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Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter I. Making of the modern state in a multi-national context

The nationality question

József Eötvös
Traduction de Dávid Oláh

Texte intégral

1Title: A nemzetiségi kérdés (The nationality question)

2Originally published: Pest, Rath Mόr, 1865 (simultaneously with the Gentian edition)

3Language: Hungarian

4The excerpts used are from József Eötvös, A nemzetiségi kérdés (Budapest: Révai testvérek, 1903), pp. 87–91.

About the author

5Jόzsef Eötvös [1813, Buda – 1871, Pest]: politician, writer, the most prominent Hungarian political thinker of the nineteenth century. Eötvös was the descendant of an aristocratic family, his father was a notoriously pro-Habsburg loyalist. He studied law at the University of Pest. Between 1836 and 1841, he studied the social conditions in England and France and was influenced by liberal philanthropy, Romantic aesthetics and social Catholicism (especially that of Félicité de Lamennais). He started his public career as a writer. His most important novel, ‘The Village Notary,’ satirized the backward conditions of the Hungarian countryside, while in the novel ‘Hungary in 1514,’ written about the peasant rebellion of György Dόzsa, he sought to mobilize public opinion against serfdom. In the 1840s, he became the most important figure of the ‘doctrinaire’ liberal faction of the opposition, which criticized the residual feudal elements of the administration and argued for a modern state administration, the so-called ‘Centralists.’ In the revolutionary government of 1848, Eötvös became Minister of Education, but disagreements with Lajos Kossuth caused him to resign. In the autumn of the same year, he emigrated to Munich. There, he began to write ‘The Influence of the Ruling Ideas of the Nineteenth Century on the State,’ which was an attempt to analyze the principles of political modernity and which is considered to be the most important Hungarian work of political philosophy from the nineteenth century. He returned to Hungary in 1853. Eötvös wished to reformulate the relationship between Austria and Hungary on the basis of the principles of 1848, but taking into account the interests of the Empire. Throughout the 1860s, he worked on the problem of nationalities, and apart from publishing various works on this issue, he negotiated with the representatives of the Serbian and Romanian national movements. He also played an active role in the Ausgleich (Compromise) of 1867. Most importantly, he was the author of the 1868 liberal ‘Law of Nationalities,’ although the text was considerably altered in the parliamentary debates. In the government formed after the Ausgleich, he was once again Minister of Education and of Religious Affairs, until his death in 1871.

6Main works: A karthausi [The Carthusian] (1839–1841); A falu jegyzője [The village notary] (1845); Reform (1846); Magyarország 1514-ben [Hungary in 1514] (1847); A tizenkilencedik század uralkodό eszméinek befolyása az álladalomra [The influence of the ruling ideas of the nineteenth century on the state] (1851–1854) (also published in German); Über die Gleichberechtigung der Nationalitäten in Österreich [On the emancipation of the nationalities in Austria] (1850); Die Garantien der Macht und Einheit Österreichs [The guarantees of power and unity of Austria] (1859); A nemzetiségi kérdés [The nationality question] (1865).


7By the end of the revolutionary struggle in 1849, the Hungarian liberal political elite became aware of the importance of the ‘nationality question’ and some of the revolutionary leaders began to take a more open stance towards non-Magyar national claims. Some of the most reflexive minds of the generation (like Zsigmond Kemény) came to agree that one of the crucial errors of the revolutionary leadership had been the improper handling of the nationality question, and that the positions of the Hungarian elite in their negotiations with the Habsburg Court could have been considerably strengthened by settling these issues. The works of Eötvös in the fifties and sixties dealt with the nationality question from this double perspective, asserting that the imperial and the Hungarian aspects of the nationality question were intertwined. Consequently, he sought to harmonize the principles of liberty and nationality on a theoretical level as well: in his opinion, the Hungarian ‘historical nationhood’ needed to be preserved but, at the same time, he also wanted to give concessions to those nationalities which were not considered ‘historical’ nations.

8In the pages of ‘The nationality question,’ Eötvös proposed to fulfill “the reasonable demands of all the nationalities living in this country to every possible extent” and, thus, to create a multi-ethnic Hungary, which would still remain ‘Hungarian’ in terms of its macro-political character. This means that he rejected the project of accelerated assimilation, and searched for a compromise—seeking to discern what qualified as a ‘reasonable demand.’ He hoped that the civilizational advantages offered by the Hungarian state to its nationalities were substantial enough to restrain their centrifugal tendencies. Rejecting the territorialization of the nationalities from a liberal perspective, he advocated a set of pragmatic compromises, including the localization of their claims of self-government in the traditional framework of administration. This offered a practical solution to the conflict, which seemed to be otherwise theoretically irresolvable. While he did not abandon the dogma of the territorial integrity of the Hungarian Kingdom, his attitude also meant a break with the Hungarian liberal nationalist mainstream opinion, which considered support for collective rights on the part of the nationalities as a profoundly anti-liberal effort to preserve pre-modern privileges.

