The spring of 1848 promised the advent in Hungary of “liberty, equality and fraternity.” The twenty years of gradual progress known as the Reform Age and the relentless struggle for the country’s bourgeois transformation, in parallel with changes in Europe, had finally come to fruition. The revolt of 15 March and the will of the parliamentary assembly in Pozsony (Bratislava) gave the impression that nothing could stand in the way of the notion of equality before the law.

But the universality of liberty was challenged in the first days. Anti-Semitic riots broke out in Pozsony on 19 and 20 March, as they had a month earlier, sparked off by the granting of full civic rights to Jews in the city. Anti-Semitic protests were not restricted to Pozsony, and continued in April. Jews found themselves facing the horrors of pogrom-inclined Anti-Semitism in Szombathely on 4 April, Székesfehérvár and Pécs on 5 April, and Pest on 19 April. The Pest People’s Assembly resolved that (1) payment of rents should be waived for a quarter, since there had been no earnings during the month of revolt; (2) the situation of the workers should be improved; (3) Jews should be driven out of the country; (4) Jews should not be admitted into the national guard.

The sweeping demands of the People’s Assembly, and the idea that bound them together, cast some doubt on the unqualified popularity of equality before the law in Hungary. This was the background to Petőfi’s complaint, written in the wake of disturbances following the events of 15 March: “The harmony which has so far prevailed without exception in the capital is beginning to fall apart. German burghers, I denounce you before the nation and future generations for being the cause of its disintegration! May both pass judgement upon you.

“It was they who first declared that they would not recruit Jews to serve alongside them in the national guard, and they who first flung mud on to the virgin pure flag of 15 March!… Or do not the words still hold true, did you not cry out with us: liberty, equality, fraternity[1]?”

The anti-Semitism which in Pozsony had degenerated into a pogrom by Easter Monday (23 April) prompted the most prominent liberals to take open action. Mór Jókai, Antal Csengery, József Bajza and Zsigmond Kemény all spoke out against the anti-Jewish provocations, and Hungary’s “poet laureate” Mihály Vörösmarty, wrote in an article published in May under the title The Jewish Question: “There can be no more bitter mockery of the proclamation of equality and fraternity than the hatred and rage which have raised their fists against the Jewish people throughout the world, though perhaps most savagely in our country. After the first few untainted days of freedom, in which the noblest pearls of human emotion bubbled to the surface, the dregs are now showing their face, making counterfeit claims to plunge the shining ideal of civil society into darkness. After freedom had bravely stood up for its inalienable rights, lawlessness could not remain silent, demanding the waiving of rents and the division of land, and many violated the peaceful process of petitioning by setting out, in the name of equality, to batter and plunder the Jews, first of all[2].

The liberal intelligentsia responded to this anti-Semitism with unanimous and unqualified rejection. On the other hand, liberal politicians and the liberal parliament – to quote Vörösmarty – took action with an “irresolute hand”.

Kossuth himself wanted to postpone equality under the law for Jews, calling on them to “be patient a little longer in the interests of the homeland and the freedom of the people[3]”. He justified his standpoint by saying that, although what had occurred was distressing, prejudice was a reality against which “the gods themselves contend in vain.” Behind this position probably lay the conviction that for the sake of the reconciliation forming up among different interests, a sacrifice had to be made, even if this put a question mark against the whole process.

Naturally, not everyone shared Kossuth’s views on the need for an important sacrifice of principle in the interests of realpolitik. Samu Bónis reacted to Kossuth in parliament by saying, “it is impossible to share the view of those swayed by unrest; legislation may not be dictated by sordid street demonstrations, but by justice and principle alone. The heroes of disruption must be punished, not honoured in contempt of justice[4].”

The liberal and democratic intelligentsia raised their voice in vain; similar views were pressed without result in political circles; the advocates of postponement prevailed. Only on 28 July 1849 did the parliament adopt the law on emancipation of the Jews, on the same day as the law on nationality – scarcely two weeks before the already inevitable defeat.

Hungarian Jews reacted to the twofold challenge of 1848 – faced with calls for emancipation on one hand and the unprincipled policy of delay on the other – in a twofold manner. The anti-Semitic atmosphere of spring spawned bitterness and disillusion. An office was set up by Ede Horn, Adolf Dux and others encouraging Jews to emigrate to the United States, the land of freedom and equal rights. This reaction soon faded, however, and a significant number of Jews who had been pushed out of the national guard enlisted in the Hungarian army. The emigration office became a recruiting office.

Liberal efforts to secure emancipation and anti-Semitic moves to deny it; impulses towards both assimilation and dissimilation: this was the dilemma at the birth of modern Hungary.


The liberal proposal: assimilation


For Hungarian liberals, the question of Jewish equality before the law for Jews was not new: the Lower House had already raised it in the 1839-40 parliament with a view to granting them parity with other groups outside the nobility. (The bill failed to overcome the resistance in the Upper House, but not without some gains. The “Jews Act”, no. XXIX of 1840, allowed Jews to settle freely except in mining towns, and Ferdinand V’s decree of 27 July 1846 abolished the special tax levied on Jews, jocularly known as the “tolerance tax.”)

