The History of Hungary in a Dozen Maps

Leer esto en castellano

After histories of England and Spain, here comes the history of one of the oldest continuously existing European nation states – Hungary. You know: one of these countries nobody has ever heard of.

The few who have heard of Hungary can attest that she has three claims to international fame:

  1. We speak an unspeakable language (one that no foreigner can master)
  2. The Ottoman emperor Suleiman, known to some misguided souls as the Magnificent, has been literally annoyed to death by the Hungarians¹
  3. Rubik’s cube

There are of course other things that Hungary can boast of: such as being the country with the worst ever hyperinflation in the world (1946), or, on a more positive note, having more Nobel prize winners, Olympic champions and even  chess grand masters per capita than most other countries… ²

But let us instead proceed to the maps!


1. The Age of Migrations & the Conquest (1200 B.C.-895 A.D.)

Or, Europe’s Mystery People

Conquest of the Homeland (Honfoglalás) by Mihály Munkácsy, 1893 [Public domain via Wikipedia]

Who the Hungarians actually are and where they came from is still hotly debated, (as is, by certain neighbouring nations at least, whether they should be sent back to wherever they came from).

The Hungarian word for Hungarian is magyar, and contrary to general belief, Hungarians are not the descendants of the Huns – although the name Attila remains a popular ‘Christian’ name for boys!

The Hungarian language belongs to the Finno-Ugric group of languages; a very small group of non-Indo-European languages³. Related languages are Finnish and Estonian (the Finno-)  and a few small tribes nowadays living east of the Ural Mountains (the -Ugric; along with the Hungarians). 

The supposed Finno-Ugric ancestral homeland therefore is reckoned to be somewhere in between where these nations now live: somewhere around the Ural Mountains from where the Finns and the Estonians eventually wandered northwest and the Hungarians moved southwest. Hungarian  is supposed to have split from the other Ugric languages in the 13th century B.C. Or perhaps in the 5th century B.C. As you can tell, there seems to be a certain level of uncertainty about this! The only thing in fact that we’re sure of is that it did split and a long time ago – because we can’t understand any of them.

The Migration of the Hungarian people and the Conquest of the Homeland: [Pictorial Historical Atlas for Primary Schools, Cartographia Budapest]. The Hungarians and their previous homelands shown in red; the green arrow is another nomadic tribe, the Petchenegs, whose attack on the then Hungarian homeland, Etelköz, prompted the Hungarian invasion of the Carpathian Basin.

The following infographic is less picturesque, but gives a clearer picture (especially for English speakers!):

The Migration of the Hungarians. Image by Fakirbakir via Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0] Source: Veres, Péter. „A magyar nép etnogenezise (Ethnogenesis of the Hungarian people)”. História XXIX. (2007/4.). HU ISSN 01392409.

By stages, and over the course of several centuries, the Hungarians marched from the Ural Mountains to the Carpathian Basin where, in the parlance of the old legends, ‘the water was sweet, the grass lush and the soil fat’. The Hungarians could recognise a good place when they saw one and they decided to go no further. (Not for them the blue waters of the Adriatic Sea.)

The date was 895 AD.


Recommended reading:Slave of the Huns by Géza Gárdonyi (a historical novel set in the time of Attila the Hun and based on the writings of Priscus of Panium who had served as a Byzantine envoy to Attila)
⇒ De administrando imperio (On the Governance of the Empire), chapters 36-42, by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII Flavius Porphyrogenitus, containing the first description of the Hungarians
⇒ Muslim Sources on the Magyars in the Second Half of the 9th Century: The Magyar Chapter of the Jayhani Tradition by István Zimonyi
The White Stag by Kate Seredy (a children's novel about the mythical origins of the Huns and the Hungarians)

2. The Marauding, aka the Adventures (10th century A.D.)

Or, the Landlubber Vikings

A sagittis Hungarorum libera nos, Domine.

From the arrows of the Hungarians, save us, Lord.

(Medieval prayer from Western Europe)4

Hungarian horse archer, wall fresco in Aquileia, Italy. Image via Wikipedia [public domain]

‘Adventures’ – a rough translation of kalandozások, as this period of Hungarian history is called – is a somewhat euphemistic name for my ancestors going off to plunder and pillage those richer and more sophisticated than themselves. Marauding.

When the Hungarians first arrived to the Carpathian Basin, they were an association of seven nomadic tribes, living a lifestyle very much like that of the Huns had been (which is why everybody, including the Hungarians themselves, assumed for a thousand years that the two peoples were related).

The Carpathian Basin made a good base for nomadic horsemen5; moreover it had great possibilities for people who were interested in settling down and engaging in serious agriculture, or God forbid, mining the numerous mineral resources and then actually manufacturing something. Not the Hungarians, however, who clearly thought that settling down was an inferior way of life and quickly concluded that there were plenty of rich nations around who were worth robbing instead.

Hence, the, ahem, ‘adventures’.

Hungarian raids in Europe, first half of 10th century A.D. The homeland in in pink and the campaigns marked with red arrows and the date. Image by Csanády via Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0]

The map above speaks for itself (albeit in Hungarian 🙂 ). My ancestors visited everywhere, often repeatedly: from Byzantium to the Caliphate of Cordoba, from Italy to Germany. Only the sea stopped their marauding. They were the era’s landlubber version of the Vikings.

The adventures eventually came to an end after a resounding defeat inflicted on the light Hungarian riders by the heavily armed German knights in 955 A.D. (Which gave rise to the entertaining legend of the Horn of Lehel, see link below.)

Recommended reading (I really had to scrape the barrel here for you English speakers although plenty of Hungarian legends cover the period of the adventures): 
⇒ The Legend of St Gallen (summarised in the first paragraph of the article)
⇒ The Martyrdom of St WiboradaThe Horn of Lehel

3. The Christian State (1000 A.D.) 

The Holy Crown of Hungary, aka St Stephen’s Crown, symbol of the state [Public domain photo via Wikipedia]

My dearest son, if you desire to honor the royal crown, I advise, I counsel, I urge you above all things to maintain the Catholic and Apostolic faith with such diligence and care that you may be an example for all those placed under you by God, and that all the clergy may rightly call you a man of true Christian profession. Failing to do this, you may be sure that you will not be called a Christian or a son of the Church.

(The Admonitions of St Stephen)

Statue of St Stephen in Buda Castle [Photo by irenne56 via Pixabay]

In the second half of the 10th century and in the aftermath of being defeated by the German knights, the Hungarians concluded that marauding was not quite as good a lifestyle as before and it was time to settle down. Ruling Prince Géza (of the House of Árpád, Árpád being the chieftain who led the seven tribes into the Carpathian Basin in 895 A.D.) baptised his son Vajk and got him a Christian German princess for a wife; she came – of course – accompanied by plenty of missionaries. Vajk,  better known to history by his baptismal name of István – Stephen in English – inherited the rule in 997 A.D.; according to tradition, he was crowned as a Christian king on Christmas Day in 1000 A.D. with a crown sent to him by the Pope.

And so the Christian Kingdom of Hungary was born; and the fact that it chose to align with Rome in preference to Byzantium became one of the defining features of the country’s identity to this day. 

A major lifestyle and religious change like this of course didn’t go all smoothly: much of the population was not keen on the weird foreign god who had been nailed to a piece of wood, nor on having to start hoeing onions instead of riding off on adventures; and the Western style of succession (primogeniture, ie. eldest son inheriting) clashed with the old Hungarian style of succession (seniority, ie. eldest male relative inheriting). But during his long rule Stephen managed to consolidate both his power and Christianity in the country, and for his pains, he was duly canonised after his death. 

