The Hungarians choose not to be called Eastern Europeans, and for that matter, who can blame them. The term encourages mental images of amateurish private economies (often not true and certainly not common throughout), cheesy discotheques or stag parties (not always regarded as obligatory) and the memory of Soviet occupation, something almost all countries in the region would like to forget.

The Hungarians see themselves very much as Central Europeans, in the same way that you might put Germany in the middle of Europe. Indeed, Budapest is just five hours down the Danube by boat from Vienna (or three hours by train these days). The culture is still very much extant, with countless grand old cafés selling rétes (strudel), the grand old boulevards leading from the parks on the outer rim of the city, past the grand old opera house to the even grander Parliament building, and shops by the hundred. German remains the second language of many older Hungarians to this day.

But the point is that Budapest is a very European city. They are proud of their membership of the EU, above all else. The blue flag with gold stars hangs next to the Hungarian tricolour on most government buildings, and EU citizens are welcomed with free or reduced entry to attractions like the Parliament or National Gallery.

It wasn’t always so, and there are many telling reminders. The people, men especially, have an Asiatic appearance that belies their origins amongst the Hun migration and their presumed Finno-Ugric ethnicity (a race which also populates Finland but comes from Central Russia) and moved into the ashes of the Roman Empire before being conquered by the Franks under Charlemagne and the Bulgarians from the East.

The Hungarian language is apparently as close to English as English is to Hindi and like many states with their own language, they have many myths of national greatness. The National Gallery, in the former royal palace of the Hapsburgs is a good place to start for that, but illustrates a longer history too. Religion plays a seminal role in Hungarian history after Stephen I was crowned in 1000 AD with a Crown donated by Pope Sylvester II. The early galleries are full of iconography, triptychs and statuettes, Catholic in spirit, but apparently Orthodox in the explicit depictions of the crucifixion.

Later, the two themes of royalty and religion combine in more sophisticated ways, with the glorification of Vajk (later Stephen I) being baptised, the demure and Saintly princess Margaret and Elizabeth and even the white-shrouded body of Louis II being discovered on the battlefield where the independent Hungary was lost to division among the Turks and Austrian Hapsburgs in 1526. It’s an ironic victory over the Hapsburgs to have such a painting hanging in their former ballroom.

Further through the gallery, more social themes – rural scenes of productive lives, poverty and extraordinary studies in normality worthy of the Impressionists, but also painting the way the Russian novelists of the nineteenth century wrote. There is an exhibition of modern art when we visit, but we skip through to the permanent collections that have survived the test of time. The Soviet art has been removed to a statue park on the outskirts of town.

Hungary spent a considerable period under (relatively liberal) Ottoman rule between 1541 and 1718, to which we can possibly attribute the scale to which Hugarians appreciate their thermal baths (even if many were founded in the nineteenth century for rest and relaxation). The Széchenyi baths in the City Park certainly give off an Oriental feel, with their saunas and immersion pools, casual bathers and chess players. It is one of the few in Budapest that is always open to both genders and mixes them.

Of all the things Hungary owes to outside influences, one of the most profound is the Eötvös Loránd University, previously known as Budapest University. Founded in present-day Slovakia in the late seventeenth century by Jesuits and funded by the Renaissance-minded King of the time, it moved to Buda in 1777 and Pest in 1784, where its library currently remains (the majority of the university is housed in a grand building on the Buda side of the Danube, just south of the Liberty Bridge). The history of the library tells great stories about wider Hungary. German university students tended to acquire duelling scars like we collect Facebook profile pictures, but the students at Budapest University went one better in 1848, the year of Revolutions, joining the intellectual fight and taking to the streets with sabres and pistols.

A century later, in 1956, after Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, after the treaty guaranteeing Austrian neutrality had been signed and Hungary had entered the nascent Warsaw Pact, the students rebelled again, establishing an independent Union and sending a delegation to the state radio agency. Their complaint was the removal of Imre Nagy as Premier for thinking the unthinkable – that Hungary could also become independent.

Nagy was a Soviet plant in the first place. He had lived in Russia since the First World War, spending fifteen years on the Politburo. He therefore seemed a safe choice to replace the draconian minister Rakósi, but also palatable enough in the wake of the Polish rebellion. Unlike Gomulka, who took over in Poland, Nagy did not know when to give the Russians slack and tug back on his people even a little. He suspended one-party rule and withdrew from the Warsaw Pact, appealing for support to the United Nations, which a sceptical USSR was just becoming active in.

The protests started off sporadically and gathered momentum, as well as the interest of the wider population. Soon clever slogans turned into brawls. The political police (AVH) fired on crowds outside the radio station and in turn, crowds began to turn on the few Soviet tanks in Budapest, throwing grenades and Molotov cocktails, much to the dismay of the students.

The Revolution was doomed to fail. The USSR refused to lose face after several affronts as it saw them from the West, while the West was weak and divided in the wake of Suez and couldn’t have penetrated the Iron Curtain in any case. Even so, Khrushchev appeared to hold back for a period, but the tanks were eventually sent in. In a symbolic act of the counter-rebellion’s total success, the university extended the average length of its degrees from three to four years. This organ of education, which had bred the spirit of independence for so many years, became the conduit for greater doses of propaganda and remained quiescent for the next thirty years.

