Tag Archives: industrialization

Immigration as a curse in Hungarian history?

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.

Hajós in Bács-Kiskun County settled by Germans in 1722

Hajós in Bács-Kiskun County settled by Germans in 1722

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.

Two days, two speeches: Viktor Orbán on a very wrong track

There are always a few people who phone into György Bolgár’s popular talk show on Klubrádió inquiring why he spends so much time on Viktor Orbán. The answer is simple. Orbán controls the country’s political, economic, and social agendas. Lately he has been busily promoting his ideas on topics ranging from religion to re-industrialization. Just in the last two days he made two speeches and gave his usual Friday morning interview to Magyar Rádió (which lately I’ve noticed French and German journalists correctly call state radio instead of public radio). And today the Spanish  El Mundo published an interview with Orbán on Christianity’s blessings for everyone, including nonbelievers.

Here I will tackle only the two speeches he delivered on April 18 and 19. The first was occasioned by an addition to the Stadler Rail Group’s plant near Szolnok. Stadler Rail is a Swiss company. The second also marked a plant expansion, this time by the Danish Lego Group at its Nyíregyháza facilities. There are practically no foreign companies that want to establish new factories in Hungary, so Orbán must be satisfied with even modest expansions of existing ones. Both Lego and Stadler have been operating in Hungary for a number of years. They came during the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments.

Years ago, during his first premiership, Orbán made a since oft-quoted statement: “There is life outside the European Union.” In the last ten years or so he didn’t want to call attention to that much criticized sentence. At least not until two days ago when he said in his Szolnok speech: “I find it very important that the company that invests in Hungary is Swiss. Hungarians have always admired the Swiss and I am especially pleased that the Ambassador of Switzerland is also here. As school children we learned that Switzerland is a freedom loving country that has never given up its independence, horribile dictu didn’t even join the European Union. Switzerland is a good example that there is life outside the Union, so no one should be scared.” Well, that’s quite something although I doubt that Orbán actually wants to withdraw from the EU. He knows only too well that a financial collapse would follow secession.

There can be no better place to talk about the re-industrialization of the country than in a plant that manufactures railway vehicles and streetcars. The site gave Orbán an opportunity to repeat one of his favorite themes: that only industrial “production” constitutes real work. He will transform Hungary from a service-oriented society to one that is “work-based.” Any other kind of human activity is worthless. In fact, more than worthless. It leads straight to failure. Let’s see just what he has in mind. “Someone who works, produces will stay successful, the one who speculates on the financial market will fail; the one who is in the service industry cannot stand on his own feet.” I haven’t heard such stupidity for a very long time. Try to explain that to the Rothschilds or to Conrad Hilton. On the other hand, there is no guarantee whatsoever that someone producing industrial goods will succeed. Just think of all those companies that have died or that are struggling to keep their heads above water.

But wait, there’s more! According to Viktor Orbán, “we don’t live off others. We don’t live from the dole of the IMF or the European Union. The country is standing on its own feet because of  its economic accomplishments.” I can’t find words!

The next day it was time to visit Nyíregyháza where the Danish Lego Group is expanding its facilities. Here we found out from the Hungarian prime minister why Lego products are so popular. He has, he said, spent some time pondering over this puzzle and came up with the following hypothesis: “These toys are the expressions of the modern age, the world in which we live. In them we can find the greatest challenge of globalization. That challenge is how we can build separate worlds from almost practically identical components. … In 2010 we began exactly that kind of enterprise, which is not at all a game but which demands at least as much inventiveness and fantasy as building our own world from Lego comp0nents…. We Hungarians had to undertake the task of rebuilding a Hungary that is different from all other countries from components at our disposal in the twenty-first century…. We followed the spirit of Lego. We didn’t follow the well known path but started on our own, trying to remove the debris of the past.” And he went on and praised the inventiveness and creativity of Hungarians.

Let's build a country DecoJim's photostream / Flickr

Let’s build a country
DecoJim’s photostream / Flickr

Well, we know that the inventiveness and fantasy exhibited by György Matolcsy produced mighty few positive results. On the contrary, his unorthodox economic moves managed to send the Hungarian economy into recession. One mustn’t forget, although Orbán et al keep trying to rewrite history, that the Hungarian economy was on the rebound when he took office in 2010.

To build a separate Hungarian world today is impossible, and I suspect it was always impossible. Globalization is not a new phenomenon. I would also advise Orbán not to mix up Switzerland with Hungary.