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Schriftenreihe des Europa Institutes Budapest, Band 10:47–71.


Culture in Hungary during World War I


The term, “culture” is amorphous. Not surprisingly, dictionaries offer varied definitions for it.1 One way to circumvent the amorphousness of the term is to divide it into low-, high-, and intermediate categories. But such fragmentation is artificial. It takes away the subtle interrelations that exist in real life. Consequently, culture should be described as a whole, its components subtly shading into one another, almost mysteriously, combining individuals into families, neighbourhoods and, finally, nations.

Culture is like a fine Persian carpet; its intricate individual patterns provide for the completeness and beauty of the whole. Take away a pattern – or even part of it – and it is no longer a carpet. Put it in another way, civilization is but the external condition of modern man; culture, on the other hand, is his soul, his spirit.

Therefore, it would be somewhat misleading, if this essay were to divide Hungarian culture during the First World War into “high” and “low” segments. If one can speak of divisions – some of which did indeed exist –, these would be running along rural and urban lines both containing plenty of “high” and “low” elements. Yet, these parts were interdependent and often complimentary. One of the best examples of such interdependence was the fact that all social hierarchies2 in Hungary ate the same kinds of food. It was true that, for instance, chickenpaprikash was prepared in a coarser way in the villages than in the cities, and the better-to-do ate more of it than the poor. Nevertheless, the same kind of food was consumed by peasants and aristocrats alike.3 One should remember that Hungarian culture was, in many ways, similar to the cultures of the surrounding East European peoples. This was ensured not only by the ethnic composition of the Hungarian state, but also by the fact that Hungarians freely intermarried with other ethnic groups. However, this is a subject matter that needs exploration in another essay.

If categories must be set up – and this can hardly be avoided – they will be pursued under concepts of “rural” and “urban” cultures. Rural culture in Hungary was, on the whole, more traditional than its urban counterpart. This meant reliance on a host of village customs derived from centuries of community life. But innovation and efforts at modernization were not lacking, especially in the rural towns that dotted the countryside.4

In 1914, Hungary included a diverse population with several nationalities (Rumanians, Serbs, Carpato-Ukrainians, Germans) and three future nations, (Croatians, Slovaks, and Slovenes). Ethnic Hungarians made up more than half of the total population of twenty million people. Yet I cannot deal with the cultures of the various nationalities and nations in this essay for lack of space. Therefore only Hungarian culture will be the subject of this study.

The fact must also be mentioned – a fact that is so obvious that it is often taken for granted by scholars – that Hungary was still part of the Habsburg Empire. In the Empire in general, the fin de siècle produced a rebellious generation of artists, painters and other intellectuals, chiefly among the bourgeois hierarchy of society. The atmosphere was heavy with the effects of a new industrial revolution that began in the 1890s; its consequences included not only a surge of the living standards, but also nostalgia for a simpler way of life.5 In fine arts this was the age of the “decadents,” that is, of artists, who broke the bonds of traditional restrictions and standards, and proudly embraced all sorts of innovations. They explored the depths of perception, searching for the supernatural through the irrational. This was also the time for the beginning of rebellion among women, seeking a way out of the rigid family structure, and freedom of choice in occupations as well as individual life-styles. There was also constant interaction among intellectuals in the Empire, Consequently, the Austrian and Hungarian elites knew each other well.

We must also emphasize, however, that the stirring of the new age was felt mostly among the narrowest stratum of intellectuals.

The majority of the Hungarian people were peasants in 1914, which meant that they lived in villages.6 As Tekla Dömötör explained, “Besides the eye-catching, dramatic holy day-customs, there were many more everyday-habits and rules governing the behaviour of individuals and families.”7

Such customs formed the bases of behaviour and morals, the order of eating, of dressing, of the addressing of one another, of the tempo of work, of the rights and duties of the sexes and age-groups, of those of inheritance, etc. During World War I, these customs and rules hardly changed. The most important element in the four years of war was a negative one, that is, the removal of nearly half of the adult male population to serve in the armed forces.

A few examples will provide illustrations of these customs. When a child was born, it was not yet automatically a member of the community. Such membership was bestowed through a series of acts, including baptism, which provided occasions for the strengthening of family ties and created new family relationships.8 Customs described the manner in which the baby had to be swaddled, fed, and cleaned. The baby’s name was kept a secret in order to protect it from malevolent spirits.9 Baptism meant acceptance by the community. Arriving home from the ceremony, the baby was placed on the doorstep, and the father lifted him up. This signified his acceptance into the family.

Marriage customs varied from region to region. Some were more elaborate than others. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, some marriages were arranged between the respective families. However, by the beginning of World War I, such cases were restricted more and more to better-to-do households, and the marriages were the result of love between the couples.10

The marriage ceremony was performed with elaborate rituals. The wedding was always performed in the local church. The following dinner had its comic and serious elements, and the celebrations often lasted for days. The highlight of these ceremonies was the covering of the bride’s head with a scarf which was the sign of married womanhood. Peasant families often went into debt to finance a wedding.11

Village children had to be protected against evil spirits and magic. This was accomplished by incantations, and the use of various plants with magical properties. When a child or adult became ill, it was often attributed to malevolence by an enemy and was “cured” by turning to an “expert,” usually an old woman, who then lifted the curse.12 She, of course, had to be paid for her services.

Death and burial were also accompanied by customs and rules. The main task was to separate the dead person from the community of the living. The burial ceremonies began with ascertaining the state of death, preparing the body for burial, notifying the relatives and friends, and the final act of placing the dead under the ground.

Most Hungarian peasants believed that death represented a transformation. The dead person entered into another world where it continued its previous existence. The dead became a member of the ancestors, an important means of identification with the community’s past. The rituals began while the dying person was still alive. Relatives and friends – as well as enemies – visited and asked forgiveness. If the person took a long time to die, old women dressed in black surrounded the deathbed and prayed and sang songs to ease the person’s passage. When death arrived, the windows were immediately opened for a short time in order to enable the spirit to leave. The alleged arrival of the invisible skeleton with his scythe was announced by “creaking” furniture, or even by a falling star.

The preparation of the body was the task of the immediate family. The local priest or minister was notified, and the church bell tolled slowly appraising the village of the event. Visitors went to the house, and they viewed the body. The family stayed up all night – and sometimes two or three nights – until the time for burial arrived. The burial itself was performed in the presence of the local clergyman who took leave of the dead by a short speech. After the burial there was usually a big dinner for all those who participated. The grave was tended with flowers and often a memorial, and neglecting such a grave was a serious offense against community standards. The memorial usually consisted of a wooden cross with the name of the person painted on, or carved into it.13

The celebrations and commemorations of life’s turning points, however, represented only part of village culture. Other customs and rules were attached to the agricultural seasons, the seasons of the year, and religious holy days. The most commonly commemorated days were those of St. George’s day (April 24), and St. Michael’s day (September 29). These two days represented, in most rural societies throughout Eastern Europe, the beginning and end of the planting and harvesting seasons, when labourers were hired and discharged. The day of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29), signalled the beginning of the harvest. On Easter Monday, young men visited the young women of their village and “watered” them, thus ensuring their “flowering” for the year. At Whitsuntide, a mock-king was elected from among the young men of the village who “reigned” for one day, and he was permitted to commit the most outrageous acts – as long as he did not trespass the law.14

Religion played a major role in village life. The local clergymen were important authorities and advisers. They were the supervisors of the local school (usually located in a church-building), and participated in the most important events of the villagers’ life. Going to church on Sundays and holy days was an unspoken requirement. Those who did not go incurred the condemnation of the community. Resurrection was celebrated Saturday before Easter by a procession in which the entire community took part. Similar processions were held on the Lord’s Day. Christmas brought out groups of young people going from house to house replaying the story of the announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds. St. Lucia’s day (December 13) provided occasions for predictions for young women concerning the name of their future husband. Before the beginning of Lent, there were dances for the young people that served as occasions for meeting future brides and husbands.15

Six months of the agricultural seasons required very hard labour from the entire community, men, women, children, and old folks. The time of the harvest of the grains was especially difficult. Agricultural machinery was still largely absent in the villages, although threshing machines made their appearance already. Such demanding labour could not be sustained on a year-around basis. This was particularly obvious during the Great War, when the work in the fields in many villages had to be performed by women, children and old folks. Nevertheless, ancient customs were continued under the persisting limitations; although merriments were fewer, and perhaps less exuberant, but they were being held nevertheless. Only during 1917, when the bloodletting on the fronts became overwhelming, did discontent become more widespread.

