István Hoóz

 Population census and nationality

 All states that have a multi-ethnic population face a number of specific problems that stem from the co-existence of these different ethnic groups. The nature of these problems varies, as does their treatment and the range of solutions to them that also depends on the general policy of the state since these play a role in the formulation of both the goals of that policy and in how those goals are attained. Countries that want to ensure an equality for their minorities, the use of their mother tongue, an education in their mother tongue and also to support the preservation and nurturing of their culture, need to known the exact number of their minorities, as well as their breakdown according to regional distribution, age, occupation, educational attainment, etc. One of the most controversial issues of population censuses in more recent decades was the problem of the enumeration of ethnic groups since each country in this region has significant minorities. The definition of ethnic identity is an oft-debated issue in the social sciences, and different approaches to this definition were proposed under different political systems. Demographers have already shown that statistical surveys of this type can only be successful if the definition of national and ethnic identity is based on answers to a set of diverse questions. The most frequently asked questions concern the mother tongue, ethnicity and language proficiency, although a knowledge of religious affiliation can also be useful in the analysis of areal distribution.

   The mother tongue is an objective criterion of ethnicity and a knowledge of the different tongues spoken in a country can also contribute to a better knowledge of the ethnic breakdown of a population. This is an indirect method of the definition of ethnicity since it determines ancestry and the environment in which that tongue was learnt in the case of a single language population. However, the extent to which bi- or multi-linguality becomes common, the smaller the importance of the mother tongue in the determination of ethnicity. Thus, for example, the specification of the mother tongue in a bi-lingual population is not an unchangeable determinant, but a matter of choice. Many minority rights are associated with the use of the mother tongue. Minority language education, the right to use the minority language, newspapers, etc. need to be provided for those who profess a specific language to be their mother tongue.

   Questions concerning the mother tongue have been included in Hungarian census questionnaires since 1880. No significant change can be noted in the definition of ‘mother tongue' (this being commonly understood as the language stated by the respondent to be the his tongue and the one that he prefers to speak). This definition refers not only to the language that was learnt as a child, but also includes the criterion that the respondent still uses this tongue. (In many countries a distinction is drawn between the language that was learnt at home in childhood and the one used at the time of the census.)

   In order to gain as reliable data as possible on ethnic minorities, census questionnaires have included questions concerning the spoken (known) language(s) since 1880. The responses to questions on language revealed that the number and ratio of individuals who (also) spoke Hungarian grew from decade to decade. For those who spoke both their ancestors' tongue and Hungarian, the mother tongue was no longer a unchangeable faculty, but a matter of choice. The changes reflected in the successive census data can thus be interpreted as a result of linguistic assimilation and/or the concealment of ethnicity.

   The data thus gained were complemented by the data on religious affiliation since in many regions mother tongue (ethnicity) and religious affiliation show a strong correlation. Since individuals are less likely to change their religion than their language, a regional breakdown based on religious affiliation can sometimes offer more insights in this respect than an analysis based on the time series data of the respondents' mother tongue.

   Direct questions concerning ethnicity too contribute to a better knowledge of the country's ethnic minorities. With the exception of the 1970 census, Hungarian censuses have since 1941 gathered data on this (respondents could name the ethnic group they identified with, irrespective of mother tongue). While answers concerning the mother tongue can be regarded as an objective criterion (the tongue transmitted by the parents), responses to the latter question expressed the respondents' subjective feelings. Similarly to religion, this sense of belonging can be independent of the respondent's country and mother tongue, even though this sense of belonging may - similarly to religious affiliation - be transmitted to the individual by his parents.

   The above brief overview reveals that there have been many approaches to the enumeration of individual ethnic groups. These enumerations were usually based on self-identification, a practice that corresponds to the constitutional decrees concerning the equality of ethnic groups and the individual right of citizens to freedom of speech, i.e. freely identify their mother tongue and ethnicity. This freedom of self-identification, however, offers the opportunity of subjective self-identification since there is no obligation to ‘document' any statements in this respect. One of the most important priorities is ensuring this freedom of self-identification is to prevent any pressure on either the individual or the ethnic group during the census.