The following map shows the religious organisation of Hungary at the death of St Stephen, with the names and areas of the bishoprics. (The grey area just inside the borders is the sparsely inhabited zone of defence.)  Monasteries are marked by (red or green) squares; seats of archbishops and bishops by circles surmounted by a double or a single cross.

The religious organisation (bishoprics and monasteries) of Hungary during the time of St Stephen (1038 A.D.)
Recommended reading:
⇒ The Admonitions by King St Stephen (full text in Hungarian & excerpts in English)

4. Brother Julianus (1235-37 A.D.) & The March of the Tatars (1241 A.D.)

Or the How the Window on the Origins of the Hungarians Slammed Shut

Brother Julianus (with Brother Gerhardus) pointing towards the ancient Hungarian homeland, statue in Budapest [Photo via Wikipedia]

The Mongol invasion of Hungary in 1241 by the armies of Batu Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan and founder of the Golden Horde) goes by the name of tatárjárás in Hungarian history, for which the best translation  I can come up with is ‘the march of the Tatars’. The Tatars (Mongols) only stayed a year but the effects were devastating: half the population killed or carried off, the land destroyed. After the disastrous battle of Muhi in April 1241, King Béla IV had to flee all the way to the Adriatic Sea: he took refuge in the castle of Trau (today’s Trogir in Croatia). Afterwards he rebuilt the country, earning himself the epithet of ‘the Second Founder of the Homeland’.

Instead of looking at a map of the Tatar destruction here, I felt that we could do something a bit more interesting; and this brings us to the story of Brother Julianus.

Brother Julianus’s Quest for the Ancient Hungarian Homeland (1235-1237 A.D.)

Brother Julianus was a Dominican friar, who set out from Hungary in search of the Hungarians who according to the historical knowledge of the time had been left behind during the wanderings at one of the earlier homelands. He was accompanied by Brother Gerhardus and two other friars – these latter two turned back from halfway. After a difficult journey which claimed Brother Gerhardus’s life, Julianus eventually arrived to a small town where he encountered a Hungarian woman who told him that her people were living at the distance of two days’ walking. Incredibly, Brother Julianus did actually find the descendants of those Hungarians who chose to stay behind centuries earlier – and they could still speak to each other without needing an interpreter!

The first journey of Brother Julianus. [Photo credit unknown, retrieved via Google Search from tortenelmiportre.blog.hu, now inaccessible]

Julianus only stayed with the Hungarians in their land – which he named Magna Hungaria – for a month. On his return he brought news not only of the Hungarians but of the rising Mongol Empire. In 1237, he tried to return to Magna Hungaria but was unable to reach it – it had been overrun and destroyed by the Tatars. The Hungarians who had lived there disappeared from history without a trace; the opportunity to find out more about our early history was lost forever.

Nevertheless, the journey was not completely in vain: Brother Julianus brought back a letter of ultimatum from the Tatars to King Béla IV demanding that he submitted Hungary to the Tatar Khan. Forewarned is forearmed? Sadly, it was not so in the case of King Béla IV, who only four years later was still caught unprepared by the Tatar invasion. 

Recommended reading:
Julianus barát by János Kodolányi (historical novel). Available online on the Hungarian Electronic Library and in Italian translation as Fra Giuliano or in German as Dort zwischen den himmelhohen Bergen - but not in English, sorry!
Aranyhorda by József Hunyady (children's historical novel about the Golden Horde)
⇒ There are plenty of books available in English about Batu Khan and the Golden Horde... but as I haven't read any of them, I cannot give you a recommendation! (Goodreads might be your friend here.)

5. From the Baltic to the Adriatic & the Black Sea (1382 A.D.) 

The House of Árpád, the dynasty that led the Hungarians into the Carpathian Basin and established the Christian Hungarian state, succeeded, early in the 12th century, to the kingdom of Croatia, which for the next eight hundred years formed part of the lands of the Hungarian crown (but not of Hungary herself). This dynastic union gave Hungary access to the Adriatic Sea – an access which the Hungarians duly ignored for the duration6

The Árpáds died out in 1301. After a brief interregnum during which three pretenders contended for the Hungarian throne (giving rise to a number of highly entertaining historical legends, including one about the city of Buda excommunicating the Pope and how the cross on top of the Holy Crown got bent), the Neapolitan branch of the Anjou family, descending from the Árpáds in the female line, came out on top.

There were only two Anjou kings of Hungary – Charles Robert and his son, Louis the Great – but between them they ruled from 1308 to 1382 and made the country one of the strongest in Europe, with a solid economy and good currency which was modelled on the Florentine gold coins (hence the name golden florin, corrupted into forint). It was happily accepted all over Europe as far as the Low Countries and was never debased – unlike today’s forint which is neither happily accepted, nor made of gold! 

Louis the Great married a Polish princess and in due course he was elected King of Poland. At this point three countries were united in a dynastic union: Hungary, Croatia and Poland. (Practically an empire.) What with his conquests as well, the country was stretching from almost the shores of the Baltic to the shores of the Adriatic and the Black Sea:

The empire of Louis the Great of Hungary in 1382 A.D. Hungary proper shown in pink in the centre [Source: Pallas Lexikon]

If you think that surely this has resulted in us taking up an interest in seafaring… nope.

Recommended reading: 
⇒ A rettenetes Kartal by Miklós Rónaszegi (a children's historical novel about how Charles Robert succeeded to the Hungarian throne)
How The City of Buda Excommunicated the Pope (aka the Buda Heresy) on Wikipedia (a story from the interregnum, before Charles Robert succeeded to the Hungarian throne)
Hungary of the Three Kings (a blog post about the interregnum with more details about all three pretenders)

6. The Siege of Nándorfehérvár (1456 A.D.)

Or Why the Bells Toll in Europe at Noon

Over the centuries Hungary has seen more than her fair share of warfare up and down the land – people just kept invading her from the west, from the east and from the south (which proves what a nice land it is, really).

The Neapolitan House of Anjou was followed by King Sigismund, as in Sigismund of Luxembourg (yeah, I know, I mean, Luxembourg?), who – once he also became elected Holy Roman Emperor, was absent more often than not. After him, frankly, the list of foreigners gets so confusing that not even a Hungarian can keep track of them and I see no reason why you should. Instead we will hop to 1456, when János Hunyadi, the former governor and a very able general faced the forces of the Ottoman Empire at the southernmost fortress of Hungary, Nándorfehérvár (today’s Belgrade, capital of Serbia). 

The Ottoman Empire had been expanding for a while by then and took Byzantium only 3 years earlier. This was not Hunyadi’s first battle against the Ottomans; in the 1440s he campaigned against them as far as the Balkans (with varying success). But his finest hour, without doubt, came in 1456 when he faced an Ottoman army led by the Sultan Mehmed II, known to history as the Conqueror.

The Siege of Nándorfehérvár, 1456 A.D. [Map by Csanády via Wikipedia, public domain] Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade) lies where the River Sava joins the Danube; the blue dotted areas are marshes. The Turks are represented by orange, the Hungarians by green.

When it became obvious (in 1455) that the Ottomans were preparing an invasion of Hungary, the Hungarians sought help from the Pope and the western Christian powers but none of them was prepared to send troops. The only help came from the Pope who sent a Franciscan friar, Giovanni da Capistrano, to raise a crusade in Hungary and ordered the faithful to pray daily for a Christian victory; they were called to prayer by the tolling of the bells at noon. As the news of the subsequent victory reached some faraway countries (like Spain & England) earlier than the order to toll the bells, the bells were in some places tolled to celebrate the victory instead (giving rise to a certain level of confusion in the mind of posterity as to why the bells are tolled exactly). The bells in the churches of Europe – both Catholic and Protestant – have been continuing to be tolled at noon ever since. 

