Ignác Romsics on István Bethlen and Kuno Klebelsberg: the 1920s

I’m taking a break from economics and politics and will turn to popular history.

There are a couple of monthly magazines dealing with history in Hungary: Rubicon and História.  Both are edited by well respected historians and the short articles are written by experts in their fields. Both have been in existence for a long time. Rubicon’s first issue came out in 1990 and História has been in existence since 1979. Both are edited around specific topics; Rubicon often opts for topics that are being discussed in current political discourse. For instance, its last two issues examine aspects of the Horthy regime. The most recent has several articles on Kuno Klebelsberg, minister of education between 1922-1931, whose portrait appears on the magazine cover. The issue before that deals with the life and role of István Horthy, son of Miklós Horthy, governor of Hungary between 1920 and 1944. István Horthy became deputy governor in 1942 but died shortly thereafter in a flying accident in the Soviet Union.

Today, drawing from the latest Rubicon, I’ll spend some time on two men whom I’ve had occasion to write about before. First, Ignác Romsics, the foremost historian of the first decade of the Horthy regime, the Bethlen period, and the author of a recent biography of the former prime minister. And second, Kuno Klebelsberg, minister of education in Bethlen’s cabinet. Although there were a lot of personnel changes during Bethlen’s tenure (1921-1931), Klebelsberg’s position was secure despite his many critics, especially from the far right who found him not a good enough Hungarian. After all, his paternal ancestors were German, even though the first Klebelsberg arrived in Hungary in the sixteenth century.

A few days ago I wrote about the Ignác Romsics-András Gerő debate over the former’s alleged antisemitism. After reading this short article I was struck by Romsics’s conservatism as well as his seeming identification with his subject matter. István Földesi, whose answer to Romsics’s article on Trianon and the Holocaust was discussed on Hungarian Spectrum, called my attention to a recent article on Romsics. The author, Péter Sólyom, points out that Romsics’s problem as a historian is that he hides his own assessment of the era he discusses. Thus, says Sólyom, the reader can attach his own interpretation to Romsics’s text, an interpretation that might not correspond to the author’s own.

Prime Minister István Bethlen (1921-1931)

I found a very good example in the first few sentences of Romsics’s introductory article to the issue on Klebelsberg. According to him, “the three outstanding [kiemelkedő] personalities in building the new Hungary were Miklós Horthy who organized the army, István Bethlen the statesman, and Klebelsberg who was responsible for cultural and education policies.”  The single adjective “outstanding” blurs the vast differences between Horthy, whose ideas were pretty close to the far right, and Bethlen and Klebelsberg, both deeply conservative men. Was Horthy truly outstanding in organizing an army that turned out to be a breeding ground for far-right extremists? Can Horthy’s achievements be compared to those of István Bethlen?

One gets even more perplexed when one reads that under Bethlen’s guidance “within a few years the equality of the citizens before the law was restored” (helyreállt az állampolgári egyenlőség). But was it? After all, the numerus clausus was still in force although “its enforcement was made less stringent because of international pressure.” Romsics explains that the law “restricted the number of Jewish students in institutions of higher learning from 30% before the war to 8%.” This might be factually correct, but mentioning the pre-war figure may give rise to the suspicion that this rather superfluous piece of information serves a hidden agenda. Of course, I might be wrong, but wouldn’t it have been more proper to say that any kind of quota based on race or religion is incompatible with democracy and the equality of citizens?

Kuno Klebelsberg, minister of education (1922-1931)

Romsics provides some figures about Kuno Klebelsberg’s achievements, which are in many ways impressive. By the second half of the 1920s Klebelsberg’s ministry received 9-10% of the total budget. Half of this amount was spent on public education. By way of comparison, between 1890 and 1914 the same ministry received only 2-5% of the budget and only 20-30% of that amount was spent on educating the lower strata of society. As a result of the expanded public education the percentage of the population who were illiterate dropped significantly, from 15% to 7%.

Of course, Klebelsberg also held some thoroughly unacceptable ideas about Hungarian intellectual superiority over the neighboring nations and the former nationalities of Greater Hungary, which Romsics ignores.

