The Role Jewish People Played in Hungary's Development – Interview with Viktor Karády

Professor Viktor Karády shown in his study in Budapest. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

I spoke with Viktor Karády, one of the most respected experts of Jewish sociology and history in Central Europe. For thirty-five years, Professor Karády was a Research Director at the French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris and he’s currently an external member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. In 1978, Karády co-authored two research papers with sociologist István Kemény about the role Hungarian Jews played in Hungary’s nation-building, which has now appeared in a book format in Hungarian translation.

What’s the book about?

Hungary was a pioneer in granting civil rights to Jewish people in Central and Eastern Europe. The book is a sociological study about the century before 1918, when the liberal-nationalist Hungarian nobility made a mutually beneficial social contract of sorts with the Jewish community. This resulted in the complete Magyarization of Jews in Hungary and their unprecedented contribution to the build-up of a modern nation state. This phenomenon is specific to Hungary with implications that are still felt today.

What are some of these implications?

Most Hungarian Jews became nationalists. They felt they were Hungarians and that they were at home here. They grieved after the breakup of the Hungarian Kingdom in 1919. This strong connection to the homeland followed Western European patterns: French Jews became Franco-Jewry, English Jews Anglo-Jewry. This wasn’t the case anywhere else in Eastern Europe, where Jews were kept separate. A Polish or a Romanian Jew didn’t feel very Polish or Romanian.

Is this why Zionism was so weak in Hungary?

Correct. I have German ancestors, like close to one fifth of Hungarians, but my wife came from an orthodox Jewish family. My mother-in-law kept a kosher household all her life but never thought of moving to Israel or to the West even though she could have. She felt totally Hungarian.

Let’s take a step back. When did Jewish people appear in Hungary in recent times?

When Jews were expelled from Vienna in 1670, the enlightened Esterházy family was happy to settle them in its Burgenland estates. They came in greater numbers after 1726 when the Habsburg Emperor, the father of Maria Theresa, decided that the fewer the Jews, the better, so he made a law that only the first-born son in a Jewish family could get married. The result of this strange marriage law was that Jews fled from Bohemia and Moravia to Hungary. (Despite being part of the Habsburg Empire, Hungary was governed by its own laws).

How about those Jewish people who came from Poland?

After 1772, the beginning of the partition of Poland, the southern part of the country, Galicia, was annexed to the Habsburg Empire. Masses of poor and miserable Jews lived there. At this time, the feudal landlords in Hungary were eager to settle peasants from Germany to work the land because central areas of the country had become deserted during the Ottoman wars. Naturally, they were glad that Jews also came. They built businesses, provided a range of goods for local residents, and paid various taxes.

How seamless was their integration?

Not so seamless in the northern cities of Hungary, where a German middle class had already existed who viewed the Jews as competition. But even there, Jews could settle before the 1840 law of “semi-emancipation” if they paid  enough money to the municipal governments. Jews were a pure blessing for the landed aristocracy in the countryside, because they made a lot of money by managing the feudal estates profitably. In return, the landlords permitted them to build houses, schools, and synagogues. It also became evident that Jews were open to assimilate.

Why was this important?

The peak of the Jewish immigration in the 1830s and 1840s coincided with the nationalist reform movement in Hungary. The Hungarian nobility faced a unique problem when they wanted to build a nation state in a country where Hungarians were a minority. 60-65 percent of people didn’t even speak Hungarian. Who would be their ally? They couldn’t count on the Saxons in Transylvania, nor the Romanians, the Slovaks, and the Serbs. The Swabian Germans showed some willingness to assimilate – as in the case of the famous novelist Ferenc Herczeg – but they were far from enthusiastic about Magyarization.

But there were the Jews.

Both Lajos Kossuth and István Széchenyi knew that they could build on the Jews, although not agreeing about the ways of their integration. Jews quickly learned Hungarian, they joined Hungarian clubs, they worked hard, they accumulated capital thanks to entrepreneurial skills and habits of under-consumption. They put strong emphasis on educating their children. The result: this highly skilled, Hungarian-speaking Jewish middle class did much of Hungary’s nation-building. More so than in Western Europe, and far more so than in any neighboring country.

