Victor Karady Hungarian elites adopted, Hungarian elites adopted,


The anti-Semitic ’change of the guard’ in Hungary. A Case Study in Institutional Violence.




After having practiced a liberal an integrationist policy, favorable to Jewish assimilation during the long 19th century, following World War I and the ensuing two revolutions Hungarian elites adopted an authoritarian-conservative regime embarking upon anti-Jewish policies. The paper offers a socio-historical interpretation of the political turnover, marked by the post-revolutionary White Terror (1919-1920), the imposition of an anti-Jewish numerus clausus in higher  education (1920) and the institutionalization of symbolic and political violence in the Christian Course era (1921-1938), leading to accelerated Nazification, starting with the infamous ’Jewish Laws’ (1938-1943)  preceding and preparing in many respects the Shoah (1944). Liberal integrationism was based on the importance of Jews as ethnic allies of the nation-building nobility for economic modernisation and demographic superiority in multi-ethnic Hungarian society. The spectacular success of their Magyarisation and professional mobility earmarked Jews for the role of possible ’internal  ennemies’ and – after 1919 and the strong participation of renegade Jews in the leftist revolutions – for the scapegoat function in the national disaster brought about by the peace dictate at Trianon. Still the infamous academic numerus clausus (since 1920) can be interpreted as a ’lesser evil’ in political terms, compared to contemporary extremist demands aiming at a properly proto-Nazi ’solution of the Jewish Question’, all the more that it was accompanied by more or less officially tolerated acts of anti-Jewish violence, among them serial murder attempts during the White Terror (1919-1921). Later on physical violence diminished, though – directed primarily against the urban middle class - it often took ritualised disguises proper (Jew-beating) in and outside university premises. Most anti-Jewish aggressions remained essentially symbolic, verbal or institutional after 1921 in form of public Jew baiting, insults in the press, individual street attacks, social segregation of Jews, etc. which accompanied official measures of exclusion from state managed intellectual and economical markets.  The impact of all this was decisive for a change of Jewish social strategies. These included emigration to the West, a qualified legitimization of Zionism and, more often than that, the adherence to leftist salvation ideologies as against earlier national assimilationism.


                                   ×                       ×                       ×


            Hungary of the Dualist period (1867-1919) represented the unique example of an emerging nation state east of the Rhine where the modernisation and assimilation of the sizable Jewish minority (5-6 % of the population) followed a markedly successful pattern, close to the West European one, though its political circumstances drew it nearer to the Central European model (that of belated and ’condititional’ emancipation).[1]

 Conflicts were certainly not lacking in this process. The Tiszaeszlár blood libel trial (1882-83) triggered off a nation wide crisis situation with world wide echos (not quite unlike the Dreyfus Affair in France), but law and order as well as justice prevailed due to a largely independent judicial apparatus and a more or less decisive government action, ready to defend even with military means those exposed to pogroms (though not without oscillations, just like in France). It is also true that the outburst of anti-Semitic agitation with a political program rather preceded than followed its western counterparts. But the rabid interventions against Jewish immigration (as early as 1875) and later for the deportation of Jews (1878) by the Liberal MP Gyõzõ Istóczy, then belonging to the ruling majority, were met with irony or outright indignation in government circles, though he remained member of the governmental party till 1882, date of his duel with Mór Wahman, a prominent Jewish deputy of the very same party…

Indeed the liberal aristocracy and gentry, initiating and leading the movement for national independence and political modernization since the Reform Era (1825-1848), the March Revolution of 1848, the War of Independence (1848-49) against and the Compromise (1867) with Vienna, which stayed in power throughout the long 19th century, maintained resolutely the consensus about the necessity to promote the social integration of and the political alliance with local Jewry. The rejection of anti-Semitism and the protection of Jews, when needed (as in the aftermath of the 15. March 1848 or in 1882-83), was thus part of its political program, even if the alleged ’Hungarian-Jewish symbiosis’ proved to be not much more than an efficacious ideological construction. Social reality discredited the idea of an achieved ’symbiosis’, when Jewish and Gentile life styles, professional mobility options and chances, levels of secularization, degrees of modern ’mentality’, school choices, residential patterns, etc.  – all continuing to separate largely Jews from non Jews – were taken into consideration.

Seen from a distant perspective though (and compared to neigbouring Vienna, Galicia, Romania, let alone the Russian or the German Empires), Dualist Hungary was a country favorable to Jews, at least in the sense that Jewish elites were part of the nationalist establishment, admitted even apparently to some of the highest public careers and dignities. The minister of war during the early years of World War I was a Jewish convert. In later war cabinets a confessing Jewish lawyer, Vilmos Vázsonyi, even served as minister of justice. (This was though for the first and the last times before the post-1945 transformations.) But these spectacular successes represented just one side of the medal, the ambivalence of the other side being well rendered by the catchphrase of the famous contemporary observer, the liberal novelist Kálmán Mikszáth : „Anti-Semites are those who hate Jews more than customary”.

 The number of Jew-haters grew with the passage of time, especially during the war years, peparing the decisive turnabout of 1919, which must be termed as historically fatal : tragic for Jews since it led ultimately to the Shoah in 1944, and disastrous for the country as a whole, since it deprived Hungary from the best of its modernizing elites...


The pre-1918 ’symbiosis’ and the ’assimilationist social contract’


  When modernization and nation building was put on the agenda of the ruling noble elite, invested by feudal right with quasi exclusive political powers (up till 1848), the Hungarian Sonderweg embarked upon was marked out by a number of fairly unique social conditions, an outcome of distinctively singular historical developments.

Late feudal (and post feudal) Hungary was indeed a society governed by one of the largest of European land-owning nobilities (some 5-6 % of the population, comparable in size only to the Polish or the Croatian gentry). The historical prestige of this nobility helped to maintain uncontested and almost uncurtailed its political hegemony throughout the Dualist period, but not without major socio-historical consequences.

 The ’survival of feudalism’ was, on the one hand, a mighty lever for the conservation and even extension of feudal ways, meaning the diffusion of gentry social manners, economic behaviours and paternalist (and corrupt) patterns of politicizing as well as exerting power in large sectors of the modernizing new middle classes (especially in the Christian ones). This represented thus an in-built mecanism of retarded development in many fields, generating a deficit in forces and human resources mobilisable for the tasks of economic and cultural – if not for political – modernization.