The liberal advocacy of emancipation will not be traced in chronological detail here. More interesting is what inspired them, since this was largely what determined the specifics of assimilation.

Valuable evidence is provided by the speech of Baron József Eötvös to the Upper House during the 1840 parliament, which he also published as an extended essay[5].

Eötvos’ argument, fully expressing the view of Hungarian liberalism at that time, takes as its point of departure the view that, “the time has come when the legislature should extend its caring hand to this unfortunate section of the populace; it is the message of the time, calling for the embourgoisement of the people, a new affirmation of our progress, shining evidence of the progress this House is proceeding towards liberty. In the firm conviction that a free constitution may only be built on justice applied equally to every class of people and on full respect for all human rights, and in the knowledge that the fate of this people hangs on the sense of justice of this House, I may perhaps make so bold as to declare that the time has come in which the Jews, too, may look to a better future within this realm.”

It was a powerful argument, based on the formula of combining values and interests. Freedom and equality before the law were linked up to the notion of rational self-interest. Eötvös believed that the granting of equality before the law to Hungarian Jews would ultimately strengthen the position of the Hungarian people, constituting as they did a minority in the country:

“…the objection is advanced that [the Jews] have until now shown no inclination to join the Hungarian nation. They do not consider themselves true citizens in a country where they have always been regarded as aliens; they have not become united with a nation which has treated them with contempt; and they have little zeal for a constitution known to them only as a burden. Reflecting upon this, my astonishment at those who raise such an objection is matched only by my pity for those against whom it is directed. Should we wonder that the downtrodden do not find common cause with the nation?…The German provinces of France, which in the course of a century have become French, and England, where so many different peoples have come together as a single great nation, stand as evidence, clearer than any argumentation, that the most diverse peoples can unite into one great whole whenever and wherever the same rights centralise separate parts. In Holland, France, England and the North American federation, nobody accuses the emancipated Jews of a lack of national identity. No one will be able to accuse them of this in our country either, as soon as their emancipation renders them full and free members of our nation, whereupon, by gaining a homeland, they will be capable of affection for that homeland.”

Hungarians would thus be ethnically strengthened by the adoption of liberal values – the nation would increase in numbers and strength. The question remained, of course, as to what the new members of the nation would be like. Would they become Hungarian in character too?

Eötvös did not ignore this question, particularly because the opponents of emancipation cited the negative characteristics of Jewish people, most of these connected with the commercial activity held in such contempt by the feudal order. Eötvös argued that offensive behavioural traits were linked to oppression, and would disappear along with it. On the question of commerce, he declared, “I dare say that the Jews’ orientation towards commerce is rather a consequence of their persecution. Having been forced to take this direction they attained perfection in it. I would venture to assert that on becoming full citizens, Jews will find new routes open to them, so that this purely commercial inclination will diminish rather than strengthen…”

This did not, however, resolve the question of what emancipated Jews should be like, a question which grew more complex in the run-up to the Act of 1849.

The pursuit of Hungarianisation through emancipation found itself up against two major demands. The first arose from the spectre of mass immigration. This was liable to slow down the process of making Hungarians out of Jews, if not render it impossible, especially if the process itself set off another great wave of immigration. Thus a demand arose for regulation, not to say curtailment of rights.

But there was another demand, which powerfully expressed the essence of Hungarian liberalism at that time: namely that the Jews, in order to be accepted into Hungarian society, should make changes in their religious practices and customs, the Jewish behavioural traits associated with these, and in the rules or standards which set Jews apart from the rest of society, i.e. if they wanted to get out of the ghetto, they should change their Judaism too.

Acceptance of the Jews was thus – explicitly or implicitly – linked to conditions, which in turn were linked to the main point of acceptance, the strengthening of the Hungarian nation. To put it another way, the close interweaving of liberal values with perceived national interests resulted, by reaction, and from the very beginning, in the setting of decidedly anti-liberal constraints.

This peculiar state of affairs acquired clear expression in the formulation of the symbolically important emancipation law adopted on 28 July 1849. The bill introduced by Bertalan Szemere states:

Art. 1:   As regards religious differences between citizens of Hungary, no distinction being made, the principle shall be applied that any resident of the Jewish faith who was born or has legally settled within the borders of the Hungarian state shall enjoy all political and civil rights pertaining to the citizens of any other religious faith.

Art. 2:   The conditions of settlement shall be defined by the Government in a temporary decree.

Art. 3:   Marriages between persons of the Jewish and Christian faiths shall be declared valid in respect of their civil consequences. Such marriages shall be contracted before the civil authorities and their procedure shall temporarily be defined in a decree.

Art. 4:   The interior minister shall permanently be charged with the following:

  1. a) Citizens of the Jewish faith shall call an assembly made up of their clergy and representatives to consider reforms to their ecclesiastical apparatus in concordance with needs of the present age.
  2. b) This Act renders obligatory that persons of the Jewish faith shall be directed by means of suitable rules to the practice of manual trades and agriculture[6].


