The Order of Vitéz, founded in 1678, revived in 1920 by Hungarian Regent Horthy, and abolished by the Soviet-imposed Communist government of Hungary in 1946, has been an important symbol of Hungary’s historic commitment to independence and territorial integrity. It is often assumed that “the Regent had no powers to grant nobility, nor did he try” (e.g Wikipedia) and that therefore the title of vitéz cannot be seen as a title of nobility. Is this assumption correct?
The Order of Vitéz
This Hungarian Order was initially founded in 1678 by Count Imre Thököly de Késmárk, (1657-1705), a Hungarian nobleman, who lead a rebellion against Leopold I of Austria. This Holy Roman Emperor suspended the Constitution and placed Hungary under a Directorate headed by the Grand Master of the Teutonic Order. Thököly gathered behind him a force of disaffected Hungarians. This group was mainly composed of disbanded soldiers and peasants. Thököly’s followers were known as kuruc (crusaders). This designation was also given to the followers of another rebel leader, György (George) Dózsa (1470-1514).
The Order of Vitézi was re-established (Prime Ministerial Decree number 6650 of 1920, 6650/1920 M.E. in Hungarian usage, included as paragraph no 77 in the land reform act, Law XXXVI of 1920) by His Serene Highness the Regent of the Kingdom of Hungary Miklós vitéz Horthy de Nagybánya. The Hungarian state was legally a kingdom, although it had no king. The Entente powers would not have tolerated any return of the Habsburgs. Horthy’s objective was to form an organization with strong national dedication in order to contribute to the stability of Hungary after the first world war. By 1943 about 14.000 vitéz designations were issued.
The treaty signed between the Soviet Union and Hungarian Government of National Unity in Moscow on 20 January 1945, included a list of organisations that were not allowed to be re-established under Soviet rule. The National Council of Vitéz, governing the Order, was placed on this list (Prime Ministerial Edict no. 1945/529).
The current Order of Vitézi, lead by HIRH Archduke Josef Arpád of Austria, is considered by the International Commission on Orders of Chivalry as the legitimate successor of the founder (HSH Miklós v. Horthy de Nagybánya) of the Knightly Order of Vitéz.
Title of vitéz
The word ‘vitéz‘ in late 19th and early 20th century Hungarian usage, meant ‘knight‘, or ‘hero‘. In the South Slavic languages; Bosnian, Croatian, Slovenian, Serbian and Macedonian, the word “vitez” literally means knight. In German, the title can be compared to “Ritter von” (Orden und Ehrenzeichen – Das Magazin für Sammler und Forscher, BDOS Jahrbuch 2003, p. 24). Therefore, the term “Vitézi Rend’ can be translated as ‘Order of Knights’. During Horthy’s reign, the title was recorded in official papers, for instance in birth, marriage or death certificates, and was usually written as ‘v.’ in front of the surname. In Hungary, the surname precedes the Christian name. In an honourable discharge document of a officer, the vitéz order is not mentioned as an award but as a title added to the name (Erik Naberhuis, The Hungarian Vitéz Order, 2005). Admission into the Order was accompanied by a land grant of 40 cadastral holds to an officer, 8 cadastral holds to other ranks based on need (1 cadastral hold = c. 1.43 acres). The honour of Vitéz was hereditary, and the grants (title, badge and land grant) were to be passed on by the recipient to his eldest son.
Hungarian law regarding noble titles
Horthy was internationally recognised as His Serene Highness the Regent of the Kingdom of Hungary (and addressed as such by e.g. the United States). He was head of state and appointed to administer the state because the monarch was absent. There are – next to Horthy’s vitéz order – other examples of regents who founded orders, such the Royal Guelphic Order (also known as the Hanoverian Guelphic Order) by George, Prince Regent in the name of his father King George III in 1815. In France, nobility and hereditary titles were abolished by the Revolutions of 1789 and 1848, but hereditary titles were restored by decree in 1852 and have not been abolished by any subsequent law. In order to grant noble titles it is not necessary to be a royal head of state. Therefore, theoretically, the President of the Republic could, in his capacity as head of state, create titles of nobility. The same counts for Horthy’s Hungary. It is not relevant that Horthy was not a king. He was head of state of a Kingdom.
