Demographics and power: what future for Hungary?

(To Andrea Gaspardo)

In the course of our previous analysis we talked about how the leader of the political party Fidesz, Viktor Mihály Orbán, had over the years created a system of power centered around himself, which has in fact transformed him into a sort of "indispensable man" of the "country-system Hungary ". Yet, as a certain adage goes: "No man is inseparable from the context that gave birth to him" and, from this point of view, Orbán is by no means an exception. This is why the time has now come to study Hungary in depth, the country that gave birth to Orbán and that in one way or another chose him as his "leader".

The official name of Hungary is “Magyarország” which in the national language means, precisely, “land of the Magyars” and “Magiarity” is an essential element to describe the country's cultural figure. It is not for nothing that the term "Hungarian" is actually a misnomer because "foreigner" and at most it can be used to describe all the citizens of the state, regardless of their ethnic-religious origin (among these the much despised Roma ), however when the inhabitants of the Danubian state talk to each other and refer to each other in terms of identity, then the choice inevitably falls on the term "magyarok", which means "Magyars", and as such they want to be called.

From the point of view of genetic analysis and social organization based on a family model defined as "exogamous community", the inhabitants of Hungary are almost identical to almost all their neighbors, and this leads us to suspect the existence of a ancient common origin dating back to the time of the Roman Empire and the subsequent upheavals of the Germanic peoples first and later Slavs. At the same time, however, the lands that once belonged to Pannonia were subsequently affected by a phenomenon which, in the long run, completely changed their cultural connotations, creating a very particular universe. The process that led the traditional seven Magyar tribes (in turn divided into 108 clans) to conquer the central plains of the Danube basin began already in the year 830, with the unification of these tribes into a single people, and ended around to the year 1000 with the constitution of the Kingdom of Hungary under the crown of Stephen I (St. Stephen in Magyar language), an act blessed by Pope Sylvester II after the complete conversion of the Magyar nobility to Catholic Christianity.

These were one hundred and seventy turbulent years, marked by fierce struggles that the Magyars (Finno-Ugric people characterized by numerous affinities with the Turkic people of Central Asia) waged against all the populations in their finitime and also among themselves and who have handed down the the work of great warrior leaders such as Ügyek, Előd, Álmos and, above all, Árpád, names that say little to a Westerner but which still color the Hungarian folklore and reinforce its patriotic feeling.

What has happened in the following thousand years, up to the present day, has been a process that has led the original Magyars (actually nothing more than a not very numerous warrior elite) to literally "melt" in the sea much more vast of inhabitants of Roman, Germanic or Slavic origin of those lands but at the same time changing their linguistic and cultural connotations to give life to the modern Magyars, commonly, but improperly, also called "Hungarians".

"Magyarization" was a slow process that has few equals in the world (perhaps truly comparable only with "Turkization") and which has gone on, now imposed from above, now by simple popular inertia, for a very long period of time, so much so that different "phases" can be identified within it. Undoubtedly the most interesting one was inaugurated in the aftermath of the so-called "Compromise of 1867" when with a very clever move, Emperor Franz Joseph I reformed his empire, previously unitary and centralized, into a sort of "confederal empire" consisting of two well-defined entities: the Austrian Empire proper, also known as "Cisleitania" and the reconstituted Kingdom of Hungary, also known as "Transleitania". Within their respective "domains" of the common empire, the authorities of Vienna and Budapest in any case continued to carry out the centuries-old modus operandi of "divide et impera".

While on the one hand they proclaimed the rights of ethnic minorities for the first time at European level and promulgated the first laws to protect them (the only other European country to do so during the nineteenth century would have been Belgium with a few decades of delay. !), on the other hand, in order to cement their hold on their territories, they were not at all shy in pursuing even sustained policies of "Germanization" and "Magyarization".

In an era in which the European continent was hit by the phenomenon of "Romanticism", a long wave of the previous French Revolution, and in which the nationalistic and patriotic sentiments of the populations oppressed by the great empires were strongly emerging, it was only a matter of time before that the policies of protection of ethnic minorities and the policies of "Germanization" and "Magyarization" were short-circuited.

in Lands of the Crown of Santo Stefano (formal and institutional name of the Kingdom of Hungary) the first to rebel against this state of affairs were the Romanians, the Serbs and the Slovaks, followed closely by the sub-Carpathian Ruthenians and the Croats and this contributed to creating an even bigger furrow among the Magyars and the other peoples subjected to them.

