1. The Hungarians

THE Hungarians have been living in their present country since the end of the ninth century (AD 896). Having embraced Christianity, they established in AD 1000 an independent kingdom that survived until the Turkish Empire overran the country in 1526. The largest part of the country remained occupied by the Turks for one and a half centuries, a smaller part came under Austrian rule, and the third region – Transylvania – existed as a semi-independent principality under the patronage of the Sultan of Turkey. By the end of the seventeenth century, on account of the decline of the Turkish Empire, the Austrians were able to extend their rule to virtually the whole country; Hungary was thus incorporated in the Habsburg Empire. The Habsburgs regarded their new acquisition as a colony; foreign settlers were sent into devastated areas and the local economy exploited.

The end of the eighteenth century witnessed a strong intellectual ferment in Eastern Europe, responsible for the growth of national consciousness and culminating in the revolutions of 1848. Hungary was no exception; the national revival of the first half of the nineteenth century gradually led from demanding home rule to the War of Independence of 1848-9, which was crushed. The Habsburgs’ power, however, grew weaker, and in 1867 a compromise was reached. The Empire was divided between the Austrians and the Hungarians, to become the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a major European power before World War I. The war brought about a catastrophe for the Central Powers, including Austria-Hungary. The Empire was partitioned among the various nationalities living there; Hungary, having been reduced to one-third of her former territories, remained nominally a kingdom, but with a regent instead of a king. Her foreign policy served one purpose only: to regain at least partially the lost territories. Hungary’s geographical position led inevitably to an alliance with Germany, who supported the Hungarian cause for reasons of her own. After World War II a republic was declared (1946); after a short struggle for power Hungary came under Soviet domination. In 1956 an abortive attempt was made to achieve independence and neutrality. The struggle ended in brutal repression but, just as after the War of Independence, concessions eventually had to be made. The new regime, although unflaggingly loyal to the Soviet Union, is relatively liberal, tolerant, and consolidated to a degree unimaginable prior to the revolution of 1956.

Even this miniature survey testifies that Hungary is the opposite of a happy country that has no history. It is little wonder then that the Hungarian national obsession is with history. The student of Hungarian literature will find a very close connection between the country’s literature and its history; for a people whose chief claim to fame is that they preserved their national identity in the face of major threats, history is a deadly serious business.

While the other small nations of Eastern Europe have shared that fate of the Hungarians, Hungarians have an additional ‘misfortune’ of their own – the obscurity of their origin. From the ninth century we have a more or less coherent narrative of the Hungarians’ doings, but their earlier history has been based on various interpretations of a handful of short Persian, Arabic, and Byzantine narratives describing the various peoples of the Age of Migration. All other knowledge has been derived from conjectures based on circumstantial evidence supplied by archaeology, comparative religion, linguistics, anthropology, and folklore.

It is important to summarize what can be reliably said about the early history of the Hungarians, for there is an abundance of misconceptions even today, so much so that the student might be inclined to discredit those few facts that can be ascertained with little doubt. It is also important to the understanding of various movements in Hungarian literature, as Hungarians have been far from innocent in spreading fiction where gaps in knowledge left space for the imagination.

The proto-Hungarians lived very probably around the southern slopes of the Ural Mountains, and began to move westwards around the fifth century. They lived in a loose tribal organization as hunters and fishermen. During the next four centuries they kept on moving westwards over the vast Russian steppes, and we have evidence – mainly linguistic – that they came into contact with various Turkic and Iranian peoples. How far this contact took the form of conquest by the Hungarians or by the other peoples it is impossible to decide. Living on the steppes, they became a nomadic people and acquired martial habits – otherwise they would have been unable to survive in regions where tribal boundaries moved with the camping-places of the nomadic herdsmen. We have evidence also that not all the Hungarians moved westward from their original home – thirteenth century travellers all talk about a certain ‘Magna Hungaria’ in the region between the river Volga and the Urals. Furthermore, the migrating Hungarians shed some clans or tribes on the way: Hungarians were living for example in the Caucasus in the tenth century. Various non-Hungarian tribes also joined them; how far they were absorbed by the Hungarians, or how long they kept their tribal identity, is the subject of much scholarly debate.

From about AD 830 we are on firmer ground. The Hungarians then lived near the Sea of Azov in a semi-military organization of seven tribes. They were all ‘free men’-slaves were provided by the conquered peoples. The basic social unit was the clan, the members of which claimed common ancestry. A number of clans formed a tribe. Besides the traditional herdsman’s way of life, they practised a little agriculture, a despised occupation considered fit only for the women and the old. The able-bodied men spent most of their time in the saddle. They may not have invented, but definitely used the stirrup (kengyel), which enabled them to use their favourite weapon, the bow and arrow, from horseback. Their livelihood was provided by raids and campaigns, and they sold the surplus on various Crimean markets.

