Hungary is a landlocked country located in central Europe with a diverse cultural milieu. Throughout history, there has been a constant struggle for Hungarians to find their own voice and identity while under the control of various forces (such as the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburgs and the Soviet Union). Today, these struggles continue to influence Hungarian society and attitudes. For example, some Hungarians still look back at certain periods of time in the past as Hungary’s golden years, whilst others seek to focus on the country and people’s present achievements. Today, Hungarians have a distinctive identity that is often exhibited through their pride in cuisine, high standard of hospitality, language and other traditions and customs unique to Hungary (hungarikum).
Within Hungary, the majority of the population identify as ethnically Hungarian (85.6%). Hungarians may call themselves ‘Magyars’, a term that specifically refers to both the group and the language. In the post-WWI period, Hungary was compelled to sign the Treaty of Trianon, which led to the redrawing of the country’s borders. This meant that Hungarians lost two-thirds of the country’s total land. Consequently, more than 3 million Hungarians were located in neighbouring countries. Some families were forced to leave their homes or were separated from other family members. At the end of the communist period (1989), the Hungarian government assumed responsibility for supporting Hungarians living outside the country’s borders. Many Hungarians living outside of Hungary in these regions still keep strong cultural ties with the motherland and are often known as ‘Hungarians from across the border’.
Of the remaining population, 3.2% identify as Roma, 1.9% identify as German, 2.6% identify with some other and 14.1% are unspecified.1 The Roma population is usually underestimated in official statistics and may represent 5-10% of Hungary’s population. They tend to live nomadic lifestyles and typically have disadvantageous economic positions and social status. The relationship between the Hungarian majority and Roma minority is complex, reflecting tensions between the two groups.
There is also a considerably large Jewish population in Hungary, although the population is often considered a religious community rather than an community. In turn, they are not identified in census data as an . Nevertheless, the Jewish presence in Hungary is significant, considering the context of its historical, cultural and intellectual legacy. In recent times, the Jewish community has decreased in size, with many migrating abroad in part due to fear of discrimination. More information about the Jewish community in Hungary can be found in the Religion section under ‘Judaism in Hungary’.
Hungarian Society and Stratification
The communist period diminished many of the social and economic differences that were once present in Hungary. During the communist era, most people had secure jobs with a steady income, yet felt discontent towards the government. In the post-communist period, life became uncertain with the reduction in job security and massive changes to the economy. Additionally, many services and industries were privatised, including housing. This continues to impact Hungary, whereby financial matters, such as housing, continue to be a point of concern for many. With the lack of available housing and rising cost of houses, it is becoming increasingly difficult for many to own a house (see ‘Household Structure’ in Family for more information).
Today, Hungarian society is becoming more stratified in light of changes in the post-communist era. Many Hungarians are moving abroad to seek employment opportunities. One way this is making a significant impact on Hungarian society is the shortage of medical practitioners. For some, the standard of health care is believed to be problematic, and it can be difficult to receive adequate health care. Older Hungarians often tend to attribute economic changes (such as the rising cost of living) to the government rather than global factors. This mentality is a legacy of the communist era, wherein the government controlled nearly all facets of society.
Hungarians tend to be quite , meaning that the interests of oneself and one’s take priority. Hungarians rely on their close friends and family for support. For many Hungarians, close friends and family will be the first people they reach out to in a time of need, rather than the broader community or institutions.
Demeanour and Attitudes
A common attitude among many Hungarians is a sense of sombreness and nostalgia. One will often express discontent about past events, present conditions or doubts about their own future (see ‘Verbal’ in Communication). Some Hungarians tend to be past-oriented, often looking at the past as greater than the present. For example, some Hungarians look at the pre-Trianon era as a time in which Hungary was flourishing economically and the standard of living was higher. This tendency is referred to as Trianon Syndrome and has reemerged at various points in history. In the post-communist period, Trianon Syndrome resurfaced and continues today among some Hungarians. Some are still concerned about the events surrounding the Treaty of Trianon while others prefer to look beyond the event. This split in attitude is evident in political, social and cultural life. For example, some consider dates of significance as defeats from the past, while others look to celebrate the successes of Hungary, such as achievements in the sciences, scholarship and arts.
Another common trait among Hungarians is their adaptability. Throughout history, Hungarians have had to adapt to various social, political and economic changes. Today on a more local level, if obstacles appear in front of Hungarians, they will often try to find a way around them. This is reflected in the Hungarian saying, “A zúrt nagykapu mellett, mindig van egy kiskapu” (“If the big gate is closed, there’s always a little gate open”). For example, there was a point in time where people were unable to buy fridges in Hungary. In turn, many Hungarians drove to Vienna (the capital city of Austria) to buy a fridge and brought it home by tying it to the roof of the car.
Hungarians also have a tendency to be hospitable. Indeed, Hungarians tend to enjoy hosting and socialising with their friends and family. Food is often a major point of socialising among Hungarians as well as a major source of pride. Many believe food is deeply important and much pride is associated with Hungarian cuisine. Particular Hungarian cuisine elements, such as the spice known as paprika, are highly cherished.
A longstanding divide between the rural and urban culture in Hungary continues unabated. On the one hand, Hungarian traditions in the countryside were preserved by rural customs, village life and folklore. On the other hand, cities were the centre of education and innovation. At times, some question which culture – urban or rural – is more representative of contemporary Hungary.
Nowadays, over 70% of the Hungarian population reside in urban areas. The capital city of Budapest dominates the country, both in terms of population size and concentration within its borders, as the place where most of the country’s scientific, scholarly and artistic institutions are located. Urban culture, particularly in Budapest, tends to be quite cosmopolitan and distinct from rural culture. Indeed, some say that there are ‘two Hungarys’: one in Budapest and one outside.
Within Europe more broadly, Hungarians prefer to refer to themselves as a part of Central Europe. This is in part due to the belief that Hungary is a crossroads between Eastern and Western Europe, or “kompország”: a ferry country between two shores. Due to historical events and the unique Hungarian language (see below), Hungarians often view their national identity as isolated and distinctive among their neighbours.
The term ‘Hungarikum’ refers to any phenomenon that is unique to Hungary. The term stems from a combination of the word ‘Hungary’ or ‘Hungaria’ and ‘unikum’ meaning ‘unique’ in Hungarian. Hungarikums are often a source of pride and sense of identity for many Hungarians, both in Hungary and abroad. Hungarikums can be various things, from animals and plants to folk music and dances. Particularly, various food products – such as gulyás soup and paprika – are considered to be Hungarikums.
One notable example of a Hungarikum is the official language of Hungary. Nearly the whole population speak Hungarian, also known as Magyar (99.6%). While the language varies according to the region, the various dialects are understood to nearly all Hungarians throughout the country. The Hungarian language is unique among the European nations as it is a part of the Uralic language family, as opposed to the Indo-European language family. This means that the Hungarian language is unrelated to the languages of neighbouring countries. This uniqueness coupled with the belief that Hungarian is a particularly difficult language to learn makes the Hungarian language a source of Hungarian identity and pride for many people.
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