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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 19:151–159.


Areas, Regions and Settlements in Hungary*


The three frameworks are treated separately only by researchers since their examination requires different methods. In reality, we are present in all three of these at the same time, in the area, the region and the settlement. In the activities of society there are simultaneous influences derived from the environment, the region and the local settlements. The examination of these influences helps us to understand the reasons for the variations in life styles, in the composition of culture, in the performance of the economy and the value system of families in various parts of the small territory of our country. The reasons for the variations may be found in the different resources, possibilities and obstacles available for local settlements which demand different ways of adaptability, and provide different opportunities for the people living there during their history. Some of the differences appear to be drawbacks; unfavourable geographic location, or areas where the soil is less productive. The absence of urban areas provides limits for economic opportunities which, in turn, place obstacles in the way of finding employment and income. Such unfavourable situations damage the social system; educated youngsters leave the area, the population of such settlements become aged, people of working-age are unskilled and they are unable to operate a knowledge-based economy. Disadvantages are multiplying, and they can be modified only slowly and with great difficulties; frequent politically motivated promises for “quick catching-up,” for “levelling of differences” are without foundation. The differences – including the disadvantages – were not created by political mistakes, but by regular economic activities; politics concerning regional development can only be employed to limit the disadvantages considered unacceptable by society. A program for catching-up may also be successful but only in the long-run, measured not by governmental cycles, but by generations.

On the other hand, territorial differences could also have their value. The variety of regional differences not only provides different economic resources, but also a multi-colored culture, differences in territorial distribution, and various customs of operation of the respective communities. The natural environment is not only an economic resource, but it also leaves its imprint on our way of thinking, practices concerning our adaptation to nature – and even on our aesthetic ideas, our sensing of distances and the shape of local cultures. “Great Plain, you are beautiful, at least beautiful for me,” acknowledged Petőfi, the poet, and this means the recognition that for him, a man of the Great Plain of Hungary, the open spaces, the small changes of the land, meant beauty, while a man of the Transdanubia considers the undulating land, the sight of hills over the horizon to be more beautiful.


Hungarian Landscapes – Through the Eyes of Society

The first part of our book introduces the Hungarian landscape, but without the meticulousness of physical geography. Rather, we intend to present a view through the eyes of society living on its lands, reflecting its usefulness, beauty, its role of shaping history. We cannot provide too many details. Accordingly, we shall divide the territory of the country into four areas; the Great Plain (containing almost half of the entire land-mass of the country), the Small Plain, Transdanubia on the right bank of the Danube River, and the Northern Middle Mountains. The state borders cut through each of these areas and they continue into neighbouring countries – this explains the similarity of their territories – and, hopefully, will make the forging of social/economic relations easier in the future.

The elements shaping the landscape are varied even within these larger areas but several smaller and medium-sized landscapes show markedly different characteristics. The elements shaping the landscape consist, first of all, of natural resources, determining the size of human settlements and the character of their activities, and they are also playing an important role in shaping local culture. The most important factors are the methods of land usage – arable lands and forestry, grazing, or growing grapes and fruits – these are followed by the presence of mineral riches and, lately, considerations of the value of lands of limited usage while protecting nature and the land’s cultural and aesthetic value. Geographic location can easily be determined by the employment of topographical data based on latitudinal and longitudinal values; such locations may possess economic advantages, geopolitical drawbacks, the opportunity of integration into a larger territorial entity, or a location in the peripheries.

The identification of human beings with a given territory is the strongest in the case of their settlement, with the small area of their lives providing immediate life experiences. Not many people will say that they are from southern Transdanubia, but many will explain that they are from Sellye or Göcsej. And when someone admits that he is from Göcsej, this does not simply mean a location, but identification with a certain natural landscape, with its history experienced by many generations, the settlement or urban surroundings of its landscape, with its customs and social values, with the respective person’s place in society and local culture. All these are independently valid and different than the units of statistical or governmental registration. The experiences of a life in the territory in question are not related to the artificial divisions of the respective area. Therefore, the borders of a particular landscape are never precise as geographic and ethnic boundaries never correspond, and the borders recognized in the hearts and minds of the inhabitants of local societies are manifold.


