Early Hungarian migration history has a remarkable and well-documented chapter known as peregrination: the story of Hungarian students studying at foreign universities. Before Péter Cardinal Pázmány founded his university in Nagyszombat (now Trnava in Slovakia) in 1635, medieval beginnings of institutional higher education had discontinued in Hungary. As late as in 1685, the English traveller Edward Brown observed that “The Turkish Power so much prevailing or threatening in these Parts; it is in vain, to expect any great University beyond Vienna. Nor do I find that there hath been any very considerable ones in this Countrey; and though they have had many Bishops and learned Men; yet they have had their Education many of them out of Hungary. […] And the present Hungarians, which addict themselves unto Learning, especially those of Quality, do commonly Study at Vienna, Prague or Breslaw; a small University, or publick Study there is at present at Schemnitz” (Brown 8). He fails to mention though the fairly large number of students at Italian, Dutch and Scottish universities.

A wide-ranging, internationally unique survey by László Szögi reports that in the 18th century no fewer than 13,894 Hungarian students were enrolled at universities abroad, 33 per cent of them in Germany. In the 1800s, this tendency gathered speed, the number hitting 12,936 already in the first half of the century. By then, the main destination had become Vienna where some 75% of all Hungarian peregrine students were enrolled, although other universities in the provinces also attracted students from Hungary. All in all, 85.26% of Hungarian students studied at one university or another within the Habsburg Empire (Szögi). Szögi and his associates surveyed the admission data of nearly 100,000 Hungarian students at foreign universities from 1100 to 1918, a period encompassing almost the entire existence of Hungary up to the First World War.

In the early days – certainly for Prince Ferenc II Rákóczi and his handful of followers after 1711, and later for Lajos Kossuth and his entourage of about 7,000 after 1849 – emigration was a form of political exile more than anything else. Kossuth’s self-imposed exile in particular assumed symbolic significance as he continued to protest for 45 years, to the end of his life, against Hungary’s subjection by the House of Habsburg – which he effectively considered dethroned once and for all. Several members of the revolutionary governments of 1848–49, including Baron József Eötvös and Count István Széchenyi, had moved abroad before Hungary’s War of Independence broke out, while others – notably Count Kázmér Batthyány, Mihály Horváth, Bertalan Szemere – followed suit when it had been crushed. Before, and especially after, the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, a number of the revolutionary elite of 1848 returned, and quite a few of them, Count Gyula Andrássy, Baron József Eötvös and Ferenc Pulszky among them, assumed meaningful political roles. Kossuth’s propaganda campaign for the cause of Hungarian independence in England, the United States and Italy was an unrivalled political and intellectual feat without which Hungary, formerly recognised as no more than a part of the Habsburg Empire, would not have reclaimed its position on the map of global politics. Due to the lingering memories of 1848 and Kossuth’s activity in exile, Hungary was now respected worldwide as a freedom-loving and liberal-minded country until the very end of the 19th century. Even R. W. Seton-Watson, the would-be British critic of Hungary, set out to visit the country at the dawn of the 20th century inspired by the 19th century liberal heritage and especially the achievements of Kossuth (Jeszenszky).


The greatest wave of emigration from Hungary to date took place between 1880 and 1914. The vast multitude of people, predominantly impoverished, illiterate peasants, headed for the United States where working as unskilled labourers they would earn more money than they had ever dreamed of making in Hungary. Today, we would probably call these emigrants “migrant workers” or “guest workers”, in the sense of Gastarbeiter. That term was used around 1960–1970 in Germany, where people from Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey undertook various jobs for a few years only, harbouring plans to return and use their savings to buy a construction plot and build a family home in their native country. The life of these foreign workers and the German distaste for them are depicted vividly by the German author Günter Wallraff in his sociographic Ganz unten [Lowest of the Low, 1985], the title hinting at both the social standing of foreign workers and the job of underground sewage cleaner they often held in the Federal Republic of Germany, the country of economic miracles.

A similar type of employment and milieu greeted Hungarian immigrants in the United States from the late 19th century to the outbreak of the First World War. This exodus was really for purposes of work in the mines and steel mills, and resulted in many millions of dollars being brought back or sent to Hungary. The habit of spiriting money out of the Land of Plenty caused bitter resentment among Americans, as did the inability or unwillingness to assimilate that characterised the majority of immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, Italy, Russia, or East Central and Southeast Europe. This is how the ethnic ghettos sprang up, in the Lower East End in Manhattan, along with many a Chinatown, Little Italy, Little Tokyo and, more recently, even a Little Odessa in the south of Brooklyn. Precisely quantifying this vast flood of people remains a questionable enterprise to this day despite the ongoing processing of ship lists, but internationally the number must have been at least 25 million. Hungarian immigration during this period was somewhere between the 1.5 million, lamented by Attila József in his poem “Hazám” [My Homeland], and 4 million in respect of the entire Monarchy. The overwhelming majority of these migrants made no effort to assimilate, even after 1908, when the theory of the “melting pot” was promoted to the rank of official government programme in the United States. Many of them – at the very least one out of four, according to the general consensus among sociologists – actually came home and then returned to America repeatedly, some making this round trip no fewer than ten times. Nor did those who elected to stay in the United States really became Americans proper as a rule, except vicariously through their children or grandchildren (Puskás; Tezla, ed.).


The end of the First World War and the Treaties of Paris ushered in a new era. Overseas emigration practically ceased as the United States no longer needed masses of illiterate foreign labourers. This was the age of a technological paradigm shift, when machines began to replace human labour as the principal means of industrial production. The intensification of racial and ethnic prejudice led to the adoption of quota laws in 1921, 1924 and 1929, virtually halting immigration from East Central Europe by placing an upper limit on admission figures. Hungary, which had “dispatched” an annual 200,000 or more people to America in several years preceding World War I, now had to settle for an annual quota of a scant 473 immigration permits. This marked a great turning point in the history of both countries by jamming the outlet valve that had for three and a half decades helped relieve the economic and social tension caused by unemployment and the survival of a semi-feudal social hierarchy in Hungary.

The lost war, the revolutions of 1918 and 1919, the counter-revolution and the Treaty of Trianon set off a fresh wave of political and religious refugees leaving Hungary. The leaders of the revolutions fled to Vienna, Prague and Moscow, while the bulk of the Jewish intellectuals, now widely blamed for the revolutions, initially moved to Germany. With Hitler’s takeover, many sought refuge in English- speaking countries and even in the Soviet Union. A few months after Trianon Hungary’s legislature adopted Act XXV of 1920 known as the Numerus clausus, the very first tacitly yet bare-facedly anti-Semitic law in Europe, trampling Hungary’s freedom of education. The law placed a restriction on the ratio of Jewish students in university admissions, effectively confining the Jewish-Hungarian intelligentsia of the future to 6% of the total enrolment, a figure corresponding to the share of the Jewry in the total population of the country. Although this quota was not observed uniformly by all universities and faculties, and the Bethlen administration did amend the law in 1928, none of this prevented the anti-Semitic climate of public sentiments and the Numerus clausus itself from driving many Jewish intellectuals into emigration, most of whom went on to earn their degrees in Berlin, Prague, Brno (Brünn) or Zurich. Many of this elite became internationally renowned scientists, artists and filmmakers. Suffice it to mention the Nobel laureates Dennis Gabor, George de Hevesy and Eugene Wigner, or the internationally recognised Theodore von Kármán, Sir Alexander Korda, László Moholy-Nagy, John von Neumann, Karl and Michael Polanyi, Leo Szilard and Edward Teller (all first names anglicised originally from the Hungarian). It is important to note, however, that not only Jews chose to leave the country after 1919. The authors Gyula Illyés, Lajos Kassák, and Sándor Márai, as well as the painter Károly Kernstok spent shorter or longer stretches of their career abroad, adding to the extent of Hungary’s loss of outstanding talent (Congdon 1991, 2001; Hargittai; Mészáros; Frank). (Incidentally, Hungarian public opinion has been more than ready and willing to recognise the achievements of Nobel laureates as long as they were actually or even just ostensibly Hungarian, as the latter was often the case. In fact, any scientist who left Hungary tends to be mistakenly viewed in the home country, in the name of national pride, as a Nobel laureate who graduated from the Lutheran Grammar School at the Fasor in Budapest. This was clearly not the case.)

The period between 1944 and 1949 saw several waves of emigration as members of the extreme right fled Hungary, followed by conservatives and leftist liberals – for all intents and purposes, a significant portion of the country’s middle class. The members of each group were convinced that their departure took place in the 11th hour, when the act, they thought, could still be justified on moral grounds. This politically motivated wave of refugees signalled the chilling effect that the Cold War exerted on the life of the country. Those who left around this time also included notable scientists such as the Nobel laureate Albert Szent-Györgyi and Georg von Békésy, who was awarded the Prize in exile.

Meanwhile, repatriation commenced. The much desired return of Béla Bartók was thwarted by his death in 1945. Ignotus, the former editor of Nyugat, now an old and sick man, returned to Hungary, as did the surviving members of the group of politicians who had emigrated to Moscow after 1919. Fronted by Mátyás Rákosi, they quickly assumed power. Among those who came back to Hungary at this time or a little later there were again quite a few major scientists and scholars, such as Lajos Jánossy, Mór Korach and György Lukács, as well as Béla Balázs, Andor Gábor and, much later, József Lengyel and other writers.

The tragedy culminated in the tide of refugees from Hungary unleashed by the crushing of the revolution of 1956. After being hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world during the Rákosi era by the Iron Curtain (which Winston Churchill described as stretching “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic”), when in some years practically only the national football team and a select few artists were permitted to exit the border briefly (all of 2,500 privileged individuals in 1954, for example) – the country now had to suffer the departure of 200,000 Hungarians, mainly of the younger generations, in the wake of the suppressed revolution. The United States and Canada admitted some 40,000 of them each. Most of the rest did not get past Austria, and either returned sooner or later or scattered around the globe. This mass exodus was the inevitable answer to the Stalinist terror in Hungary, of the unbearable repression under the Rákosi regime, of the inexorable Iron Curtain. The generation of fifty-sixers had to face the dreadful likelihood that they would never be able to return to their homeland, not even for a visit, while those who had stayed had to learn the notion of dissidence, in the Communist sense of “defection”. The “defectors” (or “dissidents”, in the official vernacular) went on to build their own virtual Hungary in Munich, London, Paris, New York and Tel Aviv, carving out a Hungarian life sustained by small local communities, small Hungarian papers and congregations, with all the hope and desperation of ever returning to the homeland. In the eloquent words of Sándor Márai, the poet could no longer “sing in the tongue of the family”.1 Despite their munificent, nearly ceremonial reception after 1956, Hungarian political immigrants in the West found themselves in a tragic impasse or bubble- like inclusion of Hungarian history, and few lived to see the serendipitous triumph of the democratic turn of 1989. Yet the majority of the fifty-sixers established professionally satisfying careers and middle-class prosperity in the US.


Immigrants everywhere are expected to assimilate, and emigrants are always expected to ultimately return. Some of the recent tendencies of immigration to and emigration from Hungary are no doubt explained by developments specific to the country, but they are at once obviously indicative of the tidal swelling of global migration. They are also a symptom of the increasingly restless general discomfort of our globalised world, of what already Émile Durkheim and Max Weber called anomie (anomy) – a notion defined in the dictionary as “the weakening of values and norms shared by society; a state in which the normative function of society fails to operate or operates insufficiently, leading the individual to believe that he is unable to attain a satisfactory quality of life except through illegitimate means”.2 In an increasingly digital world, in which all things are connected through communication networks and the media, no population or public sentiment can be confined within the borders of a single country.

One can only hope that the hundreds of thousands of our Hungarian compatriots who have left for the West in recent years will prove to be temporary employees or migrant workers rather than emigrants par excellence, and that this multitude of often highly qualified professionals will eventually put their skills to good use and raise their children back home in Hungary. Unfortunately, this seems less and less likely as years go by. It is an undeniable lesson of history that as soon as emigrants settle down, find a job and housing, and send their kids to school abroad, the chances for their eventual return to the homeland begin to evaporate. Likewise, one can only hope that the Hungarian authorities will be able to reconcile humanitarian considerations and the call of universal human solidarity with the most effective methods of immigration control that have stood the test of history.

Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel

(Hungarian original published in the weekly Élet és Irodalom, 3 July 2015.)

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1 Sándor Márai, Funeral Oration (1951), translated by John M. Ridland and Peter V. Czipott.

2 http://study.com/academy/lesson/anomie-definition-theory-examples.html

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