Strictly speaking, the story of 'Budapest' only begins in 1873, when hilly, residential Buda and historic Óbuda on the western bank of the Danube River merged with flat, industrial Pest on the eastern side to form what at first was called Pest-Buda. But, like everything here, it’s not that simple: a lot more took place here before the late 19th century.
The Carpathian Basin, in which Hungary lies, has been populated for at least half a million years. But the first permanent settlement in this area – on the Buda side near the Danube – dates from between 4600 and 3900 BC. Remains from that culture include bone utensils, fishing nets and even a primitive loom.
In about 2000 BC fierce Indo-European tribes from the Balkan Peninsula reached as far as the Carpathian Basin in horse-drawn carts, bringing bows and arrows and copper and bronze tools. Over the next millennium, invaders from the west (Illyrians and Thracians) and the east (Scythians) brought iron, but that metal was not in common use until the Celts arrived in the early 3rd century BC.
The Roman Conquest
In about 35 BC Romans conquered the area of today's Budapest that lies west and south of the Danube. By AD 10 they had established Pannonia province, which was later divided into Upper (Superior) and Lower (Inferior). The Romans brought writing, viticulture, stone architecture and Christianity. At the end of the 1st century AD the Romans established Aquincum, a key military garrison and trading settlement along the Danube in today’s Óbuda that would become the administrative seat of Pannonia Inferior in AD 106. A fortress, whose remains are still visible, was built at Contra Aquincum in what is now V Március 15 tér in Pest.
The Great Migrations
The first of the so-called Great Migrations of nomadic peoples from Asia reached the eastern outposts of the Roman Empire in Dacia (now Romania) early in the 3rd century AD. Within two centuries the Romans were forced by the Huns, whose short-lived empire was established by Attila, to flee Aquincum.
After the death of Attila in 453, 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 and established their main base at the northern end of Csepel Island. They in turn were subdued by Charlemagne in the early 8th century, and the area around Budapest and the Danube Bend was incorporated into the Frankish empire.
The Magyars & the Conquest of the Carpathian Basin
The origin of the Magyars is a complicated subject, not helped by the similarity in English of the words ‘Hun’ and ‘Hungary’, which are not related. The Magyars belong to 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 forced the Finnish-Estonian branch to move west, ultimately reaching the Baltic Sea. The Ugrians moved from the southeastern slopes of the Urals into the region’s valleys, and switched from hunting and fishing to farming and raising livestock, especially horses. Their equestrian skills proved useful half a millennium later when drought forced them north onto the steppes.
On the plains, the Ugrians turned to nomadic herding. After about 500 BC, a group moved west to the Bashkiria area in Central Asia. Here, living among Persians and Bulgars, they 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 under a tribal alliance called onogur (‘10 peoples’), thought to be the origin 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 north of the Black Sea.
In about 895 seven Magyar tribes under the leadership of Árpád, the chief military commander (gyula), struck out for the Carpathian Basin while under attack. They crossed the Verecke Pass in today’s Ukraine some three years later.
Being highly skilled at riding and shooting, the Magyars plundered and pillaged in all directions, taking slaves and amassing booty. Their raids took them as far as Germany, Italy and Spain, but 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. In 973 Prince Géza, Árpád’s great-grandson, asked Emperor Otto II to send Christian missionaries to Hungary. Géza was baptised in his capital city, Esztergom, 46km upriver from Budapest, 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 & the House of Árpád
Stephen set about consolidating royal authority by expropriating the land of the clan chieftains and establishing a system of counties (megyék) protected by castles (várak). Shrewdly, he transferred much land to loyal (mostly German) knights. He also sought the support of the Church and established 10 episcopates. By the time of his death in 1038, Hungary was a nascent Christian nation, increasingly westward-looking and multi-ethnic.
The next two and a half centuries – the lifespan of the Árpád dynasty – would test the new kingdom to the limit. The period was marked by dynastic intrigues and relentless struggles among pretenders to the throne, which weakened the young nation’s defences against its more powerful neighbours. In the mid-13th century the Mongols, who had raced through the country, attacked the city from every direction. By January 1242 Pest and Óbuda had been burned to the ground and some 100,000 people killed. The Árpád line died out in 1301 with the death of Andrew III, who left no heir.