On the other hand, since the ruling nobility was made up mostly of Magyar ethnic stock or (for a minority) of assimilated local aliens (Germans and Slovaks, above all) sharing the commitment for the construction of a Magyar nation state, the nation-building process was undermined from the outstart by the conflict situation with several other (if not all) national minorities. This problem was all the more crucial that Hungary was - uniquely enough in post feudal Europe –  lacking both an ethnic and a religious majority. Roman Catholicism, the erstwhile state religion and the faith of the imperial court, gathered a mere 48 % of the population and the ruling Magyar stock even less, reaching some 42-45 % only in the early 19th century in the historic territories (separately administered Transylvania included, but outside Croatia-Slavonia).         

With all these given, the main difficulties of Hungarian nation-building – a properly impossible entreprise of sorts - have already been adumbrated. For the completion of a viable modern nation state, the nation-building nobility needed strongly entrepreneurial and politically reliable social allies to support its venture and to make up for its own lack of entrepreneurship in matters industrial, monetary and commercial as well as for its weakness in cultural inventiveness and scientific innovation. The roots of political liberalism, a measure of social openness to outsiders, the efforts made for the assimilation of native but non Magyar elites, the proposal of their social integration in gentry circles more or less irrespective of their ethnic or denominational background, all these offers and overtures included in what could be metaphorically termed the ’assimilationist social contract’ can be linked to the political hegemony, demographic weakness of its ethnic kin group and social incapacities proper to the nation-building nobility in multi-ethnic Hungary.

 From the preceding it may be clear that the ’contract’ had two major elements : a demand for cultural Magyarization and political Magyarism addressed to alien minorities in exchange of status mobility via integration in the governing elite. The demand concerned the approval and the backing of the Magyar nation-building program, with all its implications in terms of acculturation, language change and political support of Magyar nationalism. The counterpart offered was religious freedom and equality, almost undiscriminated access to vehicles of social advancement (schools, universities) and, above all, free professional mobility to elite positions in economic markets, the civil service, political, educational, military and other careers. The social acceptance and integration in gentry circles or on its margins via status markers, social intercourse, inter-marriage, entitlement to ’reserve officers’ standing, duelling relationship (Satisfaktionsfahigkeit), admission to Magyar student fraternities, etc. represented symbolic fringe benefits – regarded as essential in status conscous elite groups – which were generously granted to newcomers in the framework of the ’assimilationist contract’.

Minorities, especially their elites, reacted diversely to the offer, some accepting it whole-heartedly (like a good part of the Catholic or Lutheran Germans and Slovakians), others rejecting it more or less radically. The case of Jews was utterly different from other clusters. They could be expected to make the most of the ’contract’ while remaining – unlike other successful assimilees – largely apart within Magyar elites, even after the complete fulfilment or, indeed, the over-performance of assimilationist demands. The extension of the ’contract’ to Jews proved to be both an obvious necessity by the time of its first formulation (the pre-1848 Reform Era) and heavily problem laden. Its concrete social conditions can be epitomized as followas.      

One must remind first of  the relative weakness of religious anti-Judaism in historic Hungary. This was an essential fact of social life in a society depply divided along ethnic and denominational lines from the servile peasantry up to the city patriciate and the high aristocracy. Hence, due to the religious divisions of the nobility itself, the programs of political modernisation inevitably included a drive for secularism or at least the minimisation of religious differences, always favorable to Jews.

But Jews were positively needed for purely demographic reasons in a country of which the central parts were left almost empty after the expulsion of the Ottomans in the outgoing 17the century. Jewish immigration from Bohemia and Galicia reached its peak in the Reform Era (in the 1830s and 1840s) and it was never seriously hampered by the Hungarian orders, even if cities (unlike gentry landlords) tended to refuse their settlement in their walls. Immigrant Jews belonged to the best policed aliens in the multi-ethnic empire, placed under the strict moral control of their own denominational leadership. They could hardly be suspected – unlike other minorities – of irredentist, autonomist or anti-Magyar inclinations, since their coreligionist in respective countries of extraction (Austria, Bukovina, Galicia, Moravia) had been subject to incomparably harsher pressures, than in Hungary. The demographic necessity of integrating Jewish immigrants did not cease growing in the course of the construction of the nation state after 1867. When it became obvious that Jews would accept the ’assimilationist contract’ more diligently than others, their demographic contribution to the legitimation of the Magyar hegemony in the state proved to be decisive. Without their linguistic loyalty and actual Magyarisation – by declaring themselves massively of Magyar mother tongue – Hungarians would not reach a qualified majority of 54 % by the 1910 census.

But Jews were needed for economic reasons as well. The local landed aristocracy was happy to host settlers like Jews endowed with high taxation potential as well as with specially rare capacities, such as to supply goods to the rural population, to convert into cash their agricultural produce and to lease out some of the noble beneficia (feudal entitlements), like road or bridge tolls or – more rewardingly – the right to produce and sell alcohol. The ’symbiosis’ – if there was one – started by the economic partnership of Jews and the landed aristocracy (just like in some other countries, like pre-partition Poland).                                             

            Nevertheless, this Jewish-gentry relationship was not lacking ambiguous elements from the outstart. In spite of obvious advantages raked in by the gentry, the fear of ever-growing Jewish economic power was formulated very soon. István Széchenyi, the leading liberal thinker of the Reform era, expressed public apprehensions about it as early as the 1840s. But Jews represented a veritable proto-bourgeois stratum, filling the gaps of feudal and post-feudal economy. The liberal gentry had to count and capitalize on this ethnic entrepreneurial class – lacking other similarly firm potential allies for the realization of its program of modernization. Jews appeared indeed to be more capable than others to perform major tasks in the nation-building project – notably the famous program of ’embourgeoisement’[2] –. much advocated by the liberal leadership.

              The outcome of the extension of the ’assimilationist contract’ to Jews can be evaluated under the following headings.

 As regards majority society - a relatively rapid, smooth and complete civil emancipation of Jews (starting with an 1840 law on entrepreneurial freedom and completed by the 1895 ’Reception’ law offering Jewish religious communities full equality and legal reciprocity in relation to other ’received’ Christian Churches - as well as state subsidies) on the one hand, an official policy of secularisation together with the protection of minority rights and Jewish religious distinctiveness, on the other hand.

