29 December 2023

Tolls of the Treaty of Trianon

From Budapest: Portrait of a City Between East and West, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 268-270:

All day throughout Hungary on Friday, 4 June 1920 church bells tolled a dirge, black flags flew over public buildings, traffic came to a standstill in the centre of Budapest for long periods, newspapers appeared with black borders and funeral services were held in churches. It was the day the Treaty of Trianon was signed – still regarded 100 years later ‘as the most devastating tragedy in the nation’s history…a live issue now from which Hungary has not recovered’, according to the philosopher Miklós Haraszti, who under the post-Second World War Communist regime was a dissident leader and in the 1970s the last political prisoner in the country. Trianon ‘was the vivisection of the nation…the death certificate of the 1,000-year realm of King Stephen’.

Hungary was the biggest loser from the First World War – around a third of its territory was handed over to successor states to form new nations, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Large slices of Hungary were given over by the Great Powers to existing states: the whole of Transylvania, part of historic Hungary for hundreds of years, was given to Romania. Half of the population was lost and millions of Hungarians became ‘foreigners’ in new countries overnight. Towns and cities with deep Hungarian roots were renamed: Kassa became Košice in Slovakia, Kolozsvár in Transylvania became Cluj: Temesvár in Romania was now Timişoara; Pozsony became the Slovak capital, Bratislava. As Horthy remarked on the day the treaty was signed: ‘They dismembered the Germans, the Bulgarians and the Turks too. But from them they only took only one or two fingers. From the Hungarians they took his hands and feet.’

The peacemakers of the new world order – particularly the French, who pushed hardest in the Trianon talks – believed they were acting in the interests of self-determination for peoples who had been long held subject. The Hungarians thought they were victims of an ahistorical act of vindictive punishment. The Hungarian army was limited to no more than 35,000 troops and was allowed no heavy artillery, tanks or an air force. Hungary – like Germany – was forced to pay enormous reparations. The French President, Georges Clemenceau, declared that Hungary would be ‘permanently deprived of the means of making war’.

For long afterwards in kindergartens and schools, during church services and in the press, the notion that the lost territories could be restored was kept alive. The slogan taught to children – and often used as a greeting when people met socially – was: ‘No, No Never’ – meaning ‘No, it can never happen’. The saying modulated daily life in Hungary between the wars. The legacy of Trianon defined life in Horthy’s Hungary....

Rump Hungary became a homogeneous state in a way it had never been in 1,000 years. Only 10 per cent of the population were not ethnic Magyars or did not use Hungarian as their native tongue. Trianon, as Paul Lendvai, the best historian of 1920s and 1930s Hungary, noted, ‘was the breeding ground for the transformation of nationalism from an ideology of liberation to one of distraction’. A hundred years later, in the 2020s, the best-selling items of tat in cheap market stalls are pre-Trianon fridge magnets and plastic flags with Greater Hungary maps.

The post-Trianon shock determined the Horthy regime’s revisionist policies. It drove public opinion to an ever more extreme nationalism and further isolated the country from its neighbours. After the peace treaty, ‘Hungary became the quintessential have-not state, ready to ally itself with the Devil himself to undo the injustices perpetrated at Trianon.’ All politics was seen through the prism of the infamous treaty.

28 December 2023

Budapest in 1919

From Budapest: Portrait of a City Between East and West, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 253-256:

The country was renamed the Hungarian Socialist Republic of Soviets – an imitation of Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik regime in Russia, with all its expropriations, nationalizations, regimentation and terror. Short and unprepossessing, [Bela] Kun had a squat face, almost no neck and a flaccid mouth. But he was a surprisingly gifted speaker and showed some remarkably practical common sense amid the ideological jargon. A torrent of decrees poured out from the Revolutionary Council, but they were patchily implemented, especially outside Budapest. Not all of them were stupid and Kun’s regime, mainly of passionate young revolutionaries – Kun was one of the oldest in the leadership at the age of thirty-three – were convinced they could out-Lenin Lenin.

The Kun regime’s first decree on 21 March 1919, day one of the Revolution, proclaimed martial law and imposed the death penalty for any acts of ‘subversion’, which meant any opposition to his committee of Soviets. The second day he replaced the existing judicial system with ‘Revolutionary tribunals’ along the lines of those that had operated in the French Revolution.


Red Terror began from the Commune’s first day, presided over by Tibor Szamuely, a sinister figure who modelled himself on Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of the Russian Soviets’ secret service, the Cheka. He introduced Red death squads – the most feared, active in many parts of Budapest, were the red-scarved and leather-jacketed Lenin Boys led by a sadistic twenty-three-year-old thug, József Czerny. It is estimated that at least 1,000 people were murdered in Budapest and the surrounding area in 133 days.


The Russian Bolsheviks gave the Hungarian Soviet plenty of vocal support and a modest sum of financial backing, but when it faced the prospect of losing power did nothing to intervene on behalf of world revolution or the cause of Communism close-ish to home – Hungary has a border with Ukraine, then still part of the Russian Empire. Romanian and Czech troops invaded Hungary in the summer of 1919 in their battle for independence and nationhood. Between them they controlled nearly half the country by the time the Kun regime collapsed and its leadership fled – most of them to Russia. The Romanians occupied Budapest from 4 August. Three nightmare months ‘of horror and misery as bad as the Soviet Commune followed…it was one of the darkest periods,’ one survivor of the invasion recalled. ‘The Romanians embarked on a systematic programme of looting, expropriation, deportations and terror.’

Children were taken from homes and sent into servitude in Romanian villages and towns. More than 500 Hungarians were murdered by Romanian troops and estimates suggest that 1,000 women were raped. Valuable art treasures, large amounts of agricultural produce and industrial plant were loaded on trains and sent east to Romania. They stole, among other things, 4,000 telephones from private homes they had ransacked. Bands of soldier-looters took railway locomotives and carriages, industrial machinery, and thousands of horses and cattle worth nearly 3 million gold crowns, more than twelve times in value than all the loans Hungary received four years later to get the country back on its feet. The Romanians took treasures from the National Museum, but were prevented from taking more by Brigadier General Harry Hill Bandholtz, the American member of the Allied Control Commission, which was supposed to supervise the Romanian army’s disengagement from Hungary.

Kun escaped in November 1919 and found refuge in Russia. As he left, without a hint of irony, he told a comrade: ‘the Hungarian proletariat betrayed us’ – by ‘us’ he meant the Communists. For a while he was treated as a hero in Soviet Russia, as one of the leading martyrs of the cause of world revolution. He was relatively successful in a series of roles in the Comintern in the 1920s and early 1930s. But Stalin loathed him. He disappeared into the great maw of the Gulag and was shot during the Great Purge in 1938.

26 December 2023

The Bishop and the Navajo "Long Walk"

From Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather (Project Gutenberg, 2023; Knopf, 1927), Book 9, Chapter 7:

THE Bishop's middle years in New Mexico had been clouded by the persecution of the Navajos and their expulsion from their own country. Through his friendship with Eusabio he had become interested in the Navajos soon after he first came to his new diocese, and he admired them; they stirred his imagination. Though this nomad people were much slower to adopt white man's ways than the homestaying Indians who dwelt in pueblos, and were much more indifferent to missionaries and the white man's religion, Father Latour felt a superior strength in them. There was purpose and conviction behind their inscrutable reserve; something active and quick, something with an edge. The expulsion of the Navajos from their country, which had been theirs no man knew how long, had seemed to him an injustice that cried to Heaven. Never could he forget that terrible winter when they were being hunted down and driven by thousands from their own reservation to the Bosque Redondo, three hundred miles away on the Pecos River. Hundreds of them, men, women, and children, perished from hunger and cold on the way; their sheep and horses died from exhaustion crossing the mountains. None ever went willingly; they were driven by starvation and the bayonet; captured in isolated bands, and brutally deported.

It was his own misguided friend, Kit Carson, who finally subdued the last unconquered remnant of that people; who followed them into the depths of the Canyon de Chelly, whither they had fled from their grazing plains and pine forests to make their last stand. They were shepherds, with no property but their live-stock, encumbered by their women and children, poorly armed and with scanty ammunition. But this canyon had always before proved impenetrable to white troops. The Navajos believed it could not be taken. They believed that their old gods dwelt in the fastnesses of that canyon; like their Shiprock, it was an inviolate place, the very heart and centre of their life.

