Richard Nisley

The past is another country -- Budapest and the Carpathian Basin
History - World Released - Feb 16, 2014

It was threatening to become an international incident. The United States had the Crown of St. Stephen locked up in the vault at Fort Knox and the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party--a.k.a. the Soviet Union’s puppet government--wanted it back.

The Crown had been whisked out of Hungary in the closing days of World War II to keep it out of the hands of the Communists. It was then given to the U.S. Army for safekeeping and eventually transferred to Fort Knox. It was now 1977, and in Washington the request for the crown’s return had been passed from desk to desk until finally landing on the desk of President Jimmy Carter. As Harry Truman liked to say, “The buck stops here.”

Carter wanted to know if the Crown was legitimate. Stephen was the first king of Hungary, crowned in 1000 AD, and later canonized as Saint Stephen. The Crown of St. Stephen was a sign of national legitimacy, as important to Hungary as the Declaration of Independence was to the United States. And St. Stephen was viewed much as George Washington was viewed--as the father of his country. Was the gold crown locked up inside Fort Knox in fact St. Stephen’s Crown? Or was it a fake?

After undergoing extensive historical research it was determined the crown was indeed the real deal. Following substantial political debate, the agreement to return the crown contained many conditions to ensure the people of Hungary, rather than its Communist government, took possession. On 6 January 1978, the crown was returned to Hungary by the order of U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Today, the communists are gone and the crown is on display in the central Domed Hall of the Hungarian Parliament Building.

Is there a more misunderstood and overlooked nation in all of Europe than Hungary? The place is so very different from, say, Austria, its neighbor to the west. The two nations share the same river and the same breathing space and very little else. Culture, cuisine, language--all very different. It’s as if Hungary somehow fell out of the sky and landed in Europe. According to linguists, the people who populate Hungary originated in a faraway land--Siberia.

To understand something about Hungary is to understand its history, which is complex. Whoever said the past is another country surely had Hungary in mind.

Hungary is located in one of the most sought-after regions in all of Europe--the Carpathian Basin. The Romans absolutely loved the place. Hot water springs were everywhere. The land was so vast and fertile it could feed the entire Roman Empire. And a wide, navigable river ran through it--the Danube. While earlier tribal peoples had settled there, the Romans were the first to have a civilizing effect. They introduced writing, viticulture, public baths, stone architecture, and established a key trading settlement along the Danube in what is now Budapest.


The Huns were the first of several nomadic tribes from Asia to invade the Carpathian Basin, early in the 3rd century AD. Within two centuries the Romans were forced out by the Huns, whose short-lived empire was established by Attila.

After the death of Attila in 453 (his wife is suspected of poisoning him), various Germanic tribes occupied the region for the next century-and-a-half until another nomadic tribe, the Avars, gained control of the Carpathian Basin in the late 6th century. They in turn were subdued by Charlemagne in the early 8th century.

The next invaders were the Magyars who met little resistance in making Hungary their home in 898. Despite the similarity of the words in English and other languages, Hungary is not named after the Huns but after the Magyars. The Magyars lived under a tribal alliance called “onogur” (meaning “ten peoples”) thought to be the origin of the word “Hungary.” About the Hungarian language: though distantly related to Finnish, it has no significant similarities to any other language in the world. And while it’s very different from English in both vocabulary and structure, it’s surprisingly easy to pronounce.

The Magyars did not stop in Hungary but plundered and pillaged beyond the Carpathian Basin. Their raids took them as far as Germany, Italy and Spain. A common Christian prayer during medieval time was “Save us, O Lord, from the arrows of the Hungarians.” In 955 they were stopped in their tracks by the German king Otto I at the battle of Augsburg. This and subsequent defeats forced them to form an alliance with the Holy Roman Empire.

The alliance came with a price--the Magyars had to convert to Christianity. In 973, their leader was baptized, and so was his son who took the new name of Stephen. When his father died, Stephen was crowned King Stephen I. He proved a shrewd and forward-looking leader. He consolidated royal authority by expropriating the land of clan chieftains and establishing counties. In turn, he rewarded land grants to loyal (mostly German) knights. To hasten conversion of the Magyar populace, he ordered one in every 10 villages to build a church. By the time of his death in 1038, Hungary was a nascent Christian nation, increasingly westward-looking and multiethnic.

Stephen has remained a beloved public figure ever since. Indeed, Hungary as a nation and as a people begins with the reign of King Stephen. In 1083, he was canonized as St. Stephen by Pope Victor III in Rome, and August 20 was declared his feast day. The Feast of St. Stephen is alluded to in the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.”

Stephen’s wise leadership did not extend to his heirs, unfortunately. The next two-and-a-half centuries were marked by dynastic intrigues and power struggles among pretenders to the throne, which weakened the young nation’s defenses. In the 13th century yet another wave of nomadic tribes--the Mongols--raided the Basin. They burned down the adjoining villages of Buda, Obuda and Pest (modern day Budapest) and killed some 100,000 people.