9Of course, to make this compromise possible, the legislator was supposed to avoid one fundamental question, that of the ‘national’ existence of the nationalities. If one disregards this issue, it is possible to harmonize nationality with the different levels of authority in the unitary state. This means that the legislator had to decide which (municipal, regional, etc.) level corresponded to the structure of powers allotted to the nationalities, and what functions were to be relegated to the center. Accordingly, the state would have to give up any kind of forceful assimilatory program since “the vexatious administration evokes more antipathy than the greatest despotism.” The only legal privilege the Hungarian language would enjoy was to be the medium of legislation and of the central government. Otherwise, the different entities of self-government could freely decide about their official languages and the members of the nationalities could freely associate in order to cultivate their cultural heritage, exactly as individuals of the same creed gather freely to worship God in the church of their choice. This solution, rooted in Eötvös’s theoretical effort to bring together the norms of civilization, liberty and nationality, was expected to have a positive impact on the entire Habsburg Monarchy, turning it into a bastion of constitutionalism and free national development. Nevertheless, Eötvös believed that the direction of human progress was towards the disappearance of ethnic divisions, and thus he hoped that, in the long run, the smaller ethnic groups would be prone to assimilation into larger political units.

10Part of the wider debate on solving the nationality question in the Habsburg Monarchy (among its protagonists one can mention František Palacký and Adolf Fischhof), this proposal was probably the most sophisticated theoretical treatment of the problem in Hungary to be devised throughout the entire nineteenth century. It had some practical relevance as well as having a broad reception abroad. As demonstrated by the subsequent development of the debate on nationalities, the fragile compromise proposed by Eötvös could only be maintained if both groups were willing to set aside the thorny ideological question of ‘national’ allegiance. When the issue of ‘political’ nationhood came back to the fore in 1867, the chances of maintaining this potential compromise vanished. Nevertheless, the ‘Law of nationalities’ of 1868, which gave extensive personal and cultural rights to the non-Hungarian population and which was in many ways rooted in Eötvös’s theories, could still be considered an unusually liberal arrangement for its time. It was, however, increasingly disregarded by the authorities, who opted for openly as-similatory policies, and also lost its relevance for the political elites of the nationalities, who themselves abandoned the liberal intellectual framework for a more intransigent nation-building narrative.

11With all these ambiguities, Eötvös has been considered one of the most broad-minded liberal theoreticians of the problem of nationalities in the nineteenth-century and perhaps the only modern Hungarian political thinker whose ideas had an impact on the mainstream European intellectual debate of his times.


The nationality question

13The main interest of mankind indisputably lies in the progress of civilization. And I am convinced that the new self-awareness that so many nationalities have awakened to in our age and the enthusiasm with which each of them is working on their development, are the most heartening signs and at the same time the surest assurance of this progress. Every new force partaking in the great work of civilization is a benefit for the entirety of mankind, which may expect even mightier achievements if it abounds more and more in individuality. Therefore, our task is not to decrease their numbers but instead, by strengthening the ties that bind together all these individualities into a single great entity and to ensure the opportunity of free development for each individual. And should this require that certain nationalities, which we have hitherto only known to be under oppression, now form new states and partake in the common progress as independent members of the great family of nations, then we can but rejoice at such endeavors, and we should find nothing alarming in the phenomena indicating that these endeavors might meet with success in the near future. But if this is our opinion, and if we see in advance that all the skill of our diplomats trying to cover up the signs of decay in the Ottoman Empire rivals that of the ancient Egyptians, and if we are convinced that the ardor with which certain statesmen professing to be deeply Christian strive to keep the Christian peoples of Eastern Europe under the Ottoman yoke can still not save this empire, then we are approaching the moment when the Christian peoples of Turkey will be destined to follow the Greek example and establish their own states. Doesn’t all this imply that we should display twice as much precaution about everything that may have an effect on this development, the development upon which the fate of civilization depends in this part of Europe. And who could fail to realize that the way in which the nationality question is to be solved in Hungary is of paramount importance in this regard?

14Of all the European countries, Hungary is the one destined to assert a decisive influence upon the territories that were at one time in close contact with her empire. Do the relations these territories once had with our country as well as the fact that parts of Hungary are inhabited by the same nationalities as those whom we find in the Turkish empire and that here they stand on a higher level of refinement guarantee our influence upon them? Is it necessary, is it advisable for us to adopt principles upon which the formation of any new state in this part of Europe in case of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire would become impossible? And undoubtedly, the general acceptance of the principle that the survival of the individual nationalities can only be guaranteed by granting a separate territory to each of them would render it impossible that in the area presently occupied by the Ottoman Empire new states be established whose size, the number of their inhabitants and their geographical conditions would enable them to defend their independence and ensure their internal development.