   The censuses conducted during the 20th century nonetheless convinced demographers that they can hardly expect the census data based on self-identification to reflect the actual situation since the subjective feeling of belonging to a specific ethnic group and its declaration or acceptance did not always correlate with each other. This was rarely a result of flaws in the statistical data gathering techniques, but rather a consequence of external, social and political causes. The territorial and political changes following the close of World War 1 convinced the populations living in this region that the declaration of ethnicity does not fall into the same category as the reporting of other personal data - such as age or marital status - and that declarations of this kind can often have dire consequences, such as deportation or population exchange. This led to a barely resolvable conflict, namely that the members of an ethnic group were often unwilling to declare their ethnicity and, as a result, they felt themselves to be ‘undercounted' when the census data were published. Statistics on ethnic groups are often regarded as imprecise since census publications usually contain lower numbers than the expected (and, often, than the actual number).

   In order to gain a more realistic picture, various estimation techniques were introduced and applied the world over. It is my conviction that the estimates concerning the current population count of Hungary's ethnic groups must be treated with reservation. There is no realistic basis for estimates based on comparisons, in part because basic concepts have still not been clarifies, and in part owing to the wide areal scatter of individual ethnic groups, as well as their intensive social and areal mobility. The subjective self-identification of individual respondents has been replaced by the even more subjective definition of the individual making these estimates. The latter involves far greater problems. In the course of a census, individual respondents make their statements in their own and in their families' name, while in the case of estimate a single individual decides the status of many thousands or even hundreds of thousand peoples without any objectivity. But even if these estimates did reflect the actual number of these population groups, an estimate of this type could hardly be relied on in order to formulate an ethnic minority policy since this calls for a wealth of other data - such as spatial distribution, age brackets, educational attainment, etc. - to be really effective.

   A knowledge of the actual number of a given ethnic group would be very important since any state policy must take into consideration not only the needs of those groups that openly declare to have a mother tongue other than Hungarian, but also the needs of those groups who happen to speak Hungarian better than their ancestors' language, but are nonetheless regarded as members of an ethnic group within their community since they participate in various cultural events and adhere to their ancestors' customs and traditions. Special data gathering has been conducted the world over in order to gain a better knowledge of these population groups and their needs. Even though the employed methods differ from place to place, they share one common element, namely that the ethnicity of individual families is defined on the basis of external criteria by ‘observers'.

   A complementary data gathering that differed from traditional censuses was first organized by the Department for Statistics of the Pécs University in the settlements of Baranya county (first in 1963 and, later, in 1973). We tried to find a technique that would eliminate the possibility of ‘unhonest' reporting and yield more realistic (true) data. We finally decided that the categorization of the home environment would be the most adequate method for data collection. The various ethnic minority organizations agreed to this method, as well as to the investigation itself (including the nationwide complementary data collection carried out in 1980).

   In the course of a census, the data on ethnicity is based on the respondents' answers, while the complementary data collection was based on the answers (the ‘categorizations') of local, unbiased residents who had a good knowledge of the local population. Since this categorization could only be carried out by individuals who had a personal knowledge of the residents of a settlement and of their parents and grandparents, this method could only be applied in villages. The complementary data collection involved the enumeration of the four most important ethnic groups (Germans, Slovaks, Southern Slavs and Romanians). During this data collection we tried to determine the ethnicity of the family, rather than the individual, since it is the knowledge, the emotional bonds, values and the impressions transmitted by the family that remain with the individual throughout his life. We regarded members of a family as belonging to a certain ethnic group if they were descended from members of an ethnic group and if at least one member of the family spoke the tongue. In other words, the basis of the data collection was ancestry and mother tongue, as well as the combination of the two. Ancestry is an objective criterion of ethnicity, and together with the preservation of mother tongue it expresses the sense of community and the adherence of the individual to a tradition. Individuals whose ancestry differed from their mother tongue were assigned to another category. Owing to mixed marriages and linguistic assimilation some families were mixed. We therefore devised three distinct categories: (1) families with definite ethnic cultural needs, (2) ethnically mixed, but linguistically unassimilated families, and (3) ethnically mixed and linguistically assimilated families. It follows from this approach that some family members could be regarded as being ethnically and/or linguistically Hungarians.[1]

