On May 29, 1938, Hungary enacted its first anti-Jewish law. Although the country had not been occupied or annexed by Nazi Germany, under pressure from the Nazis, it began to adopt restrictions on its Jewish population similar to the Nuremberg Laws adopted in Germany in September 1935. In Hungary, the first law set quotas on the numbers of Jews who could be employed in a range of commercial and professional fields.
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Hungary in the 1930s was beholden to Hitler’s Germany. The Treaty of Trianon, signed at Versailles, France, following World War I, had stripped the Kingdom of Hungary of some two-thirds of its territory, and a similar fraction of its population. Gone were most of the non-Hungarian ethnic groups that had comprised the country’s population when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The only minority group that remained was the Jews, who constituted about five percent of the population.
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In absolute numbers, the Jews, who had achieved equality before the law in Hungary only in 1867, were inconsequential, but they wielded disproportionate influence. More than 25 percent of university students in Hungary in the 1920s were Jews, as was were the majority of stock exchange members and currency brokers. Many of the country’s industrial enterprises, too, were owned by Jewish bankers.
Admiral Miklos Horthy, the "regent" who became the country’s ruler in March 1920, openly declared himself an anti-Semite and wrote that he found it “intolerable that here in Hungary everything, every factory, bank, large fortune, business, theater, press, commerce, etc., should be in Jewish hands, and that the Jew should be the image reflected of Hungary, especially abroad.”
When Germany began redrawing borders in central Europe, first by agreement, then by force, it restored to Hungary lands it had lost at Versailles: part of Slovakia, Subcarpathian Rus, northern Transylvania and part of Yugoslavia. In return, Horthy was expected to impose incrementally worse restrictions on the Jews, even the 100,000 of them who had converted to Christianity.
As early as 1920, Horthy had imposed a numerus clausus in Hungary, the first in Europe, limiting the percentage of university students who could be Jews to their ration of the general population — 5 percent.
The Jewish law of May 29, 1938, put a limit of 20 percent on the fraction of physicians, lawyers, journalists and engineers who could be Jews — a dramatic decree, considering that some 60 percent of doctors and 50 percent of lawyers were Jews by religion.
Less than a year later, on May 5, 1939, the second Jewish law was introduced: It barred Jews from government employ and lowered the quotas allowed in many professions, as well as in commercial enterprises. Most significantly, like Germany, it gave Jewishness a racial definition, so anyone with more than one Jewish grandparent was defined as a Jew.
Eventually, Jews were disenfranchised and barred from military service (while able-bodied Jewish men were forced to do hard labor), and marriage and sex between them and non-Jews was criminalized. Nonetheless, when Hitler demanded that Horthy deport the country’s Jews (beyond some 20,000 who had been exiled and murdered in 1941), he refused. For that, and for other reasons, Germany occupied Hungary in March 1944, and quickly undertook to deport and kill its Jews. By the end of World War II, some 600,000 of the country’s 860,000 Jews had been murdered.