The Self-Sacrifice of Titusz Dugovics by Sándor Wagner [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]. A famous scene from the siege of Nándorfehérvár: Dugovics throws himself off the wall taking the Turkish standard bearer with him to prevent him from planting the Ottoman flag on the castle.

We have no space here to describe the course of the siege in great detail – you can read about it in many places in the internet. Let it suffice to say that it ended somewhat unexpectedly, when the outnumbered Hungarians charged the Turkish camp and wounded the sultan himself. The Ottomans abandoned the siege and retreated; and their next major invasion against Hungary was only attempted in 1526 (under Suleiman the Magnificent).

Unfortunately, Hungary paid a high price for the triumph of Nándorfehérvár: plague broke out in the Hungarian camp in the aftermath of the siege, claiming the life of – among others – János Hunyadi.

7. Hungary’s Golden Age (1458-1490 A.D.)

The Campaigns of Matthias Corvinus’s famous Black Army. [Map by Lajbi, CC BY 3.0 via Wikipedia]

Between 1458 and 1490, Hungary was ruled by the last7 Hungarian king: the younger son of János Hunyadi, Mátyás – better known to foreigners as Matthias Corvinus. His coming to power was somewhat unusual: after the death of their father at Nándorfehérvár both Hunyadi boys were arrested by the king; the elder, László, was executed. This prompted a rebellion and the king fled to his native Prague (as was his habit whenever any danger threatened) where he unexpectedly died. Mátyás was famously elected King of Hungary in Buda, on the frozen ice of the Danube; the first – and only – time since the Árpáds that a Hungarian sat on the Hungarian throne. 

Mátyás’s election brought an end to the power struggles among foreign kings and pretenders, supported by various scheming barons, which plagued the country since the death of King Sigismund (and before). He was only 15 at the time of his election and was not crowned till later (he first had to get the crown back from Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III who’s been sitting on it for some twenty years8).

King Matthias Corvinus [Photo of artwork by Furkert, edited by Samat, via Wikipedia CC BY 3.0]

Mátyás Hunyadi was a very able king, and his rule is often considered the Golden Age of Hungary. The country was strong: militarily, economically and culturally. He married an Italian princess, Beatrice, who brought Renaissance learning to the Hungarian court. Mátyás is chiefly famous for his Black Army, which successfully defended the country both against the Ottomans and the Holy Roman Empire, even taking Vienna, and for his learned Renaissance court (the first Renaissance court outside Italy) and extensive library of codices, of which about 200 survive. He led quite an adventurous life, leading the army personally, often going in disguise, and became a popular character in Hungarian folk tales as Mátyás the Just. 

His only failing? He died without a legitimate male heir, leaving the country once again open to strife among foreign pretenders, scheming barons and to the repeated interventions of the Holy Roman Empire – just when the Ottomans were becoming stronger than ever.

Recommended reading:Once the Greatest Army in Europe - The Black Army of HungaryKing Mátyás and the Mayor of Gyevi
King Matthias the Just: Hungarian Folk Tales about the King in Disguise by Malcolm Peters

8. Hungary Torn in Three (1541-1686 A.D.)

Hungary in 1550 A.D. [Map via the Digital Pictures Archives, National Széchenyi Library] Somewhat puzzlingly, the Principality of Transylvania goes under the name of Eastern Hungarian Kingdom on this map, but do not let that bother you. 🙂

It took the Ottomans 70 years after their defeat in Nándorfehérvár to mount the next large scale invasion against Hungary (as opposed to the constant incursions and border skirmishes, that is). Their real goal actually was not Hungary but the Holy Roman Empire; Hungary was merely blocking the way.

Which she continued to do for the next 150 years, during which the country became one large battlefield. Ultimately, the Ottomans never managed to conquer Hungary, although they bit out a large chunk and on a couple occasions managed to briefly reach and besiege Vienna. 

After the disastrous battle of Mohács in 1526, in which the Hungarian army was pretty much massacred and the king died flying the battlefield, the old problem of not having a clear successor to the throne arose again. At a time when the country should have been uniting to fight the Ottomans, she was instead divided by rival factions. We will not bother to go through all the contenders; in the end, the Habsburgs came out on top, more or less, and continued to rule North and West Hungary as the official Kingdom of Hungary, while a Hungarian nobleman ended up ruling in Transylvania which became an independent principality, occasionally paying tribute to the Ottomans. The centre of the country, incorporated into the Ottoman Empire, was known as the hódoltság – the conquered lands. This state of affairs continued more or less from 1541 – the date when the Turks took Buda – until they were driven out in 1686. 

The era, which is known in Hungarian history as várháborúk kora (the era of the castle wars) is rich in heroic acts and famous sieges (some of which we won, some of which we lost), not to mention the usual interminable internal strife.

There is nothing much we can say of the Conquered Lands: much of the population was carried off into slavery into the Balkans, was driven off the land by the constant fighting and the double, sometimes triple taxation, or simply killed. Large areas became unpopulated. The only surviving legacy of the Turks is a few bath houses, the odd minaret or mosque and our habit of drinking coffee. Oh, and that the country’s ethnic makeup changed for ever – and not in favour of the Hungarians.

In the Principality of Transylvania, the Hungarian rulers (over nearly two centuries there was more than one ruling family) did well for themselves and their land and Hungarians considered Transylvania as the last bastion of free Hungary – as in free from both the Turks and the Habsburgs. 

The Women of Eger by Bertalan Székely commemorating a famous scene from the 1552 Ottoman siege of Eger when even the women fought on the walls [Photo via the Hungarian Electronic Library]

The same cannot be said of the he Habsburg kings of the official Kingdom of Hungary who did not cover themselves in glory as rulers: they used the once rich country merely as a buffer zone in defence of Vienna, nothing more, allowing it to become a wasteland. 

The besieged castle of Szigetvár in 1566 was refused relief by the king who stood idly by with an army 80,000 at a distance of only a few days’ march – all defenders died in a last glorious sally out of the burning castle. István Dobó, captain of the castle of Eger paid for reinforcing the castle, food and gunpowder out of his own pocket; after he repelled the Turkish siege in 1552 he resigned in protest because the king refused to provide for his troops. And in the infamous peace of Vasvár in 1664, Hungarian territory regained from the Ottomans by General Miklós Zrínyi (great-grandson of the heroic captain of Szigetvár of the same name) was handed straight back to them… 

Zrínyi’s Final Charge out of Szigetvár by Johann Peter Krafft. At the end of the 1566 siege of Szigetvár, when Captain Miklós Zrínyi run out of gunpowder and provisions, he booby trapped the castle and set it on fire before sallying out wearing his best clothes and with a purse of gold in his pocket – for his funeral expenses. [Photo via Wikipedia]

For a hundred and fifty years Hungary served as the Western bastion of European civilisation & Christianity – another thing that left a lasting impression on the national identity.

The Ottoman wars ended when finally a Christian coalition came to the help of Hungarians and expelled the Turks for good in 1688. (More or less. There was still more fighting and peace was not signed till much later.)

Not with quill do I write,
Nor ink as black as night,
But with my sword’s bright blade,
In foe’s blood is displayed,
My imperishable fame.

(Miklós Zrínyi: Time and Fame, 1653,
transl. by George Szirtes)

Recommended reading:
The Siege of Sziget by Miklós Zrínyi (an epic poem about the 1566 siege of Szigetvár; written by the great-grandson of the hero of Szigetvár - just to confuse you, they both went by the name of Miklós Zrínyi)
The Eclipse of the Crescent Moon by Géza Gárdonyi (historical novel about the 1552 siege of Eger)
The Slaves of the Padishah by Mór Jókai (historical novel set in Transylvania during the Ottoman wars)
Miklós Zrínyi, the Poet by Sándor Bene (In Zrínyi Album, ed. Gábor Hausner)
Suleymanname: The Illustrated History of Suleyman the Magnificent by Esin Atil

9. The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy (1867-1918 A.D.) & How It Came into Being

It might be hard to believe but from 1688 (the driving out of the Turks) until the birth of the Dual Monarchy eff-all happened in Hungary. Well. Apart from two Wars of Independence, various minor rebellions and the Age of Reform, that is.

The point I’m trying to make (if any) is that the Habsburg rulers of Hungary did eff-all for their pretty little kingdom. Geographically speaking, here was Hungary again, more or less as she always had been, except rather poorer and with not enough people left alive to populate the land but still full of mineral resources and on a fertile flood plain with soil that, if you were a peasant, you’d kill for. You’d think the Habsburgs would see to it that the country prospered and brought in some cash for their constant foreign enterprises? God forbid. They were only interested in exploiting Hungary for the benefit of their Eternal Provinces (Austria & Czechia). 

There was of course the small problem of the Hungarians not being docile enough. The Habsburgs were fanatical absolutists, which went down badly with the Hungarian nobles who were very fond indeed of upholding their particular Magna Carta, the Golden Bull of 1222, not to mention sundry later laws that they found convenient. The various minor bones of contention between the Habsburgs and the Hungarians included the right of the Hungarian Parliament – well, to sit, to begin with!, to elect kings or, for that matter, to dethrone them if they were below par (the Habsburgs invariably were)9.

In short:

The Habsburgs ruled Hungary for four centuries; in this time they were dethroned exactly four times, once in each century (1620, 1707, 1849, 1921). This should give you an idea of how popular they were.

Side Note about Otto von Habsburg
After Hungary successfully (and bloodlessly) demolished communism in 1989, Otto von Habsburg, son of the last Habsburg king, popped up, no doubt in the hope that he'd be invited to take the throne. Unfortunately for him the population preferred to restore the republic instead. To be fair to Otto von Habsburg, he spoke flawless Hungarian, although he couldn't roll his Rs to save his life (not being able to roll your Rs is considered a speech impediment in Hungary). 

Unfortunately…

… I can offer you nothing worthwhile map-wise of this era apart from maps of campaigns and battle sites from the endless strife between the Hungarians and the Habsburgs which you’d find excruciatingly boring. So we’re going to run through the major events of the next nearly two hundred years without maps, until we get to the era of the Dual Monarchy.

Pro patria and libertate (For the Homeland and Freedom), 1703-1711 A.D.

When the Christian coalition (the Holy League of 1684) finally drove out the Turks from Hungary in 1688, the Christian troops treated the surviving inhabitants of the country so savagely that they immediately rebelled and remained in a state of more or less continuous rebellion for the next 30 years. 

The most notable rebel was Imre Thököly who even allied with the freshly driven out Turks against the Habsburgs. His wife, Ilona Zrínyi (yes, that Zrínyi family), held the castle of Munkács (today’s Mukachevo in Ukraine) for three years against the Habsburg General Caraffa, while his stepson, Ferenc Rákóczi II, Ilona’s son from her first marriage, fought the first war of independence against the Habsburgs from 1703 to 1711. 

The portrait of Ferenc Rákóczi II by Ádám Mányoki [Public domain via Wikipedia]
The Life of Ferenc Rákóczi II, Ruling Prince of Hungary & Transylvania

Cum Deo pro patria et libertate (With God for the Homeland and Freedom) and Iustam causam deus non derelinqvet (God Does Not Abandon a Just Cause) were the Latin mottoes that were embroidered on the flags of Ferenc Rákóczi II during the war of independence. Unfortunately for Hungary, God did choose to absent himself from the fray (yet again).

Rákóczi was the son of the Ferenc Rákóczi I, Ruling Prince of Transylvania and Ilona Zrínyi, daughter of Péter Zrínyi (executed by the Habsburgs) and niece of Miklós Zrínyi (the general and poet). His father died while he was still a baby and his mother eventually married Imre Thököly, the rebel. After the fall of Munkács, Rákóczi, then only 12, was separated from his mother and was educated abroad, under Habsburg supervision. In due course he married a German princess. To all intents and purposes, he became Austrian.

Nevertheless, the king never trusted Rákóczi, and in 1701 he was arrested and imprisoned in Vienna on charges of treason. He was facing the death penalty but his wife bribed the gaoler and Rákóczi escaped to Poland.

From there he was recalled by some rebelling peasants (there were always some rebelling peasants - and noblemen - in those times) in 1703 to lead them. The war between the kuruc (the Hungarian rebels) and the labanc (the Austrians and their lackeys) lasted 8 years and included the dethroning of the Habsburgs at the Diet (Parliament) of Ónod in 1707. It's known in Hungarian history as the Rákóczi War of Independence.

When the war of independence was lost in 1711, Rákóczi preferred to go into exile instead of swearing loyalty to the Habsburgs. He never returned home, dying in Turkey in 1735. His body was returned to Hungary in 1906 to be reburied in the cathedral of Kassa in Upper Hungary.

Unfortunately for his remains, however, the peace treaty at the end of World War I handed Kassa (now Kosice) to the new state of Czechoslovakia. Perhaps we should bring him home again (but then we don't want him to end up like Christopher Columbus, carted around and reburied every century).
Hungarian cavalry (kuruc) flag from 1706 (Rákóczi War of Independence)

The Enlightened Habsburgs & Their Hungarian Hussars (18th Century)

Well, after all that, it’s perhaps not so surprising that the Habsburgs were somewhat unpopular. Nevertheless, when Maria Theresa inherited the throne, and being a female this was disputed by foreign rulers, the Hungarian nobles – suckers, the lot of them – stood up in Parliament and offered their ‘life and blood’ for the queen. The story goes that she appeared in front of them with her babe in arms whom she repeatedly pinched to make him cry.

The uniforms of various Hungarian hussar regiments in 1762. Hadik’s hussar is the rightmost figure (in the back row). [Public domain via Wikipedia]

Maria Theresa fought several wars, none of which really concerned Hungary and the Hungarians, other than all these wars provided employment for the traditional Hungarian light cavalry, the hussars. Colonel (later General) András Hadik and his hussars in particular earned fame in the War of Austrian Succession and when they captured Berlin during the Seven Years War – still supposedly most famous military action ever carried out by hussars. 

On the home front (so to speak) Maria Theresia and her successors tried to introduce some enlightened ideas into their dominions: even the Habsburgs were capable of grasping, on occasion, that some reform was necessary if they wanted to prosper. Unfortunately, this didn’t change their absolutist tendencies, so they tried to introduce reform from above (seldom a good thing). The King in the Hat (Joseph II, ruled 1780-1790) in fact was so enlightened that he refused to be crowned king at all, so that he would not have to swear to observe the Hungarian constitution.

The Age of Reform & The Steam Puffing Thing-Pusher

By the end of the 18th century, what with the French revolution and then the Napoleonic wars, even the backward Hungarians started to get new ideas. The Jacobin conspiracy of certain nobles predictably ended with their heads chopped off in 1795. 

Some Hungarian nobles travelled aboard and came back with strange foreign ideas in their head, such as museums and railways, for example. Others realised that in a country where official business had been conducted in Latin for centuries, the language of the actual inhabitants was lagging behind the times in its vocabulary. To their movement of revitalising the language we owe such gems (still taught in Hungarian primary schools on account of their entertainment value) as nyaktekerészeti mellfekvenc, “on-chest thing twisted round the neck”, ie. necktie, or gőzpöfögészeti tovalöködönc, “steam puffing thing-pusher” (a locomotive)10.

