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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 4:77–82.


Peoples and Nations in the Habsburg Monarchy


Historians usually take 1526 as the beginning of the Danubian Habsburg Monarchy, for in that year King Louis II of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia died while fleeing after the disastrous Battle of Mohács. First the Bohemian estates, then toward the end of the same year the Hungarian estates, and finally the Croatian estates elected the Austrian ruler, Ferdinand, as king.

His election emerged out of the prevailing political situation and seemed a stopgap. The majority of the Hungarian estates basically favoured electing a native king, János Zápolya. But it was far from unusual in Europe at that time for a monarch to rule a country inhabited by peoples speaking a variety of languages. The notion of “one country, one language” appeared in a far later phase of history. It was not as if peoples with different, mutually incomprehensible languages found it any easier to communicate with one another in those days. In fact they had far less opportunity to do so than was the case later, on the other hand, the ruling classes invariably had a common language, understood and used by all, and in the case of the new Danubian state that language was Latin.

The union of Hungary and Bohemia under a single ruler was even less of a new phenomenon. It had occurred frequently since the time of Sigismund, king and emperor, in the previous century. In the same period, the Polish king had ruled over the Lithuanians and Ukrainians, and the ruling family itself was of Lithuanian origin.

So whatever difficulties the election of Ferdinand in 1526 may have brought about, it caused no one any problems that his state contained Germans, Bohemians, Hungarians, and Croats. Ferdinand knew about that as well, since he had occasional official connections with their aristocracies and nobilities. It is less certain whether he knew that Slovenes lived in some Austrian provinces and Slovaks in the northern counties of Hungary. During the wars against the Turks, a great many South Slavs fled and settled in the Austrian realm. After the liberation of Hungary from Turkish occupation at the end of the seventeenth century, the number of different peoples grew immensely. The annexation of Transylvania, besides augmenting the Hungarian and German populations, brought into the empire Romanians, who in all probability formed a majority in the Transylvanian principality. The former border areas between Hungary and Transylvania were inhabited by a contiguous block of Ruthenians, the Transcarpathian Ukrainians of today. Although the areas the Turks had occupied were abandoned by the Turks and several other peoples after the liberation, a considerable South Slav population remained; during the liberation further sizable groups of Serbs settled on Hungarian territory, where they even obtained certain privileges. The movement of peoples from the Balkans into the calmer lands of the monarchy continued even into the eighteenth century. South Slavs, Armenians, and Greeks also came in large numbers.

There were changes in the western provinces as well. After the Spanish House of Habsburg became extinct, the Austrian Habsburgs attempted to acquire the Spanish inheritance. They failed to do so, but they did inherit various Italian states and provinces, and after several territorial exchanges, the northern part of Italy, with a considerable Italian population, came into their hands.

When the first partitions of Poland took place in 1773, the empire expanded further in the north, obtaining Galicia and its Polish and Ukrainian populations. Meanwhile, Venice and Dalmatia were acquired in 1797, raising the numbers of Italians and South Slavs again. By the early nineteenth century, the number of peoples could be counted as twelve or thirteen, including the Greeks and the Armenians, or fourteen if the Ruthenians are not included among the Ukrainians.

The very uncertainty of the actual number reflects a deep-rooted problem, which by then had to be acknowledged by Vienna as well.

It was at this time that the process began through which modern bourgeois nations were formed and national awareness was engendered among those who spoke the same language, principally among the newly developing intelligentsia. They were the “awakeners” who proclaimed the existence of the nation and the spread of national awareness the primary task. This was particularly characteristic of the smaller peoples, but it took place in one form or another among all of them.

It should also be remembered that it was uncertain which peoples would reach that stage – which would become a modern nation – and which would not. The Slovaks came very close to becoming part of the Czech nation, and in the case of the Slovenes it seemed quite probable that they would be assimilated into the neighbouring, stronger block of Croats.

At this point it is worth saying a few words about assimilation. In the language of historians, assimilation denotes the phenomenon by which some of the members of a people or nation become part of another nation and adopt the latter’s language and national awareness. Least threatened by this process were the masses of the peasantry, since they fell far outside the mainstream of development, and their coming to awareness of nationhood took a long time. But assimilation was fairly common in areas with mixed populations, and particularly in towns. The smaller peoples wedged in among other ethnic groups were least able to resist. It was in this way that the Greeks and Armenians of Central Europe disappeared.

Here and there, the idea of accelerating assimilation by education or other means emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century. The Hungarian nobility would have been pleased to see the whole population of the country become Hungarian, and the Poles in Galicia similarly favoured the idea of the Ukrainians becoming Polish. But such wishes never went as far as concerted action, and little was achieved then, and not much more later on. Of course natural, voluntary assimilation continued, mainly because it was usually accompanied by an opportunity to advance socially. A Czech or Slovene who became a German, a Ukrainian who became a Pole, or a Slovak or Romanian who declared himself a Hungarian were able to obtain greater social prestige and better jobs.

There are quite a few examples showing that assimilation was generally voluntary and not initiated from above. Those who had become assimilated suddenly realized that they belonged to a different nation whose language they had almost forgotten. There were Czechs or Slovenes for whom it was a great deal easier to write in German, yet they became “awakeners” of their nations. One can hardly consider István Széchenyi, the man who became known as “the greatest Hungarian”, as a German, even though that was the language in which he wrote most of his diary. The father of the famous Hungarian poet Sándor Petőfi (born Petrovics) was a Serb, while his mother was a Slovak. A few people did try to awaken a Slav national awareness in him, whereas there are no traces of his being forced to become Magyarized.