Carson followed them down into the hidden world between those towering walls of red sandstone, spoiled their stores, destroyed their deep-sheltered corn-fields, cut down the terraced peach orchards so dear to them. When they saw all that was sacred to them laid waste, the Navajos lost heart. They did not surrender; they simply ceased to fight, and were taken. Carson was a soldier under orders, and he did a soldier's brutal work. But the bravest of the Navajo chiefs he did not capture. Even after the crushing defeat of his people in the Canyon de Chelly, Manuelito was still at large. It was then that Eusabio came to Santa Fé to ask Bishop Latour to meet Manuelito at Zuñi. As a priest, the Bishop knew that it was indiscreet to consent to a meeting with this outlawed chief; but he was a man, too, and a lover of justice. The request came to him in such a way that he could not refuse it. He went with Eusabio.

Though the Government was offering a heavy reward for his person, living or dead, Manuelito rode off his own reservation down into Zuñi in broad daylight, attended by some dozen followers, all on wretched, half-starved horses. He had been in hiding out in Eusabio's country on the Colorado Chiquito.

It was Manuelito's hope that the Bishop would go to Washington and plead his people's cause before they were utterly destroyed. They asked nothing of the Government, he told Father Latour, but their religion, and their own land where they had lived from immemorial times. Their country, he explained, was a part of their religion; the two were inseparable. The Canyon de Chelly the Padre knew; in that canyon his people had lived when they were a small weak tribe; it had nourished and protected them; it was their mother. Moreover, their gods dwelt there—in those inaccessible white houses set in caverns up in the face of the cliffs, which were older than the white man's world, and which no living man had ever entered. Their gods were there, just as the Padre's God was in his church.

And north of the Canyon de Chelly was the Shiprock, a slender crag rising to a dizzy height, all alone out on a flat desert. Seen at a distance of fifty miles or so, that crag presents the figure of a one-masted fishing-boat under full sail, and the white man named it accordingly. But the Indian has another name; he believes that rock was once a ship of the air. Ages ago, Manuelito told the Bishop, that crag had moved through the air, bearing upon its summit the parents of the Navajo race from the place in the far north where all peoples were made,—and wherever it sank to earth was to be their land. It sank in a desert country, where it was hard for men to live. But they had found the Canyon de Chelly, where there was shelter and unfailing water. That canyon and the Shiprock were like kind parents to his people, places more sacred to them than churches, more sacred than any place is to the white man. How, then, could they go three hundred miles away and live in a strange land?

Moreover, the Bosque Redondo was down on the Pecos, far east of the Rio Grande. Manuelito drew a map in the sand, and explained to the Bishop how, from the very beginning, it had been enjoined that his people must never cross the Rio Grande on the east, or the Rio San Juan on the north, or the Rio Colorado on the west; if they did, the tribe would perish. If a great priest, like Father Latour, were to go to Washington and explain these things, perhaps the Government would listen.

Father Latour tried to tell the Indian that in a Protestant country the one thing a Roman priest could not do was to interfere in matters of Government. Manuelito listened respectfully, but the Bishop saw that he did not believe him. When he had finished, the Navajo rose and said:

"You are the friend of Cristobal, who hunts my people and drives them over the mountains to the Bosque Redondo. Tell your friend that he will never take me alive. He can come and kill me when he pleases. Two years ago I could not count my flocks; now I have thirty sheep and a few starving horses. My children are eating roots, and I do not care for my life. But my mother and my gods are in the West, and I will never cross the Rio Grande."

He never did cross it. He lived in hiding until the return of his exiled people. For an unforeseen thing happened:

The Bosque Redondo proved an utterly unsuitable country for the Navajos. It could have been farmed by irrigation, but they were nomad shepherds, not farmers. There was no pasture for their flocks. There was no firewood; they dug mesquite roots and dried them for fuel. It was an alkaline country, and hundreds of Indians died from bad water. At last the Government at Washington admitted its mistake—which governments seldom do. After five years of exile, the remnant of the Navajo people were permitted to go back to their sacred places.

In 1875 the Bishop took his French architect on a pack trip into Arizona to show him something of the country before he returned to France, and he had the pleasure of seeing the Navajo horsemen riding free over their great plains again. The two Frenchmen went as far as the Canyon de Chelly to behold the strange cliff ruins; once more crops were growing down at the bottom of the world between the towering sandstone walls; sheep were grazing under the magnificent cottonwoods and drinking at the streams of sweet water; it was like an Indian Garden of Eden.

Now, when he was an old man and ill, scenes from those bygone times, dark and bright, flashed back to the Bishop: the terrible faces of the Navajos waiting at the place on the Rio Grande where they were being ferried across into exile; the long streams of survivors going back to their own country, driving their scanty flocks, carrying their old men and their children. Memories, too, of that time he had spent with Eusabio on the Little Colorado, in the early spring, when the lambing season was not yet over,—dark horsemen riding across the sands with orphan lambs in their arms—a young Navajo woman, giving a lamb her breast until a ewe was found for it.

"Bernard," the old Bishop would murmur, "God has been very good to let me live to see a happy issue to those old wrongs. I do not believe, as I once did, that the Indian will perish. I believe that God will preserve him."

24 December 2023

Bishop and Vicar in Navajo Country

From Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather (Project Gutenberg, 2023; Knopf, 1927), Book 7, Chapter 3:

Although Jean Marie Latour and Joseph Vaillant were born in neighbouring parishes in the Puy-de-Dôm, as children they had not known each other. The Latours were an old family of scholars and professional men, while the Vaillants were people of a much humbler station in the provincial world. Besides, little Joseph had been away from home much of the time, up on the farm in the Volvic mountains with his grandfather, where the air was especially pure, and the country quiet salutary for a child of nervous temperament. The two boys had not come together until they were Seminarians at Montferrand, in Clermont.

When Jean Marie was in his second year at the Seminary, he was standing on the recreation ground one day at the opening of the term, looking with curiosity at the new students. In the group, he noticed one of peculiarly unpromising appearance; a boy of nineteen who was undersized, very pale, homely in feature, with a wart on his chin and tow-coloured hair that made him look like a German. This boy seemed to feel his glance, and came up at once, as if he had been called. He was apparently quite unconscious of his homeliness, was not at all shy, but intensely interested in his new surroundings. He asked Jean Latour his name, where he came from, and his father's occupation. Then he said with great simplicity:

"My father is a baker, the best in Riom. In fact, he's a remarkable baker."

Young Latour was amused, but expressed polite appreciation of this confidence. The queer lad went on to tell him about his brother and his aunt, and his clever little sister, Philomène. He asked how long Latour had been at the Seminary.

"Have you always intended to take orders? So have I, but I very nearly went into the army instead."

The year previous, after the surrender of Algiers, there had been a military review at Clermont, a great display of uniforms and military bands, and stirring speeches about the glory of French arms. Young Joseph Vaillant had lost his head in the excitement, and had signed up for a volunteer without consulting his father. He gave Latour a vivid account of his patriotic emotions, of his father's displeasure, and his own subsequent remorse. His mother had wished him to become a priest. She died when he was thirteen, and ever since then he had meant to carry out her wish and to dedicate his life to the service of the Divine Mother. But that one day, among the bands and the uniforms, he had forgotten everything but his desire to serve France.

Suddenly young Vaillant broke off, saying that he must write a letter before the hour was over, and tucking up his gown he ran away at full speed. Latour stood looking after him, resolved that he would take this new boy under his protection. There was something about the baker's son that had given their meeting the colour of an adventure; he meant to repeat it. In that first encounter, he chose the lively, ugly boy for his friend. It was instantaneous. Latour himself was much cooler and more critical in temper; hard to please, and often a little grey in mood.

During their Seminary years he had easily surpassed his friend in scholarship, but he always realized that Joseph excelled him in the fervour of his faith. After they became missionaries, Joseph had learned to speak English, and later, Spanish, more readily than he. To be sure, he spoke both languages very incorrectly at first, but he had no vanity about grammar or refinement of phrase. To communicate with peons, he was quite willing to speak like a peon.