   The 1980 census revealed that the residents of the separately investigated 506 communities included 20 thousand Germans, 22 thousand southern Slavs, 10 thousand Slovaks and 7 thousand Romanians. Following the complementary data collection, the number of individuals that could be assigned to group 1 increased to 66 thousand Germans, 35 thousand Slovaks, 28 thousand southern Slavs and 8 thousand Romanians. A comparison of the census data and the complementary data collection reveals the conspicuous differences between the two sets of data, as well as the differences concerning the number of individual groups. The historical and political events mentioned above had a different influence on the behaviour of the members of individual ethnic groups. The population assigned to group 1 is much larger (138 thousand Germans, 71 thousand Slovaks, 42 thousand southern Slavs, 12 thousand Romanians), but considerably lower than the figures provided by various estimates.[2]

   Still, there can be no doubt that population censuses are useful for the enumeration of ethnic groups, in part because the data thus gained is based on individual responses and in part because these data - offering a breakdown according to settlements, educational attainment, occupation, etc. - are suitable for various historical, sociological and other analyses, as well as for formulating minority policies.

   The historical events in Hungary and Europe, and the changes in minority policies that occurred between the two recent censuses conducted in 1980 and 1990 brought significant changes in the lives of the ethnic minorities of Hungary and led to a ethnic renaissance. It became clear that minority status is not a static phenomenon and that assimilation, as well as dissimilation can be observed. It would appear that the conditioning caused by the disadvantages affecting the minorities in the past is slowly disappearing - a phenomenon that was also reflected in the 1990 census data. More individuals declared themselves to be Romanian and Slovakian than in the 1980 census (the figure of 8874 grew to 10,740 in the case of the Romanians, and from 9101 to 10,459 in the case of the Slovaks). The number of individuals who identified themselves as German tripled (from 11,310 to 30,824). This change can in part be ascribed to the fact that ethnic identification is in part an emotion that is not innate, but can change with time. For example, many individuals who in 1990 declared themselves to be German had responded otherwise in 1980. This change can occur in a larger population group since the ‘increase' in the number of Germans can hardly be ascribed to demographic causes. The situation is different in the case of the data on the mother tongue. Since increasingly fewer members of the younger generations learn their ancestors' tongue, the number of individuals with a minority mother tongue decreases owing to the generational change. (In 1990, for example, the ratio of individuals whose mother tongue was Slovak was 44 per cent in the above 60 bracket and 5 percent in the under 14 bracket, the same percentages for individuals whose mother tongue was German were 44 and 7.) The ebb and flow of data is smaller in this respect since only bilingual individuals can choose a mother tongue. The importance of the generation change lies in the fact that less and less children born into ethnic minority families are taught their ancestors' tongue. Linguistic assimilation is highest among the Germans and the Slovaks since about one-half of young Slovaks and about 34 per cent of young Germans learn Hungarian from their parents. Croatian and Romanian families offer a more homogenous linguistic community: the percentage of children who learn Hungarian from their parents is 18 and 13 per cent respectively. It seems most unlikely that these children will start learning their ancestors' tongue when they are grownups.

   A census will also be conducted in 2001. The census questionnaire includes questions on ethnic identity. Decision-makers active in the formulation of minority policies and scientific researchers both agree, especially after consultations with the representatives of the ethnic minorities, that a possibility for a more detailed analysis should be provided. This can only be achieved by posing as many questions as possible that allow a precise definition of ethnic identity, an analysis of how strong this bonding is and the identification of how high the number of the individuals is who actually have ethnic cultural needs. One prerequisite to posing question of this type is the creation of an atmosphere that ensures the reporting of genuine data.

