An Excess of History?

I wish I could take credit for the line that “It’s rough to live in a place where a lot of history happens.” I don’t recall if it was Charlie Martin, the Writer in Black, Sarah Hoyt, Kim du Toit, or someone else who wrote it as a blog comment, but it wasn’t me, alas. It is true, however.  The Carpathian Basin has been afflicted by a great deal of history, making it a fascinating place to study but difficult to survive, depending on when you happened to live there. It makes Bohemia and Moravia look tranquil by comparison.

Hungary is one of those remote countries with a funny name that most Americans under a certain age probably associate mostly with paprika and Cold War movies. And after this summer with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, if they noted the centennial of the start of the First World War. Modern Hungary occupies a geographic crossroads that made the area a highway for peoples moving into Europe. The new arrivals tended to be rather rough on the earlier residents, as best archaeology and history can tell.

Humans have inhabited the area between the Carpathian Mountains, Balkans, and Alps since the paleolithic. The earliest known traces of human residence in Buda, the hill that forms the western section of present-day Budapest, go back to the neolithic, over ten thousand years ago. The Hungarian plains provided water and grass, timber, a relatively mild climate, and easier travel than the surrounding uplands and mountains, as long as the rivers were not in flood. All the marker cultures of European pre-history (Linear Ban Ceramic, Urn Field culture, Bell-Beaker culture, Hallstatt and La Téne “Celts”) appear, along with Scythian horse-herders from the Black Sea. The Romans used the Danube as the edge of the Empire before they retreated, chased by Germanic tribes. The Huns swept through and finished off urban life in the area for a while. The Avars came next, followed by the Magyars, who settled down and formed a wedge between groups of migrating Slavs. The Magyars’ Arpad Dynasty of kings even survived the onslaught of the Mongols of the 1200s, although much of the population of the Carpathian Basin did not. There’s a reason why Hungary has only two Medieval churches and almost no Medieval castles.

The Ottoman Turks arrived from the south in the 1300s and began raiding their way ever northward, until 1526 and the first Battle of Mohacs brought an end to the old kingdom of Hungary. From then until 1689, the lowlands belonged to the Turks, the northwestern third to “royal Hungary” and the eastern third to the Principality of Transylvania, a quasi-independent territory that depended on the good will of the Ottomans to remain self governing. The border regions suffered raids and counter raids, while the Turks taxed, looted, and ruled the central plains. A noticeable lack of stability filled the region. After 1689, the Habsburgs and Hungarian notables fought the Turks back to the south, rebuilding but also remaking the area in the Habsburg image, within limits. Any remaining medieval castles succumbed during this period, unless the Habsburgs kept them, or rebuilt them for their own use. They saw no need to provide potentially unruly Hungarian nobles (or others) with ready-made strongholds. Or the Turks, if the unthinkable happened.

The Nineteenth Century brought Napoleon, the Springtime of Nations in 1848-49, and attempts by the Magyar-speakers to Magyarize the kingdom (although Latin remains the language of government almost until 1900). The Twentieth Century arrived with the Russians and WWI, the loss of half of what had been the Kingdom of Hungary, WWII, and Stalinism. After the “change of government” in 1989 (as the Hungarians call it), the country faced the problem of ethnic minorities and enclaves, an unbalanced economy despite the loosening up under the “goulash Communism” of the ’70s and ’80s, and soon the chaos unfolding in the form of the Fourth Balkan War to the south.

Hungary’s tale is the saga of a place that endured a great deal of history. All the stories of thundering hooves and mounted archers are thrilling – unless you’re trying to harvest your crops or hide your family and livestock (the Mongols may have killed off over half the population when they swept through). Great sieges and battles can stir the blood – if it’s not your town that’s being bombarded. The stories of the 1956 Uprising are inspiring – provided you’re not the one trying to stop Soviet tanks in narrow streets, or one of the students shot by snipers. Today, if you stand on the land side of parliament in Pest, facing Buda Hill, you have 10,000 years of history in front  of you. Behind you, the metal balls on the pillars of the former Agricultural Ministry mark the impact of the sniper’s shots when the bloody part of the 1956 Uprising began.

Too much history, indeed.

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One thought on “An Excess of History?

  1. “And after this summer with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, if they noted the centennial of the start of the First World War.”

    They don’t teach WWI in most schools these days, at best you get taught that it happened before WWII and possibly the dates. So while many Americans may vaguely recognize the term, Austro-Hungarian Empire, they are more likely to assume it is connected to the Crusades than to WWI. After all we don’t have empires any more, and WWI is fairly recent.

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