Though the Bishop had worked with Father Joseph for twenty-five years now, he could not reconcile the contradictions of his nature. He simply accepted them, and, when Joseph had been away for a long while, realized that he loved them all. His Vicar was one of the most truly spiritual men he had ever known, though he was so passionately attached to many of the things of this world. Fond as he was of good eating and drinking, he not only rigidly observed all the fasts of the Church, but he never complained about the hardness and scantiness of the fare on his long missionary journeys. Father Joseph's relish for good wine might have been a fault in another man. But always frail in body, he seemed to need some quick physical stimulant to support his sudden flights of purpose and imagination. Time and again the Bishop had seen a good dinner, a bottle of claret, transformed into spiritual energy under his very eyes. From a little feast that would make other men heavy and desirous of repose, Father Vaillant would rise up revived, and work for ten or twelve hours with that ardour and thoroughness which accomplished such lasting results.

The Bishop had often been embarrassed by his Vicar's persistence in begging for the parish, for the Cathedral fund and the distant missions. Yet for himself, Father Joseph was scarcely acquisitive to the point of decency. He owned nothing in the world but his mule, Contento. Though he received rich vestments from his sister in Riom, his daily apparel was rough and shabby. The Bishop had a large and valuable library, at least, and many comforts for his house. There were his beautiful skins and blankets—presents from Eusabio and his other Indian friends. The Mexican women, skilled in needlework and lace-making and hem-stitching, presented him with fine linen for his person, his bed, and his table. He had silver plate, given him by the Olivares and others of his rich parishioners. But Father Vaillant was like the saints of the early Church, literally without personal possessions.

In his youth, Joseph had wished to lead a life of seclusion and solitary devotion; but the truth was, he could not be happy for long without human intercourse. And he liked almost everyone. In Ohio, when they used to travel together in stagecoaches, Father Latour had noticed that every time a new passenger pushed his way into the already crowded stage, Joseph would look pleased and interested, as if this were an agreeable addition—whereas he himself felt annoyed, even if he concealed it. The ugly conditions of life in Ohio had never troubled Joseph. The hideous houses and churches, the ill-kept farms and gardens, the slovenly, sordid aspect of the towns and country-side, which continually depressed Father Latour, he seemed scarcely to perceive. One would have said he had no feeling for comeliness or grace. Yet music was a passion with him. In Sandusky it had been his delight to spend evening after evening with his German choir-master, training the young people to sing Bach oratorios.

Nothing one could say of Father Vaillant explained him. The man was much greater than the sum of his qualities. He added a glow to whatever kind of human society he was dropped down into. A Navajo hogan, some abjectly poor little huddle of Mexican huts, or a company of Monsignori and Cardinals at Rome—it was all the same.

22 December 2023

Language Change in Budapest

From Budapest: Portrait of a City Between East and West, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 198-199:

Demographics as well as politics were changing on both sides of the Danube, principally the rapid decline in the use of the German language – a victory for the cause of Hungarian nationalism. The German populations almost everywhere else in Central and Eastern Europe maintained their German heritage and their separation from the other, mainly Slavic, populations surrounding them – in the Czech lands, Galicia and parts of Romania. In Buda and Pest, if not the rest of Hungary, things progressed differently. The German-Austrian populations in Pest and Buda merged with, and then were absorbed by, the Magyars into a linguistic, political and cultural ‘Hungarianness’.

Another big demographic factor was the rapid influx of immigrants, mostly Jews, into Pest, who adopted the Hungarian language to assimilate into Magyar life. The main political manager of the unification was a prominent son of immigrants whose family had moved to Pest in the 1820s, the vastly experienced (and wealthy) Moritz Wahrmann. In 1869 he was the first Jew elected to the Hungarian Parliament, for the Leopoldváros (Leopoldtown) district of Pest, an area of large town houses and a few commercial businesses in the finance sector, populated by many better-off Jews. A close associate of Andrássy and a moderate Liberal, he steered the legislation uniting the city through Parliament. By then, though, the population of Buda was in decline compared with that of Pest. In 1848 the population was nearly even, with 46 per cent in Buda. Twenty years later this proportion fell to 25 per cent. By 1900 only one in six of the city’s inhabitants lived in Buda.

There was snobbery and parochialism on both sides of the river for decades after the unification. The writer Sándor Márai could be happy only in Buda, close to the Castle district where he lived, until he emigrated to the US after the Second World War. A Pest loyalist profoundly disagreed: ‘The Danube flows along the edge of Budapest, because Buda is not really one half of the capital city but merely a place for excursions,’ wrote Adolf Ágai, founder and long-time editor of the humour magazine Borsszem Jankó and author of the classic Travels from Pest to Budapest. ‘It is naturally right to rejoice in the dawn of tomorrow even while looking back wistfully to yesterday,’ he wrote. ‘Pest represents dynamism of the present and future…the other side is sleepy and secretive…I think highly of Buda but I am not familiar with it. My imagination remains baffled by its monotonous hills and valleys…I have travelled through all the great capitals of Europe but Buda remains a foreign place to me.’

20 December 2023

Austro-Hungarian Ausgleich Quirks

From Budapest: Portrait of a City Between East and West, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 191-194:

By the day of the coronation only the most dissenting voices in the court were complaining about the Compromise. Most had come round to accepting it as a consummate act of outstanding diplomacy by the emperor. In Hungary Andrássy and Deák were declared the presiding political geniuses and it was generally agreed that the Hungarians had received from the arrangement more than they had thought possible a few years earlier. ‘Hungary won victory from defeat,’ as Jókai once said. He meant it with a degree of irony, but the phrase has stuck and entire histories of Hungary have been written with the famous phrase as their titles.


The old Hungarian constitution was re-established, giving the Hungarian nobles essentially the same rights they had before 1848, though technically serfdom was abolished. The Empire of Austria became the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary with two capitals, two parliaments (both with limited powers) and two Cabinets. Only the Foreign Minister, the War Minister and the Finance Minister acted for both (and even then only for financial issues that affected the Empire as a whole). It was a highly complex structure that gave the Hungarians far more power as a proportion of their population. But Austria was far richer and paid 70 per cent of Imperial costs.

The system worked, for the moment, by balancing and safeguarding the Magyars’ sense of identity and the dynastic sovereignty of the Habsburgs. It was an intricate and fragile system, which worked for a limited period and gave rise, in Hungary at least, to an extraordinary spurt of prosperity and creativity. Essentially, modern Budapest is the product of the Dual Monarchy – and despite sporadic hostile reactions in Hungary, people were more satisfied with it than frustrated. It had plenty of absurdities: Hungary was under the king-emperor’s rule but was not subject to the Austrian Imperial government, a fact that wasn’t even mentioned in the Compromise Laws that brought the new empire into being and would cause severe problems later.


The nomenclature of ‘dualism’ had to be navigated with extreme tact for there were endless snares and traps. The joint institutions were called ‘Imperial and royal’ (kaiserlich und königlich), or k.u.k. The Hungarians had insisted on ‘and’ to signify that they were equal. The purely Austrian offices were called Imperial-royal k.u.k., but the purely Hungarian ones just royal (königlich, or simply k). But in Budapest the term magyar királyi (Hungarian royal) was in general use, abbreviated as often as not on official signs in Budapest as magy.k.

Hungary was even more caste-conscious and hierarchical than Austria. Titles were important and there were highly complex rules about how to address different grades in the civil service. The first two grades were addressed as Gracious Sir (kegyelmes), grades three to five as Dignified Sir (méltóságos), grades six to nine as Great Sir (nagyságos) and grades ten and eleven as Respectable Sir (tekintetes or cimzetes). This was followed in various ways in a whole range of other managerial jobs and professions, and navigating proper usage was a minefield until after the Second World War.

18 December 2023

Habsburg Revenge on Hungary, 1849

From Budapest: Portrait of a City Between East and West, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 159-160:

Tsar Nicholas I – at least in public – urged the teenage Austrian emperor to show magnanimity to the defeated ‘rebels’. But Franz Jozsef, or his chief adviser, Prince Schwarzenberg, was in no mood for leniency. The savagery of Habsburg retribution against Hungary shocked Europe.