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 Poland (with the pope's blessing) and Hungary gave the former the Hungarian crown. When Vladislav I (Úlászló), son of the Polish Jagiellonian king, was killed fighting the Ottoman Turks at Varna (in today’s Bulgaria) in 1444, János Hunyadi, a Transylvanian general, was made regent. His decisive victory over the Turks at Belgrade (Hungarian: Nándorfehérvár) in 1456 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 daring 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 Buda enjoyed a golden age and for the first time became the true focus of the nation. His wife, Queen 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.
Under Matthias' successor Vladislav II (Úlászló; r 1490–1516), what had begun as a crusade in 1514 turned into an uprising against the landlords by peasants, who rallied near Pest under their leader, György Dózsa. The revolt was 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 the nation's history. On the battlefield near this small town in Southern Transdanubia, some 195km south of Budapest, a relatively prosperous and independent Hungary died, sending the nation into a tailspin of partition and foreign domination that would last for centuries.
It would be unfair to put all the blame on the weak and indecisive teenage king Louis. Bickering among the nobility and the brutal crackdown on the Dózsa uprising had severely weakened 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 taken much of the Balkans, including Belgrade, and was poised to march on Buda and then Vienna.
Unwilling to wait for reinforcements from Transylvania under the command of his rival John Szapolyai, Louis rushed from Buda with a motley army of just over 25,000 men to battle the Turks and was soundly thrashed. Among the estimated 18,000 dead was the king himself, who drowned while trying to retreat across a marsh.
The Ottoman Turks marched on and occupied Buda in 1541. Hungary was then divided into three parts. The central section, with Buda as the provincial seat, went to the Ottomans, while parts of Transdanubia and what is now Slovakia were governed by the Austrian House of Habsburg, 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 almost a century and a half.
Turkish power began to wane in the 17th century, especially after the Turkish attempt to take Vienna was soundly defeated. Buda was liberated in 1686 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 expulsion of the Turks from Hungary at the end of the 17th century did not lead to the nation's independence. Buda and the rest of the country were under military occupation, and the policies of the Catholic Habsburgs’ Counter-Reformation and heavy taxation further alienated the nobility. In 1703, Transylvanian prince Ferenc Rákóczi II raised an army of Hungarian mercenaries (kuruc) against the Habsburgs. The war dragged on for eight years, but superior imperial forces and lack of funds 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.
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, culturally and politically. 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 the king rescinded some of the reforms on his deathbed.
Liberalism and social reform found their greatest supporters among certain members of the aristocracy in Pest, including 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; proposed the first permanent link between Buda and Pest (Chain Bridge); and oversaw the regulation of the Danube as much for commerce and irrigation as for safety. 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 increased early in the 19th century and certain reforms were introduced, including a law allowing serfs alternative means of discharging their feudal obligations of service and increased Hungarian representation in the Council of State in Vienna.
But 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, who read out his poem ‘Nemzeti Dal’ (National Song) on the steps of the Hungarian National Museum, took to the streets of Pest with hastily printed copies of their Twelve Points to press for 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 in the east, where Lajos Kossuth was elected leader. In April 1849 the Parliament declared Hungary’s full independence.
The new Habsburg emperor Franz Joseph (r 1848–1916) quickly took action, defeating the rebel troops by August. Martial law was declared and a series of brutal reprisals and executions ensued. Kossuth went into exile.
The Dual Monarchy
After the War of Independence, Hungary was again merged into the Habsburg Empire as a conquered province. But disastrous military defeats by the French in 1859 and the Prussians in 1866 pushed Franz Joseph to the negotiating table under the leadership of liberal reformer Ferenc Deák.
The result was the Compromise of 1867, which fundamentally restructured the Habsburg monarchy and 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’ would carry on until 1918 and spark an economic, cultural and intellectual rebirth in Budapest, culminating with the momentous six-month exhibition in 1896 celebrating the millennium of the Magyar arrival in the Carpathian Basin.
