The Hungarians: Politics and Culture

Reunification put an end to the autonomous political life of Transylvania's Hungarians. Political activists were absorbed into the large parliamentary parties, where they continued to promote their region's economic and other interests. The Transylvanian Museum Society and the Economic Association (Gazdasági Egylet) became more active, but their political significance was diminished.

Although no one questioned the existence of distinct regional interests, it was long considered improper to lay stress on them; attempts to do so were branded 'particularist' by the opinion-makers. Only indirectly, and by exploiting the prevailing nationalistic ethos, could institutions such as the Transylvanian branch of the Hungarian Cultural Society (Erdély-részi Magyar Közművelődési Egylet; EMKE) or the Economic Association try to supplant the defunct regional government. 'Transylvania's duty is not partisanship but work,' argued the Kolozsvári Közlöny in 1884: 'Although the policy-making role that we had during the principality is a thing of the past, we are left with the noblest of tasks: to devote our individual and common efforts to the promotion of general prosperity and culture.'[19]19. Kolozsvári Közlöny, 29 August 1884, quoted in Az EMKE meg-alapítása és negyedszázados működése 1885-1910 (Kolozsvár, 1910), p. 78. The creation of the EMKE came in the wake of the foundation of similar cultural societies around the country in the early 1880s, notably the FEMKE in Upper Hungary (Felvidék). The government was well-disposed towards these new organizations, but it was not prepared to assume their task, which was Magyarization. 'The state cannot do everything,' said Kálmán Tisza, 'let society do some things on its own!'[20]20. Ibid., p. 77. This somewhat {3-655.} ambiguous reflection became one of the common slogans of the period.

The foundation of EMKE was preceded by debates in the press and protracted inter-party disputes, then delayed by an election campaign. Finally, at the end of 1884, a group of university lecturers, lawyers, and civil servants in Kolozsvár seized the initiative, and the EMKE was officially founded the following spring. Its avowed purpose was to promote Hungarian language and culture and thereby to unify the scattered Hungarians. In keeping with contemporary mores, an aristocrat (and onetime follower of Garibaldi), Count Gábor Bethlen, was elected president of EMKE. In his capacity as lord lieutenant of Kis-Küküllő County, Bethlen proceeded to have a law passed imposing a 2 percent county surtax (10,000 forints) to provide a subsidy for EMKE. When other county leaders tried to follow his example, Romanian and Saxon intellectuals reacted in outrage at the idea that the minorities should finance Magyarization. The goals propounded by EMKE's founders filled them with anxiety. The proposal to defend the interests of the Hungarians dispersed across multi-ethnic Transylvania touched raw nerves. Romanians took great offence at the idea that some small and allegedly Romanized communities should be re-Magyarized. Their national pride was also hurt by the founders' suggestion that they should henceforth 'not only understand Hungarian but share with us a Hungarian sensibility.' At a meeting of the Kolozs County council, Romanian delegates openly denounced the EMKE; in Beszterce-Naszód County, 'the aggressive promotion of the Hungarian language met with outrage;' Szeben County deplored the initiatives; and Brassó County also gave vent to its anxiety.[21]21. Ibid., pp. 80, 85-6.

The history of EMKE was marked by a discordant mix of extravagant patriotic sloganeering and modest achievements based on realities. The society wished to compensate for 'centuries of neglect' in the sphere of Magyarization and employ 'appropriate {3-656.} cultural tools to help the ethnic mass of Székelys link up with the great sea of Hungarians in the Great Plain.'[22]22. 'Az EMKE 1893-1894. évi jelentése,' EMKE Értesítő, 20 May 1894. These grandiose schemes had to be financed by small donations and the proceeds of charity balls; for a time, the campaign became so fashionable that thousands of collection boxes were placed in gentlemen's clubs, restaurants, and in the waiting rooms of newspapers and doctors. A big Budapest café paid an annual fee of 25 forints for the right to bear the name of EMKE. In 1888, a landowner in Borsod County donated 20,000 forints and thereby became the 'first major founding member.' Count Kocsárd Kun bequeathed some 1,250 hectares (2,190 cadastral acres) of land for the purpose of settling Székelys; instead, a Székely agricultural school was built on the Algyógy estate, financed largely by the agriculture ministry, which also took charge of administering the institution. The goal of Magyarization did not fare much better than the settlement project; cultural aid was given to some Csángó communities, and EMKE paid the modest fee on behalf of some individuals who chose to Magyarize their name.

