Statue of Sándor Károlyi (Fővárosi Szabó Ervin Könyvtár)

Does the land belong to its cultivator?

For the first sight business-related news reports popped up from time to time on pages of Pesti Napló among public news. These usually evolved around the rental of huge, tens of thousands of acres large entailed or church lands for foreign, German tenant candidates.
For example, on May 8, 1917, the paper reported with satisfaction on the bishopric in Nagyvárad trying to find a German tenant for its 32,000 acres – but the government asked for the expert opinion of the agricultural academy in Mosonmagyaróvár before submitting the contract to the king for approval by the patron. The newspaper did not even hide what they found problematic about the plan by the bishopric: “We have already pointed out the risks from the perspective of national estate policy of putting such a large estate complex in foreign hands in a region populated by Romanians“, and its arguments were presumably welcome by the public too – especially a few months after the Romanian invasion.

However, this is a good example for almost all problems and controversies of the estate policy in Hungary in the first years of the century. Many social issues found to be decisive by historiography were combined in the utilization of large estates, including the land issue and the problem of nationalities. The vast majority of the country’s population lived from agriculture, either as smallholders, or as landless agricultural workers. Although the bishopric possessed a huge estate, they were not free to sell it, just like the entailed estates making up for a significant part of the large estate. On the other end of the scale of land holders, masses of dwarf holders sometimes cultivated impossibly small parcels. But the situation of smallholders was not bright either even if they had sufficient land for viable farming: they used old technologies, could not sell the goods and did not have enough money for investments either. The former nobiliary middle estates started to disappear, partly due to the lack of capital, poor farming, lack of interest, the proverbial spending of the gentry, the habit of distributing estates among heirs, but mostly owing to the changing environment of world economy and the price shrinking effect of overseas and Russian grain. A significant part of the Hungarian political elite found that these processes risk the existence of the nation insofar as the peasantry was held to be the spine of the nation, while nobiliary middle estates and members of the middle class were the destined leaders. In view of this, the expansion of non-Hungarian middle estates, which was otherwise a relatively slow process, gave rise to apocalyptic images – this is what the paper referred to in the quoted article.

The situation of the agricultural population was in fact gloomy because of a hard-to-solve contradiction: large estates had better options for the competitive and profitable production of Hungary’s primary products, and even this was put under pressure in the world market competition. However, the introduction of protective duties was only discussed rarely, when urged by large entrepreneurs interested in the industry (so-called mercantilists). However, small and middle estates provided for many more people, who could not really be absorbed by any other industries. It is not accidental that political trends showed up to offer various answers to this problem. Radical agricultural movements saw the way out in the distribution of large estates, in land restitution, but the government was much more restrained, and rather sought to remedy the situation through reform programmes, mainly for the pressure of large and middle estate interest groups (the so-called Agrarians, lead by Count Sándor Károlyi).

These concepts – developed around the turn of the century by Count András Bethlen Agricultural Minister, and his successor, Ignác Darányi – sought to increase the efficiency and competitiveness of the small and medium estates through state aid and the expansion of associations. The expansion of new types, new technologies, the agricultural education, the model and demonstration farms, marketing and credit associations, as well as the foundation of land banks targeting small and middle estates were among the measures taken. Important railway lines were built during Darányi’s ministry to support the transport of goods. The state also encouraged settlement with tax incentives and loans. This did not only aim at establishing viable small and medium estates but the repression of nationality settlement areas, since settlers were deliberately selected from Hungarians of the Great Plain.

These reform concepts were incorporated into a wider ideological transformation too. Through counter-balancing the social effect of capitalism, retaining the social harmony, the reduction of social differences, an estate and occupation capable of maintaining the individual and the family and adequate earnings, Christian Socialist concepts were included too, which, together with Agrarian thinking, were integrated into the neoconservative ideas of the turn of the century as well. Anticapitalism also reflected in considering usury, Jewish merchants, Jewish tenants and large estate holders to be the primary opponents. All this was also expressed in the Anti-Semitism that increasingly strengthened during the war.

Nem hagyták jóvá a nagyváradi püspökségbirtokainak bérbeadását = Pesti Napló, 1917. május 8.
Bihari Péter: Lövészárkok a hátországban. Budapest, 2008.
Egry Gábor: Erdélyi Szövetség, Magyar Népközösség, Erdélyi Párt. Bánffy Miklós trilógiájának társadalmi víziójához – a történész szemével = Pro Minoritate, 2014/3. 93-109.
Kiss Mária Rita: Szabadelvűek és agráriusok a XIX–XX. század fordulóján = Politikatudományi Szemle, 2002/3. 239-267.
Kovács Éva: Államosítás vagy államosodás? Az agrárius mozgalom előretörése a törvényhozásban az 1898-as gazdasági és hitelszövetkezetekről szóló XXIII. törvénykapcsán = Regio, 2007/2. 113-139.
Vári András: Német és magyar agráriusok, 1849–1909 = Korall, 28–29. 88-108.

Written by: Gábor Egry