The implications of the Act were twofold. Since civil equality before the law could only be complete if it includes religious acceptance, Jewish emancipation necessarily implied full-scale liberalism; the Act thus went beyond civil and political equality to institute civil marriage, and so indirectly religious acceptance. On the other hand, articles 2 and 4, although given as accessory considerations rather than preconditions, pointed in a different direction. The requirement for regulation of “legal settlement” in fact affected immigration policy, and could take effect only if the Hungarian government was sovereign and able to decide who to admit into the country and who to exclude from it. Such a sovereign decision was not possible if the Hungarian state was part of a larger empire. This consideration is worth noting because of the significance it took on in 1867. Of more pressing relevance, however, was religious reform, or rather the resolution to restructure Jewish society. The latter implied that the liberal state, accepting civil and political equality, must in some way interfere in the free choices of its emancipated citizens. (Several 20th century measures did just this, and not just to Jews; the higher education restrictions, the administrative constraints imposed through chambers of commerce, and the labour camp system are notable examples.) If the state was to steer a particular group of its supposedly free citizens along predetermined courses, it would no longer be liberal, having violated the principle of equality before the law. This section of the Act was therefore illiberal – and indeed unenforceable if the state wished to maintain respect for the principle of equality before the law.

The requirement of religious reform was not unequivocally illiberal, however, because the law called for its promotion rather than for its imposition. If the representatives of the Jews wanted religious reform, then so be it. The law merely expressed the executive power’s expectation that such reform should take place.

If we wish to interpret the aims both of those wishing to expand or to harmonise civil rights and of those who wanted to restrict them, it is not enough to view the Hungarian liberals simply as politicians struggling within the confines of pre-existing prejudices[7].

The demands imposed on Jews – whether preconditions or auxiliary factors – are related to a prime issue in Hungarian liberalism, one that concerned not so much Jewish affairs as the status of the Hungarian nation.

The main purpose of emancipating the Jews was to strengthen the ethnic Hungarian nation. This was a particularly pressing consideration in a country where the majority of the population belonged to other ethnic groups. The fundamental, consciously-identified objective of Hungarian liberalism was to create, via equality before the law, a nation in the civil sense of the word. The creation of a nation was inextricable from liberalism, but this pursuit of modernity, by eroding the feudal concept of nationhood, inevitably highlighted and fuelled the issue of ethnic affiliation, since it might set off similar processes among the non-Hungarian national groups which constituted the numerical majority. The building of a modern nation also added further points of conflict to the Habsburg-Hungarian relationship, since the prospect of Germanisation, already threatening feudal privileges, presented a danger to the whole extended nationhood concept, and conversely, the demand for a nation-state threw into doubt the unity of the Empire.

The development of the cultural nation concept (language reform, the Academy, grammar, national literature, etc.) was gradually accompanied by a political nation-concept based on liberal codes of law which, although offering no collective rights to the country’s various national groups, promised – and where possible, conferred – broad individual rights. It was thought that individual rights would provide sufficient cohesion to counterbalance collective national movements.

In this context, Hungarian liberals could not base their national consciousness on a culturally integrative view of society. On the contrary: they wanted to impose a Hungarian mould on other groups so as to homogenize them with the nation. The liberal nation concept formulated in terms of homogenization rather than integration logically excluded the notion of cultural diversity, and its proponents did all they could to give Hungarian culture, or what they regarded to be so, an identifiable form. Since the Jews did not have a national identity of their own, they constituted an ideal subject for assimilation. (This had already been recognised in Vienna, where the Germanisation policy forced Jews to assume German family names.) However, although they may have lacked a national consciousness, the Jews had a religion whose all-embracing nature posed a challenge to the notion of assimilation. Not confined to principles and guidelines, Judaism prescribed rules governing all aspects of life from eating habits to married life. It was an entire culture affecting everyday customs as well as religious life. This was somewhat incompatible with the concept of a historically-evolved Hungarian nation having a homogeneous, rather than an integrative, culture. And since this different culture was, or appeared to be, inextricable from the Jews’ position in the division of labour, the latter was also called into question and became a target for change.

This serves to explain why liberalism demanded that Jews take on Hungarian identity in the cultural sense, as well as the political and linguistic, and why this demand was set into legislation. Furthermore, it is symbolic that the 1849 Act linking emancipation to cultural assimilation was passed on the same day as that granting only partial integration to ethnic minorities in the Hungarian state[8]. It is understandable that, after 1849, it was Kossuth who emerged from the ranks of the Hungarian liberals to espouse unconditional equality before the law, and who in 1851 committed to paper a draft for a new constitution envisaging an integrated society based upon cultural autonomy at the state executive level[9]. By then, of course, he was in exile rather than in power.

Although liberal Hungarian politics even following the Compromise of 1867 did not change its concept of homogeneity, Jewish assimilation was not the subject of legislation. The law passed in December 1867 consists of only two clauses. The first stated that “the country’s Israelite residents shall henceforth be entitled to exercise all the civil and political rights enjoyed by Christian residents.” The second decreed that “all laws, customs or decrees to the contrary are hereby abolished[10].” No mention was made of immigration, religious reform or state direction of occupations. Their absence was not due to a liberal change of mind: a variety of causes played a part. The terms of the Compromise prevented the Hungarian parliament from ruling on immigration or inhibiting the movement of capital or labour within the Empire[11]. As for state-enforced alterations to the occupational structure, the legislators of 1868 probably realised the impossibility of enacting them without taking entirely illiberal measures. There was an initiative on religious reform put forward by the Minister of Education, but this could not be formulated as a legislative principle.

It was by omission that the desire for full cultural assimilation was most clearly expressed. The 1867 Act made no reference, even indirectly, to acceptance of the Jewish faith, and the legislature postponed decision on civil marriages until the 1890s. The practical effect of this was that the main vehicle of Jewish culture was excluded from the emancipation process. This – taken together with the ministerial proposal for religious reform – again implied the linking of emancipation to cultural homogenization, i.e. assimilation.

Although the wording had changed, the proposal from Hungarian liberalism was therefore the same in 1867 as it had been in 1849: take on Hungarianness, and we will grant you citizenship. To become Hungarian, you must give up as far as possible your own cultural standards and habits. If you do this, we will do more than admit you, we will actually accept you.

A significant number of Jews took up this offer[12]. They made a political commitment to the Hungarian nation, took to speaking Hungarian, and progressively moulded themselves to Hungarianness in terms of customs, lifestyle and principles. The Jewish citizen wanted to be a Hungarian gentleman, and regaling himself in the trappings of Hungarianness was not an uncomfortable imposition but longed-for goal. The choice was made easier by the fact that the secular process of embourgeoisement, even without pressure towards assimilation, came into increasing conflict with the regulations of religious traditionalism. The liberal offer was consciously aimed at encouraging Jews not merely to modernise their cultural identity along secular lines, but to renounce it. Jews at various stages along this route responded to attack by vigorously declaring their Hungarianness in terms that went beyond language or loyalty to the homeland. They affirmed that Hungarian culture was their own.

Hungarian liberalism’s fear of the Germanising power of Habsburg rule and of the predominance of other nationalities, and the concept of homogeneous culture and national identity it gave rise to, put such pressure on the Jews that a large section of them appeared willing to gradually abandon their own cultural identity in order to become Hungarian citizens. They thought that if they remained only symbolically Jewish, they could and would be Hungarian citizens of equal status.


The anti-Semitic proposal: dissimilation


At the birth of modern Hungary in the spring of 1848, the movement towards political emancipation and assimilation was accompanied by the appearance of anti-Semitism, an ideology seeking to exclude Jews from full citizenship.

In its 1848 form, however, it had no intellectual strength; it was not yet a modern ideology that could form people’s outlook. This had to wait for international influences, mainly German and Austrian, and indeed for the commencement and increasing momentum of the assimilation process.

In Hungary, anti-Semitism as a fully-fledged political ideology started to make itself felt in the mid-1870s[13]. A separate political party formed up around it and gained representation in the Hungarian parliament. The issue from which it drew the most attention – even from abroad – was the Tiszaeszlár ritual murder indictment of 1882. Several Jews were charged with ritual murder of a young Hungarian girl, and the initial verdict of guilty was ultimately overturned by the Royal Supreme Court on 10 May 1884. However, I would contend that the medieval anti-Judaism manifested in this infamous affair was not the key factor. Anti-Semitism drew its new power from the novelty of functioning as a political ideology, and as it confronted the process of emancipation, it formed up around the pursuit of dissimilation. It is thus worthwhile taking a look at the views it expressed – views which were repudiated at the same time[14].

The modern incarnation of anti-Semitism was troubled principally by the successes of assimilation, coupled with an aversion to the social and material regroupings caused by capitalization and embourgeoisement.

Its point of departure was that Jews were not capable of assimilation because of ingrained racial characteristics. This implies at the outset that Hungarians formed an ethnic-racial category which excluded absorption of any group that did not “originally” belong to it. The Jews – invading the body of the nation through emancipation – lived like parasites (in the anti-Semitic jargon, practising “money market liberalism”) and debilitated the nation (the reasoning here was based on the Röhling Talmud, later proved to be a forgery). Spurred on by radical German (Marr-Dühring) anti-Semitism, they claimed that the racial qualities of the Jews – “greed”, “duplicity” and “lack of patriotism” – were irreconcilably opposed to the essential characteristics of the Hungarian nation: “chivalry”, “openness” and “an honest personality”. The Jews grew rich through the pursuit of unproductive forms of business, such as trade and finance: it was rare indeed to find a Jewish brakeman or guard. A favourite simile used to portray the relationship between the Jewish and the Hungarian peoples was that of “marauding wasps who rob the industrious bees of their honey.”

Liberalism presented an opportunity for the “wasps” – Jews – to prevail and so, following this logic, liberal politics favoured only the Jews. But not even that was enough for the Jews, whose destructive nature gave rise to other schemes. Jews were inducing morally pure Hungarians to “rum drinking, cigar smoking and other kinds of extravagance.” By means of the economic power they had acquired, they were corruptly seizing control of the judiciary, public administration, parliament and government.

As if control of the entire state apparatus was not enough, Jews were trying to seduce the whole of society to take up the same kind of infamy. It was liberal freedom of the press that they exploited for this end. There were basically two kinds of newspapers: Jewish or “Jew-friendly”. “The Jewish press exercises tyranny over public opinion, the crushing of which is the duty and right of every honest patriot,” they wrote.

The Jews’ were effective in their alienness, offensiveness and destructiveness because they had a power structure, partly open and partly secret, whose hierarchical cohesion amplified the power of their efforts. (The operation of this organisation was conceived along the lines of the autonomous Jewish communities of Russia, the Kagal.)

The assimilation process – a phenomenon theoretically impossible under the anti-Semites’ basic premise – was explained as being nothing more than a sham. The total alienness of the Jews therefore had to be exposed. A good example was the Jews’ use of the Hungarian language. It was true that more and more Jews were speaking Hungarian, but the result was “degradation” of the language – urban people were speaking differently from rural people, and this was all down to the Jews.

The conclusion was the same as the initial premise: Jews had not and, indeed, could not become Hungarian. They were no more than foreign bodies built into the nation, parasites by nature. Their assimilation was merely a mask behind which they were establishing their own positions of power in the Hungarian state. And their own religious and cultural rules prevented them from seeking true acceptance, they were determined to stay separate. They were drawn by their co-religionists around the world, and were thus irredeemably cosmopolitan and entirely incapable of Hungarian patriotism.

What could be does to stop this contagion?

Modern political anti-Semitism offered several recipes which could be applied in parallel. Their favourite proposals were those aimed at restricting or stripping away civil rights. Above all they demanded the revocation of emancipation. Immigration also had to be stopped, and Jews encouraged to emigrate. Laws were also needed to prevent “racial intermingling.” These might be supplemented by a numerus clausus (legislating the number of Jews admitted to university, for example) and a numerus nullus (admitting none at all). Anti-Jewish laws on money changing and usury were also considered useful, and the withdrawal of migration rights also seemed like a good idea. Christian social campaigns might supplement legislative initiatives, such as the “Don’t buy from the Jews” drive, and it was of course essential to set up a dedicated press.

The logical conclusion of this race-based, anti-assimilation Hungarian anti-Semitism was Jewish emigration and the expunging of Jewish influence. Hungarian anti-Semites addressed the question of what the subsequent fate of these outcast Jews should be. Győző Istóczy, at the 24 June 1878 session of the Hungarian parliament, stated that the medieval solution to the Jewish question – mass executions – was not really practicable, and called upon the government to do all it could towards the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, to which Hungarian Jews could be deported. The Hungarian anti-Semites were ahead of almost everybody else in the world with this idea, flatly contradicting, of course, their assertion that the Jews’ racial characteristics rendered them incapable of statehood.

The anti-Semites thus worked on the premise of ethnically-racially determined cultural homogeneity, in contrast with the liberals, who also based their views on homogeneity, but of a kind that could be learned and adopted. They both rejected integration; their differences stemmed from their respective aims of assimilation and dissimilation. Both basic positions, with all their internal contradictions, rested on exceptionally powerful frameworks of ideology, consciousness and language. One might even say they constituted a polar field in Hungarian consciousness and self-expression. Someone alluding to the separateness of Jewish culture might either face the accusation of anti-Semitism or be a target of the anti-Semites. But a Jew who disavowed – and cut himself off from – any kind of Jewish cultural affinity, although fulfilling the requirements of Hungarian liberals, was forced to deny any cultural heritage in religion or some kind of secularised form, sometimes at the price of lying to himself and to others.

The effect of this absorption-rejection polarity, based on different kinds of homogenisation and homogeneity, on the consciousness of the time is illustrated by the following passage about Tivadar (Theodor) Herzl, who trod the path of assimilation first with the Hungarians and then the Germans (or “Austrians,” as referred to here). The author was Stefan Zweig, a Jewish writer looking back during the Nazi era. Through his own experiences and times, he evokes the world of the 1890s, the period following the Dreyfus affair, a phenomenon which affected Jews throughout the Habsburg Empire:

Theodor Herzl, this sincere, open and proud man suffered from his Jewish destiny even as a student, and what is more, tragically bore it in enforced ignorance as to where this destiny might lead him; and yet the prophet’s instinct for presentiment dwelt within him. Sensing that he had been born to lead, a role for which not only his imposing bearing but also his far-reaching mind and knowledge of the world qualified him, he fashioned a fantastic plan to solve the problem of the Jews once and for all, uniting Jews and Christians through mass, voluntary baptisms. He pictured everything in his mind, envisioning the Jews of Austria, in their thousands and tens of thousands, with himself at the fore, marching robustly and imposingly in to the Stephanskirche, where they would symbolically melt into the greater community and be rid of the curse of statelessness. He discovered soon enough, however, how fantastic this scheme was. In response, he wrapped himself up in his work and forgot about the age-old problem which he had once considered it his life’s work to solve. Now, however, in the face of Dreyfus’ degradation, the thought flashed before him once again like a bolt of lightning: under present circumstances, the destiny of his people was to suffer eternal contempt. If segregation was inevitable, then let it be complete! If our destiny can only be to endure more and more humiliation, then let us face up to it with dignity. If we must otherwise suffer from statelessness, then let us create for ourselves a separate homeland! Thus inspired, he published his tract entitled The Jewish State, in which he declared that from the Jewish people all thoughts of assimilation and tolerance were but vain self-deception. The only solution would be to build a state of their own in the ancient lands of Palestine. When this short but keenly-worded proclamation was let loose upon the world, I was still a secondary school student, but I remember well even today the stupefaction and outrage of bourgeois Jewish circles in Vienna. “What has got into this otherwise to clever, witty and cultured writer?” they cried in protest. “What kind of foolishness is he scribbling? What would we do in Palestine? Our language is German, not Hebrew; our home is in beautiful Austria; and aren’t we well off under honest Francis Joseph? We grow stronger quite honourably, we continue to consolidate our position. We are emancipated citizens, native residents of our beloved Vienna. And don’t we live in a progressive age which seems likely to resolve all religious prejudices within a matter of decades? Why does this man, who speaks as a Jew and in the supposed interest of Jews, endanger us all by handing over arguments to our worst enemies; why is he trying to pull us apart, when every day we bind ourselves more intimately to the world of the Germans?”