At the end of the article Romsics summarizes the views of Klebelsberg and Bethlen on the link between education and democracy. “Klebelsberg agreed with Bethlen that before the introduction of political democracy the people must be raised culturally and intellectually because otherwise the result of universal and secret electoral law will not be democracy but chaos and demagoguery. And naturally for them the improvements in the universities, the establishment of Hungarian institutions abroad, and the new scholarship system was a politically conscious goal.” In awarding scholarships the goal was “to refresh the historical elite first and foremost with the children of the Christian Hungarian middle class.” What does Romsics think of all this? Does he agree with them? After all, he seems to have a very high opinion of both Bethlen and Klebelsberg.

When it comes to the overall assessment of the collaboration of István Bethlen and Kuno Klebelsberg Romsics states that “as far as the harmonization of the values of the past and the demands of the present even today it is exemplary and well worth imitating.”

It seems, therefore, that this deeply conservative and undemocratic regime that came into being through the joint effort of Bethlen and Klebelsberg “is exemplary.” Is this what Romsics really wants to say? Does he think through what he is saying or is he in too much of a hurry to knock off as many articles and studies as possible? I think that is worth pondering. Especially by Romsics himself.

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46 comments

  1. Fidesz slogans for 1984+30:

    “Your slavery is our freedom,

    Your ignorance is our strength,

    We make you live in a state of war just to survive,

    so we can have our peace to rule over you”

    [And the new Klebersberg program makes a financial anti-Klebersberg by cutting 40% from the budget for higher education.]

  2. “I might be wrong, but wouldn’t it have been more proper to say that any kind of quota based on race or religion is incompatible with democracy and the equality of citizens?”

    Indeed, it would.
    But, than again, it would need democracy first, to be incompatible, first.
    Whatever the present sentiments today toward the ‘Glorious Horthy era’, I rather reluctant to call it democracy – I have a picky taste, obviously…

    Reading the excerpts from Romsics I couldn’t help the feeling that this article – just as well as the previous one we have discussed here – another attempt to give a present government a historically sound foundation, by drawing parallels – thence presenting a ‘continuum’ between the ‘achievements’ of Horthy, Bethlen and Klebersberg.

    Another telltale detail:

    “Klebelsberg agreed with Bethlen that before the introduction of political democracy the people must be raised culturally and intellectually because otherwise the result of universal and secret electoral law will not be democracy but chaos and demagoguery.”

    Seems to me as a clear reference to the necessity of the coming electoral registration law – uneducated masses shouldn’t vote freely at will – as we have heard a number of times already.
    Sounds far fetched as it may, to me appears that Romsics working along some political agenda, providing historical background to the retrograde political and cultural changes what happens in Hungary nowadays.

    A pity, really.

  3. For the sake of a rhyme, let me modify my lullaby:

    “Your slavery is our freedom,

    Your ignorance is our strength,

    We make you live in a state of war just to survive,

    so we can have our peace to rule countrywide”

  4. Very OT, but important…be well, dear Éva, and know we understand if you are absent from the airwaves for awhile post-Frankenstorm.

  5. Ms KKA :
    Very OT, but important…be well, dear Éva, and know we understand if you are absent from the airwaves for awhile post-Frankenstorm.

    I second it. The landfall is expected to occur in 26 hours. Fortunately, Yale is in Connecticut, not on the New Jersey shore.

  6. Romsics’ articles should be interpreted in light of and viewed as being part of an ongoing and strategic discourse to rehabilitate and sanitize Horthy (left always unsaid, perhaps because it is much too obvious, is the fact that he was a self appointed autocrat who remained in power without any possibility of contestation), to make him more likeable and human.

    These texts (in Rubicon and Historia) are not so much popular science articles reflecting the current state of research, but constitute an essential element in making Horthy and his era normal, accepted, obvious. So that high school or elementary school teachers could talk about him more freely, with less inhibitions, could express their professional interest in him without getting branded as an extreme right-winger etc. In order to start a discourse, of course you first need to make the subject an acceptable subject of a discourse. That is happening now. And once he can be talked about completely freely, new views can emerge, which over time, may become a majority view, a kind of new consensus e.g. reflected in the canonical texts, such as obligatory historical text books. You may rewrite the history text books now (as it is happening), but there is a risk that a new government will rewrite (back the text books again — but not if you succeed in convincing and ‘reeducating’ the history teachers in the meantime.

    Of course, the far right (and the intellectual core of the Fidesz) already openly likes him, but what you need is to make him acceptable to the middle, to those who will not make thorough research about the era.

    Already the research and debate on Horthy and his era is completely dominated by conservative and often partisan historians (note that with all his credentials Romsics does not teach at a major university).

    It is also an interesting feature of the Hungarian right wing and conservative movement that they boldly look back to the inter-war years/years of fascism, when this retrospective inspiration would be unacceptable in mainstream Western political and historical circles (although I really don’t know what the Romanian, Polish, Czech right wing does in this respect). What I would be curious about is why is he so popular (already)? Not just in light of his disastrous policies and decisions, but in general, what is his appeal in 2012 is about?

    So Romsics is an interesting animal. He has already been criticized for being too vague and not having expressed opinions evaluating the era, ie. re to his earlier books. On the other hand, he would lose his current stature if he was openly critical (assuming he is critical, which I am not sure about at all) as conservatives would go against him.

  7. Spectator: “Sounds far fetched as it may, to me appears that Romsics working along some political agenda, providing historical background to the retrograde political and cultural changes what happens in Hungary nowadays.”

    I must admit I was saddened by reading this short article carefully. I wasn’t expecting it. I really thing that it is wrong for a historians not to indicate where he stands on certain issues.

  8. Storm: I’m more worried about our friends in New Jersey. A year ago I was out of commission for a week. No electricity, no water, no toilet, no telephone, no heat. I hate to think of another week like that. In case I am cut off, please carry on. Provide news, offer discussion. I will really appreciate it.

  9. Péter Sólyom, points out that Romsics’s problem as a historian is that he hides his own assessment of the era he discusses. Thus, says Sólyom, the reader can attach his own interpretation to Romsics’s text, an interpretation that might not correspond to the author’s own.

    I would say that it’s not a bad thing a historian is somewhat reticent about his opinions. And I hold that especially true in Hungary, where fancy ideas about history are widely accepted. Some common basis is needed to make a discussion of interpretations possible. More than once I could only save a discussion by referring to Romsics, who seems to be accepted as an authority by people of different political views.

    Romsics merit is that his prolific production in the last twenty years has given the general public a new, and at least sane basis for historical reflection. At the same time I believe that a certain superficiality in his interpretation and a lack of style will limit his ultimate importance as an historian. More than his conservatism (most great historians were rather conservative – it’s an occupational hazard).

    Still I agree that Romsics seems to be especially partial to the Horthy regime. I don’t think it is possible to separate the disastrous outcome of the Horthy era from its nature. It’s not just a matter of bad luck, as many Hungarians would have it. What is more, the adverse effects are still noticeable today.

  10. “Klebelsberg agreed with Bethlen that before the introduction of political democracy the people must be raised culturally and intellectually because otherwise the result of universal and secret electoral law will not be democracy but chaos and demagoguery.”

    Well, that seems a correct prognosis of what happened after 2006. ‘Realdemokatie’ is a very bad system, and should be cancelled the moment something better is discovered. But until that time we just have to muddle on.

  11. You quote Romsics about the numerus clausus thus:
    “Romsics explains that the law “restricted the number of Jewish students in institutions of higher learning from 30% before the war to 8%.” This might be factually correct, but mentioning the pre-war figure may give rise to the suspicion that this rather superfluous piece of information serves a hidden agenda.”
    This entire episode was and remains a disgrace, no matter how strenuously anyone, even Romsics tries to fudge it over.
    To begin with, the 8% figure is fudging itself because implicitly it was only 5%.
    At the time of the enactment the lost territories’ Jews were no longer counted, therefore the number of available Jewish candidates was reduced even further. In practice the anti-Semitic student bodies, by protests and by jew-beatings accomplished that the Budapest university virtually excluded Jewish students.
    When it came to a vital help of international loan arrangement in the mid twenties, Hungary severely strapped for cash, Klebelsberg went to Geneva, to grovel for a Ligue of Nations loan and committed the government to repeal the numerus clausus law. He did this with the explicit support of the patriotic Hungarian Jewish Community, who sent with him a statement in which they declared full confidence in the government and requested that the Ligue refrain from meddling. After the loan was approved and Klebelsberg returned, his firs visit lead him to Parliament where he hastened to make a viciously anti-Semitic speech, in case anyone should doubt what his government’s policies were.
    Finally in 1928 Bethlen’s government relaxed the provisions of the numerus clausus, but by then there were not enough Jewish students left to fill the quota. They all went abroad.