At dawn on 6 October 1849 Lajos Batthyány, the first Prime Minister of revolutionary Hungary, was dragged to the courtyard of the main military barracks in Pest. He had been held prisoner since the end of July and was sentenced to hang for treason by a court martial – even though it was established at his trial that he had argued against Hungary declaring independence precisely on the grounds that it could be seen as treasonous. He was too weak to stand or walk so he had to be carried from his cell to the place of execution; three days earlier he had tried to cut his throat with a knife smuggled into the jail by his wife. It was seen as a dishonour for a nobleman to die by hanging, therefore he had done what he could to avoid the shame. The prison infirmary had saved his life so that he was fit enough to be killed. In what was described as an act of leniency, the court changed its sentence to death by firing squad. He was shot sitting on a chair. He refused to have his eyes covered by a blindfold – and he himself gave the order for the execution squad to fire. Like a true Hungarian aristocrat, he spoke in words from three languages ‘Allez Jäger, eljén a Haza’ (Long Live the Fatherland). His body lay in public at the scene of the execution for a day and a half – in what is now Szabadság tér (Liberty Square) in the heart of Budapest opposite the US Embassy, almost exactly on the spot where a more than life-size, awkward-looking statue of President Ronald Reagan has stood since the 1990s. On the same morning in Arad, Transylvania, now part of Romania, twelve Honvédség generals and a colonel were hanged. The date is one of the most important public holidays in Hungary.

General Baron Ludwig von Haynau was despatched to Budapest by the emperor and Schwarzenberg to teach ‘the Hungarians a lesson they will never forget’. He took up the challenge with alacrity. ‘I am the man who will restore order. I shall have hundreds shot, with a clear conscience,’ he told the General Staff in Vienna. The illegitimate son of Elector Wilhelm I of Hesse-Kassel, he was more widely known as the ‘Butcher of Brescia’ for the atrocities he had carried out in Lombardy, including the public flogging of women and girls he had accused of sedition, and the execution of a priest who was dragged from the altar of his church by soldiers directly to the gallows.

16 December 2023

Liszt's Languages

From Budapest: Portrait of a City Between East and West, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 130-131:

The concert at the Pesti Vigadó (House of Merriment), a splendid Baroque building that had miraculously survived the [1838] flood, on 12 February 1839 was a huge success; tickets changed hands for fantastical prices and an enormous sum was raised for flood victims. Liszt played for an hour and a half without a break – Beethoven, Schumann, some of his own pieces – and then conducted the orchestra until late into the night....

From then on he returned frequently to Hungary and eventually he was made the first head of the Hungarian Academy of Music, where for years he wielded vast influence in music and the arts generally in Hungary. He was given a grand mansion on Pest’s principal avenue, Andrássy út, where he lived for around three months of the year during the winter. The civic authorities and ambitious politicians from the Reform Movement were using him cynically, and Liszt was willing to be used. The height of his national acclaim – or of absurd hypocrisy, depending on one’s view – was a ceremony in January 1840 when he was made an honorary citizen of Pest and with great solemnity ‘was presented with a sword [a sabre] of honour: a souvenir from the martial race to its noble-hearted and world-famous son’, as the official programme for the event portentously declared. Many people had not yet realized it – neither his admirers nor his few critics – but Liszt could barely speak a word of Hungarian. This became obvious to everyone during the sword ceremony. He could have spoken German, which would at least have been understood by almost everyone in the Pest of those days. But the point about the event – and the National Theatre itself, where at that time German was not allowed to be spoken on stage during a performance – was to emphasize the critical importance of Hungarians speaking Hungarian. He ended up making an impassioned Hungarian nationalist speech in French. ‘At the very climax of his Hungarianization…his alien reality was revealed most fully,’ one of his critics wrote angrily.

Liszt had tried a few times to learn Hungarian and employed as language tutor a young academic reputed to be a brilliant teacher who had managed to get several dignitaries from the court in Vienna to at least utter a few sentences in Magyar. But, as he once admitted, he gave up the effort after five lessons when he encountered the word for unshakeability – tántorithatatlanság. Many of those trying to learn the language would have lost the will to carry on well before then. Liszt wrote to a newspaper after the National Theatre debacle: ‘Notwithstanding my lamentable ignorance of the Hungarian language, I am and shall remain until my end, a Magyar heart and soul.’

And he meant it. To a Hungarian friend in 1842, while on a Europe-wide concert tour, he wrote: ‘Sometimes my heart beats faster even at the sight of a postal stamp from Pest. It gives me such pleasure to be in your company. What is loud applause and endless acclaim worth compared to what all of you give me? Everywhere else I play for the audience, but in Hungary I play for the nation. And this is a noble and great thing, to make emotional contact in this manner with a nation such as ours.’

14 December 2023

Magyar's Main Modernizer

From Budapest: Portrait of a City Between East and West, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 109-111, 115:

In 1801, after serving 2,387 days in jail for a minor walk-on part in the Jacobin movement, Ferenc Kazinczy was released from prison. He felt no bitterness. ‘Examples had to be made to frighten the people,’ he wrote to a friend shortly before he was freed. He was forty-one, an erudite polyglot – translator of, among others, Shakespeare, Goethe, Molière and Schiller – and proprietor of a modest estate close to Buda. He still burned with a zeal for radical change in Hungary, but during his years of incarceration he abandoned an overtly political programme and any ideas of rebellion against the Habsburgs as impractical gestures that were bound to fail. From prison he had been corresponding with a group of like-minded Enlightenment figures, who came to the conclusion that the way to modernize Hungary, to create a new nation, was through its language and culture. Out of prison, he withdrew to his estate, Széphalom, and for the thirty years up to his death he devoted himself to a single passion: the renewal of the Hungarian language and literature. There were many others involved in what amounted to a cultural revolution, but Kazinczy was the practical genius and chief organizer of the so-called ‘Revival Movement’. Antal Szerb in his magnificent History of Hungarian Literature described him as ‘a dictator of literary life’ – though another twentieth-century admirer, the writer László Németh, called Kazinczy ‘the telephone switchboard’.

The revival of the language was the focus of his life. Kazinczy was the leader of the ‘neologists’ who invented modern Hungarian. They transformed the grammar, standardized the syntax, enriched the vocabulary, produced dictionaries and lexicons, and gave new life to a moribund tongue. A twenty-first-century Hungarian would be hard-pressed to understand the archaic, formal and inflexible Magyar used in the eighteenth century – they would feel it was almost entirely foreign, rather as though Chaucer’s English were still being used today. ‘Magyar is half dead, atrophied…worn out. It has lost all vigour and freshness of the centuries long gone,’ he said when he embarked on his undertaking.

There had been a few brilliant exceptions from the Early Middle Ages onwards, but Kazinczy and his collaborators knew that in reality, at this point, there was very little literature in Hungarian. The literary language was German. Few in the poorer classes were literate. Most of the nobles and the tiny middle class, those who were literate, read in German and spoke in German within their family or social circle – and governed in Latin. Alone in Europe, Latin was the official language in Hungary, used in the courts and the bureaucracy. In the rest of the Habsburg Empire, from the Baltic to the Adriatic, the official language was German – ‘We don’t govern the Empire, we administer it, and we do so in German,’ said Metternich. In Buda and Pest, Hungarian was the language of the poor and of some townsfolk – which gave them access, if they could read at all, only to a limited and largely folkloric literature.[See Note.] Hungarian was also the language of the minority of the 8.5 million people living in Hungary; only about 37 per cent of the population, according to the first census conducted in Hungary in 1787, were ethnic Magyars.

Kazinczy and his collaborators created new words based on Hungarian roots, borrowed foreign words and ‘Magyarized’ them, or used image association. For example, the word secretary (tiktár or titoknok) was derived from an existing word for secret: titok. The Hungarian word for theatre was taken from two existing ancient words for ‘colour’ and ‘house’. The word for revolution came from the existing word to boil, ‘forr’, so revolution – a rather useful word in Hungarian as the country lived through so many of them – became forradalom, which translates as ‘on the boil’. The Hungarian word for isolation is taken from the ancient Magyar word for island. A beautiful Hungarian word for wife or female partner was invented: feleség, which literally means ‘my halfness’ – a noun, not an adjective. More than 8,000 new words came into common usage in colloquial and literary Hungarian within a generation.

NOTE: One language reformer, the writer Izidor Guzmics, was a well-known salon wit in Pest and sent a note to the palatine, reminding him of one of his distinguished Habsburg forebears, the sixteenth-century Emperor Charles V, who according to legend spoke French to his friends, German to his horse, Italian to his mistress, Spanish to God and English to the birds. ‘Had he known Magyar doubtless he would have spoken Hungarian to his enemies,’ Guzmics wrote.

