Part I

With entire peoples on the move, we live once again in the age of great migrations. While migration is as old as humanity, today it has become a phenomenon on a global scale involving 231.5 million people, according to statistics posted in 2013 by the UN-OECD. The numbers continue to swell, by 2 million annually in the 1990s, and 4.6 million annually in the 2000s. Nowadays, the main trend of the pressure is from Africa and the Middle East to Europe. The compassionate or, increasingly deeply resentful reception of migrants depends on national stereotypes as described recently by the Hungarian social psychologist György Hunyady.

Migration varies in its intensity and consequences, but it is always rooted in poverty, helplessness, political or religious persecution, hopes of freedom and a better life, and often in the sheer need of survival. Once again, migration has become an issue affecting the destiny of all mankind. Like other countries around the world, Hungary is finding itself in the dire predicament of emigration and immigration, as it has time and again throughout history.


In 2002, 14 of the then 27 member states of the EU reported immigration numbers in excess of emigration.

As of the middle of June 2015, Greece – a country of 11 million – was said to harbour around one million foreigners. The number of immigrants living in the United States is estimated at 41.3 million, or 13% of the total population of 316 million, including some 12 million aliens staying in the country illegally. From 2012 to 2013, the number of immigrants to the US rose by 523,000 or 1.3%. The 82.6 million population of Germany (2014 data) includes over 10 million former immigrants and their descendants. The State of World Population 2006, a report published by the UN, ranks Germany third on the list of countries that have admitted the largest number (specifically 5%) of migrants worldwide.

Generally speaking, emigration reflects dissatisfaction with the financial or political situation, a moral crisis, a sense of threat and prosecution and, of course, the desire for a better life. But what do the semantic fields of the terms “emigrant” and “immigrant” exactly cover? Who should be respectively defined as a newcomer, a vagrant, a settler, a hospes, a visitor, an exile, a refugee, a migrant worker, an émigré, or – historically – a dissident (“defector”), in Communist usage? When, how, and for what reason does any of these labels morph into another? Why does a foreign employee become an immigrant – and, by implication, an emigrant at the same time? Do those who work abroad ever return? If they do, when and how many times does this happen, and how long will they stay? Are refugees going to return when the reasons that originally forced them to depart have ceased to exist? What are the processes transpiring in the individual, in the family, in intergroup relationships, in the country left behind, and in the target country, that may have an impact on individual destinies as well as on major international trends in the movement of entire populations?


Immigration to and emigration from Hungary, both temporary and permanent, have been a reality to reckon with since the birth of the country. Hungary is situated in a geographical and geopolitical zone deeply influenced by the economic, political, social and religious conflicts between East and West, North and South, and by efforts to equalise these differences. From early on, immigration created a sort of multiculturalism in Hungary. This became self-evidence in the Habsburg Empire, when Hungarians cohabited and mingled with Germans, various Slavic groups, Italians, Romanians and Jews for centuries.

The population of the Carpathian Basin in the 11th century took shape through both organised “settlement” and “roaming”. While the former presupposed a premeditated relocation of certain populations, roaming was “a sort of reaction to the changes accompanying the emerging institutional system […] of the medieval Hungarian kingdom” (Attila Zsoldos). In the Middle Ages and the early modern age, these two forms of migration continued to coexist and complement one another.

Hungarian history teems with newcomers who settled in search of a better life, first across the entire Carpathian Basin, and later in the narrower region of the Danube Valley. The German researcher Harald Zimmermann has unearthed documentary evidence that the Saxons of Transylvania were invited to settle there by King Géza II of Hungary during his reign in the 12th century. When King Andrew II expelled the Order of Teutonic Knights from Burzenland, the area around the town of Brasov (today in Romania), he followed up in 1224 by reaffirming the freedoms of his loyal German hospes in Transylvania, and the German colonists gratefully preserved the memory of Géza as the most pious king (“piissimus rex”).

