Iron hands finally lose their grip

A History of Hungary - The Hungarians
December 5, 2003

These timely surveys of the history of Hungary challenge basic assumptions about the developing relationship between this Central European trendsetter and its western neighbours. Both books cover the millennium from the arrival of the Magyar tribes through the steppes from Asia to give the full picture and to emphasise the symbolic importance to Hungary of its belated acceptance next year as a full member of the European Union.

These are accomplished books by a brilliant academic and an eminent political analyst, offering original views backed by meticulous scholarship. Both are accompanied by impressive lists of maps, bibliographical notes and indexes.

László Kontler was born three years after the abortive 1956 Hungarian revolution against Soviet rule. His formative years were spent during the "soft" tyranny of "goulash communism". He represents the first generation of scholars in the formerly Communist-dominated Europe who display ruthless, independent analysis - a virtue some of these scholars' own professors might have regarded as an expensive luxury.

His book contains historical evaluation of the bygone "socialist" period.

It also looks at the country's transition to democracy. Kontler projects the course of the next millennium in the light of a rare national consensus attained in the search for security and prosperity through regional cooperation and formal membership of the Euro-Atlantic institutions. The author's optimism is tempered by concern over society's measured progress in the evolution of tolerance towards the ethnic minorities.

Paul Lendvai, the grand old man of Hungarian journalism, reaches similar conclusions in his compassionate and often humorous narrative. A Jewish Holocaust survivor, he has experienced Nazi and Communist tyranny. He has won many prizes as an author, editor and foreign correspondent based in Vienna since the 1956 revolution.

Lendvai describes the triumph of survival of a proud people enduring a series of catastrophes while locked in linguistic and cultural isolation for a millennium. He constructs a world of victors and victims, geniuses and impostors clashing in recurring conflicts between intellectual progress and narrow-minded intolerance. He explores the causes that have created a galaxy of great Hungarian scholars, scientists, artists and entrepreneurs.

And he looks at the effect of poor political leadership.

Both books steer the reader through the great migration of peoples and the creation of a Christian monarchy that arose in the region wedged between the Germanic and Russian lands. They explore the factors that have put Hungary at a relative disadvantage in coping with the challenges of modernity.

The old Hungarians were the last nomads whose mobile marauding armies held the wealthy cities of western Europe in fear, until they were broken by the superior technology of heavy armour. The Hungarians were forced to create a viable western-type feudal monarchy on the eastern fringes of the civilisation marked by Latin Christianity.

But the integration of the Hungarians with their western neighbours has been hindered by invasions, subjugation and near-extermination by the Mongols and Ottomans and, during the last century, the Germans and Soviets.

Hungary was governed after the 16th century by the Habsburgs while ruling over its own numerous national minorities, and was deprived of two-thirds of its lands through treaties. Yet the books describe a triumph of national will and cultural endurance at the crossroads of Europe that once put the country in the way of invading armies and that may soon generate prosperous trade within the EU.

These books may also change the way Hungarians see themselves. The official history books of Eastern Europe have been rewritten more often than students of the region care to remember. National heroes and despised bogeymen have switched roles in the curricula as well as in public sentiment. They have been manipulated to justify the conflicting ideologies of political dictators of the past century.

The result is widespread cynicism and ignorance. Now that the region has at last embraced a free market for goods and ideas, the question is what do its people really believe? It is a question far more important than the platitudes recited in exam papers, job interviews and political rallies, for a popular perception of the rights and wrongs of the past may well determine the direction chosen for the future by these nascent democracies.

Both books are part of a new crop of historical works published in eastern Europe, written in pursuit of truth rather than as a vehicle of political persuasion. They are symptoms and agents of the healing process taking place in a climate of intellectual honesty.

Thomas Ország-Land is a foreign correspondent who writes from Budapest.

A History of Hungary: Millennium in Central Europe

Author - László Kontler
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 528
Price - £47.50 and £15.99
ISBN - 1 4039 0316 6 and 0317 4

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