History of Hungary

St Stephen had been the first Christian King of Hungary, but the country's history does not begin with him. He could build on the success of his father Duke Géza, the first ruler to impose firm central control over a people who, until then, had been more a confederation of clans - willing to cooperate in war, but little else - than a unified nation. 

Géza had also established peaceful relations with the Western Empire of Otto the Great (the hand of whose niece Gisella of Bavaria he obtained for his son Stephen) and ended hostilities with the Byzantine Empire. And he was the first to invite missionary priests, from Germany, to Hungary; yet, although he had his son baptized by them, he himself was not - he is said to have claimed to be mighty enough to worship as many gods as he liked. 

Until Géza took them in hand the Hungarians had been given to a lifestyle that combined agriculture and animal husbandry with Viking-style raiding campaigns - conducted on horses rather than in boats - towards more settled lands to their west and south. In the first half of the 10th c. they had regularly raided westwards as far afield as today's France - even raiding beyond the Pyrenees on occasion - until they suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of Otto the Great near Augsburg in 955. Raids towards Byzantine lands only ceased after 970. 

The Hungarians - seven tribes made up of some eighty-odd clans of nomadic and pastoral people, numbering perhaps 100 to 200 thousand in all - had by AD 900 occupied all of the sparsely populated Carpathian Basin, where they had arrived in 895 led by Árpád, son of Álmos (and great-grandfather of Géza), whom they had elected supreme chief before setting out to cross the Carpathians from the east by the Verecke Pass. (NB: pronounce the c and k separately in Verecke!) 

At that time they had been living in the region north of the Black Sea (today's Southern Ukraine), from where they are known to have been raiding the Frankish Empire, across what is today Poland, by about 862. Later they were making war on the Bulgarians on behalf of Byzantium. Indeed, they had only set out to cross the Carpathians when they did because, to get the Hungarians off their backs, the Bulgarians had incited the Petshenegs, who lived even further east, to attack the Hungarians from the rear. 

Before that. . . nobody really knows. Dominican friars sent east by Béla IV in 1235, just before the Mongol invasion, reported finding a numerous people who spoke recognizable Hungarian, somewhere out there beyond the Volga in the wastes of what is today Russia. But who and wherever these may have been by 1239 - when a second mission tried to reach them - the Mongols had wiped them out, leaving not a trace of these distant cousins. 

So, all we have to go on is linguistic evidence. This suggests that the ancestors of the Hungarians had roamed widely in the open spaces west - at some stage splitting off from the ancestors of the Finns and of the Estonians - and, earlier, east of the Urals, had been in contact with both Iranian and Turkic speaking peoples, and had set out, perhaps, from the region of the Altai Mountains in the third millennium BC. 

And indeed, to this day it is its language, and the distinctive outlook and culture that this engenders and supports, that differentiates Hungary from the Slavonic and Germanic countries that surround it, rather than merely its geographic position (let alone any untenable crackpot hypothesis that would posit some kind of genetically determined racial purity). 

For this reason, what went before in the Carpathian Basin - the Avars, the Huns, the Romans (who left a ruined amphitheater, some broken statuary, and the traces of roads in their province of Pannonia), and sundry prehistoric peoples who occupied some or all of it in earlier ages - is only of marginal relevance to the history of Hungary, and not touched upon in the present account of it. 


St Stephen first King (AD 1000)

The later St Stephen - who had had the pagan name Vajk until he was baptized in his teens - had been in his early twenties when he succeeded his father Duke Géza (970-997). Promptly, forcefully and with ruthless efficiency he asserted his supremacy over the nation and several obstreperous elder relatives, who disputed his right to the succession (supreme leadership had hitherto been elective by seniority within the ruling family, not by primogeniture). He then asked for and received a royal crown from Pope Sylvester II - by his choice of patron demonstrating his determination to keep Hungary independent of both the Western and the Byzantine Empires - and with it he was crowned the first King of Hungary in the year 1000.

Next he set about converting all his people to Western (Latin) Christianity, founding and endowing two Archbishoprics - Metropolitan Sees directly under the jurisdiction of Rome - and eight Bishoprics, as well as a number of Benedictine monasteries (which introduced the vine alongside the Gospel). Parish churches were built in towns and larger villages and, to encourage the populace to attend these, St Stephen decreed that markets be held in places with a church, on Sundays (still vasárnap, market-day, in Hungarian). Within two decades the country was sufficiently Christian for the designation of an official pilgrim route to the Holy Land through it. Of earlier pagan beliefs all traces were soon to vanish, so that we now know nothing about what these had been. 

In recognition of his success, in his lifetime the Pope granted him the title Apostolic King - not that different from the Byzantine Emperors' proud Equal of the Apostles (and five centuries older than Defender of the Faith) - and the right to use the Apostolic double cross. All Kings of Hungary styled themselves Apostolic until 1918, and the double cross is in Hungary's arms to this day. When his tomb was opened in 1083, on the occasion of his canonization, his right hand was found to be uncorrupted - it is venerated as a relic to this day. (All in all the House of Árpád gave the Church five saints: Kings Stephen and László, Prince Imre, and the Princesses Elizabeth, daughter of Andrew II, and Margaret, daughter of Béla IV). 

