Hungarians of Romania

Alternative names: Magyars, Szeklers
Location: Predominantly Transylvania
Population: 1.7-2 million
% of population: 8-10%
Religion: Catholic, Calvinist, Unitarian
Language: Hungarian

The Hungarians of Romania live overwhelmingly in Transylvania, the western third of the country, although Bucharest is thought to have some 200,000 Hungarians and there are others in other settlements in the Regat (the old Romanian provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia). There are also long-established Hungarian settlements on the eastern foothills of the Carpathians, particularly around Bacau.

The population of Transylvania is extremely complex. About three-fifths of its total population of seven million is Romanian. The bulk of the rest is Hungarian. There is a German minority which has declined in recent years from perhaps 400,000 due to the ethnic Germans being allowed to emigrate to West Germany at a reported price of DM 6000 per head paid by the West German government (over 14,000 emigrated in 1984 alone), and smaller minorities of Serbs, Ukrainians and other much smaller groups of Slovaks, Czechs, Bulgarians and others. There are also an unspecified number of Roma (Gypsies). Many of the settlements are nationally mixed and there are comparatively few communes which do not contain a minority population of at least one nationality. All urban settlements are mixed and the dynamics of urbanization have ensured that the composition of several towns has undergone changes over the last 40 years.

The census of 1977 gave 1,705,810 Hungarians and a further 1,604 Szeklers out of a total population of 21,559,416. Hungarian sources however assert that there some two million Hungarians in Romania. The Szeklers (Secui in Romanian) are an ethnographically distinct part of the minority living predominantly in the counties of Covasna, Harghita and Mures. In the 1977 census, respondents could return their nationality as “Szekler” but most of the 600,000-700,000 Szeklers declared themselves to be Hungarians. The Szeklers speak Hungarian, in fact Hungarian intellectuals in both Romania and Hungary agree that the Szeklers speak the purest and most attractive form of Hungarian. Historically they were settled in the Carpathian bend as guardians of the eastern marches of the Kingdom of Hungary and enjoyed some special privileges. The majority of the Szeklers are Calvinist or Unitarian by religion.


Roman Catholics in Transylvania are almost entirely Hungarians and Germans — in the case of the Germans it is the Schwaben of the Banat who are Catholic. All members of the Calvinist Church are Hungarian just as virtually all Lutherans are Saxon Germans. The Unitarians are Hungarian. The Romanians are overwhelmingly Orthodox although other Free Church communities like the Baptists have attracted large numbers of Romanians in recent years.

Historically, Transylvania was the scene of the first post-Reformation experiment in religious toleration. The Edict of Turda in 1568 recognized the mixed religious character of the province and marked an acceptance of it at a time when religious wars were at their height elsewhere in Europe. By this edict, the four “recognized” religions were Roman Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran and Unitarian. The Orthodox Church, to which the majority of Romanian believers adhere, was merely “tolerated”. This unusual religious dispensation has meant that religious adherence has come to be identified with national and cultural loyalties, that Churches have tended to be regarded as national institutions which have helped to underpin national cultures and that attacks on religious life have been interpreted in national as much as religious terms.


The central problem of the history of Transylvania is that there are separate Romanian and Hungarian histories, both firmly articulated and neither compatible with each other. Both claim the area as having ensured the survival of the respective nations and their separate existence over the centuries and neither seem able to accept that it should be part of the other’s state territory, although Hungarian leaders have in recent times repeatedly denied any claim on Romanian territory.

