go to content go to search box go to global site navigation

Hungary

History

Early inhabitants

The Carpathian Basin, in which Hungary lies, has been populated for hundreds of thousands of years. Bone fragments found at Vértesszőlős, about 5km southeast of Tata, in the 1960s are believed to be half a million years old. These findings suggest that Palaeolithic and later Neanderthal humans were attracted to the area by the hot springs and the abundance of reindeer, bears and mammoths.

During the Neolithic period (3500-2500 BC), climatic changes forced much of the indigenous wildlife to migrate northward. As a result the domestication of animals and the first forms of agriculture appeared, simultaneously with the rest of Europe. Remnants of the Körös culture in the Szeged area of the southeast suggest that these goddess-worshipping people herded sheep, fished and hunted.

Indo-European tribes from the Balkans stormed the Carpathian Basin in horse-drawn carts in about 2000 BC, bringing with them copper tools and weapons. After the introduction of the more durable metal bronze, forts were built and a military elite began to develop.

Over the next millennium, invaders from the west (Illyrians, Thracians) and east (Scythians) brought iron, but it was not in common use until the Celts arrived at the start of the 4th century BC. They introduced glass and crafted some of the fine gold jewellery that can still be seen in museums throughout Hungary.

Some three decades before the start of the Christian era the Romans conquered the area west and south of the Danube River and established the province of Pannonia - later divided into Upper (Superior) and Lower (Inferior) Pannonia. Subsequent victories over the Celts extended Roman domination across the Tisza River as far as Dacia (today's Romania). The Romans brought writing, viticulture and stone architecture, and established garrison towns and other settlements, the remains of which can still be seen in Óbuda (Aquincum in Roman times), Szombathely (Savaria), Pécs (Sophianae) and Sopron (Scarabantia). They also built baths near the region's thermal waters and their soldiers introduced the new religion of Christianity.

^ Back to top

The great migrations

The first of the so-called Great Migrations of nomadic peoples from Asia reached the eastern outposts of the Roman Empire late in the 2nd century AD, and in 270 the Romans abandoned Dacia altogether. Within less than two centuries they were also forced to flee Pannonia by the Huns, whose short-lived empire was established by Attila; he had previously conquered the Magyars near the lower Volga River and for centuries these two groups were thought - erroneously - to share a common ancestry. Attila remains a very common given name for males in Hungary, however.

Germanic tribes such as the Goths, Gepids and Longobards occupied the region for the next century and a half until the Avars, a powerful Turkic people, gained control of the Carpathian Basin in the late 6th century. They in turn were subdued by Charlemagne in 796 and converted to Christianity. By that time, the Carpathian Basin was virtually unpopulated except for groups of Turkic and Germanic tribes on the plains and Slavs in the northern hills.

^ Back to top

The Magyars & the conquest of the Carpathian basin

The origin of the Magyars is a complex issue, not in the least helped by the similarity in English of the words 'Hun' and 'Hungary', which are not related. One thing is certain: Magyars are part of the Finno-Ugric group of peoples who inhabited the forests somewhere between the middle Volga River and the Ural Mountains in western Siberia as early as 4000 BC.

By about 2000 BC population growth had forced the Finnish-Estonian branch of the group to move westward, ultimately reaching the Baltic Sea. The Ugrians migrated from the southeastern slopes of the Urals into the valleys, and switched from hunting and fishing to primitive farming and raising livestock, especially horses. The Magyars' equestrian skills proved useful half a millennium later when climatic changes brought drought, forcing them to move north to the steppes.

On the plains, the Ugrians turned to nomadic herding. After 500 BC, by which time the use of iron had become commonplace, some of the tribes moved westward to the area of Bashkiria in central Asia. Here they lived among Persians and Bulgars and began referring to themselves as Magyars (from the Finno-Ugric words mon, 'to speak', and e, 'man').

Several centuries later another group split away and moved south to the Don River under the control of the Khazars, a Turkic people. Here they lived among various groups under a tribal alliance called onogur, or '10 peoples'. This is the derivation of the word 'Hungary' in English and 'Ungarn' in German. Their penultimate migration brought them to what modern Hungarians call the Etelköz, the region between the Dnieper and lower Danube Rivers just north of the Black Sea.

Small nomadic groups of Magyars probably reached the Carpathian Basin as early as the mid-9th century AD, acting as mercenaries for various armies. It is believed that while the men were away on a campaign in about 889, the Pechenegs, a fierce people from the Asiatic steppe, allied themselves with the Bulgars and attacked the Etelköz settlements. When they were attacked again in about 895, seven tribes under the leadership of Árpád - the gyula (chief military commander) - upped stakes. They crossed the Verecke Pass (in today's Ukraine) into the Carpathian Basin.