In the aftermath of the Tartar (Mongolian) Invasion (1241), colonists from Slovakia, Poland and Russia appeared on the scene. Cuman and Iasi minorities were encouraged to return to the region between the rivers Duna and Tisza, from Bulgaria where they had fled, while Romanian shepherds and dispersed fragments of the Cuman–Pecheneg group were motivated to settle in Transylvania. In the course of what came down in the annals of history as the “second foundation of the Hungarian state”, King Béla IV established new cities populated by a core of German, Italian and Jewish immigrants. In 1251, Béla IV issued a royal charter regulating the rights and status of the Jewry, which became known as “the Golden Bull of Hungarian Jews”. “In the wake of the havoc wreaked by the Mongols”, interwar historian Bálint Hóman commented with a characteristic, thinly veiled anti-Semitic reference in what has been probably the most influential history of Hungary, Magyar Történet [Hungarian History] (Vol. 1, 563), “the country needed to rely, more than ever, on the services of Jews who had never been averse to loan transactions, nor apparently ever short of money for lending.”

The desertification of Transdanubia, the Hungarian region west of the Danube, in the 15th century, provided the final push to settle the area with Croatians, who “quickly fit in with the social conditions they found” – that is to say, with the local scheme of taxation. The southern fringes were settled by large groups of orthodox Rascians (Serbians). After the fall of the medieval Hungarian Kingdom in 1526 some of the southern Slavs moved to the parts under Ottoman occupation by themselves, while others who had participated in the Ottoman conquest were dispatched by the Ottoman empire itself. Meanwhile, large masses of the native Hungarian population fled north from the Ottoman troops and settled in the sparsely occupied Highlands of Hungary (today Slovakia).

The next wave of German settlers arrived later, during the rule of the Habsburg dynasty in the 18th century, as the result of a deliberate and self-consistent population policy devised by Count Leopold Karl von Kollonitsch, cardinal and archbishop of Esztergom, the “Hungary expert” to the court in Vienna at the time, and implemented by the state and the aristocracy. Cardinal Kollonitsch had completed his work entitled Einrichtungswerk des Königreichs Hungarn [“Furnishing the Kingdom of Hungary”] between 1688 and 1690, almost directly after the overthrow of Ottoman rule in the heart of the country and it became the decisive blueprint of Habsburg population policy for the next century (János Kalmár – János J. Varga, Hg.). The Empress-Queen Maria Theresa concentrated on inviting settlers to fill the void left by the Hungarian population that perished during the Ottoman occupation in the southern territories, including Baranya County and the Banat region, while large numbers of German settlers from around the Empire also settled in the vicinity of Pest, Vecsés, Buda, Esztergom and the Pilis Mountains. These German settlers came to be called the Swabians of Hungary, which explains why the counties of Tolna, Baranya and Somogy were collectively known as the Schwäbische Türkei, a phrase with a rather menacing overtone during Germany’s Nazi era. In the so-called Baranya Triangle, not only did each village preserve its own identity but it made a conscious effort to avoid mingling. For instance, marriages between inhabitants of different villages were practically unheard of. The Swabians enjoyed a better position compared to Hungarians in perpetual serfdom, and were free to move wherever they pleased. Indeed, they took advantage of this option, for instance in 1751, when they flocked into a Slavonia recently vacated by the sizeable Rascian minority that had moved to Russia. By 1790, the number of ethnic German residents resettled in Southern Hungary had exceeded 70,000. Under Emperor Joseph II, the state spent 500 forints at contemporary value subsidising each settler household in the Bácska (Serbian Bačka) region.

After 1945, significant masses of ethnic Swabians, particularly those who had joined the National Socialist organisation Volksbund, were expelled from Hungary and resettled in Germany. Those who stayed in Hungary have to this day preserved their archaic German dialect, industrious work habits, and well-known penchant for order and tidiness. As one passes through a neat Swabian village in Hungary, say Budakeszi, Dunabogdány or Vértestolna, one cannot help but take note of the discrepancy, and it is hardly ever a comparison that flatters the typical Hungarian settlement.

