Minority Groups

Hungary Table of Contents

In the 1980s, more than 96 percent of the population consisted of ethnic Magyars. Major transfers of population had occurred after World War II. Substantial numbers of Germans, Czechs, and Slovaks were resettled in neighboring countries, and many Hungarians outside the country's borders moved to Hungary. Today Hungary has few ethnic minority inhabitants. In the 1980s, the population included roughly 230,000 Germans; slightly more than 100,000 Slovaks; about 100,000 Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (often grouped together as South Slavs); and about 30,000 Romanians. In the late 1980s, the Romanian population in the country increased significantly as thousands of Romanians fled conditions in their homeland and sought refuge in Hungary. About one-third of these emigres were ethnic Romanians, and the remainder were Hungarian-speaking Romanians. In addition, about 500,000 Gypsies, 150,000 Jews, and 4,000 Greeks lived in Hungary. The Jewish community was a mere remnant of the Jewish population that had lived in the country before World War II. During the war, as many as 540,000 Jews and 60,000 Gypsies were deported to Nazi extermination camps.

Most of the non-Magyar nationalities were bilingual, speaking both their own languages and Hungarian. In the 1980 census, less than 1 percent of the population actually registered as members of national minorities, although a far greater number expressed interest in aspects of their ethnic culture. National minorities did not usually form separate communities but lived interspersed among the entire population.

The Constitution, as well as a sizable body of law, guarantees the cultural rights of recognized national minorities. The Constitution promises them equal rights as citizens, protection against discrimination, and access to education in their own languages from kindergarten to university level. Minorities have been able to promote their national cultures through freedom of association in federations, ethnic clubs, and artistic endeavors. They have been able to use their own language in official procedures and could publish newspapers and periodicals, and broadcast radio and television programs in their own tongue. Actual government policy in the 1980s was fairly consistent with these promises. In 1984 approximately 55,000 minority students were receiving instruction in their mother tongue in elementary and secondary schools, up from 21,615 students in 1968. When ethnic students did not find the requisite opportunities at domestic institutions of higher education, they could study at appropriate foreign universities. All national minorities had weekly newspapers and other publications and sponsored various cultural activities. As public discussion in the late 1980s noted, however, the minorities had not shared equally in the economic advances of recent decades.

Jews and Gypsies were not officially recognized as national minorities, being defined rather as a "religious community" and an "ethnic community," respectively. However, the Jews occupied a more favorable position in Hungary than they did in other states in Eastern Europe. The country's 150,000 Jews formed the third largest Jewish community on the European continent, being smaller than the Jewish communities in the Soviet Union and France. They maintained a high school, library, museum, kosher butcher shops, an orphanage, a home for the elderly, a rabbinical seminary, a factory producing matzo, and about thirty synagogues. Several publications, including newspapers, served the Jewish population.

The situation of the half million Gypsies, traditionally a poor and marginal element in society and subject to discrimination, was far less favorable. In 1987 about 75 percent of the Gypsies were living at or below the poverty level. About half of them lived in settled conditions, holding down jobs. Most spoke Hungarian. The Gypsy population had a birth rate that was more than twice as high as that of the rest of the population. This circumstance, and the fact that the Gypsy crime rate was disproportionately high, contributed to an apparently growing hostility to Gypsies among the Hungarian population. Many citizens perceived the government's special programs for Gypsies as undeserved favoritism that deprived the rest of the population of needed resources.

In the mid-1980s, in contrast to its earlier policy of encouraging cultural assimilation, the government began to foster a Gypsy ethnic and cultural identity and a sense of community and tradition to enhance the self-esteem of the Gypsy population. In mid-1985 the government established the National Gypsy Council to represent Gypsy concerns to the government and to assist in carrying out measures involving the Gypsies. In 1986 the Cultural Association of Gypsies in Hungary was founded to help preserve and foster Gypsy culture. In 1987 a Gypsy newspaper was established. Despite these signs of progress, Gypsies remained particularly vulnerable as the economic climate deteriorated in the 1980s. With minimal skills, education, and training, they were among the first to lose their jobs as unemployment increased. Their health and living standard remained well below the national average.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress