Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 7, 9 August 1999

Debate: Nation and ethnicity in Central and Eastern Europe D E B A T E:
Hungarians: Different Yet Tolerant

Gusztav Kosztolanyi

(This article is a response to Cas Mudde's article "The Defence of 'Ethnic Hungarians'" in this issue of Central Europe Review)

For us Hungarians, the unshakeable belief that we are qualitatively different to others is expressed as ethnic difference, in other words, an irreducible given. Language reinforces the belief in qualitative, immutable difference, in ethnicity. It is the type of collective fiction that has been cemented into social fact.

I can empathise with at least one of the statements made in the contribution to our debate by Cas Mudde, that of the feeling that cogent arguments were falling on deaf ears: "Most of the time, my conversation partner would not even get the point".

In order to gain even an inkling into Hungarian discourse, a few general principles have to be grasped. Firstly, that any discourse is culturally specific, unique to a given cultural context that must be accessible before the meanings contained within the discourse can be deciphered. Talking at cross-purposes is all too easy.

Discourse is fuelled and sustained by certain assumptions, ideas which are so "natural" to the participants in the dialogue that they become imperceptible, they are taken for granted, forming part of what the eminent French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, terms the "doxa". Ethnicity is part of the Hungarian doxa. For us, the unshakeable belief that Hungarians are qualitatively different to others is expressed as ethnic difference, in other words, an irreducible given.

A worldview founded on ethnicity

Nationalism is a system of classification, an interpretative framework used as a means of justifying certain administrative (organisational) structures and explaining certain features of reality. Nationalism comprises both a cognitive and an institutional dimension. Nationalism allows boundaries to be drawn; it rests on a simple dichotomy - those who belong to the nation and those who do not.

It has proven remarkably resilient in spite of all the challenges issued against it, in part due to its doxic quality (it constitutes social reality), and in part because of its remarkable flexibility when it comes to adapting to suit the needs of a specific social context. In order to be successful, ideology has to be seen as "natural", as a given. It must draw its strength from its reflection of the reality that surrounds its adherents, and it must harness natural metaphors to retain its power to convince, to remain plausible.

Ethnicity falls into the category of natural metaphors, building on established concepts such as kinship ties. It represents an extension of the belief that blood creates a community, a fellowship, moral links of responsibility and shared destiny. It is implicitly assumed that individuals bear certain common features and characteristics that may be transmitted from generation to generation. These characteristics can no more be altered, shed or denied in much the same way as we cannot deny the existence of our own corporeal reality and its limits. We cannot choose into which family we are born (much as though we may wish to at times!) and, by analogy, we cannot repudiate the very essence of our ethnic being.

Because the concept of ethnicity is based on an absolute, it is well suited to expressing the notion of an inalterable, qualitative difference. It acts as a cohesive force, one that is said to transcend all other considerations such as the arbitrary frontiers drawn by politicians in the midst of power plays. It imparts a sense of identity, of mutual interest, the type of mystical, "spiritual" bond of which nationalists are so fond. Organic unity is indeed one of the assumptions held to be true in a worldview founded on ethnicity. To interpret the world ethnically is to lay claim to legitimation that goes far beyond "superficial" cultural arguments.

In Hungary, national identity has been based to a large extent on an ethnocentric approach. This is one of the reasons why it is difficult for someone "from the West" to understand what appears to be a stubborn attachment to something which is scientifically unproven ("There is no scientific evidence" etc.) and therefore easy to brush aside as irrational. Discourse in the West, where societies were far more homogenous linguistically (once the establishment of state-run, centralised education systems had imposed a standardised version of a given language, relegating dialects to the home and private use), concentrated on a cultural definition of national uniqueness that did not place such great emphasis on blood ties.

Language is the door

Language has indeed occupied a privileged position in Hungarian self-understanding. There are various reasons for this.

In general, language is the primary vehicle of expression, far more than a mere tool of communication. Language grants access to culture, culture provides a shared interpretative and experiential framework - which has, incidentally, not been undermined in recent decades by television or even the Internet, though both have established a global, parallel culture which is gaining in stature and importance every day.

Language is acquired in the early years of life from those individuals with whom we have the strongest emotional bonds, in short, it is so ingrained in our conscious lives as to become "material", that is, integral to our definition and understanding of ourselves, to our identity. It both precedes us and outlives us, we absorb it and it shapes our perception of the physical and social world.

All this may be said of any language, however. What is different about Hungarian?

Firstly, its relative isolation. It belongs to a small family of languages with Finnish widely regarded as its closest relative, but in spite of broad structural similarities and certain shared roots for words such as water and hand, there is precious little overlap between them. According to linguistic experts, the two languages are in fact as closely related as Welsh and Persian. This fuels a feeling of difference in the geographical context, where Slav languages, German and Romanian are the official tongues of Hungary's neighbours.

Language is the most immediate and obvious sign of difference in a context where difference is everything. Language differences are looked upon as the external articulation of an internal difference (ethnicity). Language reinforces the belief in qualitative, immutable difference, in ethnicity. The two are confused to the extent that they have become inextricably intermeshed.

This may seem spurious or circular in nature, but it is the type of collective fiction that has been cemented into social fact, hidden in the unquestioned recesses of individual minds, an implicit cultural assumption.

Try explaining a phenomenon such as Scottish nationalism to a Hungarian. The fact that the vast majority of Scots cannot understand let alone garble a few words of Gaelic has not stopped the calls for independence from being heeded at least to the extent that some power has been devolved from Westminster to a re-established Scottish Parliament. In Scottish nationalism, there is perhaps an undercurrent of ethnicity, but the mainstream is exclusively civic and cultural. The separate Scottish legal and educational systems have formed an identity alongside the differences in outlook and philosophy. Scots speak English, using accent as the marker distinguishing the insider group from the English (all of which goes to show incidentally that ethnicity is but one of many alternative means of accounting for and maintaining difference).

Hungarians find it difficult to take this seriously: language has become so crucial to Hungarianness that it is the criterion according to which Hungarians judge all claims to national identity and uniqueness.


National identity is expressed symbolically, gathering strength from public ritual. Flags, anthems and the national interpretation of historical events are symbols which also constitute social reality. The establishment of Hungarian language universities in Romania and elsewhere has to be seen in context. It is an expression of legitimacy, including the legitimacy of definition. The minority group is free to decide how it should view itself, has a right to exist as a cultural entity, to express itself in the language of its choice. This is a battle fought on the cultural plane, the only plane on which minorities have been given international recognition.

The wish to found such institutions is felt keenly because it is perceived as a life or death struggle. Recognition is, to all practical intents and purposes, a guarantee of survival. Use of one's native tongue to set out one's own thoughts and emotions is not usually contested. It is more usually seen as a fundamental, basic right. Only official recognition can legitimate a minority's desire for this limited degree of cultural autonomy.

Coupled with the importance attached to language within Hungarian self-definition, Hungarian interest in the fate of Hungarian minorities abroad can be better understood as neither morbid chauvinism nor concealed revisionism. It is a defence of the right to define for oneself what one's identity is, a principle which Hungarians put into practice vis-a-vis the minority groups within Hungary.

Perhaps it is this absence of hypocrisy that has annoyed Cas Mudde?


As for the emotive element and the "obsession" that Hungary has with Hungarian minorities abroad, there is a historical aspect at play, which I have hitherto neglected. With the ratification of the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary was forced to cede two thirds of her territory to her neighbours. This was unprecedented, and such an exercise has never been repeated. Infrastructure links were brutally severed, leaving the Hungarian economy in ruins. Trianon was and is, in certain circles, a national trauma.

The chief justification proffered by the victorious Allies for "dismembering" Hungary (to stick to the terms used in Hungarian discourse) were ethnic in nature. The new frontiers were ostensibly re-drawn to reflect ethnic realities. The crucial point is that Hungary was being penalised for ethnic heterogeneity, whilst the borders were being re-drawn in such as way as to condemn millions of Hungarians to minority status amongst her strengthened neighbours. (Transylvania being the most flagrant case of ineptitude as compared with the avowed principle of respecting the ethnic makeup of a region.)

Ethnicity was the stick used to beat Hungary with, ethnicity was the defining term of a discourse imposed from outside. It is hardly surprising, then, that Hungary responded using the same terminology.

The Hungarians suffered a blow, the severity of which had never been witnessed before or since, and the country has fought to be re-accepted into the fold ever since.

