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Norman Stone's Hungary: A Short History is punchy and entertaining

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A view of Budapest from Fisherman’s Bastion, 1971
A view of Budapest from Fisherman’s Bastion, 1971 Credit: Joe Scherschel/National Geographic/Getty Images

Tibor Fischer reviews Hungary: A Short History by Norman Stone (Profile)

It’s always a good idea to call your history short. It’s attractive to readers and it provides you with a ready-made defence in case any critics detect gaps in your arguments or coverage: would have loved to put it in, but, sorry, just no room.

Norman Stone, as he explains in the preface, is well placed to write a history of Hungary (although, at 242 pages, it’s not really that short). He has studied the language, spent many years in the country, knows many of the leading Hungarian politicians and intellectuals, and now lives there. It also helps that, as an historian, he is drawn to the big themes and big ideas: Catholicism, Protestantism, liberalism, fascism, communism. At the same time, as one of the handful of historians who can write well, he loves to throw in a colourful anecdote or detail to illustrate his contentions. (Khrushchev trading a sack of potatoes for a maths lesson being my favourite in this book.)

Stone does a good job of shining European light on to Hungarian history. I can’t imagine another British historian including in his bibliography Céline’s almost-forgotten biography of Ignaz Semmelweis, the Hungarian physician who pioneered antiseptic.

Germany, Austria, Russia and Turkey have all been the targets of Stone’s previous research, so he’s very familiar with most of the countries that have intruded into Hungary’s past. And that includes us, too. There’s always been a strong Anglophilia in Hungary, even if Britons never thought much about Hungary until the low-cost airlines started flying to Budapest.

In Stone’s telling, the early years of Hungarian history – the horseback rampaging, the medieval glory, the crushing Turkish occupation, and the first skirmishes with the Hapsburgs – are quickly dispatched in half a chapter. This book is, in essence, a history of modern Hungary, from the revolution of 1848 onwards, the glorious period of the Austro-Hungarian compromise, and the largely wretched 20th century.

Nineteenth-century view of the countryside near Budapest from the fortress of Cristina Credit: DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI 

It was all the more wretched for having started off so marvellously. In 1900, Budapest was one of the most charming and affluent cities in the world. Mahler had just left as the director of the Budapest opera. Bartók and Kodály were getting started. The city had the first underground system in continental Europe. The schools were teaching what would turn out to be a horde of Nobel laureates and influential scientists: Edward Teller, “father of the hydrogen bomb”; János von Neumann, founder of game theory. Much of the wealth and sparkle of the capital was down to its Jewish citizens who made up a quarter of the population, and who were largely and enthusiastically Magyarised, although political Zionism was also born in Budapest.

It was the Austrians who were keenest on having a go at the Serbs in 1914, but while the Austrians lost an empire because of that disastrous war, the Hungarians were the ones who, in addition to their war dead, paid a heavier price at Trianon, losing some two thirds of their territory and a third of their population, setting off a grievance that can still be found in Hungary today, in fridge magnets and CDs of irredentist songs.

The collapse of order brought about a short-lived Soviet Republic under Béla Kun, who instigated a terror. In 1920, Admiral Horthy took over and there was another wave of killings, this time of those suspected of communist sympathies. (Sometimes being Jewish was enough.) The “semi-Japanese complexity” of Horthy’s Hungary, where feudal forms of address survived, along with duelling, provides Stone with an amusing chapter.

The Second World War brought the Holocaust and wholesale destruction. Stone points out that the battle for Budapest was “almost comparable to Stalingrad”. It was followed by totalitarianism. Stone cleverly underlines how, in taking over the country, the Comintern applied the lessons they had learnt in the Spanish Civil War. There was also economic devastation in the form of hyperinflation. Only Poland can claim to have had it worse.

The Szachenyi Thermal Bath, Budapest, 1965 Credit: Archive Photos 

If the Hungarians had a bad deal in the 20th century, they also had two moments of prominence remarkable for a small country: the revolution of 1956 when they surprised everyone by briefly shaking off the Soviet yoke, and the summer of 1989, when Hungarian border guards left the gates into Austria open for East Germans to flood into the West, an act that ultimately led to the collapse not just of the Warsaw Pact, but of the Soviet Union itself. There’s a wonderful irony that it was the Hungarian Communists (who had years before given up on Marxism) who finished off the system, in exchange, as Stone states, for Marks and Sparks undies.

The last chapter “The 1980s and Beyond”, which goes up to the elections of 2010, is where the shortness really kicks in. That’s odd, since this is the period Stone witnessed in person and he is acquainted with many of the key players, but I suppose historians like a little time to elapse before awarding the marks.

Stone portrays the relaxed Hungary ruled by János Kádár in the Eighties as a vast Potemkin village, financed by Western money. (There is a rumour that Kádár’s bag man, the disillusioned János Fekete, racked up the vast debts deliberately to bring down the system.) Partly because of the foreign debt, but mostly because he was senile, Kádár was “retired” by his fellow Communists in 1988, just before the whole system fell apart.

Until then, “Kádár’s Hungary had a good press,” writes Stone. Absolutely true. Not just Kádár’s Hungary, but János Kádár himself was getting glowing reviews from Western journalists who flew into Budapest for a weekend of foie gras and spas – despite the fact that Kádár had been installed by the Soviets in 1956 and was an authentic blood-on-his-hands dictator.

And yet he was widely glorified in the Eighties by the press, because he wasn’t quite as repellent as Central Africa’s Emperor Bokassa or Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu, and the gipsy bands were great. Meanwhile, the current prime minister, Viktor Orbán, a democratically elected politician, is routinely berated as an autocrat by Western journalists who couldn’t tell you the name of the leader of the opposition.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban Credit: Bernadett Szabo 

Stone rightly points out that the dissident movement in Hungary post-1956 was tiny compared with that in Poland, and that the weakness of the Catholic Church was a factor, but he overlooks the main cause. It was simply that those who had adamantly opposed communism had either died or left in 1956, and that Hungarians had learnt that the West was not willing to fight in helping them escape Soviet domination.

In his analysis of the elements of the dissident movement, Stone is also correct, but doesn’t underline that 99.9 per cent of it came from the Left. Even the “populists” or “nationalists” like Gyula Illyés and Sándor Csoóri were cheerfully singing about Lenin’s birthday at one point. Right-wing mumbling only timidly resurfaced when the system cracked in 1988, and the survivors of the Smallholders Party crawled out geriatrically to decompose in the sun of democracy.

Stone himself pays homage to the best all-in-one English language history of Hungary, Bryan Cartledge’s The Will to Survive, a remarkable (huge) labour of love by a former British ambassador. However, if you want a punchy, entertaining account of the past 150 years of Hungary, this is the book.

Tibor Fischer’s How to Rule the World is out in paperback (Corsair, £8.99). Call 0844 871 1514 to order Hungary: A Short History for £14.99 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk