The Society

Hungary Table of Contents

In 1988 the country had about 10.6 million inhabitants. Population had grown slowly since the late 1970s and had begun to decline in 1981. In 1986 about 19.2 percent of the population lived in Budapest, the country's cultural, political, and economic center. Beginning in 1978, for the first time in the country's history, more people lived in urban centers than in rural areas. By 1988 about 62 percent of the populace lived in urban centers with populations exceeding 10,000.

In the late 1980s, more than 96 percent of the people were ethnic Magyars. The minority, or non-Magyar, population was small and included Germans, Slovaks, Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Romanians, Jews, Gypsies, and Greeks. Most non-Magyars were bilingual, speaking both their own languages and Hungarian.

The combined impact of World War II and the communist takeover in 1947 brought about great changes in the social structure. For more than a decade, the new communist government sought to create a classless society through various forms of social engineering. Beginning in the 1960s, these efforts gave way to more indirect methods of social and economic control. The pace of change slowed, and a social structure took shape that once again contained clearly stratified groups. In its new form, society did not display the extremes of wealth and poverty characteristic of the interwar period. However, as the country's economic difficulties increased in the 1980s, tensions appeared to build between the wealthy elites and the sizable disadvantaged groups in society. Public discussion acknowledged these growing tensions and debated methods for overcoming them.

The family remained the basic social unit. The state recognized marriage as a secular institution and held the stability of families to be a desirable social goal. However, observers in the 1980s identified a number of sources of family stress that appeared to contribute to a high rate of divorce.

After the communist assumption of power in the late 1940s, several mass organizations--official trade unions, the National Council of Hungarian Women, and the Communist Youth League--were established to interpret for various segments of the population the social and political goals of the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party, to mobilize support for it, and to serve as centers of a collective social life. But in the late 1980s, these organizations were losing members, and they faced growing competition from new unofficial groups that emerged in the relaxed political atmosphere.

According to Western estimates, in the late 1980s about 67.5 percent of the population was Roman Catholic, 20 percent was Reformed (Calvinist), 5 percent was Lutheran, and 5 percent was unaffiliated. The country also contained smaller groups of Uniates (Catholics of the Eastern Rite), Greek Orthodox, various small Protestant sects, and Jews. In 1989 the government abolished the State Office for Church Affairs, which had supervised the churches. A proposal for new law submitted for public discussion in 1989 was intended to eliminate almost all restrictions on the churches.

The country's education system provided free, compulsory schooling for young people from six to sixteen years of age. About half of all students attended general schools (also known as elementary schools) for eight years and then completed their education through vocational training. The remainder continued their studies in a four-year gymnasium (a secondary school for university preparation) or trade school. The general schools curriculum stressed technical and vocational training. In the 1980s, almost 10 percent of the population aged eighteen to twenty-two was enrolled in regular daytime courses of study at institutions of higher learning.

In the late 1980s, the state health care and pension systems were highly centralized. Medical care was free to all citizens. However, many physicians maintained private practices, and people who could afford to receive care on a private basis often preferred to do so. Availability of medical personnel and hospital beds was high by international standards. The country's pension system, although extensive, was the object of considerable criticism in the 1980s because of the low levels of support provided to many retirees.

In the late 1980s, the bounds of permissible expression in Hungary suddenly had become wide by East European standards. Authorities had lifted most traditional prohibitions. Opposition groups were able to function legally. Consequently, the country experienced a quickening and enlivening of cultural and intellectual life.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress