An overview of Hungary's history

To the east of the Alps a crescent of snow-capped mountains, the Carpathians, encloses an alluvial plain -- some tens of thousands of years ago it had been a huge inland lake -- interspersed with rolling hill country, protecting it from the open spaces to its north, east and south-east. In the south it terminates at the river Sava, beyond which the mountain ranges of the Balkan Peninsula rise, in the west at the foothills of the Styrian Alps. The Danube, foremost of Europe's rivers, enters it by the gap between the Carpathians' westernmost tip and the Styrian Alps; having collected the waters of all rivers that rise within or enter the basin, it breaks through the opposite end of the Carpathians at the Iron Gates.

In the closing years of the 9th century a confederation of seven nomadic tribes, numbering perhaps a few hundred thousand people in all, crossed into this Carpathian Basin from the east, impelled to do so, if indirectly, by Byzantine foreign policy. Finding it well-suited to their pastoral-agricultural lifestyle, and sparsely populated, they rapidly occupied all of it, to settle there for good.

The history of Hungary is the history of these people in this place from that time: their arrival there marks a break in the continuity, and a new beginning, in the history of the Carpathian Basin, as it does of theirs. Nothing that happened to them before carries over into what happened to them thereafter; nothing that happened in the place before -- Romans, Huns and a succession of other migrant peoples -- affected what happened thereafter.

The people

Contemporaries -- in the mistaken belief that they were descendants of the Huns, who had occupied the region in the 5th century -- came to refer to them as Hungari, and soon the entire Carpathian Basin came to be known as Hungaria, giving rise to the still habitual words Hungary and Hungarian (as to Hongrois, Ungar and so forth). From Arabic sources of the time, which refer to them as majjar or madjar, it would appear that they already called themselves magyar*, a variation on Megyer, the name of one of the seven tribes which had by then asserted its supremacy over the ohers.
* Referring to them as Magyars rather than Hungarians in English is a solecism due to ignorance, prejudice or both, comparable to using Deutschs where Germans is meant; those who do so usually have no more idea of how to pronounce the word than their readers, and compound their folly by adding an s to turn the word into a plural (Hungarian plurals are formed with a k).

Nomadic,like the other peoples who streamed into Europe from the East during the first millennium AD, kinship rather than territorial location gave the Hungarians cohesion. The seven tribes consisted of a hundred or so lesser kinship groups, best rendered as clans, each of which traced its origin to a common, if conceivably mythical, ancestor. It would, however, be mistaken to assume that the importance they attached to shared patrilineal descent could be equated with some kind of genetically determined, spurious,'racial purity': women of many other peoples, whether willing brides or forcibly captured, would have contributed to the Hungarians' gene-pool by that time (as many have continued to do, willingly, ever since).

One important trait did, however, distinguish them from the other peoples who came and settled in Europe at that time. The others were, for the most part, speakers of either a Germanic or a Slavonic language, both Indo-European. The Hungarians, in contrast, brought with them a tongue of Finno-Ugric origin* (enriched with traces of Turkic and Iranian influences) entwined with a distinctive outlook, folk-memories, tunes and attitudes.
* Academic argument concerning the origins of the Hungarian language has of late flared up again, but whatever the eventual outcome the main point made here remains unaffected.

It has been said that, in consequence, being a Hungarian is, above all, a state of mind. Differentiating them from other peoples who settled in the vicinity, this has given them a lasting sense of common identity, stronger than that of their neighbours', who could -- and frequently do and did -- consider themselves part of a larger Slavonic or Germanic community. Moreover, being essentially a cultural trait, it can be and has been readily absorbed by many, of diverse ethnic and linguistic origins, who settled in the Carpathian Basin in later times, and who became, and came to consider themselves, as Hungarian as the direct descendants of those original arrivals from the East.*.
* Readers of these pages might have heard of Kossuth of 1848-49 fame, whose name is distinctly Slavonic in origin, or of Petöfi the revolutionary nationalist poet of the same period, who started life as Petrovich; some might even have heard of Dr Ignatius Semmelweiss, initiator of ascepsis, a stout Hungarian despite his German name; or of Zrinyis (Croatian by origin) and Frangepáns (who came from Italy), generations of whom lived and died for Hungary. And there are many more.