When the grape harvest was concluded and the turnips and other fodder were gathered in, there was time for relaxation from hard work. From the middle of October, villagers spent their time in puttering around the houses, fixing up roofs and fences. Corn husking was done in each household with the help of relatives and neighbours. This was a time for flirting among young people, and the observations of possible future husbands and wives. Marriages usually took place during this season.. During winter, village libraries were used, – if available – amateur theatrical groups put on plays. This was also the time for the slaughter of pigs which provided entertainment for family and friends.16

The war changed this peaceful life to some extent, but not fundamentally; the news of casualties created grief in the families but did not alter traditional customs. In fact, a great many peasant families benefitted from the war; food prices increased, and peasant speculators (including men and women) grew rather prosperous. There were no food shortages in the villages, and life went on as usual. Undoubtedly, the poor suffered more during the war than those with some means, and a disproportionately large number of them served in the army. Yet, those who were left at home lived better because wages increased.

But rural culture was not only village-culture; the towns and cities located in the countryside were centres of a different, often vibrant cultural life.17 For instance, in the town of Esztergom, northwest of Budapest, there was a very lively performing-arts group, made up of amateur players. The engine of cultural life was provided by the many civic societies which, by 1914, were well-developed. These societies were often headed by priests or ministers who paid a great deal of attention to the education of their membership. Their programs consisted of concerts, readings of religious and/or scientific texts, and of poetry. The regiment of the army stationed at Esztergom during peacetime, left for the front. The important role played by the officer core of the regiment stationed in the city, ended for good. Their balls, concerts and amateur theatre productions that were the highlights of the local cultural life ceased. The regimental band which regularly played in these productions left with the regiment. The balls that were usually followed the concerts or plays were suspended. The local Jewish intelligentsia which had its own club, but whose membership also participated in other cultural programs were also drafted.18

A larger rural town was Miskolc, located half-way between the northeastern border and Budapest. This city was a commercial centre, providing vehicles for the transition of goods between the mostly agricultural south and the mining centres and wine producing regions of northern and eastern Hungary. Not surprisingly, the leading citizens of this centre were merchants or descendants of merchants. Cultural life in Miskolc was different than at Esztergom. It was more secular in character, no doubt because the city was a commercial centre, and its citizens engaged more in trades and commerce than those of the other city. Miskolc had a considerable intellectual stratum which dominated banking and financial institutions and the governmental offices. There was a large Jewish presence in Miskolc, whose members took a very active role in the business- and cultural life of their city.19 During the war, many of the active citizens obtained exemption from military service, and continued their activities under the conditions of mobilization and war. Nevertheless, the war sapped the energies of the citizens, most of who were increasingly preoccupied with procuring the everyday necessities of life.

A somewhat different situation prevailed in one of the great centres of Calvinist culture in Eastern Europe, the city of Debrecen. Located in eastern Hungary, this city had long been a market town. The atmosphere of the city was deeply nationalistic and Calvinist; in 1849, it harboured the last independent Hungarian government of Lajos Kossuth, fighting against Habsburg rule. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the city received large numbers of migrants from the surrounding countryside, many of whom were not able to adjust to the religious/oppositional atmosphere created by the traditional citizens of Debrecen. Most of the newcomers were either Jewish or Roman Catholic which contributed to this fact.20 In addition, many of the Jews were in transition, coming from the Russian empire and usually moving on to Budapest or Vienna. Their particular dress and manners set them apart from the rest of the citizens, and they were never fully accepted.

Cultural life in Debrecen was based on the Reformed church of John Calvin. The grand old Calvinist church was the focus of holy day gatherings, where cultural programs were presented and supervised by the local ministers. Yet, by 1914, there were many secular organizations such as reading circles, and amateur theatre groups that pursued non-religious programs. In addition, the city had a university, which added a certain boost to secular cultural activities. The immigrants had their own supporting associations and these helped them to adjust to city life. Nevertheless, Debrecen remained until well into the war, a semi-urban area, whose ties to the surrounding countryside were felt deeply in cultural life. The customs and habits of the peasants, newly become urban dwellers, remained a determining factor, and village customs described above were certainly part of their existence.

There were 23 rural towns in northeastern Hungary, generally referred to as the “storm corner.” This region contained the poorest peasant population in the country, which, before 1914, became a major source of oversees emigration. The safety valve was now shut down, yet the discontent of the poor had not boiled over; not the least because large numbers of them were serving in the army.

The culture of these northeastern rural towns was based on a strong sense of independence fuelled by the Protestant ethic; they were usually anti-Habsburg and self-reliant. In almost every town in the “storm corner” education, both on the elementary and secondary level, was an important means of development. Literacy was relatively high; printing presses and occasionally a publishing firm found ready acceptance.21 This contributed to the proliferation of posters, advertisements and political flyers. The local newspapers were eagerly read, and they often published highly inflammatory political articles and disputes.

Similarly to other regions of Hungary, the population of the towns of the “storm corner” adopted the dress and behaviour patterns of larger cities, and established civil societies. Some of these were religious, and therefore, exclusive, others were more general. But there was a great deal of cooperation among these institutions in organizing poetry and story-readings, joint dinners and other public events. These activities continued during the war albeit on a reduced scale.

One other factor in rural society must be mentioned, namely, the surge in the establishment of civic associations. This was a phenomenon not restricted to rural towns and cities. For instance, in one county alone in southwest Hungary, in Somogy, by 1914, 685 such associations existed. State-wide, their numbers were in the thousands. These associations provided a framework for local initiatives and, although had to be approved by the government, they were semi-autonomous. During the war some of these societies contributed to the building of nursery schools, helped poor people, and even provided support for local ethnic groups to maintain their languages.22

There was a facade of normalcy that the people of the countryside maintained in the difficult four years between 1914 and 1918. The war had created less hardship in the rural areas – food was more available, and the transformation of the economy, which began only in the second year of the war, affected the industrial regions more.

The increase of the size of the army, depending heavily upon the rural population, removed large numbers of peasants from their homes, especially the village poor, and this was the real hardship for local communities. It became more difficult for wealthy peasants to hire labourers, and this, in turn, limited their ability to fully participate in the agricultural boom. However, because of labour shortages, the poor who were left out of the draft could obtain better wages, and this certainly improved their living standards. However, since peasant culture consisted of customs that were not gender-dependent, these went on as before.

In summary, cultural life in the villages did not change fundamentally during the war, although from late 1917 on, shortages of manufactured goods and implements did appear. Soldiers who were wounded at the fronts returned home to recover. They helped to lessen the labour shortages. Prisoners of war – mostly Italians and Russians – also contributed labour to the countryside. However, village culture was resilient; centuries of changing fortunes over which they had little control immunized the peasants and they were ready to profit from the conditions at the expense of the urban citizens.

In the first half of the 19th century, most, if not all, public education was in the hands of religious denominations. In 1868, however, a law established compulsory elementary education for all children regardless of gender, and began a process of extending government scrutiny over the schools. In 1869, no state-schools existed as yet. 96 % of all elementary schools were controlled by the religious denominations, and 4 % were sponsored by municipalities. By 1914, the state controlled 19.55 % of elementary schools, 8.36 % were in the hands of municipalities; the Catholic Church maintained 30.92 %, the Greek Catholics and Calvinist churches together 20.99 %, the Lutherans 7.69 %, the Greek Orthodox Church 8.27 %, and other religious denominations 2.60 %. There were 1.46 % in private hands, and associations maintained 0.16 % of elementary schools. The language of instruction in 79.78 % of the elementary schools was Hungarian, in 2.65 % in German, 2.24 % in Slovak, 13.24 % in Romanian, 0.35 % in Ukrainian, 1.60 % in Serbo-Croatian, 0.07 % in Italian, and 0.06 % in “other,” mostly Hebrew).23 The state schools employed 26 % of the teachers, and 25 % of all school children attended state schools. By 1914, 54 state-sponsored secondary schools existed, while the number of religious high schools numbered 127.24 However, these numbers did not tell the whole story. In fact, by 1914, almost all schools received state support, and at least partial state supervision. The elimination of religious supervision of education was well on its way.