 As to Jews, the Dualist set-up provided for 1. their large scale acculturation, cultural and political ’nationalisation’ thanks particularly to their educational integration and promotion as well as to the headway made by the Berlin Haskala in ever larger circles of reform Jewry (called Neologues or Congress Jews), 2. their significant degree of social reception (even if far from an unreserved one) in various sectors of modernizing new elites (especially in the professions, in big city administrations and clusters of the creative intelligentsia), 3. their unprecedented, exemplary and probably uniquely fast and substantial professional and economic mobility. Each of these headings would deserve a detailed study, especially cultural Magyarization, exceptionally successful, given the fact that the strictly observant Orthodox persuasion continued to control the majority of Jewish communities up till the Trianon dictate (when large sections of eastern Jewry was detached from Hungary, together with two thirds of the territory of the historic kingdom). There are hardly any other examples of similarly accomplished ’nationalisation’ in Orthodox Jewish circles (including Magyar speaking Hassidim).

If lack of space prevents here the further study of all these developments, we must nevertheless pay some attention to social mobility patterns, since they will be strongly involved in the anti-Semitic crisis at the end of the Dualist period.    

Hungarian-Jewish social mobility followed in fact a rather classical western type model (typical also of German or Austrian Jewry). It was concomittantly directed towards the free lance middle classes, that is, to the intellectual professions (lawyers, doctors, journalists, engineers, pharmacists, vets, etc.), to banking and credit institutions, to the management of big and middle size industrial premises (especially in particular sectors, like the new media and the cultural industry), as well as to higher echelons of trading agencies, together with – but more marginally – the acquisition of traditional capital and patrimonial assets (land lease, landed estates, apartment houses). The seamy side of Jewish economic and professional successes lay (not entirely but still much like in Germany) in the continued limitations endured by Jews in elite markets controlled by the state or territorial governments. If Jews made some headway in academe and education, local administration, the judiciary or politics, this was on the strength of compensatory achievements. Overall, they remained poorly represented in these sectors, especially as compared to their advancement in competitive economic markets. Thus, the construction of modern Hungarian elites followed to a large extent a double standard – the sociologist Ferenc Erdei would qualify this in the 1940s as the ’dual structure of the ruling class’ -, Jews dominating the free markets and Gentiles the publicly managed ones. 

The spectacular nature of Jewish social mobility as conditioned by the ’assimilationist contract’ lay indeed not in its main thrust, but in its scope. This appeared to be rather unique in the contemporary (or for that matter later) European social scenery – disregarding some local situations in central European cities (like Vienna, Lodz, Warsaw, perhaps Berlin). Jews have never taken such dominant positions anywhere in elite markets nation wide than in early 20th century Hungary. By the 1910s  they prevailed not only in banking, trade or industries of high capital concentration (the biggest ever Hungarian factory being the Weiss Manfred Works in Csepel, near Budapest), but they also made up a qualified majority of executives (Privatbeamter) and professionals as well as leaseholders of landed estates over 500 acres. The big press, printing, publishing, cinema, urban cafés (essential pieces of cultural infrastructure in those times) were near monopoly Jewish businesses in Hungary. They offered careers to and cared for the majority of modern authors, poets or journalist (especially those of the avant-garde and the liberal establishment).

 Jews also filled close to one third of university benches with students of an exceptional intellectual competitive edge. Average achievements of Jewish gymnasium graduates exceeded by almost half a mark (on a four mark scale) those of their gentile comrades in German as well as in the ’national’ subjects (literature, history, Latin), by somewhat less in maths and the sciences – though they fell short of them in sports…The highest artistic careers of Hungarians in the last century – that of a Kodály or a Bartók for example (not to speak of those, not less important ones though, like the poets Endre Ady or Attila József, whose fame has much less crossed the frontiers) – owed a lot to the financial and symbolic support due to Jewish friends, patrons, agents, critics, disciples, audiences, wives or (publicly recognised) mistresses.





The war, the two revolutions and the post-Trianon emergency. 


The success of Jewish social mobility proved to be as promotional for the Jewish-Hungarian ’symbiosis’ in some sectors of public activities as counter-productive for the upkeep of the liberal consensus as to the Jewish participation in the elites.  

Indeed, the prevalence of Jewish influence generated a split in ordinary middle classes consciousness, effective by the pre-war years and based on the idea of the fundamentally illegitimate nature of Jewish presence in elite groups. Such sense of illegitimacy could only be strengthened by the fact that more and more descendents of the assimilated Jewish bourgeoisie and middle classes tended - once their wealth, educational credentials and middle class status established, achieved and socially recognised - to revolt against the nationalist values, conceptions of vested class interest, collective social conformism and political submissiveness of their fathers. The visible radicalisation of sectors of Jewish youth had many roots, mostly linked to the very mobility pattern they have realised.

 Three aspects of this development must be specially stressed : drastic limitations of further mobility prospects for educated Jewish youth, their distinctive intellectual modernization and their ’structurally determined’ need (defined by their ambiguous relationship with global society as Jews, as ’ethnic bourgeois’ and as parvenus) to search for universalist salvation ideologies (like socialism or communism proper) liable to link their fate to the solution of essential social problems of the global society while compensating for the insufficiencies of the ’assimilationist of the ’assimilationist contract’.

But the revolt could be imputed to the differential degrees of intellectual modernization of the young Jewish and Gentile generations in the early 20th century. Relative overschooling of Jewish youth was an integral part of assimilationist mobility strategies. Jews thus found themselves significantly over-represented among Hungarian students of western universities and in the intellectual workshops of modernity of Vienna, Paris or Berlin, just like among readers of advanced political or sociological literature conveying the vast range of ideological innovations and utopias proliferating on the European intellectual market of the time. The very nature of assimilated status with its uncertainties, challenges, frustrations and failures, due to the ultimately always incomplete social reception and integration of assimilees (let alone the anti-Jewish reservations and reactions still present in some elite circles) pushed many Jews to search for new ’solutions’ of problems linked to their position in society.

