Hungarian-Americans have faced a daunting task in lobbying for the rights of Hungarian ethnic minorities of East Central Europe. The challenge has been to overcome American predispositions regarding what is a bona fide minority. The American perspective has been quite different from the Hungarian perspective although both pay lip-service to the rights of minorities. But at the root of the American-Hungarian disconnect in this area is their different maps of majority-minority relations.

This short essay addresses the reasons for this disconnect between the two perspectives. At least four reasons will be summarized in this analysis. The first is the different time and historical perspective on how minorities become minorities. The second is the philosophical and legal difference between the concept of group rights and individual rights. The third relates to the difference between state-nation and multi-ethnic state perspectives on “citizenship” and “nationality” rights and how these are to be given consideration or priority. Fourth, what political or administrative structure is appropriate for the solution or management of minority problems and pluralism. What channels are most effective for resolving tensions between host and kin states and their minorities?

Time Dimension and History

The first difference relates both to the time perspective and the historical experience of the two cultures. It is important to note that Americans almost always look at events or processes from the present. They tend to move back into history from a present-centred world. Hungarians, on the other hand, move from a point in history (Mohács 1526 or Trianon 1920) to the present. For the latter the evolution of the problem from past to future is important. For the former, the solution (or management) of the problem at the present time is of primary concern.

The historical perspective is a direct consequence of the different formative experiences of the USA and Hungary. They also reflect the different geographic settings and challenges that had to be faced by these different states. The USA faced a continental vastness and an incremental frontier experience, which reflected an open-ended or endless expansion. (Turner, The Frontier in American History, 1920.) Hungarians, on the other hand, saw the Carpathian ramparts as an enclosed living space. Both had unique developments which have formed their respective political cultures, including the dominant perspectives on the relations and roles of both majorities and minorities.

In the Hungarian case you have the formation of the Hungarian state in the period between ca. 896 and 1000 AD, from the conquest and settlement of the Carpathian basin to the reign of King St Stephen (1000–1038). In this time period you have the establishment of a pattern of national identity that is initially class based, with the conquering Magyars providing both the ruling family (Árpád dynasty) and the nobility and land-owning sectors of Hungarian society. However, from the beginning this ruling sector co-opted many of the leaders of the conquered peoples and the foreign elements brought into the Kingdom by individual rulers (e.g. Bavarian knights by Stephen I, Croatia’s incorporation under László I, Saxon Germans by Andrew II, and Cumans by Béla IV.) This integration of various peoples into the Hungarian nation remained the pattern for the next 900 years, or at least to the time period of the 1848–49 Revolution. Throughout most of Hungarian history, the designation “Natio Hungarorum” did not mean an ethnic affiliation. Not only Magyars were Hungarians, but all subjects of the Hungarian crown who resided in the realm. This non-ethnic feudal integration of the state began to be undermined with the Ottoman Turkish occupation that followed the battle of Mohács in 1526. Ottoman occupation lasted until 1686 and through the ravages of the centre of the country, it transformed the Kingdom from a multi-ethnic but Magyar dominated Kingdom into a realm that actually witnessed the numerical reduction of the Magyar element to less than 50 per cent of the population by the end of the 18th century. This change was followed by the emergence of ethnic consciousness that was a consequence of the French Revolution and the spread of the idea of homogeneous nation-states. This change brought with it the nationalist momentum for assimilationist policies. In this context the formerly tolerated ethnic enclaves came under magyarizing pressures. The awakening national consciousness of all people in the realm, made this effort less and less feasible and ultimately led to the collapse of the multi-ethnic Hungarian Kingdom at the end of World War I and the signing of the Treaty of Trianon (1920). The Hungarian conception of nationality was therefore very closely linked to the physical/geographic contours of historic Hungary and the role of the Magyar people as its Staatsvolk.

