Nationalism in Hungary’s Constitution


The Western world is confronted with immense challenges. Complex, interconnected, and persistent—those challenges require simultaneously paying attention to details of socio-political developments and shrewd awareness of long-term consequences. Foremost among the perils to liberal democracy in Europe, closely connected to the ongoing immigration crisis and the resultant concerns of European socio-cultural changes, is right-wing populism. And Hungary is a key case —not just led by a right-wing populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, but dominated by the populist politics of his Fidesz-KDNP party and the far-right Jobbik party.

The contemporary politics of Hungary are dynamic. The last decade has witnessed convulsions, shifts, and realignments in the political party system of the country. Resulting from much of that tumult, Fidesz-KDNP and Mr. Orban have gained and maintained overwhelmingly dominant governmental authority; and, virtually in sole possession of the powers of state, Fidesz-KDNP not only imposed its will on the policy sphere, but also recast the Hungarian system, arguably in its own image.

In 2011, despite boycotts from two of the three other parliamentary parties, Fidesz passed a new constitution, called the “Basic Law of Hungary.” Foreign and domestic political observers have roundly criticized the document, both for its content—which many argue entrenches Fidesz’s conservative ideology and seat in governmental power—and for the manner of its adoption—ratified with practically no cross-party support. The question of the constitution’s character, its underlying ideology is often cursorily analysed as conservative, a reflection of Prime Minister Victor Orban and Fidesz’s ideology. This view is simplistic and neglects more nuanced modes of understanding the new supreme legal document of Hungary. Several parts of the document afford illuminating lenses of understanding the ideological sentiments of the ruling party and much of the country.

The “National Avowal,” the introductory section of the constitution, a preamble of sorts, offers one such lens, a crucial one that magnifies important ideology in contemporary Hungary. Using the construct of ethnic and civic nationalisms, first proposed by Hans Kohn (1944, 1982) and later revised by Anthony Smith (2000) and Taras Kuzio (2010), one may visualise the deeper currents of Hungary’s politics. Furthermore, the political philosophy of Will Kymlicka facilitates analysis of the nationalist characteristics present within the National Avowal and, by extension, the rest of the constitution. The Avowal’s concise references to the past, traces of nation-building, and tones of ethnic and civic nationalisms are now firmly enshrined in the Hungarian state and capture the zeitgeist for many Hungarians. Its significance should not be underrated; it must be understood.

The constructs of Kohn and of Smith and Kuzio hold that two archetypes of nationalism exist: civic and ethnic. Civic nationalism is voluntary, based on sociocultural constructs and on codes of law that apply equally to all citizens irrespective of ethnicity.  Ethnic nationalism, on the other hand, is based on ethnic heritage and on a distinct and somewhat inaccessible sociocultural structure. Both nationalisms are alike in that they are social forces, fundamental cultural phenomena. They differ in respect to access thereto; civic nationalism permits volitional accession to a societal group because it is based on common fidelity to external articles, such as a body of law, certain symbols, or a particular set of ideas; ethnic nationalism is exclusionary due to its commitment to internal articles, such as genetic make-up and ancestry, language, and faith. No state is possessed of wholly civic or ethnic nationalism, but rather exists, as Kuzio wrote, in a condition of constant “tension between civic universalism and ethnic particularism.”

A significant feature of state structure that reflects the predominant type of nationalism is the state’s ethnocultural stance, that is, what ethnicities and associated cultures are favoured by the state and in what degree.  Will Kymlicka (2002) argued that it is impossible for a state to be ethnoculturally neutral (even though the majority of political theory regarding ethnocultural diversity argues “that the state should be ‘neutral’,” that is, favouring no one ethnicity or culture) (Kymlicka, 16). The simple fact that government must establish a language for state institutions discredits the notion of neutrality. Instead, states promote a unifying societal culture through that process of nation-building, which includes “promoting a common language, and a sense of common membership in, and equal access to, the social institutions operating in that language” (Kymlicka, 19).  Furthermore, nation-building can and often does include promoting a common historical and wider cultural identity.  In Kymlicka’s terms, civic nationalism coincides with a limited nation-building system based on a ‘thinner conception of culture,’ which conceives that the state has no significant interest beyond promoting a common language and public institutions that operate thereby.  Ethnic nationalism corresponds to a more robust nation-building system, with a thicker sociocultural concept and promotion agenda. In other words, every state is practically compelled to promote a culture in order for the state to operate. Civic nationalism in practical terms, argues Kymlicka, is present most in that state which promotes least. Conversely, extensive cultural promotion by the state often denotes ethnic nationalism.

