“Hungarian society is in a wretched state”

Two and a half years ago 444.hu reported on the then newly published “Survey at a Glance,”  a poll taken by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The editors summed up their findings on Hungary as “We are unhappy and sick. We are frightened and hate everybody and soon enough we will slip away from the community of developed nations.” After reading the summary of the statistics, I decided that the title, which at first glance seemed overly dramatic, pretty well described the state of affairs in Hungary in 2014.

This time 444.hu looked at the newly released data of the European Social Survey (ESS) in which researchers studied such societal attitudes as trust in justice, views on welfare, understanding and evaluation of democracy, personal and social well-being, health and its determinants, and attitude towards immigration. The general impression was that “Hungarian society is in a wretched [ramaty] state.”

ESS’s findings are based on an enormous amount of data collected by sociologists from over 30 countries. In Hungary the work was done by researchers of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences who a few days ago organized a conference on “Where is Hungary on the map of European Societies?” The 444.hu article is basically a report on the lectures delivered at this conference, but I suggest taking a look at the actual ESS survey, which is full of fascinating details.

It never fails: northern European countries lead the way in practically all categories, be it education or people’s trust in institutions and each other. They are followed by the western half of the continent. Hungary, alongside other East-Central European countries, lags behind. As 444.hu reports, Hungary is near the bottom of the countries studied in almost all categories. Here I will look at a few findings that I personally found revealing.

The first: people’s interest in and knowledge of politics. Respondents were asked to indicate their interest in politics on a four-point scale. The Danes and the Germans were the winners here with a score 2.84, followed by the Swedes, Swiss, Dutch, Finns, Brits, all the way down to Hungary (1.96) and the Czech Republic (1.82). What is the reason for such a low level of interest in politics in Hungary? One might guess that it is their disappointment in the political elite. Disillusionment is certainly part of the problem. The other reason might be the barriers to joining this select group of people entrusted with governing the country. But it turns out that the most important reason is that Hungarians feel inadequate to the task of being engaged in politics. As 444.hu in its usual blunt way put it, “Hungarians are not only not interested in politics but consider themselves too stupid [hűlyék] to pursue it.” Their feeling of incompetence, according to the sociologists, is a greater barrier than the closed nature of politics. Mind you, Hungarians are not entirely off the mark when they have a low opinion of their own competence. In the last 25 years almost nothing has been done to teach schoolchildren about the Hungarian political system.

We often read reports, especially in pro-government papers, about the dreadful no-go zones in those western European countries with a high percentage of African and Middle Eastern immigrants. These reports claim that in Hungary, where there are practically no newly arrived immigrants, public safety is assured. People are not afraid to go out on the street at night. Well, this is simply not so. Nowadays all apartment houses are shut tight. People, not just in Hungary but everywhere in East-Central Europe, are afraid to go out at night even if neither they themselves nor anyone they know has ever been assaulted.

The ESS report’s chapter on “Social Inequalities in Health and Their Determinants” uses a model called the Dahlgren-Whitehead rainbow in which there is a lot of emphasis on individual lifestyle choices: fruit and vegetable consumption, physical activity, smoking, alcohol consumption, BMI, health care utilization, mental well-being, quality of housing, and working conditions. Hungarians are not known for their wise lifestyle choices. Most people would rather opt for medication for, let’s say, high blood pressure than try to lose weight and exercise more. Thus, it is not terribly surprising that the percentage of seriously ill people is very high, nearly 14%. This places Hungary in the penultimate position among 21 countries studied.

Percentage men and women in bad or very bad health

Percentage of men and women in bad or very bad health

Let’s see some of the contributing factors to this sad state of affairs. Here is a country that is justifiably proud of the quality of its fruits and vegetables. Yet Hungarians don’t eat them; Hungary has the lowest fruit and vegetable consumption. Hungarian women exercise the least while the men beat only the Portuguese. Hungarian women are the most overweight, and only Lithuanians smoke more than Hungarian men.

The Hungarian researchers in this particular study didn’t talk about alcoholism, but it is also a serious problem. A few days ago HVG reported on a Hungarian initiative called “Dry November,” a version of “Go Sober for October.” Its organizers complained that the Orbán government not only has no “alcohol strategy” but in fact has been promoting pálinka consumption.

When it comes to political engagement, the current Hungarian government has no reason to encourage widespread civic participation, which would threaten its hegemony in the political sphere. And enlightening schoolchildren about the workings of democracy as we in the West understand it is certainly not to the advantage of the autocratic, semi-dictatorial regime of Viktor Orbán. As for bolstering preventive medicine and campaigning for more healthful living, this would require a great deal more money than the Orbán government currently spends on healthcare. The Orbán government did establish a network of tobacconist shops for the alleged purpose of limiting tobacco use. Their real purpose, however, was to give the faithful a monopoly on tobacco sales.

All in all, one can’t expect any great improvement in the “wretched state” of Hungarian society, which remains full of unhappy, sick, and fearful men and women.

November 20, 2016
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Penny Sue Oswalt

We need the former society status to be rebirthed and attempt to bring Glamour back to Hungary. The majority of hungarians are a peace seeking people. Too much destruction has occured. Bring back restoration and I am believing for someone to step up to the plate and orchestrate this.


