A couple of days ago I read an article in Gondola.hu, a right-wing internet publication, with an intriguing title: “The left-liberals’ fate is never to govern.” Well, that’s quite a tease. No liberal or socialist party, the argument went, will ever be allowed to govern the country because they are enemies of the nation. They would allow immigrants to settle in Hungary “when all through history great influxes of immigrants resulted in great harm.” The author added that “the left-liberals knowingly misinterpret the admonitions of St. Stephen to his son and parrot the lie that the presence of immigrants strengthens the country. Apparently they think that the greater their number the better.” This nonsense was written by a man with a law degree who is currently heading one of the new government offices created between 2010 and 2014.
Although in the past there have been scholarly debates about the proper translation of an important sentence in St. Stephen’s Admonitions to his son, Prince Imre, ordinary mortals accepted the translation of the crucial sentence in which Stephen urges his son to attract foreigners and guests (“adventicii” and “hospitis”) “because a country using only one language and having only one custom is weak and frail” (Nam unius lingue uniusque moris regnum inbecille et fragile est). It is this translation that is now, in the middle of the debate on immigration, being questioned in the mostly right-wing press. One such article bears the title: “Saint Stephen, the neo-liberal,” making fun of people who “misinterpret” the saintly king’s words. The crucial word is “regnum,” which indeed can mean either royal power or kingdom/realm. Surely, the proper translation of this word ought to be a scholarly question, not a political one. The important historical fact is that Hungarian kings throughout the country’s history encouraged immigration to the great benefit of all.
The earliest western “hospitis” came from Northern France (Walloons), Lorraine, and Lombardy, followed by Germans in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries from Bavaria, Swabia, and Saxony. By the thirteenth century even foreign artisans and peasants were called “guests.” They came with promises of privileges, including reduced taxes, limited self-government, their own judges, etc. These people greatly accelerated the formation of Hungarian towns and cities, which lagged behind the large cities of Western Europe. The Saxons settled in Transylvania and in Szepesség (Spiš region of Northern Slovakia) during the reign of Géza II (1130-1162). Esztergom and Székesfehérvár were settled by Italian, Walloon, and French immigrants. They were the first truly western-style Hungarian cities, even if on a small scale.
During the Mongol invasion of Hungary in 1241 most of the important cities, including Esztergom, Buda, and Pest, were pretty well razed. Béla IV (1206-1270) is often called the “second founder of the state” because he managed to rebuild a devastated country. Once again foreign settlers were invited to aid in the reconstruction work. This time from the Czech lands, Moravia, and Germany. He also asked the Cumans, who had fled from the Mongols, to return. And he supported the immigration of Romanians to Transylvania. Late Hungarian medieval towns were largely German-speaking, but slowly assimilation had started to take hold, only to be interrupted by the Turkish invasion of Hungary in the sixteenth century.
After most of the Hungarian territories were freed from Turkish occupation, the necessity of settling new immigrants from the west became an issue. Nationalist Hungarians today like to portray this large-scale immigration as the attempt of a “foreign” and anti-Hungarian king to undermine the power of Hungarians in their own country. But history tells a different story. It was the 1722-23 Diet of the Hungarian nobility that in fact urged the king to act in order to revive the country’s economic life.
Even before that date, between 1689 and 1740, returning landlords decided on their own to send agents to various parts of Germany to initiate “private” immigration by recruiting farmers/settlers to till their land. These landlords were mostly Catholics, and therefore they preferred to recruit in areas of Catholic Germany. The exception was the group of German settlers from Hessen who settled in Tolna County around the village of Gyönk. They came during 1722-23.
There was another wave of immigrants during the second half of the reign of Maria Theresa. She offered settlers generous benefits, including financial assistance to build their houses. After the Seven Years’ War the number of settlers multiplied, coming especially from Alsace Lorraine, Baden, Luxembourg, and Rheinland-Pfalz. These so-called Theresian immigrants settled along the country’s southern borders in an area that belongs to Serbia today. The third wave of immigrants came after 1782, during the reign of Joseph II, from Pfalz, Saarland, the areas surrounding Frankfurt and Mainz, Hessen, and Württenberg. Without these German settlers, a Hungarian economic recovery would have been unimaginable.
And I haven’t even touched on the Jewish immigration to Hungary. Although Jews have lived in the country for the last thousand years, if not longer, it was only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that their numbers swelled. In 1784 they constituted only 1.3% of the population; by 1910, 5.0%. Their story certainly deserves a separate post. Here only briefly: these immigrants came both from the west (Czech lands and Moravia) and from the northeast (Galicia). The immigration from the Czech lands and Moravia was prompted by the limits imposed on the number of Jews by Charles VI (1711-1740). Large numbers of Jews arrived from Galicia between 1830 and 1870 because of the extreme poverty of the region and because of the peasant rebellion of 1846, known as the Great Slaughter.
By 1910 citizens whose first language was German constituted over 10% of Hungary’s population, while 5% of the population declared themselves to be Jewish “izraelita vallású/religion.” Both groups made enormous contributions to the modernization of Hungary and to its scientific and artistic accomplishments. Hungarians should remember this when they want to close the doors to newcomers.