HUNGARY'S agrarian revolution began with the introduction of the Land Reform bill on the Ides of March, 1945. It involved splitting up into tiny parcels the several thousand huge or large estates owned for centuries by a small coterie of Hungarian nobles or by Church orders or organizations. Despite the magnitude and complexity of the task, the land reform was virtually completed by September 1946. Within 18 months one of Europe's chief strongholds of mediaeval feudalism had been liquidated. "Landlordism" could never be restored. Had a new day dawned for more than 4,000,000 Hungarian peasants and their families?

In any case, the physical foundations of Hungary's predominantly agricultural economy had been utterly transformed. The total of tillable land in the country is estimated at approximately 13,793,000 American acres. By the first of last September more than 4,633,000 of these acres -- precisely one-third of all the arable soil -- had been redistributed. In addition, another 3,300,000 acres, chiefly forest lands plus some pastures and barren country, had been either confiscated from Hungarian Nazi collaborators and German-speaking residents or expropriated. Most of these areas reverted to state, municipal or communal ownership or have been set aside for public purposes.

But the most striking feature of the land reform is the fact that allotments have been made to more than 642,000 individuals -- tenant farmers, farm laborers, small farmers with inadequate soil and others. Since Hungarian peasants average four or five children to a family, this means that a revolutionary change has been effected in the lives of well over 4,000,000 persons. More than half of Hungary's entire population, then, is directly concerned with the sweeping redistribution of tillable land. These humble people, for so many generations the landless or sublanded underdogs of an anachronistic feudal system, now stand to reap certain benefits long dreamed of -- or to relapse into new quagmires of thwarted hopes. Their only certainty is this: Hungary can never go back into the tight monopoly of the now-dispossessed big landowners. Where the newly "capitalized" Hungarian peasants -- and their diminutive holdings of land -- will yet go is another question. And the answer may well set the agricultural pattern for Poland and Rumania, in fact for all the eastern European countries now within the Soviet Union's so-called "iron curtain."

Before approaching this long-term interrogation point that figures in any description of Hungary's land reform, we must indicate why such drastic measures became inevitable. Even a considerable number of its chief victims, Hungarian noblemen and others, today admit frankly that some form of fairly radical redistribution was "overdue." Between the wars, as before 1914, most big landowners rigidly opposed curtailment of their landed monopoly. Some of these same persons now confine their criticisms of the March 1945 reform to the manner in which it has been applied -- not questioning its principle or assailing its purposes. But realization of the imperative urgency for comprehensive agrarian readjustments came to too few among the landed upper class, and too late. A majority among them defended Hungary's extreme feudal lopsidedness to the bitter end.

Authorities have agreed on the basic facts of Hungarian feudalism, within narrow statistical margins, for a generation or more. In 1900 more than 55 percent of the country's total landowners occupied plots ranging from 1.42 acres to only seven acres. This meant that the families of 1,358,000 "dwarf farmers" were chained to land from 5½ to 11 acres below a normal subsistence level.[i] In addition there existed a completely landless proletariat running into hundreds of thousands of farm laborers, many of whom had work only half the year or less. The law of 1898 had imposed such restrictions and penalties on this legion of unfortunates that it became known as the "Slavery Act." Peasant strikes, sabotage and local uprisings resulted intermittently up to the First World War; and the 1918 October Revolution in Hungary received perhaps its chief impetus from a multitude of peasants clamoring for partition of the big estates.

Count Michael Károlyi's government looked favorably upon the peasants' demands for redistribution. A decree for expropriation of all properties above 284 acres was issued. Count Károlyi himself set an example by giving one of his estates for early division. But the Károlyi Government, swamped by numerous difficulties, yielded place only a few weeks later (March 21, 1919) to the chaotic four-month régime of Béla Kun.

The hopes which the despairing peasant masses first placed in Béla Kun, the Bolshevik, were soon deceived. Instead of giving them land to own themselves, Kun attempted to nationalize the economy wholesale and to convert the peasants to Communism by force of arms. His failure came swiftly; and the Magyar peasants' pronounced aversion to Communism persists vigorously to this day. After this second war collectivization is no more desired by Hungary's predominantly peasant population than it was by Russian peasants after 1917.