Nagy was replaced with János Kádár, a minister in his government who had liberal sympathies. He steered a happier middle course than Nagy had succeeded in maintaining but was ultimately beholden to Moscow. Though he promised Nagy free passage from his sanctuary in the Yugoslavian Embassy, Nagy was arrested by Soviet forces and executed in the ‘Terror House,’ 60 Andrassy Avenue, which had also been the headquaters of the fascist political police before the Second World War.

Ultimately, however, the spirit of 1956 lasted longer. Outside the Parliament building a Hungarian flag flies with a hole cut out where the Soviet insignia used to be. And the University? Today it is attended by 30,000 students and has a reputation as the Oxford of Hungary. One of the main political parties, Fidesz, was founded there and two-thirds of the current Cabinet are counted amongst its alumni.

For such an independently-minded and proud nation, Hungary has had few periods of genuine independence. Some have been more benevolent than others, however, and the period of the Compromise (which established the Dual Monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1867 and 1919) was one of the brighter periods in Hungary’s history. To this age belong the bicameral Parliament, the third largest in the world (after Argentina and Britain) and St Stephen’s Basillica – designed to be 96 metres high and completed for the Hungarian millennium in 1896 but actually not complete for years afterwards. Buda Castle, watching over the Danube, was started in 1875 and declared complete only in 1912. It is a UNESCO heritage site, and one of Budapest’s spectacular buildings in a majestic setting.

The Parliament, of which one chamber is still used in today’s democratic state, is as impressive inside as out, with its abundance of gilt, its marble pillars, St Stephen’s Crown and its generously-sized cigar holder in the corridors outside the chambers. For a nation that was pretty much a junior partner if not a colony, the significance of Hungary did not translate into modesty in design or behaviour. During a particularly rowdy debate opposition members piled the desks in the centre of the room and set fire to them.

Indeed, some of Hungary’s darkest periods were during its short independence between 1919 and 1944, when the Nazis finally occupied the country. The history of these years is familiar to students of the period. Hungary, like Germany but without the international interest, was a failed state. Count Mihály Károly, the only President of the First Hungarian Republic, sued for peace with the Entente but lost his political standing as a result of territorial concessions that exceeded even his satisfaction, with his enthusiasm for peace. The Hungarian Communists came to power under Béla Kun and proclaimed a Soviet Republic, lasting only five months. When the Entente sought further territorial concessions, Kun fought back but the country was overrun by the Romanian Army and a Kingdom established under a politically “White” Regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy. Kun and his associates returned to Moscow to be greeted by Stalin’s show-trials.

Like Germany, Hungary was profoundly affected by the Great Depression and where Germany led, Hungary followed. The government tacked to the right, bringing in laws restricting the rights of Jews, while still suppressing the outwardly fascist Arrow Cross Party. In an ironic twist of fate, the anti-Semitic Prime Minister Béla Imrédy was forced to resign in 1939 when evidence of his Jewish heritage was presented to Horthy.

The alliance with Germany saved Hungary from occupation until relatively late in the War, 1944. It may even be the reason for the survival of many Jews, but when the Gestapo set up camp in the Dohany Synagogue and brought the Arrow Cross to power, a frenzy of bloodletting saw 437,000 Jews transported to death camps in two months while 70,000 were locked in the Budapest ghetto. The ‘Terror House,’ where the headquarters of both the fascist and Post-War Soviet police were, has harrowing exhibitions of two dark periods in Hungarian history.

With such unpleasant moments in its history, it is reassuring that Hungary today has the third largest proportion of Jewish residents in Europe, although the exact number is unknown because it is unconstitutional to keep records of the ethnicity of Hungarian citizens. The Dohany Street Synagogue, built in the 1850s by two Christian architects in a style at once Moorish and yet modelled on the design of a Cathedral, was paid for largely by subscriptions to best seats in the house. Theodore Herzl, the father of modern Zionist thought, was born in a house next door that is no longer-extant.

Jewish culture in Budapest can hardly forget the horrors of the Twentieth Century, and indeed commemorates the Righteous – including the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. But it is helped by the efforts of the annual Jewish Festival (in Hugarian genuinely the ‘Yiddo Festival’), which this year brought Matisyahu to town, and the numerous restaurants and cafés that turn gloomier tourism into a virtue with their goose dishes and traditional cakes.

Today’s Hungary is independent again but not short of troubles. Its Fidesz government has awkward relations with the IMF over deficit-reduction and bank levies. Many utilities are still in public ownership, giving no end of management headaches in these days, while the Budapest transport system is privatised and relatively expensive by the standards of the Accession Countries. Quality of life has declined during the recession and mortgagees are vulnerable to swings in currency rates. At the same time, Hungary has started a row with Slovakia after offering passports to citizens of other states who can prove Hungarian descent. In January 2011, Hungary takes over the EU’s rotating Presidency in what could be a critical moment. We were fortunate, therefore, to visit at a time when the nation seemed to be relaxed, possibly as a result of plenty of Jewish reggae, rétes and Hungary’s storming 2-0 victory over Moldova in the Euro qualifiers.

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