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Modern Hungary: Still Stuck Between Rome and Byzantium?

June 29, 2016

The European Union has been an effort to dismantle ancient mechanisms of division through the promotion of free movement, security, and unbiased justice within the internal borders. Despite the implied challenges of unifying various ethnicities, the European Union seems to succeed. But what about non-European ethnicities? Do the democratic ideals of acceptance, equality, and peace – all accepted and established in the Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europe – remain firm when tested by outsiders? Hungary is a nation currently undergoing this test and the results so far reveal acceptance of some and a deep-seated distrust of others.

Taking a walk down the famed Andrassy út or Vaci útca in Budapest promises encounters with hordes of European and non-European foreigners. Groups of smiling faces can be heard chit-chatting in English, French, German, Chinese, Russian and a number of other languages. And with good reason: Budapest has become one of the top tourist destinations in Europe. In 2015, the luxury and lifestyle travel magazine Condé Nast Traveler named Budapest the second-best city in the world, outranking traditional favorites like London, Prague, Sydney, Bruges, and Rome. [i] Why has the capital of Hungary become such a sought out destination? For those looking for a vacation abroad, Budapest offers many interesting options for very affordable prices. Thermal spas, iconic bridges, majestic castles, five-star cuisine and trendy cafés are all easily accessible in a relatively small capital city. Apart from that, it seems Hungarian hospitality is unbeatable since Budapest was named in 2014 as “Europe’s Most Welcoming City.” [ii]

This, of course, comes as a surprise for those who have been paying attention to European news in the last year. Hungary and its government have been on the vanguard in the push to close borders and refuse entry to asylum seekers, the majority of whom have been fleeing their war-torn homes in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq. In regard to the asylum seekers, Hungary has demonstrated that it is among the least welcoming countries in Europe. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made his thoughts on the matter quite clear in an interview with Politico when he said, “The factual point is that all terrorists are migrants.” [iii] By linking a logical fear of terrorism with the incredibly general label of “migrants,” Prime Minister Orbán revealed a deeper layer of the Hungarian façade, one that strikingly contrasts “Europe’s Most Welcoming City.”

It was in October of 2015 when a Hungarian teacher of Geography disclosed his thoughts on the surge of Arab immigrants. Paraphrasing the long-time teacher and resident of Budapest, who was raised in a small village outside of the capital city, he voiced concerns about the threat posed by the Arab immigrants to the stability of the European Union. [iv] When asked why such worries should be taken seriously, he cited Hungary’s violent and oppressive history with outsiders. Perhaps he has a point. In the 16th century, what was known then as the Kingdom of Hungary was invaded by the Ottoman Empire. The kingdom was split in two. The West and the North remained in the hands of Hungarians and was renamed the Royal Hungary. This newfound country was largely populated by nobles. The South and the East were ruled by the Ottomans, and they took more than three million Hungarians as slaves. The new rulers encouraged nearly 100,000 Muslims to immigrate to their new territory. While the Muslims enjoyed roles as administrators, soldiers, merchants, and artisans, the population of ethnic Hungarians was greatly reduced due to mass murders and deportations. [v]

Like most Europeans, Hungarians pride themselves on their knowledge of history and their cultural identity. More than one thousand years ago, ethnic Hungarians were no more than seven tribes who had settled in the Carpathian Basin after centuries of nomadism led them away from the region of the Ural Mountains in modern day Russia. But eventually there a choice would come for the ethnic Magyars. “Situated between Rome and Byzantium, [the Hungarians] adopted Western culture and opted for Roman Catholicism,” explained Hungarian-born journalist Paul Lendvai. [vi] It was in 998 near the town of Veszprém in western Hungary, that seven Magyar tribes were united by the deeply pious István (Stephen), thus establishing the first Hungarian Christian state.

This sense of Christian identity has come and gone during the history of Hungary. Forming part of the Soviet-imposed European Communist states after World War II, religion was officially banned until the dissolution of the Communist state in 1990. The strength in Christian identity, and simultaneously the fear of Islam, has returned. Just last month Prime Minister Orbán declared, “To be clear and unequivocal, I can say that Islamisation is constitutionally banned in Hungary.” [vii] It was only in 2011, however, when Prime Minister Orbán and his Fidesz government trumpeted their new constitution in which religious freedom was promised. The catch, though, was that the new constitution deregistered more than 350 religious organizations while also giving the government the power to determine what is and is not a registered religion. [viii] While Prime Minister Orbán and his fellow Hungarians have all the right to protect their unique language and other pillars of their culture, they hardly seem under serious threat. Although the numbers have certainly changed with the influx of Muslim immigrants in the last eighteen months, the 2011 census places the number of Muslims in Hungary at less than one percent of the total population. [ix]

Looking at the educational situation, the Public Education Act mandates that asylum seekers and refugees under the age of sixteen can attend kindergarten and primary school, but many children fail to attend. There are a number of problems that have arisen. The public school system, for one, would not permit children to enroll in school if they arrived after September 1, which is annually the first day of school. So, if any children were awarded refugee status or began actively seeking asylum, say, between September 2, 2015 and June 15, 2016 then they missed the school year. When refugees and asylum seekers could attend school, they were set apart from the Hungarian students. This could be seen as both positive and negative as one former student confirmed: There certainly are difficulties with integration, mostly due to language barriers and cultural differences. [x]