But all was not well in the kingdom. The working class, based almost entirely in Budapest, had almost no rights and the situation in the countryside was almost as dire as it had been in the Middle Ages. Despite a new law enacted in 1868 to protect their rights, minorities under Hungarian control (Czechs, Slovaks, Croats and Romanians) were under increased pressure to ‘Magyarise’ and many viewed their new rulers as oppressors.
WWI & the Republic of Councils
On 28 July 1914 Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and entered WWI allied with the German Empire. The result of this action 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 decided and the terms spelled out by the Treaty of Trianon less than two years later.
A new republic was set up in Budapest five days after the armistice was signed, but it would not last long. Rampant inflation, mass unemployment, the occupation and 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 led by a Transylvanian former journalist called Béla Kun seized power. The so-called Republic of Councils (Tanácsköztársaság) set out to nationalise industry and private property and build a fairer society, but Kun’s failure to regain the ‘lost territories’ brought mass opposition 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 Hungary's Parliament chose a kingdom as the form of state and – lacking a king – elected as its regent Admiral Miklós Horthy. He launched a ‘white terror’ – every bit as brutal as Béla Kun’s red one – that attacked social democrats, Jews and communists for their roles in supporting the Republic of Councils. As the regime was consolidated, it showed itself to be extremely rightist and conservative, advocating the status quo and ‘traditional values’.
It was generally agreed that the return of the territories lost through the Treaty of Trianon was essential for national development. Hungary obviously could not count on the victors – France, Britain and the USA – to help recoup its land; instead, it would have to seek 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 joined the German- and Italian-led Axis in June 1941. The war was just 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 sent his army in. 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 the country’s liberal politicians and labour leaders. The puppet government introduced anti-Jewish legislation similar to that in Germany, and Jews, who lived in fear but went about their business under Horthy, were rounded up into ghettos by pro-Nazi Hungarians. From May to July of 1944, just 10 months before the end of the war, 450,000 Hungarian Jewish 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. Many of the Jews who did survive owed their lives to heroic men like Raoul Wallenberg, a Budapest-based Swedish diplomat, Swiss consul Carl Lutz and Scottish missionary Jane Haining. All of them are now remembered with monuments and/or street names in the capital.
Budapest now became an international battleground for the first time since the Turkish occupation, and bombs began falling everywhere. By Christmas 1944 the Soviet army had surrounded Budapest. By the time Germany surrendered in April 1945, three-quarters of the city’s homes, historical buildings and churches had been severely damaged or destroyed. At the same time, some 20,000 Hungarian soldiers and 25,000 civilians of Budapest had been killed. As they retreated the Germans blew up Buda Castle and knocked out every bridge that spanned the Danube.
The People’s Republic
When the first postwar parliamentary elections were held in Hungary 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, Mátyás Rákosi, the winner. 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 unrealistically fast industrialisation at the expense of agriculture. Peasants were forced into collective farms and a network of spies and informers exposed ‘class enemies’ such as Cardinal József Mindszenty to the secret police – the ÁVO (ÁVH after 1949) – who interrogated them at their headquarters at VI Andrássy út 60 (now the House of Terror) in Pest and sent them to trial at the then Military Court of Justice in Buda. Some were executed; many more were sent into internal exile or condemned to labour camps. Stalinist show trials became the order of the day. 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. The reputations of executed apparatchiks were rehabilitated and people like former minister of agriculture Imre Nagy, who had been expelled from the party a year earlier for suggesting reforms, were readmitted. By October 1956 murmured calls for a real reform of the system – ‘socialism with a human face’ – were being heard.
The 1956 Uprising
Hungary's greatest tragedy – an event that for a while shook the world, rocked international communism and pitted Hungarian against Hungarian – began in Budapest on 23 October 1956, when some 50,000 university students assembled at II Bem József tér in Buda, shouting anti-Soviet slogans and demanding that reformist Imre Nagy be named prime minister. That night a crowd pulled down and sawed into pieces the colossal statue of Stalin on Dózsa György út on the edge of City Park, and shots were fired by ÁVH agents on another group gathering outside the headquarters of Hungarian Radio at VIII Bródy Sándor utca 5-7 in Pest. Budapest was in revolution.