The Magyars met almost no resistance and the tribes dispersed in three directions: the Bulgars were quickly dispatched eastward; the Germans had already taken care of the Slavs in the west; and Transylvania was wide open. Known for their ability to ride and shoot, and no longer content with being hired guns, the Magyars began plundering and pillaging. Their raids took them as far as Spain, northern Germany and southern Italy, but in the early 10th century they began to suffer a string of defeats. In 955 they were stopped in their tracks for good by the German king Otto I at the Battle of Augsburg.

This and subsequent defeats - the Magyars' raids on Byzantium ended in 970 - left the tribes in disarray, and they had to choose between their more powerful neighbours - Byzantium to the south and east or the Holy Roman Empire to the west - to form an alliance. In 973 Prince Géza, the great-grandson of Árpád, asked the Holy Roman emperor Otto II to send Catholic missionaries to Hungary. Géza was baptised along with his son Vajk, who took the Christian name Stephen (István), after the first martyr. When Géza died, Stephen ruled as prince. Three years later, he was crowned 'Christian King' Stephen I, with a crown sent from Rome by Otto's erstwhile tutor, Pope Sylvester II. Hungary the kingdom - and the nation - was born.

^ Back to top

King Stephen i & the Árpád dynasty

Stephen set about consolidating royal authority by siezing the land of the independent-minded clan chieftains and establishing a system of megye (counties) protected by fortified vár (castles). The crown began minting coins and, shrewdly, Stephen transferred much land to his most loyal (mostly Germanic) knights. The king sought the support of the church throughout and, to hasten the conversion of the population, ordered that one in every 10 villages build a church. He also established 10 episcopates, two of which - Kalocsa and Esztergom - were made archbishoprics. Monasteries were set up around the country and staffed by foreign - notably Irish - scholars. By the time Stephen died in 1038 - he was canonised less than half a century after his death - Hungary was a nascent Christian nation, increasingly westward-looking and multiethnic.

Despite this apparent consolidation, the next two and a half centuries until 1301 - the reign of the House of Árpád - would test the kingdom to its limit. The period was marked by continuous struggles between rival pretenders to the throne, weakening the young nation's defences against its more powerful neighbours. There was a brief hiatus under King Ladislas I (László; r 1077-95), who ruled with an iron fist and fended off attacks from Byzantium; and also under his successor Koloman the Booklover (Könyves Kálmán; r 1095-1116), who encouraged literature, art and the writing of chronicles until his death in 1116.

Tensions flared again when the Byzantine emperor made a grab for Hungary's provinces in Dalmatia and Croatia, which it had acquired by the early 12th century. Béla III (r 1172-96) successfully resisted the invasion and had a permanent residence built at Esztergom, which was then the alternative royal seat to Székesfehérvár. Béla's son, Andrew II (András; r 1205-35), however, weakened the crown when, to help fund his crusades, he gave in to local barons' demands for more land. This led to the Golden Bull, a kind of Magna Carta signed at Székesfehérvár in 1222, which limited some of the king's powers in favour of the nobility.

When Béla IV (r 1235-70) tried to regain the estates, the barons were able to oppose him on equal terms. Fearing Mongol expansion and realising he could not count on the support of his subjects, Béla looked to the west and brought in German and Slovak settlers. He also gave asylum to Turkic Cuman (Kun) tribes displaced by the Mongols in the east. In 1241 the Mongols arrived in Hungary and swept through the country, burning it virtually to the ground and killing an estimated one-third to one-half of its two million people.

To rebuild the country as quickly as possible Béla, known as the 'second founding father', again encouraged immigration, inviting Germans to settle in Transdanubia, Saxons in Transylvania and Cumans on the Great Plain. He also built a string of defensive hilltop castles, including the ones at Buda and Visegrád. But in a bid to appease the lesser nobility, he handed them large tracts of land. This strengthened their position and demands for more independence even further; by the time of Béla's death in 1270, anarchy had descended upon Hungary. The rule of his reprobate son and heir Ladislas the Cuman (so-called because his mother was a Cuman princess) was equally unsettled. The Árpád line died out in 1301 with the death of Andrew III, who left no heir.

^ Back to top

Medieval Hungary

The struggle for the Hungarian throne following the death of Andrew III involved several European dynasties, but it was Charles Robert (Károly Róbert) of the French House of Anjou who, with the pope's blessing, finally won out in 1308 and ruled for the next three and a half decades. Charles Robert was an able administrator who managed to break the power of the provincial barons (though much of the land remained in private hands), sought diplomatic links with his neighbours and introduced a stable gold currency called the florin (or forint). In 1335 Charles Robert met the Polish and Bohemian kings at the new royal palace in Visegrád to discuss territorial disputes and to forge an alliance that would smash Vienna's control of trade.