15The very same principles that threaten the unity of a thousand-year-old state in Hungary would be even more detrimental to the formation of a strong Romanian, Serbian or South Slavic state in the territories of the Ottoman Empire, and due to the ethnographic conditions in this part of Europe, all we could expect in their place would be tiny Slavic, Bulgarian, Serbian and Romanian territories which, constantly struggling with each other, would be incapable of defending their independence and safeguarding our civilization. This makes it evident that the application of this principle in Hungary would be in flat contradiction with not only the interests of those who adhere to Hungary’s integrity or those who regard the sustenance of the Austrian Empire as one of the preconditions of Europe’s peaceful development, but also the interests of the very nationalities in whose name such claims are most frequently made.

16The notion that the solution of the nationality question is to be found in a legal circumscription of the sphere of authority of each nationality and by partitioning the territory and offices of the country among them is, as I believe it to be apparent from the foregoing discussion, not applicable to Hungary with its specific situation, and instead of putting an end to the frictions among the nationalities, it would only entail the termination of all individual and civic liberties. Moreover, since it would lead to the partition of Hungary and the Austrian Empire, it would at the same time paralyze the emergence of any great state in this part of Europe that resembles Hungary in the diversity of its nationalities, and thus it would in fact ruin the future of the very nationalities for whose benefit it is advocated. Let me conclude this topic with a general observation.

17We have started our essay with two statements.

18The first is that the most important characteristic of our civilization is to be sought in the community that exists in the development of the peoples of Europe.

19The second is that our progress is mainly the outcome of the steadiness with which the peoples of Europe are laboring on the realization of the ideals established by Christianity. The most important of these ideals are the commonalities within our human race and its common mission.

20If the barriers between the nations are brought down, if we have thrown off the inhuman notions of ancient times and now regard our adversaries whom we have faced on the battlefield as our fellow human beings, if slavery has been abolished and if unlimited sovereign power, wherever it still exists, has been tamed, then all this is the consequence of these ideals, and our experiences as well as our science both proclaim their soundness.

21Just as in the present we find the first aspirations for culture in hundreds of various peoples of the world, in the same manner we find in the past the ruins of hundreds of civilizations. Both facts remind us that the capacity for culture is not the monopoly of a clime or a nation but a divine gift to the whole of mankind. And when we see at the forefront of our civilization peoples that were called barbarians in antiquity and held to be incapable of culture, and if we consider that the place of the Hellenes and Romans has been taken in more recent times by the descendants of the savage inhabitants of the British isles and the fearful Cimbers and Teutons, then we cannot but smile at the self-conceit with which some regard the capacity for culture as the sole privilege of their own people and proclaim the natural subjugation of others. If there is one fact that has been put beyond all doubt by science and experience, it is that among all the peoples we know in Europe not a single one is incapable of obtaining a higher culture, and there is not one we could therefore deprive of the right to aspire for a higher position. And as long as the aspirations of the nationalities in our time spring from this conviction, and all they strive for is to clear away the barriers hindering their own free development, then these aspirations are the necessary consequences of the past development of our civilization and factors of our progress. And we should indeed call any man a fool should he hope to halt these aspirations by means of laws or governmental measures or wish to secure supremacy in a country for one nationality, when this supremacy can only be sustained through the oppression of the other nationalities. But surely no more sober is the man who thinks that by partitioning the territory of a state among its nationalities and circumscribing the sphere of authority of each language and nationality, he can halt the natural development of things, or that he can secure by artificial means the future of anything that does not carry the seeds of its own survival.

22Everything that is now proposed with such ends in view has existed before. Everyone knows that the barbarians, after having occupied the provinces of the Roman Empire, allowed the Roman people to keep their laws for a long time, and that in the period during which our new states were founded, the various nationalities lived alongside each other separated not by territorial but personal criteria, so that the citizens of the same country could follow the Roman, or the Frank, Gothic or Burgundian laws depending on which nationality they belonged to. Such conditions—undoubtedly the most consistent applications of the proposed principles now advocated again—endured until recently in Transylvania, where the Hungarian, Szekler and Saxon nations lived alongside each other for centuries, each having their own territory and rights; and this situation came to an end everywhere, not by an individual’s despotism, and not because of the will of the dominant nation but due to the natural state of things, the power by which the irresistible stream of our civilization exerts its influence upon every single relation, modifying or terminating everything trying to resist its overwhelming force. And do we really believe that we can resist this, that we can interrupt the entire development of our civilization and attempt to re-introduce in our homeland the principles that had already been abandoned by the Visigoths as early as the seventh century?

23I commit this question to the discernment of my readers; for my part I am firmly convinced that such an attempt, in whichever country it is carried out and under whatever form of government, even if it has the consent of all the nationalities inhabiting the country, may bring about a great confusion for a while and lead to an overwhelming oppression; moreover, I am convinced that such an attempt will hinder for some time the development in the country where it has been made. It may retard her in her development but will surely not be permanent.


Dávid Oláh (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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