The first of the four shocks that hit Hungary during the twentieth century was the First World War and the subsequent Peace Treaty of the Trianon. Not only did Hungary endure mourning for the loss of about half of the 2.081.200 military and civilian deaths that the war caused to the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a whole, but the now completely independent newborn state born from the collapse of the According to the articles of one of the most iniquitous and punitive peace treaties in history, the Habsburg monarchy had to undergo territorial amputations which resulted in the loss of:

  • 60% of its total population;
  • 30% of the Hungarian mother tongue population;
  • 72% of its territory;
  • 43% of its lands with greater agricultural production;
  • 38% of its wine areas;
  • 70% of its herds of cattle;
  • 89% of its forests;
  • 83% of its iron ore reserves;
  • 100% of its salt mines;
  • 99% of its gold and silver mines;
  • 58% of its railway lines;
  • 65% of its coal production;
  • 60% of its iron and steel production capacity.

Although Hungary thus born in 1920 had a not insignificant population of 7.940.000 people for the absolute majority composed of Magyars (who instead amounted to 48,1% of the population of the Kingdom of Hungary as it was within the Austro-Hungarian Empire), the positive notes were exhausted there because otherwise the country had literally lost any attribute that throughout its history had made it a great international power. But what burned most to the new leadership of Budapest was the loss of 3,3 million ethnic Hungarians whose fate was brutally separated from the rest of the motherland and who, at the end of these upheavals, found themselves citizens of the Kingdom of Romania. Czechoslovakia and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, all countries that looked like smoke in the eyes at the possibility of a resurgence of the power of Hungary and that treated their citizens of Hungarian language, culture and ethnic origin as potential fifth pillars of Budapest.

Indeed, such fears were not entirely unfounded as during the 20s and 30s the new strongman of the Budapest regime, Admiral Miklós Horthy de Nagybánya, devoted himself body and soul to the project to restore the lost power.

Over the course of the two decades, Horthy was helped in his purpose by the fact that the fertility rates of his country's population remained high and ranged from a peak of 3,84 children per woman in 1920 to 2,42 children per woman in 1937. Not only, the immigration incentive policy by ethnic Magyars residing in neighboring states was somewhat successful, compensating for emigration to Western European countries and the United States.

Thanks to this mix of high rates of total fertility and immigration of ethnic Magyars, the population of Hungary went from 7.940.000 people in 1920 to 9.100.000 in 1937, with an increase of over 1.160.000 units (equal to over 14,5%).

On the eve of and during the Second World War, the Budapest regime decided to align itself completely with Hitler's Third Reich in order to regain the lost status of power. For a number of years, this policy was successful because in the period between 1938 and 1941 Hungary managed to regain possession of the regions of Prekmurje, Međimurje, Baranja and Bačka located in Yugoslavia, Transcarpathia and other areas of Slovakia. inhabited by Magyar populations and, above all, from the whole northern area of ​​Transylvania, located in Romania.

Even if the "reconquest" in question were far from the much dreamed "reconstitution of the Kingdom of Hungary", they nevertheless had the merit (exclusively in the eyes of the Magyars) of giving new impetus to the patriotic spirit and nationalist fervor.

In any case, these successes turned out to be ephemeral because the catastrophic final defeat reported by the Axis forces, and by Hungary itself, at the end of the conflict resulted in the new and definitive loss of the aforementioned territories, with the consequent return for Budapest to the borders of the 1920 (which still continue today), the influx of a large number of ethnic Magyars expelled from neighboring countries in the immediate postwar period and the establishment of a communist regime strongly linked to the Soviet Union. Despite this second shock, Hungary managed to survive and, thanks to still relatively high fertility rates (2,67 children per woman in 1946; 2,77 in 1950; 2,53 in 1955), in 1956 the country's population reached 9.911.000 inhabitants.

That year Hungary was impressed with his third shock when the country was the scene of the failed "Hungarian Revolution of 1956". The violent repression caused the flight of 200.000 inhabitants, mostly belonging to the elite, and a general demoralization of society. This was attempted by the new leader of the country who governed its fate from 1956 until 1988, Giovanni Giuseppe Czermanik, better known at home and internationally with his "Magyarized" name of János József Kádár. A faithful ally of the USSR in foreign policy, Kádár nevertheless recognized that in order to be able to march on its own, his country had to adopt its own autonomous line of economic development that would allow an improvement in the living standards of the population and make Hungary more competitive in international trade.

The relative success (at least in the 60s and 70s) of the so-called "Goulash Communism" meant that, at the demographic level, Hungary continued to maintain substantially positive indicators, with the total fertility rates quite high even when they had exceeded downward the threshold of 2,11 children per woman, and a population that continued to grow almost constantly, until 1981, when with 10.711.848 inhabitants, Hungary reached the peak of its demographic power.