Under Charles Robert's son, Louis I the Great (Nagy Lajos; r 1342-82), Hungary returned to a policy of conquest. A brilliant military strategist, Louis acquired territory in the Balkans as far as Dalmatia and Romania and as far north as Poland. He was crowned king of Poland in 1370, but his successes were short-lived; the menace of the Ottoman Turks had begun.

As Louis had no sons, one of his daughters, Mary (r 1382-87), succeeded him. This was deemed unacceptable by the barons, who rose up against the 'petticoat throne'. Within a short time Mary's husband, Sigismund (Zsigmond; r 1387-1437) of Luxembourg, was crowned king. Sigismund's 50-year reign brought peace at home, and there was a great flowering of Gothic art and architecture in Hungary. But while he managed to procure the coveted crown of Bohemia and was made Holy Roman emperor in 1433, he was unable to stop the Ottoman onslaught and was defeated by the Turks at Nicopolis (now Bulgaria) in 1396.

There was an alliance between Poland and Hungary in 1440 that gave Poland the Hungarian crown. When Vladislav I (Úlászló) of the Polish Jagiellon dynasty was killed fighting the Turks at Varna in 1444, János Hunyadi was declared regent. A Transylvanian general born of a Wallachian (Romanian) father, János Hunyadi began his career at the court of Sigismund. His 1456 decisive victory over the Turks at Belgrade (Hungarian: Nándorfehérvár) checked the Ottoman advance into Hungary for 70 years and assured the coronation of his son Matthias (Mátyás), the greatest ruler of medieval Hungary.

Wisely, Matthias (r 1458-90), nicknamed Corvinus (the Raven) from his coat of arms, maintained a mercenary force of 8000 to 10, 000 men by taxing the nobility, and this 'Black Army' conquered Moravia, Bohemia and even parts of lower Austria. Not only did Matthias Corvinus make Hungary one of central Europe's leading powers, but under his rule the nation enjoyed its first golden age. His second wife, the Neapolitan princess Beatrice, brought artisans from Italy who completely rebuilt and extended the Gothic palace at Visegrád; the beauty and sheer size of the Renaissance residence was beyond compare in the Europe of the time.

But while Matthias, a fair and just king, busied himself with centralising power for the crown, he ignored the growing Turkish threat. His successor Vladislav II (Úlászló; r 1490-1516) was unable to maintain even royal authority, as the members of the diet (assembly), which met to approve royal decrees, squandered royal funds and expropriated land. In May 1514, what had begun as a crusade organised by the power-hungry archbishop of Esztergom, Tamás Bakócz, turned into a peasant uprising against landlords under the leadership of one György Dózsa.

The revolt was brutally repressed by noble leader John Szapolyai (Zápolyai János). Some 70, 000 peasants were tortured and executed; Dózsa himself was fried alive on a red-hot iron throne. The retrograde Tripartitum Law that followed the crackdown codified the rights and privileges of the barons and nobles, and reduced the peasants to perpetual serfdom. By the time Louis II (Lajos) took the throne in 1516 at the tender age of nine, he couldn't count on either side.

^ Back to top

The battle of Mohács & Turkish occupation

The defeat of Louis' ragtag army by the Ottoman Turks at Mohács in 1526 is a watershed in Hungarian history. On the battlefield near this small town in Southern Transdanubia a relatively prosperous and independent medieval Hungary died, sending the nation into a tailspin of partition, foreign domination and despair that would be felt for centuries afterward.

It would be unfair to lay all the blame on the weak and indecisive teenage King Louis or on his commander-in-chief, Pál Tomori, the archbishop of Kalocsa. Bickering among the nobility and the brutal response to the peasant uprising a dozen years before had severely diminished Hungary's military might, and there was virtually nothing left in the royal coffers. By 1526 the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent occupied much of the Balkans, including Belgrade, and was poised to march on Buda and then Vienna with a force of 100, 000 men.

Unable - or, more likely, unwilling - to wait for reinforcements from Transylvania under the command of his rival John Szapolyai, Louis rushed south with a motley army of 26, 000 men to battle the Turks and was soundly thrashed in less than two hours. Along with bishops, nobles and an estimated 20, 000 soldiers, the king was killed - crushed by his horse while trying to retreat across a stream. John Szapolyai, who had sat out the battle in Tokaj, was crowned king six weeks later. Despite grovelling before the Turks, Szapolyai was never able to exploit the power he had sought so single-mindedly. In many ways greed, self-interest and ambition had led Hungary to defeat itself.

After Buda Castle fell to the Turks in 1541, Hungary was torn into three parts. The central section, including Buda, went to the Turks, while parts of Transdanubia and what is now Slovakia were governed by the Austrian House of Habsburg and assisted by the Hungarian nobility based at Bratislava. The principality of Transylvania, east of the Tisza River, prospered as a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, initially under Szapolyai's son John Sigismund (Zsigmond János; r 1559-71). Though heroic resistance continued against the Turks throughout Hungary, most notably at Kőszeg in 1532, Eger 20 years later and Szigetvár in 1566, this division would remain in place for more than a century and a half.

