The History of Hungary

  1. The Origin of Hungarians
  2. The Migration and The Conquest
  3. The Foundation of The State
  4. The medieval Hungarian kingdom
  5. The Turks in Hungary
  6. The Habsburgs in Hungary
  7. The Reform Age
  8. The Revolution and Freedom War
  9. The Compromise and The Age of Dualism
  10. The First World War and Trianon
  11. The Second World War and The Communism
  12. The Revolution
  13. New chances...
Hungarian Crown

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 Finno-Ugric languages (Finnish and Estonian being the two other major languages belonging to this group).

The Migration (V.-IX. c.) and The Conquest (895)

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 Foundation of The State (1000)

The Hungarian policy of regularly attacking their neighbours was stopped by prince Géza 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 (see map).

The medieval Hungarian kingdom (XI.-XV. c.)

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 János Hunyadi (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 Black Army 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.

The Turks in Hungary (XI.-XV. c.)

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):

  • the central areas were under direct Turkish control,
  • a strip in the north-west remained legally the kingdom of Hungary but fell into the hands of the Habsburgs (thus the Habsburgs became Hungarian kings on a hereditary basis for the rest of the kingdom's existence),
  • The eastern part became the more or less autonomous principality of Transylvania. It tried to maintain the illusion of Hungarian independence but was in reality under Turkish influence (though its role as a safe-haven for Hungarian culture in these bloody centuries was very important).

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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The Habsburgs in Hungary

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 Reform Age (first half of XIX c.)

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 Hungarian Academy of Sciences,
  • the National Museum,
  • theatres and other important institutions were founded.
  • The first railway between Pest and Vác was established,
  • and the first permanent bridge between the (at the time still separate) cities of Buda and Pest was built
  • and even the Hungarian language itself was reformed (new words were invented, rules were simplified and unified).

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:

  • Buda and Pest were united, the new capital became a metropolis,
  • an extensive railway network was built in the country,
  • educational reforms were introduced & massive industrialization started: by the end of the century Hungarian industry was leading in certain fields (electricity, transport industry, telecommunication),
  • Hungary's cultural life flourished.

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 Second World War and The Communism

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.

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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 XX. century...

The Revolution (1956)

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.

New chances...

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...


This summary reflects the personal views of its author only. Some of the statements below are rather opinions than facts. However, if you are deeply interested in Hungarian history, you are advised to gain more information from professional sources. These links below may help you in this:

Please note that further (more specific) links are embedded into the page above.

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