The number of students at Hungarian universities rapidly expanded in the first decade of the 20th century. Parallel with this development, new disciplines were introduced and departments established. At the outbreak of the war, there were over 8,000 university students in Hungary. In the ancient Transylvanian city of Kolozsvár (now called Cluj by the Rumanians) a new university was established, and by 1914, it had 2,500 students. In 1912, two other universities, one in Debrecen and one in Pozsony (now called Bratislava by the Slovaks) were created.25


Budapest acquired – and maintained to this day – overwhelming weight in urban culture in Hungary. The city was united in 1867. The two halves, spreading on the left (Pest)- and right (Buda)-banks of the Danube river, acquired the name by which it is known today. In 1892, an imperial decree proclaimed its equivalence with Vienna, designating the city as imperial/royal seat.26

During the last decades of the 19th and well into the 20th century, Budapest grew rapidly. Its population increased by nearly 50 %, it became the centre of manufacturing and trade, and it acquired overwhelming domination in most areas of Hungarian life, except in agriculture. During much of the previous century, the Buda-side was gemütlich, the home of spacious houses, rural-style inns and restaurants, restrained manners and the centre of royal administration. Pest, on the other hand, was more exuberant and vulgar, its theatres and other public amusement places and industries multiplying by the hundreds. A huge city park was constructed on the eastern edge of Pest, which included an amusement park and a permanent circus. Thousands of apartment houses as well as individual villas of the affluent were constructed. By 1910, the city had become a modern metropolis. Claudio Magris described it this way:

Budapest is the loveliest city on the Danube. It has a crafty way of being its own stage-set, like Vienna, but also has a robust substance and a vitality unknown to its Austrian rival. Budapest gives one the sensation of being a capital, with the vitality and grandeur of a city that has played its part in history, in spite of Ady’s lament that the life of the Magyars is ‘gray, the colour of dust.’ Certainly, modern Budapest is a recent creation very different from the nineteenth century city which, as Mikszáth wrote, in the 1840s drank Serbian vermouth and spoke German.27

In fact, Budapest represented many new departures in Hungary’s cultural life. It was the centre of new and old educational institutions, including universities and colleges; it was not only the seat of the government of the Hungarian half of the Habsburg Empire, but also the hub of such reform-efforts as represented by the leading hospitals and medical institutions in the country. Industrial workers were provided health- and accident-insurance, and child labour was regulated and restricted. As a consequence of these efforts – that eventually trickled down to the rural towns – general life expectancy increased and the ratio of deaths decreased by nearly 20 %.28

The city was composed of several social hierarchies. The highest level consisted of the aristocracy. It was divided into at least two segments, the born aristocrats and the financial aristocracy. Of these two, the first possessed the greater prestige, but not the wealth. Many of them lived in magnificent palaces, although not in a separate district. In some areas their houses predominated, but they did not exclude dwellings of lesser folks. The aristocracy provided most of the higher ranking officers and generals for the Habsburg armies, and they suffered proportionately higher casualties than other segments of the population. (In real numbers, of course, this concerned only a small number of individuals.)

The financial aristocracy consisted of a large number of Jewish entrepreneurs. They freely mingled with and married into the other aristocracy, but this did not lessen the differences between their social prestiges. During the war the two segments of the aristocracy maintained their separation from the rest of society, except some activists, such as the Counts Károlyi, Andrássy and Tisza, who were deeply involved in politics. Of the financial aristocrats, several contributed to liberal causes, among them the Baron Hatvanys and Miksa Fenyő.

The city’s other hierarchies included a growing number of industrial workers, craftsmen and petty merchants who made a living by catering to the workers as well as to the bourgeois; the affluent, and not-so-wealthy bourgeoisie and the gentry. The government found out soon enough that industrial workers were worth more for the war effort in the factories than in the armed forces. Thus, concerted efforts were made to keep them at home. Their wages, compared to the wages of other workers, increased considerably during the war.

The gentry composed a typical Hungarian social hierarchy, consisting of the descendants of impoverished nobles who had lost their land holdings. They held jobs in the state and local bureaucracies through their innumerable family connections. They considered themselves the real Hungarians, whose ancestors maintained the Hungarian nation and its culture through the centuries. Comparable only to the Polish szlachta, the Hungarian gentry often dominated public opinion and the moral atmosphere.29

The ethnic composition of the city was complex. By 1910 the majority consisted of ethnic Hungarians, but about 20 % of the population was Jewish; there were also a mixture of “half-breeds,” quickly assimilating Germans, Slovaks, Serbians, and others.

There were plenty of opportunities for public entertainment; there were about 600 coffee houses alone, and the number of restaurants, inns, and other houses of amusement were legion. The café house was a place where all social hierarchies could and did meet without restrictions. Merchants exchanged business news, intellectuals argued about ideas and authors wrote poetry and novels in the café houses of Budapest. Even the modern cinema emerged from a café house in Budapest.30

The other institution of popular amusement was the kocsma, a plebeian pub. It was a combination of drinking parlour and restaurant, serving all sorts of alcoholic beverages. The kocsma was strictly male-oriented; its location, of course, determined its clientele. The owners served (or did not serve) food; their major function was similar to that of the café houses, that is, to provide a meeting place for people, mostly workers who could not afford the leisure or the prices of the café houses. The kocsma often provided back rooms for union organizers and for the meetings of various political groups, including the Social Democratic Party. It was often the centre in which singing groups of workers met and practiced.

Then there were the new entertainment centres, the cinemas. By 1912, there were 270 cinemas in Hungary, 92 of whom were located in Budapest, with an aggregate of 26,332 seats.31 Although many rural towns also established movie houses, the institution had not yet penetrated rural society, especially the villages. During the war years, the cinemas became the cheapest form of entertainment favoured by the workers and the lower bourgeoisie. At first, the films were procured from aboard but increasingly, they were being made in Hungary. Here the new art/entertainment form was based on the best novels and was considered complementary to the theatres. Millions of people attended each performance. As a consequence, the cinema became the first institution of true mass-entertainment in Hungary.

During the war, the cinema also served propaganda purposes. Its news reals showed the heroism of front soldiers, although missing from it was the debasement of the enemy. Going to the movies on Sundays became a regular pastime during the war and, especially during wintertime, a more popular entertainment than attending the amusement park. By 1914, there were some exquisite cinemas in Budapest, catering to the haute bourgeois. The leading film director was Sándor Korda, the latter Sir Alexander Korda, but he was not alone. By 1918, there were 45 Hungarian film directors, some of them foreigners. An independent studio and a famous cinema, the Corvin, named after King Mathias Corvinus was established.32

The sporting scene has also developed rapidly. Soccer clubs emerged by the turn of the century and were attracting large crowds, especially from among the workers, but also from the other social hierarchies. Rivalries developed that were to last throughout the century, including the years of the war. Although some star players were called up, most of the others remained in the hinterland, and the championship continued until 1917 without interruption.

Special entertainment was provided by the theatres in Budapest. At the turn of the century, there were six buildings housing repertory companies. The opera had its own special building. There were several types of theatres. The National Theatre produced plays, including the classics, on a very high level. But there were others dedicated to mass-culture, showing comedies, operettas, and even burlesque. A special Hungarian type was that which showed folk-plays (népszínmű in Hungarian). These plays were naive recreations of shows performed in rural fairs in the 19th century, including popular comedies and morality plays. At the time of the outbreak of the war, these folk-plays were gradually losing their appeal. Their place was taken by the orpheum, the Hungarian version of burlesque. In addition, as John Lukács remarked, there were 21 houses of prostitution in Budapest in 1906, and this number probably remained constant. Criminality was not widespread, and alcoholism was not a universal problem.33

The audience of the regular theatres consisted mostly of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. Ticket prices were too high for the workers, although there were always some of them sitting in the cheaper upper bleachers. Actors and actresses were greatly admired; some even had streets named after them.

The cultural scene of the Hungarian capital was rounded up by the myriad discussion groups, reading associations, poetry-reading circles as well as choirs and other clubs. A large number of people regularly took advantage of the nearby mountains and forests in Buda and took Sunday excursions into the area. Life certainly was not dull in Budapest, even during the war.

The outbreak of the war did not immediately affect the city’s cultural life. Food remained plentiful, entertainment continued unabated, the theatres and cinemas remained open. Budapest was better supplied with provisions than Vienna; restrictions began to appear only in late 1915, early 1916.