But Jews of the ’third generation’, descending of successful ’bourgeois’ parents and grand-parents proved also to be more sensitive to general social problems of contemporary post-feudal society. As offspring, kins, partners or social allies of the entrepreneurial bourgeoisie, they had to face with due ’bourgeois remorse’ the misery of the proletariat and the often abominable living conditions of the lower urban strata. As neophyte nationalists they could not ignore the overall backwardness of rural Hungary still bogged down in quasi feudal social relations, aggravated by the refusal of any kind of land reform by those in power. As modern minded intellectuals they could not avoid observing the insufficiency and indeed the freezing of the process of political modernization (with suffrage still limited to some 6 % of adult males), rampant corruption permeating local politics, the increasingly conservative and chauvinist treatement of ethnic minorities, all those indicators of the forthcoming crisis of the Dualist system. Hence the distinctive commitment of many in the ’third generation’ to contemporary leftist utopias.

 In this situation it is not surprising that Jewish youth participated preeminently in the more or less radically oppositional circles gathering social malcontents in the early 20th century. Their contribution was indeed decisive in the organisation of a new type of – mostly extra-parliamentary - political opposition (as well as its think-tanks) against the conservative-liberal regime. But here again their activities turned easily counter-productive as to the perception of the place of Jews in Hungarian society. The fact that the leading personalities or/and the initiators of the socio-political journal Twentieth Century (1900), the famous debating Society of Social Science (1901), the ultra-modernist Thalia theater circle (1904) or even the most influential literary review West (1908) etc. were largely recruited among Jewish intellectuals, all this made the ideological equation a self-fulfilling prophecy : political radicalism, leftism, socialism, avant-garde, etc. are Jewish inventions and should be combatted as such.   

The vicious circle of anti-modernism and anti-Semitism in which the Jewish presence in Hungary was inscribed for many observers was thus established well before the First World War.

The war and the post-war predicament constituted powerful levers for the unfolding of the anti-liberal and anti-Semitic turn of opinion. Still, in this essay I represent the opinion that the turnabout was largely imputable to long term preliminaries – and less to factors of the war and post-war juncture proper - linked to the differential modernisation of elite clusters, whereby Jews could be assigned the function of scapegoats in the ensuing national catastrophy sealed at the Peace Treaty in Trianon. This was based above all upon the high level of embourgeoisement and social integration of Jewish elites (who could be thus easily taxed with being mere ’internal aliens’ or internal ennemies of sorts) as well as their distinctive accumulation of symbolic assets of modernity, notably the relevant set of educational credentials, together with the control of much of the most advanced economic sectors. The war, the revolutions and the dismemberment of the millenary Hungarian state acted merely (but powerfully) as an accelerator of the long term process discussed above. Let us try to summarize the main aspects of the relative novelty of the war juncture.

The war led, notoriously enough, to the dismantling of the Dual monarchy. That development brought to the fore most of the already existing divisions, tensions and cleavages in post-feudal Hungarian society. In the gathering crisis situation two circumstances must be particularly regarded as relevant to our study. One had to do with the public debate about war losses and benefits, whereby – very much like in Germany – Jews appeared as a profiteering and pacifict minority . The second, much more importantly, with the further radicalisation of the political opposition marked heavily by Jewish participation, including the leadership of the two revolutions following the collapse of the Dual Monarchy.

Radicalism was inscribed into the war situation – like elsewhere – given the tensions provoked and the burden imposed by the military hostilities which, in spite of official jingoism and military optimism, were started against the disapproval and  reticence if not the resistance of the Hungarian premier and a good part of the political establishment. The leftist opposition was pacifist from the outstart and many of its intellectual heroes and guides came out with anti-war poems and other writings. Jewish opinion itself was as split as that of the country as a whole. Rank and file Magyarised Jews found in the war a new occasion to manifest their ’guest nationalist’ fideism of sorts by an unconditional identification with this ’big national cause’. But many others took frequently a different course, initiating themselves into Marxism and gaining inspiration from other socialist persuasions as well. A primarily spiritualist aesthete and philosopher, like Georg Lukács, was not alone to slough off the ideals of his youngest years and emerge, when the occasion arose, as an orthodox Leninist and a rabid political commissar. The ensuing conflict – whether generational or other - turned dramatic in many Jewish families.

However it was, by the end of the war and the disastrous defeat (admitted in Parliament by premier Tisza on the 17th of October 1918), a whole set of young intellectuals and professionals were ready for a complete break with the liberal nationalist Monarchy, including the abandonment of their earlier ambitions, social class connections and basic group values („to do away definitely with the past” as it stood in the Internationale). They were, obviously, far from being all Jewish. This was clearly proved during the two Revolutions, when on the 31th October 1918 urban masses swept away the Monarchy and established an ephemeral Second Republic (the first being that of 1849) and then, on the 21 March 1919, the power of the dislocating state was ceded to the Communists who put up a Soviet type Republic of Councils (till 1. August 1919). If many erstwhile liberal or pacifist intellectuals and a number of former army officers accepted official appointments under the revolutionary regimes, Jews were spectacularly prominent in the political staff and the governing bodies of both new establishments. The great majority of Communist dignitaries were actually Jews, so as to offer a perfect alibi for future anti-Semites to qualify this early Communist attempt as a Jewish entreprise.

The main explanation of the anti-Semitic turn must be sought, though, not in objectifiable interest relations between Jews and Gentiles, but in the confirmation of anti-Jewish predispositions by a revaluation of existing relations via the prism of the scapegoat syndrom. Like often in critical junctures, politically orchestrated and manipulated public opinion needed monocausal, simple, obvious-looking, easily marketable explanations, that is scapegoats. The scapegoat must be member of the community in ancient custom, but it may be somewhat different from the average rank and file members. Jews could be perfectly assigned this function, since their level of assimilation and intergration made them just as insiders as their seperate denominational and social status relegated them to an outsider’s position as well. It was of course an ’enforced attribution’ against which Jews did their best to defend themselves. But the well documented role of Jewish radicals in the revolutions – among the most fanatic and prone to terrorism in the Communist leadership (like ’Bloody Samuely’, head of the Lenin Boys’ squad) - and, implicitely, their collective involvement (allegedly or admittedly as major beneficiaries) in the Dualist Regime (especially in its last phase) earmarked them for scapegoat functions much in demand.