Initially, Herzl must have thought that his intentions had been completely misunderstood; in Vienna, where for years he had been so popular, he was now forsaken and ridiculed. Before long, however, he received such a thunderous, ecstatic response that he was more startled than anyone: what a movement had he launched, what forces – far surpassing his own – had he unleashed with that slim pamphlet! The first wave did not come from the growing ranks of well-to-do bourgeois Jews, but from the vast eastern masses in obscure Galicia, and from the Polish and Russian ghettos. Herzl had not even dreamed that his words could kindle the smouldering embers of freedom which, beneath the ashes of alienation, had kept warm the thousand-year-old messianic dream of a return to the Promised Land, as foretold in the holy scriptures. Yet it was this hope that gave some kind of meaning to the existence of millions driven into serfdom and exile. Whenever a prophet, even a false one, had over the course of the two thousand years of the Golus [Exile] touched on this particular chord, the soul of the people had vibrated in harmony with it, though never as strongly as now. In the space of a couple of dozen pages a single man had, almost by accident, moulded into one the scattered, divided masses.

This initial period, while the notion still existed only in vague, dreamlike form, was to be the happiest of Herzl’s short life. As soon as he set about realising his dream, he inevitably ran directly into the full weight of the differences among Jews united only by ethnic origin and the situation it had historically place them in: orthodox Jews, secular Jews, liberal, socialist and capitalist Jews all gesticulating at each other in a motley confusion of tongues, and not one of them willing to submit to a unified, authoritative principle[15].






The unspeakable distinctiveness: integration


There can be no disputing that the overwhelming majority of Hungarian Jews during the last century moved towards assimilation, and this can be attributed to the Hungarian liberals’ desire to accommodate Jews on top of granting them equal rights. The liberals, motivated by the potential threat of Germanisation from Habsburg power and the only gradually diminishing preponderance of national minorities (Jewish assimilation accounting for a large part of the improvement), vigorously demanded Hungarianisation of the Jews. In addition to linguistic Hungarianisation and loyalty to the Hungarian state and people, Jews were called on to assume full cultural identification. Set against this, the anti-Semites rejected such cultural merger, maintaining its impossibility and necessary artificiality, and thus attacked the very notion of emancipation.

Put most simply, this led to the emergence of two ideological frameworks. One demanded that Jews be granted equality because they were Hungarian. The other took the position that the Jews should have their rights restricted or even removed precisely because they were not Hungarian and could never become so. This is how it was, how it always had been and how it always would be.

The ideological field generated developed between these two poles spread through the entire scope of popular thinking. One result was a constant attempt by some Hungarian Jews to prove their complete and perfect assimilation, their unassailable Hungarianness. (This continues to the present day.) It was not a surprising reaction. To have asserted any aspect of Jewish culture would have led to confrontation with the homogenising efforts of Hungarian liberals and provided grist to the anti-Semitic mill.

In his way – on the conscious level – it was more or less impossible for Jews to attach themselves to Hungary in a way which was integrative, i.e. both retaining and modernising their own cultural identity. Consciousness of this cultural identity might have revealed itself in the more secular aspects of religion – for instance, by celebrating religious festivals in a form acceptable to Hungarians – but also in secularised standards separate from religion, or to be more precise, in the open popularisation of these norms. Or in other words, the possibility of being Hungarian differently. It cannot be said that dissimilarities did not exist, since the assimilation process itself was envisaged in stages, with identification being achieved by gradual erosion of differences. Neither can it be said that the preservation of otherness is the only way. This is a preconception which would obscure understanding of history. All we can say is that integration cannot become a conscious ambition if the person who might somehow seek it finds no willing partner. The only options remaining are either the ideological over-emphasis of assimilation, or the pursuit of dissimilation, made into a consistent scheme by a search for historical precursors. (Anti-Semitism does not derive its strength from the validity of its claims but in its determination to stifle self-expression, and so penetrate the popular consciousness.)

