A place of extremes

The Magyars, a Finno-Ugric people, crossed the Eurasian steppe into the Carpathians around AD 895. Their fierce horsemen pushed on into Europe, rampaging through Germany and Italy, helping to bury the classical civilization. Their enemies prayed, “A sagittis Hungarorum libera nos Domine– “deliver us from the arrows of the Hungarians” – and God at last answered, granting victory over the invader to Otto the Great of Germany at the Battle of Lechfeld in AD 955.

The vanquished tribe settled on the Central Plain, abandoned their nomadic habits and organized themselves into a state, which in time fell under Habsburg rule and was later molded into the Austro–Hungarian Empire. After the First World War, with the Treaty of Trianon, the kingdom of Hungary lost half of its population and two-thirds of its pre-war territory. In the hope of regaining their land, Hungary’s embittered leaders forged an alliance with Nazi Germany, lending 250,000 soldiers to its assault on Russia. When the tide turned against Hitler, Budapest tried to make peace with the allies. German forces invaded, installed a puppet regime under the banner of the fascist Arrow Cross Party and set about executing or deporting more than half a million Jews. Another 280,000 Hungarians were raped, murdered or deported when the country fell to the Red Army. A quarter of a million ethnic Germans were expelled and ten labor camps were built to save the trouble of transporting political prisoners to the Soviet Union. Some 200,000 more citizens fled the country during and immediately after the 1956 Revolution. Caught between East and West, the once-feared Hungarians had themselves become fearful.

The London-based historian Victor Sebestyen was part of this 1956 exodus – a child fleeing with his immediate family. In the succeeding years he returned many times, above all during research for his essential book on the Hungarian Revolution, Twelve Days (2006). Other volumes have included Revolution 1989 (2009) and 1946: The making of the post-war world (2014). Budapest: Between East and West crowns these earlier achievements.

It starts uncertainly. A paucity of characterization and anecdote gives the first quarter of the book an air of detachment, even though Budapest’s formative centuries are wildly gilded, debauched, impoverished and bloody. But with the arrival of the Habsburgs, both the narrative and the research come to life. To advance her war against Prussia (the War of Succession, 1740–48), Empress Maria Theresa appealed to Hungarians’ sense of courage, pride and victimhood: “I am a poor woman, a queen abandoned by all the world”. In the quest for nationhood, Ignác Martinovics (1755-95) – an idealistic monk-cum-conman – called for “a holy insurrection against the kings, nobles and priests”. (We see Martinovics witness the botched beheadings of his fellow Jacobins before being executed himself on the Field of Blood.) The poet Ferenc Kazinczy declared that “without our language, our homeland will always be foreign”, and set about modernizing Hungarian: transforming the grammar, standardizing the syntax, enriching the vocabulary. And in 1849 Count István Széchenyi linked Buda and Pest, on either side of the Danube, with the Chain Bridge, which the “People’s Empress”, Sisi (Empress Elisabeth of Austria), later crossed in a crystal-paned baroque coach. The occasion was the coronation of her husband, Franz Josef, as king of Hungary in 1867. A newspaper gushed:

On her head was the diamond crown, the glittering symbol of sovereignty, but [there was also] the expression of humility in her bowed bearing and … traces of the deepest emotion on her noble features – thus she walked, or rather floated along, as if one of the paintings that adorn the sacred chambers had stepped out of its frame and came to life .

In Sebestyen’s telling, Sisi falls for the charm of Hungarian men and the company of Hungarian women, learning the language and coming to spend more time in Budapest than Vienna. “Here, in Hungary, at last one feels eternally free”, she said.

At the start of the twentieth century the city’s incomparable coffee houses brewed a remarkable intellectual and cultural blend. Ten future Nobel prizewinners, as well as the writer Arthur Koestler, the composer Béla Bartók, the film-makers Alexander Korda and Michael Curtiz, and the photographers Robert Capa and André Kertesz were born or lived between the elegant Castle District, the Champs-Élysées -like Andrássy út and the Jewish District VII. In that fleeting golden age, the poet Endre Ady said that he couldn’t write anywhere other than a Budapest cafe “with people’s bustle and ideas and emotions all around”. By 1900 there were more than 600 coffee houses in the city.

Sebestyen keeps up the pace as the Habsburg monarchy totters and falls (250,000 Austro-Hungarian dead or wounded, and 100,000 men taken prisoner, in the first month of the First World War) and ably traces the twenty-four-year rule of Miklós Horthy , the fascist regent who introduced anti-Jewish laws to modern Europe more than a decade before the Nazis. The Red Army’s “liberation” of Hungary, its bloody occupation and its suppression of the 1956 uprising are recounted in detail, as is the Kremlin’s brutal reshaping of the nation into a Soviet colony model. So, too, is the city’s enduring drive to modernity, in architecture at least: the Continent’s first underground metro line; the playful Museum of Applied Arts, designed by “the Gaudi of Hungary”, Ödön Lechner (1845-1914); the winged National Theater; and the House of Terror Museum (which is haunting yet deceitful, propagating a disingenuous version of history that portrays Hungary as a perennial victim, corrupted by foreigners and their ideas).

Yet, somewhat inexplicably, the book ends with the lifting of the Iron Curtain – when Hungary opened its border with Austria – in September 1989, a decision that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall two months later. The last three transformative decades are skimmed over in four pages, although there is room to mention the invasion of Ukraine.

When the Wall fell, I – like many others – thought Europe’s nightmare was over at last. On Budapest’s Heroes’ Square, Viktor Orbán – then a little-known, denim-clad twenty-six-year-old liberal – electrified the crowd with a call for Russian troops to leave his country: “If we can trust our souls and strength , we can put an end to the dictatorship.” He embraced human rights, a free press and the rule of law. He helped to lead Hungary towards freedom. He was elected to the National Assembly and in 1998, at the age of thirty-five, became Hungary’s second youngest prime minister.

Having gained power, Orbán calculated that keeping it would depend on winning over the lower middle classes, most of whom lived in the countryside and few of whom had finished secondary school. He pushed the old myth of the nation alone and reinvented himself by inventing enemies, demonizing intellectuals as well as Syrian refugees and Brussels bureaucrats. He took control of the media and propagandized, kindling old fears and grievances. As nostalgia replaced optimism as a ruling emotion, the Hungarian people were fed (and swallowed) astonishing untruths. In the process Orbán – “a thin-skinned opportunist who likes to command”, according to the late US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright – has turned liberal Hungary into a one-party state with just a veneer of democracy. Small wonder that over the same three decades 9 per cent of the population—mostly the young and the better-educated—have abandoned the country to begin new lives elsewhere.

Budapest is a city of curves, colonnades and crescents: the arc of Nyugati railway station, the camber of Chain Bridge and the Danube, which bows around the mock-medieval Parliament building, with its Tuscan Renaissance dome. From Buda Castle on the west bank, Pest to the east appears as a swirl of houses five storeys high, encircled by the Elizabeth Ring. But this is not a soft and biddable city. It is a place “of political extremes where differences are not always settled with calm moderation and common sense”. In Budapest: Between East and West, Viktor Sebestyen explains its significance to the nation and to central Europe, bringing it to life through compelling portraits of its many autocrats, revolutionaries, heroes and liars. The result is the most accessible and authoritative history of the city in a generation.

Rory MacLean‘s books include Berlin: Imagine a city2014, and Pravda Ha Ha: Truth, lies and the end of Europe2019

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