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Chapter 4
Effects of the Land Reforms in
The Successor States

The effect of land, administrative, and educational reforms caused the Hungarian minority to lose its former leading social position and political power. Through the loss of much of its upper and middle classes, it became a sociologically less differentiated group. This was part of the intended goal of the governments in all the Successor States. Dominated by fear of a Hungarian irredenta within their borders, they decided on taking drastic measures against the potentially most volatile and economically most affluent strata of Hungarian minorities. Administrative and education reforms destroyed the power of the middle classes; agrarian reforms eliminated the economic strength and political influence of the landed nobility.

Without doubt the archaic landownership system of Hungary needed reform. But poverty among the national minorities was not due to the nationality policies of Hungary as, at times, it was asserted. It had many causes: poor agricultural soil in the mountainous regions where some of the minorities were concentrated, rapid increase of rural population, and the survival of a feudal aristocracy, in itself an amalgam of various nationalities. In fact, the ratio of landless peasants was the highest among the Hungarians. The proportion of landless peasants among the various nationalities was as follows: Hungarian 49.6 percent; Serbian 41.9 percent; Slovak 33.7 percent; Romanian 32.3 percent; Ruthenian 24.4 percent; and German 29 percent.[1]

During the last two decades before the war, pressures for land reform had greatly intensified. Despite rapid industrialization, the country's economy could not absorb the growing agricultural population. With the passing of each generation the tiny peasant plots dwindled to insignificance as heirs divided meager legacies among themselves. The poverty of the countryside was further aggravated by a series of poor harvests at home, and by depressed grain prices in the West. A growing revolutionary movement among the underemployed and unemployed rural proletariat merely underlined the gravity of the situation.

Some viewed increased overseas emigration as the only solution to the rural overpopulation problem, as a safety valve that promised to relieve the pressures for land reform. The Hungarian government seemed to have shared this view and did little to discourage the nearly one and a half million people who emigrated to the United States between 1900 and 1912.[2] Mass exodus of peasants, which in some areas reached epidemic proportions, however, aroused the concern of Hungarian patriots. Large-scale emigration of Hungarian peasants promised to reduce the proportion of the Hungarian population in the country. To prevent their departure, the Hungarian peasants had to be drawn into the life of the nation by satisfying their ancient hunger for land. Thus, the question of land reform, and, in general, the question of social reform, came to be entwined with the complicated nationality problem. Nonetheless, before World War I no substantial social or land reform was introduced.

Promise of a radical land redistribution by the Károlyi government and, still more important, by the Hungarian Soviet Republic, acted as a sharp spur to all the Successor States to carry out similar programs. It was inconceivable that Slovak, Romanian, or Serbian peasants should be receiving less under their own governments than they were promised by the Hungarians. As Karel Kramar, the prime minister of Czechoslovakia, put it: "It is necessary to take measures concerning the selling of the large estates in Slovakia, that the people may see that we have in this respect as much socialistic sense as the Hungarians who suddenly promise the Slovaks immediate division and distribution of the large estates."[3] The Romanian government had already committed itself to land reform, long before acquisition of any part of Hungary was predictable. This commitment was made by King Ferdinand in a Royal Proclamation to his soldiers on the battlefield of Maresesti,[4] and it was reconfirmed, in 1917, by the Romanian parliament. The Successor States were also very conscious of the far-reaching political and social consequences of land expropriation. It was just as important to destroy the economic power of the Hungarian landowners as it was to wrest from the middle class the instruments of political power, that is, if the integration of the newly gained territories into a new nation-state was to succeed.

Despite pressures it was not possible to put into effect the most radical land reform proposals. The Hungarian landowners found some powerful allies, especially in Czechoslovakia, in the native landowners and upper bourgeoisie. In Czechoslovakia not only Czech, but also German landowners, who were treated with greater circumspection than the Hungarians were staunchly opposed to radical land reform. Even the Czech bourgeoisie urged moderation. They believed that outright confiscation of landed property without compensation would establish a dangerous precedent. Thus when the land reform was carried out, the landowners were not completely dispossessed and some of the lesser holdings remained altogether intact. In Romania and Yugoslavia, on the other hand, where legal consistency seemed less important, the native landowning classes were placated by a double standard of reform that allowed a more severe treatment of Hungarian landowners.