The Mongols did not stay but the struggle for the Hungarian throne continued and now involved several European dynasties, beginning with the French. In the following century an alliance between Poland and Hungary restored the throne to Hungarian rule. With the Ottoman Turks threatening, the area was destabilized once again when the Hungarian king was killed in battle. A Transylvanian general named Janos Hunyadi (of Hungarian origin) stopped the Ottoman advance and assured the coronation of his son Mathias.

Mathias was every bit the great general his father had been, and thanks to his military exploits made Hungary one of Europe’s leading powers. Under his rule, Obuda enjoyed a golden age and for the first time became the true focus of the nation. His wife Beatrix, the daughter of the king of Naples, brought artisans from Italy who completely rebuilt, extended and fortified the Royal Palace in the Renaissance style. The royal library became second only to the library in the Vatican.


The golden age was short-lived, however. By 1526 an Ottoman sultan calling himself Suleiman the Magnificent had taken much of the Balkans, including Belgrade, and was poised to march on Obuda and Vienna with a force of 90,000 men. The Ottoman Turks sacked and burned Obuda but stopped short of attacking Vienna. Hungary then was partitioned and shared by three separate groups: the Turks, the Hapsburgs, and the Transylvania princes.

When the Turks eventually got around to attacking Vienna it was too late. As the capital of the powerful Hapsburg Empire, the Austrian city was heavily fortified, and thanks to assistance from German and Polish forces, thrashed the Ottoman army thoroughly. After a 150-year occupation, the Turks were finished in the Carpathian Basin. Obuda was liberated in 1686 and the last of the Turkish army in Hungary was wiped out 11 years later. The Turks were gone but one of their legacies remained--the Turkish Bath. Today, Budapest is a major spa center and “taking the waters” at one of city’s many spas or combination Spa-swimming pool complexes is part of everyday life.

After the Turkish occupation, Hungary was reduced to a mere province of the Habsburg Empire. However, under the 40-year reign of Maria Theresa, Hungary took great steps forward economically, culturally, and politically. Progress continued under the rule of her son Joseph. His attempts to modernize society by dissolving the powerful (and corrupt) monastic orders and abolishing serfdom were opposed by the Hungarian nobility, and on his deathbed Joseph rescinded several reforms.

With the Age of Enlightenment came calls for reforms from intellectual circles in Budapest, and a number of plots against the Habsburg crown had to be put down. Calls for liberalism continued, such as those by a well-placed aristocrat named Istvan Szechenyi, who as a sign of his opposition to serfdom returned much of his land to the peasantry. As a government minister, he oversaw the regulation of the Danube as much for commerce and irrigation as for safety.


The Hapsburg Empire began to weaken as Hungarian nationalism increased early in the 19th century. The powers that be made a number of reforms but they were too little and too late. With protestors taking to the streets, an emboldened Parliament declared Hungary a free and independent nation. New Hapsburg emperor Franz Joseph quickly took action. He sought the assistance of Russian tsar Nicholas I, who obliged with 200,000 troops. Weak and vastly outnumbered, the rebels were easily defeated.

Hungary was again merged into the Hapsburg Empire. However, disastrous military defeats for the Hapsburgs by the French in 1859 and the Prussians in 1866 pushed Franz Joseph to the negotiating table. The result was the Compromise of 1867, which fundamentally restructured the Hapsburg monarchy and created the Dual Monarchy of Austria (the empire) and Hungary (the kingdom) ruled by Emperor/King Franz Joseph. The “Age of Dualism” would carry on until 1918 and spark an economic, cultural and intellectual rebirth that was tantamount to a second golden age.

In 1873, hilly residential Buda and historic Obuda on the western bank of the Danube merged with flat industrial Pest on the eastern side to form Budapest. With trade and industry booming, a middle class dominated by Germans and Jews burgeoned, while the capital entered a frenzy of building activity. Much of what you see in Budapest today--from the grand boulevards and their Eclectic-style apartment blocks to the Parliament building, State Opera House and Palace of Art--was built at this time.

All was not well, however. The working class, based almost entirely in Budapest, had almost no rights and in the countryside the situation was almost as dire as it had been in the Middle Ages. Despite a new law enacted in 1868 to protect minority rights, Czechs, Slovaks, Croats and Romanians were under increased pressure to “Magyarise” and many viewed the new ruling order as oppressive as the old.


In 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and entered World War I allied with the German empire. The result was disastrous, with widespread destruction and hundreds of thousands killed on the Russian and Italian fronts. At the armistice of 1918, the fate of the Dual Monarchy--and Hungary as a multinational kingdom--was decided under the terms spelled out by the Treaty of Trianon. It was a case of the victors deciding the new face of Europe. The Treaty carved up much of Central Europe, reducing Hungary by almost two-thirds of its historical size. As a result, Romania (including Transylvania) emerged as a new nation while other parts of Hungary were rolled into Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

The story of Hungary after World War I is mostly bitter. Whether rightwing or communist--leadership was as corrupt as it was brutal. First, there was Bela Kun, a communist, who as a way of enforcing his socialists policies unleashed a reign of “red terror.” Romanians saved the day by invading Budapest and ousting Kun.