The EMKE began by providing a subsidy, amounting to 50–150 forints a year, to poor priests and teachers working among the dispersed Hungarians, then followed this up by founding schools and engaging in economic activities. Over a ten-year period, it disbursed 300,000 forints to establish and assist 45 schools, 25 kindergartens, 16 churches, and 45 public libraries. The EMKE then transferred its schools and the attendant financial burden to the state, for despite its success in raising funds, its assets had reached no more than one million forints.

EMKE lobbied successfully to secure substantial state orders for private entrepreneurs affected by the trade disputes that erupted between Austria, Hungary, and Romania in 1886. Its activities included the promotion of Transylvanian products; the organization of exhibitions and the drafting of briefs; the formation of a Carpathian Association of Transylvania (Erdélyrészi Kárpát Egylet), {3-657.} which ran hostels to promote the tourist trade; and the publication of a tourism journal as well as of the first up-to-date guidebook on Transylvania. EMKE joined forces with the earlier-established, Saxon Karpatenverein to promote tourism, and in 1892 it established an EMKE museum, devoted to the Carpathian region, in the Kolozsvár house where King Matthias was born. To expand credit, EMKE kept its funds on deposit in Transylvanian banks. One of its central objectives was the establishment of a major credit bank in Kolozsvár to assist needy landowners, but the project was held up by the lack of government support; in the meantime, EMKE promoted the creation of credit unions and served as a go-between in land sales and the raising of loans. It contributed to the establishment, at Marosvásárhely, of a Chamber of Commerce and Industry designed to serve the interests of the Székelys, as well as to the foundation of a Transylvanian Federation for the Promotion of Industry.

EMKE became the country's largest private association. Over a twenty-five year period, it expended some 3 million forints on various aid programs, built or assisted 268 schools, established 77 kindergartens and 214 public libraries, and raised money for the erection of statues of Petőfi, Kőrösi Csoma, and Kelemen Mikes. Romanians and Saxons observed EMKE's activities with some hostility, although they soon realized that the association did not endanger their national culture, let alone their ethnic identity. In spite of the EMKE's expanding assets and aid programs, its significance began to decline after the turn of the century. Its Hungarian critics tried to steer the EMKE toward exclusively economic tasks. 'If EMKE does not move quickly to give financial aid for economic development, its four million crowns will only suffice to buy a wreath for the grave of Hungarian Transylvania,' observed an economic journal shortly before the outbreak of World War I.[23]23. K. Schandl, 'A román bankok terjeszkedése," Magyar Gazdák Szemléje, 2 (December), 1909, p. 221, and 2 (November), 1912, p. 203.

At the end of the century, Transylvania's Hungarian political elite paid little heed to distant dangers. Instead, it settled comfortably {3-658.} into the Dualist system, which, thanks to the economic boom and the expansion of the state's administrative structure, seduced even those those who had been dissatisfied with Hungary's qualified independence. Since Transylvania's politicians were present at the highest levels of political power, and occasionally formed a Transylvanian lobby within the parties, Budapest became the focus for the entire educated elite. Journalists and writers preferred to see their work published in Budapest, and Transylvanians were well represented in the Hungarian Academy. For Transylvanian Hungarians, local politics involved not the region but individual towns and districts, where traditional struggles for power, often between families, continued to prevail. Apart from the issue of nationalities, only the dilemma of the Székelys transcended this political parochialism. The dire economic conditions in Székelyföld, and the consequent emigration, weighed on the conscience of the whole country, not just of the Transylvanians. The government lacked the tools to respond meaningfully to this problem. The excessively rigid political system, in which virtually all issues had to be subjected to parliamentary scrutiny, was evoked with bitter helplessness by one of the leading politicians of the day, Károly Khuen-Héderváry: 'The worthy Székelys are so far away that by the time their wishes reach [Budapest], are interpreted by the government, and prompt a positive response, it will be too late to save them.'[24]24. L. Rácz, Erdély vasútpolitikája (Marosvásárhely, 1917), p. 39. At the same time, Transylvanians accepted the need for centralization, believing — in the words of Dezső Szilágyi, an outstanding member of the second reform generation — that 'only a highly centralized administration can help the Székelys and Saxons to survive.'[25]25. Report of the German ambassador to Vienna, 9 April 1890, in Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amtes, Bonn (PA AA Bonn), Österreich 92, no. 6a Bd. 3, A 4781.

