Hungary in detail


Hungary's impact on Europe's history has been far greater than its present size and population would suggest. Hungarians – who call themselves the Magyar – speak a language and form a culture unlike any other in the region, which has been both a source of pride and an obstacle for more than 1100 years. Yet, despite endless occupations and wars, the Hungarians have retained their own identity without shutting themselves off from the world.

Early Inhabitants

The Carpathian Basin, in which Hungary lies, has been populated for at least half a million years. Bone fragments found at Vértesszőlős, about 5km southeast of Tata in western Hungary, in the 1960s are believed to be that old. Stone Age pottery shards and bone-tipped arrowheads have been found at Istállóskő Cave near Szilvásvárad in northern Hungary.

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, horses were domesticated, forts were built and a military elite was developed.

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 (eg the Ferenc Móra Museum in Szeged).

The Roman Conquest

The Romans conquered the area west and south of the Danube River in about 35 BC; two dozen years later they were in the Danube Bend. By AD 10 they had established the province of Pannonia, which would later be divided into Upper (Superior) and Lower (Inferior) Pannonia. The Romans introduced 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 (Scarbantia).

The Great Migrations

The first of the so-called Great Migrations of nomadic peoples from Asia reached the eastern outposts of the Roman Empire early in the 3rd century AD. Within two centuries, however, they were forced to pull out of Pannonia by the Huns, whose short-lived empire had been established by Attila.

Other Germanic tribes 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 the Frankish king 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.

The Magyars

The origin of the Magyars is a complex issue, not 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 and began migrating 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 fishing, hunting and gathering 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 widespread among the tribes, some of the groups 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 er, ‘man’).

After several centuries another group split away and moved south to the Don River under the control of the Turkic Khazars. Here they lived among different groups under a tribal alliance called onogur (or ‘10 peoples’), thought to be the derivation of the word ‘Hungary’. The Magyars' last migration before the so-called conquest (honfoglalás) of the Carpathian Basin brought them to what modern Hungarians call the Etelköz, the region between the Dnieper and lower Danube Rivers above the Black Sea.

The Conquest of the Carpathian Basin

In about 895 and under attack, seven tribes under the leadership of Árpád, the chief military commander (gyula), struck out for the Carpathian Basin. They crossed the Verecke Pass in today’s Ukraine three years later.

Known for their ability to ride and shoot, the Magyars began plundering and pillaging on their own, taking slaves and amassing booty. Their raids took them as far as Spain, northern Germany and southern Italy, but in 955 they were stopped in their tracks by German king Otto I at the battle of Augsburg.

This and subsequent defeats forced them to form an alliance with the Holy Roman Empire. In 973 Prince Géza, the great-grandson of Árpád, asked Emperor Otto II to send Catholic missionaries to Hungary. Géza was baptised in his capital, Esztergom, as was his son Vajk, who took the Christian name Stephen (István). When Géza died Stephen ruled as prince but on Christmas Day in the year 1000 he was crowned ‘Christian King’ Stephen I.

King Stephen I

Stephen set about consolidating royal authority by expropriating the land of the independent-minded clan chieftains and establishing a system of counties (megyék) protected by fortified castles (várak). Stephen shrewdly transferred much land to loyal (mostly German) knights. He also sought the support of the church and established 10 episcopates, two of which – Kalocsa and Esztergom – were made archbishoprics. When Stephen died in 1038, Hungary was a nascent Christian nation, increasingly westward-looking and multi-ethnic.

The House of Árpád

The next two and a half centuries – the extent of the Árpád Dynasty – were marked by dynastic intrigues and relentless struggles between rival pretenders to the throne, which weakened the young nation’s defences against its powerful neighbours. In the mid-13th century the Mongols swept through Hungary, burning it virtually to the ground and killing an estimated one-third to one-half of its two million people. The Árpád line died out at the start of the next century with the death in 1301 of Andrew III, who left no heir.

Medieval Hungary

The struggle for the Hungarian throne after the fall of the House of Árpád involved several European dynasties, with the crown first going to Charles Robert (Károly Róbert) of the French House of Anjou in 1307.

In the following century an alliance between Hungary and Poland gave the latter – with the pope's blessing – the Hungarian crown. When Vladislav I (Úlászló), son of the Polish Jagiellonian king, was killed fighting the Turks at Varna in 1444, János Hunyadi, a Transylvanian general, was made regent. His decisive victory over the Turks at Belgrade (Nándorfehérvár in Hungarian) in 1456 had checked the Ottoman advance into Hungary for 70 years and assured the coronation of his son Matthias (Mátyás), the greatest ruler of medieval Hungary.