St Stephen was equally energetic in dealing with secular matters, dividing Hungary into Counties - governed by royal officials, not feudal counts - that disregarded clan boundaries, and organizing defensive fortifications around the country's borders, also entrusted to royal officials. On the other hand, he carefully avoided creating territorially based feudal fiefs, then fashionable in most of Europe. Land was merely held freehold under the Crown, not by feudal vassalage. Moreover, large estates were not single blocks of territory, but numerous small packets of land scattered all over the country. No office, title or dignity - other than the Crown - was hereditary. The acceptance and integration of persons of non-Hungarian stock - whether already in situ or new immigrants - was encouraged: a nation of one race is feeble, he wrote for his son's guidance. By his death the decrees issued during his reign - many informed by Carolingian precedents, but all tailored to fit the specific task in hand - that regulated every aspect of the administration, revenues and defense of the realm, as well as the rights (notably: as regards property and inheritance) and obligations of his subjects, filled two volumes. Many were still cited in lawsuits in the 19th century. And the earliest Hungarian coins, silver denarii, date from his reign. 

The Western Emperor was his brother-in-law, with the Byzantine he had concluded a treaty of friendship, thus he could get on with transforming Hungary unhindered by foreign wars.There can be little doubt that but for St Stephen's successful efforts to transform the country into a Christian monarchy, endowed with administrative structures and a legal code that stood the test of time, there might be no nation and state called Hungary in Europe to this day. 


Early Midle Ages (12th-11th c)

In the 12th century, and especially under Andrew's father Béla III (1172-96) - educated, until he was past twenty, in Constantinople at the Court of Manuel lI Comnenos, a kinsman through his mother Irene, an Árpád princess by birth - the Crown had been powerful and wealthy, and Hungary well governed. On coming to the throne Béla III had thoroughly reorganized the country's government, in line with Byzantine administrative practice. In particular, he expanded the Royal Chancellery, upgraded the post of Chancellor, and made written documents compulsory in all dealings with the Crown, as well as in all contracts and legal proceedings between private individuals. His revenues - listed in a document now in the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris, probably compiled when he married Margaret, a daughter of Louis VII of France - would appear to have equalled or even exceeded the revenues of the contemporary Kings of France or England. Hungary was rich, in part, because it accounted for a significant proportion of the gold, silver, and copper mined in Europe throughout most of the Middle Ages. 

Earlier in the century relations with Byzantium had often been strained, largely due to repeated wars over Dalmatia. There were also frequent tensions with Hungary's powerful western neighbors, the Hohenstaufen Emperors (in particular Frederic I Barbarossa), Hungary repeatedly siding with the Papacy in its struggle - then at its peak - with the Empire. Every so often a younger brother of the King, and on one occasion the uncles of a boy-King, sought the backing of one or the other of these neighbors in attempts to obtain the throne, but none managed to displace the rightful incumbent. 

Crusading armies, taking the comfortable land route down the Danube to the Levant, kept passing through Hungary. Several of those who so crossed the country on their way to the Holy Land describe it as a prosperous and well governed realm - perhaps because its kings politely declined invitations to participate in Crusades, limiting themselves to entertaining passing crusading leaders in royal style. 

The first to do so had been Coloman (1095-1116) - known as the Bookish since, of unimposing physique, he had originally been intended for the Church and was, doubtless, literate - who entertained Godfrey of Bouillon and his entourage on their way to the First Crusade and the capture of Jerusalem, while firmly curbing the initial excesses of the crusading rabble. He is mainly memorable for the extensive legislation of his reign - including a decree that forbade the persecution of witches quia strigiis non sunt - and also because, having married the Norman Brusilla of Sicily, he took possession of the Dalmatian coastline of the Adriatic for Hungary (wisely permitting the trading cities of the littoral to retain their self-governing status). 

He had succeeded his uncle László I (1077-95), a monarch who sought to embody the ideal of preux chevalier sans peur et sans reproche. Canonized a century later, he is known in Hungarian history as St László. He fended off repeated incursions of the Cumans from the east, and joined the Crowns of Croatia and Slavonia (whose ruler, his sister Helen's husband Zvonomir, had died without issue) to that of Hungary, founding the Bishopric of Zagreb in 1094. 

But his main achievement was to restore peace and order to a country that had been rent by civil wars over the succession during the four decades preceding his reign. In the course of those four decades Hungary had had no less than six Kings - brothers, cousins, uncles and nephews fighting one another for the throne - and had suffered a final and bloody anti-Christian uprising, supported by one of the claimants. During the same period, taking advantage of internal strife, the Western Empire tried, but failed, to establish its suzerainty over Hungary. This chaotic period had resulted from the untimely death, in a hunting accident in 1031, of Prince Imre, only son and heir. 

Had he lived it might, perhaps, have been avoided. Prince Imre had been carefully groomed for the throne, tutored by a learned Venetian monk, the later martyred St Gellért (Gerard). And some time between 1010-1020 a volume of detailed instructions - commonly, if slightly incorrectly, known as Admonitions - was compiled for his future guidance, which bears every mark of the personal participation in its preparation of his father, King St Stephen (997-1038). 


