Ethnic changes in Hungary due to the Ottoman wars

The rate of the Hungarian-speaking population in 1490 was about 75-80% but it was 25-38% in 1790.

Why do I think it is the most important question in Hungarian history?

Simply put, our present miserable situation derives directly from the impact of ethnic losses. There was a straight road from Buda, 1541 to Trianon, 1920. See, I am from a half-Hungarian / half-Slovakian family and I have witnessed many sad things during my travels in the Carpathian Basin, perhaps I won’t alienate outright my Romanian or Slovakian readers if they read my introduction:

Also, note that I am intentionally using the Oriental name order for Hungarians when the family name comes first.

In my opinion, the Kingdom of Hungary had been fulfilling its role quite well until the 16th century: the Eastern nomadic attacks against western Europe were blocked and the kingdom was ruled by rulers who were crowned with the Sacred Crown and fully integrated the country into West European civilization.

The purple dots show you the modern borders of Hungary over the map of the mid-16th century; of course, there are no good maps, and Croatia is not indicated properly…

What was the meaning of the “Hungaricus” identity?

It was the period before classical nationalism and the non-Hungarian inhabitants of the kingdom tended to call themselves “Germanus Hungaricus” or “Wlachus Hungaricus” when Renaissance thinking was taking shape. Not only the non-Hungarian Latinists used this term but it was alive later on, too. In other words, the love of the Land was more important than mere language. There was a Slovakian-Hungarian Evangelic priest called Bél Mátyás (1684–1749), who used to say: “O cara Patria, quae me genuisti dulcis Panonia!” (“Oh, my dear Homeland, who gave me birth, sweet Hungary”) He wrote his works in Latin but spoke Hungarian, Slovakian and German, saying about his own identity the following: „lingua Slavus, natione Hungarus, eruditione Germanus”, meaning: his mother tongue was Slovakian, his nationality was Hungarian and his education was German.

Bél Mátyás on the cover of his book “Compendium Hungariae geographicum”

The Habsburg and Ottoman wars were dynastic conflicts

In the medieval times of Hungary, it was not uncommon to elect a king who came from abroad and had not “only” Hungarian ancestors. Wasn’t it better to invite a righteous-looking new king from abroad when the “native” candidates were either tyrannic or too young? Anyway, one could become king of Hungary only if he was crowned with the so-called Sacred Crown of the Hungarians. The king had to swear on the Crown and Hungary belonged under the rule of the Crown which symbolized the country and its laws. In general, all our Jagiellonian and Anjou kings spoke Hungarian and reigned from Buda, even King Albert of Habsburg.

Emperor Sigismund of the Holy Roman Empire and King of Hungary

The fatal Dual Kingship after 1526

Habsburg Ferdinand, King of Czechia attacked Hungary not much after the Battle of Mohács. He claimed himself the rightful candidate for the Hungarian throne, according to the Habsburg-Jagiellonian Treaty of 1515. On the other hand, Szapolyai János had already been crowned as King of Hungary, according to the decision of the Diet of Rákos of 1505 whereas the Hungarian noblemen agreed that they would elect only a “native” Hungarian king in the future. However, hearing of the proclamation of the Diet, King Maximilian I Habsburg remarked that he could fulfill all the three criteria of the Hungarian Diet: he was born in Hungary in Bécsújhely (Wiener Neustadt) that used to belong to Hungary; he spoke Hungarian and had enough Hungarian blood in his veins.

Habsburg Maximilian (1459-1519), a painting by Albrecht Dürer

However, as Buda was occupied by the Turks, the Habsburg kings ruled from Vienna and from Prague and became not the best masters of the Hungarian kingdom. With their rule, a new chapter began in the history of the Hungarian-Ottoman wars. Both the Ottoman dynasty and the Habsburg dynasty regarded money and power as more important than language and nationality so I have no grudges against Turkish or Austrian friends, behold. 

We know that the period of the Ottoman-Hungarian wars is roughly between 1366 to 1791. Yet, we consider the “150 years” of the Ottoman occupation between 1541-and 1699 as the most destructive part of it.

