A Post- or Super-Nationality in the European Union
Borders of Language and Dilemmas of Identity
The Hungarians (Magyars), a group of tribes that came to Europe from Central Asia around 896, settled in the Tisza valley in the Carpathian basin. In about 955, they accepted Christianity and, in 1222, Hungarian King Andrew II was forced to give the nobility a letter of rights. In 1241, Hungary was captured by the Mongols; half of the two million Hungarians alive then were killed within a year and a half, before the Mongols departed from Europe, due to an internal struggle in their homeland. Hungarian King Béla IV invited Europeans to settle in his reorganized kingdom and the Hungarians thus strengthened their ties to Europe. In the battle of 1312, King Charles I, assisted by low-ranking knights, defeated the aristocracy and bestowed political and economic status upon the common people in rural areas, villages, and towns. From 1408, King Sigismund strengthened his rule in Hungary with the support of a small group of barons as well as the peasants', the latter were given the right to sue their landlords under certain circumstances. Sigismund became the Holy Roman Emperor, and held the post from 1433 until his death in 1437.
Popular national feeling was illustrated when forty thousand lesser nobles participated in the coronation of a new Hungarian king – Mathias I – on a frozen Danube in January 1458. Mathias ruled Hungary for thirty years, till his death at the age of fifty. He was a popular and just ruler, who nominated individuals to ruling positions despite their lack of ancestral aristocratic merit; he promoted higher education in Hungary and enforced a just judiciary. After Mathias’ death, the nobility ruled. In 1514, a popular uprising by twenty thousand peasants under the leadership of a simple soldier named György Székely (nicknamed Dózsa) was defeated by the high-ranking nobles. The subsequent murder of seventy thousand Hungarian peasants resulted in the destruction of their political status, and by 1514 they no longer had a right to leave the estates they served at.
These events explain why most of Hungary was invaded by the Turkish army during 1514–26, following the Turkish conquest of Belgrade. Since no national identity can exist within any group, unless the majority is committed to the group’s sovereignty over the homeland of their ancestors, and its members are ready to sacrifice their lives for such goal, a Hungarian nationality may be said to have existed during the 150 years before 1514; that nationality did not disappear when the Turks had conquered most of Hungary by 1526 – it had been destroyed previously by the Hungarian aristocracy.
During the Turkish domination of most of Hungary, many Hungarians in Transylvania fought for the Hungarian cause. In 1686, the Turks were finally driven out, thanks to various Christian forces and the Polish army, and the House of Habsburg came to rule. From 1703, a mutiny by peasants and the lesser nobility was led by a young nobleman named Ferenc Rákoczi, who battled the Habsburg King Leopold for seven years, before the lesser nobles signed an armistice. Rákoczi went into exile, but he remained Hungary’s most romantic national hero. At that time it appears that a popular national sentiment existed in Hungary for a short period of time.
Until the end of World War I, most Hungarians, including peasants and town citizens, believed in a partnership with the Austrians and common ownership of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Gradually, from the end of the nineteenth century until the conclusion of World War I, the peasants and other commoners crystallized Hungarian national feelings and political awareness, as is illustrated by the events between November 1918 and July 1919 during the rule of Béla Kun’s Communist regime. After World War I and through World War II, the Hungarians preserved their nationality, as exemplified rather cogently during the events of 1956 – until the 1990s, when the opportunity arose to join the EU. Hungary was determined to take the European route, which was compatible with their ancestral and historical attitudes, and was strengthened by their understanding that Hungary was a small, unprogressive country with limited economic strength, while the European Union was a huge economic entity of 500 million inhabitants, richer and more modern than themselves. Another factor in their decision lies in the field of mass psychology: Hungary, since the Turkish occupation, had generally been part of a larger entity – the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and then the Soviet bloc. Their collective memory of the period between the two World Wars, when they were economically on their own, was less than positive. During that period, their economic and cultural successes came mainly from German and Jewish denizens. In the 1990s, there was no hope of such redeeming factors.
Therefore, today’s Hungary is more European than Hungarian.