SOME thirty years ago, in a heated debate before the Sociological Society of Budapest (sometimes called the Hungarian Fabians), this writer spoke of the fundamental sickness of Hungary and called it morbus latifundii. The expression became a slogan for all those who realized that the millenary feudal structure of the country, the domination by the large estates, was undermining its economic and cultural foundations and would help bring the tension of the unsolved nationality problems to the breaking point. In the last decade before the World War this diagnosis was also accepted by some influential political and military persons close to Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who regarded the anachronistic structure of Hungary as incompatible with their plan to reorganize the Dual Monarchy on a more equitable, federal basis.

But all efforts to carry out an electoral reform -- the prerequisite to an agrarian and constitutional transformation -- were unsuccessful. The power of the latifundia and the political monopoly of the nobility successfully sabotaged all such endeavors. Those in power were perfectly aware that universal suffrage would mean the end of the feudal system. Only the military defeat and the dismemberment of the Monarchy were able to introduce an abrupt change for a few months, when Count Michael Károlyi's government proclaimed universal suffrage and the division of the large estates. Even so, partly from lack of time and partly from the anarchistic conditions resulting from the dismemberment of the country, these long-awaited reforms remained on paper. Meanwhile the Bolshevik experiment swept away the democratic government, and Béla Kun in his narrow-minded Marxian dogmatism stopped the redistribution of the estates. Under the theory of preparing for kolkhozi the Bolshevik leader saved the old agricultural system.

By shrewd manipulation Count Stephan Bethlen was able during the next decade to abolish democratized suffrage, to make an end of the first beginnings of a peasant party, and to create an administrative mechanism by which he could control the elections according to the old feudal pattern. This new feudalism, however, was not identical with the old. The revolutionary upheavals brought to prominence several strong Fascist groups among the lower middle class, which, generally under the leadership of dissatisfied army officers, have acquired more and more political power. A compromise was established: the agrarian reform was emasculated and the feudal aristocracy retained their economic monopolies, while the political life of the country became the booty of the new Fascist elements. This trend culminated in the régime of Gömbös, to whom the saying was attributed: "No Counts, no Jews, no Peasants."

Thus the traditional feudal structure was preserved in Hungary at a time when far-reaching agrarian reforms were being carried out in the surrounding countries. Yet Hungary has given the impression of being the quietest state in the Danube Basin. This apparent calm, however, does not mean that underlying ills are cured, but simply indicates that a powerful administrative machine and effective gendarmerie make any rebellion by the agrarian proletariat impossible.

For a time it looked as if even ideological protests against the ruling system had been discredited. But the traditional wounds of the country were still there, and they soon began to bleed again, partly because of the stopping of emigration to America, partly because of the "agrarian scissors" which put the living standard of the people on a starvation level. This situation saw the emergence of a vast, jobless intelligentsia. The semi-starved general population could not pay for the services of doctors, teachers, writers and social workers. Under this pressure, even the Fascist organizations became imbued with a good deal of confused, sentimental populism.

But within the last few years an intellectual movement of very great importance has come to the fore, participated in by some of the best writers, poets and politicians of the younger generation. It is a passionate movement for the liberation of the abandoned small peasantry and agricultural proletariat. The fact that most of its representatives are immediate descendants of the racially purest classes of the country gives their struggle additional momentum. Although they do not yet form a united political party, many of them like to call themselves the "March Front" (an allusion to the revolution of 1848) and all agree in their conviction that without the liquidation of the feudal system there is no hope for Hungary. They have produced an astonishingly large, many-sided and enthusiastic literature, which is worthy of careful consideration even from an international point of view. In these brief notes I can refer only to the most influential works, all of them published in Budapest within the last two years.[i]

This literature can best be characterized as the expression of Hungarian narodniki, because it has a striking resemblance to the more moderate wing of those Russian agrarian socialists who "went to the people" in the second half of the ninteenth century in order to rebuild the corrupt old Tsarist structure on a popular basis. They regarded the Russian peasantry as the only source of salvation in a society where there was no conscious bourgeois class or enlightened intelligentsia. They resented the dogmatic formulæ of Marxian Socialism and protested against the application of its principles to the rural population. Race, soil and the anti-capitalistic traditions of Russia's genuinely popular forces were preponderant factors in the formulation of their doctrine.

The characteristic attitude of the Hungarian narodniki is similar. All of them believe in the Messianic rôle of the Hungarian peasantry. Their whole literature is a flaming protest against existing conditions. It emphasizes that 1,232 large estates (over 1,400 acres), representing 0.1 percent of the total number of separate agricultural holdings, cover 30 percent of all the land. The average size of a large estate is 5,613 acres. The 1,142,294 small properties (under seven acres), representing 71.5 percent of all agricultural holdings, cover an area of 2,486,838 acres, i.e. 11 percent of all the land. A small proprietor has an average holding of 2.13 acres. Forty percent of the agricultural population has no landed property at all; and if one adds to this number the category of small proprietors mentioned above, who cannot live on their minute lots but eke out a starvation wage as occasional workers on the large estates, one reaches a figure of around 3,500,000 out of an agrarian population of about 4,500,000. That is to say, almost 80 percent of the total agrarian population live on the outer fringe of proletarian existence. This situation has given rise to the oft-repeated expression -- "the three million beggars of Hungary."