It became difficult for religious or even secularised cultural identity to assume an autonomous articulation and thus establish itself as an idea which could inspire the requisite cultural – and, where required, political – organisation. It became difficult to be Hungarian in another way, difficult for diverging dimensions of consciousness to develop in juxtaposition and equal value.

Another consequence was the effect this polarisation of consciousness had on Jewish and non-Jewish writers dealing with the history and destiny of the Hungarian Jews. Instead of objectively appraising and interpreting events, they became prisoners of the language and concepts of an ideological tangle they were caught up in themselves[16].

This is particularly striking in the problem of integration. No one denied, either directly or indirectly, that the Jews represented a living culture and that certain religious or secular standards played an important role in their lives. But because scholarly approaches fell into only two categories – homogeneous acceptance and homogeneous rejection – integration could not be consciously formulated as the subject of historical research. (That this is more than just a methodological dilemma is proved by historians’ universal practice of mentioning the Jewish origins of protagonists in historical and cultural developments. If the subtle, multi-level “integrative” factor did not exist, then why mention this aspect so consistently?)

My conclusion is that in search of objectivity and fullness of explanation, we must rethink the history of the Hungarian Jews – like so much else – and give expression to something that was permitted to exist by our history, but was prevented from attaining a conscious, expressible form.

Of course, this is more than a matter of subjective resolve, intellectual thoroughness, or accumulating facts. There is a far more vital preliminary condition. Just as the Hungarian national consciousness – guided by liberal thinking – became capable of regeneration in the first half of the nineteenth century, it must display the same ability today and – in some ways building on the legacy of Kossuth – the Hungarian nation, both as concept and reality, must be interpreted in terms of cultural integration as well as homogeneity alone. It was a change in Hungarian national consciousness that afforded Hungarian Jews opportunities for self-determination in the past, and a similar scenario is called for today. Only a transformation of such magnitude could put an end to an ideological dichotomy which has already exhausted its resources.





[1] Pages from the diaries of Sándor Petőfi. Complete Works of Sándor Petőfi, Akadémia Kiadó, Budapest, 1955, pp. 445-446

[2] The Jewish Question. In: The Complete Works of Mihály Vörösmarty. vol. 16, Akadémia Kiadó, Budapest, 1977, p. 80. (CWMV)

[3] The Parliament of People’s Representatives of 1848/49.(ed. János Beér) 1954, pp. 476-477

[4] Lajos Venetiáner: History of the Hungarian Jews, 1922, p. 169. (In the writing of this chapter I also made use of the 1986 edition with an introduction by Tamás Raj.) (Venetiáner)

[5] The speech on the emancipation of the Jews was delivered on 31 March 1840. The Eötvös essay dealing with emancipation was published in Budapesti Szemle, vol. 2 (1840), pp. 110-156. Hereafter I shall quote from the version given in: Works of József Eötvös: Portraits and Programmes, forward and commentary by István Fenyő, Budapest, 1975, pp. 351- 355.

[6] Venetiáner, p. 202-203. Recently, Ambrus Miskolczy devoted a small monograph to the problem of the 1849 emancipation. [Jewish Emancipation in Hungary 1849, Múlt és Jövő, Budapest, 1999]. The author of this substantial work refers to as “complex” what is interpreted here as the logical presence of liberal and antiliberal elements (p. 11). The book is much more “understanding” and less critical than the viewpoint set out here.

[7] Even the most eminent are susceptible to these, of course, as they are to attitudes arising from what might be called a mixture of ignorance and prejudice. So, for example, Vörösmarty writes in the above article: I should mention one more aspect. In the matter of the Christian and Jewish religions there is a meeting of East and West: the eternal rigidity of the East and the West’s perpetually rejuvenating and serpentine nature do not allow us to doubt that progress and victory shall go the latter. The rigidity of the East, with all its delights and familial licence, cannot survive in places where the more universal and thus more humane freedoms of the West establish themselves, even only partially. The degraded faith and hypocrisy of the Christian West, despite all its debaucheries, at least maintains the pretence of a strict family life and thereby has a great advantage over the East, which delights in familial licentiousness, as a result of instilling in the hearts of parents the sacred duty of raising their children. Thus a more energetic, hardworking, educated and humane race is brought up which, besides inheriting similar principles and frailties and similar obligations, will always have an advantage over the races of Eastern upbringing.

Is it possible for the adherents of Eastern religions to unite with a race of this kind without modification? Unquestionably it is not. The Eastern religious ceremonies and customs must be mitigated and either openly or clandestinely modified in order for this unification to take place. In this way, those Israelites who have voluntarily renounced the outward features of their religion and its non-essential or defective regulations and principles have been able to join with the Christian community. (p. 295)

When Vörösmarty puts forward “delight in familial licentiousness” as one of the main characteristics of Jewish orthodoxy, he is clearly thinking of polygamy in Islam. This, of course, is immeasurably distant from the Jewish religion, and demands of the Jews something which Christianity had in fact adopted from them, not to mention the fact that the orthodox view recognises a fair number of obligatory regulations related to matrimony which do not always make possible the enjoyment of even one wife. The publication of such a patent error reveals more than just a gap in Vörösmarty’s knowledge; it illustrates a widespread ignorance that must have been a factor in the formulation of demands for religious reform.