As a consequence of the 150 years of constant warfare between the Christian states and Ottomans, population growth was stunted, and the network of ethnic Hungarian medieval settlements, with their urbanized inhabitants, perished. The ethnic composition of the territory that had been part of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary was fundamentally changed through deportations and massacres so that the number of ethnic Hungarians in existence at the end of the Ottoman period was substantially diminished.

the area around Buda in 1490 and after 1699

The economic decline of Buda the capital city during the Ottoman conquest characterized by the stagnation of the population. The population of Buda was not larger in 1686 than two centuries earlier in the 15th century. The Ottomans allowed the Hungarian royal place to fall into ruins, although some baths, and mosques were built all over the bigger towns.

The Ottomans later transformed the palace into a gunpowder store and magazine, which caused its detonation during the siege in 1686. The Christian Hungarian population significantly shrank in the next decades, due to them fleeing to the Habsburg-ruled Royal Hungary. The number of Jewish and Gypsy immigrants became dominant during Ottoman rule in Buda.

The Hungarian inhabitants of cities moved to other places when they felt threatened by the Ottoman military presence. Many smaller villages became abandoned in the Great Hungarian Plains and the peasants moved into the local agricultural towns like Debrecen where they could prosper. The Ottomans didn’t harm their own peasants and they even came to terms with the Hajdu herdsmen about the cattle trade. The areas which were outside of the Ottoman occupation suffered more: in the Borderland or deep in Royal Hungary, especially during the raids of the 17th century. As for Transylvania, the Crimean Tatars posed a greater danger because they were hunting for slaves.

As for the Crimean Tatars, they caused so much destruction all over the “Hungaries” that even the local Turks despised them for their cruelty. We know several examples of how the local Ottoman leaders warned the Hungarians to flee because of the Crimean Tatars.

Without exception, in the cities that became Ottoman administrative centers, the Christian population decreased. The Hungarian population remained only in some cities, where the Ottoman garrisons were not installed. The soldiers in these garrisons were 90% southern Slavic, first, or second, third-generation converts to Islam or they were Orthodox Christians.

We know that General Kinizsi Pál settled 50,000 Serbians in Hungary already in 1481 because the local Hungarians were either taken by the Ottomans or killed. The Serbians were coming to Hungary to seek shelter in the 16th century, too. It had led to conflicts with the locals who wanted to return to their homes after the immediate peril. Remember the uprising of the Serbian soldier of King Szapolyai, not much later than the battle of Mohács:

A bloody moment after the Battle of Mohács

Before King Szapolyai was forced to get allied with Sultan Suleiman in 1528, there had been a very bad war in Hungary for the power that made his situation even more unstable. His situation was threatened by Archduke Ferdinand who attacked him in 1527.

Szapolyai wanted to reorganize a southern borderline against the Turks after Mohács and entrusted his servant, the Serbian Cserni Jován who had fought in the Battle of Mohács, to organize the Serbians against the invaders. The conflict between the Serbs and the Hungarians began in earnest when the Hungarians returned to their lands after the Ottoman Turks had been gone. The returning Hungarians found refugees from Serbia on their lands who had fled from the south.

Czerni Jovan

Things turned out very bad, though: soon, Cserni Jován declared himself an independent Czar and he was busy creating his small country in Southern Hungary. A most brutal war was taking shape.
The Czar’s soldiers killed and destroyed everybody, Hungarians, and Wallachians, Saxons alike. Surprisingly, those Hungarian peasants who had been fighting in Dózsa`s Peasant Uprising in 1514, now sided with their landlords against the army of Jovan.
To make things worse, Habsburg Ferdinand began to support Jovan and instigate him against the Hungarians.
Cserni Jovan and his men were defeated in 1527 by the combined army of Hungarian, Serbian, Wallachian, and Saxon peasants and lords but Szapolyai lost much of his reputation because he had not broken up with Jovan soon enough.

King Szapolyai

Many Serbs were fleeing to the Ottoman Empire and many of Jovan`s surviving men joined the Turkish army. They took revenge on the Hungarians when Suleiman led his troops in the years to come against Vienna. The local folks between the Danube and the Tisza River suffered much in that period.
Jovan became a dividing person between Serbs and Hungarians and sadly, has contributed to many ethnic atrocities in the future.
Many Serbians, though, remained in either Royal Hungary or Transylvania and continued fighting against the traditional enemy, the Ottoman Empire. 