I am always stunned by how many Hungarians smoke cigarettes when I visit. It is like a flash back to 1960s USA. I am a non-smoker which makes the Hungarian passion for cigarettes even more apparent to me, but the strangest experience I had with cigarettes was in 1972 in the Vietnamese town of An Lộc which was under siege by the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). We were under heavy artillery fire with shells hitting within 60 meters that were spraying shrapnel with myself and other US forces hunkering down after delivering ammunition to South Vietnamese forces. A sergeant pulls out a pack of Marlboros and offers me one and I yelled in order to be heard “no thanks I don’t smoke,” he laughed and said “it might be a good time to start.”


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“In the last 25 years almost nothing has been done to teach schoolchildren about the Hungarian political system.”

Entrusting the schools to the churches will not improve the situation. There is nothing about democracy in the gospel. On the contrary: “Give the emperor what belongs to the emperor”.


“Commuting” between Germany and Hungary regularly we can only underscore the findings described – my wife was so surprised when she came to Germany the first time and saw how people lived, behaved, ate and were active.

What I find especially atrocious (following Istvan’s comment …) is the number of young women, especially mothers of small children who still smoke – often they gave up during pregnancy but immediately returned to that bad habit!
It’s almost unbelievable – especially considering the amount of money used ion cigarettes, say a package a day, which now means 30 000HUF a month or more.

And it’s also a joke between my wife (who is really slender) at 70 years and me about our neighbours gaining weight like pigs being fed for slaughtering – sorry for this really bad joke, but my wife says it, she’s so angry about this sometimes!

On the other hand you can live a healthy lifestyle in Hungary – everything is available – very good fruit and vegetables at reasonable prices in the markets, but too many people eat too much fat …

Hungary really is in a sorry state healthwise!


Oh no! Hungary is evolving in all respects and assuming the role of the leading country of the region (or at least “pilot country”, “kalauzország”, whose innovative policies are being imitated and adopted by all neighbouring countries). Even to the extent that in the future, “latent” or “potential” Hungarian speakers will brush up their language knowledge as Hungarian has the potential to become the lingua franca of the region. Says László Marácz, the Amsterdam-based linguist with a “serious” profile in language policy research and a reverse side (for domestic consumption) in pseudolinguistic flim-flam, see http://magyaridok.hu/kultura/lehet-magyarul-gondolkodni-2-1161334/ .
(This interview made me so furious that I wrote a blog post and even express translated it into my non-native English: https://sentrooppasantra.wordpress.com/muilla-kielilla/to-the-roots/ .)

@Sentrooppa-Santra November 21, 2016 4:54 am Marácz is a learned idiot from the lunatic fringes of both generative linguistics (formerly transformational-generative or TG), and of Hungarist historical linguistics, the pseudo-linguistic cult that rejects all proven evidence for the Finno-Ugric origins of the Hungarian language. TG emerged in the late fifties as a highly fashionable and seemingly revolutionary formalist, context-free and syntacto-centric approach to the study of the nature of language. Since then it has however proved to be little more than an egregiously naive hypothesis firmly rooted in mid-twentieth century American structuralism, about as useful to the understanding of language as the nineteenth century theory of phlogiston was to the understanding of combustion. These days it is of course totally passé, and not just because the grammars it proposed never worked out in practice, but because the primary concern of the mainstream of contemporary theoretical linguistics had shifted to semantics and pragmatics, and in particular to the incredibly tough challenge of understanding the role of context in language usage, which happens to be also the core issue in contemporary artificial intelligence and machine translation research. In the sixties and early seventies, there were numerous nonsensical attempts to squeeze diachronic linguistics… Read more »
I have very little sympathy for Chomskyan approaches in linguistics. But I understand that they have a strong intellectual appeal for certain types of intelligent people. Moreover, they are (unfortunately, perhaps?) not that passé: in parts of the English-speaking world, in many parts of the German-speaking area and in Hungary as well, they are still considered viable and interesting and may even dominate the field (at least in Hungary, most of the successful and even internationally reputed linguists such as the grand old lady Katalin É. Kiss seem to work along these lines). One last (?) comment about Marácz. In 2008, a group of activists sent a petition to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, requesting a critical revision of the “Finno-Ugric theory” (http://igazmagyarok.uw.hu/HU/01-tortenelem/ostortenet/Beadvany-a-finnugor-hazugsag-felszamolasaert.htm). It says: “Today’s [sic] leading [sic] linguists, such as Dr. Marácz László, J. Pokorny, Prof Richard Kayne, H. Krahe, G. Solta, N. S. Trubetzkoy, as well as Angela Marcantonio, professor of the universities of Rome and London [sic], are of the opinion – which they have published on scientific fora – that the Finno-Ugric theory is untenable and impossible to prove.” Trubetzkoy (died 1938), Krahe (died 1965), Pokorny (died 1970) and Solta (died 2005) were well-known (historical) linguists and… Read more »

Excellent essay Professor Laakso, and your English is faultless (though it is characteristic of a scholar to be diffident about that!). Brava!


Thanks for this excursion into the history of languages!

Though I’m a complete layman there I’ve always been kind of interested in the evolution of language(s) and this was also kind of fun to read.