Through his military exploits Matthias (r 1458–90), nicknamed ‘the Raven’ (Corvinus) from his coat of arms, made Hungary one of Central Europe’s leading powers. Under his rule the nation enjoyed its first golden age. His second wife, the Neapolitan princess Beatrix, brought artisans up from Italy and extended the royal palace at Visegrád.

But while Matthias busied himself with centralising power for the crown and being a good king, he ignored the growing Turkish threat. Under his successor, Vladislav II (Úlászló; r 1490–1516), what had begun as a crusade in 1514 turned into a peasant uprising against landlords under György Dózsa.

The revolt was brutally repressed by Transylvanian leader John Szapolyai (Zápolyai János), and 70,000 peasants, and Dózsa himself, were tortured and executed. The retrograde Tripartitum Law that followed codified the rights and privileges of the barons and nobles and reduced the peasants to perpetual serfdom.

The Battle of Mohács

The defeat of the ragtag Hungarian army by the Ottoman Turks at Mohács in 1526 is a watershed in Hungarian history. On the battlefield south of the 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 last for centuries.

It would be unfair to put all the blame on the weak and indecisive teenage King Louis II (Lajos). Bickering among the nobility and the brutal response to the peasant uprising had severely diminished Hungary’s military power, and there was virtually nothing left in the royal coffers. By 1526 Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (r 1520–66) had occupied much of the Balkans and was poised to march on Buda.

Unwilling to wait for reinforcements from Transylvania under his rival John Szapolyai, Louis rushed south with a motley army of just over 25,000 and was soundly thrashed in less than two hours. Among the estimated 18,000 dead was the king himself, who drowned while trying to retreat across a marsh.

Turkish Occupation

After the Turks returned and occupied Buda Castle in 1541, Hungary was divided into three parts. The central section, including Buda, went to the Turks, while parts of Transdanubia in the west and what is now Slovakia were governed by the Austrian House of Habsburg and assisted by the Hungarian nobility based at Bratislava (Hungarian: Pozsony). The principality of Transylvania prospered as a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire. This arrangement would remain in place for more than a century and a half.

Ottoman power began to wane in the 17th century, especially after the Turkish attempt to take Vienna was soundly defeated. Buda was liberated from the Turks in 1686 after a 77-day siege, and 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.

The Habsburgs

The expulsion of the Turks did not result in independence, and the policies of the Catholic 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 rebels ‘dethroned’ the Habsburgs as the rulers of Hungary in 1706 but were defeated five years later.

Hungary was now a mere province of the Habsburg Empire. Under Maria Theresa (r 1740–80) and her son, Joseph II (r 1780–90), Hungary took great steps forward economically and culturally. But Joseph’s attempts to modernise society by dissolving the all-powerful (and corrupt) monastic 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 many orders on his deathbed.

Liberalism and social reform found their greatest supporters among certain members of the aristocracy, including Count György Festetics (1755–1819), who founded Europe’s first agricultural college at Keszthely on Lake Balaton, and Count István Széchenyi (1791–1860), a true Renaissance man, who advocated the abolition of serfdom and returned much of his own land to the peasantry. But the radicals, dominated by the dynamic lawyer and journalist Lajos Kossuth (1802–94), demanded more immediate action.

The 1848–49 War of Independence

The Habsburg Empire began to weaken as Hungarian nationalism strengthened early in the 19th century and certain reforms were introduced, including a law allowing serfs alternative means of discharging their feudal service obligations and increased Hungarian representation in the Council of State in Vienna.

The reforms were too limited and too late. On 15 March 1848 a group calling itself the Youth of March, led by the poet Sándor Petőfi, took to the streets of Pest with hastily printed copies of the Twelve Points to press for more radical reforms and even revolution. Habsburg patience began to wear thin.

In September 1848 Habsburg forces launched an attack. 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 ‘dethroned’ the Habsburgs again.

The new Habsburg emperor, Franz Joseph (r 1848–1916), took action immediately. He sought the assistance of Tsar Nicholas I, who obliged with 200,000 troops. Weak and vastly outnumbered, the rebel troops were defeated by August 1849. Martial law was declared and a series of brutal reprisals ensued. Kossuth went into exile. Habsburg troops then went around the country systematically blowing up castles and fortifications lest they be used by resurgent rebels.