In the last years of the war already a number of movements, circles and associations came into being with the objective to reflect upon the ’Jewish Question’ conceived of as the problem of Jewish economic power (Übermacht) and abuse of power. Prominent opinion makers, like the Catholic bishop Prohászka suggested in Parliament as early as May 1918 the introduction of anti-Jewish academic numerus clausus to solve the problem of the ’overcrowding’ of intellectual markets. The public survey of the liberal journal 20th century in 1917 on ’The Jewish Question’ elicited from the respondents a majority of positive answers, confirming the prevailing opinion that Jewish presence in Hungary was indeed ’questionable’ and constituted an acute social issue. The upturn was inevitable after the revolutionary experience, lending itself to an anti-Semitic exploitation.    



The White Terror and the numerus clausus law (1920)


The anti-Semitic turnabout of the post-revolutionary White Terror (1919-1920) resulted in a heavy Jewish death toll (most of them murdered by conter-revolutionary commandos without legal procedures). The number of victims counted by several hundreds if not thousands (some authors cite numbers exceeding 1000). This was an unprecedented historic turn. It occurred for the first times since the reoccupation of Buda from the Ottomans in 1686 (when local Jews sided with the defenders) that State sponsored army units murdered masses of Jews in Hungary. The shock was all the more tragic for Jews raised in and imbued with Magyar nationalism, that it followed the hardly less brutal ’anti-bourgeois’ (and occasionally anti-Jewish) repression of the Soviet Republic : among the 590 identified victims of the Communist dictatorship there were 44 Jews…

But anti-Jewish atrocities constituted just an epiphenomenon in the surge of elite opinion aiming at a complete redistribution of hitherto established positions of power, acquired authority, wealth, income and above all markets of various elite activities. In the political and administrative domaine, a new authoritarian regime with well controlled and limited parliamentary legitimacy was emerging upon the ruins of the communist adventure : a counter-revolutionary regime all right with the overall program of ’the change of the guard’ – that is, the renewal of the ruling elite. This regime - may be paradoxically – was able and ready to pay lip service to formal democratization as well (introducing universal but only partially secret - in cities only - male suffrage) – all the more easier that it enjoyed the overwhelming support of a mainstream public opinion turned violently rightist.

The post-revolutionary equation was indeed based upon a small number of major strategic policy choices : the ’change of the guard’ in the framework of what was officially designated as the ’Christian Course’ (to minimize Jewish influence and to organise the economic promotion of gentile elites – the so-called ’Christian middle class’), conservatism (to keep basic social power relations unchanged against leftist and rightist extremisms, with maintenance of the political hegemony of the ruling Christian gentlemanly class), legal autoritarianism based on anti-leftist rhetoric and repression and the quasi complete political monopoly of the government party (backed up by near royal prerogatives granted to Regent Horthy), a measure of modernization (particularly to affirm Magyar ’cultural supremacy’ in the Carpathian Basin and contribute to the internal legitimization of the regime), finally, nationalist irredentism (with the obvious project, obsessively propagated, to gain back territories lost at Trianon - two thirds of the former kingdom).

Most of these policy choices – except the first one – did not involve anti-Jewish measures proper and met (or would have met, occasionally) the agreement of the majority of assimilated Jewry as well, had they not been accompanied (as they often were) by anti-Semitic discourses and practices.

Because of this large scale community of societal and ideological interests, many Jews were indeed ready to adhere to the counter-revolutionary doctrine – especially during its very first stage (when murderous anti-Semitism was not yet apparent) and much later, during its most ’consolidated’ phase, under the government of the moderate and cautious count Bethlen (1921-1931) – when the drastic anti-Jewish drive came to be mitigated to permeate administrative practice and party political rhetorics, but in opposition to anti-Jewish mob rule. Some memorable legal measures marked though the turn of the tide.

Among the latter, academic numerus clausus was an essential device for the realization of the much publicised new policy of the ’change of the guard’. It limited new admissions of Jews in universities and most institutions of higher education to a proportion of 6 % of those admitted. Voted by parliament with an overwhelming majority in Summer 1920, it entered into application in September of the same year. The measure appeared to be extremely drastic for contemporaries and later observers alike in an academic market where Jewish demand used to verge in some faculties or schools regularly on one third of the student body. It tended to oscillate from 1885 to 1919 for example in the whole Budapest University (students of all levels, Catholic Theology included) between 31,3 % and 34,6 %. It fell to a mere 7,8 % in 1920-24.

However it was, closer historical scrutiny may well result in a different evaluation, the numerus clausus appearing then as a compromise, a ’lesser evil’ and – when all is said and done - a rather moderate concession to extremist claims backed up by violent anti-Jewish student mobilization and agitation.

Following this interpretation, which will be further detailed below, the numerus clausus reflected closely the ambiguous nature of the neo-conservative regime with its commitment to a dual fight against both leftist and rightist extremists, though its clienteles were recruited essentially in the right. Empirically it is not difficult to demonstrate the limited scope of the numerus clausus, hardly enforced in several provincial faculties (especially in some medical schools in want of students, like in Pécs or Szeged), and formally alleviated by the removal of its anti-Jewish edge following the modification of the law in 1928. Still, the profound socio-political design lying behind the law was accomplished anyhow. With the help of continued (and officially tolerated) anti-Jewish agitation accompanied by aggressions (via quasi ritual collective ’Jew-bashing’ and ’Jew-baiting’) in universities, Jews tended to withdraw from the local academic market either to transfer abroad their demand for higher studies or to opt out of professional tracks linked to university degrees. The concrete socio-historical conditions and significance of this development deserve a more circumstantial scrutiny.

Whatever vicious forms it assumed and however manifold pretexts it borrowed to assert itself, the post-1919 anti-Semitic campaign was orchestrated around the project which boiled down in a radical (in fact, to all intents and purposes properly revolutionary) transformation of the hitherto largely (if not completely) liberal rules of the allocation of resources and benefits falling to the elites. Hitherto Jews had access to these in almost equal conditions to others, that is, following free competition (except for public office or positions in other state controlled professional markets). According to the central piece of the new anti-Semitic credo, henceforth Jews should be denied them as completely as possible following an elementary conception of justice, that of proportionality. Since Jews have over-indulged in the profits of development, their share should suffer a limitation proportionally to their demographic weight. More importantly, for the future too, their chances to accede to elite positions and resources should be restricted by an artificial shrinking of their potential for professional mobility. But what was possible to realize in this program in the given socio-political juncture ?