Arguments about the Role of Regions

The second territorial unit is the region. Similarly to the landscape, this is also an area of land with borders, but the borders are established by principles of state-organization, not by natural-historical forces. The region is a well-known concept of geography, yet it is a new idea in Hungarian public discourse – the division of the territory of the country into regions is the product of legal actions of the 1990’s. (From the 1970’s on, long-term economic planning used the concept of regions, which were then called districts – for economic planning.) The concept became part of public discourse because the role of the regions in the European Union (that is, of territorial units within the nation-states) is very strong, and one may frequently read about the “Europe of regions,” about the significant exertions to mitigate – in significant financial terms – the differences in economic disadvantages among regions. There are a good number of disputes going on in Hungary and our book informs about the results of significant researches (whose results are disputable, as all such findings should be). The bases of disputes may be found in the fact that the very existence of regions, their boundaries and their role within the state, are uncertain. There is no such thing as regionalism in our country in the sense that there is no unit of territory (county or group of counties) whose people would demand autonomy within the state, and whose inhabitants would be bound by strong, common, ethnic- or social-cultural identities. For this reason the concept of regions is an abstract idea for most of their inhabitants, and civil society does not really participate in the disputes concerning their emergence.

In the territory of the current European Union (in the “Europe of the Regions,”) the nation-states have emerged in the course of the 18th -19th centuries. They were created from previously independent political formations (counties, princedoms, city-states) that previously had their own languages and cultures, and had then been integrated or assimilated into a larger whole. Unified Italy assimilated Lombardy and Sicily, a united Germany included Saxony and Westphalia, the unified Spain absorbed Castille and Catalonia, etc. Forced unification sometimes claimed local languages and cultures as its victims, but it did not erase Catalonian, Breton, Bavarian or Scottish identities. In the sub-continental framework of integration of the European Union, these old territorial units were reawakened, and their historical regions provide the basic network of the ”Europe of the regions.” These regions have existed in the consciousness of their peoples, in their cultures, in their historical memories and often in their own languages (their slangs) for a thousand years.

It is well known that East Central Europe has approached the establishment of nation-states along a different path; they emerged not through integration, but through dissolution, by the mutilation of multination-states operating on its territory or, in the case of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, by complete dismemberment. The formation of these nation-states had occurred in the 20th century and it seems that the process will continue in the 21st. (In the Balkans or even in Eastern Europe.) The first wave of the establishment of nation-states has occurred after the conclusion of the First World War, not as the result of the work of local forces, but as the consequence of geopolitical considerations by the great powers. The maps of the nation-states of East Central Europe were drawn up by forces from outside the area, and not only the losers were unable to protest, but even the victors were deprived of their right to have a word in the distribution of their spoils. Two new states were created from territories that had never included the area of any one state, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, and they could by no means be called nation-states. After the Second World War, no new nation-states were created there, but borders had been significantly altered, once again through outside intervention. (For instance, “moving Poland Westward.”) The other great wave followed the collapse of the system of state socialism in 1989, during which twenty-six new states took the place of the previous eight (including the Asiatic republics of the former Soviet Union.) However, this time around the new states were formed through local initiatives, reflecting the interaction of local forces. From the point of view of regionalism, the conclusion is obvious; there are no historical regions – or they exist as an exception – in these new nation-states. These regions have been repeatedly distributed and redistributed in the course of the 20th century and were included within the borders of various nation-states. The nation-states are reluctant to provide any sort of administrative borders for the historical or ethnic regions for fear of the emergence of separatist movements. It was not accidental that the past several decades have witnessed continuous changes in administrative boundaries in Central Europe. Only the county system of Hungary has remained practically unchanged.

There is practically no personal sentimental attachment to regions in Hungary – although such may be created by practical considerations. Could these attachments include the process of developing the territories, or units of statistical measurements, or new governmental units? A process in which the counties would be diminished or even replaced? What sort of autonomy should their administration have? These questions constitute matters for dispute today. One thing is certain; the European Union does not dictate the establishment of the forms of administrative divisions for its member states, and joining the Union does not require any sort of reform in these matters. (The current member states exhibit all sorts of territorial administrative varieties.) It is also true that the cooperation of the currently existing seven regions in Hungary is being severely weakened by the fact that a culture of cooperation among the counties hardly exists, and that their rivalries is a more traditional practice. Part of our book dealing with the regions provides help in this problem-area, of which we have heard a great deal in recent times, but which have been somewhat distorted. This will provide significant help in understanding the uneven development of territorial units in our small country, which have become more prominent during the last decades.


