Last revision in December 2008 (Originaly created in February 1999)
The Origin of Hungarians
As is the case with many other nations, the exact origin of the Hungarians
is not known. The most commonly accepted guess in scientific
circles is that their ancient homeland was somewhere in Western Siberia.
This theory is very much supported by the fact that the Hungarian language is
a branch of the
languages (Finnish and Estonian being the two other major languages belonging
to this group).
The Hungarian tribes arrived to the Carpathian Basin with the last wave of the Great Migration at the end of the IXth century (see their route on this map). Under the leadership of Árpád the Hungarians easily conquered the sparsely populated territory. Some critical minds (always looking for the bad side of everything) do not miss the chance to point out here that the Hungarians were actually chased by another nomadic tribe, the Petchenegs. Anyway, in the first century after their settlement the Hungarians were leading regular raiding campaigns to the West and to the South, thus reaching the same reputation in continental Europe as the Vikings in coastal areas. As you can imagine, they were very popular indeed!
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The Hungarian policy of regularly attacking their neighbours was
stopped by prince
in the second half of the X. century. He
realized that in the interest of the long-term survival of the
nation, Hungarians have to adapt Western standards. His work was
finished by his son István, the first
Hungarian king. István ruled Hungary between 997 and 1038. He
finished the work of converting Hungarians to Christianity
(for which he was later
canonized by the church) and created a strong feudal state
The foundations laid down by István proved to be rather solid. The first five hundred years of Hungarian history was a success story. Hungary established itself as a regional power in Central Europe and the Balkans: usually strong enough to defend its independence even from the contemporary superpowers (with the notable exception of the Tatar invasion in 1241-42) and also strong enough to control smaller neighbouring states (which explains why some of our neighbours do not share our enthusiasm about this period). The country was a flourishing medieval kingdom, closing up to Western-European standards also in economical and cultural aspects.
Perhaps the most important chapter of these glorious centuries is the
rule of king Mátyás (1458-1490). His father
(probably the most talented contemporary military leader and certainly
Hungary's greatest military hero ever) managed to stop the advancing Turks in
a series of brilliant battles between 1441 and 1456, which contributed to
the long and prosperous reign of his son. Mátyás' famous
deterred the Turks and ensured military supremacy over Central Europe. His
famous renaissance court at Visegrád
attracted many artists and his Corvina
library at Buda was also world-famous. Hungary was at its peak.
But not for long, unfortunately. After Mátyás' death weaker kings came into power and although Hungary had successfully resisted the Turks since their appearance in the Balkans in the XIV. century, it was no longer able to do so: a huge Turkish army crushed the Hungarians at the battlefield of Mohács in the dark year of 1526.
After Mohács Hungary was torn into three parts (see map):
Worse than that, the next 150 years was a series of wars between the Turkish and the Habsburg empire. Hungary had the honour to provide the battlefield for these wars. As a result, the country was devastated: most towns had been destroyed and the population which used to be 4 millions at the end of the XV. century (in Mátyás' time) decreased to only 3 millions at the end of the XVII. century.
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So, when the last major Turkish attack against Austria (the siege of Vienna in 1683) triggered a coalition of European powers (including Austria, Poland and some other countries) which managed to liberate Hungary in the following years, it was a long-awaited and very fortunate event, even though the impoverished country was in no position to retain its independence and got incorporated into the growing Central-European empire of the Habsburgs.
However, the relations between the Habsburgs and their Hungarian subjects were not entirely harmonious. The Habsburgs often referred to the Hungarians as "rebellious" and this opinion was not completely groundless as the Hungarians tried to get rid of the Habsburgs during a freedom war (1703-11) led by Ferenc Rákóczi II, Prince of Transylvania, but this was a rather hopeless effort and the rebels finally failed.
Otherwise the XVIII. century was long and surprisingly peaceful.
The country was rebuilt basically from scratch and received a dominantly
baroque architectural profile.
The beginning of the XIX. century brought the rise of national feelings everywhere in Europe. The wakening Hungarians found their country in a backward and underdeveloped state. The most prominent statesmen of the country recognized the urgent need of modernization and their message got through. A remarkable upswing started as the nation concentrated its forces on the inevitable modernization, even though the reactionary Habsburgs were obstructing important liberal reforms. Some highlights from this period:
The Revolution (15th March 1848) and Freedom War (1848-49)
In 1848 the Hungarians happily joined the trend of revolutions sweeping through Europe (though some Hungarian extremists feel ashamed even today by the fact that the otherwise "loyal and subdued" Austrians managed to get their revolution done days earlier: in fact, the news arriving from the revolting Vienna urged the young revolutioners in Pest to start acting.)
