József Debreczeni on the Roma question

After describing Bishop Miklós Beer’s efforts on behalf of the Roma minority and publishing the English translation of an article by Aladár Horváth, a Roma activist, I think I should mention a book by József Debreczeni entitled Ne bántsd a cigányt!: political vitairat (Don’t hurt the Gypsies: A polemic). A rather odd title that needs some explanation. It echoes the name of a book by Miklós Zrínyi/Nikola Zrinski, a Croatian-Hungarian politician and writer (1620-1664), Ne bántsd a magyart – Az török áfium ellen való orvosság (Don’t hurt the Hungarians – An antidote to the Turkish poison). In his book Zrínyi wrote: “How it is that you, Hungarians, can see the danger with your own eyes and yet are not awakened from your deep sleep.” Zrínyi was referring to the Turkish danger, but Debreczeni finds the quotation equally applicable to the danger that exists in Hungary today as a result of an uneducated, unassimilated, poverty-stricken underclass with a very high birthrate.

Debreczeni is neither a sociologist nor a historian of the Hungarian Roma. After getting an M.A. in history, he taught high school for a while but then became politically active in the late 1980s. After a short stint as a member of parliament (MDF), he became a freelance writer. He is best known for his biographies of József Antall, Viktor Orbán, and Ferenc Gyurcsány. In fact, he wrote two books on Orbán. The first appeared in 2002 a few months after Orbán lost the election and the second in 2009. The title of the second, Arcmás, means “portrait” but the word has two parts: “arc,” “countenance” and “más,” “other.” The message was that the Orbán of 2009 was very different from his earlier self.

Debreczeni considers the “Gypsy question” to be the greatest problem threatening “the existence of Hungarian society,” in which he includes the Roma minority. He highlights three aspects of the problem. First, the increasingly hopeless socioeconomic situation of the Gypsy minority. Second, the growing geographical isolation of Gypsies from non-Gypsies. Third, the demographic problem. The average Hungarian woman bears 1.3 children, a statistic that includes Roma women. Without them, that number is only around 1.0. Gypsy women have on average more than three children, and among the least educated and the poorest that number goes up to more than four. Given the low employment figures among the Roma, if these demographic trends continue Hungary will become “a third world” country. That is, if Hungarian society does not do something to answer the Gypsy question in the next decades.

After the regime change the new political elite was unable to handle the growing problems of the undereducated, unemployed Roma men and women. Just to give an idea of how little attention the new democratic parties paid to the Gypsy question, it was only SZDSZ that mentioned the problem at all in their first party program. But, in Debreczeni’s opinion, they went astray when they looked at it as simply a human rights issue. To “left-liberals” the fault lay only in prejudice and racism. This view became a “dogma,” which in turn became an obstacle to facing facts.

Meanwhile came Jobbik, a far-right party whose popularity was based in large measure on its anti-Gypsy rhetoric. At the EP election in 2009 it got 400,00 votes or 15% of the total. In the same election SZDSZ got a mere 2.16%.

“The democratic, left-liberal, anti-racist Roma politics has failed,” Debreczeni contends. He believes that the continuation of “the intolerant, confrontative, and by now unproductive liberal human rights approach” will lead nowhere and that Hungarians should find a new avenue to offer “a decent, democratic discourse and politics that would assist the integration of the Roma.” “If we can’t find it, we are lost.”

Ne bantsd a ciganytDebreczeni’s book, published two months ago, caused an upheaval in those “left-liberal” circles he criticized. A Roma activist, Jenő Setét, a close collaborator of Aladár Horváth, was the first to speak out against Debreczeni’s book. He complained about the very notion that Gypsies “are different.”

Indeed, Debreczeni, relying on research done by others, does claim that ethnic groups carry cultural baggage that may make them different from other folks. For example, he thinks that Hungarian-Germans are harder working than Hungarians. Gypsies, who until quite recently were self-employed, have a rather lackadaisical attitude toward time since they could work at their leisure. But critics charge that Debreczeni didn’t stop with a description of cultural differences. What upset people most is that he seems to make a value judgment: certain cultures are superior to others.