The Role of Settlements in Organizing the Utilization of the Economy, Culture and Space

The third space-shaping sphere, the settlement, may be described and analyzed from several points of view. It may be regarded as a technological unit, a social organization, part of the landscape, etc. Our approach is settlement geography; the idea is to connect the settlements with the landscape, with the history of land-usage, with economic-, cultural-, and space-organizing functions.

The settlement, according to the classic definition of Tibor Mendöl, is a territorial unit of living- and work-places. At the beginning of the Hungarian state this work-place was almost exclusively agricultural, included animal husbandry, or sometimes forestry and fishing. In other words, it meant the exploitation of resources provided by the natural environment. People who worked at these occupations established and built their settlements near their area of work. Among these settlements (later called villages) others were also established providing shelters for non-agricultural populations, whose tasks included defence, trade, governmental- and religious services – in one word, the towns. Neither the villages, nor the towns came accidentally into being at a given point in the land, but were the result of the interplay of forces of geographic energies. They were created because local conditions were suitable; the soil was productive, the land was workable, there were no floods, or the geographic location was favourable; they were established at river crossings, at the meeting of mountains and plains, at the exits of mountain passes, or on hills that could be protected.

Such settlement networks represent not only historical curiosities, and their influences can be demonstrated even today. For instance, this is evident in the network of villages established in Transdanubia whose origins go back to the Middle Ages; or in the fact that there is no significant Hungarian town younger than 600 years. It is possible that such towns grew to a large size as a consequence of the industrial revolution, but they have existed for centuries. In the description and explanation of the existence of the Hungarian settlement networks, settlement geography and settlement history are twin brothers. The 20th century brought about significant changes in shaping the settlement network of Hungary.

– 1 Two-thirds of the Hungarian population had lived in villages at the beginning of the century; by its end, two-thirds were city dwellers.

– 2 Border Changes following the First World War disrupted a settlement network that has existed for a long time, causing severe functional disturbances.

– 3 During the last quarter of the century, the characteristics of the connections between town and village have been transformed.


In earlier times the network of settlements consisted of villages existing in the spheres of attraction of towns. Today, the networks are more complex, the attraction among towns and cities is more prevalent; the same village may be attracted by several urban centers and the most backward villages fall outside urban connections. The functions of workplace and dwellings are more interrelated; a lot of people work at different settlements than the location of their dwellings.


Special Features of the Settlement Networks in Hungary

We want to call attention to two characteristics of the Hungarian settlement network. One of them is the emergence of Budapest from among the other Hungarian cities. Some people consider this a special phenomenon, in spite of the fact that it is a rather common one. The other is the settlement network of the Great Plain. We have been accustomed to it, but it represents many special features in international comparison.

Budapest is the country’s only internationally recognized large city. It stands out of the network of other cities in the country, not only because of the size of its population (it is eight time as large as the next city, Debrecen), but because of its unprecedented concentration of modern urban functions. The Hungarian capital city has been the engine of modernization in the Carpathian basin for two hundred years, the receptor and transmitter of technological, organizational and institutional innovations. Budapest participates in the competition among the Europe’s great cities. Competing with Vienna, Prague and sometimes with Warsaw, Budapest fulfils economic tasks that reach way beyond Hungary’s borders in Central Europe. During the 1990’s Budapest attracted two-thirds of significant foreign capital investments in Central Europe. We must also remember that the 1.8 million citizens of Budapest pay 40 percent of all taxes in a country of 10 million people.

Contrary to general opinion, we maintain that there is nothing unusual in the exceptional role being played by Budapest. In every relatively small country in Europe when, at the time of the birth of capitalism and the industrial revolution, strong central governments held power, the capital city grew more rapidly in economic power and the size of its population than other urban centers. Capital cities in Finland, Greece, Denmark, Slovakia, Portugal and Ireland fulfil similar roles as that of Budapest, although their history and economic development are vastly different. In small countries where the role of the network of cities is proportional, – there are no really great cities (as it is the case in Holland or Switzerland). Only in countries with large territories and populations can a hierarchy of cities develop (as, for instance, in France and Germany).