The first land expropriation law in Czechoslovakia was passed in December 1918, primarily directed against Habsburg estates. In the following year the complete Land Expropriation Act was passed. Under this law all arable land holdings above 150 hectares, or above 250 hectares of mixed agricultural and forest lands, were subject to expropriation. The law allowed an individual, under some special circumstances, to retain a larger estate if its retention was in the public interest, but under no circumstances could this estate exceed 500 hectares. Agricultural industries not dependent on the estate for raw materials were exempt from expropriation, as were the properties of local communities. The law guaranteed compensation for the expropriated land, except to the Habsburgs and to "citizens of an enemy state'', This latter stipulation had ominous implication for Hungarians. Even those who were compensated did not receive a fair price. Land values were assessed at 1913-15 prices. Compensation was paid in Czechoslovak crowns, equating it with the prewar Austrian crown. In 1920, however, the actual value of the Czech crown was not more than one-sixth of the 1914 Austrian crown.[5]

Slightly above four million hectares of land were sequestered for land reform, comprising 28.6 percent of the total territory of Czechoslovakia. Out of this 1,396 135 hectares were in Slovakia. and 238,908 hectares in Ruthenia. From these, however, only 498,693 hectares in Slovakia and 45,379 hectares in Ruthenia were arable land, suitable for distribution among the landless of dwarfholding peasantry.[6]

In all Czechoslovakia 1913 owners of large estates suffered expropriation of some land. Through political maneuvering, however, they were able to retain a far greater share of land than the maximum set by the land reform law. From the roughly 4-million hectares of land subject to expropriation the landowners kept over 2 million; from the 1.3-million hectares of arable land about 426,000. In Slovakia, 873, mostly Hungarian landowners, came under the Land Expropriation Act. Yet, in 1932 they still had in their possession 1,118,417 hectares of land. of which 229,406 were arable.[7]

In territories ceded to Yugoslavia the number of Hungarian landowners who suffered under the land reform was smaller, but their losses were more extensive. The land reform process was put into motion in January 1919 by a Royal Proclamation, followed in February by the Preliminary Order for Land Reform. This order became the governing law for expropriation and redistribution of land, though subsequently it had to be amended to cover unexpected cases and to clarify points which had been left obscure by the initial act. In the three provinces where Hungarians owned land--the Voivodina, Croatia-Slavonia, and Slovenia--850 large estates were subject to expropriation. Of the 675 private estates, 123 had Hungarian owners.[8] In these provinces the state expropriated 436,000 hectares of arable land and a grand total of 750,000 hectares. From their roughly 180,000 hectares the Hungarian landowners lost about 111,000, comprising about 61.5 percent of the total land they owned.[9] Furthermore, the property that they were allowed to retain was generally of poor quality and of little economic value.

Out of the 123 Hungarian landowners 61 had fled to Hungary before the land reform. Collectively they owned about 126,000 hectares of land in Yugoslavia, or over 2,000 hectares a holding. The losses of these refugee landowners account for about 81 percent, or 90,000 hectares, of the total property that was expropriated from Hungarian landlords. The 62 landowners who remained in Yugoslavia owned much smaller estates, about 860 hectares each. The refugees were allowed to retain only about a third of their property; those who accepted Yugoslav citizenship kept about 61 percent of their smaller estates.[11]

Property Losses of Hungarian Refugee Landlords[10]

Estates in

Number of landlords

Property owned (in hectares)

From this expropriated

(in hectares)






















Property Losses of Hungarian Landlords
Remaining in Yugoslavia

Estates in

Number of landlords

Property owned (in hectares)

From this expropriated

(in hectares)






















Combined total





The Romanian agrarian reform was the most extensive in East Central Europe; [12] it was also the most controversial. A poisonous dispute between Hungary and Romania raged for over a decade over Romania's right to expropriate the private property of refugee Hungarans.