For a few months everything seemed bright, but then revolutions failed elsewhere and the Hungarians stayed alone, their leaders facing not only the military threat from the reactionary Habsburgs but for the first time in the country's history also the rebellion of some national minorities, who began looking at the Hungarians the same way as the Hungarians treated the Habsburgs: their oppressors.
In the beginning the Hungarians surprised the world as - against the odds - their newly organized army inflicted defeat upon their enemies by early 1849. This led to the intervention of the Russians, who were apparently better trained to handle such rebellions. Hungarian resistance lasted for a few more months, but by the end of the summer the Russians and the reinforced Austrians finished their job: the freedom war was over.
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The Compromise (1867) and The Age of Dualism
Although the Hungarians were finally defeated, the Habsburg empire was weakened by the internal crisis, which resulted in lost wars against France (1859) and Prussia (1866). This led to a compromise between Austria and Hungary in 1867. Hungary stopped seeking full independence and in return received autonomy. The Habsburg empire officially became the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy (a joint-venture, one could say), though Austria had the dominant position in the new dualist state.
The 50 years after the 1867 compromise are one of Hungary's better periods. A very dynamic economic and cultural development started: by the end of the century Hungary was closer to Western-European standards than ever, at least after Mohács. Some highlights from this period:
The First World War and Trianon (1920)
The First World War put an end to this. Kaiser Franz-Josef I. of
Austria-Hungary carefully "considered everything, then considered
everything again", at least so he said when he declared war on Serbia,
thus starting WWI. However, he probably did not even remotely thought of the
collapse of his empire,
which actually happened. At the end of the war the Monarchy disintegrated
and the consequences for Hungary were even worse than for Austria:
in the post-war chaos its neighbours easily occupied most of its
territory and the peace treaty of Trianon
dictated by the Western powers approved their capture.
The years between the two great wars are generally considered as years of crisis: although Hungary regained its independence after 400 years, this fact was overshadowed by the tragic consequences of the lost war. The political system, although the country had the formalisms of a parliamentary democracy, was very much authoritarian. The economy collapsed and just when it had been restored a little bit, the Great Recession of 1929-33 hit it hard again.
In its foreign policy the country was seeking the revision of the peace treaty: this policy insulated it politically in the 20s and pushed it towards Hitler's Germany in the 30s. When Hitler finally awarded some territories to Hungary in 1939-41, the country became a German ally with all the tragic consequences one can imagine. About one million Hungarians died during the war: soldiers on the front, Hungarian Jews in concentration camps and civilians during 1944-45, when the Red Army eventually drove out the German Wehrmacht. Of course, much of the country has been destroyed during the heavy fightings (See more info on the siege of Budapest here). The country once again was on the loser's side and the new peace treaty (once and for all) confirmed the losses of the previous war again.
For more information click here...
The years after WWII were even worse than those between the two wars:
as in other countries in the East, the Red Army suffered from heavy
amnesia and forgot to go home: after a short semi-democratic episode
(between 1945-48) the Soviets pushed the Communists into power and a
strict Stalinist dictatorship started. Yet another nightmare of the
The Soviet rule in Central Europe was everything but popular among
the locals concerned. This has been demonstrated in most countries
during the forty years of Communism in one way or another. Hungary's
turn was in 1956, when for about two
weeks the country attracted the attention
of the whole world. Unfortunately (but not really unexpectedly)
the revolution was easily beaten by the Soviet Army and Hungary had
to wait 33 more years to get rid of dictatorship.
The long awaited end of the Soviet rule came at the end of the 80s: The Soviet-union got into deep economic troubles and their empire, which looked so threatening even few years earlier, crashed like a rotten tree. The Central-European nations suddenly found their freedom. The process in Hungary started in 1988 and in the next two years the Communists gradually and peacefully gave up their supremacy. The free and democratic elections in 1990 brought the end of Communism.
Although the XX. century was one of the most disastrous century in Hungarian history, its last decade seems to give some hope to the nation that has suffered so much. Hungary has regained its freedom and has now the chance to fulfil its main goal which was set more than a thousand years ago by its founders and which has been the focal point in the country's history since then: to join Europe.
How is Hungary progressing towards this strategic goal today? This is another story...
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