Book review: Hungary keeps struggling with its history


Central Europe

Lennart Nijenhuis, CNE.news

Photo Viktor Orbán, Facebook

Anyone who wants to understand Hungary and its Prime Minister must know the history of its capital. Victor Sebestyen's "Budapest: Between East and West" describes the history of a complex society that has struggled with its identity and position in Europe over the centuries.

When Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán visits a football stadium in November, the match is not the centre of attention but Orbán's scarf. On it is an image of Greater Hungary, as Hungary was before World War I. Although Hungary's neighbours, especially Ukraine, cry shame over the scarf, the garment is a way for Orbán to tap into the emotions of his compatriots.

After the loss in World War I, Greater Hungary had to cede about a third of its territory to neighbouring countries. This is how present-day Hungary was created. And so, the large Hungarian-speaking communities in neighbouring Romania, Ukraine and Slovakia came into being.

This Treaty of Trianon was a hard sell for many Hungarians and still forms a fertile soil for nationalism. So when Orbán walks around with such a scarf, he appeals to the feelings of many Hungarians. This is not the first time Orbán has reverted to Trianon to win hearts. He also did so in 2010 when he gave ethnic Hungarians abroad the right to vote, much to the dismay of surrounding countries.

Orbán is not alone in wanting to use history to his advantage. Hungarian history is full of people like him. In his book "Budapest: Between East and West", published earlier this year, Hungarian historian Victor Sebestyen recounts the history of the capital that played a central role in the development of the Hungarian nation. A story full of historical parallels of a country split between East and West.

Time and again, Sebestyen shows that the Hungarian has to fend for himself throughout history. Regularly, Western Europe encourages the Hungarians against invaders like the Mongols or the Turks, but ultimately the Hungarians have to solve their problems themselves. In 1253, for instance, Hungarian king Béla IV wrote to Pope Innocent IV about the Mongol invasion: "We have heard only words from all sides (...) but have not received any support from any Christian ruler or people in Europe." According to Sebestyen, these thoughts are a permanent theme in Hungarian history. "In the 2020s, politicians like Orbán strike a chord when they shout similar things. The feeling of a people left alone has deep roots among Hungarians."


One reason for this lonely position is Hungary's geographical location, among others. "Throughout history, Hungary and its capital have been an important part of Western Europe but have been located outside of it at the same time," writes Hungarian-British historian Sebestyen.

Another reason is the Hungarian personality. The author paints a picture of a country constantly struggling with its identity. That is not surprising, either. Historically, the country was occupied successively by Mongols, Turks, Austrians, Nazis and Soviets. Only in the 18th century did some Hungarians revive the Hungarian language, strengthening the Hungarian identity. At that time, the language was spoken only by the poor in the later merged cities of Buda and Pest. German was the working language among the population, and Latin was the official language of the civil service.

Hungary's PM delivers a speech during an event to commemorate the 66th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet occupation. Photo AFP, Attila Kisbenedek

Politicians from both the left and right spectrum regularly use these historically unfortunate positions to capitalise on popular sentiments. Prime Minister Orbán gave a combative speech in 2016 in which he again used history. "More often than not, we, Hungarians, have formed a bridge between East and West and suffered as a result. Repeatedly we have saved Western Christian civilisation from disaster and destruction by invaders from the East." According to the Budapest-born Sebestyen, in the Hungarian context, this is more a factual assertion than rhetoric. After all, the Mongols and Turks did not get much further than Hungary.

Jewish history

The author pays special attention to the country's Jewish history. Although Jewish minorities had lived in the Hungarian territories since the Turkish rule from the 16th century onwards, their influence grew, especially in the 19th century. "Nowhere in central Europe did Jews play such a prominent role in modernisation as in Hungary," says the report. This was partly because the Hungarian population despised those "in business". This allowed Jews to become middle class as drivers of economic growth.

That growth required hard work. Sebestyen describes a cotton factory owned by the Jewish Mayer family, who found it difficult to close the factory doors on the Sabbath. "They 'sold' their factory to one of their Christian workers on Friday afternoon and repurchased it on Saturday evening to avoid the rules. Thus, they certainly adhered to the letter of the religious laws but hardly to the spirit."

Sebestyen shows that, time and again, it is the Jews who build Hungary. But it is also these same Jews who are made scapegoats in times of adversity. "Attempts by Hungarian Jews to assimilate always remained a matter of tightrope walking - and often it proved impossible to keep the balance."


The author does manage to strike that balance. In a nuanced way, Victor Sebestyen shows how Hungarian history can be used by both the political left and right to appeal to the electorate's feelings. In an approachable, narrative manner, the author tells the history of Hungary up to and including the fall of the Wall. And there, the story largely stops. Although the author briefly outlines the current situation in his conclusion, he only goes a little into developments in Budapest since 1989. Besides, it is also searching for the relationship between Budapest and the rest of Hungary. The author describes the capital's development in detail, but how that growth relates to the rest of the country over the years does not emerge clearly.

"Budapest: Between East and West" is a chronicle of the capital, but at the same time tells the story of Hungary. A story with recurring themes that are still relevant today. "Budapest" offers a readable political examination of the tumultuous history of Hungary and its capital.

And yet, despite that tumultuous history, there are things in Budapest that always remain the same. Regularly, the author pays attention to the Hungarian capital's famous coffee houses, where so many writers and politicians have worked and hung out for generations. "At a table next to me sat a busy group of young people gossiping about life and love. (...) Despite all the tumult, there are things in Budapest that never change."


Budapest. Between East and West. Victor Sebestyen; Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 432 pp; €31.66. The Dutch version of the book was reviewed.



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