Roma Civil Rights movement


Angéla Kóczé

Roma Civil Rights Movement in Hungary


The history of Roma civil rights and political activism after 1945 shows some similarities in East-Central European countries. The Soviet model became the dominant political structure supported by Marxist-Leninist ideology, creating very similar constraints, as well as limited opportunities for Roma to articulate their political interests.

Although the new Hungarian state socialist constitution guaranteed equality to all citizens and promised well-being for everybody, it failed to establish economic opportunities for Roma. János Bársony succinctly explains how land policy distribution disadvantaged Roma, based on legislation that was enacted on 15th March 1945.1 Certain FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States) working papers explain:

“[...] all estates larger than 575 hectares (ha) were expropriated and other farms were reduced, by means of confiscation, to a maximum of 57ha. Livestock and production assets were confiscated along with the land. In total, nearly 3 million hectares were confiscated and distributed to 725,000 landless workers and small farmers. The new holdings were limited to 8.5ha”.2

Bársony points out that the legislation also provided an opportunity for Roma, as they were mainly landless agricultural workers; however, “Hungarian Peasants” did not consider the Roma as a group similar in situation to themselves. Additionally, even the very few Roma who requested it were not given any land. Consequently, the intersecting economic and political dispossession of Roma continued, even after World War II (1939-1945).

The Pharrajimos (‘Devouring’, ‘destruction’)3: Recognition and reparation of the Roma Holocaust

Even today, there is an ongoing debate amongst scholars and researchers, as to whether Roma were actually part of the Holocaust, or arguments as to how many Roma were exterminated during World War II, by Nazi regimes and their allies. It is estimated that between 200,000 and 1.5 million Romani persons were exterminated during the Romani Holocaust.4

After World War II, György Faludy, a Hungarian poet, was the only person who challenged Hungarian society to remind Hungarians of their crimes against Roma,

“How many were lost, we still don’t know. I couldn’t find any Hungarian newspapers that figured it worth mentioning the decimation of people that had lived among us - meaning that out of the centuries of hatred in the Danube Valley we haven’t even reached a minimum of human solidarity” (Végtisztességet a cigányoknak [Piety to the Gypsies] Haladás, June 6, 1946)

After the Holocaust deportations and undocumented mass executions, Hungarian Roma did not receive any reparations or official apology for the Roma suffering, from the new political elite, nor even from the international community. János Bársony and Ágnes Daróczi, among other Romani (and non-Romani) intellectuals, consider the Holocaust as a common historical experience for European Roma5, as the culmination of centuries of discrimination and suffering at the hands of Europe’s majority ethnic groups.

Lajos Nadorfi | A Photograph of Agnes Daroczi in 1972 | photograph | Hungary | 1972 | rom_20013 Rights held by: Lajos Nadorfi | Licensed by Lajos Nadorfi I Licensed under: CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 International I Provided by: Àgnes Daròczi /Janos Barsony - Private Archive

It is one that plays a crucial role in the construction of collective identity for various Romani groups and in establishing Roma as a people with a history and collective memory, in Europe. Bársony and Daróczi refute the historian, László Karsai’s argument, when he questions the veracity of a systemic genocide of Roma in the period of fascist regimes.6 Romani intellectuals in Hungary, started to work on artistic recognition and representations of Roma persecution from the 1980s, particularly in films and paintings. József Lojkó Lakatos’ 1981 film entitled, “Forgotten Dead”, is the first cinematic contribution to the Nazi genocide of Roma. Tamás Péli's forty-two square metre painting, entitled “Birth” (1983), is hung on the wall of an orphanage library at Tiszadob, representing the history of Roma from their origins to the Roma Holocaust (1939-1945).

“The Gypsy problem”, based on a Soviet model

In 1946, András Kálmán wrote an article for the Hungarian Communist Party’s social science periodical, Társadalomtudományi Szemle (Social Science Review), entitled, “Problems of the Hungarian Gypsies”, which was the first public text discussing the situation of Roma. He argued that ‘unassimilated Gypsies’, those who are not working regularly and are socially, economically, and linguistically different from the majority, need their problems addressed as a national minority issue. However, his main recommendation was to integrate ‘Gypsies’ into the various heavy industries. He believed that only through full employment could the ‘Gypsy’ fully assimilate into Hungarian society. His dual approach suggested, on the one hand, assimilation for the majority of Roma (as ‘Gypsies’) and on the other, awarding national minority status for a small section of the population. This became the paradigmatic approach to Roma during the period of state socialism.