The first implication of the idea of ’proportionality’ was the simplest one, that of robbing Jews from their possessions, considered as ill acquired and thus illegitimate, and offering their goods to those who ’deserved’ it. But that kind of brutal expropriation proved to be politically inpracticable for at least two reasons. It was a communist idea of sorts, which came close to be fully implemented under infamous the Soviet Republic in 1919, and as such forcibly outruled under the counterrevolutionary regime. It would have shaken the very foundations of the whole conservative class society in the making based on the untouchable nature of property, like big landed estates put under feudal law (mainmortes). Unlike in most successor states of the Dual Monarchy, there was a very limited attempt only at land reform in Hungary (1920), directed mainly against recently acquired – that is mostly Jewish – latifundia : merely 8 % of arable lands were distributed.

The second possible implication of ’proportionality’ had to do with the allegedly ’disproportionate’ share by Jews of elite positions in professional and economic markets. Right in the second part of 1919 an overall mobilisation of gentile professionals started to advocate the idea of depriving Jews from their entitlements to exercise and reserve it to Christian practitioners. Instead of this, the authorities contented themselves with the heritage of long established administrative traditions to restrict Jewish presence in publicly controlled activities. Jews in public office were dismissed or forced to early retirement in due course and appointments of new Jewish candidates henceforth flatly refused.

Still, the idea of depriving Jews from positions in elite markets could be shifted into the future. By denying them free access to obligatory training tracks, leading to those markets, their competitive potential for the occupation of market positions could be substantially reduced for the future. This was the conception of the numerus clausus.

The reason why it could be adopted without significant resistance was linked, among other things, to the overcrowded state of universities where student agitation became permanent, exerting a very direct pressure on Parliament, and offering an additional justification to the exclusion of Jews.

 Overcrowding had so to say ’natural’ causes too : the return of several classes of students from the trenches, the growing enrollment of women, the doubling of the size of the academic network (four full universities henceforth, instead of two hitherto), the growing educational demand of unemployed gymnasium graduates. But Hungarian higher education suffered overcrowding more specifically under the impact of a decisive external factor, the influx of refugees from lost territories. Following official estimations they represented in the 1920/21 academic year some 37,5 % of the student body in Budapest universities and 45 % in 1924/25. The overall refugee population (over 200 000 souls) was composed essentially of middle class strata of the erstwhile kingdom. They were mostly civil servants or professionals refusing the pledge (indeed oath) of loyalty required by the new authorities. Their offspring were not only invested with a high potential of educational demand, but remained over-sensitive to chauvinist irredentism, expressed also by violent agitation for a policy of territorial ’revisionism’. For them too Jews not only served as welcome scapegoats for the global national disaster, but could also be regarded, in more concrete terms, as potentially dangerous competitors in academic and professional markets. During the whole inter-war period graduates of refugee background will constitute a permanent source of right extremist mobilisation in academic premises.

But why did most other anti-Jewish claims end up in failure ?

It does not seem to be far-fetched to identify the reasons of such relative governmental leniency in the vital contribution of Jews to professional services and managerial functions in the economy. There could be obviously no question of dismissing at a stretch half of the country’s medical and legal staff, a good third of its high level technicians, etc., not to speak of the expropriation of Jewish capitalists, which – independently from the loss of expertise they detained - could have served as a hardly desirable precedent to the degradation of other sectors of the propertied classes. If Jews were no more ’needed’ as a demographic support for an elite, now ruling an almost (over to 90 %) mono-ethnic state, they could still not be dispensed with in the economy and in the professions. The anti-Jewish public hysteria was not enough to modifiy precipitously this situation. Most of the necessary conditions of the change will be fulfilled though by the 1930s. The economic crisis boosted unemployment in elite markets, making many Jewish specialists expendable. A new generation of gentile professionals was trained via the imitation of earlier Jewish mobility strategies, that started to operate precisely in the wake of the numerus clausus. To this must be added, obviously, the external reinforcement and legitimization of the already available anti-Jewish consensus via the military alliance with the Third Reich. Thus, what was regarded as impracticable or counter-productive in the 1920s emerged as fully feasible after 1938. 

The numerus clausus also affected the hitherto dominantly assimilationist pattern of Jewish-Hungarian identity. One option coming to the fore was Zionism, hitherto officially rejected and even repressed (for example via the expulsion of Zionist students from community schools) by the Jewish officialdom, just as much as by dominant Jewish opinion : Zionism was contrary to the absolute principle of loyalty to the Hungarian Fatherland… Henceforth, especially after the (not quite disinterested) authorisation of Zionist organisations by the state in 1927, it became an ever more acceptable identity option, even if the Jewish leadership continued to fight against it (rather vehemently, most of the times), and allyah (departures for Palestine) attracted very small numbers only (altogether far less than 1 % of Jews in Trianon Hungary for the whole inter-war period).

The numerus clausus also contributed to alienate young Jews from the prevailing political credo of bourgeois liberalism in favour of the adherence to the radical left. Their bitter experience of exclusion from student life and academic professions in their mother country was completed by that of a large scale unemployment – indeed proletarisation proper – of intellectuals or would-be intellectuals (among which they had a disproportionate share). Social frustrations in conrete terms were thus added to the trial of humiliating discrimination. It is not astonishing that many of them started in these very years the ’primitive accumulation of (leftist) political capital’, allowing those among them who would survive the Shoah to join the establishment of the Party-State after 1945 (unless they did not ’opt out’ and leave for the West or Israel). 

The transformation of basic Jewish identity options between dissimilationist Zionism and Communism or other leftist salvation ideologies (representing new ways of further radical assimilationism), which was accelerated after 1938 under the pressure of the Nazi type legislation and eventually reconfirmed by the experience of Auschwitz in 1944, all these developments were triggered off and activated first by the numerus clausus. In this sense too the numerus clausus must be regarded as a first precedent, preparing the ground for legalised large scale anti-Jewish discrimination, which made the Shoah possible, at least acceptable for many in Hungarian society.




The culture of violent antisemitism after 1919


The nature, motivations and forms of anti-Jewish aggressions after the 1919 turnover may be understood in connection with three major socio-historical developments.

The first among these is the very large scale ’embourgeoisement’ of Hungarian Jewry. This was particularly manifest in post Trianon Hungary, reduced to the economically most advanced as well as urbanised territories of the former kingdom, hosting also the most assimilated, modernised and secularised sectors of local Jewry. In terms of social stratification their bulk was made up on the one hand by a majority of ’independent’ middle classe clusters, such as traders, craftsmen, entrepreneurs and property owners, and, on the other hand, by intellectuals or other educated groups in semi-intellectual service professions : that is, besides free professionals proper, trade agents, industrial, agricultural and bank employees.

The second obvious characteristic was the largely urban residence of a majority of Jews, especially of course those in the middle classes. By 1920 close to half of Hungarian Jewry was living in Budapest and a qualified majority in large cities, in spite of the loss of the earlier biggest provincial communities (Nagyvárad/Oradea, Pozsony/Bratislava).

Finally the lack of public tolerance or a popular tradition of anti-Jewish mass violence must be mentioned. There have never developed any general permissiveness for pogroms in Hungary. Though at least two historical instances of anti-Jewish agitation and attempts at mass violence were observed in the 19th century – one in the weeks following the emblematic 15. March 1848 Revolution in some cities (including the two capitals Pest and Pozsony/Bratislava) and another one (more spread out in the provinces) accompanying the infamous 1882-83 Tiszaeszlár blood libel trial -, the state authorities efficiently defended the Jews and suppressed anti-Jewish street turbulences. There were hardly any mass movements of this sort under the White Terror neither, which was masterminded and executed by semi-independent military commandos and officers’ squads, often defying the official policies in these transitory months of post-revolutionary power vacuum. The new post Trianon State continued to control street violence by legal means. Indeed there was no such developments even up to the Shoah (inclusively): violence remained a State privilege, that of the political police and the gendarmerie (in the provinces), conforming to principles of the rule of law in its best and worst disguises.

As a consequence, since the ’Consolidation government’ (April 1921-1931) and, indeed to some extent during the whole inter-war period, even under the ensuing explicitely drastic anti-Jewish legislation (1938-1944) anti-Jewish violence was essentially restricted to closed social and institutional spaces : the universities, the Army, some schools. Moreover, it remained a mostly urban phenomenon, rural areas being generally spared. Its targets were above all the most assimilated (Magyarized) Jewish intelligentsia and middle classes. Since its very nature, as already exposed, was basically legal, indeed legislative or political by essence, one can list its most manifest objectivations as follows :

The numerus clausus law in 1920, restricting the proportion of Jews to only 6 % of students in higher education, was a central piece of institutional violence, maintained – contrary to appearences – till the collapse of the old regime. Indeed the formal amendment of the anti-Jewish clause with reference to the proportionality as to ’racial groups’ (népfajok) in 1928 did not fundamentally allowed the increased admission of Jews in universities. Nevertheless one should not forget that in reality the numerus clausus was unequally implemented. Some schools of Art and even provincial university faculties – which would have lacked students, justifying their maintenance (like medical schools in Pécs or Szeged) – were practically and tacitly exempted from the rigours of the law.  This applied also to the policy of systematic dismissal of Jews from (or their non admittance to) civil service occupations : they could remain when they proved to be irreplaceable... The same occurred with the systematic and preferential promotion of ’Christian’ capitalists and entrepreneurs for State orders, even after 1938, when the anti-Jewish legislation was enforced. Some of the largest factories of the country remained in Jewish hands to support the booming war economy of the self proclaimed ’last Ally of Nazi Germany’, meanwhile Jewish managers and executives, destined by principle to be replaced by ’Aryans’, continued to be employed (sometimes illegally as so called ’Aladárs’).

In this system, illegal anti-Jewish actions could be redressed by legal means  and this applied even after 1938, for example as to illegal dismissals ! If the political police could proceed without much judicial control and restriction against radical dissidents (especially if they could be suspected of communism, a movement forced underground since 1919), there remained up to the German invasion of the country (March 19, 1944) an efficient legal system even under Anti-Jewish legislation ! Under legal menace, one could occasionally escape via emigration as well, which was allowed without limitations throughout the period. The case of Francois Fejtõ, a well established young literary critic and political journalist, can serve here as an example. He simply took his passport to leave for France in 1938 in order to escape a prison sentence which he had earned for ’press offence’.  The maintenance of a relatively even handed judicial system is also exemplified by the fact that the proportion of Jews condemned by Hungarian tribunals decreased – instead of rising, as one would have expected – during the years of anti-Jewish legislation. Even the Nurnberg type 1941 openly racist ’Third Anti-Jewish Law’ outruling mixed marriage and could be legally got around, since a not insignificant number of Jewish-Gentile marriages continued to be authorized during the war years.

To understand the relative moderation of antisemitic practices promoted or tolerated by the ’Christian Course’ government, one has to remember that the right extremist (Nazi type) agitation, built up in the 1930s in the rank and file population (especially in the formerly socialist ’red districts’ of Budapest suburbs), was directed as much against Jews as the conservative governments. Hence such expremisms were combatted by the authorities concerned in form of self defense as well. Such double political game contributed to nourish Jewish illusions after 1933 that what was happening in Nazi Germany could not happen in their Magyar father land led by such a ’real old style gentleman’ like Regent Horthy…

In such a socio-political framework ’spontaneous’, ’mass type’ and physical anti-Jewish violence was limited and mostly controlled, if not always outruled. Violence against Jews was by its nature mostly basically symbolical, professional or economic - even when it was accompanied by physical pressure or menace (except at the end of the period in the forced labor units of the Army on the frontline after 1941). There were after 1920 only exceptional cases of murder attempts (like against deputy Vázsonyi in 1926). The rightist officers assassinating two socialist journalists of Jewish background (Somogyi and Bacsó) in February 1920 – a final atrocity of the outgoing White Terror - were sentenced (when only mildly) by the tribunal. Indeed even the Army commanders responsible for the atrocious mass murder of Serbians and Jews by Hungarian troops in Ujvidék/Novi Sad and elsewhere in occupied Voivodina (January 1942) were put to trial in Hungary (and then let to flee to Nazi Germany before their condemnation…)