The Romanian land reform evoked the greatest emotional response in Hungary, mostly because the loss of Transylvania was considered to be the most unjust part of the Trianon treaty. In reality, the Hungarian peasant population was treated with greater severity during the land reforms in Yugoslavia. Also, and contrary to assertions of some Hungarians, the Romanian land reform was not introduced with the sole intention of taking revenge on the Hungarian population. It was as much a response to the severe agrarian crisis in the Regat itself. As we have noted, the Romanian government made a wartime promise to peasants to distribute, after the war, land holdings of the crown, foreigners, corporations, and absentee landlords, and to expropriate, for purpose of land reform, 2-million hectares of land from the native aristocracy. Several times before World War I, promises of major land reform had been made to the Romanian peasantry. Each time--1864, 1881, 1889, and 1907--they were made after peasant uprisings of varying intensity, but each time the boyar class was able to circumvent reform. Thus, in 1918, large estates still contained nearly half of all arable land in the Kingdom of Romania.[13] Postponement of the promised land reform after the war, however, was not possible if an even greater peasant revolt than that of 1907 was to be averted. Naturally, the principle of land reform had to be also extended to the newly acquired territories.

Hungarian critics of the Romanian reform, especially the refugees argued that, although in the Regat land reform was perhaps justifiable, in Transylvania landed property was more evenly distributed. Some even boldly asserted that the existing "distribution of property was ideal.''[14] There is an element of truth in this statement. In Transylvania aristocratic estates were generally smaller than in other parts of Hungary, as were the middle and small noble holdings. At the same time the number of landowners was greater. The nobility itself was more numerous, but, more important, large privileged groups such as the Székelys owned individual small plots, and held communally substantial amounts of mostly forest and pasture lands. Consequently land was more evenly distributed among holdings of various sizes:[15]

Land Distribution in Historic Transylvania

Size of land holdings

Percentage of land held

Dwarf Holdings

0-5 yokes[*]


19 25

Small Holdings
33 67
58 60



Middle Estates


Great Estates
l,000 and above


* 1 yoke=0.75 hectares

The Romanian population, comprising 16. 1 percent of the total population of the Kingdom of Hungary, possessed roughly 16 percent of the land in the country, that is, their landholdings were commensurate with their numbers. Hungarian polemists on this issue insist that, starting with the emancipation of the serfs, the Romanian population had made some significant gains in terms of acquiring wealth. During the last decades of the monarchy a rapid stratification of the once homogeneous Romanian population was clearly discernible. A significant number of rich peasants arose, from whose ranks the Romanian intelligentsia and a thin stratum of commercial bourgeois class also emerged.[16] During the 1890s Romanian peasants with the aid of land speculators and various Romanian banks in Transylvania began to purchase estates from the Hungarian landowners at an accelerating rate,[17] and subdivided these into smaller parcels suitable for single family cultivation. This process, however, was merely part of the overall economic transformation of the country. In other parts of Hungary absorption of the small- and medium-sized noble estates into the great estates was well advanced by the 1890s. There the landless nobility was already urbanized and integrated into the state bureaucracy. In more backward Transylvania, where much of the broken mountainous landscape was unsuitable for large-scale cultivation, the pressure of the large estates was felt less intensely. Consequently small- and medium-sized noble estates survived longer. By the 1890s, however, unprofitability of these estates made their possession increasingly less desirable and, to many gentry families, the high prices offered by the land speculators proved to be irresistible. Romanian peasants, to whom most other avenues of advancement remained closed, gladly paid the often exorbitant price for land. Despite these gains the Romanian population was still at a great disadvantage when compared with the other national groups in Transylvania. While about a third of the Romanian peasants were moderately well off, two-thirds of them lived in poverty. And, although they collectively owned 16 percent of the total territory of Hungary, in historic Transylvania, where their numbers made up 55.9 percent of the population, they owned only about 24 percent of the land. Nor was this property evenly distributed among Romanians. In the southern counties peasants were more prosperous than in the north, and the registered property gains left the vast majority of poorer peasants untouched everywhere. According to Zoltán Szász, in historic Transylvania, 61.7 percent of the landless agricultural workers. 68 percent of the agricultural workers on the estates and 71.6 percent of the peasants with less than five yokes of land were Romanian.[18]