The counter-revolution of the "White Terror" won the support of most Hungarian peasants precisely because of their disillusionment with Communist Béla Kun. For the first time the peasants had now become sufficiently strong politically to make some action necessary, and the Agrarian Reform law of December 1920 resulted. Compared to the needs it was indeed a "modest instrument."[ii] The purport of the law was vitiated by numerous exemptions and other loopholes. Although some 400,000 hitherto landless rural laborers received an average of approximately 2½ acres (12½ acres are a minimum for subsistence), the grip of the big landowners was scarcely shaken. Under Horthy and Bethlen the feudal groups remained well entrenched and politically supreme. The Hungarian Quarterly, presided over by Count Bethlen and virtually a mouthpiece for the Government, admitted as much in an article by Michael Kerek in the autumn issue for 1940. In 1930, this article stated, out of an agricultural population of 4,500,000, some 3,500,000 peasants possessed seven acres or less of land or had no land at all. "There were nearly 600,000 farm hands; nearly 1,000,000 laborers who neither owned nor leased land; and about 250,000 day laborers owning or leasing tiny plots of less than 1.42 acres. There were just over 1,000,000 small farmers who owned between 1.42 acres and 7 acres; and 50,000 who leased a similar area." An equally illuminating admission followed: that one-third of the agricultural population were dwarf farmers or tenants "also obliged to work for hire," while another third were "entirely landless farm hands."

In short, the 1920 Land Reform had been so extremely modest that 66 percent of Hungary's peasants had been left without any relief whatever. But what about the remaining one-third of agricultural holdings large enough to be listed as independent? In this category 29.5 percent of the medium-sized and large estates have been reported as belonging "to roughly 500 landowners, hardly 0.1 percent of the owners of agricultural holdings."[iii] Expressed in another way, close to one-third of Hungary's land was monopolized in some 4,000 estates, ranging upward from 2,500 acres in size.[iv]

To any modern-minded investigator, but perhaps especially to an American, the discrepancy was shocking. It focused my immediate attention during my last previous sojourn in Budapest in 1940, when I learned from official sources that the 25 largest estates in Hungary were private domains ranging from the 298,000 acres possessed by Prince Paul Eszterházy down to that owned by the Hungarian Catholic Culture Fund totalling 45,000 acres. Among these 25 chief land monopolies, 16 were owned by the richest Hungarian nobles or were listed as Crown estates. The other nine were the property of Church orders or archbishoprics, mostly held from the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries.[v] When one considers that hundreds of thousands of Hungarian peasants and their families remained landless, and hundreds of thousands of others remained in semi-serfdom as tenant farmers, it becomes apparent that in the 1930's (let alone the 1940's) the Hungarian agrarian revolution was indeed "overdue."

We must be fair enough to interject that the lot of sharecroppers in certain of our southern states has been similar to that of these Danubian peasants. But to make the picture complete, we must indicate how much Hungary's "sharecroppers" and tenant farmers earned. Few foreigners have investigated this matter on the spot, among the peasants themselves, as thoroughly as Theodore Andrica, the multi-lingual specialist of the Cleveland Press. As late as 1938, during his travels in Hungary, he learned that the average pay of farm laborers (in seasons when they could work) was only about 20 cents a day. He also found large regions in which tenant farmers reaped annual cash earnings of only $30 to $50 -- for one year of unstinting effort. The official statistics which Mr. Andrica painstakingly gathered are equally illuminating.

What is vital to remember is that from one-third to one-half of the total population of Hungary were either directly or indirectly affected by these conditions. Like the half-starved and still feudally-chained Spanish people, the Hungarian peasants cried desperately for relief, but into unheeding ears. In 1944 the Red Army brought social revolution in its wake. What the landlord-dominated governments had refused to do through successive decades was seized on by the Soviets as a golden opportunity. The old feudal system became Hungary's greatest war casualty. Today in Hungary its mourners may be numbered by a few thousands in a population of nearly 8,500,000.