The formation of the United States from its colonial legacy and Revolution of 1776 was in some ways very different. In the American context the original 13 colonies already reflected a multi-ethnic population with French, Dutch, German, English, Scottish, Irish populations superimposed on the native American and black African slave populations. The dominant ethnic component was itself multi-ethnic. The Staatsvolk or ruling people were from the very beginning the WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) composed of North West Europeans who spoke English. These included not just the former inhabitants of the “British Isles” but Germans and Scandinavians who learned English. The American nation was in this way from the beginning based on values of “civic culture”, with a variety of ethnic cultures that were held together by a Protestant religious affiliation. This polyglot Staatsvolk co-opted all peoples who were willing to accept the WASP heritage and the English language. In the first phase of American history this was the criterion for “national” unity, but as the USA absorbed the Louisiana Purchase, Texas and the South-West, the expanded resource base demanded a larger labour force. In response to this need the beginning of the 20th century saw this “Anglo-conformity” formula replaced with the “Melting-pot” conception of Israel Zangwill. More recently the 1960s brought the Black Power movement and cultural pluralism. Each of these phases included and blended more and more people into the English-speaking American nation. This was simply a reflection of the immigrant origin of most Americans. The nation’s demographic profile was changing with the changes in the laws regulating immigration. From the restrictive immigration legislation of the 1920s to the McCarran-Walter Act of the 1950s the quota system attempted to perpetuate WASP dominance (Gordon: Assimilation in American Life, 1964.) The new perspectives addressed in the immigration reforms of the Kennedy and Johnson years “opened the gates to the globalization” of the American population profile. Consequently, the ruling elite was no longer exclusively recruited from the WASP Staatsvolk, but became truly multi-ethnic and multi-racial as is evident from the nomination and election of English-speaking non-WASPs to even the highest offices of the land.

This historical legacies of the USA and Hungary have some similarities, but also some differences. The dominant similarity was the inclusive nature of both states, for the Hungarian Kingdom during its early evolution, for the USA in its later evolution, particularly since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. But to understand why Americans and Hungarians have a different understanding of minority-majority relations, we must look at the differences in their evolution rather than the similarities.

In the Hungarian state pluralism meant the acceptance of different subcultures and their integration into the “Natio Hungarorum” on the basis of their communal integration, not their individual assimilation. In the United States Anglo-Conformity (like Magyar-Conformity in post-1867 Hungary) as well as the Melting-pot conception both demanded individual assimilation rather than group integration. Group integration always assumed a contract relationship between the state and the individual communal clusters, whether Saxons in Transylvania or Serbs in Voivodina. As opposed to this, in the American context individual acculturation and assimilation via citizenship and economic empowerment provided the path to being part of the whole. In the USA becoming a citizen has meant becoming part of the English-speaking American nation; as opposed to this, in Hungary citizenship and nationality or ethnic affiliation have not been viewed as synonymous either in historical Hungary preceding Trianon or in the present-day nation-state of Hungary. In other words, in the American context the legal status of citizenship is the final criterion for membership in the nation. In Hungary on the other hand, the cultural and linguistic self-definition of the individual determines nationality.

This difference explains why even intelligent and educated Americans – including policy-makers – cannot understand that all citizens of Romania or Serbia are not all Romanians or Serbs in their nationality. It is hard for them to grasp that Hungarians in Romania or Serbia still insist that they belong to the Hungarian nation even if they are not Hungarian citizens and residents. Perhaps the emerging new legal set-up voted by the Hungarian Parliament accepting dual citizenship and extending Hungarian citizenship beyond Hungary’s borders, following many other European examples, will help clarify this blind spot in America’s thinking. After all, Hungarians pre-existed the creation of the new “nation states” of Austria (1919), Romania (1859), Yugoslavia (1919), Serbia (1992), Czechoslovakia (1919), Slovakia (1991), or Ukraine (1991). Their membership in any one of these states is merely the consequence of the border changes imposed on Hungary by the Entente following World War I, the Allies following World War II, and the disintegration of the Soviet bloc after 1989.

Philosophical and Legal Differences

Beyond these historical reasons, there are also differences that are based on the dominant philosophical perspectives and legal differences between the two states. Vernon Van Dyke has summed up this difference. According to the legacy of the social contract theorists (the Liberal tradition in America, i.e. Locke and Harrington) there are no significant intermediate loyalties that may exist between the state and the individual. In other words national/ethnic affiliation is not considered as a source of rights. “If groups other than the state were regarded as moral and legal persons, the authority of the states would be threatened” (Van Dyke, “The Individual, The State, and Ethnic Communities in Political Theory”, World Politics, April, 1977, p. 349). Only business corporations created and controlled by the state are acceptable “intermediaries”. This belief is not just the foundation of modern autocratic and centralizing despotisms, but also of most modern states, including particularly states based on Liberal ideals, such as the American and the French republics. In both these cases the concepts of liberty and equality occupied a central position in the official ideology of these states. Interestingly, the Hungarian effort to institutionalize these same ideals in the 1848–49 Revolution, ran headlong into the opposition of the non-Magyar nationalities as well as the legacy of local autonomies inherited by Saxons, Serbs, Croatians and others. Even the Liberal and individual rights oriented Nationality Law of 1868 did not resolve this inner contradiction.