Kun was followed by rightwing strongman Miklos Horthy who, as the Romanian army retreated, entered the capital riding a white steed. He was anything but a white knight. Horthy embarked on a “white terror” every bit as brutal as Bela Kun’s red one. He aligned himself with the fascist governments of Germany and Italy up to the outbreak of World War II, at which point he tried to switch sides. Hitler got wind of his secret dealings with the Allies and had him arrested.

Hitler installed a puppet government far more brutal than Horthy’s. During the summer of 1944, just 10 months before the war ended, approximately 450,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz and other labor camps. By the time the German war machine had surrendered in April 1945, three-quarters of Budapest’s homes, historical buildings and churches had been severely damaged or destroyed and some 25,000 civilians killed.

From the end of the World War II up until 1989 Hungary was under the iron-fisted grip of the communists. When they had to be, they could be nearly as brutal as Hitler. This was most evident in the 1956 Uprising, which some have called the nation’s greatest tragedy. It was a crisis that for a while shook the world, rocked international Communism, and pitted Hungarian against Hungarian.

It began in Budapest when some 50,000 university students assembled in the city section of Buda, shouting anti-Soviet slogans and demanding a political reformer named Imre Nagy be named prime minister. That night, they pulled down and sawed into pieces a statue of Joseph Stalin. Word reached Moscow and within days Soviet tanks and troops crossed into Hungary and attacked Budapest and other centers. Fierce fighting ensued but the Soviets held the upper hand and prevailed after a few days. When it was over, 2,500 people were dead. Then began the reprisals. An estimated 20,000 people were arrested and 2000--including Nagy--were executed. Another 250,000 refugees fled to Austria. The government lost what little credibility it ever had and Budapest lost many of its brightest and most promising citizens.

After the revolt, the ruling party was reorganized as the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, and a Hungarian Communist named Janos Kadar was named party president and premier. During his 30-year reign, Kadar managed to advance the nation economically. He introduced greater consumerism and market socialism and by the mid-1970s Hungary was light years ahead of any other Soviet-bloc country in its standard of living and freedom of movement. A number of western entrepreneurs liked what they saw and made business investments. The Kadar system came to be known as “goulash socialism.”

Things soured in the 1980s. “Goulash socialism” was incapable of dealing with “unsocialist” problems: unemployment, soaring inflation and the largest per-capita foreign debt in Eastern Europe. Kadar refused to entertain talk about party reforms and in 1987 was forced out of office. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1988 new political parties formed and old ones revived. Meanwhile, Moscow did nothing, being embroiled in very big problems of its own. In July 1989, Hungary began to demolish the electric wire fence separating it from Austria. The move released a wave of East Germans vacationing in Hungary into the West and the opening attracted thousands more. The collapse of the Communist regimes around the region was now unstoppable.

On October 23, 1989, the 33rd anniversary of the 1956 Uprising, the nation once again became the Republic of Hungary. In 1991, Parliament passed the first act dealing with the return of property seized under Communist rule. In 1999, Hungary became a fully-fledged member of NATO. In 2002, Budapest, in particular the banks of the Danube and the Castle District, was included in Unesco’s list of World Heritage Sites. In 2004, Hungary was admitted to the EU along with new member-nations, including neighboring states Slovakia and Slovenia, with Romania following three years later. In 2011, in its most high-profile role on the European stage ever, Hungary assumed the presidency of EU council.


What’s more to say about Budapest? A few things, such as: there is more to Hungarian food than goulash and it remains one of the sophisticated styles of cooking in Europe. Magyars even go so far as to say there are three essential world cuisines: French, Chinese and their own.

Budapest is blessed with an abundance of hot springs--some 123 thermal and more than 400 mineral springs. More than 30,000 cubic meters of warm to scalding water gush forth daily. The choice of bathhouses is generous--you can choose among indoor and outdoor, Turkish-era, art nouveau and modern establishment.

Budapest is called the “Queen of the Danube” in recognition of its eclectic mix of architecture--some Roman, Medieval, and Turkish, but mostly Baroque, Neoclassicism, and Art Nouveau/Secessionism. Art Nouveau and its Viennese variant, Secessionism, abound and is Budapest’s signature style. The style flourished in Europe from 1890 to the outbreak of WWI. After the war, the style was considered limited, passe, even tacky. Fortunately for the good people of Budapest, the economic and political torpor of the interwar period and the 40-year “big sleep” after WWII left many Art Nouveau/Secessionist buildings beaten but standing--a lot more, in fact, than remains in such important art nouveau centers as Paris, Brussels and Vienna. In recent years, most of the war damages to these buildings have been repaired.

Finally, there is the world renown pianist Adras Schiff who was born in Hungary and now lives in England, with word that all is not yet well in Hungary, despite the political, social and economic gains made in recent years. On 1 January 2011, Schiff published a letter in the Washington Post questioning whether “Hungary is ready and worthy to take on” the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union because of “racism, discrimination against Roma (Gypsies), anti-Semitism, xenophobia, chauvinism and reactionary nationalism” and “the latest media laws” (referring to the new media laws passed by the government). Until changes are made, Schiff said he will not perform in his native country nor set foot there.

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