100 years ago, on 23 September 1920, the Hungarian parliament adopted the so-called Numerus Clausus Law, often dubbed the first racial, antisemitic law in Europe, long before the Nazi racial laws.
The law introduced racial quotas at universities and limited the number of Jewish students who could be admitted. The justification of the law claimed that the reason for setting racial limits is the disproportionally high participation of minorities, especially Jews, in higher education. Indeed, the proportion of Jewish students was much higher than their rate in the population.
There are still some intellectuals in Hungary who accept this justification and claim that this law only served to restore balance in higher education and to introduce positive discrimination for ethnic Hungarians, including simple people like peasants. But this social justification is false. There is an historical explanation for the high rate of Jewish students. It is the result of systemic discrimination. For several centuries, Jews were excluded from many traditional professions and offices. They could not buy land, so they concentrated in urban centres and worked in trade and industry. Positions in the state administration were open for Christians only so they chose to work in free intellectual professions such as law or medicine.
History has also proved that the Numerus Clausus law did not make Hungarian higher education more democratic or inclusive. What is more, higher education became even more exclusive and elitist. While the proportion of Jewish students dropped from 30% to 8%, the proportion of poor farmers and workers in higher education did not increase significantly between the two world wars in Hungary. But the proportion of university students from higher social classes (wealthy Christian families) increased from 58% to 65% in the 1920s.
The real historic significance of this law was that it defined Jews as a race and not as a religion. This was the first law violating the principle of the equality of rights since the emancipation of Jews in the 19th century. From this day, the door was open for further restrictions of the rights and freedoms of minorities, based on racial concepts. In this sense it is fair to say that this law paved the way for the holocaust and Auschwitz.
The picture below shows the front page of Népszava, the daily newspaper of the Social-Democrats. It starts with the sentence “today’s editorial article was banned by censorship”. A little further down the page, where you see the XXX-s interrupting the text, you can see that the article reporting on the adoption of the new law was heavily censored. The picture illustrates how the violation of political freedoms, including the freedom of the press, can set the scene to evil, dehumanising laws effectively excluding minority groups from society and deeming them second-class citizens. Where there is no free press people can be easily manipulated and misinformed. The slippery slope never starts with mass destruction. It always starts with the weakening of democratic institutions and restrictions of rights, and laws that open the door to discrimination against minority groups based on ethnic origin, sexuality, or gender.
Executive Director of the Rights Reporter Foundation.
He is a historian, a human rights activist and drug policy expert, the founder and editor of the Drugreporter website since 2004, a documentary film maker and blogger. He has been working for the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) for more than 10 years. Now he leads the Rights Reporter Foundation.