Background in History


The Great Depression in 1929, left Wall Street and traveled all around the globe. The Hungarian economy, like most European economies, relied on international credit, therefore disaster was inevitable. All the progress made up to that point, during the consolidation by the Bethlen government, was shattered, dragging the prime minister down. The crisis was accompanied by mass unemployment, falling wages, and farmers losing their land – factors that promoted political extremism. In Germany, Hitler took advantage and quickly seized power. In Hungary, the radical antisemitic right also gained strength but they failed to attain a dominant political position until 1944.


After a brief governorship by Pál Teleki, Count István Bethlen took office as Prime Minister in 1921. The task Count Bethlen was facing, was enormous: the economic, social, and political consolidation of the country. The costs of the four-year-long war and the Romanian invasion (including systematic looting and executions), the Red and then the White Terror, the unstoppable inflation, and the long-term consequences of the Trianon treaty were burdens of an unprecedented scale on a state that had been on the verge of total disintegration only a short time before.

By the mid-1920s, the economic structure had been adapted to the new conditions imposed by Trianon. In 1924, the Hungarian National Bank was established, and in 1927 new currency was introduced, as a sure sign of stabilization. Significant recovery followed in the second half of the decade which led to political and social consolidation. The establishment of the social security system in 1927-28 was particularly important. By the end of the decade, living standards had risen markedly and unemployment had fallen to a low level. By 1930, however, the Great Depression had reached Hungary.

Economic growth stagnated, production fell, unemployment, and social tension increased, contributing to the rise of extremist political tendencies. The extreme right-wing parties, which had received few votes in the 1931 elections, grew stronger and gained more influence during the decade.


The First World War and Trianon also transformed society. The proportion of people with Hungarian ethnicity jumped to 90%, at the same time increasing the ratio of Roman Catholics and people of Reformed religion. The proportion of Jews rose to an outstanding 5-6% which was an outstanding number in comparison to other European countries. The role of women in society began to change. This process had begun long before the First World War but accelerated during the war years. The barrier previously excluding women from mass employment and education, was breached. The educated and self-sufficient, modern woman appeared in Hungary as well. The first newspapers promoting Western ideals of women were born, such as “A dolgozó asszonyok lapja” (The Journal of Working Women) and “Magyar Női Szemle” (Hungarian Women’s Review). However, conservative trends sought to curb the emergence of emancipation, both in political participation and in higher education. The largest conservative women’s organization of the era, the National Association of Hungarian Women, with hundreds of thousands of members, led by the writer Cécile Tormay, proclaimed that women should remain focused on motherhood and family life.

With the influx of intellectuals from annexed territories, related careers became oversaturated after Trianon. The dominance of Jewry in the intellectual sphere had long been at the center of antisemitic politics. By the 1920s it had been complemented by the narrative that the former Hungarian Soviet Republic was „Jewish rule”. The public mood was significantly influenced by the agitation of far-right groups demanding the „de-Jewification” of economic and cultural life. In this context, Europe’s first antisemitic law, the Numerus Clausus, was passed, limiting the number of Jewish students who could be admitted to universities. While Bethlen sought to promote the return to normality, and although he himself was not antisemitic, he did not touch the Numerus Clausus for a long time. The proportion of Jewish students in universities fell to 6%, which, coupled with the wave of emigration, deprived the country of considerable intellectual capital.


An important part of the consolidation was education- and cultural policy, which was conceived in the spirit of conservative modernization and Christian nationalist neo-nationalism. After 1924, 14.4% of the budget was spent on public education. This proportion, which remained unchanged until the mid-Second-World War years, was unprecedentedly high by international standards and reflected the prominent role of education policy. Under the grand concept of Count Kunó Klebelsberg, the Minister of Religion and Public Education, rural schools were expanded on a massive scale (including the founding of 3 500 farm schools), and gymnasiums, universities, scientific research centers, and foreign institutes were established. Rural education was also supported by people’s colleges, which were often organized bottom-up.