The Romanians' steady acquisition of land was viewed by the Hungarians, and especially by the Transylvanian landowners, with increasing alarm. [19] In it, they perceived the beginnings of the Romanization of Transylvania, a process which they felt powerless to halt. The rapid concentration of the Hungarian population in urban areas, and the abandonment of the countryside to the Romanian peasantry signified, to them, the twilight of the Hungarian character of Transylvania. To the Hungarian gentry, this process of destruction of the landed class in the minority areas represented a double danger. First, growth of an independent land-holding peasantry endangered their power base as the dominant economic and social group. Second, departure of Hungarian landlord from the minority village promoted the growth of minority nationalism.

In discussions among landowners about this rapid loss of Hungarian presence in the Transylvanian countryside, one detects a rising anxiety, a sense of doom and desperation. In a highly revealing speech in 1912, Count István Bethlen, who after the war became the leading spokesman of the refugees, commented on developments in Szolnok-Doboka county:

The village which a Hungarian landlord leaves falls to Romanian leadership on the day of his departure, and in the same hour the assimilation of the remaining Hungarian minority begins. For this reason . . . it is not possible to overemphasize the nationsustaining role of the Hungarian landholding class not only in SzolnokDoboka. but also in the entire Transylvanian basin.... Nor can one sufficiently lament the destruction of the middle-sized estates during the last few years..... [20]

To Bethlen the issue was simple: if Transylvania was to be saved the Hungarian landed class had to be saved first. He proposed, therefore, extensive financial aid to the Hungarian middle- and large-estate owners. massive repurchasing of Romanian-owned land, entailment of Hungarian properties by enacting a law of primogeniture to prevent proliferation of estates, and an energetic colonization of Transylvania by Hungarian peasants.

To many Hungarians it was a silent but deadly war with the survival of Hungary as a Hungarian nation-state at stake; resistance to the'' New Conquest" of Hungary by the Romanians through gradual infiltration and subversion. The Hungarian population was slowly forced back to urban islands and slowly but inevitably Hungarians were engulfed by the surrounding sea of Romanians.[21]

To the Transylvanian Hungarian landowners the Romanian postwar land reform was only the final act in this long struggle for Romanization of Transylvania through deliberate destruction of the Hungarian landowning stratum.

Actual expropriation and redistribution of Hungarian estates began long before the Romanian government could work out a program for land reform. The Romanian peasantry, after news of the monarchy's collapse reached them, sensing that the old order was also to disappear, spontaneously began seizing castles and lands of the Hungarian landlords. The Romanian government, when it finally established its authority over Transylvania, had no alternative but to sanction what was already in some places a fait accompli. In August 1919 the government permitted, as an intermediate measure, the seizure of large estates for the purpose of forced leases. Thus, even before the 1921 land reform law went into effect, 2.38 million yokes of land were expropriated in Transylvania, mostly from Hungarian landlords.[22]

Under the 1921 act the government was empowered to expropriate, in full, estates of foreign citizens and those of public and private institutions. Private landlords in Transylvania were allowed to retain 28.7 hectares of land in the mountainous region; 57.5 hectares in the hills; and 115 hectares in the plains, provided the demand in the area was moderate; and in cases when demands were satisfied, up to 287 hectares of land in all.[23] This upper limit, however, was rarely reached. In contrast the Romanian landowners of the Regat retained a minimum of 100 hectares in the mountains, 150-250 hectares in the hills, and up to 500 hectares in the plains. Furthermore, they were allowed to retain maximum limits from each of the categories separately, whereas in Transylvania the maximum limit applied to the total holdings of a single owner.