Matthias, Hunyadi, Sigisimund (15th c)

The sorry state of affairs in the opening decades of the 16th century was due to the election to the throne in 1490 of Ulászló II of the Polish House of Yagiello, and King of Bohemia too, largely because he was expected to prove pliable - which he was to the point that he is known in Hungarian history as Ulászló dobje, (the Czech word for good, his habitual response to any suggestion put to him). 

He followed Matthias I Corvinus the Just (1458-1490) on the throne - whose reign many consider to have been the most brilliant in the history of Hungary - in no small measure because the barren Dowager Queen Beatrice (of the Spanish-Italian House of Aragon) easily out-intrigued John Corvinus, her late husband's legitimized bastard, whom Matthias had wished to succeed him. And soon the saying Matthias is dead: Justice has gone became current. 

At his death - in Vienna, which he had taken off the meddling Emperor Frederick III in 1485 - Matthias bequeathed to Hungary a just and effective administration, a strong standing army, a well-maintained line of fortifications in the south (many in the defensive provinces he had established beyond the river Sava), the memory of several victories over the Turks in open battle, as well as a Treasury that was overflowing, despite paying for all of these and sustaining lavish spending on a splendid Italianate renaissance Court, swarming with artists and savants, and a famous library - the Corviniana - at Buda (where the first locally printed book, a history of Hungary dedicated to the King, was published in 1473, some years before Caxton started printing in London). 

Matthias I - whose reign followed brief ones by a couple of Habsburgs, one a child, and the Yagellonian Ulászló I (1440-44) who fell at the Battle of Varna, on the Black Sea, fighting the Turks - had owed his election to the throne, while still in his teens, largely to the prestige and wealth of his recently dead father John Hunyadi, the dominant personality of the preceding decades. Regent in the years 1446-53 during the minority of László V (1443-58), and Captain General of the Realm, he repeatedly defeated the Turks in campaigns conducted deep in the Balkans (although defeated by them at Kossovo in 1448, in part due to the treachery of Serbia's Despot George Brankovich). Cholera carried him away in the summer of 1456, within weeks of his most famous victory: the relief of Belgrade, besieged by the very same Turks who had taken Constantinople but three years earlier. To this day that struggle for Belgrade is commemorated, in Catholic countries, by the noontime ringing of church bells. 

Hunyadi may or may not have been a bastard son of Sigismund (1387-1437), also Emperor, of the House of Luxembourg (a grandson of the blind hero of Crécy.) Although later increasingly kept away by affairs of the Empire - notably the Council of Constance that ended the Great Schism in the Church - and of his other Kingdom, Bohemia, Sigismund did not neglect Hungary, where he asked to be buried, when on his deathbed in Moravia. Unfortunately, like Matthias later on, he did not have a legitimate son either. Conscious of the mounting Turkish threat - the last European crusading army, assembled at his behest, had been annihilated by them at Nicopolis in 1396 - he initiated the construction of a continuous line of fortifications along the southern borders, placing them under unified command. It was from this time on that increasing numbers of Serbs and Vlachs (Romanians), fleeing from the Turks in the Balkans, settled in the safety of Southern Hungary and Transylvania. 

He also saw to it that learning was promoted among his subjects, founding a (short-lived) university at Óbuda, intended to match his father's foundation at Prague, the Carolinska. Trade and commerce were encouraged by, inter alia, the standardization of measures and simplification of tolls. Furthermore, following a review of all city charters, the main chartered towns - Royal Free Cities - were given the right to send Members to the Diet. Sigismund was the first monarch to appreciate the advantages of working with the Diet, rather than treating it as a source of troubles for the Crown, regularly consulting interested parties and circulating drafts for legislation in advance (on subjects as diverse as reforming the status of towns, the army and the Courts of Law). And he had the gift of gaining and retaining the loyalty of others - several of his most trusted counsellors came from amongst those who had, in the early years of his reign, conspired to depose him. 


The coming of the Turks (16th c.)

By the beginning of the 17th century Hungary seemed to be set to remain divided into three parts: Royal Hungary, the Turkish Conquest, and Transylvania. The only major effort to dislodge the Turks, known as the Fifteen Years War (1593 - 1606), had petered out without achieving more than local successes (such as the re-taking of Gyôr in 1598): by the Treaty of Zsitvatorok (1606) peace, to last twenty years, was concluded with the Turks and re-integration of Transylvania into Royal Hungary -- an aim until then pursued in regular, if intermittent, negotiations for more than half a century -- was no longer sought. 

The Counter-Reformation had come to Hungary too, but here it proceeded by open debate, argument and a flood of tracts (by 1600 well over five hundred had been published). The Parliament called to approve the coronation* of Matthias II (1608-19) -- who replaced his increasingly deranged brother Rudolf I (II as Emperor, 1576 - 1608) on the throne -- passed Acts that granted religious liberty for those who adhered to one of the Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist or Orthodox churches, and that established the equal standing of Catholic and Protestant candidates for some of the highest offices of state. (Another Act also divided Parliament into separate Upper and Lower Chambers: up to then the bishops, magnates and elected county representatives had, in principle at least, sat and debated together.)
* A constitutional requirement, whose misreading has given rise to the erroneous view -- held, in particular, by numerous West European historians -- that Hungary's monarchy was elective, like Poland's. 