The place

Settled in their new home, its geographic location came to dominate the course of these people's history (much as the history of England would have been different, were she not an island).

Hungary is well protected against incursions from the north, east and south-east by the crescent of the Carpathian Mountains: in historic times only the Hungarians themselves (unopposed) and, later, the Mongols (unstoppable) entered Hungary successfully across the Carpathians, apart from a Russian army in 1849 that was aided and assisted by the Austrians.* Large stretches of the approach from the south and west are rendered difficult by the mountainous regions of the Balkan Peninsula and Styria.
* In 1944-45 the Soviet Red Army came from the south, via Romania; at Yalta Stalin then had the strategic foresight to claim a foothold for the USSR west of the Carpathians (still part of the newly independent Ukraine).

Hungary, the Carpathian Basin, is, however, readily entered from the west as from the south along the Danube (see map). Thus, well protected as she is in other directions, Hungary has always had to face threats coming along the Danube both from the west and from the south, the origins of the latter usually further to the east. The country thrived when these were mutually antagonistic and balanced, even more so when one or both receded; it suffered when one heavily outweighed the other, or they joined forces. The Outline that follows aims to show the pattern of historical trends and events that resulted from this geographical fact during the past millennium.


Until 1204 -- the infamous Fourth Crusade -- Hungary had to contend with Byzantium to its south and the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation to its west. The two seldom saw eye to eye; Byzantium was increasingly preoccupied with the Turks advancing on its eastern borders; the cohesion of the Holy Roman Empire was imperfect, and its Emperors had many other concerns. Despite the meddling of both, Hungary did well.

For the next two centuries -- to about 1400 -- Hungary faced no permanent threat from either direction. To the south and east the remnants of Byzantium, the Balkan countries and the Turks were busy fighting one another; to the west the Holy Roman Empire's interest was increasingly focused on Italy, and then it lost the aggressive streak that had peaked under the Hohenstaufen Emperors. Despite the damage done by the Mongol attack from the east (1241-42), and by repeated bouts of internal dissension during the 13th century, by the latter part of this period Hungary was experiencing a golden age of well-being and international standing.

During the 15th century the situation deteriorated. The Ottoman Turks, dedicated to extending their conquests in the name of Islam, had gradually mopped up all of the Balkans, finally eliminating the remnants of Byzantium: the country was now threatened from the south by an eastern power driven by an alien ideology. Fortunately the west was quiescent: in the first half of the century the Emperors were already Kings of Hungary when elected to the Imperial Throne, to be followed by two who lacked the means (if not the intentions) for serious interference.* Hungary was still, just, able to fend off the threat from the East.
* The first two were Sigismund of Luxembourg and his son-in-law Albert of Habsburg, the second two Frederick III and his son Maximillian I, both Habsburgs.

The 16th century brought a catastrophic turning point. To the east the aggressive power of the Turks was at its a peak while, under two weak kings, the country's power to resist declined: following their overwhelming victory at Mohács in 1526, the Turks soon occupied about one third, mainly the fertile central plains, of Hungary, isolating Transylvania from the rest of the country. Hungary now looked to the west for succour against the east, and elected Ferdinand I of Habsburg -- brother of the Emperor Charles V, and eventually Emperor himself -- to the throne, vacant owing to the death of the young and yet childless King Louis II at Mohács.

But -- although this may not have been obvious to contemporaries -- by now the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, rent by the Reformation and almost constantly at war with France, was being reduced to a political entity without substance, increasingly a mere façade for the ambitions of the House of Habsburg. While keen to acquire any crown that was going,* countering the Turks in Hungary was not their chief concern** (except briefly on the few occasions when the Turks penetrated to the walls of Vienna). Thus the Turks were not pushed back from Hungary into the Balkans until the Ottoman Empire had lost its vigour, by the very end of the 17th century.
* That of Hungary particularly tempting, since it carried the style Apostolic Majesty -- not that far removed from the Byzantine Emperors' proud title Equal of the Apostles
** Indeed, in treaty after treaty they agreed to pay the Sublime Porte an annual tribute for their Kingdom of Hungary.