13 December 2023

Buda and Pest Under Maria Theresa

From Budapest: Portrait of a City Between East and West, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 102-104:

The relative peace and stability of Maria Theresa’s reign brought growing prosperity, and living conditions in the twin towns improved, though slowly. Some municipal services began running fairly well. From the 1770s the water supply in large parts of both Buda and Pest were built – first with wooden and then lead pipes. The first postmark in Buda dates from 1752 and the first post office opened in 1762, opposite the Matthias Church in Buda. A music conservatory, a veterinary school and a botanical gardens opened in Buda in the 1780s. In the 1730s in Pest there were very few stone buildings; most were made of puddled clay with thatched roofs. By 1765 453 of the 1,146 known buildings on the Pest side of the river were made of stone, and by 1790 around three-quarters of the 2,250 buildings were.

But there was no boom for business, and no lines of credit available to start one. The Hungarian nobles – the lesser and higher – had a disdain for commerce and trade that the British gentry had lost sometime in the seventeenth century. The few financiers, manufacturers, large-scale traders and better-off artisans of both Buda and Pest invariably came from non-Magyar families, which in any case formed the majority of the twin towns’ population. The earliest, almost immediately after the siege of Buda ended, were a number of Greek families who saw an opportunity – as well as escape from Turkish rule – and established businesses in Pest. Their names, Magyarized from around the 1730s onwards, became well known: Haris, Sina and Nákó for milling and foodstuffs, Sacelláry, Lyca and Mannó for textiles, leather and timber, Agorasztó and Muráthy for the wine trade. Then more came from further afield: Gregerson (Norwegian) and Ganz (Swiss) for clothes; the Swiss traders Aebly, Haggenmacher and several Serbs – Petrovics, Vrányi, Grabowski, Bogosich, Mosconyi – for assorted trades from metalwork to carpentry. Few Magyars were setting up businesses. The real problem, in Buda especially, was that comparatively few people engaged in any kind of trade or industry – according to contemporary economists who studied census figures, just one in eighty-nine people in Hungary at the end of the eighteenth century, compared to one in fourteen in Austria and one in nine in the Lombardy region.

The British naturalist Robert Townson visited Budapest in 1790, as few of his compatriots did then. Pest and Buda were definitely not on the Grand Tour at that time. The Turkish baths of Buda fascinated him; they were not strictly segregated as they would be from the middle of the nineteenth to the twenty-first century, but were more gender-neutral.


The animal fights in Pest, involving bears, cocks and dogs, horrified him. His journal mentions many times how diverse the towns were, with Greek, Balkan and Jewish traders crowding the marketplace. He mentioned one type of business that as much as any other was the defining feature of the Habsburg lands, and crucial to the culture of the city that would become Budapest. Kemnitzer’s was the progenitor of all the coffee houses in the golden age of Budapest and it became an instant success. It was the creation of Johann Kemnitzer, a master tanner, who had done well in his trade and built a large, three-storey house at the Pest side of the pontoon bridge, where Vigadó Square meets Deák Street today. In 1789 he opened the ground floor as a café and within a few months it was the most famous coffee house east of Vienna, with spacious rooms, marble columns, stucco on the arched ceilings, four crystal chandeliers, ornately gilded fireplaces and a fine kitchen.

Townson went there every day during his stay to listen and watch, surprised at the varied clientele who frequented the place: ‘All ranks and both sexes may come; hairdressers in their powdered coats, and old market-women come here and take their coffee or drink their rosolio as well as Counts and Barons…it is an elegant house and very comfortable dinners may be had.’

Another thing that surprised him was that the main language he heard on both sides of the river was German, spoken by Hungarians, Germans, Slavs and Jews on the streets. He almost never heard the sound of Magyar.

12 December 2023

Royal Hungary, Religious Battleground

From Budapest: Portrait of a City Between East and West, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 72-74:

After the Battle of Mohács, the old Hungary split into three. The Turks kept direct control of Buda, the other fortress towns downriver along the Danube, and a broad swathe of central and southern Hungary (Transdanubia) that gave them an unimpeded route back through the Balkans to Constantinople. Transylvania – then comprising a vast area much bigger than Hungary now – was semi-independent, but the Ottomans demanded ultimate authority and large amounts of money and goods every year as tribute. If the Ottomans received those, they left the Transylvanians alone to govern themselves. The third part, so-called Royal Hungary, was Habsburg-ruled and comprised most of western Hungary, Slavonia, around two-thirds of Croatia, Slovakia and part of eastern Hungary, including the ancient city of Debrecen – altogether about 1.2 million people.


Life was no better for most of the people in Royal Hungary. Under both the rival empires survival was a struggle, as ‘Habsburg mercenaries and their Turkish adversaries marched and counter-marched through the borderlands, leaving devastation in their wake’, as a contemporary historian recorded. In some ways it was worse in Royal Hungary than in Buda, where at least the Turks left people to worship as they pleased: all Christians were infidel, though as ‘people of the book’ they were tolerated. But Hungary became one of the chief battlegrounds in the series of religious wars that split Christian Europe apart during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Reformation had gained ground in Hungary with astonishing speed – for obvious spiritual reasons, and liturgical ones because of the use of the vernacular language in worship and especially as an expression of resentment against foreign domination, whether Habsburg or Turkish. By 1600 more than three-quarters of the Hungarian population had embraced one or other of the reformist Churches – mostly Lutheran in Royal Hungary and in Transylvania a version of Calvinism, though not quite as rigorous. After Geneva the Transylvanian town of Kolozsvár (now Cluj in Romania) had the earliest Calvinist university in the world.

The Habsburgs saw themselves, in the words of Emperor Charles V, as the ‘spear point of the faith’ and they led the fight for the true Church: the Counter-Reformation. For the Austrians, the Holy Roman Empire, unity in Christendom under the papacy (and of course the Habsburgs) was more important than crusades against the Ottomans.

The Hungarians were regarded not only as heretics but as rebels against the Empire who needed to be put in their place. The prelate placed in charge of re-Catholicizing the troublemakers, Péter Pázmány, boasted of how he ‘would make of the Hungarian first a slave, then a beggar and finally a Roman Catholic’. The soldier put in charge of pacifying them was a famous Italian mercenary and Imperial general, Raimondo Montecuccoli, who loathed the Hungarians: ‘It is impossible to keep these ungrateful, unbending and rebellious people within bounds by reasoning with them, nor can they be won over by tolerance or ruled by law. One must fear a nation that knows no fear. That is why its will must be broken with a rod of iron and the people sternly kept in their place….’ It was a view shared by the majority of the Austrian Habsburgs and all the members of the Imperial council.

All of the wealthiest Hungarian magnates, who owned most of the land, abandoned Turkish-controlled Hungary and threw in their lot with the Habsburgs. In reward for staying loyal and Catholic they were given more lavish Imperial titles and allowed to keep their feudal prerogatives. The emperor made around sixty of them counts and turned some into super-magnates with the title ‘hereditary prince’, like the Pálffy, Nádasdy, Esterházy, Wesselényi, Forgách and Csáky families. This new upper class would be in charge in Hungary, apart from a very brief interlude of revolution, into the twentieth century. They paid no taxes, continued to own serfs and some increased their wealth vastly during the division of Hungary. The emperor gave the nobles rights to claim increased labour dues, or robot.

10 December 2023

Ottoman Rule in Budun

From Budapest: Portrait of a City Between East and West, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 64, 67-69:

Almost every time I visit Budapest, the first place I go is a quiet, out-of-the-way section of old cobbled streets, halfway up Rózsadomb (Rose Hill) on the Buda side of the river. Here is the graceful white mausoleum of Gül Baba, a Dervish Muslim holy man of the sixteenth century, a favourite of Suleiman the Magnificent, who oversaw the Bektashi order of monks entrusted with the spiritual welfare of the Janissaries. Mid-morning there is usually nobody about in the surrounding lanes – Ankara utca, Mecset (mosque) utca, Török (Turk) utca, Gül Baba utca – one of the most expensive residential neighbourhoods in Budapest. In April, after the frosts have melted away, the graceful stone tomb is surrounded by the scent of violets. A month or so later come the roses of Rózsadomb, pink damascenas mainly, said to have been brought to Buda by Gül Baba. Whether that is true or not, the flowers and their scent, along with bath houses, paprika – and of course coffee – are the few remaining physical reminders of the 150-year-long occupation of Buda by the Turks. Not a bad legacy when you consider the ways other imperial masters who conquered Hungary have left their mark on Budapest – Hitler’s Nazis, say, or Stalin’s commissars. Sitting on a bench at Rózsadomb gazing at the sweep of the Danube is a healthy place for a historian to loaf and think.


