Homosexuality in Hungary Before World War II

By Anita Kurimay

The Hungarian news portal 444.hu recently published an interview with Anita Kurimay, titled “Horthy alatt virágzott a meleg Budapest” on her dissertation “Sex in the “Pearl of the Danube”: The History of Queer Life, Love, and its Regulation in Budapest, 1873-1941. Anita, currently a Max Weber fellow at  EUI, generously translated the article for our blog. You can find the original interview here.

Image        fortepan.hu

Below is the English translation.

Your dissertation picks up the thread towards the end of the nineteenth century and it ends slightly after the outbreak of the Second World War.  What determined the period you studied?

The starting point was determined mostly by the availability of sources.   I had quite a difficult time in the archives since neither sexuality nor homosexuality has its own “filing category.”  My success often depended on the goodwill of archivists.  The penal code of 1878 was a logical starting point, when sexual relations between men were criminalized.  The chronological end of the dissertation was also determined by the availability of sources. But I also stopped where I did because I wanted to begin a discussion on this issue sooner than later.

The dissertation is mostly about Budapest and not Hungary.  Is it only because of the scarcity of sources, or is it because the experience of Budapest differed from that of the rest of the nation?

It was a little bit of both.  At the end of the nineteenth century Budapest was a European metropolis. Together with Berlin it was different from other big cities, in that rather than expanding spatially, the city built upwards.  Therefore, people in the streets saw a lot of different sexual behaviors.  Similarly to Berlin, Budapest was a hotbed of prostitution in this era. The issue of male prostitution as well as sex between men was in the public eye.  It was striking to me that historical sources discussed how homosexuals and men with same-sex desire were all heading to Budapest.  Unlike most small town and in the countryside where everyone knew one another in Budapest such men had the possibility of anonymity.  There were also established meeting places, such as spas and restaurants, in the city.

What kinds of sources allow for the reconstruction of the sexual life of late nineteenth century Budapest?

The fact that most available sources were criminal and legal posed a serious problem.  Thus, I had to be very mindful that I did not portray the history of non-normative sexuality from a criminal perspective.  But outside of legal and criminal documents there were also writings of scientists whom today we would refer to as urban sociologists.  These people worked to make society a better place by making Budapest more livable for the masses and wrote their studies partly to influence the urban elite.  They were interested in the life of the capital, observed what was happening in the streets, and of course often exaggerated what those conditions were.   In addition, the writings of Hungary’s first investigative journalist, Kornél Tábori, and Vladimir Székely, who wrote several books about Budapests’ nightlife (including about relationships between men) were important sources. These books were read by a lot of people.

And what patterns emerged from these?

There was surely a vibrant nightlife in Budapest.  However, what made a historian’s job more difficult was that during this era sexual subcultures and identities did not really exist in the modern sense. For most people social affiliation and one’s class was much more important than one’s sexual identification.  Of course, people had knowledge about these things, new expressions and words about same-sex sexuality were coming from the German-speaking areas and based on the sources we can also see that for men the night life was fairly open and full of possibilities.  From the publications of Tábori and Székely we know which restaurants and bars homosexual men socialized at.  But a homosexual subculture as we refer to it today, did not necessarily exist.

In the meantime, however, the Penal Code prohibited homosexual relations, and the authorities would have been entitled to prosecute men who were caught with other men?

Yes, but it was a paradoxical situation, and this is why I introduced the concept of ‘respectable’ homosexuals. The central argument of my thesis was that despite legal prohibitions, if the two men were not in public, and their relationship did not disrupt society, then their social status and public behavior were more important than their sexuality in determining if they were prosecuted.  The criminalization of homosexuality also has to be considered within a wider European context.  At the end of the nineteenth century there were only a few countries in which homosexuality was legal, such as France or Denmark.  The Hungarian Criminal Code followed the German Code, which criminalized so-called, “crimes against nature.”

The stance that Hungarian authorities took, however, that what happens behinds closed doors is not the business of the state, in some ways anticipated such sentiments today.  However, the police very quickly learned that blackmailers targeted homosexuals. Homosexuality itself provided a basis for extortion, since such desires and acts were considered a taboo both by the church and society.  Blackmail was often linked to other crimes as well, and that is why keeping a homosexual registry became so important for the police.  Blackmail was not the initial reason police started to register homosexual men who were caught in the act, but police sources indicate that the registry evolved into a sort of protection for some men who were being blackmailed.  Being listed on the registry could differentiate those who had expressed desire for those of their own sex from those who wanted only to exploit them.

