Until World War II, striking inequalities distinguished the distribution of wealth, power, privilege, and opportunity among social groups. The various social strata had different codes of behavior and distinctive dress, speech, and manners. Respect showed to persons varied according to the source of their wealth. Wealth derived from possession of land was valued more highly than that coming from trade or banking. The country was predominantly rural, and landownership was the central factor in determining the status and prestige of most families. In some of the middle and upper strata of society, noble birth was also an important criterion as was, in some cases, the holding of certain occupations. An intricate system of ranks and titles distinguished the various social stations. Hereditary titles designated the aristocracy and gentry. Persons who had achieved positions of eminence, whether or not they were of noble birth, often received nonhereditary titles from the state. The gradations of rank derived from titles had great significance in social intercourse and in the relations between the individual and the state. Among the rural population, which consisted largely of peasants and which made up the overwhelming majority of the country's people, distinctions derived from such factors as the size of a family's landholding; whether the family owned the land and hired help to work it, owned and worked the land itself, or worked for others; and family reputation. The prestige and respect accompanying landownership were evident in many facets of life in the countryside, from finely shaded modes of polite address, to special church seating, to selection of landed peasants to fill public offices.
On the eve of World War II, about 4 percent of the population owned more than half the country's wealth. Landowners, wealthy bankers, aristocrats and gentry, and various commercial leaders made up the elite. Together, these groups accounted for only 13 percent of the population. Between 10 and 18 percent of the population consisted of the petite bourgeoisie and the petty gentry, various government officials, intellectuals, retail store owners, and well-to-do professionals. More than two-thirds of the remaining population lived in varying degrees of poverty. Their only real chance for upward mobility lay in becoming civil servants, but such advancement was difficult because of the exclusive nature of the education system. The industrial working class was growing, but the largest group remained the peasantry, most of whom had too little land or none at all.
Although the interwar years witnessed considerable cultural and economic progress in the country, the social structure changed little. A great chasm remained between the gentry, both social and intellectual, and the rural "people." Jews held a place of prominence in the country's economic, social, and political life. They constituted the bulk of the middle class. During the first four decades of the twentieth century, Jews made up more than one-fifth of the population of Budapest. They were well assimilated, worked in a variety of professions, and were of various political persuasions.
|Country Studies main page | Hungary Country Studies main page|