Anyhow: all these enthusiastic patriots diligently appeared in Pozsony (today’s Bratislava, capital of Slovakia), where the Hungarian Parliament used to sit then11, to propose all sorts of exciting reforms to modernise the country. But no matter what exciting reforms the Parliament passed into law, the king just refused to sign them all. This went on for some thirty years, during the first half of the 19th century.

Portrait of Ferenc Kölcsey by Anton Einsle

One of the Parliamentarians, a minor noble by the name of Ferenc Kölcsey, got so disheartened about the whole business that he wrote a hymn to God in which he bewailed the terrible state of Hungary in pathetic terms. This depressing poem was subsequently wholeheartedly embraced by the populace and was adopted as the national anthem (so that the word himnusz now means both a hymn and a national anthem)12.

Bless the Magyar, Lord, we pray,
Nor in bounty fail him,
Shield him in the bloody fray
When his foes assail him.
He whom ill-luck long has cursed,
This year grant him pleasure,
He has suffered with the worst
Time beyond all measure.

(Ferenc Kölcsey: Hymn, 1823,
transl. by George Szirtes)

The Life of István Széchenyi, the Greatest Hungarian (1790-1860)

One of those Hungarian noblemen who travelled and came home with novel ideas was Count István Széchenyi, subsequently called the Greatest Hungarian by none other than Lajos Kossuth, the political leader of the 1848-49 War of Independence; and this, despite the fact that politically speaking they didn't quite see eye to eye.

István's father, Ferenc Széchenyi, founded the National Library and the National Museum. István himself travelled widely in Western Europe in his youth, most notably in England, and came back full of zeal for the modernisation of his country. To him we owe the first railway line, the Chain Bridge (the first permanent bridge between Buda and Pest), the steamships on the Danube (not to mention making the Danube navigable) and many other improvements. He committed huge amounts of his own money as well as his time and a lot of work to make his ideas into reality.

Politically, he always imagined his country within the Habsburg Empire - he was Minister of Transport & Communications in the Batthyány government - which is why he disagreed with the more radical Lajos Kossuth. He committed suicide in 1860, depressed about the state his beloved homeland was in after the war of independence.
Portrait of István Széchenyi, the Greatest Hungarian by Miklós Barabás

The Ides of March, 1848 A.D.

As you can see, the Hungarians overall did not get any happier with the Habsburgs since the time of Rákóczi, and ended up rebelling against their absolutist rule on 15 March 1848 in Pest. Very appropriately, for we are fond of our coffee houses, the revolution started in the Pilvax Café in Pest where a couple of young intellectuals were inspired by the news of a revolution in Vienna two days earlier.

On your feet now, Hungary calls you!
Now is the moment, nothing stalls  you,
Shall we be slaves or men set free
That is the question, answer me!
By all the gods of Hungary
We hereby swear
That the yoke of slavery
No more shall wear.

(Sándor Petôfi: National Song, 1848,
transl. by George Szirtes)

Portrait of Sándor Petőfi by Miklós Barabás

Following the lead of arguably the worst poet in Hungarian literature, Sándor Petőfi13, who wrote a rousing poem (the National Song) which he read out on the steps of the National Museum in Pest, the good people of Pest marched across the half-built Chain Bridge to Buda, where the Austrian governing council got so frightened that they immediately agreed to all 12 of their demands.

The famous Twelve Points included such novel ideas as the abolition of censorship, equality before the law, the removal Austrian soldiers from Hungary and a Hungarian government responsible to – shock, horror! –  the Hungarian Parliament…14

What Does the Hungarian Nation Wish For (aka The Twelve Points)

The effects of this entirely bloodless revolution unfortunately were too good to last. Although the king agreed to pretty much everything, and the Hungarian government (known as the Batthyány government, from the surname of the prime minister) was duly formed and various long overdue laws were immediately passed in Parliament and then signed by the king (the April Laws), by the beginning of the summer, the king had recovered from his first fight and begun to have second thoughts.

Since he approved the April Laws, however, it was politically somewhat embarrassing now to send out the Austrian army against his law abiding Hungarian subjects. He decided to act by proxy and sent the freshly appointed Ban of Croatia, Jelasics instead. When Jelasics was roundly beaten in the battle of Pákozd, not far from Pest-Buda, by the freshly set up Hungarian volunteer army, the king decided to send in the Austrian troops (on hearing which the Viennese rebelled again and hanged the Austrian war minister unceremoniously from a lamp post).

The first Hungarian ‘responsible’ (Batthyány) government, 1848, by Henrik Weber & József Tyroler [Public domain via Wikipedia]
Portrait of Lajos Kossuth, the political leader of the 1848-49 War of Independence by György Vastagh

And so we had another war of independence (1848-49) which included another dethronement of the Habsburgs, and ended when the Austrians, beaten out of the country, called in the Russian Tzar for help. He sent about two hundred thousand men, easily outnumbering the entire Hungarian army, and that was pretty much that.

Haynau’s Reign of Terror & the Passive Resistance 

Or Why You Should Never Clink Beer Glasses in Hungary

When General Görgey surrendered to the Russians on the field of Világos in August 1849, he did it in the belief that Russians would protect their prisoners of war. No such thing. They were all handed over to the Austrians who proceeded to take revenge, accusing all and sundry of treason (although since Franz Joseph, the new Austrian Emperor who succeeded to the Habsburg throne during the war of independence, had never been crowned King of Hungary, it’s difficult to see what legal leg they thought they were standing on).

Hungary was placed under the military governance of the Austrian General Haynau, already infamous as the Hyena of Brescia, brought specifically over from Italy for the purpose. He proceeded to execute the Prime Minister, Lajos Batthyány in Pest, and thirteen generals of the Hungarian army, most of whom he hanged as if they were common felons, in Arad (now Oradea in Romania), on 6 October 1849.

The Thirteen Martyrs of Arad by Miklós Barabás [Public domain via Wikipedia]

Haynau’s reign of terror was so bad that when news of it reached Western Europe it caused a general outcry. Suddenly he became an embarrassment to his emperor and was relieved of his post in Hungary. When he travelled around in Western Europe later, he was pelted with dung and chased in the street. 

Why You Should Never Clink Beer Glasses in Hungary

The story goes that the Austrian officers celebrated the execution of the thirteen generals under the gallows by clinking their beer glasses. As a consequence, no Hungarian will clink beer glasses ever since (the rule was supposed to expire after 150 years but we all got used to it by now). So if you want to clink glasses in Hungary, drink wine. (Traditionally Hungary was always a wine drinking country anyway.) :)

After Haynau’s departure, the 1850s passed under direct Austrian rule as the Austrians attempted forcefully incorporate Hungary into their empire. There was the odd minor rebellion (of course) but the era was characterised by the so called passive resistance, in which Hungarians insisted on abiding by the April Laws of 1848 only and basically refused to move a finger whenever the Austrian emperor (he still wasn’t crowned king of Hungary) wanted anything. This stalemate finally ended in the 1860s as both parties were exhausted – the Hungarians were badly in need of some kind of normality and running the unpacified country cost a small fortune to Austria who also had problems elsewhere (e.g. Italy, from where Garibaldi kicked them out for good).

Hence, eventually, the Compromise of 1867, resulting in a constitutional dual monarchy.

The Compromise (1867 A.D.)

And finally, this brings us to an actual map! (In fact, two.)

Administrative map of Hungary (map of the counties) in 1910. The internal boundary marks the border between Hungary and Slovenia-Croatia. The Osztrák Császárság (Austrian Empire), ie. half of the Dual Monarchy, is shown in the same grey as the neighbouring foreign countries (Bosnia, Serbia and Romania). [Source: Pictorial Historical Atlas for Primary Schools]

(I’m glad I didn’t go to school during the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, because instead of the 19 counties we have now, I would have had to learn the names of 72!) 