The second critic was István Hell, who belongs to the group of left-liberals Debreczeni criticizes. He wrote on Galamus that “we have created the current socio-cultural state of the Roma,” and he cites “segregation, limited educational opportunities, and not doing anything about these problems in the last twenty-five years.” The last and most outraged critic, Magdolna Marsovszky, expressed her surprise that such a book, which she considers racist, can be published at all.

Debreczeni answered all three. See his answer to Jenő Sötét in HVG and his article on Hell’s criticism in Galamus. István Hell wanted to continue the debate, but Zsófia Mihancsik, editor-in-chief of Galamus, put an end to it, claiming that it is not fair to criticize an author for the opinions of others that he quotes.

Most likely not independently from the appearance of this book, Sándor Friderikusz decided to have a three-part series on the Roma question on his excellent program, Friderikusz, on ATV. The series aired on October 7, November 4, and November 18. I highly recommend these programs, which point out the complexities of the issues.

József Debreczeni is one of the vice-presidents of Demokratikus Koalíció, and therefore some people might consider the opinions expressed in the book to be DK’s position on the issue. However, I’ve seen no sign of either an endorsement or a criticism of Debreczeni’s suggestions on how to handle the Roma question.


  1. I am probably being overly-sensitive but I am deeply suspicious whenever social issues are framed as “the [ethnic group] question”. It implies that the issue lies primarily with the particular ethnic group, rather than society at large. Of course the historical precedent for this is all too apparent in twentieth century European history when people openly discussed “the Jewish question”.

    I am not denying the real nature of the problems facing Roma in Hungary today. However the solution to these issues lies with the entire Hungarian society and political system. And that will involve change and some much more enlightened attitudes that are on display these days. I am not sure that non-Roma Hungarians recognise that they are part of both the problem and the solution to the issues of Roma poverty, alienation and discrimination.

    I understand that it is often convenient to summarise complex social issues with a simple phrase. But the language used to describe an issue can frame how it is dealt with and the solutions sought.

  2. The atmosphere is overheated in Hungary.

    Time off, a calm down period is needed.

    Debreczeni seems to be a honest activist.

    The irrational Hungarians must understand that their genocidal views are hazardous to the whole nation.

    The roma people need a tender caring rehabilitating civil assistance.

    The roma people should be protected from any corrupt roma leaders. The rehab reforms should be simple, and have to accomplish the program without waste, without losing money to smart operators.

    Good luck to a real job after the fidesz/jobbik dictatorship.

  3. A good education for all Roma children is the first and most important step on the long march that would help alleviate some – not all – of the problems of non-assimilation and poverty. It is true in many places around the world facing similar challenges, not least Australia.

  4. I apologize for going completely off topic here, but I reccommend for all readers of this blog to read the op-Ed piece in today’s NYTimes by Jochen Bittner,”East Germans’ Soft Spot for Russia”. The perceptions and attitudes described by the author seem very much on point with the perspective of Hungary’s “right wing”. A very interesting and disturbing perspective.

  5. Interesting that Friderikusz is mentioned positively. I well recall a programme he had in the late 90s in which there was a report about a Portuguese nun who was actively helping the Roma in Eastern Country. And at the end of the report, Fridi looked into the camera and said something to the effect of “Isn’t it amazing how easily foreigners can be fooled. But WE know how bad these people are.” This did get him reported in various forums etc but to no effect.

  6. Many years ago I studied this issue academically, inasmuch as that was possible – maybe now there is more literature on the subject and more instructors who are qualified to teach it, which was not at all true at the time when I was studying it.

    Anyway, in brief here are the two main takeaways of what I learned at the time:

    1) any solution to the problems that the Roma face has to include the input and involvement of the Roma themselves for it to succeed, i.e. any solution devised by non-Roma that is imposed on Roma is guaranteed to fail. Of course, the trick here is how to get their involvement and input and through which representative institution(s).