After the bourgeois revolution of 1848, the beginning of capitalist development accelerated these processes. Undoubtedly there were attempts at forced assimilation; these were often initiated by the state. But they succeeded in doing little else than arousing protest. Capitalist development increased mobility; movement into the cities and the formation of the working class (mainly out of peasants, alongside former artisans) significantly modified the proportions between the national groups. In 1873, when Buda, Óbuda, and Pest were united to form Budapest, the city was in practice a German town, full of Slovak construction workers and groups speaking various other languages. But in the years leading up to the World War I everyone in Budapest could speak Hungarian, and the majority declared themselves to be Hungarians.

Again at the beginning of the capitalist period, another significant change took place in the national composition of the Monarchy. After the lost battles of 1859 and 1866, the Monarchy was shorn of the Lombard-Venetian kingdom, so that the number of Italians in the Monarchy fell considerably. Only in South Tirol, Istria, and Dalmatia were relatively large groups of Italians still remaining.

Let us turn to something more specific, to figures showing the Monarchy’s ethnic composition, the result of the 1910 census (with figures rounded to the nearest thousand):

Since I do not wish to overburden the reader with dry statistics, I shall not list the data for Hungary alone. Moreover, it is worth pointing out that in 1910 less than ten million out of the eighteen million inhabitants of Hungary excluding Croatia (i.e., north of the river Drava), 54,5%, were Hungarians, whereas in 1880 the Hungarians in Hungary (still without Croatia) had amounted to only 46,6%. Two other figures also show the trend to assimilation: in 1880 the proportion of Germans was 13,6%, in 1910 it was 10,4%. The corresponding figures for the Slovaks were 13,5 and 10,7%, respectively.

It is often said that the 1910 census cannot be considered authentic, since non-Hungarians were put under strong pressure. There certainly is an element of truth in that, and statistics are inclined to embroider the facts. But they could hardly show a marked deviation from the actual situation. It is more probable that many of those who declared themselves Hungarian in 1910 out of self-interest or various other considerations found it more to the purpose after 1918 to declare themselves Romanians or Slovaks. The figure 54,4% Hungarians, and even more so the 48,1% figure if Croatia was included, was fairly near the actual situation.

The 1910 data can also serve as a basis of comparison, since the process of becoming a nation had ended; even the inhabitants of the remotest villages were clear in one war or another about the nation to which they belonged.

Karl Renner, an Austrian Socialist leader and theoretician of the period, wrote his book on the national problems of the monarchy at this time. The Struggle of the Nations for the State is a perfect title: each nation indeed wanted to be part of the state; moreover, each aimed to form a nation-state of its own.

Obviously it was not only the numerical proportion of a nation that was important in the battle. A nation’s internal structure and economic and political weight were also of great importance.

A source of significant differences was whether or not a nation had a ruling class of feudal origins, although it was not so fundamentally important in the capitalist period as before the bourgeois revolution. The most important posts in the state administration were held by the Austro-German, Hungarian, Polish, or Croatian nobilities, or rather aristocracies (the first including the Czech aristocracy, which had largely become Austrianized); from these, the common ministers and most of the ministers of the two governments were also chosen. In Hungary all the ministers, except one representing the Croatians, were Hungarians; they were almost exclusively aristocrats or of the petty nobility. Austria always had one or two Czech ministers (and Polish too, of course); these were mostly of bourgeois origin. In social structure, the Czechs were the most “capitalist” nation, with a large, strong, self-conscious bourgeoisie and also a sizable working class. The only other nation with a similar social structure was German (Austrians). Of the smaller nations, the Slovaks and the Serbs were the most developed with respect to the weight of their modern social classes and strata, although in each the most sizable stratum was still the peasantry. The Slovenes were more backward, and the Romanians and Ukrainians, with their very high proportions of peasantry, were even more so. Apart from the Czechs, no other smaller nation had a strong and wealthy bourgeoisie; in their case the modern class had mainly been formed out of workers and of the urban petty bourgeoisie.

The strength of the nations in their struggle with one another was determined by their numbers and their social structures. What was the aim of that struggle? To make a rough generalization, the issue was whether they would remain within the framework of the monarchy, become independent nation-states, or join existing nation-states outside the monarchy’s borders.

Nevertheless, the situation was more complex before 1914. Certainly, neither the Hungarians, nor the Slovenes thought of splitting away. At most they strove to strengthen or to establish their own statehoods. The Italians and the Serbs wished to join their own nation-states, and that more or less was the case with the Romanians as well. In the short run, until the prospects for the establishment of a Polish state should arise, the Poles accepted the prevailing situation. The Ukrainians had rather similar feelings, since from the national point of view they were far better off than the Ukrainians in Russia. The Czechs had the whole market of the monarchy at their disposal and so were hesitant; the Croatians aimed to accomplish South Slav unity under their own leadership, and for a long time it seemed more realistic to try to do so within the monarchy. The Germans still clung to being German, i.e., to their belonging to the German nation, but they also accepted the status quo in the short run, since they could consider Austria a second German state.

And that brings us to the heart of the matter. The Germans and the Hungarians were satisfied with the prevailing situation, the Dual Monarchy, but it was only they who were so satisfied. Those who accepted the monarchy’s framework temporarily, or even in the long term, demanded significant modifications, a real emancipation of all nations, not only in the clauses of the constitution or the Act on the Rights of Nationalities. Since the prevailing dual structure was unsuited to such a federal transformation, the explosive dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy that followed the trials of World War I was inevitable.