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Chapter 1
Origins and Scope of the Refugee Problem

The military collapse of the Habsburg monarchy opened the way to a revolutionary transformation of East Central Europe. Released energies found expression in two forms: in national or social revolutions. The Horthy regime emerged as a negation of both.

Attempts to create new states and carve out nation-states from the body of the destroyed empire, were revolutions of the first type. States whose principal aim was the establishment of a new economic and political order represented the second. Both types of revolution implied a radical revision of assumptions about the state and public authority and a basic restructuring of state institutions. But in regions where the first type prevailed, the main concern of the new leaders was to gain physical control of the sought territories and to establish a new type of public authority based on purely national principles. Where revolution was essentially social, public attention was centered on the ideological foundation of the new society. National revolution was characteristic of territories populated mostly by the national minorities of the old empire. The newly formed states of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, as well as the resurrected Poland and the vastly enlarged Romania fall into this category. Hungary belongs to the second type.

The Hungarian national revolution took place in the nineteenth century. By the twentieth century Hungarian national identity was well defined and the nation's right to an independent existence, to form a nation-state, was universally recognized. But, the social structure was in need of revision.

With the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, social reformers rose to power in Hungary. In the secessionist states, on the other hand, the nation and state builders came to the fore. The main concern of the revolutionary government of Mihály Károlyi was to create a new concept of loyalty to the state. Loyalty was no longer to be derived from blind nationalism but earned by the state through its commitment to democracy and justice. Hungary's new leaders believed that an alliance of progressive and radical intelligentsia, the urban socialist working class, and the rural proletariat--whose land hunger had to be satisfied--would have the strength to preserve a truly democratic regime. Elimination of social inequalities and restraint of Hungarian nationalism would, they hoped bring about a reconciliation between all the peoples of the Carpathian basin.

In the Successor States, by contrast, while rhetoric about social justice was not missing, loyalty to the new states had to be based on nationalism. A successful consolidation within the newly formed states depended upon a rapid formation of new loyalties: identification of the population with the territorial extent of the new states. This required a formation of, say, a new Czechoslovak national identity, to correspond with the proposed territory of the Czechoslovak nation-state. It had to replace old separate Czech, Slovak, or Ruthenian regional identities, identification with Austria, or, in the case of Slovaks and CarpathoUkrainians, with Hungary. Similar reorientation was required of the new citizens of Yugoslavia and Romania. Croatians and Slovenes had to learn to identify with Yugoslavia,* to become accustomed to look to the former King of Serbia and his government as the natural source of public authority. Romanians of Transylvania had to adjust their visions to look toward Bucharest for political and cultural leadership and to identify with Greater Romania. This new orientation was especially difficult for Croatians, who were always conscious of the independent existence of a Croatian nation, who were separated from Serbians by their Catholicism, and who were proud of their Western as opposed to Serbia,s Eastern orientation.

Where national cohesion was absent direct physical force had to compensate. Concepts of Czechoslovak, Yugoslav, and Greater Romanian national identities within the newly acquired territories were introduced by the Czech Legion, the Serbian, and to a lesser degree, Romanian armies. The military forces of these states severed the flow of authority from Budapest, began the process of consolidation and integration of these areas into the new states, and passed judgment upon the potential loyalty or disloyalty of the population to the new regimes. These crude determinations were based not on ideology but on nationality. Only the handful of Communists came under immediate persecution without regard for nationality.