The Romanian variant of Transylvania’s history is the theory of Daco-Roman continuity which is that the Dacians, the original inhabitants of Romania, were conquered by the Roman Empire in the first and second centuries AD. This was followed by a rapid fusion of Dacian and Latin culture resulting in the birth of Romanian national culture. After the withdrawal of the Roman legions, the Dacians, or more properly the Daco-Romans, withdrew to their Transylvanian mountain fastnesses and remained there conserving their Latin language and culture despite waves of foreign invaders including the Hungarians. The Hungarian version however is that when the Hungarian conquest of the central Danube basin took place at the end of the ninth century, Transylvania was only sparsely occupied by Slavonic tribes. The Hungarian Kingdom slowly extended its power over the region settling Szeklers and Saxon (German) colonists to strengthen its economic development. The Romanian population is accounted for by immigration of Romanian shepherds practising transhumance who crossed the Carpathian passes from the thirteenth century onwards and were given the right to settle there by the Hungarian rulers. For the Hungarians, Transylvania is regarded as the entity which guaranteed the historic continuity of the Hungarian state and ensured its survival despite the submergence of the Kingdom either through Ottoman or Hapsburg conquest.

The mixed character of Transylvania was recognized very early by the so-called Union of Three Nations (1437, reaffirmed in 1542). The three nations, properly nations who represented the nobility and in no way correspond to nations in the modern sense, were the Magyars, the Saxons and the Szeklers. After the destruction of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary by the Ottoman Empire after the Battle of Mohacs in 1526, Transylvania retained a precarious autonomy between the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans. At times it acted as an independent state and, in this capacity, signed the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 which ended the devastating Thirty Years’ War. The different nature of Transylvania was recognized after the expulsion of the Turks by its separate incorporation into the Hapsburg domains as a Principality apart from Hungary proper. In 1848-9, the Transylvanian diet, controlled by the Hungarian nobility, opted for union with Hungary despite hostility from both the Romanians and the Saxons. This union was implemented after the 1867 Ausgleich (compromise) and thereafter the Hungarians promoted a policy of rapid Magyarization which was ineffective in the countryside and only partly so in the towns. This policy was resented by all the minorities and they all turned against the

Hungarians of Romania

Hungarian state in 1918. The Treaty of Trianon in 1920 gave the historic Transylvania together with other Romanian inhabited lands (Banat, Crisana, Maramues) to Romania despite the large numbers of Hungarians living there. In 1940, after the forced cessation of Bessarabia to the USSR, Hungary claimed Transylvania and a somewhat reluctant Germany and Italy agreed that Hungary could annex northern Transylvania, about two-fifths of the territories lost in 1918 and with a Hungarian majority. Southern Transylvania remained part of Romania.

After Romania’s change of sides in the war in August 1944, Transylvania was rapidly overrun by the Soviet and Romanian armies but the local Soviet commanders decided to establish what was a de facto autonomous communist state of Northern Transylvania under joint Hungarian-Romanian MADOSZ administration until March 1945, since when Romanian sovereignty over Transylvania has been complete.

Post-war developments

Immediately after the return of northern Transylvania to the Romanian administration in 1945, a process of re-Romanianization was undertaken with the creation of new Romanian institutions and the elimination or downgrading of Hungarian ones. The spirit of co-operation of the MADOSZ period was ended and both the left and the right used the minority question as an instrument of political mobilization. The right used anti-Hungarian propaganda as a nationalist lever, whilst the left courted support of the Hungarians and offered it guarantees for its national and cultural existence. In fact the bulk of the Hungarians, particularly the left-leaning intelligentsia, supported the left believing that

for the first time in the history of Transylvania a form of coexistence between Hungarians and Romanians would be possible. This phase ended with the consolidation of power by Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej after 1949. Following the Rajk trials in Hungary, Dej moved against the Hungarian People’s Alliance and had many of its leaders arrested — probably as much a move against an autonomous political organization as an anti-Hungarian one. The power struggle culminated in the elimination of the “Moscovites” from the Romanian leadership, among them the Hungarian Vasile Luca (Laszlo Luka in Hungarian). The Magyarophile Romanian Prime Minister Petru Groza, whom many Hungarians saw as a guarantor of their rights, also lost his post around this time. The ensuing Stalinist terror affected Romanian intellectuals as well as Hungarian ones but the arrests and deportations was a harder blow for the minority given the difference in their respective sizes.

At the same time, the Romanian government established the Hungarian Autonomous Province, consisting of the Szekler counties, based on the Soviet model of autonomous territorial organization — a good illustration of the two-fold nature of Romanian policy, that of accompanying internal repression with external concessions. In January 1953 Dej declared that the national question had been solved for good in Romania and henceforth the authorities rejected any public discussion of the problem on the grounds that to do so would be chauvinism. The facade quality of the apparent concessions was shown by the fact that the Hungarian Autonomous Province was autonomous in name only. Its organization differed in no way from the other 16 provinces and it was never given a statute. On the other hand, its existence was used as a pretext for not opening Hungarian cultural facilities elsewhere, with the result that it acquired the reputation of being a Hungarian ghetto. The Hungarian People’s Alliance was dissolved at this time and with it disappeared the last collective institution charged with protecting Hungarian interests. This had the result that in practice minority rights became enforceable only individually and not collectively, which made them void for all practical purposes. Simultaneously, the minority’s links with Hungary were being severed — subscriptions to Hungarian journals were banned, newspapers were no longer sold in public, travel to Hungary was made almost impossible — this in a situation where there was hardly a family in Transylvania without relatives or friends in Hungary. Thus the pressure to force Hungarian culture and Hungarian life into private had already begun by the mid-1950s. Hungarians were furthermore dismissed from all important nationwide institutions (The Ministry of Interior, Foreign Ministry, officer corps) except where the facade had to be maintained e.g. the Politburo or Central Committee of the party.

It should be added that during this period, the Hungarians were by no means the worst affected among the nationalities. The Serbian minority was expelled en masse from the Banat to the Baragan plain and was constrained to live in appalling conditions; the Germans had been stripped of their property and many deported to the USSR as “prisoners-of-war”; and there was a strong anti-Semitic campaign disguised as anti-Zionism. Also the Romanian majority of all social classes suffered from the excesses of the Stalinist period and police terror.

The next major event was the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 which enjoyed support from Romanians as well as Hungarians in Romania. There were joint Hungarian-Romanian student demonstrations in Cluj and elsewhere. These were followed by a wave of arrests and culminated in the liquidation of the separate Hungarian educational network, above all, the Bolyai University at Cluj which was technically merged with the Romanian-language Babes University in 1959. The elimination of the secondary school network followed with the unification of Hungarian and Romanian schools and the creation of Hungarian-language sections enabling better supervision by the authorities. The principle of unification of Hungarian and Romanian institutions was extended to include houses of culture, theatres, folklore groups etc. The Hungarian Autonomous Province was reorganized in 1960 in such a way as to lose its overwhelmingly Hungarian character by the detaching of purely Hungarian-inhabited territories and the adding of purely Romanian ones. It was renamed the Mures-Hungarian Autonomous Province. When it was abolished completely eight years later, the authorities promised initially that the entire Szeklerland would be united into a single, strong Hungarian county; in fact the area was split three ways with the creation of two weak Hungarian counties (Covasna and Harghita) and a mixed Hungarian-Romanian one (Mures).

The next turning point was 1968. At this stage there was considerable dissatisfaction among the minority and the Romanian leadership felt that this could give the USSR a pretext for intervention in Hungarian affairs in the aftermath of the invasion of Czechoslavkia. Thereafter, Romania’s policy towards the minority became more subtle by making concessions, as far as possible in areas of secondary importance, and then subsequently withdrawing them. The setting up of the Council of Workers of Hungarian nationality (CWHN) was a typical example in that it was in practice entirely without powers and its recommendations, when it made any, were ignored. In 1967-8 the publication network was reorganized and several new Hungarian-language newspapers were launched — one for each county with a substantial number of Hungarian inhabitants. In 1974, using paper shortage as the pretext, both Romanian and Hungarian newspapers were cut in size and circulation; the Romanian ones were later restored to their original size and print, the Hungarian ones were not.