The Cultural Association of Hungarian Gypsies

In the summer of 1957, the Hungarian Ministry of Culture established the National Minorities Department to oversee a number of national minority associations from the Slovak, Romanian, German, and Southern Slav communities. On 26th October 1957, a few months later, the Ministry recognized ‘Gypsies’ as a national minority and established the Hungarian Gypsy Cultural Association (HGCA) (Magyar Cigányok Kulturális Szövetsége)7 led by Mária László (1909-1989), who became its first Secretary-General of the HGCA. She was a well-known Romani person, who had worked previously as a journalist, as well as a community organizer. In 1937, she had organized a protest in the village of Pánd, when she was arrested for incitement8. In 1945, she had become a member of the Hungarian Social Democratic Party. Based on studying archival material from the 1950s, it is clear that she wrote letters to various ministries, to request permission to establish an independent ‘Gypsy’ organization. László’s request happened to coincide with the Ministry of Labour’s plan to establish a Department of National Minorities, aimed at developing a Communist Party policy towards ‘Gypsies’, though the leadership of the Party never wanted to recognize ‘Gypsies’ as a national minority.

László was also the first Romani woman, civil rights activist, who promoted Romani emancipation through literature, music and Romani language. Under her leadership (1957 to 1959), the organization functioned as an advocacy group to provide legal protection and address individual complaints. However, her emancipatory politics were not respected by the authorities and, in 1959, they found a pretext to remove her as leader of the HGCA. László had signed a letter on 16th June 1958, at the time of official reprisals over the 1956 Revolution. In her letter, she stated, “We suggest that there are mistakes in the current process of internments”, which had silenced Roma political oppositionists who had critiqued the 1956 post-revolution actions by the Ministry of Interior and the Attorney General, by sending members of the opposition to internment camps.9 This letter was deemed an act of resistance defending the rights of these Roma opposition members, on the very same day that the revolutionary, Imre Nagy, and his fellow martyrs, were executed.10 This protest by László meant that from November 1958 to March 1959, the organization was led by a politically trustworthy bureaucrat, György Gere, who was succeeded in turn by an army officer, Sándor Ferkovics. In 1961, the Association was formally disbanded and dissolved.

The Politics of Assimilation

By the late 1960s, the economic policies of Hungary gradually moved towards a mix of socialist and small-scale market-oriented policies, with the introduction of the New Economic Mechanism (NEM), increasingly becoming more liberal, though still prescribed through strong social control engineered by the State. Roma, much like other Hungarians living in predominantly rural areas, were encouraged to join the industrial proletariat by becoming miners, construction and railroad workers; there were also state policies which targeted Roma specifically.

After the adoption of the 1961 resolution, passed by the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party, ‘The problem of Gypsy integration’, the ‘Gypsy question’ was constructed as a ‘social-problem’ devoid of any ethnic component. The 1961 resolution took a decisive turn by defining the position of the Gypsies as a social, rather than an ethnic, issue, stating “The starting-point for policies directed at the Gypsy population must be the principle that, despite certain ethnographic peculiarities, it does not constitute a national minority”11. However, given the assimilation politics of state socialism, some Roma communities were most resilient in maintaining their independence from centralized state power, as some scholars have emphasized.12

Thus, socialist policies focused on the provision of jobs, housing, and education for Roma, without recognising their ethnic background13. Nonetheless, the socialist state did not adequately acknowledge the barriers constituting the exclusion of Roma, which posed significant obstacles to their integration. In the Hungarian educational system, for example, de facto segregation existed, based on so-called ‘customary spatial segregation’, where each village had its own Romani street, quarter or settlement. Many community schools which catered to Romani pupils were effectively built upon this de facto ‘separate but equal’ precept under socialism. In this manner, large numbers of Romani children became siphoned off into schools with poor resources, low expectations from teachers and few tangible educational outcomes, including schools or classes for children with learning disabilities.

From Roma poverty to cultural recognition

The first Hungarian representative survey about Roma was carried out almost a hundred years after the first “Gypsy census”14, under the supervision of István Kemény in 1971 and began as a research report. Kemény worked with social scientists (and frequently dissidents), who engaged with the subject of ‘poverty and Gypsies’, such as Zsolt Csalogh, Gabor Havas, and Ottilia Solt. Their research shaped the political agenda of the Roma civil rights movement. The Roma representative survey of 1971, was criticised by Roma intellectuals, in that it exclusively focused upon poverty and did not recognize Roma as an ethnic group with a distinct culture. Moreover, questions of Roma ethnicity and poverty were articulated as exclusive issues, rather than as intersecting categories, with the question framed as one of ‘Gypsy Culture’, or a ‘Culture of Poverty’?