The old Hungarian ruling and official classes of the separated territories were caught between the social revolutionaries in power in Hungary and the nationalism of the Successor States. They were considered personae non gratae in both areas. Still, they had to choose between revolutionary Hungary and remaining under foreign rule as a subject minority exposed to economic ruin and political persecution. The great majority of the agrarian Hungarian population of the lost territories decided to remain. But most of those who belonged to the old Hungarian elite opted for; or were compelled to depart and become refugees in Hungary. Between 1918 and 1924 an estimated 426,000 Hungarians left the territories ceded to Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Austria. Precise figures on the number of refugees are not available. Our primary source of information on this subject is the final report of the National Refugee Office (OMH), published at the time of its termination in 1924. According to this report 350.000 refugees were registered by the OMH. Of these. 197,035 came from Romania, 106,841 from Czechoslovakia, 44,903 from Yugoslavia, and 1,221 from the new Austrian province of Burgenland. '

A closer examination of the report, however, reveals that these may be considered only minimum figures. Systematic data collection about the refugees did not begin until April 1920, when the OMH was established.[2] Before that date the various refugee aid organizations kept some records on the number of refugees, but these were haphazard and incomplete. The best records were kept by the Transylvanian refugee aid groups.[3] The other refugee organizations, such as the Upland League (Felvidéki Liga) and the Szepes Alliance (Szepesi Szövetség), servicing the refugees from Czechoslovakia, and the Southland Alliance (Délvidéki Szövetség), those from Yugoslavia, covered only a fragment of the total number of refugees; thus their records have little statistical value.

Responsibilities of the National Refugee Office were threefold. First, to unify and centralize aid to all refugees and assure a fair distribution of available funds. Second, to assure the collection of accurate data on the magnitude of the refugee problem. This information was to be used by the Office for Peace Preparations for presenting Hungary's case at the Paris Peace Conference. Lastly, the OMH had to organize the refugees into regional cultural and political associations to preserve group cohesion and to cultivate loyalty to their lost homelands.

The OMH made strenuous efforts to rectify earlier omissions in data collecting. Through press and other channels it officially called upon all refugees in the country to register with the Office. But, according to the OMH Report, "the results were not satisfactory. Generally only those registered who were in need of aid."[4 ]Another attempt was made to arrive at some accurate figures at the time of the 1920 census taking. Even this proved to be a failure because many of those who had already settled were not recorded as refugees. The figures provided in the OMH Report, therefore, fall far short of the actual number of refugees.

Several other sources, however, may be used to approximate the number of those individuals who fled to Hungary between 1918 and 1920, but whose presence for various reasons eluded the official registrars. The 1920 census figures are useful. At the beginning of 1921, according to these, 265,145 individuals lived within Trianon Hungary who were born in territories ceded to Czechoslovakia, 197,181 such individuals were born in Romania, 97,643 in Yugoslavia (74,412 excluding Croatia-Slavonia), 21,416 in Austria, and 2,206 in Fiume.[5] Without Fiume and Croatia-Slavonia this adds up to 558,154 individuals born in the lost territories. According to the OMH Report by the end of 1920 291,287 refugees were present in Hungary.[6] This implies that 266,867 individuals migrated to inner Hungary from the periphery prior to the dismemberment of the country. This would be true, however, only if we accept these figures at their face value. It is possible to estimate the number of those individuals who arrived in Trianon Hungary before and after the war by using two other statistical sources. One, the statistics on internal migration before the war; second, the postwar censuses of the Successor States, which in all cases recorded a much higher decline of the Hungarian population within their territories than would have been justified if the OMH refugee figures were correct. Neither of these two sources is totally reliable. Yet, they serve as a gauge to establish the upper limit of refugee strength.

The main line of internal migration in prewar Hungary was from all parts of the country toward the center, especially from the north toward the south, and from the west in an easterly direction. Upper Hungary lost most heavily through internal migration, second was the southern region, while Transylvania gained in population. Based on migration statistics our estimate for the number of refugees who went unrecorded are as follows:[7]

Migration to Trianon Hungary from the Lost Areas


Number of people in 1920 born in





Number of recorded refugees in 1920





Estimated migration prior to 1918 from





Estimated number of
unrecorded refugees





By using the second method of approximation, i.e., by comparing the postwar censuses of the Successor States, the results are:[8]

Estimated Number of Refugees Based on the Postwar Censuses
of the Successor States[9]


Census year
Hungarian population in 19l0
Remaining Hungarian nationals in the postwar censuses




Registered decline of Hungarian population




Recorded number of refugees at time of these censuses




Changed nationality, plus other adjustments[10]