In the administration, there appears to be general agreement that the number of Hungarians is kept up to the proportion of Hungarians in the general population. Hungarian representation in the higher party organs like the Central Committee, in local party committees, and in the Grand National Assembly or the People’s Councils is maintained at the proclaimed level. However these are largely facade institutions with no real powers and Hungarians are often entirely excluded from real policy-making organs like the local party bureaux. Thus in the mid-1970s there were no Hungarians on the party bureaux in the counties of Timis, Arad and Maramures, all of which contain sizeable Hungarian populations. The alternative is to appoint “facade” Hungarians, individuals who have in effect accepted Romanianization and are seen so by the Hungarians. Reportedly the number of Hungarian policemen in Transylvania is minimal.

From the mid-1970s onwards, a growing number of Hungarian intellectuals came to feel that the situation was less and less tenable. Additionally international action, notably the Helsinki Summit Final Act, specifically drew attention to nationality rights and the concept of “human rights”, and additional leverage was provided due to the state’s supposed independent foreign policy and its contingent dependence on Western approval. The result was an increase in the amount of information on the Hungarian minority in Transylvania and consequent pressure on the Romanian leadership to account for its treatment of the minority. In 1977 Karol Kiraly, a member of the Hungarian minority and previous Central Committee member, sent three letters to high-ranking party members in which he claimed that the Hungarian minority was being forcibly assimilated and discriminated against in the fields of culture, education and employment. His protest was reportedly supported by Ion Ghoerghe Maurer, a former Prime Minister of Romania, and seven prominent officials belonging to the Hungarian minority. In the early 1980s an unofficial Hungarian language publication Ellenpontok (Counterpoints) appeared briefly which similarily claimed an official policy of assimilation against the Hungarians. The editors were arrested and pressured into emigrating to Hungary.

Education and culture

The main grievances of the Hungarian minority concern education and culture. The Hungarians in Transylvania had a long tradition of a high level of education — notably through the religious schools — and a well-educated intelligentsia and qualified skilled working class. Immediately after the war, the full education network, taking in nursery, primary, secondary and university levels was organized. Hungarian language schools were opened throughout Transylvania where there was a substantial Hungarian population and even in the Regat — in the Hungarian inhabited areas of Moldavia — there were 72 Hungarian-language schools in 1958 (there were none by the mid-1970s). In the aftermath of 1956 however, a decision was taken to dismantle this in two general stages. First, Hungarian schools were merged with Romanian ones and functioned as “sections”; and subsequently the two sections were de facto merged, so that in practical terms it became a privilege to receive an education in Hungarian. As a result, university education in Hungarian shrank drastically. Internal regulations on minimum numbers of students needed to establish study groups in a particular subject and judicial use of the admission system have allowed the authorities at times to keep to below the minimum the number of Hungarian students which would have allowed the formation of Hungarian-language study groups.

Similar policies have been followed regarding primary and secondary education. Law No. 278/1973 stipulates that at primary level there must be a minimum of 25 applicants every year before a minority language instruction class can be opened for that year. At secondary level the minimum number is 36. By contrast there is no restriction on Romanian pupils. For a while parents attempted to resolve the problem of shortages in numbers by bussing children to the nearest village where a Hungarian school still existed but this was banned on the pretext of insufficient petrol. Parallel with the closing down of Hungarian-language classes has been the declining numbers of Hungarian teachers with many sent to non-Hungarian parts of Romania, as are many who do succeed in completing an education in Hungarian thus severing their links with the minority.

In terms of cultural provisions, Hungarian complaints concentrate on the shortages of materials and increasing control of Hungarian institutions by non-Hungarian speaking Romanians. For example, after the merger of the Hungarian theatre at Tirgu Mures, a new director was appointed who knew no Hungarian and meetings of the Hungarian section of the Cluj branch of the Romanian Writers Union have to be held in Romanian due to the presence of monoglot Romanian writers. Shortages of paper are regularly used to curtail Hungarian publishing activities. Recently Hungarian language publications have been required to refer to the country’s place names in Romanian. Hungarian first names without Romanian equivalents have also been banned.

