Saturday, 19 February 2011

Hungary in the 20th century - a personal view (part 1)

Hungary and Hungarians had a very mixed - and mostly bad - 20th century. And yet it had looked as though it was going to be so different.

According to tradition, towards the end of the 9th century seven wandering tribes whose origins are lost in the mysteries of time, but were probably somewhere in the steppes of what is now Mongolia, arrived in the Carpathian Basin and liked what they saw.  Led by Árpád, the chieftain of the largest of the tribes, they easily conquered the indigenous population and settled to establish what would come to be known as the Kingdom of Hungary.  One thousand years later, in 1896, the country celebrated the Millennium of its foundation with an outpouring of national pride, combined with an extravagant construction programme to mark this historic event.

The most notable of these projects was, arguably, the beautiful Parliament building on the Pest bank of the Danube which was inaugurated in the Millennium year, although it was not completed until 1904.  The top of its central dome is 96 metres high, to emphasise the importance of the years 896 and 1896 in the country's history, and even today it is the largest building in Hungary and the largest national parliament building in Europe.  It is interesting to note that the top of the dome of St Stephen's Basilica, which underwent extensive renovation at the time of the Millennium, is also exactly 96 metres high.  To this day no buildings higher than 96 metres are permitted in the centre of Budapest.


Of course, a Millennium has to have a special monument, and the Millennium Monument in Hösök tere (Heroes' Square) is about as good as it gets.  Its central column, 36 metres high, is surmounted by the Archangel Gabriel holding the Holy Crown of Hungary, which tradition claims was sent by Pope Sylvester II for the coronation of King István I on Christmas Day in the year 1000, while the seven Magyar tribes who arrived in the Carpathian Basin in (or around) 896 are represented around the base with Árpád, their leader, to the front.  On plinths between the pillars of the surrounding collonades are statues of famous Hungarian kings and heroes, ranging from King István himself on the left to Ferenc Rákóczy and Lájos Kossuth, the leaders of the 1848 rebellion against the Hapsburgs on the extreme right.  On the tops of the four pillars are further statues representing war, peace, work and welfare, and knowledge and glory.

The Millenium Monument was, however, only the most dramatic part of an astonishing set of related projects, for running underneath the broad avenue that is Andrássy út runs the földalatti - the world's second underground railway (after London's), and the first in continental Europe.  It originally ran from Vörösmarty tér to the Zoo, in the City Park,
behind the Millennium Monument, although the Zoo station was closed when the line was later extended further into the eastern suburbs.  The original section was built primarily to provide transport from the city centre to the newly extended City Park, while keeping the elegant Andrássy Avenue clear of public transport, and was built in only two years by the same "cut and cover" technique that had been used for the first lines of the London Underground, as can be seen in this contemporary painting.

Today most of the stations are still decorated in the original style, and to travel on Metro Line 1 (as the földalatti is officially known - although most Budapesters still refer to it by its original name) is to bring back an echo of those far-off times when Budapest was the most elegant city in the whole of Europe and the country was full of pride and hope for the future.


At that time the Kingdom of Hungary was the junior partner, if that is not too strong a word, in the Hapsburg-ruled Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy.  Its frontiers encompassed over 325 square kilometres of territory which was occupied by almost 17 million people, almost half of whom were of non-Hungarian ethnicity, mainly Romanians, Slovaks, Croats, Serbs, Ruthenians and Germans, but with a number of Slovenes, Roma and other minorities in addition.  In his History of Modern Hungary, Jörg Hoensch states that the Kingdom of Hungary at this time possessed a geographical unity without parallel in the rest of Europe, in which the national economy was a coordinated whole in which the different parts of the country were mutually dependent on each other and the capital, Budapest.  After the trials of previous centuries it really must have looked as though Hungary's time had come.  Who could possibly have guessed that twenty years later the historic Kingdom of Hungary would have been brutally dismembered, losing over 70% of its territory and 65% of its population?

In one sense this was all the fault of one man - a Bosnian Serb anarchist student named Gavrilo Princip.  On 28th June 1914 Princip assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir apparent to the throne of Austria, and his wife Sophie while they were visiting Sarajevo.  This event led, inevitably with the benefit of hindsight, to the outbreak of the First World War.  Although the Hungarian Prime Minister, Count István Tisza, tried desperately to avoid his country being dragged into a punitive action against the Serbs, not least because of his fears that such a Balkan War might easily escalate, it proved impossible to defy the wishes of the major partner in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  History would prove that his fears were correct, but what no-one could have foreseen was that the country which would ultimately pay the biggest price for this war would be Hungary.

--- more to come later ---

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