Simply stated the guarantee of individual rights and their egalitarian application did not fulfill the needs and aspirations of the different nationalities of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Insistence on group rights linked to the rise of modern nationalism made such a reconciliation impossible. And this situation continues to be present today – as well as among Hungarian minorities. They also demand the recognition of their group rights. Stress on the latter became the litmus test in East Central Europe for liberty in the “Springtime of Nations” as well as subsequently in all strivings for self-determination of peoples. Indeed strivings for independence and self-government became much more important in this region then stress on equality among individuals.

Thus, differences between the Hungarian and USA-American historical experience of immigration vis-à-vis conquest, in the final analysis is not what differentiate the two perspectives. After all, both the American and the Hungarian past reflect the impacts of conquest and immigration/mass migration. The critical difference is that the American context is based on individual adherence to a value system that strives for equality in social and economic opportunities. As opposed to this, the quest of Hungarians in Romania, Serbia, Slovakia or Ukraine is a striving for the preservation of their cultural distinctiveness and independence which can be sustained only through the guarantee of group rights and cultural liberty.

In American eyes such preservation actually obstructs the Americanization process in either its Anglo-conformity or Melting-pot formulation. Thus American policy-makers cannot divest themselves of their domestic agenda when they encounter analogous problems on the international stage. Furthermore, in their eyes, ethno-national conflicts cannot be divorced from international complications. The conflict between kin-state and host-state immediately comes to mind. Such complication does not exist in the case of Roma populations – as it does not for Afro-Americans – since at least in East Central Europe there is presently no Roma host or kin-state.

Ted Gurr in his classic study on types of minority communities provides us with the best insight into why a disconnect may exist in the understanding of Americans for the fate of Hungarian minorities. Gurr posits different types of “ethno-national” and “ethno-class” minorities. Ethno-national minorities are those which are based on specific cultural traits which have evolved over a long time period such as language and customs. As opposed to this ethno-class minorities are those that are less concerned with preserving their traditions and more concerned with ending discrimination based on their former status as slaves or other socially and economically disadvantaged lower status strata of society (Gurr, Minorities at Risk, 1993, pp. 15-23).

To clarify this difference let me provide you with an example that will contrast these positions. Just in June 2010, a court decision was rendered in Hungary that Roma schools not integrated or Hungarian schools not integrated cannot provide Roma children with an equal education. (As of July 2011 this decision has been upheld by the highest court of the land.) Hungary is in the process of adopting policies to solve the needs of its Roma ethno-class that are taken directly from the Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka court case decided in the USA in 1954. This solution may be the beginning of addressing the inequalities of opportunity that plague the Roma population to the present. This lesson, however, is not applicable to the fate of Hungarian minorities in neighbouring states. Why? Because the main concern of ethno-national minorities, the Hungarians of Romania, Slovakia or elsewhere is the preservation of their cultural and linguistic identity. Americans really do not sympathize with ethnic-cultural preservation. Instead, they do sympathize with social and economic mobility. They see the solution of minority problems in the disappearance of linguistic variety. Linguistic variety is viewed as the source of conflict. In their eyes, it is not the persecution or aggressive assimilation of ethno-national minorities that is the problem, but the fact that these minorities resist, that they push back and do not want to surrender their respective language loyalties. For this reason, USA-American sympathies go out to the Roma population of Hungary and the rest of East Central Europe! Why? Because the Roma are an “ethno-class” rather than an ethno-national community. Their problems can be solved (managed) by socio-economic mobility, and involve little perpetuation of cultural or linguistic value clusters. Interestingly, some of the most intolerant opponents of cultural survival are the very people who have been deprived of their own culture. Hungarians are all very familiar with this “janissary syndrome”. Sometimes those who are most in favour of making the English language the “official language” of the USA are the very same individuals who no longer speak the language of their own ancestors. This parallels closely the role of assimilated Catholic clergy of Csango-Hungarian ancestry in the Moldavian part of Romania, where they have spearheaded the Romanianizing of the Csango-Hungarian population.