The Dualist system nurtured a notably authoritarian variant of a liberal state. By codifying liberalism, retaining some of the notions and approaches of feudalism, and imposing the rule of law in defence of the established social order, the state succeeded — to a degree that varied among the different nationalities — in making people acquiesce to its negative as well as positive features.

{3-659.} The system was sufficiently liberal and in tune with the times to promote capital accumulation and entrepreneurship, and to attract foreign investment. This won the support of the new bourgeoisie, which, despite its growing numbers, received only a small share of political power. The original promoters of liberalism, the landowning class and its allies in the intelligentsia, found their power undermined by economic change; yet, thanks to the preservation of some traditional institutions in the spheres of politics and administration, they retained much of their political influence. Thus, on the whole, the system enjoyed the support of the traditional ruling class. The internal safeguards of security and stability, along with the 'external' guarantee provided by the bayonets of the joint army, permitted open criticism of the system and its social basis. This semi-modern political–economic structure was born amidst multiple conflicts, and it would have been unrealistic to demand universal acceptance; it would suffice if people acknowledged the reality and immutability of the system — an attitude that had long marked Transylvania's political culture.

In fact, Hungary's ruling classes and political elites showed remarkable alacrity in accommodating themselves to the state and the monarchy. They did so not with enthusiasm, but in pragmatic acceptance of a system that secured their status. Nor did the Hungarians who disapproved of Dualism wholly reject that system. The 1867 Compromise gave Hungarians a rather anomalous status within Europe. Despite their modest numbers, they came to be perceived as one of Europe's strongest nations, endowed with some of the attributes of a great power. Preservation of the country's territorial integrity, including Transylvania, became a fundamental — and perhaps overemphasized — political principle, one that excluded alternative solutions to the problem of national minorities. The ruling class, the onetime nobility, identified the preservation of its status with that of historical Hungary; and middle class Hungarians accepted this system as readily as they accepted Francis Joseph's {3-660.} empire, which guaranteed their security. The prevailing system was depicted as the only possible guarantor of national survival, one that ruled out any search for alternatives; thus even the opponents of Dualism were compelled to exercise self-restraint. Initially, Hungary's political elite had accepted the dual monarchy as a transitional necessity. Twenty-five years later, this rational acceptance had evolved into a timeless dogma, and when at the turn of the century the empire showed signs of weakening, conventional political wisdom looked to Wilhelmine Germany for reinforcement. Thus Hungarians — apart from the few who were more lucid or prescient — ruled out the possibility that the monarchy, and with it historical Hungary, might disintegrate. Even Transylvanian Hungarians, normally better attuned to intimations of danger, suppressed the recurrent fear that they might lose Transylvania. Newspapers would alternately highlight the progress made by Magyarization and a 'breakthrough by the nationalities;' similar partisan politics inspired the government to treat as confidential reports from the Statistical Office that 'Hungarians have suffered a serious setback all along the linguistic borderland in Transylvania.'[26]26. Miniszterelnöki átirat a vallás- és közoktatásügyi miniszternek 1908. március 27, OL, Miniszterelnökség 1908. XXV, p. 102.

The Dualist system was a trap: it gave the Hungarian ruling classes a sense of security by obscuring the threats facing them as well as historical Hungary. It prevented them for realizing that the Austro–Hungarian monarchy did not constitute a permanent and safe shelter.