Hungarians also see President Ceausescu’s avowed policy of “systemization” — whereby it is planned to destroy half of Romania’s 13,000 or so villages by the year 2000 and re-house the inhabitants in “agro-industrial towns” — as a measure aimed at eradicating Hungarian culture in Transylvania and elsewhere in Romania. It appears that the policy is not specifically aimed at the Hungarian or any other minority and applies equally to Romanian villages. It seems that Ceausescu is attempting to eradicate all vestiges of pre-socialist national culture in his attempt to create the new “socialist Romanian citizen”. However this measure if carried through will certainly adversely affect the Hungarian (as well as other) minority’s cultural heritage owing to the present continuing survival of traditional Hungarian values and way of life in the villages. Uprooting these villages will inevitably aid assimilation.

Relations with Hungary

On a number of occasions in the past, the USSR has tacitly encouraged the Hungarian party to express criticism of the Romanian party in international communist terms — criticism that was automatically translated by public opinion in both states as criticism in national terms, i.e. focused on Transylvania. In May 1977, the Romanian government agreed to hold bilateral discussions with Hungary on the problem of the minority. A joint communiqué was issued in which the Hungarian minority in Romania and the Romanian minority in Hungary (some 25,000) were declared to be bridges between the two nations. Cultural contacts were agreed and a Hungarian consulate would be (re-)opened in Cluj.

Despite this meeting, the entire question of cultural links between the Hungarian minority and the Hungarian state remained highly sensitive and has become more so. Most Hungarian publications, including the Hungarian party’s daily paper are banned and copies confiscated at the border. A regulation introduced in 1974 by the Romanian authorities forbade foreign tourists overnight stays in private houses, the only exception being relationships in the first degree (parent, sibling). This regulation has been strictly enforced in Transylvania and prevents Hungarians from Hungary from staying with relatives or friends. Tension between the two countries over Romania’s treatment of the minority has increased and become progressively more open after Janos Kadar’s departure as leader of the Hungarian party and the progressive liberalization in Hungary which, as well as allowing Hungarian citizens far greater access to consumer outlets in marked contrast to the situation in Romania, has allowed Hungarian public opinion to raise the issue of the minority ever more vocally. The Hungarian authorities have raised the issue at a number of international forums. The Romanians have responded with accusations of Hungarian irredentism and have closed the Hungarian consulates in Bucharest and Cluj.


In the last two years, an unprecedented situation has occurred with thousands of Hungarians from Romania fleeing to Hungary and applying for asylum there. In 1988, 13,400 refugees were legally accepted and granted temporary residence permits by the Hungarian authorities. Around 12,700 of these remain in Hungary, the rest having left for the West or returned (a very small number) to Romania. Of these refugees the overwhelming majority were Hungarians with only some 8% being ethnic Romanians. The number of Hungarians from Romania in Hungary was over 25,000 by August 1989 with many unregistered. In the summer of 1989 some 300 refugees were arriving each week from Romania to Hungary of which approximately 27% (a far higher proportion than before reflecting the general feeling of dissatisfaction with the Romanian regime among the Romanian as well as the Hungarian and other minority populations) were Romanian. The status of the refugees in Hungary is under debate. At present they cannot ask for members of their families to join them. In 1988 1,650 were returned to Romania but the number for 1989 is far lower with only 29 being sent back by July. About half the refugees are skilled workers with agricultural workers accounting for only 2% of the total which would indicate that the “systemization” is not a major reason for the exodus. In an attempt to prevent this outflow, the Romanian authorities started to build a fence along the Hungarian/Romanian border in 1988 — by mid-June 1989 some 78 kilometres out of a projected 300 had been completed. However on 24 June for no apparent reason part of the fence began to be dismantled.

(see also Hungarians of Czechoslovakia; )