How many registered homosexuals were on the list?

It is difficult to say because the list was lost after 1945. It is only due to contemporary references that we know about its existence in the first place.  For example, in 1933 a physician wrote that Hungary was the first place in the world where the police registered homosexuals, and according to him there were 3425 men on the registry.

But the really interesting question is what happened to the list after 1945.   Ongoing research on the socialist period under the leadership of Judit Takács shows a real possibility that the Communists used the list to turn men into informants.

So far we only talked about the relationship between men.  Were lesbian relationships invisible?

Sexual relationships between women were not criminalized. But this was the case in most of Europe, Austria being one of the few exceptions.  Sources on this issue have not survived, and you can only make educated guesses.  I think this was simply not an important issue for society.  At the end of the nineteenth century women were considered to have two roles: you were either a mother or a whore.  It did not even occur to authorities that they should address female homosexuality and they simply adopted the German model, where it was not regulated.

What was the explanation for becoming homosexual?

At the end of the nineteenth century there already existed explanatory models about the origins of homosexuality that are still competing with each other today.   People coming from the countryside to Budapest brought with them a strong religious-based prejudice about homosexuality.  The prevailing view among medical doctors was that homosexuality was a form of degeneration, similar to the explanation for alcoholism at the time.  But there was also a view that came from German influences, which stated that homosexuals were completely normal human beings who were simply attracted to their same-sex.

In your dissertation the First World War presents a fracture line. What changed then?

The First World War had a double impact. First, a lot of men were confined within a solely male space for an extended period of time.  At the same time society considered men to be sexual beings who needed to express their sexuality. Therefore, it was an accepted fact that if there were no female prostitutes available then there would be men who would sleep with other men.  In the wake of the war such experiences and the great number of soldiers living in Budapest heightened anxieties about the spreading of homosexuality in the city.  Homosexuality was thought to be highly contagious: if someone in ones proximity tried it that was enough to turn someone into a homosexual.

However, doctors and medical officers were aware that the war was a serious trauma for soldiers.  Many men could not reintegrate into society after the war. And then there was the fact that these men nevertheless served their country, and had suffered a great deal in the war.  So while conservative authorities launched a rhetorical warfare against homosexuality, they mostly avoided criminal prosecution.

For me, this was the most interesting discovery of my entire research.  Here you had a strong conservative shift during the Horthy era, the prosecution of the communists and the left more generally, Europe’s first anti-Jewish law, emigration of many of the country’s intellectuals, and yet, according to the sources there were no major changes in the treatment of homosexuals between the two world wars.

You write that the Soviet Republic introduced a new perspective in the perception of homosexuality.

In this short period, Communists’ belief in the decisive role of the environment in determining people’s character changed understandings of homosexuality.  In their view it was the environment that made people criminals, poor, or sexually different.  And the Communists believed that in the long run, by changing the environment people with non-normative sexual behaviors could be reintegrated into what society considered to be the sexually normal community.  The official Communist legal journal expressed that the regime planned to decriminalize homosexuality.  It was also during this brief period that psychoanalysis came to the fore, arguing about the need to rehabilitate rather than punish.  And surprisingly this attitude persisted in the Horthy system.

Another commonality between the two regimes lay in their ostrich-like policies.  In other words, if we don’t talk about the whole issue and there is no problem.  This attitude persisted after 1948 and was only challenged by the AIDS crisis in the eighties. Yet sexually transmitted diseases caused a serious problem throughout the first part of the twentieth century.  Hungary was among the leaders of Europe in high rates of syphilis.  But even as there was much talk about female prostitution, and the role of women in preventing the disease, the role of men and especially the issue of prostitution between men as a locus of the disease were hardly ever addressed.

Did the Horthy regime’s lenience towards men affect the status of women as well?

Overall, there was a double standard.  For men in this era role-playing remained important.  That is, if you stayed in the queue, if you agreed to conservative values, it was less important what you did behind closed doors, possibly with another man.  In contrast, for women their roles inside and outside the home were equally important.  Male promiscuity continued to be more accepted in this era.  But again, that was not unique to Hungary rather it was a European trend.