However, while the presence of Habsburgs on the throne of Hungary had contributed little to dealing with the Turkish threat from the east, it had resulted in reviving the threat from the west, in an internalised form. Hungary's Habsburg kings were also the rulers of numerous Hereditary Lands in Central Europe (which they collectively renamed the Austrian Empire in 1804): even while still fighting the Turks, and then into the 19th century, Hungary had to struggle tenaciously against its own monarchs too, to avoid absorption, by force or subtler pressures, into the homogenised Habsburg Gesammtmonarchie.

This struggle was not resolved until 1867 -- following a final armed clash in 1848-49 -- when the agreement known as the Compromise brought into being the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy (note: not 'Empire'!), in which Hungary and Austria were equal partners. By now, however, a new threat had emerged in the east: the Russian Empire, the self-proclaimed Third Rome, as determined as ever to expand westward.

In furtherance of its expansionist policies Russia advertised its support for the ambitions of all Slavs, and Orthodox ones in particular, beyond its borders, couched in the phraseology of the Panslav movement. This encouraged Serbia -- re-created as the Ottoman Empire retreated in the Balkans -- to openly covet all adjoining territories that had any Slav-speaking populations. To its North these were Catholic Croatia-Slavonia, joined with Hungary since 1094 but possessed of its own regional parliament, and a large stretch of southern Hungary, where a sizeable population of Orthodox Serbs had been settled following expulsion of the Turks. Panslav propaganda also induced increasing numbers of Slovak petty intellectuals in the northern Highlands of Hungary to dream of being joined to Bohemia-Moravia to their west (then part of Austria).

Hungary trusted that its link with Austria in the Dual Monarchy, and this composite unit's alliance with Germany, would keep the Russian threat by proxy at bay (Austria and Germany both had their own reasons to oppose Russian expansion). Then, in June 1914, a Serbian youth -- encouraged and equipped by officers of the Serbian army -- assassinated the heir to the thrones of Hungary and Austria in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia (recently annexed by Austria-Hungary to stem Serbia's Balkan expansion). Hungary had disliked the heir as much as he had disliked Hungary; nevertheless Austro-Hungarian military circles now dragged Hungary into a punitive war against Serbia, despite its Prime Minister's urgings to the contrary. Russia then came to the aid of Serbia, Germany to that of Austro-Hungary against Russia; next France, keen to avenge 1870, and Great Britain joined Russia against Germany.

Somewhat above four years later the marriage of convenience between Hungary and Austria, which had lasted almost four centuries, was terminated. A foolish interim government then disbanded the war-weary army and, seeing their chance, the Romanians, the Serbs and the Czechs rapidly occupied large stretches of the country, while a Leninist Bolshevik government took over the unoccupied regions and instituted a reign of red terror.

Somewhat above a year after that, in 1920, in the charming Palais de Trianon at Versailles, the victors -- without Russia, in revolutionary turmoil since 1917 -- awarded to Serbia, to Romania and to the new Czechoslovak state, between them, rather more than two thirds of Hungary, including millions of Hungarian-speakers. For the first time in its history Hungary had lost the protective barrier of the Carpathians and, indeed, any border formed by a natural feature in any direction.*
* Hungary is the only state in Europe that now borders, on all sides, on regions that used to be part of its national territory for the best part of one thousand years.

A few decades later the threat came from Nazi Germany to the west (which finally occupied Hungary in the spring of 1944, extending the Holocaust to it), to be followed by nearly half a century's subjugation to the Soviet Union in the east, with the apparent approval (Yalta!) of the more distant west.

Needless to say, the main plot of Hungary's history as outlined above, dictated by the country's geographic position, was coloured and embellished by numerous sub-plots. Due to coincidences of personalities, ideas and secondary events, these were now aligned with the main plot, now cut across it, and many a time unrelated to it. Contemporaries (and not a few historians since) often ascribed greater importance to the twists and turns of such sub-plots than to the sweep of the main plot, not infrequently to their peril.

The author may, of course, be mistaken in his assessment of the main forces that shaped Hungary's history: readers of the pages that follow will have to judge for themselves.

Last updated: June 1998

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