As the war progressed, newspapers increasingly assumed the role of entertaining the public. War stories, descriptions of public charity-events to benefit the wounded and maimed soldiers or to help war-orphans, and stories of ordinary and extraordinary scandals filled their pages. There was little censorship during the first two years of the war as far as reporting from the fronts was concerned.34 The government of István Tisza was more concerned with keeping the lid on domestic discontent and especially on agitation for democratic reforms. The deep fissures in political life which developed before 1914 between the progressive intelligentsia and the conservatives continued unabated.35

Intellectual culture in Budapest was characterized by these deep divisions. The dividing lines went back at least to the turn of the century. In 1900, a new journal appeared, the Huszadik Század (Twentieth Century) signalling a generational and ideological break with Hungary’s immediate past. It represented the views of the leading members of the Társadalomtudományi Társaság (Association for Social Science), most of whom were political liberals. Iván T. Berend comparing the liberal writers’ journal, Nyugat, with Huszadik Század, remarked;

...Similarly to that which the Nyugat represented to modern litrerature, sociology and the Huszadik Század struggled for a special place for themselves in the social, intellectual, and political life of the age. The first meant more than pure literature, and the latter was more than pure science. Together, they expressed complete opposition to traditional Hungary, and they demonstrated the need for a complete change not only of the existing political and economic structures, but also of the structures of culture, morals, life-style, and the arts.36

Most members of the Association for Social Science wanted to understand the workings of society. They wanted to use the “science of sociology” to change society. All changes had to come through knowledge; otherwise they would have been harmful. Some of them, such as Ervin Szabó, a librarian, and Gyula Pikler, a professor at Pázmány Péter University, were Marxists. Others professed different ideologies, but they were all left-of-centre in their political convictions. They recognized the necessity to change the unhealthy distribution of land; they wanted to eliminate the domination of political life by the alliance of the gentry and the aristocracy; they sought to end corruption in public life. Above all, they wanted to transform Hungary to resemble post-revolutionary France, where – as they believed – notions of liberty, equality, and social harmony prevailed.37 The outbreak of the war contributed to their disillusionment.

In 1918, a prominent member of the Association, Oszkár Jászi, became Minister of Nationalities in the revolutionary government of Count Mihály Károlyi, that ended Hungary’s association with Austria. When the communist dictatorship of Béla Kun was created in March, 1919, György Lukács, the later Marxist philosopher, was the most prominent member of the Association to become a comissar.

The time has come, however, to place the “radicals” in Hungarian history, those who “manned the barricades” at the Association for Social Science and were major contributors to the Nyugat, in a better perspective, because in the past eight decades their roles have been seriously distorted.

First, the regime of Nicholas Horthy needed scapegoats for the terrible fate that had befallen Hungary through the Treaty of Trianon. This regime was able to misdirect the justified anger of the people against the “radical Jews and their allies” who “stabbed Hungary in the back.” No one bothered to explain that, if the reforms advocated by the radicals were enacted, there would not have been a need for revolution.

On the other hand, after 1947, the radicals were proclaimed true internationalists, the “flag bearers of the workers’ cause,” the heroes of the pre-Bolshevik Revolutionary era, and therefore the forerunners of the Hungarian Communist Party. The fact was, however, that the radicals represented many varieties of liberal thought. The Marxists were, of course, for revolution, but the Leninist totalitarianism was, with a few exceptions, not really to their liking.38 But the non-Marxists did not want revolution, but a fundamental reform of society, in order to make it a more humane, more flexible organism. They wanted to provide equal opportunity for all, to reduce the political influence of a sinfully wealthy Catholic Church, and to introduce free and universal suffrage.

It seems, however, that most citizens of Budapest in 1914 were more interested in enriching themselves, or at least providing a decent living for their families, and having their children educated to their highest potential. They wanted entertainment of various kinds. Relatively few people attended the meetings of the Association for Social Science, or wrote articles for Nyugat, and other radical journals. The “radicals” of the early twentieth century in Hungary represented a generation whose fate was very similar to that of the populists of the 1930s. Both of these groups observed the ills that beset Hungarian society and proposed remedies that were either ignored by the masses of citizens or were brushed aside by those in power.39 The “radicals” failure was already evident when, in 1913, they sought an alliance with the Social Democratic Party, whose call for a general strike for universal suffrage failed. When they established a Radical Party in 1914, they were mostly unsuccessful in recruiting a membership.40

There were, indeed, some towering figures among the “radicals.” These included among others the poet, Endre Ady; the great musicians, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, the writers Dezső Kosztolányi, Pál Szende and Gyula Krudy, the painters Moholy Nagy and Károly Kernstok, and not the least the journalist Ignotus, Oszkár Jászi and the budding anti-Semite, Dezső Szabó. However, their true impact was delayed until after the war. In fact, the dominant culture of Budapest was bourgeois.

At first glance, such a statement appears to be absurd. After all, it is accepted wisdom in Hungarian historiography that the bourgeois hierarchy of society was, in the first decades of the twentieth century, “underdeveloped.”41 Industrialization and extensive trade that spawned Western bourgeois culture were relatively late coming into the country. It is true that Hungarian culture as a whole was not yet bourgeois in the correct sense of the term,42 and it is also true that this culture was not as advanced in 1914 as, say, that of the Czech segment of the Habsburg monarchy.43 As Péter Hanák noted, the intellectuals were half-way in the feudal past, yet they were anxious to promote bourgeois transformation. Therefore, they did not denounce society as such. “They were charismatic artists, brilliant, European-Hungarians. They started a revolution which offered the transformation of culture and of social and national consciousness...”44

However, the capital city’s culture was another matter. It was at least as bourgeois-dominated as those of Vienna and Prague. This culture included disparate elements, some deeply conservative,45 some truly liberal,46 and some politically entirely neutral. These divisions were not based primarily on politics, but on outlook and established ways of life. Thus, when speaking of bourgeois culture in Budapest, we are dealing with a many-headed hydra, some of whose relations with rural culture were quite obvious. Nowhere was this more evident than in the musical life of the city.

Even in the second half of the twentieth century the prevailing popular misconception in the West is that Hungarian music equals Gypsy music. But nothing could be further from the truth. Up to the mid-nineteenth century, Hungarian music was based on the verbunkos, that is, martial music used for the recruitment of soldiers into the Habsburg armies, before general conscriptions were introduced. Variations on this music were raised to a very high level by outstanding Gypsy violinists, such as János Bihari, the world famous primás. Other gifted Gypsy musicians invented countless variations while entertaining rural or urban audiences. Gypsy musicians performed at every wedding, at the country and urban fairs, in the rural inns and the kocsma-s of the towns and cities. They produced exotic music, with sentimental lyrics, and easily remembered songs. Their violins and cimbalom (dulcimer) were supported by the deep sounds of the viola. Nobody cared much about the mostly inanely sentimental lyrics of the songs. But this was not Hungarian music. It was artificial, and it did not reflect the attitudes of the usually taciturn rural folk who kept their feelings close to their chest. Gypsy music mostly catered to the false romanticism of the rural and urban gentry, and it gradually penetrated into popular culture.

Serious classical music had long traditions in Budapest. The greatest Hungarian musical genius was Franz Liszt whose compositions are still celebrated the world over. In 1875, he became the first president-director of the Hungarian Academy of Music in Budapest, and his symphonies and other compositions were the celebrated occasions of musical life in the capital city. Ferenc Erkel was the first composer who embarked on the development of a true Hungarian operatic language. His operas, including Hunyadi László and Bánk Bán, transplanted the Italian operatic style to Hungarian soil. He also composed the music for the Hungarian national anthem. But the emergence of truly popular music in Hungary owed its development to others.

Gypsy musicians continued to entertain millions of people during the war, but change was already on its way. It had already begun at the turn of the century when two young musicians, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály, embarked on a journey of discovery. They started collecting tunes in the villages which, as they were able to determine it, were original Hungarian folk songs. They discovered over 10,000 such songs whose tunes and words derived from ancient times, some of them traceable back to the Asiatic steppes, that were the original home of the Hungarians, more than a thousand years before. These songs were based on pentaton melodies, – probably of Chinese origin – and they were beautiful in their simplicity. They expressed the joys and sorrows of the simple Hungarian people.

The two musicians used these melodies to elevate folk music to a very high level. Kodály organized children’s choirs and he also composed phenomenally successful musicals such as Hári János, (the stories of a typical soldier, hilariously unreal, comparable to those of the Baron Münchausen ), and the magnificent religious composition, Psalmus Hungaricus and the Te Deum of Budavár,47 all based on his researches.

Bartók was the more original thinker of the two, an ingenious innovator He was also very successful in depicting the often elementary passions of the people by using the ancient tunes and rhythms discovered in the old folk songs. He created folk-ballets such as the Csodálatos Mandarin (The Magical Mandarin) and Fából Faragott Királyfi (The King’s Son who is Carved from Wood), several compositions for quartets and the opera, A Kékszakállú Herceg Vára (The Castle of the Blue-Bearded Prince). The latter was first performed in the Budapest Opera house in 1917. He realized that by doing away with traditional tonality and using often clashing a-tonal-combinations, (similar to the music composed by George Gershwin in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s), he could achieve surprising results.48 Yet, neither Kodály, nor Bartók were able to achieve immediate success in Hungary that they so truly deserved. Bartók was especially misunderstood, and his a-tonal compositions were derided by the conservatives as ear-splitting, senseless cacophony.