The future of Budapest had been decided at the time when the Hungarian industrial revolution took place in a country with a centralized government. Following the Ausgleich, (compromise) it was based upon an already advanced transportation network centering on the capital city. The Hungarian capital city experienced its most rapid development in its history during the period 1870-1919; its population increased (in its current territory) from 300,000 to 1 million. Of the great European cities only Berlin’s growth was more rapid. In 1910, Budapest was the seventh largest city in Europe, larger than Rome or Madrid. In 1910, the second largest Hungarian city, Szeged, had a population of 102,000, the third (Szabadka), had 98,000. (Therefore, the emergence of Budapest was not the result of the border changes of Trianon – although the urban centers left in the small country had no more chances for development into great cities.) A hundred years ago, Budapest has already been way ahead in development of the other cities of the country.

Superior cities – just as superior individuals – are seldom popular and they often arouse envy. Between 1870 and 1914, the Hungarian government considered the development of Budapest important (The Council of Public Works of the capital city has always been chaired by the Prime Minister of the country). Since the First World War, there have always been tensions between Budapest and the countryside. This attitude contains some envy, but it is without foundation; the functions which Budapest fulfils (being an international business center, the center of research and development are common tasks fulfilled by large urban centers), do not lend themselves for small-city competition. The overly centralized governments of the 20th century – especially the system of state socialism – have focused an especially large number of decision-making authorities in the capital city. This was rightfully resented by other rural towns and cities. We may note important changes that have occurred in this respect in the 1990’s – for instance, the enlargement of universities, the significant decision-making competence granted to local governments, the upgrading of local cultural institutions. But such developments have been slowed by the fact that capitalism in our days favours concentrations in large cities all over the world. Finally, it is a fact that lifestyles in Budapest – being the only really large city in the country – cause resentment because they differ so fundamentally from those in other cities. Because of the lateness and unevenness of general urbanization of Hungary, Budapest is one step ahead of the development of the majority of other cities. It has been a historical accident that the majority of Hungarian cities became urban centers during the period of state socialism, through industrialization occurring in formerly agricultural, commercial and administrative centers, where a real middle class had not developed. The middle class of employees possessed no autonomy to speak of in the socialist era, and therefore, had not developed a willingness for innovation or for independent initiatives. Anti-Budapest attitudes also represent fear of the challenges of modernization, feelings of inferiority in the face of innovations coming from Budapest, and lack of self assurance that is often unwarranted.

The settlement networks of the Great Plain are showing many peculiarities in comparison with international conditions. Giant villages and isolated dwellings exist side by side. There are giant villages in some areas of Southern Europe (for example in Sicily and South Spain), but their evolution fundamentally differ from those in Hungary. (In our country, people “converged” in better-protected large villages leaving smaller settlements during the Turkish occupation.) Isolated individual farms also became a general phenomenon in the northern and north-western areas of Europe, where the feudal system had disappeared early (in the 13th–14th centuries) and private peasant property rights had emerged. The isolated Hungarian dwellings were originally the satellite components of giant villages and market towns, the outside workplaces of peasant-citizens who lived in houses in the village or town. The urban centers of the Great Plain are also peculiar in the sense that their citizens are involved in agriculture either directly or indirectly, through trade in agrarian or animal products, or through education in agrarian practices, or the food industry. Their basic plans and structures differ from those of the Transdanubian or Central European cities. Their buildings are more distant, the width of their streets reminds one of earlier cattle drives. The traditions of the past of a peasant-citizenry continue to survive in their social structure, value system and customs, especially because modern urbanization came about without creating an urban citizenry during the socialist era. The cities of the Great Plain are much more inward-looking than urban centers in other areas of the country, since there are other market towns or giant villages nearby (like the series of cities in Nagykunság or the Hajdú regions), and they require few urban services.

Although the peculiarities of the settlements in the Great Plain originate in their late and uniquely modern urbanization, these cannot be considered simply as backward and ready for elimination. In fact, the settlement networks of the Great Plain reflect the landscape and the history of local societies – and this is a valuable element in our cultural heritage. There is a chance for the emergence of a modern economic system and knowledge-based society in the settlements of our Great Plain, helped by traditions of good schools, the relatively strong presence of nature in the inner urban areas and the large urban size available for the population.

Here is the stage of society; area, region, settlements. The life style, the social advancement of the individual are influenced by the location of his existence, the area in which he lives, the countryside, the village, or the city. Hungarian society is differentiated, beyond social stratification and demographic differences, by the characteristic differences in the geography of the landscape. These differences are long-lasting and they are not easy to change. Local characteristics do not simply provide advantages or disadvantages, but also cultural values that are worth preserving.


* Introduction to the book “Táj, település, régió” (Budapest: Kossuth/MTA Társadalomkutató Központ, 2002)