In all, about 2.9 million yokes of private and 210,000 yokes of state lands were expropriated. About two-thirds of the expropriated private property was owned by individual proprietors, and the rest by churches, educational institutions, and communes. The exact number of the injured parties is not known, but the number of estates affected by the land reform was estimated to be 8963.[24] Since public institutions and some of the magnates often owned several estates, the number of individuals who suffered some loss must have been under 8000. This number excludes all communes, where every individual member was affected by the loss, but it includes some 1700 of the 8865 Hungarian peasant families who settled in Transylvania after 1869. On the average they owned small farms of 14-16 yokes in extent and lost collectively 58 percent of their land.

Distribution of land among various peasant applicants followed a slightly different pattern in the three Successor States. In Transylvania, from the 3.1 million yokes of expropriated land, only between 800900,000 yokes were suitable for distribution. From this amount about 633,000 yokes were actually distributed among poor peasants who owned less than 10 yokes of land. 213,000 of the recipients were Romanians, 46,000 Hungarians, 16,000 Germans, and 6000 of other nationalities.[25] Thus, at the expense of less than 9000 private landowners around 300,000 impoverished peasants acquired some land. Although most of the injured parties were Hungarians and although impoverished or landless Romanian peasants were far more likely to have received land than their Hungarian counterparts, the number of Hungarians whose lives improved through the land reform was only a fraction of those who lost. Not surprisingly, no mass exodus of Hungarian peasants took place from Transylvania. Those few who did flee to Hungary left for other reasons; their displacement was not the result of Romanian agrarian policies. Significantly, even the dispossessed Hungarian peasant settlers, whose cause was publicly championed by the Hungarian government, when they finally decided to leave Transylvania, instead of going to Hungary, emigrated to North America. The Hungary of the 1920s, where the old land tenure system remained in force, held but few incentives and few attractions to the Hungarian peasants in the Successor States. Treatment of Hungarian peasants was less generous in Czechoslovakia; yet, the Hungarian peasant population also made some gains through the land reform. Out of a total of 175,000 small land grants in Slovakia, only an estimated 17,000 recipients were Hungarians. Together they received less than 18,000 hectares of land. True, too, Hungarian peasants were generally better off than their Slovak counterparts. They owned more land and lived in the more fertile plain region.

The principal grievance of the Hungarians, and indeed the Slovaks as well, was that the chief beneficiaries of the land reform were not the landless peasants. First priority in granting the allotments went to the legionnaires and ex-soldiers of the republic, who received 10 hectares each. A blatantly political attempt was also made to change the predominantly Hungarian composition of the population along the Hungarian frontiers through colonization. These colonists were selected from the politically trustworthy, mostly Czech peasants. who on the average received 16 hectares of land each; the average allotment of the Slovak and Hungarian peasants was only 1.4 hectares. The population was equally resentful of the way the "estate remnants,, were distributed. These were mostly formed around the old manor houses, agricultural buildings, that could not be utilized as small farms; hence, from these, middle-sized farms were created. In Slovakia 55.000 hectares were distributed, in the form of residual estates, among 455 individuals, mostly as outright political favors. Out of these, 102 recipients were enterprising Hungarians, who collectively received nearly 10,000 hectares of land.[26]

On the whole, just as in Romania, the overall treatment of the Hungarian peasant population was not such as to induce it to leave the country. The Hungarian peasantry, like the entire agrarian population of Czechoslovakia, benefited from agricultural policies that were designed to make Czechoslovakia agriculturally self-sufficient. Hungarian peasants left the country only under special circumstances, when, for example, the new boundaries cut them off from their lands, or when separated families wished to reunite.

