Hungary: A „Miniature Europe”

The quote is from the scholar and writer János Csaplovics, who wrote a book about Hungary in 1829. As a matter of fact, he personified the statement himself: he considered Hungary his home but never denied his Slovakian roots. In order to make the book accessible to a wider audience, he wrote it in German.

And it was true: the Kingdom of Hungary prior to 1918 was indeed a ‘home of peoples’ where over the centuries various ethnic groups, languages, religions and denominations learned to live side by side over the centuries. In his Admonishments to his son Prince Imre, Saint István warns that a country with a single language is weak. Though this observation carried a different meaning at the time of Hungary’s first king, for centuries it promoted mutual patience to the people of this unusually multicolored nation.

The first Magyar settlers of the Carpathian Basin did not arrive to a land uninhabited by people: ancestors of the Slovakian people inhabited the river valleys and the fringes of the prairie at the foot of the mountains while groups of Southern Slavs lived scattered throughout the southwestern part of Transdanubia. It is also probable that small groups of Avars and Pechenegs were still present at the time of the Conquest. During the Middle Ages settlers continued to arrive to Hungary in part due to the deliberate intent of the country’s rulers to inhabit it, as well as being the result of continuous immigration into the country. This is how Germans appeared in the western strip of Transdanubia, Romanians in the southern part of Transylvania, and Ruthenians in the forested regions of the Carpathian Mountains. The rulers of the country invited complete ethnic groups to resettle in Hungary after the massive destruction carried out by invading Mongols in 1241-42. The soldier nations of the Cumanians and Jazygians were invited because they were familiar with eastern battle techniques, and were settled in regions subsequently named after them: the Kiskunság, Nagykunság and Jászság regions of the Great Plains. Large groups of Germans, later collectively referred to as Saxons, were settled in Transylvania and North Hungary (Szepesség).

The appearance of the Ottoman Empire towards the end of the 14th century initiated major changes on the ethnic map of southeastern Europe. This population fluctuation affected the Kingdom of Hungary as well. Thousands were forced to leave their homeland: Southern Slavs – primarily Serbians and to a lesser degree Croatians – were the major ethnic group which fell victim to the Turkish conquest. Complete regions were left empty. Small groups uprooted and migrated north-northeast in search of a new home. The first groups of Serbian refugees arrived to Hungary (Ráckeve) during the reign of King Matthias, followed by several subsequent waves during the next two hundred years.

The Turkish era and the decades that followed it was a period of true migration resulting in fundamental changes in Hungary’s ethnic composition. At the end of the 15th century three quarters of the country’s population of approx. 4 million was Hungarian, roughly the same number as that of the British during the same time period. By the mid-17th century, however, the population of Hungary had significantly decreased with the percentage of the population belonging to the Hungarian ethnic group falling to less than 50%. By this time the number of Romanians living in Transylvania reached, and even exceeded, 50%. A large number of settlers arrived to the uninhabited areas, primarily from Germany. Internal migration was also significant, mainly from the north to the south of the country: Slovakians and Ruthenians moved to the Great Plains. In large parts of the south – in the region of Bácska and Bánság – the majority of the population was Serbian. Generally speaking, many regions of Hungary were characteristically multicultural and multi-linguistic.

Smaller ethnic groups living scattered throughout the country added to this cultural variety. Jews had been living in Hungary since the Árpád-era, though their number and percentage was low for a long time, an increase in their number being the result of large-scale immigration during the second half of the 19th century. Serbians weren’t the only ethnic group to arrive to Hungary fleeing Turkish oppression: Greeks, Macedonian-Romanians, and to a lesser degree Catholic Bulgarians settled in Hungary as well. Mihály Apafi, prince of Transylvania, welcomed Armenians into Transylvania during the 17th century. Polish groups had been living on the northern fringes of Upper Hungary since the Middle Ages. Nomadic Gypsies of Indian origin appeared in the Kingdom of Hungary during the 15th century.

