Budapest: a troubled past

After a week of culture shock, the dust is beginning to settle.  I’m starting to realize that what I sense here, just under the surface, is the pain of tremendous loss, reprisal, and brutality.  Hungarians have been through hell.  And it didn’t just begin with Soviet occupation.  For purpose of setting a date, I’ll start with 1848 when they tried to wrest their freedom from the Hapsburgs.  I’ve gathered the following history from my rather exhaustive study of exhibits at the Museum of Military History in the Fisherman’s Bastion, the Hungarian Agricultural Museum in Vajdahunyad Castle, the House of Terror (called the House of Loyalty by the Hungarian Arrowcross Nazis in the 1930s), and the Hungarian National Museum.

The most aggregious events of the past 170 years:

  • Hungarian revolution of 1848 (against Hapsburg rule as part of Austro Hungarian empire).  After a series of serious Austrian defeats in 1849, the Austrian State came close to the brink of collapse and called for Russian help in the name of the Holy Alliance. Russia sent a 200,000 men strong army with 80,000 auxiliary forces. The joint army of the two largest empires in the world smashed the Hungarian forces and Austria placed Hungary under brutal martial law.
  • World War I – Hungary didn’t want to enter WW I, but as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which declared war on Serbia as a result of the killing of archduke Ferdinand, Hungary was swept in as an ally.  Out of over 8 million men mobilized in Austria-Hungary, more than one million died during the course of the war (additionally 1 million POWs, 600,00 injured, 500,000 in forced labor camps). In Hungarian areas, this meant a death rate of twenty-eight per thousand persons – a level of loss exceeded within Austria-Hungary only by German Austrians. In comparison to the total army, Hungary’s loss ratio was more than any other nations of Austria-Hungary.  In November 11, 1918, the war ended for Austria-Hungary with a complete military loss (and collapse of the empire).  In the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory, more than half of its population, more territory than any other country at that time (excluding colonies). Eight million Hungarians left in Hungary and more than 3 million Hungarians were stranded outside of the newly established borders. The newly created and greatly enlarged states encircled Hungary to make border reestablishment impossible. The Hungarian Army was reduced to 30,000 troops, Hungary was forbidden to have air force, tanks or sophisticated weapons.
  • World War II – Hungary didn’t want to enter the war, but was so devastated by the loss of territory and population after WW I that they felt obliged to try to get some territory back.  Germany (and Italy) promised to help in this endeavor.  When, in 1944, they attempted to make a separate peace with they allies, the German army occupied Hungary, destroying Budapest and many other cities (including bombing all the bridges and many buildings) to keep the Soviets from acquiring it.  The terror inflicted by the Arrowcross (Hungarian Nazis) during that year (1944- 45), particularly on the Hungarian Jews, included the forced removal and extermination of the over 600,000 Jews (within Hungary’s 1943 borders).
  • postwar Soviet occupation (’45 to ’90) – Hungary entered communism under the severely authoritarian leadership of Mátyás Rákosi.  Under Rákosi’s reign, the Security Police (AVH) began a series of purges, first within the Communist Party to end opposition to Rákosi’s reign. The victims were labeled as “Titoists”” “western agents,” or “Trotskyists” for as insignificant a crime as spending time in the West to participate in the Spanish Civil WAr.  In total, about half of all the middle and lower level party officials—at least 7,000 people—were purged.  From 1950 to 1952, the Security Police forcibly relocated thousands of people to obtain property and housing for the Working People’s Party members, and to remove the threat of the intellectual and ‘bourgeois’ class. Thousands were arrested, tortured, tried, and imprisoned in concentration camps, deported to Siberia, or executed, including ÁVH founder Lászlo Rajk.  In a single year, more than 26,000 people were forcibly relocated from Budapest. As a consequence, jobs and housing were very difficult to obtain. The deportees generally experienced terrible living conditions and were interned as slave labor on collective farms. Many died as a result of poor living conditions and malnutrition.  The Rákosi government thoroughly politicised Hungary’s educational system to supplant the educated classes with a “toiling intelligentsia”.  Russian language study and Communist political instruction were made mandatory in schools and universities nationwide. Religious schools were nationalized and church leaders were replaced by those loyal to the government.  In 1949 the leader of the Hungarian Catholic Church, Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for treason.  Under Rákosi, Hungary’s government was among the most repressive in Europe.  Economically, Hungary was forced to pay war reparations approximating $300 million USD, between 19 and 22 per cent of the annual national income, to the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia and to support Soviet garrisons.  In 1946, the Hungarian currency experienced marked depreciation, resulting in the highest historic rates of hyperinflation known.  Hungary’s participation in the Soviet-sponsored Council Of Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) prevented it from trading with the West or receiving Marshall Plan aid.  In addition, Rákosi began his first Five-Year Plan in 1950-based on Stalin’s of the same name that sought to raise industrial output by 380 percen.  Like its Soviet counterpart, the Five-Year Plan never achieved these outlandish goals due in part to the crippling effect of the exportation of most of Hungary’s raw resources and technology to the Soviet Union as well as Rákosi’s purges of much of the former professional class. In fact, the Five-Year Plan weakened Hungary’s existing industrial structure and caused real industrial wages to fall by 18 percent between 1949 and 1955. Rákosi’s agricultural programs met with the same lack of success, with attempted collectivization of the peasantry causing a marked fall in agricultural output and a rise in food shortages. Disposable real income of workers and employees in 1952 was only two-thirds of what it had been in 1938, whereas in 1949, the proportion had been 90 percent.  These policies had a cumulative negative effect and fueled discontent as foreign debt grew and the population experienced shortages of goods.
  • málenkij robot (meaning “little work”) – It is estimated that up to 600,000 Hungarians (of which were up to 200,000 civilians) were captured by the occupying Soviets and deported to labour camps in the Soviet Union – of those deported up to 200,000 perished.  The first deported Hungarians started to return to Hungary in June 1946, with the last returning in the years 1953-1955, after Stalin’s death.  While the Soviet policy of deportations for forced labor extended to other occupied nations, none other were hit as hard as Hungary.
  • Hungarian revolution in 1956 – The revolt began as a student demonstration, which attracted thousands as they marched through central Budapest to the Parliament, calling out on the streets using a van with loudspeakers via Radio Free Europe. A student delegation, entering the  radio building to try to broadcast the student’s demands, was detained. When the delegation’s release was demanded by the demonstrators outside, they were fired upon by the State Security Police (ÁVH) from within the building. One student died and was wrapped in a flag and held above the crowd. This was the start of the revolution. As the news spread, disorder and violence erupted throughout the capital.  The revolt spread quickly across Hungary and the government collapsed. Thousands organised into militias, battling the ÁVH and Soviet troops.  A new government formally disbanded the ÁVH, declared its intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and pledged to re-establish free elections. By the end of October, fighting had almost stopped and a sense of normality began to return.  After announcing a willingness to negotiate a withdrawal of Soviet forces, the Politburo changed its mind and moved to crush the revolution. On 4 November, a large Soviet force invaded Budapest and other regions of the country. The Hungarian resistance continued until 10 November. Over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed in the conflict, and 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. Mass arrests and denunciations continued for months thereafter. By January 1957, the new Soviet-installed government had sealed the Austrian border to prevent emigration and suppressed all public opposition.  Soviet propoganda deemed the revolutionaries counter-revolutionaries, and public discussion was suppressed for more than 30 years.  Soviet reprisals included the hanging of almost all the participants, including youth 16 years and older (it was very much a student and youth revolution) and televising the execution of Imre Nagy, a Hungarian communist politician who was twice appointed Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Hungarian People’s Republic.  His second term ended when his government was brought down by Soviet invasion in the revolution, resulting in Nagy’s execution on charges of treason two years later.  The reprisals went on for 5 or more years, only ebbing in the face of international outcry.