Zsolt Csalogh later reflected on the experience of research in the following way:

“When, in 1971, we conducted the Kemény research, we knew that we were doing subversive work. We experienced taking a stand against the system [...] we were uncovering one of the shocking scandals of the system [...] Of course the primary goal was to help the fallen, the hungry, the impoverished, but it was also very important to be a splinter in the eyes of the system”15

During this interview, Ágnes Daróczi reminded Zsolt Csalogh that, in 1978, when he was at a conference in Békéscsaba, he had stood up in the audience and made a demand for Roma institutions, a Roma museum, a theatre, and cultural centres and so on.

However, Kemény’s research made a significant impact on the later representation of Roma in film, photography, and literature. They were depicted as a group that illustrated one of the “failures of socialism”, materially deprived and trapped in generational poverty, a “pariah” underclass who live outside the society in “Othered” unknown collectives. Pál Schiffer was the most productive and prominent of Hungarian film-makers to represent marginalized Roma identified in Kemény’s research. In his iconic 1970 film, Fekete vonat (Black Train) he portrayed the lives and struggles of Roma men as menial, under-educated workers in industry, who travelled from the disadvantaged villages of County Szabolcs-Szatmár Bereg to Budapest, or other western Hungarian cities. In addition to other documentaries, such as Faluszéli házak (Houses on the Edge of Town) and Mit csinálnak a cigánygyerekek? (What Are the Gypsy Children Doing?), Schiffer made a fictional documentary film, Cséplő Gyuri (1978). This film is about the life of its main character, Gyuri, who attempts to leave the traditional Romani settlement and look for a job in Budapest.

Andrea Pócsik in her eloquent analysis (2013), argues that this film goes beyond the dominant representation of poverty, giving an authority to the Roma protagonist to observe and analyse poverty through his experience. That is to say, this was the first film in the 1970s that gave a specific voice and representation to Romani intellectuals. During the Kadár socialist era, the Central Bureau of the Socialist Party released a statement in 197416, promising to educate Roma alongside non-Roma, as well as to find ways of supporting Roma cultural communities, such as folk-bands and clubs. This cultural initiative, including the “Gypsy Clubs” provided a space for the emerging Romani movement. In Cséplő Gyuri, one of the most significant scenes is when the protagonist meets young Romani intellectuals, Ágnes Daróczi, János Bársony, József Choli Daróczi, József Lojkó Lakatos and Tamás Péli. Despite their different social statuses in the “Gypsy Club”, these individuals still had an opportunity to preserve, re-create and re-articulate Romani culture, which was not promoted and recognized by the Hungarian Socialist Worker’s Party.

Ágnes Daróczi and János Bársony, struggled as a revolutionary couple in the 1970s and 1980s, not just against the Politburo of Central Committee of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party, but also against the influence of academic racism, such as that represented by the linguists, József Vekerdi and Elemér Várnagy. Vekerdi had deeply influenced ethnographic research on Roma and according to Szuhay Péter, he had even stated that the development of Roma culture had been impeded by lack of tradition.17 Elemér Várnagy’s, research on Roma strengthened racist misconceptions that Roma inherited predispositions towards stealing and begging. János Bársony succinctly explained, in an interview (2017), that Elemér Várnagy’s work was vigorously challenged by Ágnes Daróczi and himself, with support of international scholars, at a conference organized by the University of Pécs in 1979.18

Claiming Civic and Political Rights after 1989

The very same progressive Romani activists of the “Gypsy Clubs” were affiliated with the democratic opposition (demokratikus ellenzék) in Hungary, becoming more visible in the 1980s, through having created ‘alternative’ institutions, such as the political movement Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége (SZDSZ), (the Free Democratic Federation). They also established the magazine Beszélő, as well as SZETA, a foundation specializing in assisting people who lived in poverty.

In February 1989, in the north-eastern Hungarian city of Miskolc, a remarkable political protest was launched by Aladár Horváth19 with the support of several Romani activists (Ágnes Daroczi, Béla Osztolykán, and Attila Balogh). Horváth was also supported by the Wallenberg Association, represented by János Ladányi and Gábor Havas. The local government of Miskolc proposed to expel hundreds of Roma from a public housing estate. Hungarian dissidents and Roma activists formed an “anti-ghetto committee” to protest against the plan. The action later came to be seen as the foundation of the Roma political civil rights movement in modern Hungarian history. Particularly noteworthy was the fact that the committee united Roma activists and non-Roma oppositionists, and dissidents20.