By 1910, the progressive members of the fin de siècle generation were in full revolt against traditional culture. Fine artists, actors and actresses, writers and other intellectuals were all affected by this process.49

In 1919 Moholy Nagy noted in his diary that he realized during the war that he had responsibilities to society and that, as a painter, he is indeed capable to “serve the meaning of life.”50 Yet it is a common mistake to identify the revolt of the artists and intellectuals with the proletarian movements in Hungary. They had mutual sympathies, but most of the artists recoiled from the often primitive and destructive nature of the workers’ movements, especially of those on the far Left.51

There was no sharp division separating mass-culture and intellectual culture. The educated elite attended the theatres, the opera, fine art exhibitions, and concerts, they read the new literature produced by young writers and journalists; but so did the less educated and less affluent, when they could afford it. At the same time, they also attended the musicals (operettas), the folk-plays (népszínmű ), the cabarets and the orpheum. Intellectuals as well as the common folks could be found in the circus or the zoo on Sundays, and read cheap paperback novels. The masses in Budapest were now literate; they read the daily newspapers, and especially the magazines, lavishly illustrated with pictures, and attended the cinemas. The scientific world view, based on the Copernican helio-centric universe and the Darwinian notions of evolution, became part of mass consciousness. Religion was also changing; open atheism emerged and scepticism spread not only to the elite, but also to the masses.

The transformation was equally evident in literature. The writers – and their reading public – moved toward rationalism, the realistic portrayal of the individual in an increasingly impersonal society, and the conflicts between individual morals and social ethics. The nationalistic tone of story-telling gradually gave way to the psychological novel whose heroes struggled with their fate. This tendency was strengthened during the war; the bloody reality of the conflict was faithfully reflected in poetry and other writings.52

Many representatives of the new intellectual currents originated in rural towns. The journal, Budapesti Napló, published by József Vészi and Ede Kabos, originally provided space for Ady, as well as for Lajos Bíró, Dezső Kosztolányi and Menyhért Lengyel. Professor László Négyesi’s seminar in literature attracted a heterogeneous crowd of students some of whom were interested in the new culture.53

Endre Ady, the outstanding Hungarian poet of the early 20th century, was a provincial journalist in the city of Kolozsvár where he attracted the attention and condemnation of conservative critics. He found an outlet for his angry poetry at the Budapesti Napló, and soon became a target of the critics of the capital city. In 1904 and again in 1906–1907, Ady spent time in Paris, where he absorbed the atmosphere of anti-clerical French liberalism. He also became acquainted with modern French literature.54

He was a true path-breaking, pioneering poet whose verses provided a devastating criticism of Hungarian realities. He believed that Hungarian society was hopelessly corrupt and it was ready for revolution. Yet, he did not reject all traditions; he cherished those that showed the vitality of the simple Hungarian folks, especially those who rebelled against Habsburg rule. However, in contrast to contemporary liberalism, Ady was sceptical of the possibility that society might peacefully be transformed.

After the outbreak of the war, Ady’s radicalism assumed a new intensity. However, as the war progressed and he became more and more convinced that it was lost, he slid into nihilism. He lost all hope for the eventual transformation of Hungary into a progressive society. He saw the war as an unprecedented cataclysm, one that would produce the most barbaric conditions ever seen by mankind. In 1916, he stated; “The future is so uncertain that I would advise those who wish to see it, to return to the past, as if I were a reactionary.”55

When scanning the literature of World War I, especially the journals of the “radicals,” such as the Nyugat, one is struck by three facts. One of these is the moderate tone that permeates reports dealing with the war. The other is the virtual absence of censorship in the first two years. Only in the third year is there evidence of government intervention.56 The third is that alongside the critical articles about the Entente, especially the Russians, there is no trace analogous to the vituperative hatred that spewed forth from most of the yellow press – and even from respectable mass-publications – in the Entente countries, especially France. Even when speaking about Russia, the tone is surprisingly moderate.57

On the other hand, there were critical articles expressing disappointment with French progressives such as Anatole France and the English George Bernard Shaw who willingly lent their pens to war propaganda.58 Zoltán Ambrus also condemned those who glorified war, charging that they did not know what they were writing about.59

Others described the horrors and terrors that soldiers felt under fire.60 There were articles about the crisis of Germany following the battles in the West.61 and about the changing public mood, creating despair after military disasters, and the rebounding of such a mood in the hinterland to effect the mind of soldiers in the front.62

Throughout 1914 and 1915, this same journal published letters by the “English correspondent Harry Russel-Dorsan,” whose “eye-witness” reports purported to provide an objective view of the war “from the other side.” However, in 1918, after the publication of these “letters” in a book form, it was admitted that the author of the correspondence was none other than Dezső Szomory, a well-known Hungarian writer.63

In the last two years of the war more and more space was devoted to internal Hungarian affairs.64 This may have been a last-ditch effort of the radicals to direct the public’s attention to issues at home. There were also discussions of the relations between the Habsburg Empire and the United States, as well as articles about the first opera of Béla Bartók, and an evening of Kodály’s music. A theatre critic gladly noted that, in the third year of the war, the playwrights finally gathered enough courage to abandon themes based on the war, and devote time to other topics as well.

There was a perceptible tiredness of war. The publication of a new volume of Endre Ady’s poems mentioned above, was greeted with sorrow. The reviewer noted that this volume65 “showed that the poet, known for his vitality and engagement in the life of the nation, was now standing on the side lines as a neutral observer, becoming uninterested in events. Marcel Kadosa observed the irony that the same masses of people who greeted the war with delirious joy, were now screaming for peace and disarmament.

In 1918, when the war was over, the prolific literary historian, Aladár Schöpflin, provided an impressive analysis of the causes of the defeat, citing first and foremost the irresponsibility of the intellectuals and the gentry. He also stated – as it turned out mistakenly – that the revolution (of November, 1918) could not be reversed. He asserted that the program for the rebuilding of Hungary was ready, provided by the radicals of the pre-war era, and that the intellectuals were willing to implement it.66 Ignotus wrote about the “new Hungary,” asserting that Hungary was ready to take its place in the world among the progressive nations. All this was, of course, whistling in the night. The country was yet to face a short-lived but destructive communist revolution, and its dismemberment had already been decided. This made the restoration of the reactionary old regime a certainty.

When looking at culture in Hungary, it seems obvious that very few changes occurred during the war. The great cultural upheaval occurred before 1914, and the generation which believed that Hungary could be turned into a democratic society had completed its work – unsuccessfully as it turned out – by the outbreak of hostilities. The vibrant, lively debates of the first decade of the 20th century were not repeated after 1918. The loss of the war and its consequences cast a pall on Hungary which it did not succeed to dispel until 1945. But that is another story.




For two definitions see Webster’s New Encyclopedic Dictionary, (New York, 1993), p. 24, and The New Shorter Oxford Dictionary on Historical Principles, ed. by Leslie Brown (Oxford, 1993), I:568.


This term, used to describe social stratification, was coined by Fernand Braudel in his Civilisation materielle, economie et capitalisme: XVe–XVIIIe siècle (Paris, 1979) 3 vols. Its English translation, Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Centuries (New York, 1981), 3 vols., Volume 2, Les Jeux de l’Echange (The Wheels of Commerce), p. 461. Since the term “class” as it is commonly used is, to my mind, loaded with bias, and because of its ambiguities it is practically useless, I am using “social hierarchies” or just “hierarchies” when speaking of social stratification.


For this observation I am indebted to the marvellous volume by John Lukacs, Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and Its Culture (New York, 1988), p.77.


This is the reason for my caution in ascribing the term “modern” to urban culture alone in Hungary. Urban culture – or rather the culture of the capital city, Budapest, that most historians think when discussing urban culture in Hungary – has contained many contemporary elements, but the term of “modernity” is so vague and amorphous that its use for urban culture would be unwarranted.


Péter Hanák described the atmosphere this way; “Part of the educated middle class of the end of the century withdrew (from public life) because the powers-in-being had become impersonal, inhuman, public life were filled with weeds, society and its culture became mass-oriented, the crisis of politics, morals, and the arts became overwhelming, and they felt themselves neurotic, tired, and unnecessary. In “Századvégi képeslap” (Postcard from the End of the Century), História (Budapest), Vol. 18, 1996, Nos. 5-6, p. 3.


