Outbreak of the war
End of the war

From ‘Natio Hungarica’ to Magyar nation

In the era of emergent national identity, the foundations of a modern Magyar nation were also laid in Hungary, where it took place on the basis of a strong national awareness and historical identification with the Crown of St Stephen.

The term ‘Natio Hungarica’ referring to the feudal political elite had existed since the Middle Ages. It was defined as an identification with the Crown of St Stephen rather than membership of the Hungarian language group. In the nineteenth century, however, the political Natio Hungarica ignored the multi-ethnic structure of the country and referred to the Hungarian-speaking Magyar nation in the modern sense.

The nation-forming process took place in Hungary in the same way as it did among other peoples in central Europe. In the national interpretation of history, the ‘historical mission’ of the Magyars to defend themselves against the Ottomans was dramatically emphasized. The long continuity of the Hungarian kingdom as a medieval regional power was stressed, while the era of the Turkish wars was mourned as a period of decline and the incorporation in the Habsburg Monarchy as a loss of independence.

The ‘rebirth’ of Hungarian language and literature began with linguistic research and language reform by scholars like Miklós Révai (1750–1807). Like all central European vernaculars, Hungarian had a weak tradition as a high-level and literary language. Until the nineteenth century the Hungarian gentry maintained Latin as official administrative and judicial language, while German became increasingly important as a lingua franca and language of education.

At the same time, work continued on the development of a national society, although there was a great disparity in the willingness of the various social segments and ethnic groups to accept the Hungarian-Magyar identity.

In the first place there were regional differences. The west of the Kingdom was traditionally Catholic, pro-Habsburg and culturally and politically oriented towards Vienna. The driving force behind Hungarian statehood was therefore in the centre and eastern parts of the country, which were Calvinist Protestant and opposed Viennese centralism, the Catholic Counter Revolution and German cultural hegemony.

The enormous social differences were a further factor. The rural population in Hungary’s feudal agrarian society remained until well into the nineteenth century under the political and economic domination of the aristocracy. Ethnicity was not important in the lower social classes because they were negligible as a political factor. The mass of smallholders, tenants and farm workers were indifferent to the issue of nationhood and mainly interested in improving their social and economic situation.

The urban population had a comparatively low level of education, and in the larger cities the German language was often predominant. In the towns in the south of the country there was a significant Serb minority.

The main representatives of Magyar statehood were therefore the nobles, who saw themselves as the custodians of the Hungarian national identity. They repeatedly resisted the attempted incorporation of Hungary as part of the Habsburg centralization policy. The militant aristocratic elite was able to maintain the special status that Hungary had enjoyed even before the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867. Even under Maria Theresa, Hungary had been excluded from the reforms aimed at unifying the Monarchy. The resistance of the nobility was also demonstrated when Joseph II attempted to introduce German instead of Latin as the administrative language and to reform the constitution, which brought the country to the brink of rebellion.

Translation: Nick Somers


Hanák, Péter: Die Geschichte Ungarns. Von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart, Essen 1988

Markus, Adam: Die Geschichte des ungarischen Nationalismus, Frankfurt/Main u. a. 2013

Rumpler, Helmut: Eine Chance für Mitteleuropa. Bürgerliche Emanzipation und Staatsverfall in der Habsburgermonarchie [Österreichische Geschichte 1804–1914, hrsg. von Herwig Wolfram], Wien 2005

Tóth, István György (Hrsg.): Geschichte Ungarns, Budapest 2005

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    “Viribus unitis” or prison of nations?

    The multi-ethnic Austria-Hungary formed a relatively stable environment for the co-existence of the many ethnic communities. The much-vaunted “unity in diversity” was in fact overshadowed by numerous inequalities. This was illustrated above all in the differing weight of the various language groups involved in political and economic rule. These inequalities were increasingly challenged by the disadvantaged nationalities. As a result, the nationality issue dominated political affairs, leading to destabilisation of the Monarchy.


  • Development

    Nation-building – national programmes and positions

    Nation-building was part of the emancipation by large sections of the population from feudal dependence. In line with the ideals of the Enlightenment and French Revolution, the nation – understood as a community of free citizens – was to become the sovereign in place of feudal potentates.