    2) any solution to the problems that the Roma face has take cultural factors into account for it to succeed, i.e. if you approach it only as a human rights/poverty issue, you are guaranteed to fail. What this means in practice is that you have to accept and adapt your strategies to the cultural practices and customs of the Roma to have it succeed. This is really hard to implement (or even for many even well-meaning people to accept), since it’s commonly believed that certain aspects of Roma culture are incompatible with non-Roma culture, and that the solution to the Roma is to change their cultural habits.

    Well, there’s my két pengő to this issue. Happy new year to Éva and all the readers of Hungarian Spectrum!

  7. tinshedI am probably being overly-sensitive but I am deeply suspicious whenever social issues are framed as “the [ethnic group] question”. It implies that the issue lies primarily with the particular ethnic group, rather than society at large.

    I agree. It also often entails the belief in a strong permanence of an arbitrarily defined set of cultural traits, and the undemonstrated assumption that these ‘static’ cultural traits have a major influence on the social behavior of individuals within the said group. Incidentally, that the same belief and assumption may be shared by ‘community leaders’ of the said group hardly helps.

    That said, I have no objection at all to serious comparative studies of social behavior along ethno-cultural based cohorts. Most of what I’ve read to this date points to significant variations within groups (both at the national and international levels), to significant evolutions over the last 25 years – some convergent, some divergent – and to a bothering effect of ‘cumulative discrimination’ that has far more to do with the attempts of all human groups to adapt to economic hardships and opportunities than with ethnic presuppositions (the self-inflicted ones included).

    Since I haven’t read the book and am far from Hungary at the moment I won’t comment on its contents. However, I’d be interested in learning more about the amount and quality of the academic research used by its author.

  8. One of the reasons why gipsies survived as a distinct group and have not assimilated into the majority society anywhere (not even in Spain where the difference in looks isn’t so great, but the Sinti exist as a separate ethnic group in India to this day) is that they have a very strong group culture, which includes resistance against assimilation.

    This culture is kind of pre-modern and may seem strange to the majority, although I contend that the majority subconsciously envy many manifestations of this culture: fierce resistance against modernity/capitalism/rationalism, the general “carefreeness” of the gipsies, and the paramount importance attached to the concept of family/clan. And as always, envy manifests itself in hatred, because the majority hate themselves for being too “weak” to resist these forces.

    The point is why can’t it be said that gipsies have a distinct culture — acknowledging also that the gipsies are not homogenous. For example apparently the Budapest-based gipsies could adapt to modernity and could assimilate much better, partly because the institutions, the work opportunities, the entire world are much more conductive in Budapest to such modernization.

    Unfortunately, the rural world in Hungary, that is everything outside Budapest is such that it is almost impossible to create such complex environment to this catching up to modernity or assimilation. Education is key, but is not enough. Lack of good infrastructure and work opportunities, problematic modes of exercise of power (much more feudal in nature in rural areas and more rational in Budapest) etc. all sort of conspire against catching up. I’m not sure what the right approach is, but surely there is no one silver bullet.

    But first, one must say out that just as Hungarians in general do not behave like Norwegians and have different set of values, many, especially rural and poor gipsies are culturally different from the majority. Facing this reality is the very first step. They are Hungarians too, but different Hungarians.

  9. buddy2) any solution to the problems that the Roma face has take cultural factors into account for it to succeed, …

    Indeed, but it’s much more complicated than what most ‘cultural critics’ write.

    For instance, the current birth rate rise is uneven (there’s actually been a long term decrease in Budapest, except for fresh inner migrants), and for those concerned it appears to be caused (Janky, 2006) by lower expectancies of a favorable economic outcome among youngest women. Having a child early (vs. longer education & a job) becomes an alternative means of reaching a certain social status. The ‘cultural factor’ is not the initial motive and plays a role only in the final preference – furthermore the same phenomenon has been observed in very different groups.