Christians and Muslims (for much of the time the majority of the Hungarian population left in the town) rubbed along reasonably well. In the market, pork and wine were sold in the Christian-owned stalls, lamb, sherbet and coffee in the Turkish ones. The latter was one of the few things that the ‘infidel’ non-Muslims took a liking to straight away, though at first it was expensive; this was the birth of the Middle European coffee house that later would become so supremely important in the culture of Budapest.

In general, trade in everything was poor, for demand was so low. Vineyards in the Buda Hills rotted, so locals learned to use varieties of vegetable, for example corn, which flourished from the sixteenth century on. The main problem was that Buda’s population fell continuously over the 150 years of Ottoman occupation: the birth rate went down sharply, and over generations families left in order to better themselves, whether to Royal Hungary or to Transylvania. The drop was dramatic immediately after Mohács, and continued. Turkish figures registered a fall in tax-paying households throughout their Hungarian domains from 58,742 in 1577 to only 12,527 in 1663. At one point in the 1620s the German and Magyar population of Budun was not much more than 2,000. The Turkish garrison rose and fell depending on military operations in the Balkans, but the average was around 4,000. There were never more than 1,000 Turkish officials, traders and craftsmen living in the town. Besides the pashas, who were army commanders, magistrates and chief executives rolled into one, the most important Turkish official was the defter – the tax collector. As time went on, during the occupation they learned to be flexible. They did not wish to destroy the westernmost and most prosperous colony in Europe, but wanted to profit from it. They had no interest in overturning habits and customs.

One group benefited greatly from Ottoman rule. The Turkish occupation brought benefits for the Jews. Many sought refuge from the neighbouring Habsburg lands, where pogroms were common – or Transylvania, where Calvinism grew strong and the Jews were treated equally badly, if not worse. Many families had come from much further away in the Balkans, which were even poorer. In the 1580s the Jews formed around 20 per cent of Buda’s ‘Hungarian’ population. By the 1680s there were more than 1,000 Jews in Buda. The Turks allowed them freedom to worship – there were three synagogues in Buda by the middle of the seventeenth century – freedom to form communal groups and a measure of legal autonomy. The Ottomans, though, demanded high taxes, even higher than the Christian rulers had imposed. The Turks used the Jews for commerce; they ran the lucrative trade routes along the Danube eastwards from Buda across Turkish domains. The pashas of Buda often intervened on the side of Jews in cases where they had been wronged by Hungarian Christians. Jews would repay the Turks by aiding their defence of Buda against the Habsburgs in sporadic attempts to retake the town. And when the Austrians eventually succeeded, the Jews would pay a heavy price.

09 December 2023

Hungary's Largest Peasant Revolt, 1514

From Budapest: Portrait of a City Between East and West, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 59-60:

Finally, in 1514, after Ottoman troop movements into Serbia, the Pope, Leo X, and Tamás Bakócz, the Archbishop of Esztergom, declared a crusade against the Ottomans and money was raised from most of the European capitals to finance an army to halt the Turks’ advance. King Louis II of Hungary [incl. Croatia] raised a force reported to be 40,000-strong, mostly peasants untrained in warfare, under an experienced soldier from the lesser nobility, György Dózsa. He was joined by a number of evangelical priests and friars. Most of the Hungarian barons had no appetite for the campaign, resented the loss of the serfs’ labour on their land at harvest time and were deeply suspicious about permitting a peasant army to roam around Hungary. Rightly so as it turned out.

The majority of the peers in the royal council pressed the archbishop and the Vatican to call off the crusade even before it had properly begun. But Dózsa’s army refused to disband and the crusade against the infidels turned into the biggest peasants’ revolt in Hungarian history.

There had occasionally been eruptions of unrest among peasants, but Hungary’s feudalism was among the most entrenched anywhere. In the sixteenth century, when in most of Western Europe serfdom had all but disappeared, it remained strong in Hungary. Dózsa was a skilful soldier and titular leader of the rebellion. But the real inspiration that under Catholic dogma would condemn the rebels’ souls to eternal perdition were revolutionary priests, the best known of whom was a fiery preacher, Lőrinc Mészáros. After months of savage fighting, burning and looting on the way, Dózsa’s army seized control of the Great Hungarian Plain and a few towns in south-eastern Hungary and in Transylvania. For months they lay siege to Temesvár (present-day Timișoara in Romania), but never managed to capture and hold the town. That was the high point of their success. They were finally beaten in the autumn of 1514 by an army led by János Zápolya, the voivode (chieftain) of Transylvania.

The magnates, safely back in untrammelled power, exacted vicious revenge. Dózsa was hauled to Buda in chains, enthroned on a flaming stake and a red-hot crown was placed on his head – as ‘King’ of the peasants. Several of his leading supporters were forced to eat his roasting flesh before they too were executed, as a warning to any others who might want to ‘destroy the natural order’, as the Archbishop of Esztergom put it. Several of the priests who took part in the rebellion were hanged, including Mészáros.

The direct consequences of Dózsa’s revolt lasted well into the nineteenth century. Extreme measures were taken by the landlords and gentry against the peasantry ‘to punish them for their faithlessness’. They were condemned to ‘perpetual servitude’, banned from any right to migration, any access to legal rights and denied the right to own land. A new tax was imposed of one gold florin, twelve chickens and two geese a year as compensation for the damage the rebellion had caused. Landlords were given the right to claim one day a week’s unpaid labour. Serfdom continued in Hungary until 1848.

08 December 2023

Hungary's Crown of St. Stephen

From Budapest: Portrait of a City Between East and West, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 33-34:

Every 20 August, the date of St Stephen’s canonization and a national holiday in Hungary, a casket containing what is believed to be the king’s mummified right hand is carried in solemn procession around the basilica which bears his name in central Budapest. This grisly celebration, followed by a Mass, took place even in the darkest days of the Soviet era when the Communists tried to suppress religion. Yet the holiest relic associated with Stephen is not a skeletal hand. One of the most popular tourist sights in Budapest – all Hungarian schoolchildren are encouraged to see it once in their lives – is the Holy Crown of St Stephen. It was for a long time the central symbol of royal legitimacy and has been venerated for centuries. The validity of a King of Hungary was coronation with the use of this crown, and no other, in the ceremony. The crown is shrouded in myth, like so much of ancient Magyar history.

It is certain that the crown on display in modern Budapest was never worn by King Stephen. The original was lost or stolen soon after the king’s death and there are many theories about its fate. It is said that in 1044 it was found by soldiers loyal to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III, and he returned it to the Vatican. The lower half of the crown on display now, the so-called ‘Greek part’, made in 1074, nearly forty years after King Stephen’s death, was a gift from the Byzantine Emperor Michael VII to the Hungarian King Géza I. The upper ‘Latin’ part was made in Hungary, probably at some point in the late twelfth century, to replace the lost original. The two halves were welded together around 1330, in order to make a solid base for a gold cross that surmounts the crown.

Lost again and found in a series of centuries-long dramas and adventures, the crown was taken to Austria towards the end of the Second World War by Hungarian fascists – either, as one group said, to sell it on the black market or, as others claimed, to preserve it from the clutches of the Communists. Somehow it fell into the hands of the US army in Vienna in 1945. The Americans kept it in Fort Knox, to ensure its safety, until 1978 when it was ceremoniously returned to Hungary. The crown and other royal regalia thought to have belonged to Stephen or his immediate successors were then installed by a Communist regime aiming for national respectability in a large shrine in Budapest’s National Museum under permanent armed guard. To mark the millennium of the Hungarian state, the first of Viktor Orbán’s governments in 2000 transferred all the royal jewels, amid great solemnity and fanfare, to the Parliament building. In a republic, it seemed at first sight an odd place to move the crown jewels, but in the Hungarian context there was logic to it. For a nation that has been occupied by other powers for so many periods in its history, the crown has always been the symbol of independence and freedom, rather than of royalty. And besides, the crown jewels are magnificently presented in inspiring surroundings.

Stephen brought order out of chaos, stability and the beginning of a legal code. He is, rightly, one of the most revered figures in Hungary’s history.