  12. Sándor: “To begin with, the 8% figure is fudging itself because implicitly it was only 5%.”

    Yes. Of course, I also noticed that odd 8%. The way I figure it is that although the official figure was 5% by the time the time sloppy university administration got around it it was not quite 5%. It is also possible that some university administrators simply sabotage the rules and regulations. So, Romsics is picking that number because it doesn’t like as bad as the 5%. But that’s a guess on my part.

  13. The ACTUAL numbers at two Budapest universities as I calculated once were as follows:

    1913 1925 Spring
    Budapest University of Sciences 34.1% 7.7%
    Budapest University of Technology and Economics 31.9% 8.8%

    Source: http://mek.niif.hu/04000/04093/html/0571.html

    Let me remind you that in Budapest, more than 23% of the population were Jewish, so the 8-9% de facto limit meant real discrimination.

    Let me add that the eligible Jewish population was much wider than the general population. 31.7% of the Jewish population in Budapest had a high-school diploma in 1930, while only 5.8% of the overall population of Hungary possessed the same.

  14. Eva S. Balogh :
    Storm: I’m more worried about our friends in New Jersey. A year ago I was out of commission for a week. No electricity, no water, no toilet, no telephone, no heat. I hate to think of another week like that. In case I am cut off, please carry on. Provide news, offer discussion. I will really appreciate it.

    May I suggest “Liking” the Canadian Hungarian Democratic Charter’s FB page, where most all news in English (and some in Hungarian) re: Hungary is posted several times a day: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Canadian-Hungarian-Democratic-Charter/244117988991226

  15. OK. I just calculated from the census data of 1930:

    Jewish with high-school diploma 105,600 (21.0%)
    Non-Jewish with high-school diploma 398,100
    Total with high-school diploma 503,700

    Jewish with university degree 28,300 (15.5%)
    Non-Jewish with university degree 154,100
    Total with university degree 182,400

    Eligible := Someone with a high-school diploma, who did not have a university degree

    Eligible Jewish students 77,300 (24.1%)
    Eligible non-Jewish students 244,000
    Total eligible students 321,300

    So a non-discriminatory enrollment policy would have allowed 24% of the students to be Jewish vs the official limit of 5% or the actual enrollment of 8-9%.

    Remark: Jewish in 1930 meant Jewish by religion, the term still excluded those who converted to Christianity.

  16. Another piece of data you can calculate from the same source, the Hungarian Jewish Lexicon of 1929. In 1925, 25.4% of the students receiving high-school diploma (érettségi) were Jewish, since high-schools did not have mandatory anti-Jewish discrimination.

  17. Last interesting piece from the same page. The University of Pecs was the only university in Hungary that permitted a much higher Jewish percentage in 1925. This is mainly due to their Medical School, where 299 of the 680 students were Jewish.

  18. Is it possible that the numerus clausus was not applied in Pecs because Pecs was still under Yugoslav occupation when the rule was introduced in 1920?

  19. Somebody in the Hungarian wikipedia (not me) refers to the ” Magyar Statisztikai Évkönyv, 1920-1935″, about the percentage of Jewish students in Hungary:

    1920: 10,4%
    1921: 11,6%
    1922: 11,2%
    1923: 10,4%

    1924: 9,5%
    1925: 8,9%
    1926: 8,2%
    1927: 8,0%

    1928: 8,4%
    1929: 9,0%
    1930: 10,0%
    1931: 11,9%

    1932: 12,0%
    1933: 11,1%
    1934: 9,7%
    1935: 8,1%

    Compare these numbers with ratio of Jewish students finishing high-school, which we know was 25% in 1925.