You dedicate an entire chapter to the trials of Cécile Tormay and write that this was Hungary’s largest homosexual scandal of the era.  Was the public really all that interested?

By all accounts, they were.  At the court hearings there were over a hundred witnesses, most of whom were members of aristocratic families. At the time, Tormay was already a famous writer for her book An Outlaw’s Diary, and under her leadership the National Association of Hungarian Women counted their membership at about a half a million. The plaintiff Rafael Zichy was one of the country’s well-known aristocrats.  Thus, everyone was naturally curious about the trial. Of course, the newspapers were heavily censored but there were handwritten leaflets circulating in the streets of Budapest during the afternoons recounting what happened in the courtroom that day.

What was this lawsuit actually about?

It turned into a political issue, but started as a personal matter. Rafael Zichy wanted to divorce his wife, Eduardina Pallavicini for a new lover, but she refused to consider divorce. Therefore, the count pursued a divorce based on an accusation that his wife cheated on him with Cécile Tormay.  What exactly happened between the two women is now impossible to determine. What is certain is that today within the Hungarian gay community Tormay is accepted as a lesbian figure, albeit by no means a popular one.

Behind the trial there was also a political struggle taking place, which aimed to undermine the Horthy government. Some sources suggest that the final outcome of the trials was not predetermined.  There were various factors in play during these 1920s trials that could have influenced the outcome.  For instance, the two women were spied on from microphones hidden in chandeliers and through holes drilled in bedroom ceilings.  In weighing the evidence the court examined the testimonials about what had taken place between the two women, as seen through the holes.  In the end, the court delivered its decision partially based on these assessments.

You also write that it is possible that Horthy personally got involved in the trial.

Again, the source is questionable, because the writer of Father Zadravecz’s Secret Diary was published in the sixties.  But, according to Zadravecz, Horthy told him that he influenced the courts decision.  To be sure, Horthy respected and admired Tormay a great deal, while someone like the former Minister of Justice Vilmos Vázsonyi could not stand her.

Was Tormay the victim of political machinations or could the accounts of her sexuality be based on reality? 

It seems that she had a reputation, and not necessarily a favorable one.  The testimonials of the maids portray Tormay as a womanizer.  It is also important to remember that the words of the maids were considered by contemporaries to be worth less than nothing against the words of the aristocratic witnesses. It is precisely why it is even more unfortunate that the only surviving sources of the case are the testimonies of the servants, while all of the testimonials of the nobles are gone.  There are still however many remaining amusing accounts, such as the cook’s testimony.  He testified that Tormay’s behavior caused problems with other aristocratic families as well.  For instance, he recounted that after Tormay visited a particular Countess one too many times, the Countess’ family devised a game.  They arranged a raffle so Tomray would end up winning a monkey who was playing with its penis.  On the bottom of the monkey was written, “The monkey plays with its penis, as Tormay plays with hers.” According to the cook Tormay stopped visiting the family.

You discovered that the homosexual registry surfaced again during the Second World War, when authorities considered enlisting homosexual men as forced laborers in the army.  In the end it was the army who put a stop to it.  Why would they do that?

Once again, for multiple reasons.  First of all, army officers were aware that soldiers engaged in sexual encounters with other men and thus the leadership was concerned about the “spreading” of homosexuality. The other reason had to do with the fact that the homosexual registry contained the names of soldiers and officers who were contemporaneously serving in various battalions.  Had they followed through and enlisted all men in the registry they would have men outed who were already at the front.

You mentioned that this is only the beginning, and you plan on doing more research. What are you planning to start with?

What has emerged from my research so far is that during the Horthy era even the extreme right did not target homosexuals.  It seems that the prevailing idea about keeping silent and that far right groups did not demonize homosexuality kept homosexuals from being targeted.  But this period in general, and especially, the history of far right groups needs more research.  I plan to look through all the Arrow Cross Party’s materials and see if the question of homosexuality ever came up.

At the end of the thesis you mention the current Hungarian situation and the new Constitution.  How is that related to your research?

It for instance relates to the aforementioned story.  Unlike in the Horthy era, today the far right is openly attacking homosexuals.  The current government is not standing up and protecting the rights of the lgbtq community and therefore is equally complicit in the situation.  Like with other things, with this issue we are also going completely against the entire Western world – regressing into the past.