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Reviews The ability of the Old World to survive. European nobility on the threshold of modernity

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 3 2011, p 32-33
Published on on oktober 3, 2011

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The role of agrarian elites in history is a recurring theme in research that reflects the existence of a more fundamental question: Is historical change dependent on a grass-roots development or is it the result of decisions made by elites? There is no obvious answer to this question — one that becomes highly pertinent in relation to the modernization process and especially to agrarian aristocratic elites.

The landowning aristocracy in 19th century Europe has been thought to be an elite in decline, mainly as a result of the expansion of the market economy, which brought new groups, rooted in a capitalist mode of production, to the forefront of power. The modernization process also entailed the increasing integration of industry and agriculture. Taken together, this should have lead to the undermining or marginalization of the status of the aristocratic elites. The traditional conflict between the hierarchical system of the nobility and the increasingly powerful non-noble groups has not, however, always resulted in loss of status for the nobility.1

Norwegian historian Francis Sejersted has defined modernization as a project of liberation made up of factors that have included technical/economic progress, ideological differentiation, and nation-state consolidation.2 With liberation, scientific rationality came to replace various mythological explanations of the world. This was not a process where the mythological explanations broke down; instead, new dimensions were added to the general explanations of the world. Technical/economic progress did not immediately lead away from poverty but prepared the foundations for future economic and societal development. Differentiation meant that society went from a common worldview to more diverse perspectives and the individual saw the world through new, group-specific eyes. The nation-state was reinforced and became the framework of modernization.

Similar processes challenged landowning elites in Europe. When multiple groups were included in decision making and the shaping of public opinion, the aristocracy lost its clear leadership position. Social differentiation was based on the technical/economic progress that laid the material foundations for the new groups. Technical development and capitalist ownership structures changed the very premise of the landowning elites. Consolidation of the nation-state, on the other hand, did not necessarily strip the elites of their status: avenues of influence remained there longer.

Historians Arno Mayer and Dominic Lieven have shown that the emergence of the bourgeoisie in Europe did not immediately lead to the decline of the aristocracy. Aristocratic preserves survived.3 Lieven argues that the aristocracy generally had three strategies for building a front against the increasing influence of urban business and of family farmers: The nobility could choose to resist through violence, ally with its opponents through adaptation, or forge an alliance with the church in an antiliberal front. In Prussia, it was the bourgeoisie that had to adapt to the nobility, while Swedish nobles coexisted with an influential group of family farmers.

Hungary and other parts of Central Europe have been considered a region where the traditional nobility preserved its social standing the longest and where modernization had the most difficulty taking root. These were also societies where modernization presented huge challenges to the traditional hierarchies. András Vari, professor at the University of Miskolć, provides a new interpretation in his book, where he argues that the Hungarian agrarian elites underwent a process of change during the 19th century. The Central European nobility has generally been regarded as an atavistic, conservative, and traditional power that defended its position against demands made by other groups. Vari presents a picture of a much more diverse Hungarian elite that closely monitored international trends and sometimes followed its own path of development.

The study of the Hungarian aristocracy encompasses the entire 19th century and thus covers the period usually called the shift to liberal reform, from around 1820 to 1870. This process is characterized by a tension between conservative aristocratic groups and liberal civil servants. This tension has been found in research on other countries, including Sweden.4 Economically, the Hungarian aristocracy was liberal, like European nobility in general. The international depression in agricultural markets that began in 1873 prodded agrarians all over Europe to take to state interventionism and protectionism, but on this point, Hungary departs from the general trend. The leading Hungarian politician during this period was the estate owner Kálmán Tisza, from the high nobility, whose governments during the period of 1875—1890 gave strong support to industrial development. The more typical reaction to the agrarian crisis of the 1870s and 1880s was a more activist conservatism.5 But Hungary broke this pattern to a certain extent by preserving a more liberal political stance. Vari’s findings consequently give us a new picture of Hungary, which has, in earlier research, often been described as rife with social conflicts. The point is that the Hungarian aristocracy partly accepted the modernization of society; it was not only an estate-owning nobility that strove to preserve the status quo in social respects and defended its privileges. The group was diverse and consisted in equal measure of industrialists and estate owners. But the traditional hierarchies were in general not meant to be shattered: what they wanted was economic development without more serious social reforms.6

But despite everything, Hungary was characterized by grave social and political unrest. In some cases, the Hungarian nobility attempted to assert itself in relation to the German-speaking nobility of the Habsburg Empire. It even achieved a kind of status quo after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 (Ausgleich), which established the dual monarchy. One of the Hungarian aristocracy’s opposition forces was the agrarian socialists, who built their support on the large groups of the rural landless. Despite the modernization of the aristocracy, the social antagonisms in Hungary were never fully resolved; instead, they exploded into civil war and revolution after the breakdown of the dual monarchy in the aftermath of World War I. Béla Kun’s communist regime of 1919 was defeated by admiral, nobleman, and estate owner Miklós Horthy, himself an integrated part of the aristocratic culture. This culture was an international phenomenon whose tone was set by English aristocratic culture in the 19th century. Horse-racing and casino gambling were part of a European trend, and horseracing was also a link to modernity through horse breeding. Breeding became a noble prerogative.

In the spirit of Braudel, Vari argues that cultures are slow-moving phenomena. The aristocratic culture is one of the long waves of history, while liberalism and protectionism are part of its quotidian ups and downs.

The strength of the book is the overall approach. To understand how estate owners acted and reasoned, Vari compares them with the farmers. He augments this with studies of agricultural policy and relationships between the elites and the state, and analyzes dependencies between industry, trade, and banking, as well as organizational formation. In the latter respect, the aristocracy was a driving force in the first half of the 19th century, initially involving scientific and/or financial associations. Their primary task was not political, but rather business-oriented. Their aim was economic modernization, even if they later evolved into political groupings. Noble societies and other types of aristocratic clubs were therefore transformed into political bodies to promote aristocratic interests, even though the original purpose had been something else. This was also part of the modernization process, wherein modern organizations were required to preserve the aristocracy’s position of power and the old clubs were thus reshaped into political organizations.

Clearly, the Hungarian aristocracy of the late 19th century no longer possessed the unquestioned leadership of the realm. Its corridors of power narrowed, even as aristocratic identity strengthened. But aristocratic thinking is not synonymous with conservatism. By adopting economic modernity and liberal trade, the representatives of the aristocracy elevated other groups to positions of power, sometimes inadvertently. The high aristocrats were dispersed in the ideological space. The antagonists were primarily non-noble groups and, to an equal extent, the low nobility. They could find their allies within the agrarian intelligent-sia: professional groups of agronomists, engineers, and economists. In some cases, aristocrats changed their bearings and were designated in more professional terms, something that also occurred in countries like Sweden.7 The reason for the change was the need to establish an identity in the international agrarian market. Suppliers had to compete on the basis of quality and the path to quality went through science. Professional groups became more important, partly in concert with the aristocracy’s attempts to bring about economic development of their businesses. But despite the economically modern stance, the relationship between the aristocracy and their employees was informed by the more patriarchal relationships of the premodern age, in a mix of the modern and the traditional.

András Vari’s study of the Hungarian aristocracy provides an intriguing glimpse of 19th century Hungarian history and an elite that blended economic liberalism with social traditionalism by remaining true to aristocratic values. It presents an elite that was threatened by economic change, but managed to preserve its status relatively intact. ≈


  1. Ulf Jonsson, “Den jordägande aristokratin och moderniteten i Europa under 1800- och början av 1900-talet — en spänningsfylld och motsägelsefull relation” [The landowning aristocracy and modernity in Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries: a tense and contradictory relationship], in Historisk tidskrift 1997:4.
  2. Francis Sejersted, Socialdemokratins tidsålder: Sverige och Norge under 1900-talet [The age of social democracy: Sweden and Norway in the 1900s], Nora 2005, pp. 8—11.
  3. Arno Mayer, The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War, London 2010; Dominic Lieven, The Aristocracy in Europe 1815—1914, London 1992.
  4. With respect to Sweden, see Torbjörn Nilsson, Elitens svängrum: första kammaren, staten och moderniseringen 1867—1886 [Latitude of the elite: the upper house, the state, and modernization 1867—1886], Stockholm 1994; see also Sten Carlsson, Ståndssamhälle och ståndspersoner 1700—1865: Studier rörande det svenska ståndssamhällets upplösning [The class society and class representatives 1700—1865: studies of the dissolution of the Swedish class society], Lund 1973.
  5. Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Das deutsche Kaiserreich 1871—1918, Göttingen 1973; Herman Lebovics, The Alliance of Iron and Wheat in the Third French Republic 1860—1914, Baton Rouge 1988; and Fredrik Eriksson, Det reglerade undantaget: högerns jordbrukspolitik 1904—2004 [The regulated exception: right-wing agricultural policy 1904—2004], Stockholm 2004. 
  6. Fredrik Eriksson, “Modernity, Rationality and Citizenship: Swedish Agrarian Organizations as Seen through the Lens of the Agrarian Press, circa 1880—1917”, in Piotr Wawrzeniuk (ed.), Societal Change and Ideological Formation Among the Rural Among the Population of the Baltic Area 1880—1939,  Huddinge 2008.
  7. Fredrik Eriksson, “Modernity, Rationality and Citizenship”.
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  • by Fredrik Eriksson

    PhD in history, researcher at the Institute of Contemporary History, Södertörn University. Has written on agricultural policy and the Swedish Conservative Party.

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András Vari, Herren und Landwirte: Ungarische Aristokraten und Agrarier auf dem Weg in die Moderne (1821—1910) Studien zur Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte Ostmitteleuropas 17, Wiesbaden: Harrowitz Verlag 2008, 273 pages