  20. Wow Tappanch. You did a fantastic job. I love how you pt the whole issue into perspective. It is unfortunate that this information will never get out to those who should learn from it. Very interesting data in deed.

  21. @tappanch: I had long wondered how a friend’s grandfather was able — as a Jew — to earn a medical degree in 1920s Hungary. Answer above, and thank you: His degree was awarded in Pecs. If you can shed light on the exemption of that university from the stringent numerus-clausus regulations, I hope that you will.

  22. Tappanch: Let me remind you that in Budapest, more than 23% of the population were Jewish, so the 8-9% de facto limit meant real discrimination.

    But that was exactly the point! No one in his right mind will dispute the discriminative nature of these measures (therefore I cannnot understand Romsics’s presumed equality of all before the law). On the opposite, these measures were meant as positive discrimination. To stimulate the development of what was seen as a backward group, the ethnic Hungarians.

    While I don’t want to resort to Fidesz tactics, I do find it useful here to make a comparison with measures taken by some US top universities at the time: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numerus_clausus#Numerus_clausus_in_the_United_States. The important difference being that in Hungary the initiative was taken by the state, while in the US it was more a private affair (though that is hardly true for the exclusion of the black population).

  23. The mayor of Pecs was Bela Linder from 23 September 1920. Yes, that half-Jewish Linder who had been the Minister of War for 9 days in November 1918 and who said at the end of that 4-year carnage of war:
    “No need for armies anymore! I do not want to see any soldiers anymore!
    Make an oath that you will bring up your children in such a way that the possibility of war is shut out!”

    The SHS, i.e. Yugoslav troops left Pecs only on August 14, 1921.
    There was a one-week long Serbian-Hungarian Baranya-Baja Republic in place, but they could not resist Horthy’s troops.

    The governor of the region became none other than Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer from October 1921, who was one of the few not-very-antisemitic ministers of Horthy during the ww2, and who was sent to concentration camp by the Germans in 1944.

    To summarize, even if the numerus clausus was applied in Pecs starting the 1922-1923 academic year, half of the medical students in 1925 had been enrolled before its application, that helps to explain their ratio of 44% at that university in the Spring of 1925.

  24. @Leo:
    There was NO “positive” discrimination, i.e. affirmative action for the Jewish minority among the judges, prosecutors, military officers and other public employees, where they were MUCH underrepresented.

  25. A footnote to the education level of Hungarian Jews. I have been reading György Kövér’s book on Tiszaeszlár. Hard reading but fascinating. Hundreds of local witnesses were questioned during the investigation and the trial. Quite a few of them, especially women, were illiterate and signed with an X. The lowest number of illiterates was found among the Jews followed by the Calvinists. The rate of illiteracy was highest among the Catholics.

    It makes sense. It is a well known fact that learning was always very important in Jewish society and the Calvinists considered reading the Bible a must. And for that you had to be able to read. The Catholic clergy didn’t exactly urge the flock to read the Bible.

    Keep in mind that Tiszaeszlár was a God-forsaken village in a poor section of the country and the events took place in 1882-83. The Jews in the village, with few exceptions, were as poor as the non-Jews. Most of them were not natives of Tiszaeszlár but came from further East and Northeast.

  26. Romsics in his Trianon and Holocaust article borrows M. Mária Kovács’s thesis about the overproduction and therefore unemployment of white-collar professionals.

  27. Bee Movie :

    It is also an interesting feature of the Hungarian right wing and conservative movement that they boldly look back to the inter-war years/years of fascism, when this retrospective inspiration would be unacceptable in mainstream Western political and historical circles (although I really don’t know what the Romanian, Polish, Czech right wing does in this respect). What I would be curious about is why is he so popular (already)? Not just in light of his disastrous policies and decisions, but in general, what is his appeal in 2012 is about?

    Thank you for the valuable insight!
    I guess, part of the Horthy mania has quite a lot to do with the fact, that he isn’t accepted by by people with liberal and/or democratic values, nor the Jewish and only a very narrow segment of the ethnic minorities – in short, the ones whom today alright to blame and hate – so I see the phenomenon as a countering attempt from the right wing, they want to do something what manifest their opposing.

    I don’t think that the person is important, rather the fact, that the ‘others’ don’t like him at all, so let’s them have it. Pretty piteous act, however.

