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Vázsonyi, Vilmos

(Weiszfeld; 1868–1926), lawyer, member of parliament, minister of justice, and the first professing Jewish cabinet minister in Hungary. Vilmos Vázsonyi’s father, a principal of the local Jewish school in Sümeg, was the son of a rabbi; Vilmos’s maternal grandfather owned a factory. The family moved to Budapest in 1874, where Vázsonyi’s father worked as a schoolteacher. Vázsonyi studied in a Catholic gymnasium and started legal studies in the University of Budapest in 1886.

As a student, Vázsonyi earned a living as secretary to the well-known orientalist Ármin Vámbéry, and served as private tutor to Vámbéry’s son, Rusztem. Vázsonyi cultivated connections with writers and artists, and was talented in music and the arts himself. After gaining a doctorate in law, he passed the bar examination in 1892.

From 1894, Vázsonyi also worked as a journalist, publishing extensively in newspapers and establishing a political weekly, the Új Század (New Century) in 1901. Before becoming involved in party politics, he participated in several movements and activities of a political nature, taking the initiative on several occasions. Among others, he established a movement against dueling. His role as the leader of the student movement made him a close partner of leading oppositional politicians, and he gained renown as the representative of a small group of young Jewish intellectuals who fought forcefully for the legal equality of Judaism with other denominations.

An article written by the young Vázsonyi in 1889 set the so-called Reception movement in motion; the efforts of its organizers were rewarded with success in the passing of Act XLII of 1895. While Vázsonyi advocated and personally represented a more active role for Jewish politicians in the safeguarding of Jewish interests, he was foremost a devoted promoter of Magyar patriotism.

In 1894, Vázsonyi established the Democratic Circle, a local party, and was elected to the city council of Budapest the same year. While he was associated with the Independence Party—which sought greater separation from the Austrian half of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy—his own political goals also included the broadening of individual political rights. He became the champion of universal franchise, which did not materialize in his lifetime.

In 1901, Vázsonyi was elected as a candidate of the Democratic Party (established in 1900) to represent the Terézváros district of Budapest, a constituency with a high proportion of Jewish residents. His personal success also strengthened the party, a predominantly urban political group supported to a great extent by the Jewish petty bourgeoisie. After the Democratic Party joined the alliance of opposition parties, he was elected in 1904 to the leading organs of the coalition.

Vázsonyi’s political career clearly contributed to his success as a lawyer in politically important lawsuits. After leading negotiations between the government and the striking railway workers, he defended the accused strikers at the bar (1904). His role as the defender of an opposition MP (Zoltán Désy) in a libel suit, which led to the resignation of Premier László Lukács, was even more conspicuous (1913).

Gaining increased recognition in local politics, Vázsonyi was awarded honorary citizenship in Budapest (1917). That same year marked the acme of his political career: he supported the proposition for the extension of franchise to veterans of World War I regardless of their property or education. After serving briefly as minister of justice between 15 June and 18 August 1917, he was appointed a minister without portfolio, responsible for electoral reform. He was minister of justice again from 25 January until 8 May 1918, and became a privy counselor the same year.

Vázsonyi opposed the war in principle, but rejected the possibility of peace with revolutionary Russia. He seems to have been a strict legalist who opposed any form of revolutionary activity, remaining faithful to the monarchy even after the collapse of Austria-Hungary.

After World War I, Vázsonyi spent several years in exile, first fleeing the revolution to Munich; then, after a short return to Hungary, fleeing the anti-Jewish counterrevolution, to Baden. During his stay, he communicated with the dethroned emperor and king, Charles, whose attempts to regain his position as king of Hungary Vázsonyi supported. He was elected to the parliament in absentia and accepted the post after moving back to Budapest in 1921. He spent the rest of his life as a politician opposing the right-wing regime. Among the positions he took, his firm stand against the numerus clausus was well-known, and was the subject of his last extensive parliamentary speech. Vázsonyi’s views on this measure, which deprived Jews of equal legal status, were marked characteristically by his proposal, which was accepted, that the Jews not appeal to the League of Nations against the Hungarian government. In his view, to present Hungarian Jewry as an ethnic minority would have meant a step back to the community’s pre-emancipation status, while the actual conflict could be only solved in the national framework.

Vázsonyi died during one of his stays in Baden trying to improve his health. He left the imprint of a devoted democrat who never yielded to the temptation of extremisms in an east Central Europe otherwise the prisoner of antidemocratic tendencies.

Suggested Reading

Mária M. Kovács, “A kisebbségek nemzetközi jogvédelmének csapdája. Vázsonyi Vilmos és a numerus clauses,” Beszélő (7 April 1994): 28–30; András Sipos, “Vázsonyi Vilmos és a Budapesti várospolitika 1894–1906,” Tanulmányok Budapest múltjából 25 (1996): 219–246; József Tölgyesi, Vázsonyi Vilmos emlékezete (Sümeg, Hun., 2005); Vázsonyi Vilmos beszédei és írásai, 2 vols. (Budapest, 1927).