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Hungary: A Brief History Review


Hungarian history is an obscure topic, one that is little known compared to that of its neighbors: perhaps this is due to the language difficulties, with Hungary’s unique status in a continent of Indo-European speaking nations, which makes accessing Hungarian sources difficult, perhaps it is because in the popular conscious medieval history, which Hungary played such a prominent role in, is above all else bound up with medieval French and English history and that of the crusades, and perhaps because Hungary was for so long subsumed in Austria-Hungary and it is forgotten about. It’s a shame since Hungary’s history is a long, often romantic one, commonly unique in Europe, and one which fascinatingly is found on the borders of different Europeans: between the Europes of the Balkans, Central Europe, Eastern Europe, Northern Europe and the Mediterranean: a country that has a particular, special nature and identity.

This is excellently shown off in Hungary: A Brief History by Istvan Lazar, a general history book translated into English by Albert Tezla and which covers Hungary’s history from prehistoric times to its writing, in the 1990s. Although it is excellently and engagingly written, it also manages what is often a rare feat by nationally oriented histories, by maintaining a more detached, objective perspective on Hungary’s past, raising debates about to what extent Magyr blood came from the Hungarians and their invasion of Hungary in the 9th century, as compared to existing residents, and discussing different historiographic perspectives, such as Hungarian prehistorical archeologists who argued that the Pannonian plains were uninhabited by men in prehistoric times, but that this was a clearly untenable view in light of archeological discoveries.

While there’s little that is innovative per se, it does manage to underline what it views as critical moments in Hungary’s history and give some sense of how they are remembered. Crucial battles such as Gyros (which is simply not mentioned elsewhere, such as Wikipedia’s article on Gyros not discussing the impact in Hungary itself), the famous Mohacs, or the Mongol invasion of Hungary were turning points in Hungarian history, but there is also transformations in Hungary’s sense of self as well, such as the rediscovery of Hungary’s Gothic past in terms of its Gothic churches and architecture which were covered up by the Baroque period in Hungary. While any book covering a discrete nation in the past will inevitably involve some degree of projectionism of national consciousness into the past, for the most part it doesn’t excessively inflate this aspect.

Importantly, it gives a sense for what it was like to be Hungarian at certain periods, such as the domination of the aristocracy, which grew increasingly entrenched in the Austrian Empire, the fierce raiding people of the 9th and 10th centuries, and Hungary’s odd positionality in the 16th and 17th centuries, split between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. While it isn’t a social history, it gives a basic sense of what Hungarian life was like beyond just the transfer of power and political battles. For example, the homogenization of Hungarian life under socialism, when families came to be composed of farmers, workers, and others, beyond simply the creation of a working class.

Of course, such a short length means that it has to leave many elements relatively unexplored. Just as one example of an era that I know more about than the book itself discusses, was that in late socialism many Hungarian cooperative farms functioned as subcontractors for the electronic industry: this is a niche subject mentioned in Eastern Europe since 1945 by Geoffrey Swain and Nigel Swain ut it does cast light on the limited engagement that the book has with economic aspects of life, with only some brief coverage of industrialization, swamp draining efforts, and the Tokay wine and its prestige in the 17th century and onward. That it ends in the 1990s, before Hungary’s democratic regression and increasing authoritarianism under Viktor Orban, puts it at an odd cusp of history. But this also means that it gives a sense of how Hungarians viewed the future and their society at the time that it was written.

It's certainly not sufficient for a study of Hungarian history in detail, but Istvan Lazar's A History of Hungary makes for a very readable, engaging, and well -balanced introduction into the subject. In a relatively short length it manages to cover Hungary’s history and give a good sense of the weight of the past in the country’s history. It isn’t exceptional but it is a solid read.

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