Several surveys of popular culture had been published in Hungary during the last half century. Some of the most comprehensive of the surveys are Elemér Cakó’s A magyarság néprajza (Folklore of the Hungarians) (Budapest, 1933-1937), 4 vols.; Magyar néprajzi lexikon (Encyclopaedia of Hungarian Folklore) (Budapest, 1977-1982), 5 Volumes ; Iván Balassa and Gyula Ortutay, eds., Magyar néprajz (Hungarian Folklore), (Budapest, 1979).


Tekla Dömötör was a folklorist, a pioneer of research in this field. The quote was taken from her Néprajz mindenkinek. Régi és mai népszokások (Folklore for everyone. Ancient and Contemporary Folk Customs) (Budapest, 1986), p. 5.


The massive publication, edited by Attila Paládi-Kovács, Magyar néprajz (Hungarian folklore) (Budapest, 1990), 3 vols.; vol. 3, edited by D. Tekla, M.Hoppál, G. Barna., entitled Népszokás, néphit, népi vallásosság ( Folklore; Popular Customs, Popular Beliefs, Popular Religiosity), contains a tremendous amount of information about popular culture. The first four volumes of this ambitious work had been published, and then the Hungarian Academy of Sciences sold its publishing firm to a Netherland-based company. Since then, the publication of such works – originally subsidized by the government, – had been suspended. The information listed above was based on vol. 3, p. 9-19 of this work. All subsequent references to this work are from vol. 3.


See Julia Bellér, “Születés, keresztelő Szentsimonban (Birth and Baptism in Szentsimon) (Ózd, 1972); Bálint Bellosics, “A gyermek a magyar néphagyományban,” (The Child in Hungarian Folk Traditions) (Baja, 1903); Bea Vidacs, “Komaság és kölcsönösség Szentpéterszegen (Sponsorship and Mutuality in Szentpéterszeg) Ethnográfia, (Budapest), vol. XCVI, (1985), p. 509-529; Zsigmond Szendrey and Ákos Szendrey, “Születés és gyermekkor,” (Birth and Childhood) A magyarság néprajza (Budapest, n.d.), vol. IV, p. 155-169.


See Zsuzsa Széman, “A lakodalom hagyományőrző szerepe és társadalmi funkciója Fels_tárkányon (The Role of Marriage Customs in Preserving Traditions and their Social Functions in Felsőtárkány) Ethnográfia (Budapest), vol. XCIV (1983), p. 285-296; Ibolya Szathmári, “Lakodalmi szokások Hajdúszováton” (Wedding Customs in Hajdúszovát), A Déri Múzeum évkönyve( Yearbook of the Museum at Dér), (1974), p. 567-618; Mihály Sárkány, “A lakodalom funkciójának megváltozása falun” (Changes in the Function of Wedding-ceremonies in the Villages) Ethnográfia (Budapest), vol. XCIV, p. 279-285; Mária Molnár, “A párválasztás és házasság néprajzi vizsgálatához” (Concerning the Examination of Folk Customs of the Selection of Partners in Marriage), Néprajzi Közlemények (Budapest, 1965), Nos.1-2, p. 387-416.


Zoltán Kodály, “Zoborvidéki népszokások” (Folk-customs in the Region of Zobor) Ethnográfia (Budapest, 1909), vol. XX., p. 29-36, 116-121, and 245-247; András Krupa, “Születési és házassági szokások” (Customs Surrounding Births and Marriage), in József Szabadfalvi and Gyula Viga, eds., Néprajzi tanulmányok a Zemplén hegyvidékről. A miskolci Herman Ottó Múzeum Néprajzi Kiadványai ( Folklor Studies from the Mountainous Region of Zemplén. Published by the Otto Herman Museum on Folklore), (Miskolc, 1984), p. 257-311.


See Éva Pócs, “A falu hiedelemvilágának összetevői” (Components of the Belief Structure of the Village), in Ágnes Szemerkényi, ed., Nógrádsipek. Tanulmányok egy észak-magyarországi falu mai folklórjáról (Nógrádsipek. Studies of the Contemporary Folklore of a North Hungarian Village) (Budapest, 1980), p. 269-358 and 574-670. See also Géza Róheim, Magyar néphit és népszokások (Hungarian Popular Beliefs and Popular Customs) (Szeged, 1925).


Tünde Zentai, “A kisértet és a visszajáró halott epikus megjelenítése az Ormánságban” (The Epic Presentation of the Ghost and Returning Spirit in the Region of the Ormánság), (Pécs, 1974), Nos. 14-15 (1969–1970), p. 297-308; Sándor Bálint, “Halál, temetés, túlvilág” (Death, Burial and the Other World), in Sándor Bálint, ed., A szögedi nemzet. A szegedi nagytáj népélete (The Nation of Szeged. The Folk Life of the Region of Szeged) (Szeged, 1978-1979), Vol. 2, p. 187-212; Ferenc Schram, Temetkezési szokásaink (Our Burial Customs) (Budapest, 1957); Géza Róheim, “A halálmadár” (The Bird of Death), Ethnográfia (Budapest, 1913), vol. XXIV, p. 23-26; Árpád Csiszár, “A hazajáró lélek,” (The Returning Ghost), (Bereg, 1967), Vol.s 8-9, p.159-201; Gyula Csefkó, “Küldött farkas, küldött kutya, küldött ördög” (The Sent-Wolf, Sent-Dog-Sent-Devil) Ethnográfia, (Budapest, 1926), vol. XXXVII, p. 36-37; János Berze-Nagy, “Babonák, babonás alakok, és szokások Besenyőteleken” (Superstitions, Superstitious Figures, and Customs in Besenyőtelek), Ethnográfia (Budapest, 1910), vol. XXI, p. 24-30.


Gábor Barna, Néphit és népszokások a Hortobágy vidékén (Folk Beliefs and Folk Customs in the region of the Hortobágy) (Budapest, 1979); by the same author, “A hiedelmek alakjai a Zempléni-hegység falvaiban,” ( Figures of Folk Beliefs in the Villages of the Zemplén Region), in József Szabadfalvi and Gyula Viga, eds., Néprajzi tanulmányok a Zempléni hegyvidékről, (Folkloristic Studies in the Mountain Regions of Zemplén), (Miskolc, 1981), p. 189-205; József Szabadfalvi, “A gazdasági év vége és az őszi pásztorünnepek” (The End of the Economic Year and the Shepherd Holidays of Autumn), Műveltség és Hagyomány ( Culture and Traditions), (Budapest 1981), vol. VI., p. 19-64; Gyula Sebestyén, “A pünkösdi király és királyné” (The King and Queen of Whitsuntide) Ethnográfia, (Budapest, 1906), vol. XVII, p. 32-43; Bálint Bellosics,”Magyarországi adatok a nyári napforduló ünnepéhez” (Data from Hungary Concerning the Celebration of the Summer Equinox), Ethnográfia (Budapest, 1902), vol. XIII., p. 25-31, 70-78, and 117-127; Iván Balassa and Gyula Ortutay, “A naptári év szokásai (Customs of the Calendar Year), in: Magyar néprajz, Op. Cit., p. 603–631.


Sándor Bálint, Karácsony, húsvét pünkösd. A nagyünnepek hazai és közép-európai hagyományvilágából (Christmas, Easter, Epiphany. The Customs of High Holy Days in Hungary and Central Europe), (Budapest, Akadémiai Kiadó, 1976), 2nd ed.; By the same author, Jeles napok (Significant Days), in: A szögedi nemzet, Op. Cit., p. 213-313.


See Szidónia Bánlaki, “Disznóölés Sajóbábonyban” (Pig-feast in Sajóbábony), in Ferenc Bogdál, ed., Borsod megye népi hagyományai (Folklore Traditions of Borsod County), (Miskolc,1966), p. 160-161; Zoltán Beck, “Disznótoros szokások Orosházán és környékén (Customs of Pig Feast in Orosháza and its Environment), (Orosháza, 1963–1964), p. 249-262; Sándor Erdész, A hegyaljai szőlőmunkások szüreti népszokásai (Grape Harvest Customs of the Workers of the Vineyards of Hegyalja), (Miskolc, 1957).


It is interesting to note that the consensus of Hungarian historians have a rather low opinion of cultural life in the rural towns. Typical is the comment by Péter Hanák, one of the best known of historians of modern Hungary, who stated: “Most of our towns were not yet modern urban centers, but they were huge villages, spread over great expanses of land, especially in the Great Plain, Kecskemét, Nagykőrös, etc.; or they were centers of agricultural trades, or administrative centers filled with the spirit of the gentry, such as Zalaegerszeg, Kaposvár, Szekszárd, Nyíregyháza. {These} towns did not absorb even half of the surplus labor of agriculture...” in Peter Hanák, Magyarország a Monarchiában. Tanulmányok (Hungary in the Monarchy. Studies), (Budapest, 1975), p. 343.