In Hungarian law, Act IV of 1947 on the abolition of certain titles and ranks has abolished all Hungarian noble ranks and titles and prohibited their future bestowal. Article 1. § (1) of the Act declares annulment of the Hungarian aristocratic and noble ranks, such as duke, marquis, earl, baron, noble, primor, and primipilus (“lófő“). Article 3. § (1) prohibits the use of rank titles mentioned in 1. §. Furthermore, it explicitly forbids the use of the “vitéz” (“valiant”) title. § (2) prohibits the use of nobiliary particles, coats of arms, insignias or the use of any expressions referring to descent from a noble clan (“de genere“). § (3) forbids the use of honorifics referring to ranks or titles abolished by this Act, such as “főméltóságú” (His/Her Serene Highness), “nagyméltóságú” (His/Her Excellency), “kegyelmes” (His/Her Grace), “méltóságos” (The Honourable), “nagyságos” (The Worshipful), “tekintetes“, “nemzetes” etc.
The Act of 1947 remains in force today, although it does not contain any explicit sanctions in case the law is not observed. Act I of 2010 on the Civil Registry Procedure prohibits the registration of titles and ranks which would be contrary to Act IV of 1947 [55. § (1a)]. The 1947 Act has survived two challenges before the Hungarian Constitutional Court (HCC) in 2008 [Decision 1161/B/2008] and in 2009 [Decision 988/B/2009]. The Court has held in the 2008 decision that the prohibition of ranks and titles is intended to guarantee the equality of Hungarian citizens, as any discrimination based on hereditary titles and ranks would be contrary to the values of a democratic state and society based on equality; the Act itself is based on a firm set of values that forms an integral part of the values deductible from the Constitution [specifically Article 70/A paragraph (1) of the Constitution of Hungary at that time (Act IV of 1949)]. In the 2009 decision the HCC has found that the 1947 Act is not contrary to human dignity (the petitioner had claimed that the right to bear a name, which is deductible from human dignity, had been infringed by the Act), as nobility titles did not form official parts of a name, and that the state had the right to decide what it accepts as part of name and what it does not. The HCC has also referenced these decisions following the entry into force of the Fundamental Law of Hungary (2011, replacing the previous Constitution) in a recent decision [27/2015 (VII. 21.)] (Ágoston Mohay – Norbert Tóth, What’s in a name? Equal treatment, Union citizens and national rules on names and titles, working paper, University of Pécs, 2016, p. 9).
Horthy’s confirmation of the Order of Vitéz sometimes included noble predicates. Examples commemorating military action include: Captain Rihmer de Granasztó granted the title vitéz Gerlefalvi for his bravery at Gerlefalva, today Girovce, Slovakia.
Members of the Vitéz Order are addressed as “nemzetes úr/asszony”, in German: “Edler (-e) Herr/Dame”. Members with non-Hungarian names used to add the nobility suffix “-y” or “-i”. The characteristics of the vitéz capacity (hereditary, estate-related, the touch on the vitéz‘ shoulders with the sword at the bestowing of his knighthood, the title/suffix, the registration as a title instead of award in official papers and the emblem) are in full accordance with a title of nobility as we know it in for example the United Kingdom. The Act IV of 1947 also places the title on the same level as the noble titles. It is therefore not correct to say that the vitéz title is not a title of nobility. In the context of the mentioned Act, the history of the Order, its characteristics, and the recent Hungarian court decisions, the vitéz title should – from a historical perspective – be seen as a noble title. It is not recognized by the Hungarian state.
- Hans Kroitzsch, Der stand der Tapferen, der ungarische Vitéz-orden; Rechtsdarstellung und -Vergleich, Dissertation Leipzig, T. Weicher, 1939.
- Roman Freiherr von Procházka, Österreichisches Ordenshandbuch, Graf Klenau OHG, München 1974, S. 130.
- vitéz Miklós Bercsényi, vitéz József Bősze: The Hungarian Heritage of The Knightly Order of Vitéz, Pytheas Publisher, Budapest, 2011.
- Vitézek albuma / The Knightly Order of Vitez, 1939. The original that was used for the modern reprint by Pytheas had a turbulent life. The owner of the original used for reproduction was brave enough to save it at least three times by steeling it back during his expulsion from his former home under the communist regime in Hungary, digging it under ground and finally giving it to Pytheas for publishing. The publication includes 5000 portrait photos and 12000 entries of knights.
- vitéz Guido Broich, The Vitezi Rend, Chivalry, Feudalism and Nobility in Hungary in the XX Century, Ist Colloque on Nobility, Madrid 21-24 october 2015.
- Vitézi Rend, A Short History of the Order of Vitéz (internet publication).
- Szecsy Imre, Vitezi rend et al, A tizeves Vitezi Rend: 1921-1931, Budapest, Wodianer 1931.