16th century advances of the Reformation in Hungary culminated with publication of the first complete translation of the Bible, in 1590, by Caspar Károli. The counterattack was led by Peter Pázmány, from 1616 to his death in 1637 Cardinal-Archbishop of Esztergom (and founder of the University that still thrives in Budapest): his published sermons, treatises and pamphlets -- marvelous blends of theological reasoning, earthy similes and gentle, frequently ad hominem, irony -- are a pleasure to read to this day. (They were both well educated: Károli had studied at Wittenberg and in Switzerland; Pázmány in Cracow, Vienna and Rome.) Mention must also be made of Count Nicholas Zrinyi (the Younger, to distinguish him from his great-grandfather), author of important works on political and military matters, as well as poetry. And the poems of the soldier-poet Baron Valentine (Bálint) Balassa, who died in action against the Turks in 1594, can still be enjoyed today. Hungarian literature dates from their writings. 

The Turks had conquered most of the area they held by the 1550s, despite the heroic resistance of outnumbered garrisons in numerous fortified places: Köszeg, Eger, Drégely, Szigetvár -- the last held unto death by Count Nicholas Zrinyi the Elder -- to name but the most famous. Yet, time and again, armies that could have come to their relief were kept standing idly by, a few days' march away, by the Spanish or Italian generals given command of them and keen to preserve them intact. Indeed, the High Command (Hofkreigsrat) at Vienna kept objecting when Hungarian commanders in the field "rashly" engaged in military actions that could "annoy" the Turks who were invading the country. Such pusillanimity was a grave disappointment: Ferdinand I (1526-64), the first of the long line of Habsburg Kings, had been elected to the then vacant throne in the expectation that he, and his successors, would obtain armed assistance against the Turks from the Empire (the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, to give it its full designation). After all, only Hungary stood between the Turks and the Empire; moreover, his brother the Emperor Charles V was at war with Francis I of France, who had allied himself with the Turks despite sporting the title Most Christian King. 

Initially resistance to the Turkish advance had also been impeded by the division of loyalties between two Kings. John I (1526-40) -- John Zápolya (sometimes also written Szapolyai), up to then Governor of Transylvania -- had also been elected to the vacant throne, some six weeks earlier than Ferdinand, largely because he still had an intact army. However, within two years he became a client of the Turks, and was then left in possession of Buda and the centre of the country until his death in 1541. But after it the Turks seized Buda from his baby son John Sigismund in a bloodless coup. The infant John Sigismund and his Regency Council (except for some, notably Valentine Török, who were taken to Istanbul in chains) were then permitted to retire to, and retain, Transylvania. It was from this time that it gradually evolved into an independent principality, whose first Prince John Sigismund became. It was governed in his name by Bishop, later Cardinal, George Martinuzzi (who preferred to be known as Friar George) until he was assassinated in 1551, certainly with the knowledge, and possibly at the behest, of Ferdinand I. 

The election of two Kings -- both by incomplete, separate, Parliaments convened in a country that was in disarray -- followed the crushing defeat inflicted on the Hungarian army by Suleiman I the Magnificent at Mohács on the 29th August 1526. Of twenty-eight thousand Hungarians who had faced the Turk some twenty-four thousand, among them most of the bishops, senior office holders, dignitaries and leading men of the realm, perished; the young and yet childless Louis II (1516-26) himself was killed as he fled the field, leaving the throne vacant. Only the ambitious John Zápolya had failed to arrive in time for the battle with the army he was bringing from Transylvania -- it is concievable, but cannot be proven, that he tarried on purpose. 

Mohács had not been the first clash with the Ottoman Turks, who had been at the borders of Hungary since the 1370s, but had up to then been kept at bay. However Suleiman I -- an exceptionally gifted and energetic Sultan -- had found a country that was enfeebled and impoverished by the lackadaisical reign of Ulászló II (1490-1516), of the Polish House of Yagello, and his son Louis II, not yet ten when he was crowned. The thirty-five years of their reigns undermined central authority, exhausted the Treasury, encouraged factional dissension, led to neglect of defensive measures, and had given rise to a major peasants' revolt in 1514, whose bloody aftermath further weakened the country

Maria Theresia, Turks (18th-17th c)

The Napoleonic Wars had largely passed Hungary by (although not a few of her men served in the Austrian armies, and landowners did well from high prices for agricultural produce). In the 1790s, under the impact of the French Revolution and, in particular, the Paris Terror, Vienna introduced strict policing and censorship; at the same time, and inspired by the very ideas that frightened the Habsburg Court, a considerable number of Hungarian intellectuals -- writers, poets, lawyers, even clergymen, most of them Freemasons -- formed a Jacobine Circle and circulated documents briming with lofty ideals amongst themselves. Its prime mover, the Abbé Ignatius Martinovich, might have been a police informer, but he was arrested with the others and was among the half dozen executed; the sentences of the rest were commuted to long periods of incarceration in remote fortresses, notably Kufstein (from which events released them after a few years). 