The sponsors of the 1945 land reform pulled no punches. Their bill provided: (1) The average farm was not to exceed 100 cadastral yokes (142 acres). (2) Citizens of peasant descent, already on the land, might be awarded 200 cadastral yokes (284 acres). (3) A special committee might award persons of notable anti-Nazi performance or of exceptional service in the liberation up to 300 cadastral yokes (426 acres). (4) All original estates totalling more than 1,000 cadastral yokes (1,420 acres), were to be expropriated, and former owners could not retain more than 142 acres. Thus the law was frankly and severely discriminatory against the great landowners, whether of the aristocracy or the Church. It was intentionally designed to shear off the privileges of those who had thrived on monopoly through many generations.

In the turmoil of liberation the Hungarian nobles had already suffered important losses. The majority of their ancient castles and baronial mansions had been systematically looted, either by Russian troops or by their own peasants, who stripped them of valuables and frequently even chopped up the antique furniture for firewood. Once-glittering halls were left empty hulks. It was a high price for having failed to comprehend that they really lived in the twentieth century.

On the heels of this the agrarian revolution stripped the nobility and the Church orders of their land. In the process the state took over 1,509 castles and manor houses and some 11,000 acres of adjacent private parks. The government proposed to convert them into hospitals, sanitoriums, schools or perhaps proletarian rest homes. But since many of them are gutted and unusable this will remain merely a project for a future day.

The Land Reform law contains promises of compensation, but it does not make specific commitments as to how much the compensation will be. A special compensation fund will be set up, its source being the instalment payments which the new peasant owners will make over a period of 10 years. The peasants, however, were given three years of grace before the first payment comes due. Meanwhile members of the nobility are well-nigh penniless; and in Hungary's present economic straits the amount of compensation they can expect in the future is small indeed.

The redistribution of these vast lands inevitably created a great deal of economic dislocation. Yet what the long-landless peasants accomplished in their first season of ownership is truly surprising. Most of the tools and machinery belonging on the estates disappeared in the chaos of war. Half of the nation's cattle and horses had been taken, or eaten up. Fertilizer was lacking. It was a fairly common sight last spring to see peasant men and women drawing ploughs themselves, since they possessed no draft animals. To a remarkable degree, the incentive of personal ownership compensated for lack of equipment. As a result, 70 percent of the prewar acreage was planted in 1946. Due to the disastrous drought, lasting all summer, the harvest in principal crops was reduced to about half the prewar level.

The Land Reform was accompanied by some excesses. In many places the peasants did not wait for the law to come into operation, but simply seized the land they had labored on all their lives and divided it up among themselves. In this they often violated a provision of the law against splitting up any parcel of 142 acres or less. Once they had the land in their grasp, they refused to budge. The Government then weakly amended the law, legalizing illegal seizures made before January 1, 1946.

According to government statistics some 1,422,000 acres of the nation's land were owned, as of 1935, by Roman Catholic orders and organizations; and since then only slight changes had occurred. How much of these large and rich properties has the Church lost, and what changes have the losses imposed upon Church organizations? To obtain an authoritative answer to these questions I journeyed to the ancient ecclesiastical center of Esztergom to consult the Primate of Hungary, Jozsef Cardinal Mindszenty. He received me in his magnificent Palace overlooking the Danube -- a slender and imposing figure with an ascetic face, swiftly intense speech and piercing dark eyes. Among Hungarians this extremely Magyar churchman has a reputation for great outspokenness, which is said sometimes to arouse criticism in the Vatican. (Parenthetically, about 60 percent of the Hungarian people are Catholics.)

Cardinal Mindszenty confirmed to me that the Roman Catholic properties expropriated under the Land Reform totalled 1,108,700 acres, or one-seventh of all the expropriated feudal estates. Somewhat more than half of these church lands had been forests; the remainder were agricultural. Thus the church lands had been reduced to something more than 300,000 acres. The seizure of the forests by the state was, in the Cardinal's opinion, chiefly a pretext, since "the people couldn't use the forests." I learned, however, that the coal and other mines owned by church orders often were located in the wooded lands. These, with the orchards and vineyards and tillable soil, had provided the chief support for church institutions for several centuries. Now this predominant source of church funds has been cut off.