The Dual Monarchy

Hungary was again merged into the Habsburg Empire as a conquered province. But disastrous military defeats by the French and then the Prussians in 1859 and 1866 pushed Franz Joseph to the negotiating table with liberal Hungarians under the leadership of reformer Ferenc Deák.

The result was the Act of Compromise of 1867, which created the Dual Monarchy of Austria (the empire) and Hungary (the kingdom) – a federated state with two parliaments and two capitals: Vienna and Budapest. This ‘Age of Dualism’, which would carry on until 1918, sparked an economic, cultural and intellectual renaissance in Hungary, culminating with a six-month exhibition in 1896 celebrating the millennium of the Magyars' arrival in the Carpathian Basin.

But all was not well in the kingdom. The working class had virtually no rights and the situation in the countryside remained almost medieval. Despite an 1868 law protecting their rights, minorities under Hungarian control – Czechs, Slovaks, Croatians and Romanians – were under increased pressure to ‘Magyarise’. Many viewed their new rulers as oppressors.

WWI & the Republic of Councils

On 28 July 1914, a month to the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, 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. After the armistice in 1918 the fate of the Dual Monarchy – and Hungary as a multinational kingdom – was sealed with the Treaty of Trianon.

A republic under the leadership of Count Mihály Károlyi was established but the fledgling republic would not last long. Rampant inflation, mass unemployment, the occupation of Hungary by the Allies, dismemberment of ‘Greater Hungary’ and the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia all combined to radicalise much of the Budapest working class.

In March 1919 a group of Hungarian communists under a former Transylvanian journalist named Béla Kun seized power. The so-called Republic of Councils (Tanácsköztársaság) set out to nationalise industry and private property, but Kun’s failure to regain the ‘lost territories’ brought mass opposition to the regime and the government unleashed a reign of ‘red terror’ around the country. In August Romanian troops occupied the capital, and Kun fled to Vienna.

The Horthy Years & WWII

In March 1920 parliament chose a kingdom as the form of state and – lacking a king – elected as its regent Admiral Miklós Horthy. He embarked on a ‘white terror’ – every bit as brutal as Béla Kun's red one – that attacked social democrats, communists and Jews for their roles in supporting the Republic of Councils. Though the country had the remnants of a parliamentary system, Horthy was all-powerful, and very few reforms were enacted.

Everyone agreed that the return of the 'lost territories' was essential for Hungary’s development. Hungary obviously could not count on the victorious Allies 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 mean actually having to enter the war, but Hungary joined the German- and Italian-led Axis, declaring war on the Soviet Union in June 1941. The war was as disastrous for Hungary as WWI had been, and Horthy began secret discussions with the Allies.

When Hitler caught wind of this in March 1944 he dispatched the German army. Ferenc Szálasi, the deranged leader of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party, was installed as prime minister and Horthy was deported to Germany.

The Arrow Cross Party arrested thousands of liberal politicians and labour leaders. The puppet government introduced anti-Jewish legislation similar to that in place in Germany, and Jews, who lived in fear but carried on under Horthy, were rounded up into ghettos. From May to July of 1944, less than a year before the war ended, some 450,000 men, women and children – 60% of Hungarian Jewry – were deported to Auschwitz and other labour camps, where they starved to death, succumbed to disease or were brutally murdered.

Hungary now became an international battleground for the first time since the Turkish occupation, and bombs began falling on Budapest. Fierce fighting continued in the countryside, especially near Debrecen and Székesfehérvár, but by Christmas Day 1944 the Soviet army had encircled Budapest. By the time Germany had surrendered in April 1945, many of Budapest’s homes, historical buildings and churches had been destroyed. The vindictive retreating Germans blew up Buda Castle and knocked out every bridge spanning the Danube.

The People’s Republic of Hungary

When free parliamentary elections were held in November 1945, the Independent Smallholders’ Party received 57% of the vote. But Soviet political officers, backed by the occupying army, forced three other parties – the Communists, Social Democrats and National Peasants – into a coalition. Two years later in a disputed election held under a complicated new electoral law, the Communists declared their candidate, the oafish 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, the ÁVO (ÁVH after 1949). Up to a quarter of the adult population faced police or judicial proceedings. Stalinist show trials became the norm and in August 1949 the nation was proclaimed the ‘People’s Republic of Hungary’.

After Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, Rákosi’s tenure was up and the terror began to abate. Executed apparatchiks were rehabilitated, and such people as the former Minister of Agriculture Imre Nagy, who had been expelled from the party for suggesting reforms, were readmitted. By October of that year murmured calls for a real reform of the system – ‘socialism with a human face’ – could be heard.

The 1956 Uprising

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

The following day Nagy formed a government, while János Kádár was named president of the Central Committee of the Hungarian Workers’ Party. Over the next few days the government offered amnesty to all those involved in the violence, promised to abolish the ÁVH and announced that Hungary would leave the Warsaw Pact and declare itself neutral.

At this, Soviet tanks and troops crossed into Hungary and within 72 hours began attacking Budapest and other urban centres. Kádár had slipped away from Budapest to join the Russian invaders; he was now 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 began. About 20,000 people were arrested and 2000 – including Nagy and his associates – were executed. Another 250,000 refugees fled to Austria.

Hungary Under Kádár

After the revolt, the ruling party was reorganised as the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, and Kádár began a program to liberalise the social and economic structure based on compromise. He introduced market socialism and encouraged greater consumerism. 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. It was 'the happiest barrack in the camp', wags said, and the so-called Hungarian model attracted much Western investment.

But the Kádár system of 'goulash socialism' was incapable of dealing with such 'unsocialist' problems in the 1980s as unemployment, soaring inflation and the largest per-capita foreign debt in the region. Kádár and the 'old guard' refused to hear talk about party reforms. In June 1987 Károly Grósz took over as premier and Kádár retired.

Renewal & Change

Throughout the summer and autumn of 1988, new political parties were formed and old ones resurrected. In January 1989 Hungary, 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 a ‘counter-revolution’. In June some 250,000 people attended the reburial of Imre Nagy and other victims of 1956 in Budapest.

The next month Hungary began to disassemble 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.

The Republic of Hungary Reborn

The communists had no choice but to agree to surrender their monopoly on power, paving the way for free elections the following March. On 23 October 1989, the 33rd anniversary of the 1956 Uprising, the nation once again became the Republic of Hungary.

The 1990 vote was won by the centrist Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), which advocated a gradual transition to full capitalism. The social-democratic Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), which had called for much faster change, came second and the former communists (now socialists) trailed far behind. Hungary had changed political systems almost in silence.

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 free-market economy. Those years saw Hungary’s neighbours to the north (Czechoslovakia) and south (Yugoslavia) split along ethnic lines, and Prime Minister József Antall did little to improve Hungary’s relations with Slovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia by claiming to be the ‘emotional and spiritual’ prime minister of the large Magyar minorities in those countries. He died in December 1993 after a long fight with cancer and was replaced by interior minister Péter Boross.

In the May 1994 elections the Socialist Party, led by Gyula Horn, surprisingly won an absolute majority in parliament. Árpád Göncz of the SZDSZ was elected for a second five-year term as president in 1995.

The Road to Europe

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

The electorate grew increasingly hostile to Fidesz-MPP’s strongly nationalistic rhetoric and unseated the government in April 2002, returning 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 once served as a counterintelligence officer, Medgyessy resigned and Sports Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány of the MSZP was named premier.

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.

At Home at Last

Reappointed prime minister in April 2006 after the electorate gave his coalition 55% of the vote, Gyurcsány began a series of austerity measures to tackle Hungary’s budget deficit, which had reached a staggering 10% of GDP. But in September, 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, noon 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.

After that violent demonstrations became a not-infrequent 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) has been at the centre of many of these demonstrations and riots.

Gyurcsány led a feeble minority government until general elections in 2010 when Fidesz-MPP won a majority of 52% in the first round of voting and joined forces with the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) to rule with a two-thirds majority in parliament

Hungary’s most recent appearance on the world stage came in 2011 when it assumed presidency of the EU Council. A new constitution came into effect at the start of 2012.

In the April 2014 national elections, the first since constitutional changes reduced voting to a single poll and the number of MPs from 386 to 199, Fidesz took almost 45% of the vote and 133 seats, returning Orbán to the premiership.

Orbán was clearly in charge once again but 'Viktátor', as the opposition press nicknamed him, was frequently criticised for strong-armed tactics and abuse of power. At the time of research Orbán was still at the helm but his ship did not appear to be on course.