Before that the country was torn in its attitudes to Joseph II (1780-90), who aimed to impose enlightened government from above. In this spirit he refused to be crowned, so as not to be tied by a Coronation Oath (indeed, he had the Holy Crown and other regalia placed in a museum in Vienna), would not call Parliaments, and made German the only official language of government in Hungary too. For these reasons routine Hungarian historiography decries him; yet many enlightened and progressive Hungarians of the period -- such as Count Francis Széchényi, who founded the National Library from his own collection, and Francis Kazinczy, who did more than any other contemporary for Hungarian literature (and was one of those later imprisoned at Kufstein) -- supported many of his reforms, notably in education, and served him loyally. On balance, his fault was the arrogance of the means he chose, not the underlying ideas he pursued. 

Joseph II was the son, too long kept in the background without a proper role, of Maria Theresia (1740-80), the second Queen Regnant in Hungarian history (the first had been in the 14th century). Married to Francis, Duke of Lorraine, and Holy Roman Emperor -- hence her descendants are, strictly speaking, Habsburg-Lorraines -- Hungary, which enabled her to fend off Frederic the Great of Prussia, might have disembarrassed itself of the Habsburgs before she came to the throne. 

Her father Charles III (1711-40) (Charles VI as Emperor) was the last Habsburg in the male line. As the Hungarian constitution then stood, when the monarch had no male heir Parliament could elect a king of its choice to succeed him. However, Charles III -- a man of undoubted charm, tact, diplomatic skill and goodwill -- had managed to persuade Parliament to incorporate the Pragmatica Sanctio, which recognized his daughter's right to succeed him, into Hungarian law, together with additional clauses that "perpetually and indissolubly" linked the Kingdom of Hungary and the Hereditary Lands in a personal union (Acts I-III of 1722), much as England and Scotland had been in the 17th century through the person of their common monarch. 

The persuasive powers of Charles III were all the more impressive in that an anti-Habsburg civil war -- led by Francis II Rákóczi, Prince of Transylvania , and one of the most romantic characters in Hungarian history -- that lasted from 1703 to 1711, with tacit financial support from Louis XIV of France, had been terminated but eleven years earlier, admittedly on singularly generous terms (negotiated and signed at Szatmár, in north-eastern Hungary, by Count John Pálffy on behalf of the King and Baron, later Count, Alexander Károlyi on behalf of Rákóczi). The main reason for its eruption had been mounting discontent due to the high-handed policies of Charles's father Leopold I (1657-1705) who -- bigoted, dour, surrounded by Spanish priests and courtiers -- had attempted to govern Hungary through a secret committee, the Camarilla, from the Hofburg at Vienna. 

In particular, Leopold I had tried to suppress religious liberty with sword and fire (a good half and more of the population was Lutheran or Calvinist: by Act I of 1608 they were permitted to practice their religion freely); imposed arbitrary taxes to pay for the foreign troops employed to do so; had leading opponents of his policies -- notably Counts Peter Zrinyi, Francis Frangepán and Francis Nádasdy -- illegally executed (at Wiener Neustadt, just across the border in Austria: no Hungarian Court would have countenanced a charge against them); treated land reconquered from the Turks as newly acquired ownerless land (terra nullius), to be distributed among favored courtiers and successful army suppliers without regard to Hungarian claims and rights rooted in previous ownership. 

Of Transylvania he constituted an hereditary Habsburg Duchy, refusing to re-join it to the rest of the country from which it had been cut off. (Maria Theresia later made of it a Grand Duchy; re-unification with the rest of Hungary had to wait until 1848.) Moreover, in 1699, at the Peace of Karlóca (Karlovac), he made totally unwarranted concessions to the Turks, handing them back large and strategically important areas, notably the region of Temesvár, that had been reconquered from them by force of arms. 

Yet -- in large part due to the efforts of Pope Innocent XI, who had persuaded the reluctant Leopold I to act and other European Powers to contribute men and money -- the expulsion of the Turks from Hungary had been rapid after Buda was retaken from them, in September 1686. For near on a century and a half it had been the administrative centre of the area, about one third of the country, that the Turks held occupied, known as the Turkish Conquest (török hódoltság): this included most of the central plains to the southern foothills of the Carpathians, and the south-eastern portion of Transdanubia, more or less to the line of Lake Balaton. 

The region under Turkish occupation had largely separated Royal Hungary -- its territorial extent limited to the west and north of Transdanubia and to the Highlands in the north and north-east, its capital at Pozsony (Pressbourg, renamed Bratislava by the Czechs in 1920) -- from Transylvania (which also included the so-called Partium, adjacent portions of the plains). Owing to this separation Transylvania, previously always an integral part of Hungary, had become an elective, independent Principality that managed, most of the time, to recognize both the King of Hungary and the Sultan as its nominal suzerain. 

However, the borders between these three parts of Hungary remained fluid and permeable, notably to trade and ideas, despite continuous skirmishing warfare between Turks and Hungarians, and occasional larger campaigns. Transylvania, in particular, often played a decisive role in Hungarian politics, both as a haven of religious toleration and by supporting -- especially under Princes Stephen Bocskay (1605-6) and Gábor Bethlen (1614-29) -- Royal Hungary in thwarting Vienna's repeated attempts to reduce the Kingdom to the status of an hereditary Habsburg province (as Bohemia had been after the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620). 