In order to make herself understood, Hungary has simply tried to couch the debate in the same terms that had been used by the West to explain its actions. Hungary felt rejected, misunderstood. Yes, there is a hint of nostalgia and hankering after a lost Empire in the keen interest Hungary shows in Hungarian minorities. The emotiveness of the issue and the grip it continues to hold on many minds is not disproportionate to what Hungary suffered. Had Germany or the Netherlands been ripped apart in such a crass manner, does Cas Mudde seriously believe that they would have shrugged it off easily?

The details

As for the question of the Horn government being so enlightened as to avoid putting the minorities issue in the centre of foreign policy, this is quite simply untrue. The Basic Treaties with Romania and Slovakia were prepared and signed in the course of Horn's term of office. Both of these Treaties kept the minorities issue in the public eye, sparking off major debates. It may seem as if minorities are being given greater prominence now, but that is partly due to the framework that these Treaties created for civilised dialogue and co-operation instead of mutual hostility and suspicion. The groundwork had first to be laid.

That the transposition of the monolithic French language law into Slovakia should cause controversy is hardly surprising given the completely different social context of Slovakia. The French drive towards centralisation and homogenisation is legendary: until recently, it could be argued, the French have not been confronted with the phenomenon of minority cultural difference. Immigrants from former colonies all spoke French as a native language or at least as a second language. The entire fabric of French society is radically different from Slovak society. It is never wise policy to sacrifice prevailing reality to principle. History furnishes countless examples of this.

The Slovak language law has slightly more substance to it than that school reports were to be issued exclusively in Slovak. On a visit to the Slovak Parliament a couple of years ago, I asked a prominent Hungarian minority politician about exactly what the language laws entailed (I admit this was not an unbiased source, but is CM any less biased?)

This Hungarian minority politician illustrated it very neatly by saying that in areas where a certain percentage of the population was Slovak, all public dealings with the authorities had to be conducted in Slovak. Even where the mayor of a town might be Hungarian, along with the vast majority of local inhabitants, Slovak was the only authorised means of communication. Compare this with the situation in Belgium, where civil servants are required by law to speak the three official languages (Flemish, French and German, in order of relative importance) and you will see that the Slovak government's approach was not exactly conciliatory.

As for Hungarian eloquence in persuading the rest of the world of the rightfulness of their cause, it smacks to me of that evergreen favourite of anti-Hungarian rhetoric, the worldwide conspiracy of Magyars. Forgive me, but stating that Hungary would stoop to adopt a set of liberal laws to protect her minorities in order to blackmail other countries into following suit, is paranoid in the extreme.

Hungary has proven to be more progressive than her neighbours. Tolerance and the constitutional guarantee of basic rights are admirable, yet Cas Mudde manages to make them sound execrable.

Treatment of minorities is only a litmus test of the maturity of a democracy, and some of Hungary's neighbours have a long way to go yet. Next, we will be hearing that Hungary has only proven so open-minded in an effort to sabotage her non-first-wave neighbours' attempts to join the EU. Nothing could be further from the truth, since Hungary has warmly advocated both Slovak and Romanian membership of the EU, and indeed of NATO, because Hungary has a regional perspective that is sadly lacking in certain quarters.

Finally, I can only assume that Cas Mudde has not spent enough time in Hungary to bother finding out about sterling work done by the Minorities' Office, an organisation dedicated to improving the position of the Roma and other minorities living in Hungary. Numerous studies have been carried out investigating the best means to help combat prejudice and ensure equality of opportunity. Roma in Hungary have the right to local self-government, free use of their language (in which there are TV and radio broadcasts), and there are many schemes designed to improve their position in Hungarian society, not to mention the reams of legislation produced (which, I admit, do not guarantee anything except on paper, if you wish to be truly cynical, but at least they do exist and they are enforceable). Cas Mudde may wish to consult the Minorities' Office website to find out more...

I would like to conclude by quoting Saint Stephen who, in the 11th century, wrote the following to his son in his Exhortations: "In the beginning, the Roman Empire grew, and the Kings of Rome were extolled and made glorious because many noble and wise men came thronging around them from many different lands. Rome would probably still be a slave today had Aeneas' scions not set it free. For, as guests arrived from many different lands and provinces, they brought many different languages and customs, many different examples and weapons with them, and this was an adornment to the country, enhancing the splendour of the court and deterring the foreigners from conceit. Weak and frail is the country with but one language and one set of customs".

In my opinion, we Hungarians have finally learned the lessons of these wise words.

Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 8 August 1999




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