The National Avowal of Hungary serves in the dual offices of a preamble and a statement of allegiance of sorts. In those capacities, it attempts to catalog the values of Hungary and to place the state and, significantly, the nation in historical context by referencing the experience of forebears and making socio-politically charged allusions to the past. Moreover, the Avowal unfolds what it means to be Hungarian ethnically and what it means to be a citizen of Hungary. Yet this dualistic purpose to some extent obfuscates the text. For example, it explicitly mentions Christianity twice (and evokes it a few other times) as an important part of both Hungary’s and Europe’s history. The text subsequently affirms the value of Hungary’s religious diversity. In effect, this declares that Christianity is of unique importance to Hungary—part of the nation’s sociocultural structure—but that fact does not proscribe otherwise inclined individuals and groups from participating in the state. Similarly, the Avowal esteems and commits the state to the preservation of Hungarian culture and language. But it also commits to the languages and cultures of other nationalities in Hungary. Again, the implication of this separation is inherently asymmetrical; the language and culture of the Hungarian nationality is of greater consequence to the state than that of other nationalities.

The theme in starkest relief is that of historical context, the timeline on which the history of the Hungarian state is hanged. The first declaration of the Avowal refers to Saint Stephen’s Hungary, clearly establishing that as the origin of the state. Yet the most detailed contextualization comes when the text deals with the “storms of the past century,” which tore apart the “intellectual and spiritual unity of our nation.” In this, of course, the text refers to occupations by Nazi Germany and by the Soviet Union. By decrying the experience of Hungary from March 1944 to May 1990—a period explicitly identified in the text—and by denouncing the communist constitution of 1949 and by citing the transformative importance of the 1956 revolution, the National Avowal declares that collection of experiences to be an integral part of being Hungarian.

Numerous reasons impel and enjoin us to identify and appreciate these historical allusions.  One of seemingly singular importance is the role such historical contextualisation plays in nation-building, that is, the process whereby a sociocultural edifice is purposely erected for states.  What therefore can be discerned by the sociocultural constructions purported by Hungary’s National Avowal?  It is quite explicit in its formulations, establishing the characteristics of a Hungarian as related to the tradition of Saint Stephen and the Holy Crown, to heritage of European Christianity, and to the sum of Hungary’s experience in the last century (specifically, the four seminal events in the years of 1944, 1949, 1956, and 1990).  Here again, the implication is mixed. While not everyone in the Hungarian state (for example, those who are not ethnically Hungarian) likely feels any sense of fealty to or connection with Saint Stephen’s Hungary, most will share the experience of the communist era (or at least knowledge thereof). Thus the first distinct historical allusion is somewhat exclusionary, while the latter references are relatively unifying.