What would be some examples?

To put it both mildly and bluntly, everything modern from this period was usually initiated, funded, built, and managed by Jews – sometimes exclusively. This may sound harsh, but that’s what the data show. For example the heavy industries, banking, wholesale and retail trade, transportation, book publishing, urban cultural and social institutions (film, photography, theater, cafés).

Why were Jews better equipped to take advantage of the capitalist middle class economy?

For religious and a number of other reasons, Jewish men were expected to be literate. There was no other place in Europe where irrespective of social status, every man was expected to be literate, usually speaking two or more languages. And to be able to count. Christian peasants were illiterate and so were most members of the lower nobility until the first half of the 19th century. It’s true that Jews came mostly without any money to Hungary, but they brought much in their heads. For example discipline, entrepreneurship, a rational market oriented economic behavior. The very idea that one has to organize one’s existence, work hard, and plan for the future. Immigrating to a new country was a huge life planning event itself.

And they were willing to fight for the country.

The Revolution of 1848 showed that the Jews were willing to sacrifice not just their money but also their blood for Hungary. There’s no need to mythologize Jewish heroism but it’s true that Jews fought in large numbers in the Hungarian Honvéd army for Hungarian independence. Of course, this impressed the liberal nobility, which realized that they had found a natural ally in the Jews.

How did they return the favor?

There was a sequence of emancipation laws starting in 1840. The final Emancipation Law of 1867 and the Reception Law of 1895 [which made Judaism equal to the major Christian religions] were passed very early on and very successfully. In Austria, for example, Christians and Jews couldn’t legally intermarry until the 1920s.

How was the situation with anti-semitism?

Until the fall of Austria-Hungary in 1918, the Hungarian state left no room for anti-semitism. There were anti-semitic parties and occasional pogroms – usually instigated by the lower-level Catholic clergy – but the government, with the full consent of King Franz Joseph, would crush these immediately, sending in the army when needed.

This is what you mean by a Western type of integration.

Almost completely Western. Just almost, because there remained this unwritten expectation in Hungary that positions within the public administration were to be retained by Christians. “We like the Jews, let them be doctors and lawyers, but if they want to enter politics or civil service, then they ought to convert.” There was no such duality in England or France.

Jews in Hungary's Nation-Building was published in Hungarian in 2023, based on the original French version that appeared in 1978 and 1980. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
Jews in Hungary's Nation-Building was published in Hungarian in 2023, based on the original French version that appeared in 1978 and 1980. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

How about Vienna? Emperor Franz Joseph couldn’t prevent the openly anti-semitic Karl Lueger from becoming mayor in 1897.

That’s true, but initially he refused to sign Lueger’s appointment and did so only when the electors insisted on him. The Austrian countryside used to have a lot of proto-nazis but the vast majority of Jews lived in Vienna. There was a small community in Graz, but nothing like the flourishing small-town urban Jewry in Hungary, in places like Nagyvárad, Pozsony, and Szeged. There’s still an astonishing amount of visible signs all over the country of this Jewish middle-class legacy.

At the turn of the 20th century, close to half of doctors, engineers, and lawyers were Jewish in Hungary. Why this extreme overrepresentation?

There were very big differences in education. Before 1919, a Jewish person in Hungary was six times more likely to attend university than the national average, significantly above those with a German background, who themselves were overeducated compared with Hungarians and Slavs. At the University of Technology (Műegyetem) or in the medical faculties, 35-50 percent of students were Jewish. It was a known fact that Jews and Germans attended technical and scientific fields, not the Hungarian lower-nobility (the so-called dzsentri). As a result, Jews supplied a lot more highly-trained graduates to the labor market than others. Jewish over-education was also common in the West, but without the same impact, because there were much fewer Jewish people there.

How about the arts?

There are similar statistics. Before WWI, 42 percent of students at the Academy of Music were Jewish, as were, for example, the majority of Béla Bartók’s pupils. But neither Bartók nor Zoltán Kodály was the least interested in the religious background of their students. All they cared about was whether they were talented or not. Most of these students were highly secularized anyway.