Unaccounted individuals

The combined results of the two tables indicate that we may conservatively estimate that during the 1918-20 period an additional 76,000 unrecorded individuals entered Hungary from the Successor States. Thus, our final estimate on the number of refugees as compared to the OMH figures is as follows:


Estimated number
OMH figures

As a result of this massive flight of the Hungarian population the total number of Hungarians remaining as minorities in the Successor States sharply declined; in Czechoslovakia (as compared with the 1910 census figures) the size of the Hungarian population decreased by 13.7 percent, in Romania by 13.4 percent, and in Yugoslavia, by 9.5 percent. At the same time the population of Trianon Hungary increased by about 5.3 percent.

The precise time of the arrival of these refugees in Hungary is more difficult to establish. Our only source is the incomplete report of the Refugee Office. According to this document the recorded 350,000 refugees arrived in the following order:[11]



It is most likely that the additional 76,000 refugees fled to Hungary during the last two months of 1918 and during the early part of 1919. Generally the rate of refugee flow corresponded to the political changes in Hungary. A correlation can also be established between the number of refugees arriving in each year and the various anti-Hungarian social and economic measures introduced in the Successor States. Romania was the slowest in carrying out those measures which partly accounts for the high rate of refugee flow from that country even in 1921.

The motivation for departure from the Successor States came from several sources. The governments of Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia, stimulated by both excessive nationalism and by anxieties about lack of internal cohesion within their states, introduced policies either to eliminate or at least neutralize the dangers presented by the incorporation of a large number of Hungarians. These governments were determined to wrest political and economic powers from the previous Hungarian ruling classes. Even if their objectives had been merely to establish equality between Hungarians and ex-minorities a large segment of the Hungarian population would have been negatively affected. Transfer of power to the new governments, therefore, threatened the existence of most of the middle and upper class Hungarians in the lost areas. In the final analysis, however, the decision to leave still had to be made individually by most Hungarians. Each person had to decide at one point that his/her existence was no longer assured under one of the new regimes. But what was the breaking point? What were those compelling reasons that forced tens of thousands to leave property, abandon homes, towns, or villages, and accept the uncertain and harsh life of refugees?

We may distinguish four motivating factors which may, at one time or another, have influenced an individual to depart: fear of actual physical danger; nationalism and unwillingness to live under foreign domination; loss of economic security; and finally, inability of many to accept loss of social status. Aristocrats and landed nobles, army officers and soldiers who fought the advancing Romanian or Czech armies were the first to leave. Many state and county officials of the minority regions had reason to fear revenge. Thus county officials, judges, public prosecutors, members of the gendarmerie often fled before the arrival of the invading armies. Most ultranationalists also left before or soon after the physical occupation of these areas. They refused to accept dismemberment of Hungary; most believed that it was possible to continue the struggle against the new states from Hungary. All fervently believed that the new boundaries would be only temporary and that return to their homelands, at the head of a victorious army, was only a matter of time. Also, there were many individuals among the refugees who, motivated by patriotism, refused to take an oath of loyalty to the new governments with the almost inevitable consequence of dismissal from their state or county offices.

For some of the Hungarian middle classes the decisive moment arrived only after the purge of Hungarians from the state administration and educational system began in earnest. Dismissed officials, railroad employees, and teachers faced an immediate economic crisis which forced their departure. Subsequent purges in commercial, financial, and industrial establishments compelled many professionals and members of the managerial strata to make similar decisions. Finally, land reforms destroyed the economic power of Hungarian landowners. Those reforms affected not only the noble owners of estates. A much larger number of estate employees, managers, agronomers, and even servants, whose existence was tied to large-scale agriculture and to the aristocratic style of life found their economic existence undermined. They, too, had to choose between remaining or leaving their homelands. The alternative to a flight to Hungary was to work in less prestigious positions, perhaps, even as manual workers. Most of the officials and state employees were incapable of accepting the loss of social status that would have resulted from their change of occupation.

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