The Nation And Its Characteristics

When we pose the question: who belongs to the group of people called Hungarians, and on what basis do these people belong to the same group, we are actually attempting to define a community by differentiating it from other communities. When defining who a Hungarian person is, or when looking for an answer to the question: what makes Hungarians Hungarian, we create that definition by comparing characteristics to those of other communities. We could even say that Hungarians are all those who are different from non-Hungarians, and that they are Hungarian because of this very difference.

Though the terms Hungarian nation and Hungarians may seem to encompass the obvious, it is necessary to clarify a few facts about the term nation itself.

Nation is one of the fundamental terms of European civilization and the modern era. Its meaning, however, differs somewhat in each of the European languages. For example in English and French the term nation covers the same meaning as the term state. In accordance with this tradition all citizens of a given state are incorporated into the concept of ‘nation’. In Central Europe – primarily the zone between the German and Russian language areas – the development of nations was historically different. We must also keep in mind that the modern concept of ‘nation’ and ‘nation-state’ arrived to this region from Western Europe, and that during the turn of the 18-19 century people here lived in large multi-national dynastic empires. Most historical countries and provinces were multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-denominational. The inhabitants of the very same region spoke various languages and belonged to various denominations. Often, the different social classes living in the same place spoke different languages too: aristocrats and the nobility spoke a different language than the middle classes or the serfs.

In Central Europe language received a greater emphasis within the ‘nation’ concept, meaning that the basis of belonging to the same group was a mutual language. Not only Hungarians profess that ‘A nation lives within its language’, almost all Central European nations have a similar saying. To approach the question from a different angle, we could say that a nation has a dual nature: we can define it as a political community (state), and we can also define it as a community of people speaking the same native language.

In the case of Hungarians, the political and linguistic communities did not coincide during the 19-20 centuries. Before 1920 half of the population living on the territory of the Kingdom of Hungary declared their native tongue to be something other than Hungarian. This was followed by a change in political borders which resulted in one-third of the Hungarian population whose native language was Hungarian, becoming the citizen of a foreign country.

Today, at the beginning of the third millennium, the Hungarian nation is primarily a linguistic and cultural community. It is also in this sense that we can speak of Hungarians as a people. A majority of this community lives in the center of the Carpathian Basin as a citizen of the Republic of Hungary. Large numbers of Hungarians live as a minority in neighboring countries: The largest Hungarian minority, in both absolute and relative proportions, lives in Rumania, more precisely in that part of Transylvania which is the easternmost strip of the Great Plains, followed by the Hungarian minority in the Vojvodina district of Serbia, then that of Slovakia, the Ukraine, Austria, Croatia, and Slovenia, in that order. We must not forget to mention the Hungarian diasporas living throughout the rest of the world, for it was precisely during the 20th century that a great number of Hungarians emigrated from their homeland for either economic or political reasons.

As to whom we consider Hungarian, the answer is simple: He or she who considers him/herself Hungarian. Everyone

‘Made Hungarian by intellect,

command, fate, intent, occasion…’

writes Endre Ady in his poem To Last Year’s Servants.

The development of the modern nation is a long process. Árpád’s people and our ancestors of past centuries obviously considered themselves Hungarian. Their group consciousness, however, was defined by different a content and set of symbols than ours is today. For example, to the Hungarians of the time of the conquest of Hungary, belonging to the clan or tribe was of primary importance. During the time of feudalism social class was paramount.

A long line of ‘nation builders’ attempted to define, both consciously and unconsciously, the most important elements of identity during the 19th century, when the creation of a new type of community was the agenda of the day. Thinkers of the Age of Reform speak of ‘the rebirth of the nation’ and ‘national awakening’ as if the nation had been asleep for centuries and now, the first half of the 19th century, was the time to bring it back to life. Historical memory was undeniably one of the most important sources of national consciousness. In reawakening a feeling of national pride images of ‘past glories’ were often invoked as a form of encouragement, which consisted of a different array of props for the various peoples of Europe. In Hungary it was, as it traditionally had always been, the nobility whose world of ideas was ripe for modernization. In this process the idea of historical continuity played an important role, from the Hungarian conquest (according to which Hungarians reoccupied their rightful inheritance) and the glorious events surrounding the foundation of the state, through several struggles for freedom, to the present day. The tradition of periodic feudal uprising, for example, was interpreted as a continuous fight which lasted for 400 years. In other words, according to this train of thought, the struggle of Hungarians with the Habsburg dynasty was, in essence, a single process of the national fight for independence.

Hungary thereby became a nation of freedom in this interpretation:

‘Here Freedom’s blood-stained flag has waved

above the Magyar head’

– wrote the poet Mihály Vörösmarty in his poem Appeal (translation: Watson Kirkconnell). This is an important element of the image the nation, as a community, has of itself. The concept of freedom-loving Hungarian, especially after the revolutions of 1848 and 1956, has spread throughout the world and become a characteristic of the Hungarian nation. Characteristics defined both on the inside and from the outside, have an important role in the forming of the given nation’s modern national identity-consciousness. A nation’s image of itself is never independent of how others characterize it. A well-known example of this is the so-called ‘table of peoples’ posted on the walls of inns throughout Austria and Germany in the 18th century, which consisted of a list of each given peoples’ characteristics: how they behave, what their nature, exterior, and clothing is like. This guidance served practical objectives: they were the predecessors of modern-day intercultural training courses in which, for example, western businesspeople are taught how to behave with their Japanese partner during meetings, what to keep in mind and be careful about, the ways their behavior is different from their partner’s, what are some of the things that could give rise to unpleasant misunderstandings. It is a common opinion that each national culture has its own characteristic behavior and system of gestures.

Can we therefore conclude that each nation has its own individual characteristics, its own national character? That is a difficult question to answer.

Hungarians have been attributed certain characteristics over the centuries pertaining to their temperament, behavior and outward appearance. They are most often characterized as mid-range to tall in terms of height. Men have brown hair and a mustache while the women are spirited and also have brown hair. According to a Hungarian saying ‘The real Hungarian type is neither blond nor brown’. Impulsiveness, passion and pessimism are the most frequently cited characteristic traits pertaining to their nature. A Hungarian literary historian wrote the following about the Hungarian character, in the late 19th century: ‘Out of the misty past a horse and rider materialize before our eyes. He calmly stands and observes the Volga-region prairie wearing a pointed fur cap and a leopard skin thrown loosely over one shoulder. It is as if his muscled torso were a part of his small horse. Poised, he is neither afraid, nor does his attention wander off. Only that which he sees is his business and his eyes, trained to see far into the prairie in the brightest of light, see everything a human’s eyes are capable of seeing from a stationary point in space, clearly.’ This romantic image is one of a proud eastern conqueror and fearless warrior, the imperturbable horseman of the vast prairies. ‘Eastern indifference’ was, for a long time, considered a characteristic trait of the Hungarians. Another one was their impulsiveness, their tendency for quickly attained enthusiasm. Hungarians have a special term for this, which provides a good visual image of the trait: straw-fire nature. The poet László Arany wrote about this and another perceived Hungarian characteristic, their fondness of display, in his poem Battle of the Huns:

‘And you, oh Hungarians!

The empty appearances!

The dazzling, idle, castles in the air!

You soak in mirage, in deceptive floodwaters,

Which seemingly sparkle, yet are overgrown with seaweed.’

All characterizations emphasize certain traits, magnify certain types of behavior, and often exaggerate a bit. They grasp important phenomena, but grossly generalize. Naturally, internal and external characteristics pertain to the whole of the community in general: they define the average person, not each individual. And we must not forget that these characteristics can change over the course of history, just as certain traits are classified differently from culture to culture.

In the world of science, however, there is no agreement on whether nations have individual characteristics or not. Even if the opinion formed about the national character is merely a result of the imagination – that of the whole of the community- it is undeniable that the effect of these perceived national characteristics is a part of historical reality.

There is a necessity for such simplified characterizations within the system of communication between cultural communities which do not speak the same language. Being able to imagine the other community is a condition of mutual acquaintance. The image we form of our own national community is not independent of how other communities see us. For example, characteristics historically attributed to the Hungarian nobility – chivalry, courage, a love of freedom, the ability for merry-making, etc. – are attractive to the Polish, but offensive to Rumanians and Slovakians, whose national self-image is one of a plebeian nation of shepherds and peasants, and in whose eyes the Hungarian lords are oppressors. The image a nation has of itself and of other nations is overly simplified and often prejudiced.

Human culture is a rich tapestry of both universal and national cultures. As to the question of which is superior to the other, the universal or the national, is an incongruous one. European civilization is a multicolored world. The basis of existence for every national culture is its connections with other national cultures, during the course of which there is constant exchange between them, a never-ending process of stimulation and effect.

It is no accident that we speak of national culture. One of the many possible definitions of a nation is its unique set of symbols, behavior and values. Its relative constancy is guaranteed by the shared historical memory.

The creation and acceptance of mutual symbols, as well as their sanctification by the public opinion, is the fundamental condition of the creation of a nation, and the result of the unselfish work of intellectuals and ‘nation builders’. In Hungary, as in all of Central Europe, this work was carried out by scholars, writers and poets. They were the ones who developed the stories which gave rise to the modern nation (myths), and its set of symbols. Without the works or poems of Dániel Berzsenyi, Ferenc Kazinczy, Ferenc Kölcsey, Mihály Vörösmarty, Sándor Petőfi and János Arany, to name merely a few of the greatest of the period, the Hungarian nation would not have developed into what it is today. National heroes, the historical past, the landscape of the homeland and the characteristics of the Hungarian people all appear in their outstanding literary works. Great writers form the image – a series of stories and images – effective in helping the individual identifying him/herself with the nation, for identifying with the nation is also an individual process. It begins at home with the learning of the mother tongue from the parents, and continues in school and often in church. The most effective tool of transmission is literature. How many of us think of historical works when we try to imagine the era of Turkish rule in Hungary? The images which first come to mind are from Géza Gárdonyi’s historical novel The Stars of Eger. The figures of Gergely Bornemissza and István Dobó come to life in our imagination as we remember the story full of exciting adventures and self-sacrificing heroes.

Language, as the evoker of national culture, also influences the way we think. In the peripheral regions of the Carpathian Basin, where Hungarians are a minority living among other nationalities, language is the primary element of Hungarian identity.

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