That war had started in the summer of 1848, when conservative elements at Court in Vienna (dominated by the Archduchess Sophie, mother of Francis Joseph) incited Hungary's ethnic minorities -- first the Croats, who had always enjoyed a degree of local autonomy, under Baron Josip Jelashich the Viceroy of Croatia (technically an office under the Hungarian Crown); then the Serbs in the south, and the Vlachs, or Romanians, in Transylvania; the Slovaks of the Highlands did not, on the whole, respond to Vienna's agitation -- to take up arms against the country's constitutional government. By the autumn they had forced Ferdinand V to abdicate in favor of his eighteen year old nephew Francis Joseph, unfettered by previous undertakings or a Coronation Oath; the Austrian army was then put in the field too, initially under the command of Field Marshal Prince Alfred Windischgrätz. 

The ire of conservatives at Court, shaken by revolutionary events in Vienna that had forced Metternich to resign and flee abroad, was directed against Hungary because in April 1848 its Parliament (Diet, as it was until then called) had passed a raft of progressive Acts, usually referred to as the April Laws.* These -- which inter alia extended the franchise, made the Ministry answerable to Parliament only, abolished all legal distinctions between citizens (and consequent special privileges, notably tax exemption, the sole right to own land, the entitlement to peasant services), removed censorship, gave new powers to elected city corporations, and re-united Transylvania with the rest of Hungary -- made of Hungary a fully fledged 19th century constitutional monarchy, the powers of the Crown severely curtailed; they failed, however, to regulate the country's relationship to Austria, still an absolute monarchy, adequately. After some vacillation Ferdinand V (1835-48), also Emperor of Austria, had given his Royal Assent; elections were held on the new franchise and the new Government of all talents, headed by Count Louis Batthány (to be among those executed in 1849), moved its seat from Pressburg to Pest, only to be embroiled in war within a few months.
* Populist and popular accounts tend to concentrate on events at Pest and Buda on the 15th of March 1848 but these, although colorful in their own way, had only a marginal effect on the course of events. 

The April Laws, inspired by the revolutionary spirit that was then sweeping across Europe, completed a process of reform that had been fermenting for decades, driven in particular by Count Stephen Széchenyi, Louis Kossuth, Baron Nicholas Wesselényi and Francis Kölcsey. Despite government attempts, inspired by Vienna, to influence elections -- some five per cent of adult males had the franchise, which was tied to 'noble' status, not property: at election time the poorer of these were feasted on a lavish scale -- the Lower Chamber of Parliament was becoming increasingly progressive, and even in the Upper Chamber younger hereditary members were increasingly speaking and voting for progressive measures. The Parliamentary Reports edited and published by Kossuth -- at times in the form of 'letters' to bypass press censorship -- spread awareness of this new attitude. From the 1830s industry and commerce were also modernizing, rivers were regulated and the first railways built, new methods were introduced in agriculture; a new building for the National Museum and Library was completed, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (akin to the Académie Française) was founded. 

This ferment, whose intellectual foundations had been laid in the closing decades of the 18th century, was going on at a time when Austria was governed by the arch-conservative Prince Clement Metternich, creator and principal sustainer of the Holy Alliance. 1848 merely brought matters to a head between Hungary and the Habsburgs, the reigning dynasty of both countries, of Hungary since the 16th century. 

The Habsburgs considered the various lands whose sovereigns they were their personal property, their Hereditary Lands, even after these had been renamed the Austrian Empire in 1804, when Francis I (1792-1835) wished to have a title comparable to Napoleon's new one (only in 1807 did he finally relinquish the, by then totally meaningless, title Holy Roman Emperor). And they firmly believed that it was their divine right to govern these by decree, as they saw fit -- maintaining that it was only the person of the ruler that conferred unity, a common identity and legal standing on his lands (which, given the heterogeneity of these possessions, made some sense). 

Hungary saw it differently. It held that the Kingdom, symbolized by the Holy Crown of St Stephen, existed as a distinct and coherent state irrespective of the King's person, who was merely the incumbent of the highest office, bound by his Coronation Oath to rule the country in accordance with its Constitution -- evolved by precedent and legislation over the centuries -- with and through Parliament that represented the nation. 

Seen through Habsburg eyes Hungary, with its constitutional pretensions, was an anomaly that undermined the bland unity of the Habsburg Gesamtmonarchie; seen from Hungary the Court at Vienna, with its absolutist tendencies, was an attempt at tyranny. This divergence of views had resulted in three centuries of, on occasion armed, struggle between Nation and Crown over how, by whom and - crucially - from where Hungary should be governed. For not only were the Habsburg Kings foreigners (Francis Joseph was the first who spoke Hungarian), but they also continued to reside in Vienna. Not one of their number ever spent more than a few days, let alone took up residence, in Hungary, despite a law that required the monarch to reside in the country (Act VII of 1741), which had received the Royal Assent of Maria Theresia (1740-80). 