The Hungarian narodniki further assert that the agrarian reform instituted by the counter-revolution was a farce which did not really alter the existing situation. The statement is not exaggerated. Some of the great latifundists were even successful in expanding their dominions. Julius Illyés, the greatest living poet of Hungary, has calculated that the maximum yearly income (including the money value of the farm produce received in fixed quantity) of a peasant family living in the wretched barracks of the landowner and working daily from three in the morning until nine at night, amounts to from 350 to 400 pengös, i.e. $70 or $80. This means that for each member of a normal family there is a daily budget of five cents. Though the buying power of five cents in agricultural products is considerably higher in Hungary than in the United States, that nevertheless represents a level of slow starvation. And many sections of the agricultural proletariat do not even attain this plane of living.

The picture is so dark that the present writer has not found anything comparable to it, even in the gloomiest descriptions of Tsarist Russia. Everywhere there are degrading housing conditions, an entire lack of sanitary conveniences, over-crowded single rooms, emaciated children who have lost their instinct for play. There is no birth-control propaganda, yet the "single child" (egyke) principle has been widely adopted. Criminal abortions are carried out by utterly ignorant peasant women. The struggle for existence has become so severe that there have been many cases of arsenic poisoning of old people.

The books I have mentioned reveal how so terrible a system is able to continue. Among the contributing factors are: severe administrative pressure on the population; various devices (e.g. "theoretical communities" -- eszmei község) by which the landed aristocracy acquires an almost mediæval exemption from central authority; the hiring of seasonal workers from remote regions by paid agents of the estates (banda-gazda) so that the disappointed wage-earners do not get local support for their occasional protests; the so-called "front-fighters" (élharcos), agents of the administration, who control all social activities of the peasants and denounce their "anti-social thinking;" clearing of villages by armed force when the clashing interests of the tenants cannot be otherwise appeased; both legal and illegal exclusion of the agricultural masses from the electoral lists; frustration of free elections by means of open voting, and if necessary by imprisonment and physical brutality. Even the new literature, though not of a propagandistic nature, is beginning to be persecuted. The authors of the two most outstanding books, Messrs. Féja and Kovács, were accused of having calumniated the nation and excited class hatred. Their condemnation to imprisonment aroused a storm of indignation in parliament and among the masses. Some of the best writers of the country proclaimed their solidarity with the accused and asked also to be prosecuted.

All these are elements of a condition which one of the authors describes as "silent revolution." Menacing symptoms of social pathology are evidenced in a great number of religious sects: the "Fruitless," the "Fasters," the "Witnesses of Jehovah," the "Pentecostists," the "Tremblers," the "Adventists," and others which carry one back to the Middle Ages. As Mr. Kovács testified before his judges, "during religious exercises of the sects, believers, stripped to the waist, flog each other; members of the Fasters lie down in their congregation houses and starve to death, leaving their corpses to be carried out by the gendarmes; the sect of the Fruitless have sentenced themselves to extermination by refusing to have children . . . the sect of the Tremblers give notice by their trembling of the coming of the Great Judgment." In addition to these ascetic mystics, a rebellious sect has come into existence: the so-called "Scythe-Crossers," named from their confused idea of the approaching social revolution when scythes will be straightened into swords for their liberation. Here is a primitive manifestation of the Swastika movement.

But this heartbreaking sociological literature has another and brighter aspect which shows the great creative qualities of the Hungarian people. In many places where the agrarian system is less severe, splendid examples of high-class farming are found, with an intensified production of vegetables, fruits and wine for large-scale export. Important beginnings in the coöperative movement have also been noted. In a few places we hear of peasant circles in which the world's best literature is eagerly read. And at least one agricultural laborer who has spent his forty years in a pathetic struggle for bare existence, Peter Veres, has reached in his book real intellectual and moral heights. What is even more encouraging, Mathias Matolcsy, a member of parliament on the left wing of Tibor Eckhardt's small peasant party, has elaborated in his remarkable book a plan for the complete reform of the Hungarian agrarian system, for the redistribution of the estates, the intensification of production, the introduction of new crops, in fine, the remodeling of social policy. Its realistic outlook and its moderation show that the dreams of the present-day Hungarian narodniki are not fantastic.

