Emil Niederhauser

 Prologue to the issue of national minorities in Hungary:

The emergence of the national agenda

 The broader environment of historical Hungary was a patchwork of different ethnic groups from the very beginning of the Middle Ages. This was probably also true of earlier periods, and most certainly so in the case of the Balkan peninsula. As long as the population lived within the framework of a traditional society-as defined by W. W. Rostow-this did not cause any particular problems. The main difference between individuals was not their language, but their social status-the duality of lord and peasant. The actual territory of individual states and the ethnic composition of their populations changed continuously. The arrival and settlement of new ethnic groups added new colours to an already colourful mosaic of peoples.

   By the early post-Medieval period, around the 1500s, this situation had changed insofar as four major empires had emerged in this region. The Habsburg empire was by far the most uncertain formation since few cohesive forces were active; south of it lay the Ottoman Turkish empire; to the north we find the Polish-Lithuanian state, bound together by a treaty since 1569, and in the northeast lay the Russian empire that had by now shaken off the Mongolian rule and had begun its eastward and, later, westward expansion. All four empires were mulit-ethnic-the emergence of these empires had not obliterated the colourful ethnic mosaic of preceding periods. At the same time, certain, sometimes major, differences can be noted in the extent to which the governments of these empires were willing to acknowledge this situation.

   At this time, the Habsburg empire was a singular blend of absolutism and feudalism: the central administration maintained regular contact with the estates of the individual countries and provinces, and essentially acknowledged the multi-ethnic nature of the empire. The same could not be said of the Ottoman Turkish empire, even though the government ensured a kind of autonomous organization, called millet, for the non-Muslim denominations-the Orthodox (Pravoslav) peoples, such as the Serbians and Bulgarians, enjoyed a certain measure of autonomy in this sense, even if not as an ethnic group. Beside the Polish nobility, only the Lithuanian nobility was organized into some sort of estate structure in the Polish-Lithuanian state and this Lithuanian nobility was soon absorbed by its Polish counterpart. The eastern Slavic-i.e. Ukrainian-nobility was assimilated at an even more rapid pace and even the religious difference disappeared after the Kievan metropolitan and the majority of the bishops signed an act of union with Rome and thereby recognized papal primacy. They were allowed to retain the Eastern rite and the Slavonic liturgical language, as well as an administrative autonomy. Unlike the Habsburg empire, the Polish-Lithuanian state did not officially recognize the existence of individual ethnic groups, even though they were tacitly acknowledged-the duality of nobility and serfs remained as important as ever. This explains the rise of Sarmatism, the belief that the nobility was descended from the Sarmatians who were a nomadic equestrian people. The Russian empire was the only one that was unwilling to acknowledge any other ethnic group beside the Russians, the people of ‘Holy Russia', which included also the Belarus and the Ukrainians. When, during its expansion in Europe and Siberia, the Russian empire encountered ethnic groups speaking different tongues, they called them inorodtsi, "of another race", a term that essentially corresponds to the term ‘natives' applied by the European colonizers to the peoples they found in the New World. These differences played an increasingly major role in the ensuing centuries.

   The revolutionary twenty-odd years between 1789-1815 and the social and other changes that followed in their wake modified the existing situation to a considerable extent. The Polish-Lithuanian state, carved up by her neighbours, disappeared from the map. At the same time, new actors appeared on the political stage. There emerged a movement variously called national awakening, national renewal or national rebirth among countless ethnic groups who suddenly ‘discovered' that they were different from the others and that they formed a nation. The existence of this nation was based on two pillars: language and history. Each and every ethnic group that participated in this ‘awakening' had a small, but strongly dedicated intellectual élite that sooner or later created its own national (literary) tongue, drawn either from some older tradition or by arbitrarily casting a vote for one of the existing dialects. This national tongue was then taught in schools and it was one of the main mediums for the emergence and spread of national consciousness.

   In terms of national history, most fortunate were the ethnic groups that had a continuous political élite representing some kind of historical consciousness and a continuous link with a state that had existed since the Middle Ages. Peoples that did not have an élite of this type wove the tapestry of their national history from various strands drawn from the historical traditions of other peoples (Bulgarian history, for example, was assembled from a variety of Byzantine sources). If even the latter proved impossible, an ancestral origin and a national history based on that origin was simply invented.

   National consciousness was soon complemented by a political component, namely the demand of a separate nation state. The parallels are less obvious in this respect. The ethnic groups living the Ottoman Turkish empire soon demanded total independence since their ruler, the sultan was not a Christian king, but a pagan. A revolt against the sultan and secession seemed a reasonable demand and the European powers, although sometimes shaking their heads in disapproval, tended to support nationhood. The ethnic groups of the Ottoman empire liberated themselves and created their own nation states.

   A different process can be noted in the Habsburg empire. Although individual ethnic groups attained a measure of independence, the leading élite of these nations acquiesced to some degree of autonomy within the Habsburg empire. The scale ranged from Austro-Hungarian dualism to the acknowledgment of the existence Slovakians through the permission of the use of the Slovak language in church schools. The Poles enjoyed autonomy in Galicia, but they had a Polish Academy of Sciences, two Polish universities and Polish was the language of public administration. This seemed sufficient until the full restoration of the independent Polish state.

   The Russian empire continued to function as a Russian nation state. The idea of changing this situation had not even cropped up prior to the 1905 revolution, or even for some time after the revolution. Some stirring in this respect can be noted among the Poles, but only in Galicia.

   Major changes occurred in 1917-1918 and few doubted the priority of the national agenda. The disintegration of the Habsburg empire led to the emergence of several nation states (the contemporaries sometimes called this process ‘Balkanization'). The multi-ethnicity of some of these new states was apparent from their name. Thus, the name of the Czechoslovakia and the Serbian-Croatian-Slovenian Kingdom expressed the fact that they were made up of several (ruling?) nations. As a matter of fact, each of these so-called successor states had sizeable national minorities, often accounting for some 30 to 40 per cent of the entire population. The great powers compelled these states to conclude minority treaties, to accept the League of Nations as an arbitrator in conflicts between minorities and the state (the states usually won out in the end). However, this only affected the Central European region-the western states were not compelled to pursue a policy designed to protect minorities. This reversal of roles, the emergence of formerly subjugated nations as ruling nations and vice versa, was generally acknowledged even if the affected nations were not particularly happy about it. This, in turn, led to the revision of the peace treaties and the outburst of World War 2 some twenty years after the Great War. (Many historians have suggested that this was a second Thirty Years' War, with the intercalation of an armistice.)

   Many people believed that the new state created after the 1917 Socialist revolution would bring an end to the repression of ethnic minorities and that the nationality question that had caused so many problems during the past two hundred years would at last be resolved. These illusions persisted for a few years after the revolution until the Russian rule was restored, as was practically the entire territory of the one-time Tsarist empire; the repression continued under the guise of internationalism and fraternity. This repression now also affected the Russians, even if not on an ethnic basis. The Baltic peoples were allowed to continue with organizing their choirs-as they had been allowed to one hundred years earlier-, the Ukrainians could still be proud of Taras Sevchenko, whom the Russian nobles had granted personal freedom from the bonds of serfship.

   The party-state system created a new situation with its theoretical internationalism and practical nationalism, but instead of resolving the conflicts between the different ethnic groups, it merely conserved them for a further fifty years. These ethnic conflicts re-emerged again after 1989 in a Europe where, under the strict control of the United Nations, only the rights of the individual are recognized and collective rights are discarded as rules restricting individual freedom. 

   This, then, is the history of the national agenda in the broader environment of Hungary. Developments in Hungary can only be properly understood if set against this background.