- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 28, 2003


By Paul Lendvai.

Translated from the German by Ann Major

Princeton University Press. $29.95, 572 pages, illlus.


For half a century beginning in 899, the Magyars — the name Hungarians call themselves — ravaged Europe. Fierce warrior horsemen from the East, they penetrated German lands, northern Italy and France. An ardent prayer of the time implores, “From the arrows of the Hungarians, O Lord, deliver us.” “La Chanson de Roland” calls them “breeds of Satan.”

Then in 955 the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great won a resounding victory over them at Lechfeld near Augsburg and the Magyars did what no other band of horsemen who had scourged Europe did — they settled down and created their own nation.

Their first Christian king, Istvan (Stephen) I, descendant of Arpad, the greatest of the Magyar pagan tribal leaders, received his crown from the pope on Christmas Day in 1000. In 1083, 46 years after his death, he was canonized, the first of eight saints of the House of Arpad before the male line of the dynasty came to an end in 1301.

Paul Lendvai, a Hungarian who escaped the country after the failed 1956 Revolution and became a well known Vienna-based journalist (editor in chief and copublisher of Europaische Rundschau) takes up the history of the Magyars and tells their extraordinary story from earliest times to the present day in “The Hungarians.”

It’s not an easy job to write the better-than-1,000-year history of a people. The text can’t become bogged down in detail — yet often it is details that are the most interesting, and revealing, part of history. Nor can the story be told abstractly and apart from the blood and guts, the errors and triumphs that make up any nation’s life.

Mr. Lendvai avoids both pitfalls, for the most part. He has themes that unite Hungary’s history: the strong feeling of Magyar “aloneness” in Europe, for example, sandwiched as it is between Slavs and Germans, peoples who speak languages in no way related to Hungarian.

He avoids caricature. His Hungary is the legendary land of gypsy violin music, of dashing men and beautiful women, and romantic nights in small Budapest cafes on winding cobblestone streets near the Danube. But it is also a place where much that’s tragic has happened. It’s a country, in Mr. Lendvai’s book, where, on occasion, heroism has been exemplary and heartrending — as in the ill-fated Hungarian Revolution of 1956. At the same time it is a nation whose past has its unlovely, meretricious, and downright ugly moments.

Mr. Lendvai is very good at choosing the right anecdote to underline the point he’s making about Hungarian history and the right words to describe the various characters who inhabit this history. Thus when he discusses the hothouse nationalist fervor that hit Hungary during its 19th-century revival, Mr. Lendvai brings up Istvan Horvat (1784-1846), who represents that fervor at its most extreme. A professor at the country’s leading university, his “books and lectures … on Hungary’s early history inspired an entire generation.”

What did he teach his students eager for Hungarian history? That the Magyars played a part in world history that few were aware of. Adam and Eve spoke Hungarian in the Garden of Eden, for example. Homer, the poet of the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey,” according to Horvat, was Hungarian, as was Hercules.

This was nonsense, of course, but easily explained as what happens when a nation, after centuries of stagnation, was busy reinventing itself and its past, Mr. Lendvai shows. Often, Hungarian history has been tragic. On at least two occasions, the Magyars have been nearly wiped out, first in the Mongol invasion of 1241 and then again in 1526 when the Turks defeated the Hungarians at the battle of Mohacs. Devastation and depopulation followed both events and recovery took many years.

But tragedy has come in other forms, too. The Hungarian Revolution of 1848 was put down with great severity by Russian troops in 1849. And in 1956 — an instance of history repeating itself — Soviet troops with equally cold severity destroyed a rebellion against totalitarian rule that had caught the imagination and sympathy of much of the world.

Both Russian invasions brought an end to periods of great hope and optimism in Hungary. The 1849 invasion brought Hungary’s “First Reform Generation” — whose leading figures included the statesman Lajos Kossuth and the poet Sandor Petofi — and its hopes for a free and progressive Hungary to a violent end. The Russian tanks of 1956 shut down, for the time being, attempts to liberalize Hungarian communism.

Its many disasters had a permanent effect on the Hungarian spirit, Mr. Lendvai shows. Like its linguistic isolation from its Slavic and German neighbors, they underlined Magyar separation and its lack of any connection with the rest of Europe. Istvan Szechenyi, the great Hungarian reformers of the 19th century offered this haunting warning to his countrymen, “Egyedul vagyunk” — “We are alone.”