The Turkish occupation was marked by constant fighting among the three divisions; Catholic 'Royal Hungary' was pitted against both the Turks and the Protestant Transylvanian princes. Gábor Bethlen, who ruled Transylvania from 1613 to 1629, tried to end the warfare by conquering 'Royal Hungary' with a mercenary army of Heyduck peasants and some Turkish assistance in 1620. But both the Habsburgs and the Hungarians themselves viewed the 'infidel' Ottomans as the greatest threat to Europe since the Mongols and blocked the advance.

As Ottoman power began to wane in the 17th century, Hungarian resistance to the Habsburgs, who had used 'Royal Hungary' as a buffer zone between Vienna and the Turks, increased. A plot inspired by the palatine Ferenc Wesselényi was foiled in 1670 and a revolt (1682) by Imre Thököly and his army of kuruc (anti-Habsburg mercenaries) was quelled. But with the help of the Polish army, Austrian and Hungarian forces liberated Buda from the Turks in 1686. An imperial army under Eugene of Savoy wiped out the last Turkish army in Hungary at the Battle of Zenta (now Senta in Serbia) 11 years later. Peace was signed with the Turks at Karlowitz (now in Serbia) in 1699.

^ Back to top

Habsburg rule

The expulsion of the Turks did not result in a free and independent Hungary, and the policies of the Habsburgs' Counter-Reformation and heavy taxation further alienated the nobility. In 1703 the Transylvanian prince Ferenc Rákóczi II assembled an army of kuruc forces against the Austrians at Tiszahát in northeastern Hungary. The war dragged on for eight years and in 1706 the rebels 'dethroned' the Habsburgs as the rulers of Hungary. Superior imperial forces and lack of funds, however, forced the kuruc to negotiate a separate peace with Vienna behind Rákóczi's back. The 1703-11 war of independence had failed, but Rákóczi was the first leader to unite Hungarians against the Habsburgs.

The armistice may have brought the fighting to an end, but Hungary was now little more than a province of the Habsburg Empire. Five years after Maria Theresa ascended the throne in 1740, the Hungarian nobility pledged their 'lives and blood' to her at the diet in Bratislava in exchange for tax exemptions on their land. Thus began the period of 'enlightened absolutism' that would continue under the rule of Maria Theresa's son Joseph II (r 1780-90).

Under both Maria Theresa and Joseph, Hungary took great steps forward economically and culturally. Depopulated areas in the east and south were settled by Romanians and Serbs, while German Swabians were sent to Transdanubia. Joseph's attempts to modernise society by dissolving the all-powerful (and corrupt) religious orders, abolishing serfdom and replacing 'neutral' Latin with German as the official language of state administration were opposed by the Hungarian nobility, and he rescinded most (but not all) of these orders on his deathbed.

Dissenting voices could still be heard and the ideals of the French Revolution of 1789 began to take root in certain intellectual circles in Hungary. In 1795 Ignác Martonovics, a former Franciscan priest, and six other prorepublican Jacobites were beheaded at Vérmező (Blood Meadow) in Buda for plotting against the crown.

Liberalism and social reform found their greatest supporters among certain members of the aristocracy, however. Count György Festetics (1755-1819), for example, founded Europe's first agricultural college at Keszthely. Count István Széchenyi (1791-1860), a true Renaissance man and called 'the greatest Hungarian' by his contemporaries, advocated the abolition of serfdom and returned much of his own land to the peasantry.

The proponents of gradual reform were quickly superseded by a more radical faction who demanded more immediate action. The group included Miklós Wesselényi, Ferenc Deák and Ferenc Kölcsey, but the predominant figure was Lajos Kossuth (1802-94). It was this dynamic lawyer and journalist who would lead Hungary to its greatest-ever confrontation with the Habsburgs.

^ Back to top

The 1848-49 war of independence

Early in the 19th century the Habsburg Empire began to weaken as Hungarian nationalism increased. Suspicious of Napoleon's motives and polcies, the Hungarians ignored French appeals to revolt against Vienna and certain reforms were introduced: the replacement of Latin, the official language of administration, with Magyar; a law allowing serfs alternative means of discharging their feudal obligations of service; and increased Hungarian representation in the Council of State.

The reforms carried out were too limited and far too late, however, and the Diet became more defiant in its dealings with the crown. At the same time, the wave of revolution sweeping Europe spurred on the more radical faction. In 1848 the liberal Count Lajos Batthyány was made prime minister of the new Hungarian ministry, which counted Deák, Kossuth and Széchenyi among its members. The Habsburgs also reluctantly agreed to abolish serfdom and proclaim equality under the law. But on 15 March a group calling itself the Youth of March, led by the poet Sándor Petőfi, took to the streets to press for even more radical reforms and revolution. Habsburg patience was wearing thin.

