A Slice of Hungary

Jerome Richard

"Hungary has been often liberated, but never free."  That was the poignant summation of the country's history by our guide in Budapest.  She was referring to a history that began with the conquest of Hungary by the Ottoman Turks in 1526.  The country was in a mess at the time as a peasant revolt had been brutally suppressed a few years earlier. The Turks ruled most of what is now Hungary until 1697 when they were defeated by a combined Hungarian-Austrian-Polish army.  A treaty was signed two years later.  Instead of being free, however, Hungary became a province of the Habsburg Empire.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved at the end of World War I, and in 1920 the Hungarians in a secret ballot chose to make their land a kingdom.  One problem-they did not have a king.  So they made Admiral Miklos Horthy, who had driven out the Romanians who had driven out the Hungarian communists under Bela Kun, their regent.  Of course, Hungary is land-locked, which led Franklin Delano Roosevelt to observe that "Hungary is a kingdom without a king run by a regent who is an admiral without a navy."

Hungary was once again on the losing side in World War II.  When they realized that and tried to withdraw, they were occupied by their Nazi allies, leading to their liberation by the Soviets, who, despite a 1956 uprising, ruled through puppet regimes until 1989.  You can get some sense of how the Hungarians feel about life under the Communist regime by the fact that the former secret police headquarters is now a museum called "The House of Terror."

(Microsoft Word, the program that writers wrestle with because Microsoft foisted it on computer manufacturers until it became the default word processing program instead of the superior WordPerfect, was created by a Hungarian refugee.)

The Magyars were invaders once themselves, so perhaps their plaint is hollow.  Neanderthals, Illyrians, Thracians, Scythians, Celts, Romans, and Huns were among the peoples that preceded them to the Carpathian Basin, but then there are probably no really indigenous people in the world except for some tribes in east Africa.  Seven tribes of Magyars arrived towards the end of the 9th century.  The country name is not derived from the Huns, but is believed to be a variation of onogur, a Turkic word meaning "ten peoples."  The Magyars were allied with the Turkic Khazars before moving on to the area that is now Budapest, where they proceeded to rape and pillage like most of the peoples before them.

The Hungarian language is not Indo-European, but rather related only to Finnish and Estonian.  I asked our guide if Hungarian and Finnish were mutually understandable.  She said there are only about 150 words that are still in common, but that the rhythms of the two languages are the same.

Perhaps something about this history, or the relative isolation of not speaking the same language as their neighbors, helps explain the gloomy outlook on life that is characteristic of Hungarians.  The national anthem describes Hungarians as "a people torn by fate."  They have one of the highest suicide rates in the world.  A popular 1930s song called "Gloomy Sunday" is said to have driven Hungarians to jump off a bridge.

Hungary shares something else with Finland: a reputation for beautiful women.  Perhaps that helps explain the suicide rate.  We were not there long enough to vouch for the reputation, but neither did what we see contradict it.  What one does see on a brief visit is a city constantly evoking the charm of fin de siecle Europe, an air of extravagance edging on decadence.

Buda and Pest were once two separate towns on either side of the Danube.  The Buda side is hilly and the city's most important attraction is the medieval castle on Castle Hill.  The former palace now houses the national gallery.  There are many other interesting things to see on Castle Hill, including a spectacular view from the Fishermen's Bastion area, and a wine museum and tasting room.  Hungary produces some very good red wines, sometimes available in the United States at relatively inexpensive prices.  Its most famous wine, however, is a sweet product called Tokay (Tokaji in Hungarian).

The flat Pest side is more commercial, though the elaborate Parliament Building is there as well as Heroes' Square, a wide plaza with statuary and monuments to the seven original tribes and various notables since.  Most moving is a display of cast iron shoes and boots on the bank of the Danube.  It is a memorial to Jews who were shot and then thrown into the river, after their clothes and shoes were removed to give to others.  We were told the shooting was done by the Nazis, but several sources, including the Lonely Planet Guide to Budapest, say it was done by members of Hungary's fascist Arrow Cross Party.

Most of the significant medieval and gothic architecture of the city was destroyed by the Habsburgs when they put down the Hungarian War of Independence in 1849.  The elaborate art nouveau architecture, mostly on the Pest side, dates to the last years of the Empire.

We were there shortly after Hungary's election returned to office Ferenc Gyurcsany, the prime minister who was overheard admitting that "We lied in the morning, we lied in the evening."  He was explaining how his administration had fooled people into believing the economy was in good shape.  Broadcast of the tape resulted in riots, but Hungarians apparently preferred an honest liar to a dishonest one.

Hungary more than most places may be a land of contradictions.  That may be more charming to a visitor than it is to its citizens.

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Harvard Square Commentary, December 4, 2006