  10. The only correct word to characterize the Roma leadership is “failure”.

    In the last 100 years, this characterized all Hungarian leaderships.

    The Roma leadership falls into the same category.

    The only exception was the Zionist leadership, which created a mini Exodus, and established the world’s most amazing mini resurrection in Israel.

    The Zionism took its inspiration from the Hungarian Reform Age, and it owes a great gratitude to the successful leaders of the 1867 Hungary.

    There is a need for Hungarian unity, to restore normal life to all Hungarians, without discrimination.

    As a small nation, it can not afford to leave anybody back.

    We need a special Hungarian exodus from the misery, corruption, oppression, and false myths of the old days. Under a good leadership, we can accomplish it.

  11. Christian society is often exploited through their ‘guilt reflex’. Primitive cultures and societies are quick to recognize this weakness and often play to it. It’s prevalent in Africa: and similarly, it’s the same in Hungary.

    The gypsy culture is, in the main, an ‘outsider’ mentality–gypsy (oh, yes, Roma) thrive in opposition to mainstream culture. Roma have always lived off of what they could get from the mainstream without working for it. Sure, there are Roma who want to get ahead normally, but when they do, they are immediately shunned by the main Roma community of their region.
    In turn, those who have extracted themselves by a successful occupation and a home, want nothing to do with the old community.

    So, the problem is not only poor government policies–certainly corrupt, Roma leadership have a lot to answer for–but also finding what the mainstream would find acceptable and doable.

    In my opinion, the first thing is to filter the Roma society to find those families ready to sincerely
    take advantages offered them. Piecemeal improvement is the only way.

  12. The interesting part was that which was not written about, ie. Hungary.

    I’m sure the games were very similar with all those travels of Orban and Szijjarto to Moscow (and all over Europe to secretly get the deal done, incl. paks).

  13. petofi,

    You wrote; “Roma have always lived off of what they could get from the mainstream without working for it.”

    I’m not sure exactly what you mean by this, but historically, the Roma have been known for holding important, skilled positions, such as blacksmiths and tinkers, and in recent years are known in Budapest for scavenging the trash left twice a year by the street for pick-up, taking things that others have no use for and repairing or recycling it. This is not exactly done “without working for it”, and is a very useful endeavour for society and the environment. It’s possible that I don’t know the whole story, and there is some scam involved, but it’s certainly not done without work, as these people spend a lot of time sorting through the piles of trash, protecting what they’ve found from others, and carting it off somewhere.

    The Roma have enough problems without well-meaning people perpetuating unsavoury stereotypes. Perhaps there are plenty of Roma who are work-shy, but there are plenty of non-Roma Hungarians with the same affliction.

  14. @Googly:
    Not only do some Roma collect the “Sperrmüll” (Lim-lom) in Hungary – I’ve often overtaken their Ladas towing trailers full with those old bicycles etc which they collected in Austria and even Germany (though there is a competition with Romanians there because Germans often throw things away which are still functioning, just a bit scratched …).

    And yes, that is a really good idea – now in Germany people are starting “repair clubs” where specialists repair electrical gear or bicycles for free or for a nominal sum. We live in a world where we run the danger of consuming too much too fast – in German it’s called the “Wegwerfgesellschaft” (throw away society) …

  15. I think that approaching the Gypsy/Roma issue in Hungary with preconceptions will never result in any kind of reasonable resolution of the challenges of dealing with this issue. Ditto the handling of Aboriginal issues in Australia.

    In terms of the basics, I think that ‘buddy’ above is right on the money.

    First, I don’t think that assimilation should be the aim, but integration, which means acceptance of those willing and able to integrate into mainstream society without expecting them to give up cherished ethnic ways or identities. This is of course the core of multiculturalism, which is a given, taken for granted in overseas Anglo-Saxon societies, but an extremely tough challenge not just for the small, language/based nationalisms in Eastern Europe, but the Western European nation-states as well.