Portrait of Ferenc Deák by Bertalan Székely

The Compromise of 1867 was much debated at the time – and continues to be debated. Lajos Kossuth, who went into exile after the War of Independence, continued to argue throughout his life that Hungary should fight to regain full independence from Austria. Ferenc Deák, a less radical politician of the era, who stayed in Hungary, was (probably more realistically) inclined towards coming to an agreement with Austria. He was one of the main architects of the Compromise of 1867, which created the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Within the Monarchy, Hungary enjoyed considerable freedom, with her constitution restored and a Hungarian government set up to be responsible to a Hungarian Parliament. There was a catch: Finance, Defence and Foreign Policy was left in Austrian hands. This led to dire consequences later as Hungary was dragged into World War I, but it’s a bit harsh to blame Deák for this; he got what he could from the Austrians and Hungary prospered in the immediate aftermath.

Have a look at this:

The development of the railway network in Hungary (1867-1913). [Source: Pictorial Historical Atlas for Primary Schools]

The first railway line was built by Széchenyi between Pest and Vác (50 km to the north) and was opened in 1846 – just before the 1848-49 War of Independence. As you can see above, the era Dual Monarchy brought an explosive development of the railway lines – and not just railway lines. 

Economy, legal system, education, culture, industries, agriculture – Hungary had a lot to catch up on and after 1867 the country developed at a fast pace. The millennium of the foundation of Hungary was celebrated with a great display of wealth in 1896. Some of the greatest tourist sites in Budapest were built at this time: Fisherman’s Bastion, the Parliament, Heroes’ Square, the ‘little underground’ (the second ever underground railway in the world after the one in London). 

Even so in the eve of the World War I, Hungary was still a very backward country in comparison to most of the Western European countries, with lots of issues needing attention.

Recommended reading:The Town in Black by Kálmán Mikszáth (historical novel based on real events in the town of Lőcse, in the early 18th century)
The Baron's Sons by Mór Jókai (historical novel about the 1848-49 War of Independence)
Letters from Turkey: Chamberlain of the Last Prince of Transylvania by Kelemen Mikes (diary of Prince Ferenc Rákóczi II's chamberlain about the years of exile in Turkey, in the form of letters to a fictional aunt)
Black Diamonds by Mór Jókai (Romantic novel about an entrepreneur)

10. The Census (1910 A.D.) 

The nation lives in her language.

(István Széchenyi)

You might wonder why we want to look at a census map from more than a hundred years ago and how boring it’s going to be. Well – it’s a census whose results are still a bone of contention in several European countries… and therefore it’s worth looking at!

One of the many issues that remained unresolved between the Compromise of 1867 and World War I was the status of the large ethnic minorities in the country.

If you recall, by the end of the Turkish wars, large parts of Central Hungary were left unpopulated: the Hungarian population of those areas either died fighting or was carried off into slavery. At the same time, many refugees entered Hungary – in particular the more or less independent Transylvania – from the Balkans, which was under Ottoman rule. Further settlers arrived after the end of the war, invited in by the Habsburgs; the empty lands and the destroyed towns were repopulated. The end result was that ethnically the Hungarians became a minority in their own homeland. Numerically, they were still the largest group, but the other nationalities, all taken together, outnumbered the Hungarians.

In the following centuries, despite of the two wars of independence, the Hungarian population recovered somewhat, but Hungary remained a country with several large ethnic minorities. There was no reason why this should have led to trouble: Hungary had a long history of welcoming and gradually assimilating large groups of settlers, such as the nomadic Cumans in 12th-13th century.

For as guests come from diverse regions and provinces, they bring with them diverse languages and usages, and diverse learning and arms, all this adorns the country, raises the splendour of the court,  and abash the arrogance of aliens. For a kingdom of one tongue, or of one custom, is weak and fragile.

Wherefore I bid you, my son, support with a good will those arriving, and keep them in high regard, that they may prefer to continue to stay with you rather than to live elsewhere. 

(The Admonitions of St Stephen)

Unfortunately, however, Hungary was now under Habsburg rule and the Habsburgs maintained their power for centuries on the basis of the old maximof divide et impera – divide and rule. In the case of Hungary this meant, invariably, that whenever the Hungarians rebelled against the Habsburgs, which was often, the Habsburgs called on the other ethnicities to help them suppress the Hungarians. Obviously, they promised all sorts of rewards: the most well-known example (and most relevant to what came later) was employing the Croats under Ban Jelasics to attack Hungary in 1848. During the 1848-49 War of Independence,  the Habsburgs in fact promised to grant all ethnicities within Hungary those rights for which the Hungarians were just then fighting for – in exchange for their help of course15.

It’s not difficult to imagine the bad blood that this persistent Habsburg policy created among the Hungarians and the ethnic minorities resident in Hungary; and, unsurprisingly, the Hungarians did not champion for the freedom or rights of the ethnic minorities in the Compromise of 1867. 

The Hungary of the Dual Monarchy was no more enlightened than any other European state at the time and in many ways it was more backwards. Nevertheless, a Hungaro-Croatian Compromise followed within a year of the Austro-Hungarian compromise; but Croatia was special case as it was always an autonomist entity as part of a dynastic union and not part of Hungary as such. The other ethnic minorities – those within Hungary proper – had to content themselves with the nationality law of 1868 which granted them the use of their mother tongue in any area where their numbers reached 20% of the local population. This was as advanced a nationality law as you’d find anywhere else in Europe at the time, not that it satisfied the minorities, of course. But then, this was the age of nationalism all over Europe.

The following map is an ethnographical map of Hungary from 1919 based on the last census (1910) results before World War I:

Ethnographical map of Hungary based on the 1910 census by Pál Teleki; Hungarians in red, the white areas are unpopulated (usually mountain) areas [Public domain via Wikimedia Commons]

If you want to study the map in detail, including reading the legend (Hungarian, English & French) which also shows the population count for each ethnicity, please click the link in the caption for the full resolution image on Wikipedia but be aware that it’s very slow to load once you zoomed in.

The results of the 1910 census were subsequently questioned in the successor states of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy on the grounds that it used ‘mother tongue’ as the defining feature, rather than ‘ethnicity’ – the claim being that the Hungarian population is over-represented. Leaving aside the thorny issue of how exactly you determine somebody’s ethnicity if you ignore their self-confessed mother tongue, it’s worth pointing out here that Hungarians always defined themselves by their language (see the Széchenyi quote above) and continue to do so to this day. Which is not really surprising if you consider how racially mixed the population is and how different our language is from our neighbours’.

Recommended reading:
⇒ None! I mean, it's a census, for the love of God. Who wants to read a census (apart from those taking the British citizenship test in which they get to memorise outdated census data for the number of Sikhs in the UK - plus the speed limit on the motorway, even if they can't drive)?

11. Trianon: The Dismemberment of Hungary (1920 A.D.)

Can any one believe that the arrangements embodied in this Treaty are calculated to create peace? They are more likely to sow the seeds of future war, and that at a time when peace is the supreme need of the world.

(Lord Bryce, in the UK Parliament,
during the debate on the Treaty of Peace (Hungary) Bill,
5 May 1921)

The reason why you were treated to an ethnographic map of Hungary in the previous entry is called Trianon. This means nothing to most people in the world, although the French will be aware that Trianon is a palace near Versailles… 

Where the Treaty of Trianon, the peace treaty relating to Hungary after World War I, was signed.

