Book Traces Legal Roots of Hungarian Anti-Semitism

From Central European University-- kovacMaria M. Kovacs’ new book is unexpectedly timely. The book, which traces the legal roots of Hungarian anti-Semitism back to quotas imposed in 1920, long before the rise of Nazi Germany, was published on the same day as a Hungarian member of Parliament called for Jewish MPs to be counted.

“When I was writing the book, through years and years of research, I was not naive to negative developments in this country,” said Kovacs, professor and director of CEU’s Nationalism Studies Program. “But if people were to say to me then that on the day my book was published, someone in the Hungarian Parliament would request numbers of Jews, I would have called them ridiculous.”

Kovacs is not interested in commenting on current Hungarian politics. Her research may be relevant in its analysis, however, because it dispels several myths about Hungarian interwar history, providing concrete evidence that anti-Semitism was not an idea or a policy imposed by Nazi Germany. The book, “Törvénytől sújtva: Numerus clausus Magyarországon 1920-1945,” or “Down By Law: Numerus Clausus in Hungary 1920-1945,” was published in November in Hungarian by Napvilág Kiadó.

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The first myth is that the so-called numerus clausus law, passed in 1920, was not really anti-Semitic. The law is often justified as a form of positive discrimination that happened to be disadvantageous to Jews because they were overrepresented in higher education. The law limited the proportion of students from certain nationalities and races that could be accepted to universities. It led students of means to emigrate, including scientist Edward Teller, who left the country in 1933.

Kovacs argues that the law must be understood in terms of its implementation decree, i.e. the tool with which a cabinet minister implements the law. In this case, the implementation decree, which is legally binding, specifically mentioned Jews and redefined their legal status so that the end result would be restriction of entry into higher education.

The second myth is that modifications to numerus clausus in 1928 eliminated its anti-Semitic implications. While it did remove references to targeted discrimination of Jews by nationality – mostly due to pressure by the League of Nations – it was replaced with an occupational quota, which limited admissible students according to the occupation of the student’s father. Hungary’s statistics office, Kovacs’ research revealed, defined these occupations by linking them to the most prominent professions of Hungary’s Jews. While the number of Jewish students admitted to university rose after 1928, the persistence of discrimination is clear by looking at the number of rejections, Kovacs said.

“In 1929, 70 percent of Jewish applicants to university were rejected, compared with 15 percent of non-Jewish applicants,” Kovacs explained. “This is evidence that cannot be dismissed.”


Furthermore, the number of Jews admitted to institutions of higher education dropped to a record low after a new minister of culture was appointed in 1932, well before the official anti-Jewish laws were introduced in 1938.

“The fairy tale of Hungarian anti-Semitism, that it was imposed by Nazi Germany, is no longer valid,” Kovacs said. ”Hungarian anti-Semitism is a story of its own.”

Kovacs’ research was supported by a grant from the Rothschild Foundation Europe, as well as by CEU, and she appreciates the research assistance of CEU M.A. students in the Nationalism Studies Program.

For more information on the book, see the publisher's website (in Hungarian) here