Researchers in Hungary have not yet focused on rural culture. Although the Populist writers of the 1930s had done pioneering work on the life of the peasantry, much of this work produced advocacy literature. A conference held in 1986, in the north Hungarian city of Salgótarján produced a volume detailing some of the current research. See for instance, Péter Pifkó, “Családi kapcsolatok szerepe Esztergom kultúrális életében a XIX. század végén” (The Role of Family Relations in the Cultural Life of Esztergom at the End of the Nineteenth Century) In A. László Varga, ed., Rendi társadalom – polgári társadalom. Társadalomtörténeti módszerek és forrástipusok (Society of Estates – Society of Citizens. Methods of Social History and its Types of Sources) (Salgótarján, 1986), p. 77-81. The description was quoted from p.77-80.


See Judit Tóvári, “Polgárosodás és helyi politika 1872–1917 között” (Embourgeoisement and Local Politics between 1872 and 1917), A. László Varga, Op. Cit.,277-285.


Ágnes Losonczy, Életmód időben és térben (Dimensions of Time and Space in the Way of Life) (Budapest, 1978), p. 169. Quoted by Lajos Timár, “Várostörténet, városföldrajz, és családtörténet” (City-History, City-Geography and Family History) in A. László Varga, Op.Cit., p. 353-354.


Six towns in the “storm corner” possessed secondary schools at the turn of the century. By 1914, 12 such schools existed. See Ferenc Szabó, “Polgári értékrend és paraszti hagyomány” (Bourgeois Values and Peasant Traditions) Historia (Budapest, 1996), vol. XVIII, Nos. 5-6, p. 40. This is part of a lecture delivered by the author at a conference in the Európa Intézet in Budapest, in 1991. According to his research, literacy rates were high; in the county of Békés, 78.2 % of people over six years of age knew how to read and write; in Csanád county, the rate was 65.5 %, and in Csongrád it reached 78.5 %.


This was the case of the “Felvidéki Közművelődési Egyesület” (General Educational Association of Upper (Northern) Hungary (today Slovakia), where the Hungarian association agreed to finance the distribution of Slovak-language pamphlets and books in the elementary schools. See Sándor Bősze, “Az egyesületek mint forrástipusok és ezek kutatása – különös tekintettel a dualizmuskori Somogyra” ( Associations as Source-Types, and their Research – with Special Attention to Somogy (county) during the Age of Dualism), A. László Varga, ed., Op. Cit., p. 37-40. In contrast, the Czechoslovak state prohibited the distribution of educational material in the Hungarian language in schools after 1918.


See Miklós Szabó, Op. Cit., p. 877-879.


János Hajdu, “Felsőbb oktatásügy és tömegnevelés (Higher Education and Mass Education) in Domanovszky, Op. Cit., vol.5, p. 349.


It is worth pointing out that of the three higher educational institutions established in the 20th century, two were in areas where the Hungarian ethnicity was not predominant. Although this was later derided by Czechoslovak and Romanian propagandists according to whom these institutions were intended to spread Hungarian culture – which may have been part of the intentions of the Hungarian governments – the new universities were bound to increase the intellectual level of these regions. In a similar manner the Habsburg government supported and encouraged the establishment of large-scale industries in the Czech lands, intending to further the industrialization of the empire as a whole. When the Habsburg Empire was dissolved at the end of the war, newly created Czechoslovakia greatly benefitted from the industries on its soil.


See John Lukács, Op. Cit., p. 71.


Claudio Magris, Danube.A Journey through the Landscape, History and Culture of Central Europe (New York, 1989), p. 261


See Péter Hanák, Magyarország a Monarchiában. Op. cit., (Budapest, 1975), p. 345. The literature on modern Budapest is enormous and cannot be cited here.


For the gentry, see Iván T. Berend, Válságos...Op. cit., p. 34-52.


István Nemeskürty, Word and Image. History of the Hungarian Cinema (Budapest, 1968), p. 9. The first moving picture was shown in Hungary in the Velence café house in Budapest in 1911.


Lajos körmeny-Ékes, A mozi (The Movie) (Budapest, 1915), p. 102-104. Quoted by I. Nemeskürty, Op.Cit.,p. 13.


For further details about the development of the Hungarian cinema see Nemeskürty, Op.Cit.


Lukács, Op.Cit., p. 82.


The reports of Ferenc Molnár, famed author and playwright, who served as war correspondent in Serbia and Russia, were typical of the genre. His stories were published in various newspapers and were collected in two volumes after the war, entitled Egy haditudósító emlékei (Budapest, 1926). The tone of the reports were moderate; his nationalism was sensible, and he described the war not as a heroic enterprise, but a harrowing experience in which honour and loyalty were more important than foolish pride.


See the excellent book by Gabor Vermes, Tisza István (Budapest, 1994).


See Iván T. Berend et al., eds., A szociológia első magyar műhelye. A Huszadik Század köre (The First Hungarian Workshop of Sociology. The Circle of Huszadik Század) (Budapest, 1973), p. 7-8. The Nyugat periodical mentioned in the quote above, was a literary journal established in 1908, and it gathered a new generation of young writers, poets and social critics around itself. They were immediately embroiled in controversies with the older writers. See my earlier study, “Young Hungary. The Nyugat Periodical, 1908-1914" in Stanely Winters and Joseph Held., eds., Intellectual History in the Habsburg Empire from Maria Theresa to World War I (Boulder, CO., 1975), p. 75-92.


A very perceptive work by Zoltán Horváth, A magyar századforduló. A második reform- nemzedék története (Fin de siècle Hungary. The History of the Second Reform Generation) (Budapest, 1961), provides a very thorough description of the struggles of the generation of 1900 for the fundamental reform of Hungarian culture and society. Horváth very aptly noted that these struggles failed, partly because of the outbreak of the First World War, and partly because Hungarian society as a whole was not yet receptive to new ideas which this generation introduced. For a more general but equally penetrating analysis, see Iván T. Berend, Válságos, Op. Cit., p. 53-102.


The best example for this was Ervin Szabó, a serious thinker who openly professed to be a Marxist. However, when he described his ideas about “proletarian culture,” a main platform in Lenin’s ideology, he proved himself to be quite moderate and sensible. He said: “ It is possible for someone to be basically a Socialist or Anarchist, Catholic or feudal by conviction – and a great artist; but anyone whose creations can be labelled as social democratic or People’s Party, or his creations standing on the platform of the Constitutional Party, is not an artist...No one can, therefore, speak of proletarian poetry, or proletarian art. Nor can one speak of proletarian science, proletarian humanism, proletarian sociology, or proletarian technology. Similarly, there is no bourgeois poetry, feudal science, or Catholic mathematics... But proletarian poerty? What could it be?” In “Proletárköltészet. (Várnai Zseni verseskönyve alkalmából)” (Proletarian Poetry. On the Occasion of the Poems of Zseni Várnai), Nyugat (Budapest, 1914) Vol. VII/1, p. 644.


For the latest studies on Hungarian populism in English, see Miklós Lackó, “Populism in Hungary: Yesterday and Today;” also, György Csepeli, “In the Captivity of Narratives:The Political Socialization of Populist Writers in Hungary, and the Origin of National Narratives in Eastern Europe;” and Péter Hanák, “ ”The Anti-Capitalist Ideology of the Populists,” in Joseph Held, ed., Populism in Eastern Europe; Nationalism, Racism and Society (New York, 1996,) p. 107-128, 129-144, and 145-162 respectively.


Following the failed general strike, there was disillusionment with the Social Democratic Party among the workers. This was reflected in the erosion of the membership of the trade union movement, dominated by the social democrats. At the end of 1912, there were 130,000 organized workers; at the end of 1913, there were a little over 107,000, and by June, 1914, there remained only 96,000. See Horváth, Op.Cit., p. 529. This provided a field-day for contemporary conservatives who crowed over the liberals’ failure. Ferenc Herczeg, a leading conservative writer-journalist, wrote: “...Radicalism considered only recently to be so dangerous, whose leaders were constantly offering themselves to the workers and to every enemy of Hungary, had become bankrupt.” In: Magyar figyelő (Budapest, 1914), vol. 5, No. 10, p. 2–3.