When asked about the relations between non-Hungarian students and Hungarian teachers, the student offered this: “Most of the time there is a language barrier between students and teachers. The majority of Hungarian teachers do not speak more than one language.” [xi]

Of course, not all of the immigrants in Hungary are asylum seekers and refugees. A number of economic migrants also call Budapest home. One private international school saw a forty percent increase in enrollment between June 2015 and September 2015. The majority of the new students were economic immigrants, some coming from Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan while many others arrived from China. Many of the Chinese take advantage of The Hungarian Investment Immigration Program which offers a citizenship plan for foreigners who are willing to purchase a minimum of EUR 300,000 worth of Hungarian bonds. [xii]

The interesting aspects of this case are that it is first an international school that offers a Hungarian national curriculum along with an international curriculum taught in English, and second the tuition fees of the school total annually at approximately USD 12,000. This is a significant sum of money for a country where the average net-adjusted income is just over USD 15,000 per year. [xiii] Also telling is the day-to-day experience of the foreign students. Arab students can be seen huddled together in the corner of a hallway, speaking in their native language. While it is also common to see groups of Chinese students walking together, it is not uncommon to see them mingling with Hungarians. In the last year, there was never a violent conflict between Hungarian students and their Chinese peers. On the other hand, fights and verbal assaults are a daily occurrence between Arabs and Hungarians. As one parent at the school put it, “most foreigners don’t have to worry. We just don’t like the Arabs.” Another Hungarian teacher, when asked how the foreign students were progressing with the very difficult language, responded, “The Asians are quite diligent and good, but I just ignore the Arabs.”

Hungary is an interesting country with a rich history, a unique language, rural vineyards that rival some of the world’s most famous, and a capital city whose majestic story can be read in the castles that guard the Danube. And the Hungarians will welcome you to their country with open arms, as long as you are not Arab. Between their oppressive history, which has sparked titles of book like A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat, their long memory, and their sporadic Christianity, Hungarians see the European migrant crisis as a threat to the survival of their culture. History teacher and doctoral candidate Bárány Balázs confirmed that Hungary is like an island is a Germanic and Slavic cultural sea. Hungarians and their culture have survived over the centuries by putting up with the foreign oppressor. In his interview he mentions an “underground stream” of resentment towards the outsider, and the current government plays on xenophobic sentiments.[xiv]


i Editors, CNT. “The 30 Best Cities in the World: Readers’ Choice Awards 2015.” Condé Nast Traveler. Condé Nast, 20 Oct. 2014. Web. 15 May 2016.

ii Gyori, Roberta. “Budapest – ‘Europe’s Most Welcoming City'” Visit Budapest., 27 Jan. 2014. Web. 15 May 2016.

iii Kaminski, Matthew. “‘All the Terrorists Are Migrants'” POLITICO. POLITICO SPRL, 22 Nov. 2015. Web. 15 May 2016.

iv “Interview with Stiblar Attila.” Personal interview. Oct. 2015.

v Lendvai, Paul. “7-8.” The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2003. 75-105. Print.

vi Lendvai, Paul. “3.” The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2003. 28. Print.

vii “Hungary’s Orban: ‘Islamisation’ Banned By Constitution.” Breitbart News. Breitbart, 26 Apr. 2016. Web. 15 May 2016.

viii “International Religious Freedom Report for 2014.” U.S. Department of State. U.S. Department of State, n.d. Web. 15 May 2016.

ix “National Data.” Hungarian Central Statistical Office. N.p., 2011. Web. 15 May 2016.

x “Interview with Balazs Hajnalka.” E-mail interview. 13 May 2016.

xi “Interview with Balazs Hajnalka.” E-mail interview. 13 May 2016.

xii “The Hungarian Investment Immigration Program.” Embassy of Hungary in Beijing: The Hungarian Investment Immigration Program. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Hungary, 16 Jan. 2015. Web. 15 May 2016.

xiii “Hungary.” OECD Better Life Index. OECD, n.d. Web. 15 May 2016.

xivInterview with Barany Balazs.” E-mail interview. 2 June 2016.


  1. Dordogne

    Hungary seems to be stuck in the history. They could not forget to past and embrace the future. Discriminating people because of the place of their birth is a backwardness that we see more and more in Europe. I hope things will become better, but it seems like the situation deteriorates each passing day. A great thanks to the author for the fantastic essay. I enjoyed reading it enormously.

  2. Sophia M.

    I thank the author for the essay. It was very informative. Especially schools should be the places where discrimination and racism will be eradicated. But what happens in the Hungarian schools is concerning.I had sojourned in Hungary for a few months, Hungarian people were always kind towards me. I have not felt the resentment towards western foreigners, but Arab people were discriminated greatly. Once, in the supermarket, cashier commented on the veil of an Arab lady waiting on the line, like, ah, how they can dress up like that. And everybody on the line agreed with her and furthered her comments against the Arabs. The sad thing that in Hungary you don’t even need to conceal your racist sentiments, you can be accepted and supported by manifesting them under all circumstances.

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