The Will to Survive. A History of Hungary by Bryan Cartledge
After seven years of research and writing and a Hungarian translation, Bryan Cartledge’s excellent introduction to the history of Hungary is back in print in English. “I began this book in order to satisfy my own curiosity about Hungary’s past”, he says, and the fresh edition this year should help to satisfy other people’s curiosity about the country and the region’s history.
The book opens with the retracing of the Hungarians’ centuries-long journeys from their probable berth in the central Urals to present-day Hungary, a journey which the author describes as “a classic instance of the domino effect” whereby population pressure or conflict prompts one group of people to move on from their territory, dislodging others in turn in the quest for food and land.
Slowly, Hungarian tribes inch their way along the map, down to the Caspian Sea, then past the Don river to the north of Crimea and finally into Transylvania and the great plains of the Alföld. Slowly they develop – language, agriculture, horse-riding – in interaction with and in fights against their neighbours, the Onogur-Bulgars, Khazars, Slavs or Pechenegs. Slowly, myth – the turul, a giant eagle said to have sired Árpád, the first of Hungary’s leading dynasty – and conjecture turn into names and events as Western chroniclers start to document the military prowess of the newly established Hungarians.
Cartledge sheds some light on the 300 years of Árpád rule and ensuing tos and fros between various dynasties ruling Hungary, as years in which “medieval Hungary’s periods of ascendancy and expansion had alternated with troughs of misrule and internal division”. Foreign policies and intellectual pursuits are promoted under certain enlightened rulers and make Hungary one of the outposts of Western culture. Ultimately, however, its peripheral location at the margins of West and East results in its fate at the hands of the Turkish invaders: the disaster at Mohács is both the result of a weak, divided society controlling an area of land beyond its financial and administrative capacities, and the start of several centuries of existence as a minor partner in the affairs of Europe.
Cartledge admits that he is not a medievalist, and this is reflected both in the shortness of the first part devoted to the medieval kingdom and in the relatively superficial character of the treatment of events, processes and people. The several hundred years of Magyar history before and around the time of the conquest are condensed into very few pages, slipping over a number of major uncertainties. A lot of this has probably to do with sources, or the lack thereof. One often wishes more could be made of the available primary sources (chronicles, histories, paintings), which would help the reader to situate both the development of the self-consciousness of the Magyars and the reactions that they raised among foreign observers. But Cartledge’s capacity to provide a highly readable and erudite synthesis of this early period in Hungarian history is one of the strengths of the book as an introduction.
With the arrival onto the medieval Hungarian scene of the Habsburgs, the focus closes in on personalities and processes, and the space devoted to each passing period starts expanding exponentially. The intricate developments in Central European history – the Muslim advance to the gates of Vienna, Hungary’s tripartite division and Transylvania’s specific path of cultural and economic development as the remaining outpost of Hungary are discussed at length.
Here first emerges the strand that runs through Hungarian history: how smaller, more peripheral nations see their fate twisted as a result of big-power politics. Not only in patterns of war and peace but also in terms of economic and social development: Cartledge’s discussion of the workings of the Hungarian economy, which gain in intricacy as European industrialisation starts pitting ruling Austrian economic interests against those of Hungarian landowners (and, in turn, against those of the Hungarian peasant), is for instance fascinating, and gives one answer to the question of why Hungary remained such an agricultural society for so long.
But Cartledge is not all about dates, events and figures. His enthusiasm for his subject shines through in his engagement with the men and women that people his history, both past and present. Kings and nobles, their sins and virtues, and their impacts on the development of Hungary, its culture, its people and its relations with its neighbours, are well portrayed. The later centuries are especially well researched and presented, with the political, social and economic focus widening to include a wealth of information on intellectual and cultural life.
The very last years also gain from the personal insights of this writer/practitioner, both in terms of personal professional experiences (such as the negotiations with prime minister Gyula Horn about Hungary’s relations with the European community) and private thoughts, from recollections of János Kádár to carriage-driving lessons in Budapest’s vicinity. It remains unfortunate, however, that, 20 years after the change of regime and five years after the first edition, the original six-page section devoted to democratic Hungary has not been expanded.
The Will to Survive can be a very accessible and invaluable companion, both as a narrative of Hungarian history per se and as a constant source of information to complete the various bits of knowledge gathered during expeditions to museums, libraries and monuments.