Hungarian Assimilation in the United States

To understand the American assimilationist momentum, a few basic characteristics of United States history need to be clarified. First, that the USA is a “multi-ethnic and multi-racial nation” without an actual Staatsvolk (official and dominant nationality). What does this mean? It means that the American nation had to be created, no less than the American state. Unlike in the case of most “nation-states”, in the United States the state structure was composed of thirteen former colonies which united to secede from the British Empire that controlled most of North America after the French and Indian War (1754–1763). Although they were united by their cause to break out of the empire, this very unity was based on being part of the cultural values of that empire and the use of English as the medium of communication (Handlin 1952).

While most of the dominant elements of these colonies spoke English and were from the British Isles, the colonies from the beginning had a very diverse mixture of peoples. It included African slaves, conquered Native Americans, as well as Dutch, French, Spanish and other peoples from the European continent, mainly from the expansionist naval powers of that continent. As the frontier moved westward, the population of the country became ever more diverse as a consequence of the expanding pool of immigrants as well as the acquired populations of the Louisiana Purchase, the incorporation of Florida and Texas, the Southwest and the Pacific Coast and beyond to Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands.

At least two sectors of this diverse population, the African slaves and the conquered Native Americans were not considered to be Americaniseable. The Civil War changed that for the Afro-Americans, but not for the Native Americans. Actually, the institution of slavery had already deprived Afro- Americans of their cultural moorings. In speech and customs as well as in their names, they adopted the dominant Anglo-Saxon culture of their slave- owners. It is not accidental that many Afro-Americans carry the last names of Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, King, Lee or Brown (Malcolm X 1966).

For Native Americans, or Amerindians, the process was more complicated by their defeated enemy status. Their subjugation by the white population forced them onto reservations. There the rights given to Afro-Americans by the Civil War bypassed them, because many of the “Indian wars” were fought after the North-South war. This created for the “Indian Nations”, now designated “Native Americans”, special autonomous regions or reservations within the USA, but not really equal citizen status (Deloria, Jr, Custer Died for Your Sins, 1971).

Citizen status is important, because citizenship per se is the factor that also defines nationality in the USA. In the United States national affiliation at its core meant being part of the political values bestowed by American citizenship. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and its values and the English common law traditions provided the foundations for this citizenship. American nationality thus became synonymous with American citizenship. Having the legal rights and obligations of citizenship were also the hallmarks of nationality which you could acquire by birth on the territory of the USA or by applying for citizenship and passing a citizenship examination (naturalisation).

Initially becoming an American in nationality meant “Anglo-conformity”. This was reflected in the “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant” (WASP) dominance to the middle of the 20th century (Gordon 1964). It also meant the acceptance of the American value system, which, however, was an evolving system, reflected in the Supreme Court decisions from Marbury vs Madison, through the Dred Scott case to Brown vs the Board of Education of Topeka and more recently the Citizens United case. Political change generally preceded the legal change. Thus, with the election of JFK the Protestant part of the informal formula was dropped. Then with the election of Barack Obama the White aspect was also abandoned. The only traits that have remained constant are the dominance of the American English language and the role of business corporations in American society. The latter, however, is a bloodless, valueless trait that lets money rather than humans define the future! (Hartmann 2002.)

For both citizens and corporations the legal and technical aspects of associational criteria provide the context of being American. Yet Hungarian-Americans, even those who are second or third generation, frequently display a sense of inferiority toward those whom they consider “real Americans”. However, when they talk about the “real Americans” (igazi amerikaiak) they do not mean the Native Americans, but the “Yankees” or English speaking WASPs. The dominant role played by the latter in business and public life put them at the centre of activity. Thus, they provided the standards for Americanisation. Whenever I corrected my fellow Hungarian-Americans and stressed that they were just as American as the Irish-, German-, English- or Scandinavian-Americans, they looked at me incredulously. This sense of disbelief and sense of inferiority led many to mimic the composite WASP Staatsvolk, to become “real Americans” like those that constituted the ruling majority and had controlled the political process from 1776 to the present (Ludányi 2005).