07 December 2023

Budapest in 1896

From Budapest: Portrait of a City Between East and West, by Victor Sebestyen (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 12-14:

In 1896 Budapest was the largest city of mills in the world (rivalled at that time only by Minneapolis). Wheat from the great plains of Hungary and other parts of the Balkans was turned into flour in the mills of Budapest. Many of the successful entrepreneurs who began their business lives as grain traders became mill owners and then diversified. Budapest was by far the busiest port on the Danube. The (mostly nationalized) Hungarian river transport company, MFTR, had overtaken the Austrian equivalent more than thirty years earlier and was thriving. A pleasant daily Budapest–Vienna overnight journey on white paddle steamers was highly popular until the 1920s. Trains between the two cities were fast – four and a quarter hours in 1896. In 2022 it was three hours and thirty-five minutes.

Budapest finance caught up and surpassed the growth of agricultural and industrial production. By 1900 Budapest became the banking centre of Central and Eastern Europe. Between 1867, the date of the ‘Compromise’ which created the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, and 1914 the number of Hungarian banks grew from eleven to 160 and their capitalization increased fivefold. A few of them – the First Hungarian Commercial Bank and the Hungarian Credit Bank – rivalled the biggest Viennese and German banks in size and prestige, as their palatial headquarter buildings in downtown Budapest, designed by the most renowned European and Hungarian architects, showed. Their owners, such as the Wolianders, the Wahrmanns, Hatvany-Deutsch and Chorins, joined the European super-rich.

Sixty per cent of the Hungarian manufacturing industry was based in Budapest, from small enterprises to the giant Manfréd Weiss works, which employed more than 5,000 workers by 1913 in a vast factory complex on Csepel Island in the Danube, just north of the city. The factory exported munitions to Spain, Mexico and Britain, whose forces would soon be using them in a war against Austria-Hungary.

Little suggested that the unprecedented boom would not continue. Tekla Szilard, the mother of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Leo Szilard, who would later flee Budapest from fascism and work on the Manhattan Project that designed and built the first nuclear bomb, described her mood on her wedding day, 25 April 1897, and ‘the boundless optimism we all feel…The city was growing by leaps and bounds. I felt as though this was my progress…my development.’ But some prescient people were more wary about the pace of change and thought of what was left behind. Krúdy wrote in 1900 about his beloved Budapest: ‘They kept on building every day, palaces topped by towers rising towards the sun; and at night it seemed there were endless burials…of the town’s broken matter, of old people and old houses, of old streets and old customs.’

Within a generation much of this new wealth, optimism and confidence would disappear. In the millennium year Hungary was nearly three times the size it would be just twenty-five years later and its population around 50 per cent higher. Most of present-day Croatia and Slovakia, a third of Romania and a large slice of Serbia were all part of Greater Hungary. It possessed a busy seaport [Trieste] on the Adriatic with a busy merchant navy. Then the disaster of the First World War struck and Zweig’s World of Yesterday came to an end. Hungary has never recovered from the shock.

06 December 2023

East of Vienna, West of the Balkans

From Budapest: Portrait of a City Between East and West, by Victor Sebestyen, (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle p. 1:

Towards the end of the Congress of Vienna in the spring of 1815, Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian Foreign Minister, took a young British visitor in his carriage to the eastern edge of the city. As the pair descended the steps, the eminent Habsburg statesman pointed his finger to the road towards Hungary and declared: ‘Look, that’s where Europe ends…out there, [Hungary] is the Orient.’

Half a century later William H. Seward, President Lincoln’s Secretary of State, went on a journey around the world immediately after his term of office ended. In summer 1869 he arrived in Pest [on the east bank of the Danube] from an unaccustomed direction, sailing from the Black Sea up the Danube through the Balkans. Most visitors came then, as they do now, from the west. He was surprised by what he saw. ‘How striking is the contrast of European and Asiatic civilization,’ he wrote later in his diary. ‘Though Buda-Pesth [sic] is an inland provincial town…the tonnage in its port, altogether of steam, is greater than that of Cairo, Alexandria or Constantinople. We were not prepared for a scene of such activity…Here we feel, for the first time, that we have left the East behind, and have only Western civilization before us.’ This is a constant theme, as alive in the twenty-first century as in the nineteenth.

05 December 2023

The Restoration's Brutal Repressions

From The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603-1689, by Jonathan Healey (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 334-335:

The success of [Samuel Butler's] Hudibras reminds us that Restoration culture, in its fun-loving hedonism, was also about the defeat of Puritanism. As much as Charles talked about forgetting the past, there were plenty who were quite willing to rake up the radicalism of the Republic and remind people of the days when Christmas was banned and the theatres were shut, and soldiers stomped up and down the country closing horse races and fining people for their loyalty to the king. Hudibras was a way of crowing about this. The culture war, that we saw at the start of the century in events like the Cartmel wedding, had been won. Puritanism had been cast out. Momus’s day had come and gone. Merry England was back.

But Pepys is a reminder that there was more to it than this. We think of Charles as a ‘Merry Monarch’, given over to celebration and parties, to theatre and pleasures of the flesh. It’s not a false view as such, but it obscures a lot. For Dissenters, especially Quakers, his reign was one of brutal oppression, harder than anything experienced by the Puritans under his father. In its controls on the press, his government tried to stop the mouths of the English people once more.

The legacy of the Republic remained. Puritanism may have been defeated politically, but it lived on in the dissenting tradition which became such an important element to English religion – and indeed eventually political – culture. Meanwhile, the degree to which the constitutional issues of the earlier seventeenth century had been resolved was quite unclear. Technically, now, the vast majority of revenue came from Parliament, though the king might try and circumvent this by seeking other sources. Taxes on trade, for example, specifically the customs and excise, were increasingly lucrative, and yet were subject to less Parliamentary control than direct taxes because they tended to be granted for the life of the monarch.

The idea of a standing army was now, thanks to the Civil Wars and to Cromwell and his Protectorate, even more anathema to English sensibilities. Yet the realities of European geopolitics, in which armies were generally becoming much bigger and more professional, meant that it would be hard to maintain the country’s clout without one. The press and public opinion were not going away. The world of pamphlets and coffeehouse politics was here to stay. Finally, the country’s religion remained unsettled. The apparent supremacy of Anglicanism masked the resilience of Dissent. More to the point, while in exile both Charles and his brother James had been surrounded by Catholic influences. The nightmare scenario, perhaps, was a king trying to use his prerogative powers to promote Catholicism and to build a standing army that he could use to cow opposition, all funded by indirect taxes – or even a pension from a foreign monarch – while Parliament lay sidelined.

04 December 2023

Military and Religious Reconciliation, 1661

From The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603-1689, by Jonathan Healey (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 327-328:

The Army was mostly all pensioned off: a poll tax and a new assessment ordered in the summer saw to that. The king was provided with apparently bounteous revenue of £1.2 million a year from customs and excise, allowing him to retain Monck’s regiment of foot, now named the Coldstream Guards after his base while he waited on the Border the previous year, and still wearing the old red coats of the New Model. The old lands of Crown and Church were clawed back, though often with due compensation given. Meanwhile, Royalists who’d seen their lands confiscated during the last regime had them restored, although the decision to ratify all legal proceedings during the Republic meant that any lands they’d had to sell – for example, to pay the decimation tax – were now probably gone for good. It was a point that generated much bitterness among the old Cavaliers.

Meanwhile, the old episcopal church was reinstated. In the immediate months following the Restoration, many parishes went back to the old liturgy, buying copies of the Book of Common Prayer even though there was widespread expectation that a new version would soon be produced. Returning bishops were cheered and copies of the Solemn League and Covenant, which had been a key reason for their abolition, were enthusiastically burned. The cathedrals were in a parlous state: Durham had seen use as a prison, St Paul’s as a stable and a marketplace. Bishops’ palaces at Chester, Salisbury and Exeter had been converted into (respectively) a gaol, a tavern and a sugar factory. But funds were found, and within a couple of years, the old cathedrals were resplendent once more.

Initially there were moves towards a compromise with Presbyterians, potentially ‘comprehending’ them within the Church of England, i.e. granting enough latitude within official Church practice to allow them to worship within it. But Parliament voted comprehension down. In fact, England was about to take a dramatic swing towards a more restrictive Church. Perhaps this was always going to happen. But partly, too, it was a reaction to the events of January 1661, when, the same month in which the bodies of Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw were dug up, a quixotic rising by Fifth Monarchists broke out in London, with shouts for ‘King Jesus, and the Heads upon the Gates!’ It was led by one Thomas Venner, and ended in a brief occupation of St Paul’s, a clampdown by the Coldstream Guards and 14 executions. A new round-up of Quakers and other undesirables followed, prompting – incidentally – George Fox to write a stirring tract declaring that his Quakers would utterly renounce war and violence. Given they had made up many of the ranks of the Republic’s army, this was some about-turn, though the principle has since become one that defines the movement.