University education was of high quality. Expelled from the annexed territories, the University of Pozsony (later Bratislava) was moved to Pécs, while the University of Kolozsvár (later Cluj) was relocated to Szeged. In the meantime, the University of Debrecen continued to develop. In the period between the two world wars, several famous scientists were active at Hungarian universities. For example, Albert Szent-Györgyi returned from Cambridge to Szeged at Klebelsberg’s invitation and was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1937 for his discovery of the components and reactions of the citric acid cycle (isolating vitamin C). Zoltán Bay, a physicist and one of the inventors of radar, and György Békésy, a biophysicist and later Nobel Prize winner worked at the University of Budapest (Bay and Békésy emigrated to the United States after 1945).


At the core of the Horthy era was the pervasive presence of revisionist thought aiming at getting back the territories lost by the Trianon treaty based on national sentiment. This main idea was associated with the attempt to discredit all kinds of left-wing thought, identifying them with the Jewry. The trenches in public life were wide between „urbanist” and „populist” camps. This antagonism was complex and presented a lasting division in intellectual life.

„Populists” were interested in the peasantry and their authentic folk culture. An important phenomenon of the 1930s was the „village research” movement, influenced by Dezső Szabó, Endre Ady, and Zoltán Kodály. University students, writers, and sociologists visited villages and farms to learn about the living conditions and the culture of the poor peasantry. On a different track „urbanists” favored western ideas and values. The radical leftist avant-garde was organized around Lajos Kassák, editor of the journals „Ma” (Today) and „Munka” (Labour). In the meantime, the Hungarian Communist Party kept on operating in illegality.

Cultural life was characterized by diversity. Hundreds of national and local daily and weekly newspapers and periodicals were published. In literary life, the traditionalist national line was represented by Ferenc Herczeg, among others, and the modern bourgeois trend was represented by the journal „Nyugat” (West), in operation since 1908, with Mihály Babits as its head. In contrast, the literary journal „Napkelet” (Orient), edited by the antisemitic Cécile Tormay, defined itself in opposition to western influence on literature. The 1920s saw the emergence of Hungarian film as well, with help from the state. In 1931, the first Hungarian sound film was shown in the café of the Royal Apollo Hotel, soon followed by the first big hit, the comedy „Hyppolit, the Butler”. There were several Hungarian filmmakers who emigrated to the United States and were instrumental in making the famous film studios of Hollywood (William Fox, Adolph Cukor, Alexander Korda). In musical life, Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók were influential. Operetta was a popular genre, as was gypsy music, an essential part of life in cafés at the time.


At the beginning of the 1920s, it was not yet clear in what direction the Numerus Clausus, the first Jewish law, would lead. However, during Gyula Gömbös’s prime ministership (1932-36), there was a significant shift to the right, compared to the previous conservative-liberal parliamentarian rule. Gömbös called for an authoritarian government, a homogeneous national society, and a „unified Hungarian worldview”, and promised social reforms. He sought to bring the country out of the economic crisis in a way parallel with the authoritarian regimes of Italy, Germany, and Austria that had emerged in the first half of the 1930s.

Under Gömbös, the idea of race came to the fore. The first Jewish law of 1938 stipulated that no more than 20 percent of the jobs in independent intellectual professions (e.g. doctors, lawyers, journalists) could be occupied by people of Jewish origin. Exempted from the law were those who had won honors in the First World War and the counter-revolution or had been baptized before August 1919. Non-Jewish Hungarian artists and intellectuals (among them Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, Zsigmond Móricz, Lajos Zilahy, and István Csók) protested the law in writing, to no avail. The second Jewish Law on the Restriction of the Public and Economic Occupation of the Jewish People, passed in May 1939, capped the proportion of Jews in intellectual chambers at 6%, reinstating the numerus clausus (banning Jews from universities) and prohibiting them from holding public office.


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