The great  immigration from the Balkan

From the early 17th century, Serbian refugees were the ethnic majority in large parts of Ottoman-controlled Hungary. That area included territories between the great rivers Száva, Dráva, and the Danube–Tisza Interfluve (the territory between the Danube and Tisza rivers).
According to modern estimations, the proportion of Hungarians in the Carpathian Basin was around 80% at the end of the 15th century, and non-Hungarians hardly were more than 20% to 25% of the total population.
The Hungarian population began to decrease at the time of the Ottoman conquest. The decline of the Hungarians was due to the constant wars, Ottoman raids, famines, and plagues during the 150 years of Ottoman rule.

The main zones of war were the territories inhabited by the Hungarians, so the death toll depleted them much faster than other nationalities.
When talking about wars, we must include the losses suffered not only by the Ottomans but from the Western mercenaries and some Hungarian soldiers, mostly Hajdús who were also hard on the population.

the rate of destruction

The three parts of Hungary (I call it the „Hungaries”); the Habsburg-ruled Royal Hungary, Ottoman Hungary, and Transylvania, experienced only minor differences in population increase in the 17th century.
According to data presented in the most authoritative studies, the collective population of all three regions grew from about 3.5 million inhabitants at the close of the 16th century to about 4 million by the close of the 17th century. 

The Ottoman–Habsburg wars of the 17th century were fought intermittently and affected populations occupying a much narrower band of territory. Thus wartime dislocations in Hungary do not seem to have seriously affected mortality rates among the general civilian population. 

Hungary’s population in the late 16th century was in Ottoman Hungary 900,000, in Habsburg Hungary 1,800,000, and in the semi-independent Principality of Transylvania 800,000, making a total of 3,500,000 inhabitants for the whole of Hungary.
The most severe destruction was experienced between 1604 and 1606. The worst effects of the controlled confrontation between Ottoman-Habsburg forces were magnified many times over by Hungary’s descent into civil war during the Bocskai rebellion.
The population growth in Ottoman Hungary during the 17th century was slight: from 900,000 to approximately 1,000,000 inhabitants, a rate similar to that experienced in Royal Hungary and Transylvania.

The Mercenary and the Death, the 1530s

We know that Hungary could have been liberated without the Habsburgs in 1664 with the help of the French king and the German princes, led by Count Zrínyi Miklós. It didn’t serve the Habsburg dynastic interests and the Christian coalition was wrecked at the too-slow Siege of Kanizsa. Some say it was intentionally sabotaged. Zrínyi died in a hunting accident in 1664, too.

Later, Hungary was left out of initiating the anti-Ottoman war. Thus, the country was “liberated” by another Christian coalition which was led by the Habsburgs, just more than 30 years of suffering had to be endured.
According to Takács Sándor, the rate of this war’s destruction was even bigger than the whole harm suffered during the previous one-hundred and fifty years.

The decrease of parish churches in Veszprém County (Source: Autentika)

We have to mention the huge Serbian raids aimed at the southern part of Hungary in 1701-1702 after the Turks had gone. These raids and further destructions were instigated by the Habsburgs but they could not control them. Eventually, these events contributed to triggering the Freedom Fight of Prince Rákóczi.
Comparing it to other countries, we know that there lived 4 million people in England in the 1490s but their number was 8 million at the end of the 17th century: at the same time, we had about 4 million people in 1699. You can see that 4 million Hungarians were simply not born. 
Yet, some experts say it was a miracle that even this many of the Hungarians survived and were able to preserve their national heritage.

Ethnic migrations in Hungary in the 16th century (Source: Pálffy Géza)

Explanation of the map: dark orange field: Hungarians; light brown: Germans; purple: Romanians; light blue: Slovakians; pink: Ruthenians; deep pink: Roman Catholic South Slavs; green: Orthodox South Slavs; light grey: Slovenians; dark grey: Polish people. The arrows: red arrow: Hungarians; dark purple: Romanians; dark pink: Catholic Slavs; green: Orthodox Slavs.

This map is from Pálffy Géza’s lecture that he held about “misconceptions about the history of 16th-17th century Hungary”. He is talking about what was lost and what changed after 1526 in Hungary. It is in the Hungarian language, you can listen to it on YouTube at 51:46 here:

The ruined churrch of Somogyvámos, Hungary
(Photo: Kajetán Jácint)

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Ethnographic map of Hungary from 1910