They had a shamanistic tradition, and comparative anthropology makes us believe that their shamans (táltos) used hallucinogenic substances – probably obtained from the mushroom. It now seems probable that they were acquainted with the art of writing and even possessed a runic alphabet of their own, yet they did not, so far as can be ascertained, commit to writing any account of their origins and doings until a much later date. It is almost certain from surviving relics of folklore that they possessed an oral literary tradition. It is unlikely, however, that they produced any longer heroic poems of the Germanic or Anglo-Saxon saga type. From the early nineteenth century onwards much speculation was lavished by both poets and scholars on what these oral traditions might have been, but very few, if any, of the conjectures can be substantiated.

Apart from their origins, there is another riddle concerning the Hungarian people: that of their language. The name of the people and the language in their own tongue is MAGYAR. Before discussing relevant facts about the language, certain features of the words Hungarian and Magyar ought to be examined with reference to their usage in English. These two words were used in nineteenth-century English histories dealing with Hungary as follows:

1. ‘Hungarian’ referred to any native of the kingdom of Hungary regardless of his native tongue, i.e. to include any of the numerous nationalities living in that kingdom.

2. The term ‘Magyar’ was restricted only to those ‘Hungarians’ who spoke Hungarian as their native language.*Bertalan Szemere objected to this usage as early as the mid-nineteenth century, cf. his Hungary from 1848 to 1860 (1860) pp. 9-10. It is not difficult to discover the analogy of ‘English’ and ‘British’ in this usage, since the latter included those English-speaking peoples who regarded themselves non-English, but who were living in the British Isles. Needless to say, the distinction between ‘Hungarian’ and ‘Magyar’ is useless and leads to confusion. Moreover, early in the present century the term ‘Magyar’ became emotionally loaded. In both British and American usage it was used either to refer to a ‘true Hungarian patriot’ or, equally often, in a pejorative sense, to signify a ‘nationalistic Hungarian’.

The word ‘Hungarian’ appeared in the English language in the middle of the sixteenth century, derived from the German word which goes back via medieval Latin ‘Hungarus’ to the Turkic ‘onogur’, one of the earliest recorded names for the Hungarians. The term means ‘ten arrows’ and refers to a coalition of ten tribes before the ninth century. It is interesting to note that in most European languages Hungarians are called by derivatives of this name, except for the immediate Slavonic neighbours who have been in contact with the Hungarians ever since the Conquest.

The term ‘Magyar’ has always been used by the Hungarians to denote themselves and their language (although the early chronicles – written in Latin – preferred the term ‘Hungarus’, probably to avoid confusion). To summarize the various attempts at cracking its etymology would go far beyond the scope of the present chapter. Most authorities agree, however, that it is a compound word derived from *magi or *mogi plus *eri. The first part is understood to be a proto-Ugrian word denoting ‘a male’, ‘man’, or ‘people’, while the second part is a later formation used with the same semantic content, except that it is a Turkic word according to some authorities. It seems to be a feasible etymology: primitive tribes often call themselves ‘people’. Later when the meaning became obscure, or when foreigners constantly called them the *Mogi people – i.e. *mogi-eri – eventually they themselves adopted the term. The word Magyar appeared in English at the end of the eighteenth century only, and was first used extensively by travellers who visited Hungary in the first half of the nineteenth century, and popularized the word in their books.

From the earliest occasions on which Hungary was visited by foreigners, the Hungarian language presented a mystery to them, since it has no recognizable relationship with other European languages. The Hungarians were no less puzzled by their own tongue, and incredible theories were put forward concerning languages to which Hungarian might be related. It was in the late eighteenth century that a learned Hungarian Jesuit, Sajnovics, established the linguistic relationship of Hungarian with the Lappish language spoken in the northern part of Scandinavia, a region which he had visited in connection with his work as an astronomer. This was a discovery that eventually led to the classification of a group of languages called the Finno-Ugrian, with two main branches: the Finnic languages – named after the most important language in the branch: Finnish – and the Ugrian languages with Hungarian as the most significant language in the group. The two branches separated many thousands of years ago, and the relationship between the Finnic and Ugrian branches is less obvious to the linguistically untrained observer than the relationship between English and Sanskrit. The nearest kindred language to Hungarian is Vogul, but an Englishman and a Russian would understand each other more easily than a Hungarian and a Vogul.