After the failure of 1956, the Hungarian writer Tibor Dery remarked: “What is Hungarianess? A joke dancing over catastrophes,” a statement that captures one aspect of Hungarian separation and pessimism. Another is captured by the 20th-century author, Arthur Koestler, who was born in Hungary and lived much of his life elsewhere, but claimed always to have dreamed in Hungarian: “The peculiar intensity of their existence can perhaps be explained by this exceptional loneliness. To be a Hungarian is a collective neurosis.”

Yet after all of its tragic experiences, Hungary came back. The nation enjoyed one of its great periods in the late-15th century under its great Renaissance monarch, Matyas (Mathias), the man chosen by Hungarians to this day as their most admired ruler. And in the late-19th and early-20th centuries there was a flowering of Hungarian culture and intellectual life known as the Second Reform Generation that included such figures as the composer s Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly and the man often regarded as the greatest of all Hungarian poets, Endre Ady.

And now, nearly half a century after 1956, Hungary has shed communism, joined NATO and is about to join the European Union, great achievements for a people who have always seen themselves as more western European than belonging to the east.

Mr. Lendvai touches on all the major themes of Magyar history. He shows how the definition of what it meant to be Hungarian came to be, certainly by the 19th century, a linguistic question.

After two cataclysmic invasions — the Mongol and the Turkish — and the subsequent immigration by Germans, Serbs, Croats, and many other, the country and its people were very diverse indeed, and many of those who called themselves Magyar chose to do so, shedding a German or Slavic past in favor of “Magyarhood.”

Hungarians “by choice” included some of the most famous Magyars. The poet Sandor Petofi, the beloved hero of the Revolution of 1848, was born Petrovics (his ancestors were Slavs) and took his Hungarian name as late as 1842.

The composer Franz Liszt, too, was a Hungarian by choice. Liszt didn’t know Magyar, though he took up the study of the language in 1829. He is said to have stopped at his fifth lesson when he learned that the word in Hungarian for unshakability is tantorithatatlansag, a mouthful he evidently found insurmountable.

Mr. Lendvai is very good on the major problems of 19th-century Hungarian history: the reinvention of the language after centuries of disuse, except among the peasantry, and the problem of land reform. Hungarian nobles, of which there were many, owned a lion’s share of the nation’s property and the lower classes next to none.

The nobles also had many “ancient” rights — to hold office, for example — and the peasantry none at all and most of 19th century and much of its 20th-century history was the story of the upper classes to give an inch when it came to property and rights.

Mr. Lendvai is good too on another central issue, Hungary’s minorities (Croats, Slovaks, Rumanians, Germans, and others) and the role they played in Hungary’s 19th and 20th-century history and on Hungary’s Jews. In no Central European nation were Jews freer and more quickly assimilated that they were in 19th century Hungary. It was a different story in the 20th, when Jewish quota laws were enacted after World War I and in 1944-45, when nearly 500,000 Hungarian Jews were transferred to Auschwitz.

But Mr. Lendvai is at his best when it comes to the great personalities of Hungarian history. His portrait of the Machiavellian Prince of Transylvania, Gabor Bethlen, who died in 1629, is splendid. But his most unforgettable image is Elisabeth, the wife of Franz Joseph, the Emperior of Austria and King of Hungary until his death in 1916.

This is as it should be. Elisabeth — affectionally referred to as Sisi — was beloved in Hungary. She learned the language and could speak it well. She let it be known that nowhere in the world did she feel at home but at the Royal Family’s Hungarian estate. Her assassination in Geneva in 1898 was a deeply traumatic event for Hungarians.

Mr. Lendvai ends his book with a chapter on Hungarian “Geniuses and Artists” abroad during the 20th century. It’s an impressive list that includes the great physists Edward Teller and Leo Szilard. He also mentions Hollywood’s Hungarians: the director George Cukor, for example, and the actor Leslie Howard, whose real names was Laszlo Steiner.

But Mr. Lendvai strangely omits the names of two of the film industry’s greatest cinematographers, who are Hungarian: Vilmos Zsigmond (“McCabe & Mrs. Miller”) and Laszlo Kovacs (“Easy Rider”).

This book could have benefitted from greater discussion of Hungary’s remarkable literature and of the great Second Reform Generation. Missing, for example, is a description of Imre Madach’s 19th-century play, “The Tragedy of Man,” or a discussion of the work of Endre Ady or Attila Jozsef, another of Hungary’s great 20th-century poets.

Still, Mr. Lendvai has done a remarkable job. His book is easily the best history of Hungary in English and it is (for the most part) a pleasure to read. What’s remarkable is how many extraordinary individuals, admirable and otherwise, we come across in this small nation’s history and how many extraordinary events, both good and bad.

Stephen Goode is senior writer at Insight magazine.

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