“One conspicuous feature of Hungarian society,” remarked Caryle A. Macartney, one of the more acute observers of Hungary, “ even as late as 1903 was the absence of a middle class possessing its own outlook and interests, and yet constituting an integral part of the national structure.” in The Habsburg Empire 1790–1918 (New York, 1942), p. 708.


I am using the term to mean “urban based,” created by urban dwellers. At the same time, it cannot be used in an exclusive sense, because there were interrelationships between urban and rural culture, one influencing the other and vice versa. Nowhere was this interrelationship to be seen more than in the field of music of which more will be said below.


It is also a misnomer to refer to the Habsburg Monarchy as the Austro-Hungarian empire. Hungary’s role in the Dual Monarchy, contrary to all the arguments of propagandists, journalists and historians, was mostly obstructionist in an effort to thwart the efforts of the Viennese administration to centralize the state, and restrict the freedoms of the Hungarian nation. The Habsburgs had never given up such efforts and it is likely that if Francis Ferdinand ascended the imperial/royal throne, he would have begun another round of struggle for this purpose. From this point of view, the numerous Czechs bureaucrats in Vienna had a much greater role in governing the Habsburg Empire than did the Hungarians. But explaining their role would require another essay.


In the short article in Historia quoted above.


Macartney, together with Hungarian historians describe the gentry as part of the conservative bourgeois hierarchy. In this they were correct; many, but not all, of the gentry were descendants of the nobility who lost their rural holdings and moved to Budapest and other cities and towns. They sought and obtained positions in the state and local bureaucracies. The fact that they brought their traditional outlook with them and preserved it appeared “uncanny” to Macartney. He stated that the only difference, for the gentry, was in collecting their income not from the peasants, but from state institutions. Nevertheless, the vibrant cultural life of the capital city, the endless opportunities for entertainment, did have an impact on the mentality of the gentry and their political convictions.


The liberal bourgeois themselves were not a unified social hierarchy. There were among them many of foreign-descent, especially assimilated Germans and Czechs, and a considerable number of Jews. But the Jewish segment itself consisted of several layers, among them the financiers, most of whom had long assimilated and spoke mostly Hungarian (and sometimes Yiddish) and many newcomers who immigrated from Russian Poland. Many Jews arrived in Hungary during the late 19th century. In 1840, their number was 290,000; by 1900 their numbers grew to 830,000. Of these 167,000 lived in Budapest, or 23.4 % of the entire population of the city. The capitalist development of Hungary was almost all their making. Their occupational distribution, according to the statistics of 1910, showed that 12.5 % of self-employed industrialists, 21.8 % of salaried industrial employees, 54 % of self-employed traders and 62.1 of their employees, 85 % of persons in banking and finance and 42 % of their employees were Jewish. Jewish land owners possessed 19.9 % of arable land over 1,000 hold (one hold =2.4 acres) and a large percentage of leased estates. A correspondingly large number of Jews could be found in journalism, in medicine, and other free professions. See C.A. Macartney, Op.Cit., p. 710. The history of anti-Semitism generated by the success of some Jewish citizens has not yet been fully explored. Péter Hanák’s work, Zsidókérdés, asszimiláció, antiszemitizmus. Tanulmányok a zsidókérdésről a huszadik századi Magyarországon (Budapest, 1984), began to explore this issue but his studies have not yet been followed up by others. See also the study by William O. McCagg, Jewish Nobles and Geniuses in Modern Hungary (Boulder, CO. 1972).


See Margit Prahács, “Zene és zenekultúra” (Music and Musical Culture), in Sándor Domanovszky, ed., Op.cit., p. 659-660.


See the brilliant, short summary of pre-World War I culture by Péter Hanák, “Századvégi képeslap. Lázadások a közép-európai kultúrában” (Postcard from the End of the Century. Revolts in the Culture of Central-Eastern Europe) Historia (Budapest, 1996), vol. XVIII, Nos. 5-6, p.5.


See László Moholy Nagy, “Vita az új tartalom és az új forma problémájáról “ (Debates about the Problem of the New Content and Form) in Karl Polányi, The Great Tranformation. The Political and Economic Origin of our Time (Boston, 1964), p. 20, quoted by Iván T. Berend, Válságos...Op.cit.,, p. 89.


Ibid., p. 96.


See Miklós Szabó, “Politikai Gondolkodás és kultúra Magyarországon a Dualizmus utolsó negyedszázadában (Political Thinking and Culture in Hungary during the Last Quarter-Century of Dualism) in Péter Hanák and Ferenc Mucsi, eds., Magyarország története 1890-1918 (History of Hungary), (Budapest, 1978), vol. VII/2, p. 954.


Endre Ady’s last volume of poetry was entitled, almost frighteningly, A halottak élén (At the Head of the Dead) (Budapest, 1918), which painted a gloomy picture of contemporary Hungarian life.


Dezső Kosztolányi, “Négyesy László” quoted by Miklós Szabó, Op.Cit., p. 976-977.


Ady’s first two collection of poems were entitled Új versek (New Poems) (published in 1906), and Vér és arany (Blood and Gold), (1907) established him as the enfant terrible of his generation. However, similarly to Bartók, he was not always understood, and his heavy symbolism was rejected outright by the public.


Endre Ady, “A föltámadott Jókai” Nyugat, May 16, 1916.


In an issue of Nyugat (Budapest, 19170), vol. X/1, an entire page is left blank, but the title of the intended article, “A Monarchia háborús céljai,” (The War Aims of the Monarchy) is prominently displayed. Other than this, no evidence of censorship exists, in spite of several of the journal’s previous articles criticizing the government’s internal policies.


Of the many articles in question, see the following; Ignotus, “Az orosz háború” (The Russian War), Nyugat (Budapest, 1914), vol. VII/2, p. 453-456; Zoltán Ambrus, “Háborús jegyzetek (Szent egoizmus)” (Notes on the War (Holy Egotism) Ibid., 1915, vol. VIII/1, p. 583-585; Andor Nagy, “Tábori posta. Przemisli emlékek” (Mail from the Camp. Memories of Przemisli) Ibid., 1915, vol. VIII/1, p. 379-381; Gyula Halász, “Utolsó napjaim orosz földön” (My Last Days on Russian Land) Ibid., 1915, vol. VIII/1, p. 187-205; László Boros, “A világháború Grey hattyúdaláig” (The World War up to the Swan-song of Grey) Ibid., 1917, vol. X/2, p. 617-630, and many others.


This was especially true of Zoltán Ambrus, several of whose articles used the expression described above. See for instance, “Írók a háborúról” (Writers about the War) Nyugat (1915), vol. VIII/1, p. 116-121.


Zoltán Ambrus, “A háború magasztalói” (The Warmongers) Nyugat (1915), vol. VIII/1, p. 229–231.


Józsi Jenő Tersánszky, “Levél Ignotushoz” (Letter to Ignotus) Nyugat (1915), vol. VIII/1, p. 264.


Ignotus, “A német válság” (The German Crisis), Nyugat (1917), vol. X/2, p. 603-606.


Aladár Schöpflin, “A szavak háborúja” (War of Words), Nyugat (1914), vol. VII/2, p. 362-365.


Gyula Havas, “Szomory Dezső, Harry Russel-Dorsan a francia hadszintéről” (Dezső Szomory, H R-D from the French Front), Nyugat (1918), vol. XI/1, p. 933–936.


Miklós Fekete, “Gazdasági figyelő (Economic Observer), Nyugat (1917), vol. X/1, p. 311-314; Ervin Szabó, “Köztisztviselők és munkások” (Public Servants and Workers), Ibid., vol. X/2, 731-735; Ernő Éber, “A magyar mez_gazdaság átalakítása (The Transformation of Hungarian Agriculture), Ibid., (1917), vol. X/2, p. 727-730; Lajos Fülep, “Magyar épitészet” (Hungarian Architecture) Ibid., (1917), vol. X/1, p. 683-694; By the same author, “Európai művészet és magyar művészet” ( European Art and Hungarian Art) Ibid.,(1918), vol. XI/1, p. 484-499, etc.


Aladár Schöpflin, “A Halottak élén. Ady Endre háborús költészetéhez” (At the Head of the Dead. About the Wartime Poetry of Endre Ady) Nyugat, (1918), vol. XI/2, p. 825-828.


Aladár Schöpflin, “A forradalom és a magyar lateiner osztály” (The Revolution and the Hungarian Lateiner Class).


This text is a slightly revised version of my article published in the volume edited by Richard Stites and Aviel Roschwald “Culture during the Great War”. Cambridge University Press, 1999.