By and large, German immigrants were received quite warmly in 18th century Hungary – unlike the Romanians, who appeared in great numbers in Transylvania spontaneously during the reign of Maria Theresa. A vehemently biased memorandum signed by members of the Hungarian nobility voiced grave concern over the rapid and vast increase of the Romanian population, presaging the “decay and ultimate ruin” of the people of Transylvania. In the course of the century, the number of Romanian residents just about doubled, not only in Transylvania but throughout the country.

Having learnt the lesson of the Ottoman occupation, the Habsburg administration set up a controlled zone along the Serbian border, at first on the right banks of the Maros and Tisza rivers and later, under Maria Theresa, south of the Maros along the Sava and the Danube rivers. In the 13 villages in the Tisza area and the 24 villages by the Maros, the initial census numbered a total of 8,000 border guards on duty, including a cluster of Bulgarians who had fled from the advancing Ottoman army. Although the Serbians in the border zone received a number of privileges from the Habsburgs, large-scale emigration continued, with nearly 4,000 people leaving the region over the years. Some of this may have had to do with the constant bickering among local residents, which prompted the British traveller Edward Brown to remark of the South Transdanubian town of Tolna that “the Hungarians and Rascians, who inhabit here, living in no good agreement” (Edward Brown 24).


The largest immigrant group to Hungary during the 19th century consisted of Jews, some of whom came from the western territories of the Habsburg Empire, specifically from Germany, Bohemia and Moravia, while others had fled from the Russian pogroms through Polish lands to Galicia, from where they migrated to Hungary. Their numbers swelled in the wake of the persecution of Russian Jews triggered by the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, when many Jews sought shelter in two of the most tolerant countries of the age, the United States and the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. At the outbreak of World War I, approximately one million Jews were living in the territories then belonging to Hungary. The influx of the Jews was, on the whole, viewed favourably by the Emperor-King Franz Joseph I and the Hungarian liberal political elite, exemplified by Count Gyula Andrássy, Baron József Eötvös and Kálmán Tisza, even as it also incited anti- Semitic sentiments culminating in the notorious Tiszaeszlár “blood libel” (Raphael Patai 1996, 347-357). The most well heeled Jewish families, who made particularly useful contributions to the national economy, were allowed to buy nobility status and even aristocratic ranks for money, and many became munificent patrons and coordinators of the arts. Raphael Patai has called the era the “love romance of Hungary and the Jewry”. The poet Endre Ady likened this bond to the dance rite of the Aboriginal Australian ceremony called Corroboree, creating a metaphor for the ostensibly fruitful amalgamation of Hungarians and Jews.

That nothing came of this romance had a lot to do with the fact that the Monarchy lost the Great War and with the attendant tragedy inflicted on Hungary in the form of a disproportionately severe sanction imposed by the Treaty of Trianon (1920). The anti-Semitism that flared up during the “Chrysanthemum Revolution”, the Hungarian Republic of Councils, and the ensuing violent repression known as the White Terror fundamentally changed the position of the Hungarian Jewry in terms of its relative numbers in the population, perception and opportunities, laying tracks – what no one suspected then – that ultimately led to Auschwitz. Formerly regarded with understanding and empathy by most, Jews now came to be blamed by the right-wing camp for the national tragedy of Trianon. Despite its mortifications, Hungary’s Jewish population – some 725,000 according to the 1941 census, not counting those who fled here from neighbouring countries during the war – were considerably better off than their brethren in many other places in Europe, until March 1944, when Germany occupied Hungary. From that date onward, however, the country’s Jewry paid a terrible price for its brief “nuptial rite” with Hungary, exacted by Nazi Germany and collected with the active participation of collaborating Hungarians.


