2: Hungary's So-Called Feudalism
<< 1: The Prewar Line-up in Central Europe || 3: Admiral Horthy's Position as Regent >>
AN AMERICAN author and radio commentator recently explained to a friend of mine why the
Russian occupation of Hungary was a very salutary event. "You know," he said,
"Hungarian landowners are entitled to kill their serfs." This commentator had
never set foot on Hungarian soil, but there was no doubt in his mind as to the truth of
this statement. Stories about feudal Hungary were planted incessantly after the first
World War in order to calm the world's conscience, which was a little troubled by the fact
that in the name of national self-determination, more than three million Magyars had been
put under Czech, Rumanian and Serbian rule. Now their feudal lords could no longer chop
off their heads.
Feudalism is historically the medieval European system based on the relation of vassals
and lords, arising from the holding of land in feud. Since feudalism is tied up with
absolute monarchy, it is often forgotten that the crown and the lords were natural
antagonists. The lords-or barons would increase their prerogatives only at the expense of
the crown. In the resulting struggle the crown often came to be allied with the common
people against the nobility. Yet the net result was that the nobles were the champions of
political liberties because the rights they won for themselves were afterward claimed by
the common man. In the Holy Roman Empire the nobles were very successful in wresting
concessions from the imperial crown. The Hungarian magnates never attained a similar
In a small country the crown can assert itself more effectively. In the Holy Roman
Empire the lords were for a long time the only politically vocal stratum of society; but
the magnates in Hungary -which never belonged to the Roman Empire- were exposed to strong
pressure from below, exerted by a very broad layer of minor nobles, the so-called gentry,
which resembled the squirearchy of England and played a similar part in public affairs.
Hence, unless we stretch political terms until they are completely disfigured, Hungary was
never a feudal polity.
Hungary had a badly balanced distribution of its arable land. Many magnates owned large
estates which were legally entailed and could neither be sold nor mortgaged. According to
Hungarian official statements which I have usually found reliable, quoted by Victor Bator
in the American Hungarian Observer of November 19, 1944, about
three-quarters of all landholders owned in 1935 about one-tenth of the land. This sounds
less startling when compared with Denmark, where "68% of all agricultural holdings
under ten hectares (the hectare being equivalent to nearly two and a half acres) account
for 11% of the land," and with Holland where "13.6% of the land is held by 61%
of the proprietors." Bator writes:
The true picture concerning big properties in Hungary is as follows: the arable area
(including pasture land) is 13,142,122 yokes, that is 7,556,650 hectares. Out of this
1,225,325 hectares constitute the area of holdings of more than 575 hectares which are
owned by private individuals and by the Church. This is 15.2% of the arable land. . . . It
is pure misrepresentation to state that half or more than one-third of the land is owned
by a few hundred landowners. Actually the area of large estates in private ownership is
1,530,000 hectares, that is, 14% of the arable land.
These figures show that the term "feudal Hungary" is, to say the least,
highly exaggerated. To them should be added the following reflections: Extravagant
ownership of the soil by aristocratic families would render a country feudal only if that
ownership involved economic and political power. It did in Hungary before World War I,
because agricultural products could be sold at a profit within the customs barriers of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Hapsburg kings of Hungary preferred the aristocrats
-often foreigners who had received their titles for service rendered to the dynasty- to
the gentry, or simple noblemen. Whereas the aristocrats very often were on the side of the
dynasty against the national interest, the nobles, who were descendants of the original
conquerors of Hungary, identified themselves with the national cause. All this changed
after the first World War. The aristocrats had invested their money lavishly in war loans
which were entirely worthless after the defeat. The ruthless dissection of the old empire
deprived them of their markets. In addition, with the rest of agricultural Europe, Hungary
suffered because of the low prices brought about by the mechanization of North and South
American farming. The effect on the aristocratic landowners was worse than on their
untitled fellow sufferers because they were unable to sell or mortgage their entailed
property. No longer propped up by the crown, the aristocrats saw their political influence
dwindle after the first World War. Furthermore, they lost their most traditional
profession, that of service in the armed forces. Hungary was allowed only a token army and
the proud Hussar regiments, which had covered themselves with military glory for five
centuries, lay buried under the ruins of the old monarchy.
The gentry took possession of Hungary after the fall of the Hapsburgs. By the time I
was appointed there, in July 1933, the aristocrats had little or no political importance.
I do not consider that the transition from aristocratic leadership to gentry and civil
service rule was necessarily a blessing for either Hungary or her neighbors. I have
mentioned that the Hapsburgs preferred the magnates, or titled noblemen, to the gentry.
Franz Josef knew that in a multiracial empire surrounded by hostile neighbors, the most
valuable elements were those who, owing to their upbringing and international family
connections, stood above nationalism. The gentry have had a double function in Hungarian
history -a positive one in keeping the nation alive and conscious of itself, and a
negative one in being ultranationalistic. Thus they partly created the dangers against
which they had to struggle.