    Second, I think that Hungarian society needs a multi-generational perspective on the process of resolving the Gypsy/Roma issue, because it is not something that can be resolved from one day to the next, or even in the course of one or two generations. Stereotypical Gypsies/Roma do exist in large numbers, denial of this is not at all helpful, and there would always be many recalcitrants and recidivists resisting change and making it difficult for others who would be eager to join the mainstream to embrace opportunities to change. Thus patience, tolerance, generosity and consistency of approach on the part of mainstream society would be crucial factors in finding a solution to this problem.

    Third, I see a need for multiple, customized solutions that would need to be applied in parallel, because not everyone is the same, not every family is the same, and neither is every clan or tribe Gypsies/Roma. What works for one or some, does not work for others. I think therefore that before deciding on policy and implementation, numerous small scale experiments should be carried out over a number of years in order to find out what works and what doesn’t, and to identify with which cohort a given approach works, and with which cohort it does not work.

    Third, and above all, whatever is done absolutely must be done in a way as to support and enhance the self-respect and self-esteem of the people being helped and assisted to join the mainstream. And that can only be achieved by encouraging and applying their inputs to the process and by respecting their cherished ethnic ways and identities. Without that, nothing will ever work, even with the best of left-liberal human rights intentions.

    That is basically the lesson from the Australian experience with its Aboriginal people. In our early history we have done some really horrible things to the First People of Australia, and later, when we realized the error of our ways, we have made some horrid and stupid mistakes while thinking that we could quickly buy our way out of the problem by splurging billions of dollars on it. Didn’t really begin to work until we realized, all to late, during the course of the past three or four decades, that our heart has to be in it, too, and that the key issue is nurturing and enhancing the self-respect and self-esteem of our indigenous people.

  16. By the way, often very simple little ideas and kindnesses seem to also work just fine at the micro-level.

    For example adopting a family, turning up each morning to give the kids a lift to school, and giving the kids a good, solid breakfast on the way. Then, in late afternoon, spending a bit of time with the kids, helping them with their homework, together with one’s own kids or grand-kids. Strongly reinforcing and building on their successes whilst minimizing attention to their failures. Taking them out for outings and picnics, and celebrating their birthdays. Making them feel like equals, like real human beings.

    It is amazing the changes that can be wrought by strong, confident and empathetic civic action.

  17. And fostering genuine friendship with their parents to overcome suspicion and fear, however difficult this might be at the beginning.

  18. Mike Balint’s observations from Australia can be very constructive.

    Many Hungarian Gypsies are in a social crisis. These problems mean living in poverty, lack of education, state of mental problems.

    The work should start with psychological preparations, calming down the nation, apologizing for prejudices against the Gipsies, and encouraging the needy Gipsies to accept the rehab.

    An early intensive rehab must be organized.

    Applying the same parameters to all Hungarians, the rehab must be designed to lift all people out the crisis. So the rehab can be applied to non-gypsies, too.

  19. And, of course, the entire object of the exercise is to gradually wean them off welfare dependence and self-destructive, socially counterproductive behaviour patterns, and make it possible for them to readily join the mainstream and make their way productively and confidently just like the majority of others in the mainstream.

  20. Googly wrote at 4:12 PM that the Roma deserves freedom from prejudices.

    Well meaning or hostile prejudices and generalizations are bad.

    I did not agree with Magdalena Marsovszky’s rejection of Debreczeni’s book.


    Debreczeni wrote a constructive book, and I hope that a helpful rehab program will finally start.


    All decent people should reject the state inspired fidesz.kndp.jobbik incitement against the Gipsies.

    PS Galamus labels its pages very logically, by including the title of the article.

  21. I also think that specialized adult education, i.e. literacy and numeracy education and programs to skill up with relevant competencies those adult Gypsies/Roma who would be interested in undertaking such programs, together with paying a stipend to participants during their training, and then positive discrimination in favour of those who successfully completed such programs, would also be crucial in advancing Gypsy/Roma integration into the Hungarian mainstream. This would also have a cumulative effect over time, encouraging more and more individuals to join in and succeed.

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