But the Roman Catholic Church's source of support in Hungary has been reduced in other ways also. The large Hungarian landowners had always contributed generously and through taxes to church institutions. The new peasant owners of small parcels of land cannot make profits like those formerly netted on the great estates. Thus the second largest source of church support has also disappeared. The only income for church colleges, schools, monasteries and other activities now remaining comes from the taxes which Catholic parishioners traditionally pay, from their modest special contributions, and from state subsidies. It is evident that the agrarian revolution has stripped the Church of its ancient wealth quite as radically as it has stripped the nobility.

The favored position of the Roman Catholic Church under feudalism meant that parochial education was exceptionally widespread in Hungary. Over 50 percent of the elementary schools were operated by orders like the Benedictines, Jesuits and Cistercians and by female religious orders. In the villages, elementary schools were supported by local Catholic parents' organizations, though the government also contributed. Church-directed secondary schools and Catholic seminaries were likewise very numerous. These educational institutions were well equipped and housed, and their adequate or abundant funds enabled them to provide relatively large numbers of pupils with free tuition and many with free rooms and board. A similar situation existed in the Church universities and in other institutions for training teachers, priests and nuns. In general, church educational institutions were better off financially than almost any others in the country.

As a result of war and inflation, Catholic parents today are often too poor to supply their children even with the proper clothes to send them to a seminary or Church college. These institutions, in turn, have become so short of funds that free board or even free tuition is becoming impossible. Meanwhile there is agitation in Budapest for a sharp reduction in the number of religious educational institutions and an increase in non-sectarian state-supported schools. Thus the predominant educational position of the Church is, after many generations, being challenged both economically and in the name of modern democracy.

That this development was bound to come if land reform came was recognized early by many church leaders, who therefore opposed the breaking down of the great estates. During the decisive electoral campaign of 1945 Cardinal Mindszenty issued a pastoral letter in which he warned against "the vindictive nature" of the proposed land reform. I have heard a number of Hungarian Catholics say that the Cardinal, in defending the old order so ardently, committed a serious tactical error. He seemed to be denying the need for a redistribution of the land. Even the strongly Catholic peasants could not agree with that, and voted overwhelmingly the other way.

There are other changes in the situation of the Roman Catholic Church in Hungary. Until the Nazis closed down its publications in October 1944 there existed no less than 17 Catholic daily papers and more than 40 weekly or monthly publications. The postwar government has ruled that only political parties can publish daily newspapers. As a result the Church is now limited to two weekly publications. As with the land, the pendulum has swung from one great extreme to the other.

A Hungarian who has followed every aspect of the land reform with close attention made this comment to me: "I am a good Catholic and I think it is sad that church lands had to be taken. But I believe the Church renders a greater service where it is poor. In the course of the past century French Catholicism has demonstrated this most impressively. Here in Hungary the Church could have done more for the common people, but its leaders always had one eye on their properties. Very often they hesitated to take any strong stand for the people, for fear the Government would expropriate their lands. I believe our Church now has a greater opportunity than before to serve the Hungarian people."

An official summary, prepared in the Hungarian Ministry of Agriculture and describing the land reform as virtually completed as of September 1, 1946, provides some interesting facts.

More than 34 percent of the present territory of Hungary has been redistributed. The total of expropriated and confiscated lands together is 7,962,000 acres. The key facts, however, are that 4,633,000 tillable acres have been redistributed and that 642,000 individuals and families have obtained separate parcels. Claims for 150,000 house plots were also legalized. As of the date mentioned, some 21,000 rightful claimants still awaited land allotments.

In spite of the foregoing, the number of landless peasants is still very large. The most needy categories of peasants were the hired farm hands and so-called agricultural laborers, and the owners of farm parcels so small that they were below subsistence levels (dwarf estates). In these three categories 584,000 persons received land. But according to 1930 census figures no less than 1,326,000 such persons were landless or in need of additional land. Consequently, for all the drastic provisions of the Land Reform, there remain today something like 750,000 peasants completely or largely unreached by the redistribution. The government summary frankly recognizes this insuperable obstacle -- that there is not nearly enough agricultural land in Hungary to go around. "In view of the small sizes of the new farms," it states, "only a fraction of the landless peasants will find work with landowners. Therefore the number of persons who neither own land nor have an opportunity to obtain agricultural work can be estimated at 100,000."