We’re bypassing World War I itself here, because actually, Hungary had no real bone to pick with anyone. True, the assassinated Habsburg Crown Prince, Franz Ferdinand, was to be the future king of Hungary but as he was known for his anti-Hungarian sentiments and his desire to integrate Hungary into Austria doing away with the Dual Monarchy, he wasn’t exactly mourned by the Hungarians. Nor was the Hungarian Prime Minister, Count Tisza, in favour of starting a war – but of course, when Austria went to war, Hungary went to war, much as Scotland goes to war whenever England goes to war.

But unfortunately (in every sense) we cannot bypass the subsequent peace treaty: 

Treaty of Trianon (1920)

You can find more dramatic maps out there on the internet about the consequences of Trianon but they are invariably published in highly politicised context so I favoured this one from Wikipedia because instead of political rhetoric, it’s got figures. Always a good thing. 

That familiarly shaped entity enclosed in a red borderline in this infographic map above is Hungary (plus Croatia) as it was, more or less, for a thousand years. The rather pathetic little country in pink in the centre is what Hungary became in 1920 – and more or less remained, ever since.

For most Hungarians it’s still difficult to talk – or in this case to write – about Trianon with any kind of objectivity; the trauma is too great. I chewed my metaphorical pen for a long time trying to figure out how to approach this without losing the plot altogether. Finally Mr Anglo-Saxonist pointed out that as I was writing this in English for the English, I should just do what any Englishman would do: blame the French. 🙂 Well, yes. By and large, the French were the main architects of the treaty but they had plenty of help from others. 

In the Treaty of Trianon two-thirds of the territory of Hungary was assigned to neighbouring countries together with the population living in those areas. This population included about three and half million Hungarians (out of a nation of approximately ten million souls). The Treaty of Trianon was harsher than the peace treaty for Germany and clearly ignored the proclaimed guiding principle of national self-determination.

The reasons, facts and lies that surround the Treaty of Trianon constitute an extremely nasty can of worms even today which I have no intention of opening here, but here are some bizarre facts for you to mull over:

  • Even Austria got a chunk of Hungary, although it’s not clear what they’ve done to deserve it.
  • Romania, which started World War I as a neutral state, attacked Hungary (Transylvania) in 1916 at the request of the Allied Powers, then was beaten and agreed to a peace treaty, re-entered the war a day before it ended on 10 November. For this feat of arms it was rewarded by Transylvania (bigger than the territory that was left to Hungary itself).
  • The Czechs somehow appeared on the side of the victors despite of being part of the same defeated Austro-Hungarian Monarchy as the Hungarians – and were rewarded for their war effort agains the Allied Powers with the whole of Upper-Hungary, nowadays known as Slovakia.
  • Multi-ethnic Austria-Hungary was dismantled in the name of national self-determination for the ethnic minorities. Entirely logically then, two completely new multi-ethnic states were created: Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. We all know how successful they turned out to be.  

We could go on… but let’s not. The truth is you should never ask a Hungarian about Trianon if you don’t want to get a rant… nor anybody else in Central Europe. Some people and governments still spit venom.

Recommended reading:Debate in the House of Lords, UK Parliament on the Treaty of Peace (Hungary) Bill on 5 May 1921 (Hansard) - the debate recaptures all the main arguments, facts and misinformation, pro & con, relating to the treaty, and it's as unbiased as you're likely to find anywhere (the English had no dog in this particular fight). Note: there is an entertaining typo in part of the text where it consistently says Human instead of Ruman(ian). :)

12. The Vienna Awards (1938-1940 A.D.) 

As Lord Bryce pointed out in the British Parliament in 1921 – and I think he wasn’t the only one in those years – the peace treaties after World War I could only ever result in World War II. Not that this excuses Hitler and his ilk.

As far as Hungary was concerned in the aftermath of World War I she went through an extremely turbulent period: 

  • The Aster Revolution of 1918 (yes, that’s right, aster the flower) which established a rather short lived republic. Towards the end of the war, on 31 October, Hungary-  as usual – rebelled against the Habsburgs. The revolution is named after the flower which is used to decorate graves on All Saints Day and All Souls Day (1 and 2 November) – the rebelling soldiers and civilian population wore these flowers on their caps. 
  • The 133 days of the Soviet Republic, 1919. Unfortunately for the new Hungarian republic, not only it found itself in all sorts of economic and political problems at the collapse of the Dual Monarchy but it was then presented by the so called Vix Ultimatum in which the Allied Powers outlined their proposed peace treaty, demanding rather more land than agreed at the time of the armistice (in effect, what became the Treaty of Trianon). The government, unable to accept this, but having no army, yielded power to the Communist Party, letting their leaders out of prison. The Communists established a Soviet Republic (with all the atrocities that involves), raised an army and fought some successful actions and then were stupid enough to agree to peace talks.
  • The Romanian invasion, 1919. What they got instead of peace talks was a full scale Romanian invasion, which then resulted in the fall of the Soviet Republic. Eventually, the Romanian troops were told to go home by the Allied Powers (but not before they ransacked the country).
  • The monarchy without a king. Admiral Horthy of the Austro-Hungarian navy then took over, riding into Budapest on a white horse (1919) and restored the monarchy, although without a king.
  • The fourth (and final) dethroning of the Habsburgs, 1921. Charles IV, the Habsburg king, already kicked out of Austria made a couple of appearances in Hungary, attempting to claim a throne, so he was dethroned.

…. and so on. As you see, they were busy and turbulent times! In 1919 alone, the Hungarian population experienced 3 forms of government: republic, soviet republic and monarchy (two different monarchies at that!), plus a foreign occupation. There were villages (originally belonging to Hungary) where the inhabitants lived as citizens of five different countries in the 20th century, without ever having moved house…

Hungary was in an extremely difficult situation between the two world wars: the Treaty of Trianon not only inflicted large territorial and population losses but it also destroyed the economy, cutting off natural resources and transport links. There was a large influx of Hungarian refugees from the neighbouring countries and reparations to be paid to the victors. On top of that, she was surrounded by enemy countries, while only allowed to maintain an army of limited size, no conscription and no modern equipment such aeroplanes or tanks. Then of course came the financial crisis of 1929. Hungary was a monarchy without a king; ruled by an admiral without a navy. Bizarre doesn’t begin to describe it.

Not surprisingly Hungary had little space for political manoeuvring in the 1930s; and the larger Hitler’s shadow grew, the less options were left.

Admiral Horthy, the regent, had many faults but being fond of Hitler was not one of them. All the same, at first, it looked like Hungary might get lucky: Germany was seeking to change the terms of the WWI peace treaties, and Hungary was a collateral beneficiary in the aftermath of the Munich Agreement of 1938, when the First and Second Vienna Awards (in 1938 and 1940 respectively) returned those parts of Hungary where there was still a clear Hungarian  majority.  The result was this somewhat bizarrely shaped country:

Hungary and the Vienna Awards [Public domain via Wikipedia]

Needless to say, living in the shadow of Hitler was not a good thing. While Hungary was more than happy to receive some of her lost territories back, the price to pay was very high. With the German army standing on the border in 1941 and threatening to invade, Hungary’s choices were to be invaded or to side with the Germans. The Prime Minister shot himself and the country became a reluctant ally, participating in the invasion of Yugoslavia and then the Soviet Union under German command. Throughout World War II, the Hungarian government continued to seek help from the Allies but no help was forthcoming. Geographically, it’s easy to see why not.

The Germans used the ill-equipped Hungarian army as cannon fodder in Russia; the only thing the Hungarian government achieved during this time was keeping the Jews safe, although subject to various restrictions as demanded by Hitler. But in the end it was all in vain. In 1944 Germany deemed it safer to invade its manifestly reluctant and untrustworthy ally; within half a year the Russian troops entered the country too.