The discovery of this relationship gave a new aspect to the mystery of the origin of the Hungarians. Most of the Finno-Ugrian tribes lived in the north of Europe and Asia and were peaceful hunting-fishing people, while the Hungarians were – according to all sources – fierce warriors, much more like the Huns or other nomadic steppe peoples living in the area of the Black Sea, or rather on the vast open space between Europe and China. This seeming contradiction has been reconciled by the hypothesis that Hungarians were the most southern branch of the Finno-Ugrians, and their close and prolonged contact with Turkic people changed their way of life drastically. Linguistic research has presumed the existence of a larger family of languages: the Ural-Altaic, of which the Finno-Ugrian appears to be one subdivision, the various Turkic languages being another.

The Finno-Ugrian origin of the Hungarian language has been successfully proven by the following basic features: the structure of the grammar is similar in all these languages; the complex Hungarian suffix-system can be traced to a common proto-Finno-Ugrian suffix-system; the basic vocabulary can be traced again to a common Finno-Ugrian stock of words which follows a regular pattern in the various shifts of vowels and consonants. Still, Hungarian etymology is a tricky business. The various stages of growth of the vocabulary have been pinpointed, but examination and re-examination of words may always yield new results. It has been generally accepted that various layers of non-Finno-Ugrian words were incorporated into the Hungarian vocabulary. The earliest contacts presumably involved old Iranian and a number of Turkic languages. Words borrowed in the Age of Migration seem to be related to animal husbandry. When the Hungarians conquered the Carpathian basin, numerous Slavonic words were borrowed to cover various aspects of church-life and local administration. In comparatively modern times – from about the Middle Ages – Latin and German have been the most important European languages to enrich the Hungarian vocabulary. In our own day many English words – particularly in the field of the sciences – have become part of standard Hungarian.

It is disquieting, though, that a proportionally significant part of the Hungarian lexical stock is of unknown etymology. There are various theories to explain this. These words – mostly abstract verbs and nouns – could still be of Finno-Ugrian origin, except that they survive in no other Finno-Ugrian languages, or may have been distorted even beyond the recognition of trained linguists. Since there were a great number of languages spoken on the steppes about which we have no knowledge at all – in a few cases only their names are known – these mysterious loanwords could have come from any of these languages; there are words even in English which successfully defy all attempts to find their etymology, in spite of the fact that the etymology of English words has never been a tiresome subject. Moreover words can travel in unexpected ways. It is generally known that the word hussar came from Hungarian into English via German or French, but few would guess that coach (Hungarian: kocsi) was originally a small Hungarian village (Kocs) giving its name to a certain type of large carriage that became known all over Europe in the sixteenth century.

Modern Hungarian is spoken by over 15 million people all over the world. Of these about 10 million live in what is known as Hungary. Outside present-day Hungary, but within the boundaries of historical Hungary, live another 3-3.5 million Hungarians. These Hungarians found themselves abroad after World War I when ‘historical Hungary’ ceased to exist together with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and new states were created (e.g. Czechoslovakia), or existing ones were enlarged (e.g. Romania) by the Trianon Peace Treaty in 1920. The Hungarian minority in Romania is the most numerous: there are about 2 million of them, mainly in Transylvania, and this number includes the Székely (sometimes spelt in English: Szekler), a people who by their language and cultural heritage are Hungarians, but whose origin is far from being satisfactorily explained. They supposedly lived in Transylvania before the Hungarian conquest and apparently adopted the Hungarian language. It is also claimed sometimes that they are the descendants of Huns and have been living there ever since the Empire of Attila. Today’s Székelys possess no distinguishing features, if they ever had any, except their proud assertion that they are Székelys and not Hungarians. About one million Hungarians live in the southern part of Czechoslovakia, and about half a million in northern Yugoslavia. A small autochthonous Hungarian population is found in the westernmost part of the Soviet Union on the western slopes of the Carpathians, and in eastern Austria, in Burgenland.

The rest of the Hungarians living abroad emigrated beyond neighbouring countries of their own free will. The majority of them (about one million) settled in North America (the USA and Canada), but Hungarians also went to South America (particularly to Argentina) and to Australia. In Europe, Austria, Germany, France, and England all have received Hungarian immigrants. Mass emigration took place at the end of the last century: large numbers of unemployed Hungarians moved to North America. After both World Wars Hungarians fled abroad mainly for political reasons. The last wave of refugees, some 200,000, left Hungary after the revolution in 1956.