World War I to 2016

In June 1914 Gavrilo Princip -- a Serbian youth backed and provided with his weapon by officers of the Serbian army -- assassinated the heir to the thrones of Hungary and Austria, Archduke Francis-Ferdinand, who disliked Hungary as much as Hungary disliked him. The Austro-Hungarian military establishment then demanded a punitive war against Serbia and, despite the initial objections of the Hungarian Prime Minister Count Stephen Tisza, in July the fateful ultimatum that launched the First World War was despatched to Belgrade. 

The Kingdom of Hungary -- which then consisted, as it had since the 11th century, of all of the area encircled by the Carpathians (including Slavonia south of the Drava and Croatia to the Adriatic in the west) and thus formed a well-balanced political and economic unit, with geographical borders as natural as the sea that surrounds Britain -- was at that time one half of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy, whose other half was the Austrian Empire (which included, besides today's Austria, the present-day Czech Republic, most of southern Poland and western Ukraine). The two component states of this composite "k.u.k." (kaiserlich und königlich: imperial and royal) Dual Monarchy (not Empire) had the same ruler, Francis Joseph (1848-1916), and currency, joint foreign and defense policies, and a customs union. All affairs of each half -- other than foreign policy and defense -- were managed by its own separate government. 

Of the two, Hungary's Government had to depend upon majority support in its Parliament, whose roots went back to the 13th century. Like Britain's, it had two Chambers, but was even then dominated by the elected Lower Chamber (not least because hereditary members of the Upper had long been permitted to stand for election to the Lower, instead of taking their seat in the Upper, which most of those with serious political ambitions did throughout their careers). The physical arrangement was, as it still is, a hemicycle, and the government majority -- for decades the Liberal Party lead by Coloman Tisza* -- tended to occupy the centre, the opposition being split between those (politically and in seating) to its right and left. The Upper Chamber -- reformed in the 1880s, following several occasions when it had frustrated the Lower's will -- consisted of those who had inherited titles (and payed taxes above a set minimum amount), the bishops or equivalents of all of the country's historic Churches (Catholic, both Roman and Uniate, Calvinist, Lutheran, Orthodox), the judges of the Supreme Court, the holders of a small number of other offices, and up to 50 life members nominated by the Crown on the Prime Minister's advice (who, however, did not receive titles).
* Father of Count Stephen Tisza, who inherited his title from an uncle. 

In 1945 Hungary had fallen from the frying pan into the fire: in March 1944 Nazi Germany had occupied the country, installed a pro-Nazi puppet government, deported anti-Nazis to concentration camps in the Reich, and extended the holocaust to Hungary too. Up to then Hungary had been an island of de facto tolerance in Axis-occupied Europe -- the application of such 'racial laws' as had been introduced under German pressure was lax in the extreme and easily evaded -- and provided a safe haven for numerous refugees from other Continental countries, as well as for escaped Allied POWs: German demands for their extradition were politely but consistently refused. 

That occupation was Germany's response to Hungary's, clumsy and botched, attempt to get out of the war, into which Germany -- which had by then occupied all surrounding countries (except Romania, ruled by the pro-Nazi Fascist Iron Guard) -- had dragged a reluctant Hungary in the autumn of 1941. Up to then Prime Minister Count Paul Teleki, pushed into suicide by German aggression that spring, had managed to keep Hungary neutral. 

During the thirties Hungary came to be increasingly overshadowed by ever more powerful Nazi Germany, a direct neighbor after it had annexed Austria (the Anschluss) in 1938. Governments in favor of closer links with Germany, such as that of Julius Gömbös (who coined the phrase Berlin-Rome Axis), alternated with others inclined to cautiously distance Hungary from Germany -- a difficult task at a time when Britain and France were consistently appeasing Germany; especially difficult after Chamberlain and Daladier had agreed, at Munich in 1938, to let Hitler and Mussolini arbitrate in the matter of Hungarian-populated regions of Czechoslovakia (see below): by their Vienna Decision most of those regions were returned to Hungary, boosting the arbitrators' popularity. 

In the twenties the Government lead by Count Stephen Bethlen, which lasted nearly a decade, consolidated the country after the ravages of the First World War. 

From the end of the First to that of the Second World War Hungary remained a kingdom without a king. The last reigning monarch, Charles IV (1916-18), had been exiled by the victorious Allies after the First World War, and there was no consensus on how to fill the throne (or, indeed, whether it was vacant). Pending resolution of this issue Admiral Nicholas Horthy -- the last C-in-C of the Austro-Hungarian Navy (which had remained bottled up in the Adriatic throughout the war) -- was the country's acting Head of State, with the title Regent. As such he could advise, but not dictate to, governments that had sufficient support in Parliament; he also had the power to dissolve Parliament at will and call new elections, but he only used it once: to refuse the dissolution requested by pro-German Prime Minister Béla Imrédy, who considered Parliamentary support for his policy insufficient and hoped to improve it after new elections. 