A second observation is equally discouraging: "In consequence of the large number of claimants, the average size of allocations hardly exceeded 7.1 acres . . . to landless peasants and farm laborers but 6.9 acres, and to owners of dwarf farms but 5.54 acres. This unfortunate circumstance had the result that the size of the majority of allotments is below the size required for the maintenance of an average peasant family."

The meaning of these hard facts is clear. It is recognized by agronomists that 12½ acres of average land constitute an absolute minimum upon which a farmer can make an adequate (subsistence) living for himself and family. Yet even after all the vast acreage of the former feudal estates has been liquidated there simply is not enough tillable soil for Hungary's impoverished peasants. As a result, the great majority even of those who have received land could not be given enough to bring them up to the security minimum of 12½ acres per individual. Some 109,000 farm hands may scrape by with their average of 11.9 acres. But 261,000 formerly landless agricultural workers could obtain an average of only 6.9 acres. The 213,000 dwarf farmers had their holdings augmented on an average by only 5.5 acres, leaving many of them short of a total of 12½ acres. Moreover, there remain perhaps 100,000 farm workers who cannot now hope to be employed on the small parcels of the new landholders.

All this means that several hundred thousands of peasant families must struggle desperately along with less than the average which would put them on a subsistence level. When they find that they simply cannot make ends meet, what then? And supposing the Czechs send back to Hungary some 300,000 Hungarians, mostly peasants, now living within Czech borders? How can these people possibly be given land or work?

The Hungarian agrarian problem thus is still far from solved. Hungarian specialists confess they see only two alternatives: farm coöperatives; or national collectivization of the land as in the Soviet Union.

Up to now there have been no signs that the Communist-dominated government in Budapest plans to introduce collectivization. But many Hungarians have their fingers crossed. In their view the Communist leaders must regard redistribution of the land as a prelude to eventual establishment of collective farms, just as it proved to be in the U.S.S.R. When the under-acred peasants have tried the impossible for some seasons, these persons expect a propaganda drive for collectivization. They say the Communists must certainly have the Soviet pattern of agrarian economy in the back of their minds. They ask if there is any way to avoid its application in Hungary.

In the opinion of democratic-minded agrarian experts in Budapest the only hope of staving off establishment of a Soviet land system in Hungary is by building up a strong and broad network of farm coöperatives. If the peasants could be persuaded and taught to pool their work, resources and marketing -- dividing equitably their group profits -- certainly a much greater measure of rural prosperity would be achieved. But the wise preachments in favor of a coöperative movement fall for the most part on very resistant ears. The task of selling the coöperative idea to peasants who have just got legal ownership of a piece of land for the first time, and after their forebears had been land-starved for centuries, is a colossal job. The Magyar peasant rates among the most confirmed of "rugged individualists" on earth. He has an acute distrust of anything "big people" or city folk -- feudal landlords or government representatives -- may propose for his benefit. He is convinced he knows better than anyone else how to grow his crops. He wants to grow what he wants to grow, and when and how he wants to. If he has good horses and good ploughs, why share them with his neighbor? Pooled marketing? Why trust some other peasant, as community representative, to get better prices than he himself could get?

In order to promote a large-scale coöperative farm movement three things are necessary: sizable government funds; a broad educational program; and a farming folk sufficiently enlightened to be receptive. In present-day Hungary all three of these conditions are lacking, and none of them can be secured except over a period of years of concentrated, planned effort.

The newly-created little farms do not have the benefit of modern machinery -- tractors, threshing machines, reapers and the like. The feudal landlords seldom bothered to modernize their equipment. What has become commonplace to Russian peasants on the great Soviet collective farms remains utterly unknown to most Hungarians. They have always planted and harvested the hard, long, now outmoded way. Unless large groups of them pool their resources in collectives they cannot possibly afford tractors and reapers.

When you go out into the Hungarian provinces and inspect these miniature new farms and old-fashioned tools, and when you consider the crusty individualism of the peasants who work them, you wonder how coöperatives can possibly win out against such odds. In the long view collectivization after the Soviet pattern would seem a much more probable final solution. But Magyars who know the Magyar character and the peasant nature thoroughly are nevertheless convinced the Hungarian peasants would resist collectivization with bloodshed. They insist it could only be imposed by force.

