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The Numerus Clausus in Hungary


Antisemitism, Gender, and Exile a Hundred Years On


Act XXV/1920, the so-called numerus clausus law, which was passed by the Hungarian National Assembly in September 1920, has the dubious merit of being the first antisemitic law of the post-First World War era. With the ostensible aim of reducing the overcrowding of Hungarian universities after the Treaty of Trianon, the law pegged enrolment to the ratio of ‘races’ and ‘nationalities’ in the general population. However, the antisemitic agenda of Hungary’s counter-revolutionary regime, the tenor of the corresponding parliamentary debate, and the physical violence inflicted on Jewish students by right-wing student organisations left no doubt about the law’s anti-Jewish intent.


The law’s quota of six percent for Jewish students drastically reduced the previous high representation of Jews at university faculties. It also led to the flight of thousands of Hungarian Jewish students (the so-called NC exiles) to universities abroad, robbing the country of many future leading lights of Western academia. Despite the persistent obfuscations and myths surrounding it, historians agree that the law’s breach of the principle of equal citizenship paved the way for the openly discriminatory anti-Jewish laws enacted in Hungary in the late 1930s and, ultimately, the Hungarian Holocaust.


Women were particularly affected by these state-sanctioned university policies. Hence, gender and politics form the central focus of this project. An early case of illiberal social engineering, the law reflected but also contributed to the deepening divisions in Hungarian society. Our research sets out to gauge its impact on competing perceptions of race, gender, and class, as well as long-term developments of Hungarian society, such as women’s emancipation and Jewish assimilation.


The research will proceed in two complementary directions: First, the law’s impact on Hungarian Jewish women and their decision to venture abroad to study, postpone higher education, or jettison it altogether will be analysed. Daughters of middle-class, assimilated Hungarian Jewish families were at the vanguard of higher education since the partial opening of the faculties in the late 19th century, their ratio in the faculties of arts and medicine reaching strikingly high levels by the end of the First World War. They were thus disproportionally disadvantaged by the NC law, singled out both as women and as Jews by the interwar regime’s deeply conservative agenda and by university administrators who were eager to reverse women’s wartime gains – an endeavour they largely succeeded in. The project will compile data on Jewish women’s enrolment at Hungarian universities, establish their ratio among the NC exiles, and map out the outlines of transnational student networks between 1920 and 1938.


In the second stage that aims to explore the broader social and cultural implications of the NC law, memoirs, oral history sources, and the archives and press of the Hungarian Jewish community will be assessed to answer the following questions: How did the law change the educational strategies of Hungarian Jewish families? Did it slow down Jewish assimilation and reinforce Jewish identity? Of particular interest here is the Hungarian Jewish family, the primary agent of women’s higher education in the pre-First World War period, and its potential to assume, under external pressure, a more conservative gender dynamic.


The project results will be of considerable interest to historians of Hungary and East Central Europe, twentieth-century antisemitism, and intellectual migration from Nazi Europe. The parallels with North American elite universities, where antisemitic measures were widely practised without ever being formalised, also point to the comparative potential of our project.


The project is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.


Responsible for the project are Judith Szapor (McGill University, Montreal), Éva Kovács (Wiener Wiesenthal Institut für Holocaust-Studien – VWI and Ágnes Kelemen(Central European University.



May 2024
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The Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies (VWI) is funded by:


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