Horthy had been appointed Regent by Parliament in 1920, following a brief but bloody Bolshevik reign of terror in 1919, headed by Béla Kún (later, in the 1930s, 'purged' by Stalin). The Bolsheviks had come to power on the collapse of the feeble Government of Count Michael Károlyi who -- having been appointed Prime Minister by the King in October 1918 -- declared a republic in January 1919, and became its President. His most fateful action on coming into office was to order all, admittedly war weary, Hungarian troops to lay down their arms and return to their homes -- thereby effectively disbanding the Army. 

The country undefended, the new Czech state, which already had an army, started occupying the Highlands of Hungary, which then became the Slovak portion of Czechoslovakia; at the same time Romania -- which had an intact army, since it had been under the Central Powers' occupation almost from the day it had declared war on them -- occupied first Transylvania, then most of the central Lowlands, and eventually even Budapest and parts of Transdanubia. Meanwhile Serbia annexed Croatia-Slavonia in the South-West. 

This gave these states a strong hand when the victorious Allies finally got round to imposing their peace terms to Hungary at Trianon in 1920. There was no question of peace negotiations: the terms -- which, dictated by Clemenceau, were approved by Lloyd George and President Wilson -- were simply presented to the Hungarian delegation (held under house arrest while in Paris) for acceptance as they stood. They were harsh in the extreme: the area of Hungary was reduced to 28 per cent (yes: twenty-eight per cent) of what it had been, setting the arbitrary borders the country still has. And along with 72 per cent of its territory Hungary lost 60 per cent of its population to Romania, Serbia (which renamed itself Yugoslavia in 1929) and the newly created Czechoslovakia; for obscure reasons even Austria received a chunk (today's Burgenland). 

The Allies, although purporting to act under the banner of self-determination, refused Hungarian requests to hold plebiscites in the regions to be transferred to the so-called Successor States -- and with 'good' reason: at least one third of those now suddenly no longer in Hungary were pure 'ethnic' Hungarians. And, since the Trianon Borders were reconfirmed after the Second World War, there are still millions of Hungarians living just across the present borders of Hungary

At the General Election held in May 1998 the largest number of seats in Parliament, but short of an absolute majority, was won by the centre-right Fidesz - Civic Party -- which, having grown out of student protest movements of the last years of Communist rule, was for long called Alliance of Young Democrats -- in co-operation with the Hungarian Democratic Forum. A coalition with the Smallholders Party has assured them of a comfortable, if not overwhelming, majority in Parliament, and has enabled Fidesz to form a stable majority government. However, since the coalition partners between them control less than two-thirds of parliamentary seats, the new government will not be in a position to push through any constitutional changes, or other measures that require a two-thirds majority, that are not supported by the opposition, 

This reversed the election results of 1994, when the Hungarian Socialist Party (broadly: more-or-less 'reform-minded' ex-members of the ex-Communist Party) had gained an absolute majority in Parliament. Despite its origins, the government formed by this party proved to be in favor of an untrammeled 'free market' economy, concentrating on attracting foreign investment, encouraging ruthless home-grown capitalists, and putting macro-economic management before the wellbeing of the population at large. In consequence the international business community liked it, the electorate less so. 

By 1998 an ambitious, if occasionally mismanaged, privatization program, started by the first post-Communist government, transferred the bulk of the country's industrial and trading enterprises, as well as financial institutions, from state to private ownership (much of it representing foreign capital, about half from Germany, the USA and France). During the period 1990-97 approximately one quarter of all western investment in erstwhile Communist countries went to Hungary. The re-opened Budapest stock exchange consistently outperforms its counterparts in other ex-Communist countries (and shares in the recently privatized telecoms operator, MATÁV, have obtained listing on Wall Street too). 

The price paid for these economic changes is a high level of inflation (still in the high-to-mid teens), unemployment running at well above 10 per cent (and considerably more in eastern parts of the country), a dramatic decrease in the real earnings of wage and salary earners -- especially those in public employment: education, health-care, civil servants -- and others on fixed incomes, old age pensioners in particular. 

Since 1990 all governments have shared the ambition of taking Hungary into the European Union (EU) and joining NATO. In March 1998 Hungary was invited to start formal accession negotiations with the EU, but attainment of full membership before 2002 or 2003 seems unlikely (however Hungary does already co-operate regularly with a number of EU technical bodies). An invitation to join NATO was issued in July 1997, and has since been approved by the existing members of the Alliance, whose legislatures are currently going through the processes of ratification (the US Congress has already passed the ratification); full membership of NATO is likely to be achieved in 1999 (Hungary has already co-operated with NATO, notably in connection with support for the force sent to Bosnia). Hungary is also a member of the OECD, as of the Council of Europe. 

The developments leading to the current situation began in 1989-90 when, in an amazingly peaceful transition, the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party (HSWP, as the Communist Party, the Soviet-backed master of Hungary since shortly after the Second World War, was then called) abdicated from its monopoly of political power, starting the collapse of Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe once Gorbachev had let it be understood that the USSR would not interfere. Following a series of round-table meetings with representatives of the hitherto illegal opposition, the HSWP agreed to free multi-party elections. Held in March 1990, these were won by a right-of-centre coalition, headed by the Hungarian Democratic Forum, which initiated the restoration of the country's West-European orientation and of a market economy in Hungary.

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