Within the context of such diversity what was the secret for success in providing unity in the USA? Success breeds success, but it also needs a friendly, encouraging environment. The latter was the extensive wealth in land, water and resources of the North American continent. Another characteristic of this part of the world was that it was sparsely inhabited by an indigenous population which lacked the military technology of the European powers that fought to gain control over the land, the water and the resources. This military defeat reduced the existence of Native Americans to bare survival on reservations or to absorption in the large urban centres of North America (Deloria, Jr, 1971).

Unlike the Native Americans and the Afro-Americans, the Hungarians and other East Central Europeans were needed to bolster not just the labour force in the growing industrial centres of the land but also to bolster the white birth-rate of the overall population. This was not a stated objective, but it was apparent in the different policies toward each of these groups after the Civil War. For the Native Americans the policy was separation on reservations or acculturation to Anglo-Saxon values in Indian boarding schools such as those established in Carlisle, Pennsylvania (Deloria, Jr, Indian Education…, 1991). For Afro- Americans the “solution” after Emancipation from slavery – aside from the brief period of Northern, carpetbagger dominance – was the institutionalisation of segregation from the white population until the 1950s. This was reinforced with anti-miscegenation laws and other discriminatory legislation such as the White Primary elections (Malcolm X 1966). As to the East Central Europeans, they faced a three stage process of acculturation, integration and finally assimilation by the WASP-dominated socio-economic ruling class. The latter was achieved by geographic dispersal via chasing job opportunities, a selective immigration policy (1920, 1924, 1952) and an English language public education system, systematic Americanisation through military service, supplemented by subtle social and economic pressures (Gordon 1964; Puskás 1982).

This process created special environmental circumstances for the formation of American political culture. In the 19th century this was the “Frontier experience”. For Native Americans it had an exclusionary impact, but as historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1920) points out, for the rest of the population, that was based on immigration – including the Hungarians, it provided a levelling impact that guaranteed a commitment to social and political equality. It provided the opportunity to “Go West young man, go West”, and thereby find a world where class differences were erased and everyone had the chance to build their own little empire, or at least find a job that enabled them to survive or provide a new beginning for themselves and their families.

This land of opportunity and abundance encouraged individualism, innovation, self-help and results. However, just about the time when Hungarian mass immigration reached American shores, these very traits that had conquered the North American continent began to be transformed by the new needs of the American industrial giant beginning with the end of the 19th century and ending with the Second World War. This became the age of the “organisation man”, who was no longer the strong individualist, but conformity-oriented – who became an interchangeable part, a cog in the wheel, within the corporation or organisation that employed him or her. This is William Whyte’s thesis in his classic The Organisation Man (1956). Other observers of the American scene also noted this important environmental change. David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd (1950) was perhaps most influential in showing how these environmental changes led to changes in behaviour patterns and the traits that became more acceptable in American society. Unlike the individualist “inner-directed” person, the corporatist American setting now preferred the “other-directed” person, someone who would always conform to peer group pressure or the directives of the organisation. This automatically led to more conformity and the acceptance of assimilation rather than the retention of strong values linked to the inner-directed personality.

In the external behaviour of Hungarian immigrants there are two areas where we can most easily encounter submission to majority assimilationist pressure: language use and self-identification. We will return to language use later, but regarding self-identification name changes or name alterations are the best examples. These generally occur for practical reasons. American typewriters simply were not equipped to handle the diacritical and accent markings of the Hungarian alphabet. Thus, already at entry points into the United States, the immigrant lost part of his name. For example: Ludányi becomes Ludanyi or Ludany. A more dramatic transformation can take place when business pressure convinces the owner to change the name of his enterprise from Katona Brothers Movers to Soldiers Brothers Movers or Kígyóssy Funeral Home to Kinsey’s Funeral Home (Puskás 1982; Ludányi 2005). In one instance I know of a lawyer who attended Ohio Northern University’s Law College and had the good Hungarian name of Bányász Géza. His adviser at the College told him that his career would suffer if he did not change his name to an environment- friendly Anglo-sounding name. In the 1930s he chose as his new name Gay Banes, which at that time did not have pejorative connotations.

Before we turn to the question of Hungarian language and cultural survival in the American “melting pot”, let us profile the Hungarian-American population. While we know that some Hungarian adventurers were present already in the original thirteen colonies, they were few in numbers. One, Mihály de Fabricy Kováts, distinguished himself as a cavalry officer in George Washington’s army. However, the first really significant wave of Hungarians to the New World came only after the defeat of the Revolution of 1848–49. They, and their leader, Lajos Kossuth, arrived in the United States in the 1850s. Kossuth went back to Europe and exile in Italy, but most of his followers became active as officers in the Union Army during the Civil War. Those that did not die on the battlefield were eventually absorbed by the population at large (Kende 1927).

The numerically largest cluster of Hungarian immigrants came to the United States from 1880 to 1914. They were mainly of peasant or landless agrarian background or first generation working class background. They were for the most part economic immigrants. Their intention was to come to the land of opportunity to earn enough funds so they could go back to Hungary and purchase land or a house and provide for their families. These plans in most instances did not materialise because the First World War and the Treaty of Trianon (1920) kept them from going back to the old country (Puskás 1982). However, they entered the United States at a time when the model for assimilation was re-drawn by Israel Zangwill. This model was the “melting pot”. It replaced Anglo-conformity as the model, because the massive East and South European waves of immigrants could no longer be re-moulded according to the latter’s image (Gordon 1964). The new model claimed that the USA was creating a new “cosmic” American from the blend of all the different peoples that entered the country. (True, the model still ignored the Native Americans, the Afro-Americans and the Asian Americans!) This model made mixing and inter-marriage among the white population an important component of American “nation-building”.

In spite of this more permissive integrationist model, the Hungarian immigrants of this time period held on to their own institutions and traditions. They built churches, established religious and cultural associations, and enjoyed one another’s company at weekend picnics and sports events. However, they lacked schools that would be able to perpetuate their own language. Thus the next generation was handicapped by public schools that provided instruction only in English. The few church-affiliated schools and summer camps that had Hungarian language instruction had to fight an uphill battle against the legacy of being on the “wrong side” in the First World War and the growing strident “Americanisation” campaign of the Daughters of the American Revolution (Ludányi 2005). At the same time support from the “old country” was hindered by its post-Trianon isolation and economic weakness. However, this mass exodus was also hindered in its quest for cultural survival, by its lack of an extensive network of intellectual leaders. The leadership that existed was divided between Reformed ministers and Catholic priests, and the left leaning newspaper editors and union organisers who emigrated from Hungary after the revolutions of 1919, linked to the names of Mihály Károlyi and Béla Kun (Kende 1927).

Finally, the second generation of this immigration was also weakened in its cultural attachments by the outbreak of the Second World War. Again Hungary was on the “wrong side” in this struggle. To escape the negative labelling of being “pro- Nazi”, all Hungarian-American neighbourhoods undertook loyalty campaigns. The three most obvious examples of this were the collection of war bonds, the enlistment of young men in the American military, and acquiring American citizenship if you had not yet been naturalised (Ludányi 2005). Inadvertently, another wartime process also undermined cultural solidarity. This was the employment of women, young mothers and others in the wartime industries. Thus, the home which was the last bastion for learning the “mother tongue” also lost its key instructor. This trend was reinforced by the completely Americanised veterans of the Second World War who now were less attached emotionally to their former neighbourhoods. Their horizons were expanded by their wartime service. This led them to escape to the suburbs from their former “ghetto” existence in a Hungarian ethnic neighbourhood. The dramatic expansion of access to the automobile and the improved roadways of the land made this mobility possible.

Just as these centres of Hungarian settlement began to break up under the pressures of the post-Second World War developments, a new Hungarian wave arrived. These were the wartime refugees, then called DPs (Displaced Persons). They were the military officers, public officials and bureaucrats of the Horthy era, intellectuals and middle-class or upper-class people who were escaping the Soviet occupation (1945–47). They were followed by a second wave of mainly smallholder farmers and democratic politicians who realised that their efforts to create real democracy in Hungary was being sabotaged by the Soviet occupation and the Rákosi “Muscovite” Communists who consolidated their control over the country (1947–49). This double wave provided the intellectual leadership that the preceding immigrants did not have. Although the “régi amerikás” (old immigrants) and the new émigrés did not always get along because of class differences, their leaders were committed to the survival of their churches and other ethnic institutions. In fact, the émigrés organised a new institution, the Hungarian Scouts in Exteris, which filled the void of educational institutions. This institution was perhaps the most important replacement for the declining influence of the ethnic churches (Vardy in Kovalszki 2013, 146).