   Act LXXVII of 1993 enumerates thirteen ethnic minorities in Hungary (Bulgarian, Romany, Greek, Croatian, German, Polish, Armenian, Romanian, Ruthenian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian and Ukrainian). All these minorities should be listed on the census questionnaire - in other words, the pre-printed choices should include all thirteen ethnic minorities specified in the Act, as well as the option of naming other, unlisted ethnic minorities. It seems likely that the suggestion proposed by the representative of the Romany minority will be accepted - namely that the Gipsy, Beashy and Romany language appear as separate categories on the census questionnaire. The questionnaire of the 1990 census listed eight languages. A total of 22 thousand respondents specified a language that was not listed on the census questionnaire (3800 respondents reported Polish, 1600 respondents reported Greek and 1400 respondents reported Bulgarian as their mother tongue). These numbers are not particularly high and it is possible that the way this question was posed also influenced the responses to some extent.

   Questions concerning ethnicity have - in compliance with Act LXIII of 1992 - been assigned to the so-called special data category. Paragraph 2 of article 2 of this act states the following:

   "2. Special data: personal data relating to racial origins, nationality and ethnicity, political opinion or political party affiliation, religious affiliation or creed." The collection, storage, analysis and utilization of such data is only permissible if the affected individual consents in writing, or (3.§, par. 2) "if based on an international treaty or involves the exercise of a right incorporated into the Constitution or if ordained by law in the interest of national security, crime prevention or criminal investigation."

   This law was taken into consideration when enacting Act LXXVII of 1993 (On the Rights of the National and Ethnic Minorities). The act stipulates the observance of the following points in any census of nationality and ethnicity:

   "Individual minority rights

   7.§ par. 1: The acknowledgement and declaration of belonging to any national or ethnic group or minority is the exclusive and inalienable right of the individual. No-one can be forced to make a declaration concerning his belonging to a minority group.

   8. §. It is the right of the citizen belonging to a national or ethnic minority to declare his belonging to a minority secretly and anonymously at the time of the national census.

   13. §. Individuals being members of a minority are entitled

   c) to the protection of their personal data concerning their minority status in accordance with the stipulations of the law."

   Since according to the laws regulating earlier censuses respondents were obliged to answer all questions, it could easily happen that the respondent did not answer some questions truthfully. The new laws allow respondents to check the "does not want to answer" box or to check one of the pre-printed answers. Census officials believe that this change will improve the morale of reporting and the reliability of the data since respondents will feel no obligation to report anything that to do not correspond to the truth. The analysis of the respondents who did not wish to answer these questions will probably also yield interesting results after their demographic and sociological analysis.

   At the same time, negative responses answers will undoubtedly present some difficulties in the ensurance of minority rights on every level of public administration, as well as the election and operation of minority self-governments. According to the pertinent act, minority self-governments can be elected in villages and towns alike. Every local resident can vote in these elections and can vote for a minority representative without having to report his belonging to any ethnic minority group. Since all Hungarian ethnic minority groups were averse to any form of registration, these elections often involve a measure of uncertainty since the candidates of the ethnic minorities can be easily outvoted by an electorate who are not members of these minorities and they can elect persons to sit in the self-government whom the ethnic electorate would not want to occupy that position.

   The census data gathered during the past one hundred years have contributed to a better knowledge of the actual number and areal distribution, as well as of the social and demographic structure of the ethnic minority population of Hungary. Minority policies have often been influenced by the results of these data, as has the control of the implementation of these policies. It would appear that even though data of this type is necessary for the formulation of both short and long term policies, they are not sufficient since they are only useful for dealing with a part of the problems. Nonetheless, the information thus gained cannot be substituted by any other data since these form the basis for the historical, sociological, linguistic and ethnographic research of minorities.


[1]   For a detailed description of these investigations, cp. István Hoóz, Baranya megyében élő német és délszláv lakosság nemzetiségi tudatának alakulásáról [The ethnic consciousness of the German and southern Slav population in Baranya county]. Demográfia 1982: 2-3, 315-330; István Hoóz, Nationality Statistics and the Possibilities of Reforming them. East European Quarterly XXVII:4 (1993) 417-435.

[2]   For the results of the data collections, cp. A baranyai nemzetiségekről [Ethnic groups in Baranya county]. Edited by István Hoóz. Pécs, 1977; 1980. évi népszámlálás. A nemzetiségi települések adatai [The 1980 census. Data on the ethnic minority settlements]. Budapest: KSH, 1983.