Yet this very same Hungarian nation remained open until it lost its sovereignty in March 1944, to receive those to whom it was well disposed, even if they happened to be the victims of Germany, nominally its ally. For instance, Hungary exhibited exemplary sympathy in dealing with the troops and numerous citizens of Poland after the country had been invaded and crushed by Hitler’s Germany. Prime Minister Count Pál Teleki and his cabinet gave refugee status to the Polish army’s officer corps and many rank and file – a total of some 60,000 or 70,000 soldiers – as well as nearly 40,000 civilians. In Hungary, refugee affairs were managed under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior spearheaded by Dr József Antall Sr (1886–1974), ministerial councillor, appointed commissioner for refugee affairs and, after the war, minister of reconstruction in the colours of the Smallholders’ Party. The Hungarian government made provisions for 91 refugee camps for the military and 88 for civilian refugees. Under effective regulations, civilian refugees ought to have been interned under police surveillance. Instead, custody over them was assumed directly by the Ministry of the Interior. A joint effort by a number of Hungarian and international aid organisations and the Red Cross led to the establishment of a Committee for Hungarian–Polish Refugee Affairs, in part funded by the Polish government-in-exile in London. Another body formed at this time was the Federation of Hungarian–Polish Associations under the direction of secretary-general Tamás Salamon-Rácz, a brave man who later, soon after World War II, served as Undersecretary of Industry delegated by the National Peasant Party. Salamon-Rácz launched a large-scale charity campaign, which eventually netted two million pengő in cash donations and a huge inventory of outmoded, inexpensive suits offered by a garment wholesaler, all for the benefit of Polish refugees. The majority of Polish officers and the rank and file soon departed from Hungary, with the tacit approval of the authorities, by a secret “underground” route, to join the Polish Home Army fighting Germany on the side of France and Britain (Fai-Podlipnik).

Late in 1940, a group of French refugees arrived. One of them, Jean Boussaguet, is on record for making an attempt to communicate with the Hungarian gendarmerie in Latin, informing them that “Ego sum gallicus captivus” (“I am a French captive”). “This simple sentence”, quotes Endre Bajomi Lázár the French Boussaguet, “flung all the gates of Hungary wide open for them” (Bajomi Lázár, 15). By 1942, the number of French refugees in Hungary reached 600. They were put up in an ostensible camp in the village of Balatonboglár; in reality, they stayed at two hotels rented by the French Embassy. The French refugees undertook to assist with the increasingly nonconformist international propaganda campaign sponsored by the Hungarian government, for instance by translating into French the history of Hungary by Domokos Kosáry and the history of Transylvania by László Makkai. As early as in 1946, these Frenchmen published a small volume in Paris honouring their warm reception in Hungary (Refuge en Hongrie 1941–1945).


Immigration to Hungary did not end with World War II. The civil war that followed in Greece launched one of the largest waves of Greek emigration in the modern era, sending some 7,000 Greek refugees to Hungary. Most of them settled in a village near Ercsi named Beloiannisz after Nikos Baloyannis, the Communist resistance leader, which was built for this very purpose in 1950. Some of these refugees returned to Greece in two phases (1954, 1982), while the majority of those who chose to stay assumed Hungarian citizenship. They were not greeted with unanimous kindness, to say the least. Klára Szőllősy, a preeminent literary translator, quotes Vangelio Caruha recalling the circumstances of her arrival in the village of Sárbogárd as a child in these words: “The Hungarian kids resented us, and you know how cruel kids can be. They wouldn’t even talk to me. When I unpacked my belongings, I noticed that my blouse was all crumpled. The matron told me to get the iron from the girls in one of the rooms. I went to the room and asked for the iron, probably in poor Hungarian or in a heavy accent, who knows. The girls began to jeer and bully me. “Just look at these Greek swine”, they hissed. “They are porked out on our bread and they can’t get a word straight in Hungarian” (Szőllősy Klára – Caruha Vangelió 160).

To be continued

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel

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