This émigré wave still had to contend with the last gasp of the “melting pot” assimilationist momentum. I remember an incident that took place in 1954 or 1955 which illustrates this. With about three or four Hungarian scout friends we boarded a BMT subway to go from Queens to Manhattan. In an animated way we were carrying on a conversation about some event in our latest excursion to the Catskill Mountains. At this point an elderly gentleman yelled at us, stating that he had heard enough “foreign gibberish” from us, that we should speak “American”, or shut up – proclaiming this loudly and proudly in his thick Brooklyneze.

For the next wave of Hungarian refugees, or “Freedom Fighters” as the media and the public referred to them, the 1956–57 refugees already were not likely to face such public embarrassment. By this time the Civil Rights Movement was challenging the discriminatory policies of the Deep South and the “Black Power” movement appeared on the horizon. The examples of self-assertion by leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers led others to be more vocal in their assertion of identity and rights. The writings of Vine Deloria, Jr led Native Americans, Chicanos as well as white ethnics to be more assertive. Hungarian-Americans also joined these ranks, and the new 1956-ers were there in the front lines of this manifestation of “cultural pluralism” (Gordon 1964; Schrag 1971).

The 1956-ers, like their immediate predecessors, were émigrés rather than immigrants. Their organisations like the Hungarian Freedom Fighters Federation and the North American Hungarian Student Federation continued the tradition of the earlier émigrés of uncompromising opposition to the Communist regime in Hungary. This was the agenda of the émigré organisations and as a consequence they did not plan beyond their own generation. Tibor Tollas, one of their best known writers and the editor of the Nemzetőr newspaper, stated as an element of faith that their generation had only twenty years to carry out their work. Then assimilation and death would take their toll. As opposed to this, the Hungarian Scouts Association in Exteris, led by Gábor Bodnár, always fought for the preservation of the next generation. This movement also had a major influence on the younger generation and the “Táncház” (Dance Hall) movement and the organisation of week-end schools. Out of these emerged the first “Diaspora” consciousness among Hungarian-Americans (Cseh 2015).

Although Diaspora Hungarians are descended from immigrant and émigré Hungarians, they are already second or third generation in most instances. Unlike the immigrants who focus on economic interests, and the émigrés who are committed to political goals, the Diaspora Hungarians focus on cultural survival and global networking. Overall they have not been able to line up large numbers of supporters, because they have from the beginning represented a minority out of the Hungarians who have left their homelands. However, they are the organisers and activists of some of the most durable organisations beyond the borders of Hungary, including the Hungarian Scouts Association in Exteris, the Hungarian Communion of Friends, the Hungarian American Coalition, the American Hungarian Federation, the Hungarian Human Rights Foundation, to mention just a few (Ludányi, The Origins of Diaspora…, 2014).

Recently two additional waves have provided support for the Hungarians in Diaspora. These have been Transylvanian Hungarians who left Romania to escape the oppression and village bulldozing of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s regime in the 1980s and the Vojvodina Hungarians who left Yugoslavia/Serbia to escape the oppression of Slobodan Milošević and the destruction of the South Slavic wars during the first half of the 1990s.

Parallel to the latter two migrations a slow economic emigration flow began westward from the Hungarian heartland. These “seepage Hungarians” did not leave in a wave, but began to leave in a steady trickle after the regime change of 1989–91. Péter Kovalszki aptly describes them this way “because of their gradual drain, or oozing dispersal throughout the world (i.e., seeping/oozing out of the 20th century wounds of the Hungarian nation)”. They now constitute an important part of the Hungarian population beyond the country’s borders. Just in the USA, according to the US Census Bureau they have increased by 138,481 from 1,398,724 (Hungarian ancestry inhabitants) in 2000 to 1,537,205 in 2012 (Hámos in Kovalszki 2013, 203). They have to be a major concern of any Hungarian government, because many of them are young and well educated. Their flow out of the country must be slowed and those that have left should be encouraged to return. To the credit of the Orbán government, it has addressed this problem via the Kőrösi Csoma Programme as well as focusing on benefits for the young on the home front.