Of course there is still another reason for the American disconnect in appreciating cultural diversity on the global level. The interest of the globalized American economy sees in cultural loyalties an obstacle to open access to markets, as we will see when we turn to the role of corporations in the USA.

Organizational and Structural Considerations

These sentiments and cultural commitments help to define the structural solutions provided in the USA and Hungary for the treatment of diversity. Federalism is institutionalized autonomy. But in the USA it is not tied to cultural and linguistic communities. It relates just to the economic and administrative functioning of state structures and is linked mainly to regional and historical considerations.

As the frontier headed West from the original thirteen states, the density of population and the preparedness for self-government set the pace for acceptance of new “states” into the Union. In the case of historical Hungary, the subdivisions of the Kingdom were also historically defined as we have witnessed in the incorporation of Croatia under its “Ban” and the establishment of the Székelys’ self-governing regions and Saxon cities of Transylvania, as well as the later military border to the South for Serbian autonomy in the Voivodina. As this description shows, in the “Regnum Hungarorum” the cultural and communal ties played a central role in determining the nature of these self-governing components of the whole. In the American case, the subunits (“states”) were never linked to distinct cultural or communal concerns as the frontier moved West. The sole exception to this may have been the Mormon dominance in Utah and perhaps the imperial expansion to Hawaii and Puerto Rico (the latter, however, still has not become a “state” even though it meets population density and self-governing criteria.)

More recently, as a consequence of American global expansion, a new organizational form has also become important in defining rights and powers within the USA and its spheres of influence. This is the “corporation”, an entity that was not even mentioned in the American Constitution. But this organizational form has the advantage of not being territorially circumscribed or bounded. The corporation domestically and the “multi-national corporation” internationally is the modern American organizational structure par excellence. This artificial legal construct, “legal person”, is at present at the centre of the controversial redefinition of the USA as a global empire. For most of its history the USA protected the rights of individuals as a primary concern of its self-definition. As the international business concerns of the USA have grown, its commitment to the needs and interests of the corporation have eclipsed the government’s traditional role as the defender of the individual.

Of course Hungary has also been affected by these global developments. Following the 1848–49 Revolution the Hungarian state, particularly after the 1867 Compromise, began to centralize and erode the communal bonds of the historical territorial subdivisions. This was carried one step further after the establishment of the rump Hungarian state at Trianon (1920). It became a “nation-state” and at the same time lost all its decentralized features to become a unitary state following the French model. In this context the “incorporation” of ethno-national communities would provide cultural autonomy and institutionalize majority-minority relations within a modern organizational structure. It would also formalize the relations and expectations between majorities and minorities. This would channel relations between host-states and kin-states.


The foregoing comparison provides generalizations and conclusions which help to explain the different perceptions of Americans and Hungarians regarding the future of minorities. However, the issue that has not been touched on is the question of superpower responsibilities versus a small state’s concern for the survival of its own nationals beyond its borders. Historical, philosophical, legal, structural and economic considerations aside, the political balance both regionally and globally, must also be considered. For the USA the primary consideration is the maintenance of peace and stability in the region that was formerly part of the Soviet bloc, currently part of an independent East Central and South Eastern Europe. For Hungary the primary consideration is the protection of its fellow nationals and the maintenance of good or acceptable relations with its neighbours.

Within this context how can American and Hungarian perceptions coincide on the issue of human and minority rights in the region? Obviously, both the USA and Hungary want stability and peace. To this end Hungary has already committed itself to the territorial status quo. However, as quid pro quo it wants its neighbours to fulfill their obligations in providing their ethnic kin with all the protections of international law. Here the USA as well as the NATO alliance and the EU can provide both verbal and material support. After all, regional destabilization caused by ethnic strife is not in the interest of any of the above. When a state abuses its minorities, the Kosovo precedent is now no longer just an empty threat and the trials of Karadzic` and Mladic` at The Hague underline this fact. Thus, even if the positions of Hungary and the USA are not always in concert, they can be complementary!

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