessimists” as I learned today), not all is lost for today. Perhaps some people… Read more »

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