Many people think that the existence of the Upper House, the House of Magnates, was
sufficient to warrant Hungary being called a feudal country. When I was in Budapest, the
Upper House was composed of the four Hungarian Hapsburgs, the two Keepers of the Crown,
the supreme judges, the prelates and supreme dignitaries of the churches, the president of
the National Bank, thirty-eight high aristocrats elected by their peers, seventy-six men
designated by the counties and municipal cities, thirty-six representatives of the
chambers of agriculture, industry, commerce, lawyers, notaries, universities, Heroes'
Order, Academy of Science and the stock exchange, forty lifelong members nominated by the
Regent, one physician, one industrialist and one agriculturalist. It can be seen from this
that the aristocrats were in the small minority. Great Britain retains the sediments of
feudalism by preserving the right of the king to create new peerages on the advice of his
government. In Hungary the Regent was not entitled to bestow nobilities and, therefore,
the vanishing of aristocratic influence became quite patent. Count Stephen Bethlen, prime
minister during the first decade without a king, had no estates and did not represent the
supposed interests of his class. Count Teleki, though equally a member of one of the
oldest families, was also estateless, a quiet, soft-spoken scientist, by no means fitting
the pattern of feudal lordship.
All that was left of economic feudalism was in many cases a brilliant front which
covered indebtedness, if not outright poverty. The attitude of the Hungarian toward money
was that its only function is to be spent. Hungarian hospitality was something proverbial
in Europe. The Hungarian gentleman generally lived beyond his income, but he always
entertained some way or other, even if it meant coffee and roll dinners for him during the
Thus palaces built in the great day of the nobles and magnates had been equipped with
tremendous reception rooms and ballrooms on a par with those in the Waldorf Astoria. These
were not, of course, permanent homes; when it came to bedrooms most of them had only one;
but as the owner of one of them remarked, forty people could sleep in it. Likewise, they
had only one bath, if any. The distribution of space between entertaining quarters and
living quarters in these Budapest palaces is a true indication of the accent the average
Hungarian puts on entertaining. There were, of course, a number of permanent homes, with
lots of bedrooms, in Budapest; but most of the well-equipped homes were in the country.
Some of the Budapest palaces were still occupied by their owners while we were there,
though most of them were for rent. No one could figure out how the servants in these
palaces were paid. One nice thing about entertaining in Budapest was that you could get
all the trained butlers and footmen you wanted, for despite their impoverishment noblemen
always had more servants than they needed and were glad to offer their services.
The custom of tipping in Hungary far surpassed the American brand. For example, when
you rode in the elevator of a building, you owed the operator twenty centimes. If by any
chance you did not pay him, he would follow you out into the street, if necessary, to
collect it. When you went into anyone's home and gave up your hat, you were supposed to
pay a pengo to the maid for its return. If you were a dinner guest, you owed
considerably more, depending on your financial status. You paid this money when you got
your coat and hat to go home. The money thus received was split up by the household staff,
everyone getting his particular share. It naturally followed that the most sought-after
positions were in the homes of those who were continually entertaining. No one ever
complained about the number of guests you had.
Labor conditions in Hungary have been badly misrepresented in America. Industrial labor
was organized in Hungary preceding the first World War and had obtained by the time I
arrived there a similar status to that of American labor gained through the New Deal.
Nevertheless, relationships between management and labor, especially in smaller
enterprises, had retained some of its paternal characteristics, which frankly I would not
consider a disadvantage.
While industrial labor enjoyed in Hungary all the social security which a poor country
could afford to provide, the situation was very different with agricultural labor. First
of all, the major part of agricultural labor was not unionized and health and old-age
insurance were granted them only to a very small degree. Real poverty could be observed
among agricultural labor mainly because there were not enough jobs for them.
Accusations of Hungarian feudalism often arose abroad because these questions were
handled in an antiquated paternal fashion leaving too much leeway to the individual
landowner, who was considered responsible for agricultural labor within his domain.
Agricultural labor usually concluded contracts with the landowners on a yearly basis,
which gave them more security, but on the other hand their salaries were paid to a large
extent in kind, which meant that in bad years they earned less than they would if working
on a wage basis.
The general spirit of the Hungarian employer was certainly not anti-labor. When, after
the conclusion of the Trianon Treaty, living conditions became bad and jobs hard to find,
the landowners voluntarily put a considerable part of their agricultural machinery out of
use in order to provide more jobs to manual labor. This rule prevailed while I was in
Hungary. Although it was self-imposed with the idea of helping labor, it was a
shortsighted policy based upon a misapprehension -common in America also- that the more
people who do the job the better.
The relationship between employer and employee differed from anything we know in
America -unless we hark back to early plantation life- in that the employer had to supply
everything in the way of clothes, laundry and payment of doctors' and dentists' bills, not
only for the worker himself, but for his whole family. The employer was the banker. If
anything happened and the worker's family needed money, he naturally came to his employer
for help, and he got it -with no strings attached.
If you hire anyone in the United States, no matter how many years he works for you, you
are free to discharge him if he does something deserving such treatment. Not so in
Hungary. It was a very difficult proposition to dismiss a worker in Hungary, no matter
what he had done, without making some provision for his future. We had a gardener who did
nothing but dress up and sit in front of the house. His wife did all the work. We
complained vigorously to the landlord. Finally he got us another gardener- but he could
not discharge the first one; he simply transferred him to his country estate.