The question arises whether the Budapest Communists, backed by the Soviets, are quietly waiting for a propitious moment to introduce collectivization. So far their astute leader, Matthias Rakosi, has maintained a discreet silence; but he and his colleagues are regarded by their fellow-countrymen as Leninist-Stalinists who adhere very closely to the Moscow pattern and policy on every major issue. As ardent Marxists, they must necessarily be expected to envisage collectivization at the opportune moment. There seems no reason to suppose that the Soviet Government favors a different agrarian goal in Hungary or Rumania or Bulgaria than in its own neighboring homeland.

Thus the Hungarian Land Reform poses a question of very great political and sociological importance. Pointing to what happened to Russia's peasants in the first decade after the Bolshevik Revolution, observers feel that the liquidation of the big feudal landlords will prove simply the interim stage before collectivization. This viewpoint has been bolstered in recent weeks by the charges of "plots" made by Hungarian Communists and by their arrest of many deputies and members of the Smallholders Party. If this majority party can be split, Communist control of the Budapest Government might easily become almost absolute. In such circumstances collectivization of the land would seem a step nearer. Yet it still would risk peasant opposition and unpredictable disorders.

On the other hand, the worst drought in this century dealt a terrible blow to the newly-landed little farmers last summer, and now they have had a hungry, bitter winter. Tilling their inadequate parcels of soil, they are likely year by year to become increasingly more disillusioned. In this sense time puts a strong wind into Marxist collectivization sails.

A prominent professor of economics in Budapest assured me that Hungary's present tillable acres could produce twice as much in crops -- thereby supporting the present population at a much higher level -- if the country's farming were placed upon a modern, scientific basis. "Under the big landowners," he said, "Hungary's agriculture was very badly handled. Little money was spent on modern improvements. Vast acreages were permitted to decline or revert to pasture when they could no longer produce a fair crop. The average weight of produce per acre in Hungary is much below the European average. Irrigation is urgently needed. Much land could be put back into productivity if this were provided."

But how are hundreds of thousands of ill-educated former farm hands and former tenant farmers to learn the importance of such measures? And where would they get the capital, acting individually? Only an ambitious government program for coöperatives and a large-scale state-supported modernization project could make real progress in this direction. The Government's serious financial situation prohibits this. It will continue to prohibit it without western loans. But these in turn are prohibited by current Soviet policies in the Danubian countries.

Hungary's long-needed Land Reform thus emerges as an ironical and confounding paradox. The indefensible abuses of the feudal system have been removed but have been replaced with equally great problems. More than 600,000 peasants have land at last, or a little more land than the little they previously had; but they still do not have the decent and adequate livelihood of which they dreamed. Independent ownership of a few precious acres cannot begin to provide them with real or complete independence. If there were sufficient time, the coöperative way might bring them salvation and the first democracy they had ever known.

But the Danubian peoples are caught in the very center of a stern political and ideological struggle for the mastery of their destinies. Contrasted with this present intense struggle the period between the wars was one of relative tranquillity. Looking back, we see that it offered a unique opportunity for the establishment of a truly democratic agrarianism based upon broad individual ownership of the land. In Hungary that opportunity was not taken. Today it has dwindled to a shadow of what it was in the 1920's and 1930's.

[i]Cf. "Hungary," by C. A. Macartney. London: Benn, 1934, p. 231.

[ii] For details see Macartney, ibid., p. 240-243.

[iii]Cf. "The Land and Its Owners: The Management of Farms in Hungary," by Jules de Konkoly Thege, President of the Royal Hungarian Central Bureau of Statistics, Journal de la Société Hongroise de Statistique, April-October, 1936.

[iv]Cf. M. W. Fodor, "Plot and Counter-Plot in Central Europe." Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1937.

[v] For the complete list see Chapter VII of the author's "While Time Remains." (Knopf, 1946.)

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  • LELAND STOWE, for some years foreign correspondent of the New York Herald Tribune; later correspondent of the Chicago Daily News in Finland, the Balkans, the Far East and Soviet Russia; author of "Nazi Means War" and "While Time Remains"
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