This variety was characteristic of many regions and settlements of the country. Pest-Buda was one such typically multi-lingual settlement, as was Pozsony (today: Bratislava, Slovakia), Temesvár, (today: Timisoara, Romania), and Selmecbánya (today: Banska Stiavnica, Slovakia). Often, language usage varied according to social status. The usage of French among the aristocracy, for example, was not limited to international communication. A majority of nobles spoke Hungarian, the middle class spoke German, and serfs spoke the various languages present within the Carpathian Basin.

Feudal Hungary, Natio Hungarica, was also a multi-lingual community. Nobles, whose native language was Hungarian, were not the only members: the mutual homeland was a concept naturally embraced and accepted by all, and Hungarian patriotism united all ethnic groups present in Hungary. This changed during the course of the 19th century, when modern concepts of the individual nation divided ethnic groups living together. It is worth noting that toward the end of the 18th century revolutionary France, where the native language of more than half of the population was not French, considered every one of its citizens French and French-speaking, therefore incorporating the non-French into the body of the French nation. That is not what happened in Hungary: a majority of nationalities living in Hungary began the process of becoming individual nations leading to tension during the 19-20th century.

The Kingdom of Hungary was not only varied linguistically. For centuries its eastern border was the frontier of the western form Christianity, rendering it a cultural frontier as well: the spread of the Reformation and the Gothic style of art and architecture stopped here. Meanwhile the large-scale migration within territories and provinces belonging to the Holy Crown mentioned earlier resulted in an increase of Greek Orthodox groups: Serbians and Romanians had received Christianity from the Byzantine Empire. The expansion of Protestantism within the Carpathian Basin from the middle of the 16th century is another ingredient of this variety. By the end of the 16th century two countries of Central Europe, Poland and Transylvania, officially acknowledged several Christian denominations while religious wars and massacres were being carried out in Western Europe. For centuries, beginning with the Age of Reformation, Transylvania was considered the land of religious tolerance, where the rights of the four major religions (Reformed, Catholic, Lutheran and Unitarian) were guaranteed by law, and the Greek Orthodox Church was also tolerated. The country was able to maintain its denominational variety despite the Counter-Reformation and Catholic revival.

The Catholic Church was able to retain many state church privileges with the support of the royal court of Vienna. Besides Hungarians a large number of its parishioners are Slovakians, Germans and Croatians. The Roman Catholic Church was able to forge a union with a portion of Greek Orthodox Romanians and Ruthenians in the 18th century, thereby creating the Greek Catholic religion, whose members acknowledged the Pope as head of the Church while maintaining their eastern rituals. The Greek Catholic Church had a small number of Hungarian members (belonging to separate bishoprics).

Among various branches of the Protestant religion, the Reformed Church is strongest in Hungary. The largest percentage of its members is Hungarian, with a small number of Slovakians in the Zemplén region.

During the first half of the 19th century the Hungarian Lutheran Church was characteristically tri-lingual with a third of its members speaking Hungarian, a third German and a third Slovakian.

The Unitarian Church, mentioned earlier in connection with Transylvanian religious tolerance, is also a branch of the Protestant religions. At the time of the great religious renewals of 16th century Europe this small denomination, which denies the Holy Trinity, survived only in Transylvania within Hungarian communities.

Medieval Hungary accepted Israelite communities and treated them with more tolerance and patience than a majority of the European continent’s nations. The number of Jews, whose native tongue was originally Yiddish or German, but who primarily spoke Hungarian by the turn of the century, increased dramatically by the end of the 19th century due to large scale immigration into the country.

With the end of World War I Hungary lost many of its colors. The Treaty of Trianon in 1920 annexed a majority of multicultural territories to neighboring countries. However, traces of the ‘Miniature Europe’ of old remain: today the state acknowledges thirteen minorities living in Hungary, and the high number of religious denominations living side by side has remained.

This legacy is an important component of Hungary’s national memory. The tradition of nationalities and languages living side-by-side – varied yet belonging together – is proof of Hungary’s European nature.

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