Both the Germans and the Russians behaved barbarically. Almost the first act of the German army was to carry off as many of the Hungarian Jews as they could, to gas them in various concentration camps in Austria and Poland. The war between the German and Russian army went on until April 1945; the siege of Budapest alone lasted months. During this time the Germans carried off or destroyed everything – they took all the gold from the national bank and the crown jewels, blew all the bridges, picked up the railway lines… The Russians for their part raped and murdered indiscriminately and carried off the population by the ten thousand into forced labour camps in the Soviet Union. Some came back after more than ten years; many never did16.

In World War II, Hungary lost nearly a million people out of a population of eight million; most of them were civilians. It was one of the highest losses of human life by percentage of population in the world.


Recommended reading:
Memoir of Hungary by Sándor Márai (based on Márai's diaries, this book tells the story of Hungary between 1944 and 1948, including the siege of Budapest in 1944-45) ⇒ Embers by Sándor Márai (a novel about the meeting of two old friends, set between the two world wars, in which they look back on their youth during the era of the Dual Monarchy)
Ábel Alone by Áron Tamási (a novel set in Romanian Transylvania after World War I about a Székely-Hungarian teenage boy who works alone in the wilderness)
People of the Puszta by Gyula Illyés (a curious but very interesting mixture of autobiography and sociography about the poorest of the poor in a region of Transdanubia, Western Hungary at the beginning of the 20th century)
Camp Notebook by Miklós Radnóti (the notebook of a poet of Jewish decent who was taken for forced labour during World War II and did not survive). You might find his poetry in English under other titles as well, such as Foamy Sky or Forced March.

+1 : Europe According to the Hungarians (2013)

There’s of course quite a lot more to Hungarian history after World War II:

  • the Russian occupation
  • the hyperinflation of 1946
  • the 1956 revolution
  • the goulash communism of the 1970s
  • the so called ‘change of the system’ in 1989-90, when Hungary finally got rid of both communism and the Russian troops…

But I think you had enough history for one day and besides, no good maps come to mind. 🙂

As a farewell bonus, however, enjoy this tongue-in-cheek map from the book Atlas of Prejudice: The Complete Stereotype Map Collection by Bulgarian author Yanko Tsvetkov:

Europe According to Hungary 2013 [Source: Atlas of Prejudice by Yanko Tsvetkov]

And from the other side of the borders, what some fellow Europeans think of Hungary (still according to Tsvetkov’s Atlas of Prejudice): 

  • Losts Souls (Austria)
  • Southern Estonia (Latvia)
  • Cool Dudes (Poland)
  • Landlocked Aliens (Portugal)
  • Barbarians (Romania)
  • Huns (Russia)
Notes:
¹ The year was 1566 and Suleyman led an army of 150,000 + men equipped with powerful siege artillery against Hungary (yet again). The little castle of Szigetvár in Southern Hungary, defended by Count Miklós Zrínyi and approximately 2300 Hungarian and Croatian troops, was his first objective. Szigetvár, whom the Habsburg king (the Emperor Maximilian) refused to relieve, fell after a month's siege - but not before Suleyman, who was annoyed at the defenders tenacity, died of apoplexy. In a bizarre twist, his body was then popped up in front of his tent in plain view of his troops for the rest of the siege, lest the Turkish soldiers should become disheartened.
² Let's add paprika, goulash, hussars and being responsible for the English word coach. ³ For the non-linguists among you: this means that English has more in common with Greek, Latin, Persian or Urdu (all Indo-European languages) than it has with Hungarian. Just to put things into context. :) See a map of the distribution of Indo-European languages here.
4 Except apparently nobody actually prayed with those exact words! The quote is very well known in Hungary (well, it would be) and recently the Hungarian academic Miklós Halmágyi tried to track it down. He published his findings in the magazine Aetas (2007/3). He found the following phrases: "ab Ungerorum nos defendas iaculis", recorded in Modena (Italy) in the early 900s, and "ab incursione alienigenarum libera nos Domine", recorded in Freising (Germany). The phrase in its current form seems to have been originated with Lajos Kossuth, a Hungarian stateman in the 19th century, who must have conflated the two, creating something snappier. (Well, he was a great orator, although he might have just failed to remember the original quote correctly.) You can find the article (in Hungarian) here.
5 It still would make a good base for nomadic horsemen: the water continues to be sweet, the grass lush and the soil rich. :)
6 Well, there were some isolated instances of them actually setting sail from some Adriatic port. But not many. ... There was, however, an attempt made to set up a Hungarian Navy in 1848 - you can read the curious story on this blog:
Anomaly (Or the Navy of a Landlocked Country)
Implacabile (The Corvette that Never Was)
7 Strictly speaking, there were some more Hungarian kings after him - the odd nobleman or two who managed to have himself elected, some even managed to get as far getting himself crowned. They didn't last long and they ruled parts of the country while the rest was held by parallel claimants or the enemy.
8 We've got a very popular crown; it's been all the way to Fort Knox (US) even. The thing is, Hungarian law required that to be legitimate, a king had to be crowned with the Holy Crown and at the coronation he had to swear to the Hungarian constitution. This law led to two (presumably unforeseen) consequences in Hungarian history: one that the crown was repeatedly stolen, copied and hidden by pretenders, pregnant widowed queens and generally, all and sundry; and two, that some rulers, succeeding to the Hungarian thrown in peaceful or violent fashion, refused to be crowned so that they would not be hampered by the constitution and could enforce an absolutist rule. Indeed, the crown, symbol of the Hungarian state, has an extremely checkered history, as perhaps you could guess by the fact that the cross on the top is bent.
9 Gross oversimplification of course but have you seen how long this post already is?! Well, then.
10 As you can guess, they did not take. Nyaktekerészeti mellfekvenc in due course became nyakkendő (neckkerchief), while gőzpöfögészeti tovalöködönc was replaced by mozdony (literally, mover). Csőszerű orr (pipelike nose) on the other hand successfully abbreviated into csőr (beak) while zengő tambura (resonant tamboura) became zongora (piano), with most of the population nowadays being totally ignorant of their bizarre origins.
11 The Habsburgs thought that Buda was too far for them to menace the Parliamentarians, therefore they insisted that the Hungarian Parliament sit in Pozsony (Bratislava), much closer to the Austrian capital and its armies.
12 We also have a sort of secondary anthem, the Szózat (Oration or perhaps Appeal) by Mihály Vörösmarty (1836) - a bit more rousing but similarly depressing overall.
13 You can read about how bad he was in my post which compares him to Robert Burns:
Burns vs Petőfi: Or Whose National Poet Is More S**t?
14 You can find the Twelve Points translated into English here. Its yearly recital by rebellious spirits on 15 March (the forbidden national day during Communism) was a major embarrassment for the Communist regime as the Twelve Points remained eerily accurate and relevant to the country's situation more than a hundred years after they were written.
15 Needless to say, the Habsburgs did not keep their promise: according to a famous saying, after the failed 1848-49 War of Independence the nationalities who sided with Austria got the same oppression for their reward that the Hungarians got for punishment.
16 Don't bother to claim it's not true: sadly my own family can testify to the behaviours of both the Germans and the Russians during World War II and to the forced labour camps in Russia. Links / Further reading:List of countries by Nobel laureates per capita; Most Successful Countries in the Olympics per capita; Strongest Chess Nations (Grandmasters per capita)The Lost Rider: A bilingual anthology (bad Hungarian poetry in worse translations - OK, some of them are passable) :)

Disclaimer:
This is a highly selective history of Hungary based on maps and it's meant to be entertaining. It's naturally biased; but I falsified no facts.

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