Some of the Hapsburgs themselves were impoverished by the claims of their employees.
Archduke Frederick, who had been commander in chief of the Austro-Hungarian armies, was,
before the first World War, the richest man in the Hapsburg realm. At the time I was in
Hungary, he still had about forty thousand acres of land. When Austria and Czechoslovakia
expropriated his huge palaces and estates and the famous art gallery which he owned in
Vienna, they discharged all his employees. These went back to Hungary, where the archduke,
very honorably, considered it his duty to support them. For this immense burden even his
large estate could not earn enough. Yet in his will he bound his heirs to keep on
supporting this mass of dependents, even though he must have known that they could only
end in bankruptcy.
Every diplomat had to take the Hapsburg archdukes in Hungary into consideration in the
years preceding World War II when some of the powers were flirting with the idea of
restoration. There was Archduke Joseph and his wife, Augusta, who occupied a large palace
across from the prime ministry and not far from the Royal Palace. Every chief of mission,
after presenting his credentials, was expected to call on them and to entertain them at
least once a year. It was quite an ordeal because Archduchess Augusta, to put it quite
frankly, did not know when to go home. If you had them for dinner, everybody planned to
stay the night, because no one could leave until the archduke and archduchess left. They
did not play bridge; they only played king and queen, and it was very boring. Most people
entertained them for lunch; while you had to give up the afternoon to it, it was better
than being up all night. Augusta smoked cigars. I discovered that she would never under
any circumstances leave until she finished her cigar; offering small cigars and passing
them only once had the effect of making her leave earlier. It was not considered fair to
invite your diplomatic colleagues to a luncheon or a dinner for this royal pair without
telling them in advance, and it was generally a matter of trading. If you stuck one of
your diplomatic friends for a royal luncheon, he stuck you in return. One had to go to
quite a few during the winter. Joseph and Augusta had a son named Joseph Francis, who was
not particularly bright, but his wife was a charming girl, the Princess Anna, also called
Monica. We liked to entertain young Joseph on account of his wife. We were not, however,
compelled by etiquette to entertain them every year or at all; and since we had so much
entertaining to do, we had them only now and then.
Albrecht, the son of the Archduke Frederick, was very popular with Americans; we saved
him for them and entertained him four or five times a year. He lived very simply and
seemed to be more interested in carrying out his father's wishes than in pomp or ceremony.
He had been brought up as an agriculturist and in this field he was somewhat of an expert.
But there was some devil in him which always defeated him when he tried anything else. He
was brilliant and as nice a person as you would want to meet socially, but absolutely
eccentric and undisciplined. Whenever success seemed to be in his grasp he did something
silly. In the end, after ups and downs in a campaign to make him king of Hungary, he sold
himself to national socialist Germany -probably with ideas of getting back some of his
I never met his father, as he lived in a gamekeeper's house up in the little town of
Moson, near the Austrian border. I saw him several times, dressed in peasant costume,
standing in the doorway of his home which was right on the street, smoking a long pipe and
probably waiting to talk to a passerby. He was the most popular archduke of all with the
protocol division of the Foreign Office because he never came to Budapest; but his death
created the worst problem they had ever known. He had been a field marshal, a commander in
chief, and an archduke. The funeral was attended by his nephew, the exiled King of Spain;
by numerous archdukes; by all the surviving Austro-Hungarian field marshals; by personal
representatives of Hitler; by members of the House of Savoy; by the diplomatic corps; by a
son of the exiled German emperor; by representatives of the governments of Germany, Italy
and Austria, and, of course, by the Regent of Hungary and his wife. In addition, there
were members of the Hungarian government and delegates of the German and Austrian armies.
Practically the whole Hungarian army was present.
The problem was taken over by Istvan de Barczy, chief of protocol of the prime ministry
-Mr. Protocol himself- and he worked a miracle. Nobody felt slighted or neglected;
everything went off just as if it had been rehearsed. It was really a great show, and I am
sure that all the fuss would have amused the old man if he had seen it.
The setting was a tiny church in a small town. There had been snow, and the streets
were very deep in slush. After the service, everybody formed in correct order behind the
silver coffin. Frederick, due to one or all of his positions, was by tradition entitled to
have a knight in armor follow his coffin. He received his due. I was told that this
presented quite a problem, because no suitable armor could be found until someone
suggested the Budapest Opera. The knight who followed Frederick's coffin wore the armor of
The whole regiment of cavalry rode out in front, and the horses did their best to
transform the slush into a perfumed carpet. But where they marched, Madame Horthy and all
the ladies in their little open shoes marched too.
While entertaining archdukes was quite a problem, it had its useful side. Hungarians
have been brought up on royalty. They might make fun of the archdukes, but they still have
respect for them. There were few Hungarians who were not delighted to be invited to the
same luncheon which bored the diplomats so exceedingly. This was especially true of the
many ministers and politicians who came in from the country. If you really wanted to make
a friend of almost any of the cabinet ministers, an invitation to lunch or dinner with one
of the archdukes never failed.
<< 1: The Prewar Line-up in Central Europe || 3: Admiral Horthy's Position as Regent >>