[1] The Jewish diaspora had a fundamentally different meaning from the meaning of Hungarian diaspora. The national strategy of Romanian governments, as indicated by the events of the 19th and 20th centuries, has been expansive. It has not taken note of the breaking off of ethnic elements and blocks, and the existence of the diaspora either. The actual understanding of the problem - consider the case of the Romanians in the Timoc Valley - is yet to take place. (West) German national strategy went through a change at the turn of the 1970s and 80s: it renounced the ethnic presence it had East Central Europe for so long, and relegated the issue into historic past by way of attracting the surviving German diaspora to settle in Germany.

[2] Bárdi gave his presentation at the Conference on the diaspora of the Carpathian Basin in Nagydobrony (Velika Dobrony) in the autumn of 2001. The conference proceedings are under publication.

[3] In most of the countries of "in-between" Europe, the dislike and discrediting of minority culture and traditions were included in official politics and, in certain respects, they are present even today. Schoolbooks designed for the majority do not offer documentation on the historic and cultural presence of minorities. Furthermore, the image of the minority as projected by media and schoolbooks is disparaging. The ultimate goal is the subordination of the minority in its various relationships. See: História, 1989/9-10; Kisebbségkép a tömegtájékoztatásban, Regio, Budapest, 1993.

[4] Nándor Bárdi talked about ecclesiastic and denominational as well as national and ethnic diaspora. In the case of the first, the extent of the role of the church in society is an important factor. The role of the church has been increasing during the process of the change of the regime, and this can be an important factor in the slowing down of diasporisation. However, in the case of certain diaspora, even the pastors of the Calvinist Church accept that they should preach in the language of the majority when the local community is not proficient enough in its mother tongue. The next step is when Romanian becomes the language of children's programmes. This phenomenon has been present in the Roman Catholic Church even longer.

[5] Naturally, this does not refer to diaspora formed by those who choose migration voluntarily.

[6] Vienna is a professionally interesting and important place in this respect, see: Jacques Le Rider: Modernitatea vieneză şi crizele identităţii, Ed. Univ. Cuza, Iaşi, 1995.

[7] The biologist Maturana introduced the concept of self-organisation - autopoiesis, an essential characteristic of living systems.

[8] In villages of 200-300 inhabitants only one combined class of grades 1-4 operates. When also Romanians live in a village (even if in proportions much smaller than Hungarians), Romanian becomes the language of teaching. [Magyarszentmárton (Sinmartinu Maghiar), Keresztes (Cruceni)]

[9] As the saying goes: politics is such an important business that it cannot be entrusted to politicians only.

[10] Zsombolya (Jimbolia) in Temes county has a symbolic meaning: in 2000, a Hungarian was elected mayor in a city, where only 17 percent of the population is Hungarian. At this same place, the Hungarian school is about to be closed, and local teachers are the "best" examples as to how unimportant it is to hold on to education in one's mother tongue. The repeated over and over: they want quality education for their children and, therefore, enrol them in Romanian education. The mayor who won at the election is among those entrepreneurs, who can afford to send his children after the 5th grade to Temesvár, to a school where the language of teaching is Hungarian. This might be the beginning of the development of a new model, that promises a positive change: that the economic elite may in fact assume a leading role within the ethnic community.

[11] In 2001, the RMDSZ branch in Temes county initiated a civil development programme: it helped the establishment of local societies and their registration even financially to make the inhabitants of the area realise that they could and should involve external resources in community projects.

[12] Perhaps the most complete list of works in connection to the Status Law and related issues has been compiled by Zoltán Varannai and Zoltán Kántor. It will be published in the volume A státustörvény: dokumentumok, tanulmányok, publicisztika [The Status Law: Documents, Studies, Articles], edited by Zoltán Kántor and published by Teleki László Foundation (2002).

[13] The Hungarian-Romanian agreement of December 2001 related to the Status Law resolved the basic conflict. However, by the abolition of the institution of the certificate for the relatives, the agreement violates one's right to a freely chosen identity, which, however, the drafters of the Hungarian Status Law had recognised.