In September 1848 the Habsburg forces, under the governor of Croatia, Josip Jelačić, launched an attack on Hungary, and Batthyány's government was dissolved. The Hungarians hastily formed a national defence commission and moved the government seat to Debrecen, where Kossuth was elected governor-president. In April 1849 the parliament declared Hungary's full independence and the Habsburgs were 'dethroned' for the second time.

The new Habsburg emperor, Franz Joseph (r 1848-1916), was not at all like his feeble-minded predecessor Ferdinand V (r 1835-48). He quickly took action, seeking the assistance of Russian tsar Nicholas I, who obliged with 200, 000 troops. Support for the revolution was waning rapidly, particularly in areas of mixed population where the Magyars were seen as oppressors. Weak and vastly outnumbered, the rebel troops were defeated by August 1849.

A series of brutal reprisals ensued. In October Batthyány and 13 of his generals - the so-called 'Martyrs of Arad' - were executed, and Kossuth went into exile in Turkey. (Petőfi died in battle in July of that year.) Habsburg troops then went around the country systematically blowing up castles and fortifications lest they be used by resurgent rebels.

^ Back to top

The dual monarchy

Hungary was again merged into the Habsburg Empire as a conquered province and 'neoabsolutism' was the order of the day. Passive local resistance and disastrous military defeats for the Habsburgs in 1859 and 1865, however, pushed Franz Joseph to the negotiating table with liberal Hungarians under Deák's leadership.

The result was the Act of Compromise of 1867 (German: Ausgleich), which created the Dual Monarchy of Austria (the empire) and Hungary (the kingdom) - a federated state with two parliaments and two capitals: Vienna and Pest (Budapest when Buda, Pest and Óbuda were merged in 1873). Only defence, foreign relations and customs were shared. Hungary was even allowed to raise a small army.

This 'Age of Dualism' would continue until 1918 and would spark an economic, cultural and intellectual rebirth in Hungary. Agriculture developed, factories were established, and the composers Franz Liszt and Ferenc Erkel wrote beautiful music. The middle class, dominated by Germans and Jews in Pest, burgeoned and the capital entered into a frenzy of building. Much of what you see in Budapest today - from the grand boulevards with their Eclectic-style apartment blocks to the Parliament building and Matthias Church in the Castle district - was built at this time. The apex of this golden age was the six-month exhibition in 1896 celebrating the millennium of the Magyar conquest of the Carpathian Basin, honfoglalás.

But all was not well in the kingdom. The city-based working class had almost no rights and the situation in the countryside remained as dire as it had been in the Middle Ages. Minorities under Hungarian control - Czechs, Slovaks, Croatians and Romanians - were under increased pressure to 'Magyarise', and many viewed their new rulers as oppressors. Increasingly they worked to dismember the empire.

^ Back to top

WWI, the Republic of Councils & Trianon

On 28 July 1914, a month to the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne, by a Bosnian Serb in Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and entered WWI 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 in 1918 the fate of the Dual Monarchy - and Hungary as a multinational kingdom - was sealed.

A republic under the leadership of Count Mihály Károlyi was declared five days after the armistice was signed, but the fledgling republic would not last long. Destitution, the occupation of Hungary by the Allies and the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had radicalised much of the working class in Budapest. In March 1919 a group of Hungarian communists under a former Transylvanian journalist called Béla Kun seized power. The so-called Tanácsköztársaság, or Republic of Councils, set out to nationalise industry and private property and build a fairer society, but mass opposition to the regime led to a brutal reign of 'red terror'. Kun and his comrades, including Minister of Culture Béla Lugosi of Dracula fame, were overthrown in just five months by Romanian troops, who occupied the capital.

In June 1920 the Allies drew up a postwar settlement under the Treaty of Trianon that enlarged some countries, truncated others and created several new 'successor states'. As one of the defeated nations with large numbers of minorities demanding independence within its borders, Hungary stood to lose more than most - and it did. The nation was reduced to about 40% of its historical size and, while it was now largely a homogeneous nation-state, for millions of ethnic Hungarians in Romania, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, the tables had turned: they were now in the minority.

'Trianon' became the singularly most hated word in Hungary, and the diktátum is still reviled today as if it were imposed on the nation just yesterday. Many of the problems it created remained for decades and it has coloured Hungary's relations with its neighbours for more than 40 years.

^ Back to top

The Horthy years & WWII

In March 1920, in Hungary's first-ever election by secret ballot, parliament chose a kingdom as the form of state and - lacking a king - elected as its regent Admiral Miklós Horthy, who would remain in the position until the latter days of WWII. Horthy embarked on a 'white terror' - every bit as fierce as the red one of Béla Kun - that attacked communists and Jews for their roles in supporting the Republic of Councils. As the regime was consolidated it showed itself to be extremely rightist and conservative. Though the country had the remnants of a parliamentary system, Horthy was all-powerful and very few reforms were enacted. On the contrary, the lot of the working class and the peasantry worsened.

One thing on which everyone agreed was that the return of the 'lost' territories was essential for Hungary's development and 'Nem, Nem, Soha!' (No, No, Never!) became the rallying cry. Early on Prime Minister István Bethlen was able to secure the return of Pécs, illegally occupied by Yugoslavia, and the citizens of Sopron voted in a plebiscite to return to Hungary from Austria, but that was not enough. Hungary obviously could not count on France, Britain and the USA to help recoup its land; instead, it sought help from the fascist governments of Germany and Italy.

Hungary's move to the right intensified throughout the 1930s, though it remained silent when WWII broke out in September 1939. Horthy hoped an alliance would not actually mean having to enter the war, but after recovering northern Transylvania and part of Croatia with Ger-many's help, he was forced to join the German and Italian-led Axis in June 1941. The war was as disastrous for Hungary as WWI had been, and hundreds of thousands of Hungarian troops died while retreating from Stalingrad, where they'd been used as cannon fodder. Realising too late that his country was on the losing side again, Horthy began negotiating a separate peace with the Allies.

When Germany caught wind of this in March 1944 it sent in its army, which occupied all of Hungary. Under pressure, Horthy installed Ferenc Szálasi, the deranged leader of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party, as prime minister in October before being deported to Germany. (Horthy would later find exile in Portugal, where he died in 1957. Despite some public outcry, his body was taken to Hungary in September 1993 and buried in the family plot at Kenderes, east of Szolnok.)

The Arrow Cross Party moved quickly to quash any opposition, and thousands of liberal politicians and labour leaders were arrested. At the same time, its puppet government introduced anti-Jewish legislation similar to that in Germany and Jews, relatively safe under Horthy, were rounded up into ghettos by Hungarian Nazis. In May 1944, less than a year before the war ended, some 430, 000 Jewish men, women and children were deported to Auschwitz and other labour camps in just over eight weeks, where they starved to death, succumbed to disease or were brutally murdered by the German fascists and their henchmen.

Hungary now became an international battleground for the first time since the Turkish occupation, and bombs began falling on Budapest. The resistance movement drew support from many sides, including the communists. Fierce fighting continued in the countryside, especially near Debrecen and Székesfehérvár, but by Christmas 1944 the Soviet army had encircled Budapest. When the Germans and Hungarian Nazis rejected a settlement, the siege of the capital began. By the time the German war machine had surrendered in April 1945, many of Budapest's homes, historic buildings and churches had been destroyed.

^ Back to top

The People's Republic of Hungary

When free parliamentary elections were held in November 1945, the Independent Smallholders' Party (FKgP) received 57% (245 seats) of the vote. In response, Soviet political officers, backed by the occupying Soviet army, forced three other parties - the Communists, Social Democrats and National Peasants - into a coalition. Limited democracy prevailed, and land-reform laws, sponsored by the communist Minister of Agriculture Imre Nagy, were enacted, doing away with the prewar feudal structure.

Within a couple of years, the Communists were ready to take complete control. After a rigged election (1947) held under a complicated new electoral law, they declared their candidate, Mátyás Rákosi, victorious. The following year the Social Democrats merged with the communists to form the Hungarian Workers' Party.

Rákosi, a big fan of Stalin, began a process of nationalisation and unfeasibly rapid industrialisation at the expense of agriculture. Peasants were forced into collective farms and all produce had to be delivered to state warehouses. A network of spies and informers exposed 'class enemies' (such as Cardinal József Mindszenty) to the secret police called the ÁVO (ÁVH after 1949). The accused were then jailed for spying, sent into internal exile or condemned to labour camps, like the notorious one at Recsk in the Mátra Hills.

Bitter feuding within the party began, and purges and Stalinist show trials became the norm. László Rajk, the communist minister of the interior (which also controlled the secret police), was arrested and later executed for 'Titoism'; his successor János Kádár was tortured and jailed. In August 1949, the nation was proclaimed the 'People's Republic of Hungary'.

After the death of Stalin in March 1953 and Krushchev's denunciation of him three years later, Rákosi's tenure was up and the terror began to abate. Under pressure from within the party, Rákosi's successor Ernő Gerő rehabilitated Rajk posthumously and readmitted Nagy, who had been expelled from the party a year earlier for suggesting reforms. But Gerő was ultimately as much a hardliner as Rákosi and, by October 1956 during Rajk's reburial, whisperings for a genuine reform of the system - 'socialism with a human face' - could already be heard.

^ Back to top

The 1956 uprising

The nation's greatest tragedy - an event that rocked communism, pitted Hungarian against Hungarian and shook the world - began on 23 October, when some 50, 000 university students assembled at Bem tér in Buda shouting anti-Soviet slogans and demanding that Nagy be named prime minister. That night a crowd pulled down the colossal statue of Stalin near Heroes' Square, and shots were fired by ÁVH agents on another group gathering outside the headquarters of Hungarian Radio in Pest. Overnight, Hungary was in revolution.

The next day Nagy, the reform-minded minister of agriculture, formed a government while János Kádár was named president of the Central Committee of the Hungarian Workers' Party. At first it appeared that Nagy might be successful in transforming Hungary into a neutral, multiparty state. On 28 October the government offered amnesty to all those involved in the violence and promised to abolish the ÁVH. On 31 October hundreds of political prisoners were released and widespread reprisals began against ÁVH agents. The next day Nagy announced that Hungary would leave the Warsaw Pact and proclaimed its neutrality.

At this, Soviet tanks and troops crossed into Hungary and within 72 hours began attacking Budapest and other centres. Kádár, who had slipped away from Budapest to join the Russian invaders, was installed as leader.

Fierce street fighting continued for several days - encouraged by Radio Free Europe broadcasts and disingenuous promises of support from the West, which was embroiled in the Suez Canal crisis at the time. When the fighting was over, 25, 000 people were dead. Then the reprisals - the worst in Hungarian history and lasting several years - began. About 20, 000 people were arrested and 2000 - including Nagy and his associates - were executed. Another 250, 000 refugees fled to Austria.

^ Back to top

Hungary under Kádár

After the revolt, the ruling party was reorganised as the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party, and Kádár, now both party president and premier, launched a programme to liberalise the social and economic structure, basing his reforms on compromise. (His most quoted line was: 'Whoever is not against us is with us' - a reversal of the Stalinist adage: 'Those not with us are against us'.) In 1968, he and the economist Rezső Nyers unveiled the New Economic Mechanism (NEM) to introduce elements of a market to the planned economy. But even this proved too daring for many party conservatives. Nyers was ousted and the NEM was all but abandoned.

Kádár managed to survive that power struggle and went on to introduce greater consumerism and market socialism. By the mid-1970s Hungary was light years ahead of any other Soviet bloc country in its standard of living, freedom of movement and opportunities to criticise the government. People may have had to wait seven years for a Lada car or 12 years for a telephone, but most Hungarians could at least enjoy access to a second house in the countryside through work or other affiliation and a decent standard of living. The 'Hungarian model' attracted much Western attention - and investment.

But things began to sour in the 1980s. The Kádár system of 'goulash socialism', which seemed so 'timeless and everlasting' (as one Hungarian writer put it) was incapable of dealing with such 'unsocialist' problems as unemployment, soaring inflation and the largest per-capita foreign debt in Eastern Europe. Kádár and the 'old guard' refused to hear talk about party reforms. In June 1987 Károly Grósz took over as premier and less than a year later Kádár was booted out of the party and forced to retire.

^ Back to top

Renewal & change

A group of reformers - among them Nyers, Imre Pozsgay, Miklós Németh and Gyula Horn - took charge. Party conservatives at first put a lid on real change by demanding a retreat from political liberalisation in exchange for their support of the new regime's economic policies. But the tide had already turned.

Throughout the summer and autumn of 1988 new political parties were formed and old ones revived. In January 1989 Pozsgay, seeing the handwriting on the wall as Mikhail Gorbachev launched his reforms in the Soviet Union, announced that the events of 1956 had been a 'popular insurrection' and not the 'counter-revolution' that the regime had always called it. Four months later some 250, 000 people attended the reburial of Imre Nagy and other victims of 1956 in Budapest.

In July 1989, again at Pozsgay's instigation, Hungary began to demolish the electrified wire fence separating it from Austria. The move released a wave of East Germans holidaying in Hungary into the West and the opening attracted thousands more. The collapse of the communist regimes around the region had become unstoppable.

^ Back to top

The Republic of Hungary again

At their party congress in February 1989 the Communists had agreed to give up their monopoly on power, paving the way for free elections in March or April 1990. On 23 October 1989, the 33rd anniversary of the 1956 Uprising, the nation once again became the Republic of Hungary. The party's name was changed from the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party to the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP).

The MSZP's new programme advocated social democracy and a free-market economy, but this was not enough to shake off the stigma of its four decades of autocratic rule. The 1990 vote was won by the centrist Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), which advocated a gradual transition to capitalism. The social-democratic Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), which had called for much faster change, came second and the Socialists trailed far behind. As Gorbachev looked on, Hungary changed political systems with scarcely a murmur and the last Soviet troops left Hungarian soil in June 1991.

In coalition with two smaller parties - the Independent Smallholders and the Christian Democrats (KDNP) - the MDF provided Hungary with sound government during its painful transition to a full market economy. Those years saw Hungary's northern (Czechoslovakia) and southern (Yugoslavia) neighbours split along ethnic lines. Prime Minister József Antall did little to improve Hungary's relations with Slovakia, Romania or Yugoslavia by claiming to be the 'emotional and spiritual' prime minister of the large Magyar minorities in those countries. Antall died in December 1993 after a long fight with cancer and was replaced by interior minister Péter Boross.

Despite initial successes in curbing inflation and lowering interest rates, a host of economic problems slowed the pace of development, and the government's laissez-faire policies did not help. Like most people in the region, Hungarians had unrealistically expected a much faster improvement in their living standards. Most of them - 76% according to a poll in mid-1993 - were 'very disappointed'.

In the May 1994 elections the Socialist Party, led by Gyula Horn, won an absolute majority in parliament. This in no way implied a return to the past, and Horn was quick to point out that it was in fact his party that had initiated the whole reform process in the first place. Árpád Göncz of the SZDSZ was elected for a second five-year term as president in 1995.

^ Back to top

The road to Europe

After its dire showing in the 1994 elections, the Federation of Young Democrats (Fidesz) - which until 1993 limited membership to those aged under 35 in order to emphasise a past untainted by communism, privilege and corruption - moved to the right and added 'MPP' (Hungarian Civic Party) to its name to attract the support of the burgeoning middle class. In the elections of 1998, during which it campaigned for closer integration with Europe, Fidesz-MPP won by forming a coalition with the MDF and the agrarian conservative Independent Smallholders' Party. The party's youthful leader, Viktor Orbán, was named prime minister.

Despite the astonishing economic growth and other gains made by the coalition government, the electorate grew increasingly hostile to Fidesz-MPP's - and Orbán's - strongly nationalistic rhetoric and perceived arrogance. In April 2002 the largest turnout of voters in Hungarian history unseated the government in the country's most closely fought election ever and returned the MSZP, allied with the SZDSZ, to power under Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy, a free-market advocate who had served as finance minister in the Horn government. In August 2004, amid revelations that he had served as a counterintelligence officer in the late 1970s and early 1980s while working in the finance ministry and with the government's popularity at a three-year low, Medgyessy tendered his resignation - the first collapse of a government in Hungary's postcommunist history. Sports Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány of the MSZP was named in his place.

Hungary became a fully fledged member of NATO in 1999 and, with nine so-called accession countries, was admitted into the EU in May 2004. In June 2005 parliament elected László Sólyom, a law professor and founding member of the MDF, as the third president of the republic to succeed the outgoing Ferenc Mádl.

^ Back to top

Home At Last

Hungary became a fully fledged member of NATO in 1999 and, with nine so-called accession countries, was admitted into the EU in May 2004. In June 2005 parliament elected László Sólyom, a law professor and founding member of the MDF, as the third president of the republic to succeed the outgoing Ferenc Mádl.

Gyurcsány was reappointed prime minister in April 2006 after the electorate gave his coalition 210 of the available 386 parliamentary seats. He immediately began a series of austerity measures to tackle Hungary’s budget deficit, which had reached a staggering 10% of the GDP. But in September in an incident that could have been scripted by the courtiers of Louis XIV’s Versailles, just as these unpopular steps were put into place an audiotape recorded shortly after the election at a closed-door meeting of the prime minister’s cabinet had Gyurcsány confessing that the party had ‘lied morning, evening and night’ about the state of the economy since coming to power and now had to make amends. Gyurcsány refused to resign, and public outrage led to a series of demonstrations near the Parliament building in Budapest, culminating in widespread rioting that marred the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Uprising.

Since then sometimes violent demonstrations have become a regular feature on the streets of Budapest and other large cities, especially during national holidays. The radical right-wing nationalist party Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom (Movement for a Better Hungary), and its uniformed militia arm, Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard), have been at the centre of many of these demonstrations and riots. Many Hungarian people are deeply concerned with the rise in the activities (and some say popularity) of the extreme right.

Gyurcsány, who has been able to survive near death blows in his political career, had his head on the block again in March 2008 when the opposition forced through a referendum on the government’s health-care reform program. The referendum was soundly defeated, and the SZDSZ quit the coalition leaving Gyurcsány to head a feeble minority government until general elections scheduled for 2010.

Hungary, once the success story of Eastern Europe, is still reeling from the fallout of worldwide economic collapse. Overborrowed and overspent, the country had been especially hard hit and, with such unlikely fellow travellers as Iceland, Belarus and Pakistan, had just a week before Republic Day approached the International Monetary Fund for economic assistance. It felt like a century – not less than two decades – had passed since the heady moments of 23 October 1989 when the republic of Hungary had re-emerged phoenix-like from the ashes of communism. ‘Many people think that Hungary was,’ wrote István Széchenyi, in his seminal work Hitel (Credit) in 1830. ‘I like to believe that she will be!’ Truer words, dear count…

^ Back to top