Sculpting Identity: The stolen past of Hungarians

By Kinga Mojzes
When a state consists of multiple ethnic groups, it is often difficult to appease everyone under the rule of a person or party representing a single identity. We can see this in the Kashmir region, the Catalans in modern Spain or even in Trump’s America. This is where identity politics, usually drenched in nationalism, often comes into play. The building of the ‘Other’, that is to say creating a sense of difference between the ‘us’ and ‘them’, is usually the outcome of dominant groups trying to secure the hierarchy. But what can be done when the minority is almost equal to the majority as was the case in the Austrian Empire? The Habsburg dynasty, in power in Hungary from 1526 until 1918, had a unique solution. Instead of creating the usual narrative of ‘us’ and ‘them’, the Habsburgs decided to reform the entire backbone of Hungarian identity instead.

Hungarian identity was already a fragile concept long before the Hungarian Monarchy joined with the Austrian Monarchy. This is mostly due to the fact that even today, it is not clear where or when exactly Hungarians originated. The most widespread theory is the Finno-Ugric one, which is based almost entirely on the similarities between the respective languages. But as any Finnish or Hungarian person can tell you, apart from the very basic grammar structure, there are few similarities between the two languages or even cultures. There is also a problem of not being able to determine where Hungarians originated from geographically or even where they settled before the Carpathian basin. Despite some written sources, very little is known of places that were documented as home to the wandering Hungarians. Therefore, the Hungarian identity lacked, and still lacks, a proper root.

The Austrian Empire was an ethnically fragmented state, home to more than ten different ethnicities and composed of several historically separate Kingdoms. Rebellions against the Hapsburg House, especially from the Hungarian Monarchy; composing the larger half of the territory of Empire and almost half the total population; were widespread and relatively frequent. As now, the two most popular origin theories at the time were the Hunnic and the Finno-Ugric ones. This is what the theory of interference is based around. Never officially coined as such, this theory is based on the fact that the Habsburgs favoured the Finno-Ugric origin over the Hunnic, as at the time the Finnish people were commonly conceived as weak-willed, compliant and obedient, with no military history to speak of. Contrary to this, the Huns, as described by Austrian historian Walter Pohl, were a ‘prestigious ruling groups of steppe warriors’, and usually depicted as powerful and rebellious.

For the Habsburgs, who sought to maintain their power over the Hungarian Monarchy , convincing the Hungarian population that they were related to a weak ethnicity instead of powerful nomads was a way to suppress rebellious thought.

This forging of identity is almost unique in identity politics. It was strangely void of its signature overwhelming nationalism, the politics behind it were not focused on raising the ruling ethnicity (Austrian) above other nationalities; in fact the majority of the population was not even directly impacted. Additionally, the ‘Other’ that was used to construct an element of the perceived identity of Hungarians was not even from within the borders of the Empire. It was an ethnic group far away from Austro-Hungarian borders and under Russian rule at the time. But this ‘Other’ is what Hungarians were identified to share a common background with, in hopes that if the population believed that their ‘cousins’ were docile, then they would become that as well.

This mission to sculpt identity by the Habsburgs was relatively easily accomplished and inconspicuous. It was done by systematically offering prominent positions and subsidies to people who supported the Finno-Ugric theory, and only them. If someone was in a position of power or was part of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which was the leading effort in researching Hungarian origin, and supported the Hunnic theory, they were promptly removed or even exiled (e.g. Szentkatolnai Bálint Gábor). Records supporting any theory other than the Finno-Ugric were usually destroyed. Therefore, the Academy only published studies that proclaimed the Finn-Hungarian relation. As expected, any record of these actions exists only on the Hungarian side and is conveniently missing from Habsburg records.
‘The stolen past,’ as many Hungarian theorists like to refer to it, is an interesting notion that raises a lot of questions about identity politics. Can identity be sculpted to fit a narrative? Does it have a long-lasting impact? In the case of Hungarians, instead of building an ‘Other’ opposing them, the ‘Other’ was built to identify with. Their identity, even if there was not a set background, was sculpted carefully. Although the lasting impact can be debated (rebelling seemed to stay as the favourite pastime of the Hungarians even after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), the fact that the Finno-Ugric origin theory is the most widespread and is thought to be indisputable, even though Hungarian prehistory is still being researched today, is proof that this favouritism played by the Habsburgs had an impact on what is considered as ‘Hungarian’ today.


Further reading:



Picture: Arrival of the Hungarians – by Hungarian painter Árpád Feszty


Kinga Mojzes is a third year International Relations student at KCL. She is particularly interested in nationalism and the post-colonial debate.

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