The tragic situation these books reveal is not a Hungarian affair only. The geographic key position which Hungary holds in the Danubian area makes necessary her participation in any new type of regional coöperation. An agrarian reform which is based on a purely mechanical division of the estates is surely not enough. Some conservatives assert, not without a certain justification, that the dismemberment of the latifundia has led to a retrogression in agricultural technique in some parts of the adjacent countries. Moreover, in spite of a radical land reform, military autocracy rules in Rumania and Jugoslavia, while Hungary, which has not experienced land reform, still retains at least a semblance of constitutional structure. It nevertheless remains true that both the Rumanian and Jugoslav peasantry have proved to be progressive elements in domestic economics and politics. If the dismemberment of the estates in those countries had been followed by energetic technical improvements, the investment of capital and the development of the coöperative movement, Francis Delaisi's vision of a remolded and modernized Central and Eastern Europe could have become a reality.

At present, coöperation between feudal Hungary and the neighboring military dictatorships with their disorganized and oppressed peasantry is an impossibility. It is easy for the great statesmen of Europe to advise that all should follow their own realistic interests, completely disregarding variations in their political and ideological structures. That sort of advice is shortsighted. Without a community of moral and political ideas no true coöperation can be established. In this lies the real tragedy of the Danubian Basin. What makes Czechoslovakia so isolated today is not so much differences in political interests between her and her neighbors as the fact that the feudalistic rulers of Poland and Hungary and the military rulers of Rumania and Jugoslavia instinctively dislike the type of social and political life prevailing in that petty bourgeois and peasant republic.

Many of what I have termed the Hungarian narodniki are of course alarmed by the German thrust down the Danube. Several writers describe the steady pressure of German propaganda in the regions of Hungary where there is a German minority. The formerly humble German colonists have become proud Nazis. And there has been a continuous gain in landed property by Germans at the expense of Hungarians.

Nazi propaganda in Hungary is decidedly on the increase, being carried on with ample funds and strong organization. It is dangerous for three reasons. One is that it is anti-Semitic and that it gives the army of wretched white-collar unemployed the hope of getting the positions which are to be vacated by the Jews. The second is that the Nazi organizations make use of many of the same slogans as the narodniki, menacing the feudal lords with expropriation. The third is that the Nazi movement is presented as the realization of the irredentist dreams infused by the Horthy régime into the broad masses of the population. The dangers of Germanization are minimized and the picture of a reunited, racially purified and powerful Hungary is emphasized. Czechoslovakia is described as carrion, to be divided up before summer, and hopes also are expressed for the recovery of other "stolen" territories.

Even one wing of the narodniki is captivated by these slogans. The anti-latifundist attitude of the Hungarian Nazis may be at least as insincere as was the policy of the German Nazis towards the Junkers. But it would be easier for a Nazi régime to sacrifice the Magyar feudalists than it was for Hitler to sacrifice his allies, the Prussian landholders. Be that as it may, the Nazi pressure is already so great that the government has introduced measures which can be characterized as a system of "liberal" anti-Semitism. The naïve idea is that "twenty percent anti-Semitism" may head off the movement from wilder excesses. In a remarkable series of articles on Poland in the New York Times in February 1937, Otto D. Tolischus tells of a Jewish leader who, when asked concerning the future of Polish Jewry, answered: "Either the big estates will go or the Jews will perish." This surely is an exaggerated statement. But it remains true for Poland and Hungary, and indeed for all the Danubian countries, that without a fundamental agrarian reform and a reorganization of national productive forces, there will be an intensification of social tension. In such circumstances only dictatorships are possible.

[i] "A Magyar Nemzet Öszinte Története" ("A Sincere History of the Hungarian Nation"), by O. Málnási. "Puszták Népe" (" The People of the Pusztas "), by G. Illyés. "A Néma Forradalom" ("The Silent Revolution), by I. Kovács. "A Viharsarok" ("The Tempest Corner"), by G. Féja. "Uj Élet A Magyar Földön" ("New Life on the Hungarian Soil"), by M. Matolcsy. "A Tardi Helyzet" ("Situation at Tard"), by Z. Szabó. "Futóhomok" ("Flying Sand"), by F. Erdei. "Számadás" ("My Account"), by P. Veres. "Egy Veszedelmes Nép" ("A Dangerous People"), by L. Lipták. "A Naposabb Oldalon" ("On the More Sunny Side"), by A. Németh. "A Legnagyobb Magyar Falu" ("The Biggest Hungarian Village"), by J. Darvas. "Parasztságunk Élete" ("The Life of Our Peasantry"), by G. Ortutay. "A Viharsarok A Biróság Elott" ("The Tempest Corner before the Court"). Edited by the "March Front." "A Néma Forradalom A Biróság Es A Parlament Elött" ("The Silent Revolution before the Court and Parliament"). Edited by the Brotherhood of Service and Writing.

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  • OSCAR JÁSZI, Professor of Political Science, Oberlin College; former Professor of Sociology at the University of Budapest; Minister of Racial Minorities in the Cabinet of Count Károlyi, 1918-19; author of "The Dissolution of the Hapsburg Monarchy"
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