The next 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 an amnesty to those involved in the violence, promised to abolish the ÁVH and announced that Hungary would leave the Warsaw Pact and declare its neutrality.
At this, Soviet tanks and troops crossed into Hungary and within 72 hours attacked Budapest and other cities. Kádár had slipped away from Budapest to join the Russian invaders; he 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 began. An estimated 20,000 people were arrested and 2000 – including Imre Nagy and his associates – were executed. Another 250,000 refugees fled to Austria.
Hungary under Kádár
After the 1956 Uprising, 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. This ‘Hungarian model’ attracted Western attention and 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 less than a year later.
Renewal & Change
Throughout the summer and autumn of 1988, new political parties formed and old ones were resurrected. In January 1989 Hungary, second-guessing what was to come as Mikhail Gorbachev launched sweeping 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 said it was. In June 1989 some 250,000 people attended ceremonies marking the reburial of Imre Nagy and other victims of 1956 in Budapest’s New Municipal Cemetery.
The next month Hungary began to dismantle 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 was now unstoppable.
The Republic of Hungary Reborn
At its party congress in February 1989, the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party changed its name to the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and later in the year agreed to surrender its monopoly on power, paving the way for free elections the following spring. On 23 October 1989, the 33rd anniversary of the 1956 Uprising, the nation once again became the Republic of Hungary.
The 1990 election was won by the centrist Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), which advocated a gradual transition to capitalism and was led by softly spoken former museum curator József Antall. The social-democratic Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), which had called for much faster change, came in a distant second. Hungary had changed political systems with scarcely a murmur. The last Soviet troops left Hungarian soil in June 1991, streets and squares like Lenin körút and Marx tér were renamed, and monuments to ‘glorious workers’ and ‘esteemed leaders’ were packed off to a socialist-realist theme park called Memento Park.
In coalition with two smaller parties, the MDF governed Hungary soundly during its difficult transition to a full market economy. But despite initial successes in curbing inflation and lowering interest rates, economic problems slowed development; the government’s laissez-faire policies did not help. In a poll taken in mid-1993, 76% of respondents were ‘very disappointed’ with the way things had worked out.
In the May 1994 elections the MSZP, 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 his party had initiated the whole reform process in the first place.
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 under 35 to emphasise a past untainted by communism, privilege and corruption – 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 1998 it campaigned for integration with Europe; Fidesz-MPP won the vote by forming a coalition with the MDF and the agrarian conservative FKgP. The party’s youthful leader, Viktor Orbán, was named prime minister. Hungary became a fully fledged NATO member the following year.
The electorate grew increasingly hostile to Fidesz-MPP’s (and Orbán's) 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. Hungary was admitted into the EU in May 2004, but three months later Medgyessy resigned when it was revealed that he had served as a counterintelligence officer in the late 1970s and early 1980s while working in the finance ministry. Sports Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány became prime minister.
A Place of Its Own Making
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 the 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, 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 (263 of 386 seats).
Hungary assumed presidency of the EU Council in the first half of 2011. A new constitution that went into effect at the start of 2012 contained an extended preamble (the so-called National Creed) that declares the period from March 1944 (the Nazi occupation of Hungary) to May 1990 (the first free election since 1945) to be legally nonexistent.
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. Next up were Unity, a short-lived coalition of MSZP and four other parties, which took 26% of the vote and 38 seats.
Orbán was clearly in charge once again but 'Viktátor', as the opposition press nicknamed him, was frequently criticised for what were ultra-nationalist, heavy-handed tactics and abuse of power. In 2015 at the height of the European migrant crisis Hungary built a 175km-long fence on its border with Serbia and Croatia. The following year an Orbán-sponsored referendum to reject an EU scheme relocating refugees to Hungary won, but was rejected by parliament as the required 50% of the electorate had not participated. Within days the nation's largest paper, the opposition Népszabadság, was closed down, due to pressure from the government according to journalists. At the time of research Orbán was still at the helm, but his ship did not appear to be on course.