[8] This Act was nevertheless an enormous step forward for some Hungarian liberals from their position in the spring of 1848, when, in order to avoid the conflicts which threatened to split the Batthyány government, they even opposed popular representation in the counties. The 1849 Act, among other things, accepted free language use in county assemblies, but still excluded languages of other nationalities at parliamentary level. (See András Gerő, Hungary’s Policy on National Minorities, 1848-9, Társadalmi Szemle, no. 6, 1987, pp. 63-73.)


There are two factors, however, which challenge the credibility of Kossuth’s view. One is that it was formulated in emigration and not when in power: the 1848/49 nationalities policy was quite different. The other is that, as news reached him from time to time, he redrafted the document to set varying limits to the freedom of national groups, depending on the extent he thought they would have to be involved in setting off a new struggle. The drafts are analysed in: György Spira: Kossuth and His Draft Constitution. Debrecen, 1989.


[9] Lajos Kossuth: Proposal concerning the future political structure of Hungary, with regard to the solution of the national minorities problem, Budapest, 1974, pp 14-33. Kossuth’s espousal of integration set him distinctly apart from the vast majority of Hungarian liberals, and his opinion – particularly as it regards cultural autonomy – influenced subsequent Austrian social democracy.


[10]  Hungarian Statute Book. Laws of 1836 -1868, 1896. Act XVII of 1867.


[11] The scale of immigration from Galicia had decreased in any case. (See Alajos Kovács, The Settlement of the Jews in Hungary, 1922. In the period following 1869, the number of Jews emigrating more often than not actually exceeded the number of immigrants. See Walter Pietsch, Immigration of the Jews from Galicia, Valóság, 11/1988.)


[12] There is a substantial literature on assimilation. A few of the works I have drawn on are: on the religious aspect: Gyula Zeke, After the split… in.: Seven Decades in the Lives of the Hungarian Jews Part I, Budapest, 1990. pp. 145 -161. The same book has statistical appendices on the assimilation process, pp. 185-197. And: Viktor Karády, Jewish Identity and Assimilation in Hungary, in Mozgó Világ, 8/1988; Idem, Principal Factors in the Emancipation and Modernisation of the Jews in the History of Hungarian Society, in The Jewish Question, Budapest, 1989; Idem, Unequal Hungarianisation, Századvég, 2/1990;  William O. McCagg Jr., A History of Habsburg Jews 1670-1918. Indiana University Press, 1989, pp. 123-139. And on the East European context: The Jewish Question in East and Central Europe, Budapest, 1985.


[13] See Judit Kubinszky, Political Anti-Semitism in Hungary (1875-1890). Budapest, 1976, György Szabad, The Assault on Civil Equality and its Failure, in Társadalmi Szemle, 9/1982/8.


[14] A reconstruction of the various views is provided in Zoltán Barotányi, 12 Pamphlets, Széchenyi füzetek no. 5, 1992, pp. 2-39. “12 Pamphlets”, a monthly journal of 40-45 pages (latterly 30) which came out between 1880 and 1892, was the mouthpiece of Hungarian political anti-Semitism. I was considerably aided in interpreting anti-Semitic arguments by Kubinszky’s book and György Szabad’s essay. I also drew on: The Parliamentary Speeches, Motions and Bills of Győző Istóczy, 1904. Modern anti-Semitism, with some changes in terminology, manifests itself through similar constructs, and demonstrates no particular intellectual innovation. See essays by Zsófia Mihancsik, Áron Monori, Mihály Szilágyi-Gál in Anti-Semitic Talk in Hungary in 2001 (eds.: András Gerő, László Varga, Mátyás Vince), B’nai B’rith, Budapest, 2002, pp. 63-110 and 121-130.


[15] Stefan Zweig: The World of Yesterday, Budapest, 1981, pp. 101-103 (Hungarian translation by Dezső Tandori). Monographs on Herzl in Hungary were published by József Patai in 1934 (Pro-Palesztina, Budapest), and by Zoltán Halász in 1995 (Magyar Világ), and there is a wealth of international literature on him. Notable among his biographers are Ruth Burstyn, Amos Elon and Jozsef Fraenkel. The latest book on Herzl to be written in Hungary is by Attila Novák (Theodor Herzl, Vince, Budapest, 2002.). His work is largely a political biography and does not discuss analytically the identity-history background against which Herzl might be defined, and in which his conflicts arose. The book is an addition to, rather than an extension of, the Herzl literature. By contrast, a major contribution to the identity history aspects of the story is by Gábor Schweitzer, who quotes Herzl as saying, “Hungarian Zionism can only be red, white and green.” Zionism in Turn-of-the-Century Hungary in: A Hundred Years of Zionism. Published by the Bethlen Square Oneg Sabbat Klub, Budapest, 1998, pp. 41-51.


[16] A good indication of this phenomenon and an attempt to treat it analytically is: Kati Vörös: A Unique Contract. Interpretations of Modern Hungarian Jewish History. In: András Kovács, Eszter Andor (eds.): Jewish Studies at the Central European University III, 2002-2003, CEU Budapest, pp. 229-258.