Given the narratives heralded by the National Avowal and using the aforementioned analytical lenses it is possible to characterize, to place approximately on that spectrum between civic and ethnic nationalisms the preamble of Hungary’s Fundamental Law: the National Avowal is ambiguous. It is certainly not ‘ethnoculturally neutral,’ as Kymlicka prescribed, nor does it promote a ‘thin sociocultural structure.’ However, it is not uniform in the structure it promotes. Instead, it seems to erect two distinct structures, that of the Hungarian nation and that of the Hungarian state. The latter is broadly accessible and encompasses the many varied languages, ethnicities, cultures, and histories of the peoples residing in Hungary. The former, on the other hand, is exclusive and implicitly occupies a predominant position within the state. By establishing these structures the text seems simultaneously to create an open and inclusive system and to restrict the access thereto by affirming one group’s supremacy, that of ethnic Hungarians. The Avowal is therefore a somewhat perplexing text, expressing strong tones of civic and ethnic nationalisms. The assertion of a predominant nation or ethnic group inescapably shades the document in ethnic nationalism, however. The text speaks as the “Hungarian nation,” itemises several conditions of membership thereto (language, cultural and historical identity and experience, etc.), and explicitly casts “the nationalities living with us” in a mold of ‘cultural other,’ as subjects to rather that parts of the constitutional order. It allows for uniformly open access to the state, but its evidently unequal character overshadows the provision.

For the sake of the many important points of law existent in the body of a constitution, constitutional preambles—or however varying introductory sections to states’ supreme legal documents are labelled—are sometimes overlooked or underappreciated in the field of constitutional studies.  To the extent that this is the case, however, it is a grave oversight.  The traditional and pervasive purpose of preambles is to establish the basis on which the whole document is valid.  For example, one of the most common lines of preambles begins as such: ‘We the people of…’ or ‘We, the citizens of…’. These lines imply that the basis of the state and its law is derived from the consent of the governed.  In most cases where such a line is employed it lies at the heart of the country’s basis for democratic governance.[1] On this basis alone, Hungary’s National Avowal is of great significance for the governance of the state. Moreover, Article ‘R,’ clause ‘3’ of the constitution commits the Constitutional Court to interpret the rest of the document within the values and commitments of the National Avowal. Thus, the character of the Avowal is of deep significance for the legal system, and therefore the entirety of Hungary.

States exist between the two pure forms of nationalism and evolve toward civic nationalism as they develop democratically.  Thus, the character of nationalism underlying a state’s constitution concerns us since tendency towards ethnic nationalism may represent, either as symptom or root cause, a condition of democratic underdevelopment or of democratic recession.  Hungary is unique in enshrining features of ethnic nationalism in its constitution, though similar inclinations are present, perhaps ascendant in other countries of the former Eastern Bloc. Perceived threats from Russia, the possibility of EU attenuation or even disintegration, lingering pressures from the economic recession, mounting ethnic politics in correlation with immigration and European demographic change—large, unwieldy events, actors, and forces are pressurising the younger members of the EU. Modern states—especially those struggling through the process of liberal democratic consolidation as in Eastern and Central Europe—must reconnoitre and manage by legal frameworks based on civic universalism and civic nationalism in order to develop and sustain stable liberal democratic systems. As the European Union and its leaders grapple with many challenges, they must take care not to neglect its Eastern members, where liberal democracy is in its adolescence and the risk of regression is still real and immediate.


Kohn, Hans. The Idea of Nationalism: a Study in its Origins and Background. New York: Macmillan Co., 1944.

Kohn, Hans. Nationalism, Its Meaning and History. Rev. ed. Malabar: Krieger, 1982.

Kuzio, Taras. “The Myth of the Civic State: A Critical Survey of Hans Kohn’s Framework for Understanding Nationalism.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 25, no. 1 (2010): 20-39.

Kymlicka, Will. “Western Political Theory and Ethnic Relations in Eastern Europe.” In Can Liberal Pluralism be Exported?: Western Political Theory and Ethnic Relations in Eastern Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. 13-21.

Smith, Anthony. The Nation in History: Historiographical Debates about Ethnicity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000.

[1] In the case of Hungary’s National Avowal, the opening clause is: “We the members of the Hungarian Nation…” The adoption of the speaking voice of the nation rather than some more inclusive collection evinces the ethnic nationalism present within Hungary’s constitution.

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About the Author 

Michael Zeller holds Master of Arts degree in Political Science from Corvinus University of Budapest. His bachelor’s degree is in Political Science from the University of Louisville.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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