Apologies for the history lesson.  I just felt it necessary to give some picture of the extent of the brutality and repression that Hungarians have lived through.  The pain is still palpable.  That was part of what made it hard to arrive here from Greece.  While the suffering is also visible in Greece (starting with 400 years of Turkish occupation and German occupation in WW II), it’s somehow different there.  I wasn’t surprised to learn that Hungary in the 1970s had one of the highest suicide and alcoholism rates of any country in the world.  On my daily walk I see men missing legs, old women begging for food in the streets, drunks sleeping on benches and sidewalks, and given what I have learned, I’m not surprised.  But I am saddened.

My paternal grandmother, Ilona Hensel, was born in Poszony, which was part of Hungary in 1880.  She grew up speaking Hungarian and German.  She went to Vienna to get away from her domineering and violent father when she was 18 (1900 or so), then to Krakow Poland as a nanny.  She met my grandfather, who was studying for the seminary but liked women and was a rebel against the draconian hold of the catholic church had on Poland.  In any case, they married, and after WWI my grandmother returned to Poszony, which had since been Pressburg and then Bratislawa, to find her brothers, who had served in the Hungarian military.  But to no avail.  She never saw them again, nor heard their fate, as far as I know.  I deeply regret that I never was able to communicate with my grandmother.  She spoke Polish as well as Hungarian and German, but I didn’t learn any of these languages, and it is one of my deepest regrets.  Not that I could have learned on my own: my father would have had to take the initiative to teach me.  He was quite impatient, but I wish he had spoken Polish to me.  I think I could have learned.

In any case, I feel a connection to this place, if only through my grandmother.  Sadly, I have no photos of her brothers, only one of her with her mother and father.  I know that her father designed and engineered the train station in Bratislawa, which is apparently quite grand.

Not all my time has been spent with sad contemplation and history.  On three separate occasions I have taken the bus to Normafa, a beautiful park on the outskirts of Buda in the hills filled with beech trees.  I love to hike, and enjoyed meandering down the wooded paths, climbing up to Elizabeth’s tower (named in honor of Queen Elizabeth, queen of Bohemia for a short span).  I went to the Budapest zoo, where I saw an impressive collection of flora and fauna and received a rigorous educaton on paleobiology, evolutionary biology, and natural history.  I strolled down Andrassy Utca, a beautiful tree-lined thoroughfare full of stately neoclassical villas and beautiful government buildings.  I have taken buses and trains to random places just to get to know the urban landscape, walked through the Fisherman’s Bastion to Matthias church and the castle grounds, and walked across every bridge that crosses the Danube within Budapest.  I’ve enjoyed the evening sound and light show in the fountain on Margaret Island, walked its full length, and explored the central market and shopping district.

But what has made the biggest impact on me is the history.  The first day I arrived, I noticed bullet holes on a building a few blocks from the center.  Now having learned what I have, I’m sure they are from the 1956 revolution.  So it’s not only visible in the faces of the inhabitants, but in the fabric of the city.  If you know where to look.


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