    Of course, then there are the ‘learned’ manipulators as well, with entirely different agenda, as it appears.
    Back to the future, the land of a real historical time-travel, Hungary!

  28. Those were very enlightening remarks – and the numbers …

    Just think what might have become of Hungarian science and technology if all those people like Teller, Szilard, von Neumann (just to name the few that I know/have heard about)) and probably many others had not had to leave the country …

    Of course Germany has/had the same problem – its science and mathematics of today can not be compared with the times before 1930, we’re almost second class nowadays.

  29. Eva S. Balogh :
    Romsics in his Trianon and Holocaust article borrows M. Mária Kovács’s thesis about the overproduction and therefore unemployment of white-collar professionals.

    The numerus clausus was not a “positive” discrimination for ethnic Hungarians as Leo states, but a negative discrimination against Jews. For instance, without knowing the actual numbers, I can safely guess that ethnic Germans were also overrepresented in the student body, but there was no legislation to bring down their numbers.

  30. Tappanch: “There was NO “positive” discrimination, i.e. affirmative action for the Jewish minority among the judges, prosecutors, military officers and other public employees, where they were MUCH underrepresented.”

    Not always,among the Officers Corp (tiszti kulonitmeny) formed by Horthy in Szeged there were 15 Jews among the 72 total members, that is about 20 %. See http://www.zsido.hu- A magyar zsidosag tortenete.

  31. Paul :
    “The rate of illiteracy was highest among the Catholics.”
    So much said in so few words.

    In 1910, the least literate were, by far, the Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic populations.
    (i.e. the Romanians, Ruthenians and Serbs)

    Finished high-school among the MALE population in the entire country

    Greek Orthodox 0.70%
    Greek Catholic 0.82%
    Roman Catholic 2.22%
    Calvinist 2.23%
    Lutheran 3.12%
    Unitarian 4.35%
    Jewish 10.07%

    Average 2.30%

  32. tappanch: “In 1910, the least literate were, by far, the Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic populations.
    (i.e. the Romanians, Ruthenians and Serbs)”

    The detailed tabulation you gave was for the whole (pre-Trianon) country. The Jewish population was more concentrated in Budapest and several other larger cities, thus the significantly higher ration in schooling also. In those cities the other religions also did much better than the entire country’s population.

  33. @ Tappanch. Neither the fact that the measures against Jews (people of Jewish religion) were not extended to Germans (German as first language?), nor the acceptance of Hungarian privileges in other fields, excludes the intention of positive discrimination of Hungarians in education. Discrimination is a blunt weapon, always. And I have no doubt that anti-Semitism was also an important part of the package.

  34. Louis Kovach :
    tappanch: “In 1910, the least literate were, by far, the Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic populations.
    (i.e. the Romanians, Ruthenians and Serbs)”
    The detailed tabulation you gave was for the whole (pre-Trianon) country. The Jewish population was more concentrated in Budapest and several other larger cities, thus the significantly higher ration in schooling also. In those cities the other religions also did much better than the entire country’s population.

    In Budapest, the finished high-school level among males in 1910 differed a great deal from the countrywide average:

    Lutheran 7.47%
    Greek Catholic 9.10%
    Roman Catholic 9.10%
    Calvinist 9.99%
    Greek Orthodox 12.05%
    Jewish 20.29%
    Unitarian 21.66%

    Budapest average 12.48%

  35. Positively Happy :

    Fortunately, the relay baton is going into the hand of the younger and very decent Gergely Romsics.

    He is refreshingly honest,

    Read this review:

    http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=13340

    His father isn’t bad but lately he seems to be more forgiving toward the Horthy regime. This became especially clear to me after reading his biography of Bethlen that was published in 1999 but the research was done much earlier. What a difference.

  36. OT: So very happy to have you back safe and sound, if chilly still, to provide a much needed direction to this band of renegades…did you see how squirrely it got on the Misi blog?! 🙂

  37. Ms KKA :

    OT: So very happy to have you back safe and sound, if chilly still, to provide a much needed direction to this band of renegades…did you see how squirrely it got on the Misi blog?! :-)

    Sure, but only out of necessity!

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