The main forms of ’symbolic violence’ against Jews had to do with  institutional measures emanating from private or public establishments, circles and associations. A frequent form of these was segregation in schooling, like the non admittance of Jews in Catholic secondary schools in the framework of general segregationist trends in Catholic schools. This practice, however general it proved to be, had some exceptions in the gymnasiums of the Piarist Congregation and it was not followed or hardly followed in Calvinist or Lutheran schools. In State gymnasiums limitation of the admission of Jews started only in 1939 by ministerial decree with the application of a quota of 6 %, in conformity with the ’Second Jewish Law’. Thus a paradoxical situation emerged in the school market till up to 1939. Under ’Christian Course’ governments Jewish secondary school pupils opted preferentially or forcibly for public (State run or municipal) institutions, even against their own gymnasiums, the two such institutions established by Jewish communities in Budapest and Debrecen after 1919 having been rather neglected by their assimilation minded own clientele…

Anti-Jewish verbal aggressions in form of press campaigns in mainstream (pro-governmental or right oppositional) media were more drastic. The press of the inter-war years developed a ’newspeak’ of sorts where coded or uncoded antisemitic diatribes belonged to the basic stock of messages. Thus verbal discrimination became a general feature of inter-war Hungary. This was accompanied by discrimination in a growing proportion of social spaces made or established as ’Judenrein’. This concerned segregation, exclusion or non admittance of Jews in civil society associations (which had been not Judenrein earlier), like sports clubs, playgrounds, boy scout teams, etc. More importantly, the emergence of ’Christian’ professional associations (next to the official professional chambers of lawyers, doctors, engineers, vets, etc.) as mouthpieces of often drastically Anti-Jewish propaganda, marked the brutal end to the ’professional symbiosis’ of Jews and Gentiles, even if all Gentile practitioners did not accept it. Among lawyers the Nazi type association never gained a majority in the official professional chambers and a liberal lawyers’ association tried to maintain standards of decent behaviour even under the German occupation. Anyhow, ’Christian’ minorities or majorities in the professional chambers tried their best after 1938 (often frustrated by the very government in place up to October 1944) to expell Jews by a coup from their professional markets - and thus expropriating, by pure robbery, their market share…

One cannot complete this overview without a glimpse at the special case of violence in university premises. Here we have to do with physical violence, even if it was in its possibly mildest forms, never leading in Hungary to fatalities. It had to do with molesting, sometimes properly aggressing or beating up Jewish students, or forcing them to sit in special benches during some lectures (when the lecturer concerned would accept it…). This does not mean though the existence of officially accepted ’Jewish benches’ in Hungary. Such acts of violence were regularly committed and organised by ’Christian’ student corporations especially the Turul, the second most popular corporation Emericana tended to abstain from and even disapprove anti-Jewish aggressions. The heyday of ’Jew-beatings’ /zsidóverés/ in universities was during the months of the White Terror and the preparation of the numerus clausus law (autumn 1919 - autumn 1920) accompanied by intensive academic anti-Jewish agitation. Jewish students at that time could often not even enter university premises, so that in the inscription files of some faculties one observes a net diminution of Jewish inscriptions in the period of enormous general inflation of enrollments (due to the end of hostilities and the arrival of refugees from annexed territories). Such physical aggressions were tolerated more or less by the teaching corps and academic authorities (though often by simply claiming impotence to resist it). It was regularly regretted and even condemned in government circles as well, but they rarely went further than formal disapproval, pretexting the prevalence of academic autonomy.



[1] This essay is based on various insights gained from recent research on Hungarian Jewry, published mostly in Hungarian. See particularly – as to the specific topic of anti-Semitism – the extremely rich and well documented but controversial book (as to its conclusions) by János Gyurgyák, The Jewish question in Hungary, (Budapest, Osiris, 2001, in Hungarian), arguing in terms of a cultural and political history of the Jewish-Gentile relations about the ultimate failure of assimilation. The book refers to and reflects upon most of the available relevant historical scholarship on the problem area. Miklós Szabó’s posthumous History of Neo-Conservatism and Right Radicalism, 1867-1918 (Budapest, Uj Mandátum, 2003, in Hungarian) is an overall study of the proto-fascist movements in the Dualist Era. The as yet unpublished  documentary essay by Krisztián Ungváry,  The Aryanisation of Jewish wealth and the road to the deportations, 1918-1944, Discrimination, genocide, social policy, (Budapest, 2003, manuscript in Hungarian) is a precious attempt to prolong (in a different key though) Szabó’s work for the inter-war period, while presenting a thoroughly documented  revision of current, politically motivated arguments about Hungarian fascism as a mere ideological importation from Italy or Germany. For details of the topics dealt with in this exposé see also some of my own studies : "Antisemitism in XX. Century Hungary. A Socio-Historical Overview", Patterns of Prejudice, 27/1,1994, 71-92;  "Antisémitisme et stratégies d'intégration. Juifs et non-Juifs dans la Hongrie contemporaine", Annales, économies, sociétés, civilisations, 48, mars-avril,  239- 264;  "Les fonctions sociales de l'antisémitisme à l'époque contemporaine. Le cas des Etats d'Europe Centrale," in L’Europe entre cultures et nations, sous la direction de Daniel Fabre, Paris, Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l'Homme, 1996, 295-319. 1995; Juden in Ungarn : Identitätsmuster und Identitätsstrategien, Leipzig, Simon Dubnow Institut für jüdische Geschichte und Kultur der Universität Leipzig, 1998; « Symbolic Nation Building in a Multi-Ethnic Society. The Case of Surname Nationalization in Hungary », Tel Aviver Jahrbuch für deutsche Geschichte, XXX, ( Moshe Zuckermann, Hrg. Ethnizitat, Moderne und Enttraditionalisierung), Wallstein Verlag, 2002, 81-103. For a socio-historical overview of the European context my Gewalterfahrung und Utopie. Juden in der europäischen Moderne,  Frankfurt, Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1999 could also be consulted. Further specific references will be avoided here.


[2] The sense of the Hungarian wording of this essential piece of the modernisation program – polgárosodás – exceeded a lot the meaning of ’embourgeoisement’, close to the German term Verbürgerlichung. It was actually invested with a triple signication with simultaneous reference to capitalist economic rationalism and entrepreneurship, the strengthening of non feudal civil society and the development of manners and behaviours of modern professional middle classes.