Yugoslavia meted out the harshest treatment of the Hungarian peasantry in all of the Successor States. The Serbian government looked on the conquered lands as spoils of war to be divided among its own soldiers. As a result, Hungarian peasants were completely excluded from the benefits of land reform. The Belgrade government, ostensibly for military reasons, prohibited land grants to the minorities within a 50 kilometer zone along the Hungarian frontier. Since most Hungarian peasants resided within this zone, they could not even apply for a grant from the confiscated estates. With a single stroke of the pen, another edict issued in September 1920, excluded all Hungarians by stating that "land may be received only by those families whose family heads are Yugoslav citizens and who at the time are residents of the affected village.,,[27] Thus, a Hungarian peasant, who was excluded within the border zone, could not apply in another area. Furthermore, at the time of this edict the citizenship of the minorities were still in doubt. This harsh treatment was especially unjustified in Yugoslavia, where most of the Hungarian peasants were, at best, dwarf holders or landless. At the same time, the Serbian population of the Voivodina was more prosperous; yet, they were the chief beneficiaries of the reforrn. Consequently, in 1930, out of some 120.000 landless agricultural laborers in the area, some 90,000, or about 75 percent were Hungarians.[28] As a result of a proportionally larger percentage of the refugees from Yugoslavia were of peasant origin than either those from Czechoslovakia or Romania. The strongest peasant movement across the frontiers can be detected in the immediate border regions, especially in Bács-Bodrog and Zala counties. The peasant refugees played an insignificant role in the political life of Hungary of the 1920s; largely ignored by the government, they remained passive.

Among the refugees in Hungary there was another substantial group whose displacement was directly related to the agrarian reforms in the Successor States. The destruction of the large estates spelled economic ruin not only for the landlords themselves, but for all those whose employment or livelihood depended on the survival of the great estate system and the aristocratic style of life. Such were large- and mediumsized lease-holders from the great estates, and commercial agents of the aristocrats. Also, most estate employees, managers, overseers, bookkeepers, clerks, as well as agricultural and forestry experts, hunters, and game keepers, fell into this category. In addition, many of the lesser employees and servants in the household of the owners were suddenly without employment. Skills of a coachman, hunting dog expert, saddle maker, and of the many craftsmen working on the estates, were useless in an egalitarian society. Some of these men were pensioned off; others received small plots of land. But the fate of the majority was bleak. Even those who benefited from the land reforms found that the few acres they received were insufficient to maintain themselves. The destriation of the estates also meant social disaster for many of those individuals who had risen from the ranks of the peasantry to posts in the estate hierarchy, or, in the case of the poorest members of the gentry, who had sunk to the post of a clerk. Some could not accept the idea of becoming again, or for the first time, a peasant. Even agricultural experts had difficulty in finding employment. Peasants tilling their few acres could not utilize their expertise. The governments of Czechoslovakia and Romania made some attempts at salvaging their skills by making provisions for carving out larger units from the old estates or using some of the estate remnants to set up model farms. Few Hungarian agriculturalists could qualify for these choice grants. Most, therefore, along with other estate employees, followed their employers to Hungary, where often they found employment on the remaining estates of the latter.

In summary, it was the aristocracy, and to a lesser degree, the gentry that was most negatively affected by the postwar land reforms in the Successor States. The psychological impact of the destruction of the large estate system, however, was felt beyond the landowning class itself; it was registered also by the landless gentry as a blow to their status in society. Disappearance of the Hungarian landowning class symbolized, to them, the passing of a social and value system that was based on the privileged position of the nobility. Though these gentry families had lost their lands, they clung desperately to their noble titles, attitudes, and customs, but these could remain meaningful only as long as the landed nobility survived. With the passing into oblivion of the aristocracy, the lower nobility also had to face the danger of extinction. In postwar Hungary these two classes would join hands, led by the refugees, to restore the old order they had once enjoyed.

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