Did Jews play a similarly outsize role in the development of Western Europe?

Not nearly. Western Europe didn’t need Jews the way Eastern Europe did. They already had an established local middle class that drove the economy. There were meaningfully fewer Jews in Western Europe. When the Dreyfus affair broke in 1894, the total number of Jews in France equaled those in the 5th and 6th districts of Budapest. By this time, Hungary had the second highest Jewish population in Europe after Russia.

Pro-Jewish Hungarian politics ended with the collapse of Austria-Hungary in 1918. Is this because the much-reduced Hungary no longer had to rely on Jews to tip the ethnic scale to their side?

In part. There was also this idea in Hungary that the lifestyle of a gentleman was embodied by the lower and middle nobility – lots of leisure time and parading one’s distinguished family ancestry. This was all fine as long as the Jews built up the modern economy and bore the burdens of modernization. But after the war, people suddenly realized that the Jews had also enriched themselves and held the most lucrative middle class positions. They felt that this unbalanced situation could be turned to their favor.

Like how?

The alluring anti-semitic plot was that if the Jews were demoted or disqualified for being non-Hungarians, or global actors, or even anti-Hungarians, given their role in the disastrous outcome of the 1918-1919 revolutions, then everything they had built up could be seized. A thief’s instinct. The big industrial plants were all there, the banks were all there, the big publishers were all there. The liberals pretended that such a thing could never happen, although the anti-semites were fairly open about their intentions of expropriation.

This was before Hitler’s rise?

Much before that. In 1920, armed student squads invaded the universities and prevented Jews from entering. They demanded that all Jews be banned from the universities in Hungary. This was what forced the legislators at the Hungarian Parliament to implement quotas for admission. The numerus clausus law [which capped Jewish participation at six percent] somewhat tempered the increasingly radical anti-semitic flare ups of the Hungarian middle class after 1920.

Thousands of Jewish intellectuals left Hungary because of the numerus clausus or the retaliation after the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919 and never returned.

It’s a shame, since this wave of emigration comprised some of the best minds the country had produced. Indeed, they are still among those who made some fame for Hungary in the world. Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, László Moholy-Nagy and a few others. Sociologists also know Károly Mannheim or Károly Polányi. Most of our Nobel laureates belong to their kind. Hungary isn’t very well known abroad otherwise.

Unlike those in the Hungarian countryside, how did the majority of Budapest’s Jews survive the Holocaust?

Many things in history happen by random forces. The deportations in the Hungarian countryside began in mid-May of 1944 in eastern Hungary and were completed already in late June. In early July, the Normandy landings took place, the Russians entered the territory of Hungary, and Romania, one of Hitler’s last allies, changed sides on August 23rd. It was evident that the Germans were losing the war. Many people, including the Pope, warned Miklós Horthy [Hungary’s leader in the interwar period] that he will be personally held responsible. In these circumstances, Horthy stopped the deportations from Budapest on July 6th.

Budapest today has about 100,000 residents with Jewish ancestry.

Budapest is the only remaining big city in Central and Eastern Europe with Jewish life. Vienna has only a few thousand Jews. In Poland, there are hardly any Jews, only a kind of Jewish Disneyland in Kazimierz on Krakow's outskirts and a spectacular Jewish Museum in the main place of the destroyed Warsaw ghetto. The Bulgarian Jews left for Israel after the war, despite having been collectively saved, which was a very special thing. There was meaningful emigration from Hungary too after 1945, in 1956, and later, but, uniquely, the majority of Holocaust survivors stayed here.

What would Budapest be like today without its Jewish residents?

My guess is that Jews are still overrepresented among consumers of high culture – people who read new books, go to theaters, movies, concerts. It’s the legacy of that hunger for culture we find in historical education statistics. It’s hard to imagine men of the dzsentri arriving from the countryside and attending a Bartók concert. They probably went to restaurants and brothels instead. The urban culture was largely made for and by Jews as well as their gentile associates. I think that’s still more or less the case today.