This brings us to the key question of language retention. If we examine the overall situation, the census data provides a dismal picture (Fishman 1966). Out of the approximately 1.5 million Hungarian ancestry population, less than 10 per cent speak Hungarian at home. Among Greek ancestry families out of a total of 1.3 million more than 35 per cent speak Greek at home according to the US Census Bureau Statistical Abstract for 2008. While a thorough scholarly analysis of this dramatic language loss has not taken place, we can say that the lack of opportunity for formal language instruction is the probable cause. Aside from Spanish very few other languages besides English are instructional languages in public schools. This means that private or parochial schools are the only institutions that could fill this void. Unfortunately, since the end of the Second World War both Catholic and Reformed Hungarian churches have neglected their responsibilities in this area, unlike the Greek Orthodox Church or the Apostolic Church of the Armenians. Thus, Hungarian language instruction has at best been maintained in week-end schools or the summer camps of the Hungarian Scout Association in Exteris. In fact, most week-end schools are affiliated with local Hungarian scout troops (Kovács in Nagy and Papp 1998).

But there is a glimmer of hope in this area that some of the Transylvanian and Vojvodinian émigrés, as well as a sector of the “seepage” Hungarians, do show an interest in providing language instruction for their children. This in combination with the activities of the Kőrösi Csoma Programme during the past three years leads us to conclude that there may be some hope for a limited language revival.

Patrick Moynihan in one of his reflections on the American process of nation- building points out that in the context of transforming millions of immigrants and émigrés into Americans the most successful method has been to break down old loyalties by leaving this process to geographic dispersion and the economic mechanisms of the consumer society. He actually coined the phrase that Americans became Americans in “a fit of absent-mindedness”. For some it may be in a “fit of absent-mindedness”, but for others it is a process of conscious choices guided by social pressures which are not always “painless” (Glazer and Moynihan 1964).

The conscious choices are apparent in the creation of the “terrorist threat” after 9/11. I remember well an academic conference in Cincinnati, Ohio right after 9/11 where an Egyptian-American almost in Janizary (janicsár) fashion stated that now we all have to be hyphen-less Americans, our national unity demands this. I could not help but note that the elimination of the hyphen will only eliminate diversity in the written text but not in social reality. Nonetheless, such statements indicate the ever present pressure of those who have lost their “old country” identity on those who still retain it and have not succumbed to absent- mindedness or the social Alzheimer’s disease.

Just one example in conclusion from my own family’s experience. Kenton, Ohio is as much a part of the American heartland as Peoria, Illinois or Debuque, Iowa. At any rate it was in Kenton that I realised where some of the re-drawn boundaries lie in defining true Americanness. Kenton is the county seat of Hardin County. This county is also home to Ohio Northern University where I taught Political Science for forty years and where my two daughters grew up and attended Ada elementary and Ada High School. They were immersed in community life to the same extent as any of the other youngsters in Ada. They adopted many of the habits and behaviours of their teen-age peers. They became “Ada Bulldogs”. They joined 4-H [Head, Heart, Hands and Health – a nonprofit youth organisation] and were active in the life of the school, including the Junior Prom. My older daughter Csilla even became a finalist for Queen of the County Fair in Kenton. Each and every finalist summed up her life-shaping activities. Csilla included her stint with the Hungarian Girl Scouts in the Chicago and Cleveland summer camps as of importance. In the stands I sat next to our Dean of Arts and Sciences, who gasped and grimaced when Csilla said “Hungarian Girl Scouts” rather than “Brownies”. Apparently the judges who chose the “County Fair Queen” also shared the same sentiments.

This did not faze Csilla or Anikó, both are still 100 per cent Americans and 100 per cent Hungarians with a hyphen connecting the two. Their story, like the story of other Hungarian-Americans and American-Hungarians, reflects the complexity of the assimilation process, the Americanisation process in the United States. In most instances it takes at least two generations, but sometimes absorption may be achieved in just one generation, or it may remain elusive and unattainable even after three or four generations. In the latter case we can speak of an active diaspora consciousness. Class background, religious affiliation, immigrant or émigré background may complicate the process as well as the characteristics of the settlement where the “foreigner” enters the United States. However, for Hungarians the retention of the Hungarian mother tongue is key to being a part of the Hungarian diaspora.


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