Modern Hungary occupies 35,600 square miles in east central Europe. It is bordered by Slovakia and Ukraine to the north; Austria to the west; Slovenia, Yugoslavia, and Croatia to the south; and Romania to the east. In 2002, the population was estimated at 10,106,017. The people are ethnically divided, mainly between Hungarians (90 percent), Gypsies (4 percent), and Germans (3 percent); 68 percent are Roman Catholic; 20 percent, Calvinist; 5 percent, Lutheran; and 5 percent, Jewish. The middle Danube River basin was settled in the late ninth century by Asian warriors known as Magyars, the name still used by Hungarians for their group. The Magyars converted to Christianity around 1000. Although eventually abandoning seminomadic pastoralism and establishing a settled kingdom, their history in the strategic Carpathian basin was full of conflict, principally with Slavs, whose lands they had invaded; Germans, who were in the process of expanding eastward; and the Ottoman Turks, who were pushing north from their homeland in Anatolia. By the late 16th century, most of Hungary was brought under the control of the Austrian Habsburgs. After an abortive revolution in 1848–49 led by the dynamic Lajos Kossuth, in 1867, Hungarians were finally granted equal status with Austrians under the Austrian emperor. The Dual Monarchy thereby created the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Hungarian portion of the empire was a microcosm of the whole, made up of many ethnic groups, including Germans, Slovaks, Gypsies, Serbs, Croats, and Romanians. After the Austro-Hungarian Empire was defeated in World War I (1914–18), independent Hungary was greatly reduced, stripped of most regions not predominantly inhabited by Magyars. The country joined forces with Nazi Germany in an attempt to regain lost territories during World War II (1939–45) and quickly fell under Soviet control in the aftermath of the war. Although pro- Soviet communists were temporarily driven from power in a 1956 revolt, the Soviet army invaded the country, savagely suppressing the rebellion, leading to the exodus of some 200,000 Hungarians who became refugees, mostly in Austria. As the most liberal of all the Soviet satellites during the cold war, Hungary moved relatively smoothly into independence as the Soviet Union lessened its grip in 1989 and quickly began to attract foreign investment.
There are accounts of notable Hungarians in North America as early as the American Revolution (1775–1783). At least one Hungarian was a part of Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s expedition to North America in 1583. Between the 17th and mid-19th centuries, a number of prominent Hungarians came as individuals to America and generally left glowing accounts of their experiences. Agoston Haraszthy not only praised the new country in Journey to North America (1844) but set an example that hundreds of thousands of Hungarians later followed, bringing his family to settle permanently in California, where he established the new viticulture industry. The first significant occurrence of group migration came in 1849–50, when several thousand Hungarian nationalists—the “forty-niners”—fled the country following a failed revolution and settled in the United States. Under Austrian domination, Hungary found itself in the midst of a far-reaching social transformation as a result of the abolition of serfdom. This freed the rural worker from the land but also absolved welfare obligations of the landlord. The continued predominance of large estates throughout most of the country made owning enough land to guard against want virtually impossible for the rural proletariat. U.S. railway and steamship agents took advantage of these conditions, sending agents and propaganda into the remotest regions of the country.
As impoverished Hungarians looked to emigration, they relied on support from their extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, and in-laws. Despite the fact that Hungarian immigration was driven by overpopulation and economic impoverishment— factors common to most European countries in the 19th century—Hungary nevertheless sent a disproportionate number of migrants to the United States and Canada prior to World War I. The first great wave came between 1880 and 1914, when more than 1.5 million Hungarians immigrated to the United States, with more than 800,000 coming between 1900 and 1910. Most came from rural areas but worked in American mines and factories, hoping one day to return to their homeland. Maintaining such close ethnic ties, they frequently were slow to assimilate.
As a result of the restrictive Johnson-Reed Act (1924), immigration between the world wars was greatly reduced, to a total of about 40,000. As a result of World War II, tens of thousands of Hungarians became displaced persons, and about 25,000 entered the United States between 1945 and 1956, most under provisions of the Displaced Persons Act (1948). A further phase of Hungarian immigration was initiated with the abortive revolution against Soviet control in 1956, leading to the admission of about 36,000 “fifty-sixers” who were admitted to the United States as refugees. Between the revolt and independence in 1989, about 18,000 Hungarians immigrated to the United States, most because of dissatisfaction with communist politics and economies. Following the demise of Soviet influence in 1989, Hungary went through a difficult economic transition to market capitalism, leading to the exodus of many young and well-educated professionals. Between 1989 and 2002, the annual average immigration was about 1,000.
Large-scale Hungarian immigration to Canada began somewhat later than to the United States, in conjunction with the mass migration to Canada’s southern neighbor. The first Hungarians arriving on the newly opened prairies of present-day Manitoba in 1885 came by way of the Pennsylvania coal mines, with the support of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Although many eventually left the Assiniboia district in what is now Alberta and Saskatchewan, by 1903, the railway reached the settlement bringing more settlers directly from Hungary. Canada was seen by Hungarian church and social leaders as a potentially healthy alternative to the harsh industrial landscape of the United States. By World War I there were a half-dozen Hungarian settlements in Canada, most in present-day Saskatchewan, but only about 10,000 settlers. Facing the harsh realities of life under the punitive Treaty of Trianon ending World War I, Hungarians found new reasons to immigrate. Most would have preferred the United States, but restrictive immigration policies all but halted the flow there in the 1920s. Canada therefore became the foremost destination for Hungarians coming to the New World. About 30,000 immigrated to Canada between World War I and World War II, most under a Railway Agreement by which Canadian railways and the Canadian government sought agricultural settlers for the western prairies. With few good farmsteads remaining, most Hungarian immigrants gradually settled in central Canada, specifically in Hamilton, Toronto, Welland, Windsor, Montreal, and surrounding areas, where they became active in ethnic, political, and mutual aid societies.
Canada admitted almost 12,000 Hungarian refugees between 1946 and 1956, with most settling in Ontario and other eastern cities. The revolt of 1956 led to the final mass migration of Hungarians to Canada, more than 37,000 in 1956 and 1957. In both migrations, there were large percentages of well-educated professionals, which began to alter the perception of Hungarians as poor agriculturalists and ease the process of assimilation. Of 48,715 Hungarian immigrants in Canada in 2001, fewer than 5,000 came between 1991 and 2001.