In 1989, Romani activists, with the support of Hungarian liberal intellectuals, established the first independent Romani organization Phralipe. In post-socialist Hungary, Phralipe was the first Romani civil rights advocacy organization independent of state led formations, such as the Hungarian Gypsy Democratic Union (Magyarországi Cigányok Demokratikus Szövetsége or MCDSZ), led by Gyula Náday and István Mezei.

In November 1989, Phralipe approved the Cigánypolitikai Tézisek, ‘Gypsy Political Thesis’, which was sent to all the democratic parties, with the aim of integrating this into their political programmes by the spring of 1990. Only one political party, Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége (SZDSZ), Free Democratic Party, offered to cooperate with Phralipe. In 1990, after the first democratic elections in Hungary, only the SZDSZ put forward two Romani MEPs, Aladár Horváth and Antonia Hága. Later, in 1992, the Magyar Szocialista Párt (MSZP), Hungarian Socialist Party offered a seat to Tamás Péli21 after a death of their MEP.

In the early 1990s, Roma activists organized demonstrations and even mobilized politicians countering neo-fascist attacks against Roma individuals and families. Phralipe and the Roma Parlament led by Aladár Horváth, Ágnes Daróczi, and Béla Osztojkán, organized the most important demonstration in Eger, 11th July 1993 against violence and discrimination, as well as against tacit public support that allowed the various attacks and violence against Roma to continue. Several thousand Roma and their non-Roma sympathizers reportedly attended this event, protesting lack of police protection and civil rights for Roma. In 1996, Helsinki Human Rights Watch reported on the emerging conjunction between the neo-Nazi, ‘skinhead’ movement and Hungarian political parties. Their report found that there was a “consistent pattern of contact and cooperation between the Independent Smallholders Party and various skinhead organizations...”.22

The 1993 National and Ethnic Minorities Act (Law LXXVII/1993) was a landmark piece of legislation for Hungarian minorities in the assertion of collective political rights in the country. For the first time, Roma were recognised as constituting an ethnic minority and entitled to set up their own local and national bodies. Alongside existing legislation on associations and parties, this opened up the path to forming their own minority self-governments, at both local and national levels. However, Roma civil rights activists critiqued the so-called “minorities law” from its very inception. Jenő Zsigó, a Romani spokesperson at the Minority Roundtable, which had constructively critiqued the development of the legislation, concluded,

“The declared aims of the proposed minority legislation are well-known; however, these aims are unachievable under “minority protections”. In fact, they serve to create tension between the local authorities and the minority local council...”23

Prospect for Emancipation

In the post-1989 period, the Gandhi High School in Pécs remains one the most significant cultural institutions and is named after the Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi. It was founded in 1992 as the first Romani high school, by several Roma and non-Roma activist and scholars, such as Tibor Derdák, Anna Orsós. It has been running since 1994 under the leadership of the Romani intellectual János Bogdán. The purpose of the school is to improve prospects for Romani children in Hungary and foster pride in Romani culture.

After 1989, several legal advocacy organizations have been established, including the Foundation for Roma Civil Rights, National Ethnic and Minority Legal Protection Office (NEKI), Chance for Children Foundation (CFCF), besides other cultural institutions. These organizations challenged the legislation to change the discriminatory legal discourse and practice towards Roma through several cases that raised legal and political awareness about discriminatory practice against Roma. In 1998, the Roma Foundation for Roma Civil Rights brought a case against a school in north-eastern Hungary, citing the principal of the Ferenc Pethe Primary School, Tiszavasvári. In the previous year, seventeen Romani students had graduated at a separate ceremony, organized by the school administration at a different time from the graduation ceremony of the other students.

Today, despite the lost opportunity for political leverage to bring significant improvement, as a result of accession to the EU, the burden of the financial crisis, a dismantled social welfare system, numerous failed projects, and ineffective ‘Roma integration’ strategies, there remains hope for cultural and political emancipation, represented by several initiatives such as the Roma Pride Movement (launched by Jenő Stetét) , the Romaversitas Roma higher education support programme, or the Tanoda network, such as the one led by Judit Berki in Nográd county.