03 December 2023

Rejoicing and Reprisals, 1660

From The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603-1689, by Jonathan Healey (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 323-325:

The month of May 1660 would be remembered as one of the most joyous in English history. ‘[A]ll the world,’ wrote Pepys, was ‘in a merry mood because of the King’s coming.’ The return of Charles, brought back by Monck’s fleet, was celebrated with maypoles, church bells and bonfires. From his landing at Dover on the 25th to his entrance to London on the 29th, the restored king was met by cheering crowds. Some 120,000 were said to have greeted him at Blackheath. In London, his entourage took seven hours to pass through. The streets became a kaleidoscope of tapestries and flowers; there were fountains flowing with wine. Oliver Cromwell, and his widow Elizabeth, were burned in effigy on a Westminster bonfire. After the austerity of the Puritan republic, it was a time for riotous celebration. According to Marchamont Nedham, seething at what he saw as the credulousness of the people, the return of the king was widely expected to bring ‘peace and no taxes’.

The rejoicing, though, was stained with reprisals. Within a day, the king was forced to issue a proclamation against ‘debauched and profane persons, who, on pretence of regard to the King, revile and threaten others’ (or simply sat in taverns and tippling houses drinking endless healths). Independent congregations suffered abuse, as did those ministers who’d taken the place of clergy ejected by the Republic. Quakers were attacked in at least 15 counties.


The immediate priority was a Bill of Indemnity and Oblivion, which sought to draw a line under the previous troubles. But there were debates about how far forgiveness should go. William Prynne, for example, thirsty for revenge, specifically argued that Francis Thorpe, the lawyer whose speech at York had set out the case for the Republic back in 1649, should be executed. Thorpe had already petitioned the king for a pardon on the grounds that he had opposed the regicide, had not bought any Crown lands and had been gentle on the Royalist rebels of 1655. He had allies in the Commons, too, and Prynne’s vindictiveness found little support. In the end, though, some of the more egregious republicans were exempted from pardon, with some 33 men specifically singled out for punishment. The 33 were mostly regicides who had sought to evade capture, particularly those who were not lucky enough to have powerful friends. Eleven were already in custody.

Thus, finally, things were set for the third and final act. After the April elections and the return of the king came the revenge.

In October, during Parliamentary recess, all 11 were tried. Only one witness was considered necessary for each act of supposed treason, but then, with the evidence there in plain sight, maybe such niceties didn’t matter. Six signatories to the death warrant, together with the lawyer John Cooke and the preacher Hugh Peter, suffered hanging, drawing and quartering at Charing Cross (two of Charles’s guards, Daniel Axtell and Francis Hacker, were executed at Tyburn). The butchered men were defiant to the end: one of them even managed to land a punch on his executioner. Thomas Harrison, when the crowd taunted him asking, ‘where is your Good Old Cause now?’ replied it was ‘Here, in my bosom, and I shall seal it with my blood.’ But the jeering crowd had its way, and their remains were duly displayed on the City gates. Such was the smell at Charing Cross that local inhabitants petitioned the king to stop the executions, ‘for the stench of their burnt bowels had so putrefied the air’. When Parliament returned, their fugitive colleagues were subject to Attainder, which meant they lost their property. Then, in January 1661 – on the anniversary of the regicide – the bodies of Cromwell, Ireton and John Bradshaw (the king’s trial judge) were dug up and hanged. John Evelyn thought this was one of the ‘stupendous and inscrutable judgements of God’. Those other republicans who’d been buried at Westminster Abbey were also disinterred on orders of the Dean, and their bodies cast into a nearby pit.

02 December 2023

Re-electing the Monarchy, 1660

From The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England, 1603-1689, by Jonathan Healey (Knopf Doubleday, 2023), Kindle pp. 321-323:

Parliament, a body now much less dominated by republicans, quickly set new elections in motion, selecting a new Council and installing a raft of new militia commissioners in the counties, including none other than Sir George Booth who by that time had been released from the Tower (and, it was to be hoped, had found a razor). Baptists, Fifth Monarchists and Quakers were attacked and plundered in Wales, Bristol and Gloucester. On the 27th, while Pepys was visiting Audley End in Saffron Walden, he was ushered into a cellar where the housekeeper offered him ‘a most admirable drink, a health to the King’. Everywhere the talk was of government by a single person: George Monck, perhaps, or Richard Cromwell, or Charles Stuart.

The last piece of the jigsaw was the army: Monck faced down much of the opposition in a tense meeting on 7 March; some of the key hardliners were cashiered and John Lambert was sent off to the Tower. By this time, Charles Stuart was being openly toasted across town. There was another bonfire and people cried out, ‘God Bless King Charles the Second’. Parliament, meanwhile, on the 16th, finally agreed to dissolve itself.

The stage was set.

The final drama was played out in three acts. The first, in April, came in the form of elections to the new Parliament (technically, because not summoned by royal writ it would be known as a ‘Convention’). In theory, active Royalists were excluded, but no one really cared. There was an avalanche of pamphlets: many pro-Royalist, but some arguing against the restoration of the Stuarts, like Marchamont Nedham’s News from Brussels, which alleged Charles was plotting brutal reprisals on all who’d opposed his father. Then there were the rhymes, scurrilous as ever. They attacked the Rump, bearing titles like Arsy Versy, and they attacked religious ‘fanatics’.... The elections, meanwhile, saw the highest number of prospective candidates so far in English history. Even Lambert managed to stand while still in prison (he lost). The question had become not whether there would be a restoration, but what kind of restoration it would be: at the hustings, the critical issue was whether candidates were in favour of imposing conditions on Charles. The harder line Royalists, i.e. those generally against conditions, tended to win.

By now, Monck and the king were finally in communication. Charles moved his court to the town of Breda near the Dutch coast. The English fleet stood ready off the coast of Kent, the old Cromwellian Edward Montagu in command as General at Sea, Pepys on board as his employee, spending pleasant evenings supping, drinking wine, conversing, playing music and singing songs. Rather embarrassingly, Lambert escaped from the Tower (dressed in woman’s clothes, having swapped places with Joan, the lady who made his bed), and drew some support from disgruntled soldiers and old radicals. It looked as if there could be a general uprising in the army: ‘the agitators and Lambert’s agents are all over England,’ warned one of Monck’s captains, ‘privately creeping amongst us & tempting our men from us’. It was rumoured that 7,000 Quakers and Anabaptists would join. But in the end, humiliation fell on the old army man, who declared for Richard Cromwell, staged a desultory muster on the old battle site of Edgehill and was promptly arrested by the turncoat Richard Ingoldsby. After that there was little trouble from the old republicans....

The new Parliament, complete with a House of Lords, met on 25 April. It was an overwhelmingly Royalist body in what was still, technically, a republic. And so Parliament ushered in the second act: the return of the king. On 1 May, a declaration from Charles was read in Parliament. It had been penned at Breda on 4 April. It offered a pardon for everyone who gave allegiance to the king within 40 days (although Parliament, it allowed, could make exceptions). It promised ‘liberty to tender consciences’, and that Parliament would be allowed to sort out disputes over property created during the revolution. It promised, naturally, that Monck’s army would get their arrears and be retained under the new regime.

That afternoon, Parliament voted that ‘the government is, and ought to be, by King, Lords, and Commons’. They voted, in other words, for the restoration of the Stuarts.

London rejoiced, as did the rest of the country. At last, people thought, the return of the king might bring stability, an end to upheaval. In Boston, Lincolnshire, young men took down the arms of the Republic, had the town beadle whip them, then – taking turns – ‘pissed and shitted on them’. Even in Dorchester, long a Puritan stronghold, the town clerk celebrated the deliverance from a ‘world of confusions’ and ‘unheard of governments’. On 9 May, almost as an afterthought, Richard Cromwell, who was still somehow Chancellor of Oxford University, hung up his robes and disappeared into obscurity.

On the 14th, Monck’s ships were in sight of The Hague, where, in a moment that looked both back to the past and forward to the future, they made rendezvous with Elizabeth, James I’s daughter, once queen of Bohemia, and paid due respects to the nine-year-old William, the late king’s grandson, son of Princess Mary, now Prince of Orange.