My views on Hungary

Tamás Szabados, January 2018


Until 1526, the tragic battle at Mohács, the Kingdom of Hungary was a significant medium-sized European country. Even if it was backward in some areas compared to the West, it was well integrated into the Europe of the era. The emergence of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans was a very dangerous threat by a power stronger than Hungary. Consequently, Hungary was not able to overcome this enemy alone. This fact was probably already apparent to Kings Louis and Sigismund, Governor John Hunyadi and King Matthias. As it turned out, the only force that was able to stop and later repel this enemy was another great power, the Holy Roman Empire led by the Habsburg Monarchy from 1452. It is a regrettable, but humanly understandable fact that from 1526 the Hungarian political class was split or fluctuated between the Ottoman and the Habsburg sides. It is regrettable because the lesser evil between the two bad options was clearly the Habsburg Monarchy. The Ottoman culture and the Islamic religion were so foreign to the European -- and thus the Hungarian -- cultures and religions that they led to destruction and desertion in the territories they occupied. The Habsburg rule, as can be seen from the Czech and Polish examples as well, has led to a loss of a magnitude less.

It is unfortunate that in the teaching and the memory of Hungarian history, many people, like Gabriel Bethlen, Imre Thököly and Francis Rákóczi II, who did not recognize this important difference between the two sides are counted as national heroes. No matter how painful it is, but the pursuit of complete national independence after 1526 was counterproductive from a Hungarian point of view. After 1526, the multiethnic Kingdom of Hungary lost its role and prestige toward its ethnic minorities to be able to defend them against an outside attack. This way, only the Habsburg Monarchy was able to defend and preserve the historical Hungary during the following centuries. In fact, the Habsburg Empire, multinational and rather well functioning, was a rudimentary "small European Union", a forerunner of the present EU. (It is no coincidence that Hitler so hated it.)

Turning toward the important period of 1848-1849, one can state that history has justified the views of István Széchenyi compared to the ones of Lajos Kossuth. First, entering into an armed conflict against the Habsburgs was a historic mistake. Another serious mistake of Kossuth was that he did not agree to negotiate with the ethnic minorities (Serbs, Croats, etc.) in the spring of 1848, when they were still willing. Eventually, these mistakes contributed to the situation that the Habsburg Empire was not able to transform itself into a more attractive framework for its ethnic groups.

In sum, after 1526 Hungary was significantly lagging behind Western Europe. Essential progress was made only during the reigns of Maria Theresa and Joseph II (1740-1790), then in the reform period of 1825-1847, in the revolutionary spring of 1848, and between 1867 and 1914, after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise.

1914 was a fatal year for the whole European political system. ("Never ever has man been smaller," Remembrance of a summer night by Endre Ady.) For no real reason, Europe maneuvered itself into a deadly trap from which it was able to free itself only by 1990, after extremely tragic losses. The technological advances in the twentieth century were a major cause of the magnitude of losses. During this period, European peoples fought against each other. Consequently, Europe weakened very much and became subordinate to other great powers. In sum, the period 1914-1989 became a chain of tragedies in Europe and especially in Hungary. It is not exaggeration to call this period the Age of Catastrophe and the worst period of the European (and Hungarian) history.

It is important to understand that in the "subconscious" of the majority of Hungarians, the name "Trianon" not only denotes the fatal peace treaty of 1920, but it is also the symbol and the name of the tragedies that happened to Hungary between 1526 and 1989. It is not a victimhood hypocritically put on; it really corresponds to the fate of Hungary, which fell victim to a hostile great power, the Ottoman Empire, and later, consequently, became a playground of great powers. It is true that many members of the Hungarian political class performed poorly during this long period, but that can be partially explained by the circumstances how most people react to situations that are beyond their power. Of course, it does not imply that we should acquit the ones who actively participated in the crimes of the tragic period 1914-1989.