In any case, the knots of every communist system always come to a head, and even the "Goulash Communism" went into crisis during the 80s and it is indicative that the first signs of this "change of pace" were felt precisely at the level demographic. 1977 was the last year in the history of Hungary in which the total fertility rate exceeded the sustainability threshold of 2,11 children per woman (that year the TFR was 2,15).

From 1978 to 1991, despite the severance pay was below the sustainability threshold, it nonetheless remained at respectable levels in a fluctuating environment between 1,80 and 1,90 children per woman. At the same time, the total population contracted due to a negative differential between the number of births and the number of deaths and an increased propensity to emigrate. From a maximum of 10.711.848 inhabitants registered in 1981 it passed to 10.373.400 in 1991, with a decrease of 338.448 units.

Taken in their complexity, these data are typical of those of a society in transition and in the midst of a social and ideological transformation. And this transformation actually took place and took place at the same time as the collapse of the communist regimes in the countries of Eastern Europe; but in Hungary this transformation took place in an even more brutal way for the economy and society of the country, opening, among other things, an "ideological vacuum" that still persists and causing the country its fourth and final shock of the last 100 years. Also in this case, demographics help us to better frame what has happened and is still happening. The negative differential between the number of births and the number of deaths has continued to this day as has the general decline of the population.

Today, in the year 2022, Hungary has a population of 9.689.000 inhabitants, 1.022.848 fewer than the maximum "demographic splendor" of 1981, but what is even more striking is the lowering of the fertility rates they have. hit bottom in 2011 with 1,23 children per woman and then rebounded upwards to 1,59 in 2021. Certainly the current leader of the country, Viktor Mihály Orbán was very quick to attribute this "rebound" to success of his pro-natalist policies but the reality is much more complex.

First of all, it is necessary to point out that, according to various economists and experts in Magyar issues, this “Orbanomics” would be absolutely unsustainable in the long term without the generous funding from the European Union.

Secondly, although it is true that in recent years there has been a slight increase in the level of births (93.038 in 2021, compared to the 88.049 of the annus horribilis 2011) it must also be specified that these are very distant data compared to the 177.574 children born in 1977 (last year characterized by a severance pay of more than 2,11 children per woman).

Not only that, another thing that needs to be noted is that the birth-rate incentive policies are having little or no effect on what is called "marriage fertility" (ie the number of children born in a normal officially sanctioned marriage). whereas, for example, 47,9% of the 91.690 children born in Hungary in 2015 were born to unmarried women. Now, it is true that the term "unmarried women" is not synonymous with "single mothers", but this data still has its sociological importance because, historically speaking, the growth in the number of children born outside the normal marriage context is associated by sociologists with the so-called “adrift societies”, in which more or less evident processes of social disintegration are taking place.

Given that, as sociology teaches, the family is the basis of society, it is obvious that a society characterized by such disruptive phenomena becomes more unstable and easily prey to “authoritarian” temptations. From this point of view, Orbán's rise to power fits perfectly with the current phase of ideological and social drift that Hungary has been experiencing for forty years now.

A final fact worth reflecting on is that relating to "nostalgia for the communist past". This statement may seem like an aberration taken at first glance but, once we analyze the data of an interesting survey conducted in 2020 by the progressive political research institute "Policy Solutions" in collaboration with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung foundation, we note that 54% of Magyars believe that the majority of the population lived better under the Kádár regime compared to 31% who prefer today's situation. If we then dig deeper, we see how this conviction characterizes not only the voters of the socialist party MSZP (70%) or the left-wing liberal party DK (71%), but even those of the right-wing ultranationalist party Jobbik (54 %!).

As for the voters of Fidesz, Orbán's party, although 50% undoubtedly prefer today's living conditions over those of the communist period, there is still an important 30% who do not shy away from the "nostalgia for the good old days gone ".

It is also interesting to note that, restricting the analysis to those who have at least a degree, the percentage of nostalgics of the past still reaches a remarkable 45%!

In short, from whatever point we want to analyze it, the Hungarian society has all the characteristics of a society in the throes of profound convulsions which, having survived four existential shocks in the short span of 100 years, still struggles to find its own autonomous way of ideological development. coherent. This dangerous mix must be constantly monitored by international observers because companies of this type tend to be much more likely than others to fall prey to militaristic temptations when political leaderships evaluate that such options present costs that they estimate to be more acceptable. compared to a long and painful, but necessary, reform process of the country-system taken as a whole.