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History of Hungary

Early inhabitants

The Carpathian Basin, in which Hungary lies, has been populated for hundreds of thousands of years. Bone fragments found at Vértesszőlős, about 5km southeast of Tata, in the 1960s are believed to be half a million years old. These findings suggest that Palaeolithic and later Neanderthal humans were attracted to the area by the hot springs and the abundance of reindeer, bears and mammoths.

During the Neolithic period (3500-2500 BC), climatic changes forced much of the indigenous wildlife to migrate northward. As a result the domestication of animals and the first forms of agriculture appeared, simultaneously with the rest of Europe. Remnants of the Körös culture in the Szeged area of the southeast suggest that these goddess-worshipping people herded sheep, fished and hunted.

Indo-European tribes from the Balkans stormed the Carpathian Basin in horse-drawn carts in about 2000 BC, bringing with them copper tools and weapons. After the introduction of the more durable metal bronze, forts were built and a military elite began to develop.

Over the next millennium, invaders from the west (Illyrians, Thracians) and east (Scythians) brought iron, but it was not in common use until the Celts arrived at the start of the 4th century BC. They introduced glass and crafted some of the fine gold jewellery that can still be seen in museums throughout Hungary.

Some three decades before the start of the Christian era the Romans conquered the area west and south of the Danube River and established the province of Pannonia – later divided into Upper (Superior) and Lower (Inferior) Pannonia. Subsequent victories over the Celts extended Roman domination across the Tisza River as far as Dacia (today’s Romania). The Romans brought writing, viticulture and stone architecture, and established garrison towns and other settlements, the remains of which can still be seen in Óbuda (Aquincum in Roman times), Szombathely (Savaria), Pécs (Sophianae) and Sopron (Scarabantia). They also built baths near the region’s thermal waters and their soldiers introduced the new religion of Christianity.


The great migrations

The first of the so-called Great Migrations of nomadic peoples from Asia reached the eastern outposts of the Roman Empire late in the 2nd century AD, and in 270 the Romans abandoned Dacia altogether. Within less than two centuries they were also forced to flee Pannonia by the Huns, whose short-lived empire was established by Attila; he had previously conquered the Magyars near the lower Volga River and for centuries these two groups were thought – erroneously – to share a common ancestry. Attila remains a very common given name for males in Hungary, however.

Germanic tribes such as the Goths, Gepids and Longobards occupied the region for the next century and a half until the Avars, a powerful Turkic people, gained control of the Carpathian Basin in the late 6th century. They in turn were subdued by Charlemagne in 796 and converted to Christianity. By that time, the Carpathian Basin was virtually unpopulated except for groups of Turkic and Germanic tribes on the plains and Slavs in the northern hills.


The Magyars & the conquest of the Carpathian basin

The origin of the Magyars is a complex issue, not in the least helped by the similarity in English of the words ‘Hun’ and ‘Hungary’, which are not related. One thing is certain: Magyars are part of the Finno-Ugric group of peoples who inhabited the forests somewhere between the middle Volga River and the Ural Mountains in western Siberia as early as 4000 BC.

By about 2000 BC population growth had forced the Finnish-Estonian branch of the group to move westward, ultimately reaching the Baltic Sea. The Ugrians migrated from the southeastern slopes of the Urals into the valleys, and switched from hunting and fishing to primitive farming and raising livestock, especially horses. The Magyars’ equestrian skills proved useful half a millennium later when climatic changes brought drought, forcing them to move north to the steppes.

On the plains, the Ugrians turned to nomadic herding. After 500 BC, by which time the use of iron had become commonplace, some of the tribes moved westward to the area of Bashkiria in central Asia. Here they lived among Persians and Bulgars and began referring to themselves as Magyars (from the Finno-Ugric words mon, ‘to speak’, and e, ‘man’).

Several centuries later another group split away and moved south to the Don River under the control of the Khazars, a Turkic people. Here they lived among various groups under a tribal alliance called onogur, or ’10 peoples’. This is the derivation of the word ‘Hungary’ in English and ‘Ungarn’ in German. Their penultimate migration brought them to what modern Hungarians call the Etelköz, the region between the Dnieper and lower Danube Rivers just north of the Black Sea.

Small nomadic groups of Magyars probably reached the Carpathian Basin as early as the mid-9th century AD, acting as mercenaries for various armies. It is believed that while the men were away on a campaign in about 889, the Pechenegs, a fierce people from the Asiatic steppe, allied themselves with the Bulgars and attacked the Etelköz settlements. When they were attacked again in about 895, seven tribes under the leadership of Árpád – the gyula (chief military commander) – upped stakes. They crossed the Verecke Pass (in today’s Ukraine) into the Carpathian Basin.

The Magyars met almost no resistance and the tribes dispersed in three directions: the Bulgars were quickly dispatched eastward; the Germans had already taken care of the Slavs in the west; and Transylvania was wide open. Known for their ability to ride and shoot, and no longer content with being hired guns, the Magyars began plundering and pillaging. Their raids took them as far as Spain, northern Germany and southern Italy, but in the early 10th century they began to suffer a string of defeats. In 955 they were stopped in their tracks for good by the German king Otto I at the Battle of Augsburg.

This and subsequent defeats – the Magyars’ raids on Byzantium ended in 970 – left the tribes in disarray, and they had to choose between their more powerful neighbours – Byzantium to the south and east or the Holy Roman Empire to the west – to form an alliance. In 973 Prince Géza, the great-grandson of Árpád, asked the Holy Roman emperor Otto II to send Catholic missionaries to Hungary. Géza was baptised along with his son Vajk, who took the Christian name Stephen (István), after the first martyr. When Géza died, Stephen ruled as prince. Three years later, he was crowned ‘Christian King’ Stephen I, with a crown sent from Rome by Otto’s erstwhile tutor, Pope Sylvester II. Hungary the kingdom – and the nation – was born.

King Stephen i & the Árpád dynasty

Stephen set about consolidating royal authority by siezing the land of the independent-minded clan chieftains and establishing a system of megye (counties) protected by fortified vár (castles). The crown began minting coins and, shrewdly, Stephen transferred much land to his most loyal (mostly Germanic) knights. The king sought the support of the church throughout and, to hasten the conversion of the population, ordered that one in every 10 villages build a church. He also established 10 episcopates, two of which – Kalocsa and Esztergom – were made archbishoprics. Monasteries were set up around the country and staffed by foreign – notably Irish – scholars. By the time Stephen died in 1038 – he was canonised less than half a century after his death – Hungary was a nascent Christian nation, increasingly westward-looking and multiethnic.

Despite this apparent consolidation, the next two and a half centuries until 1301 – the reign of the House of Árpád – would test the kingdom to its limit. The period was marked by continuous struggles between rival pretenders to the throne, weakening the young nation’s defences against its more powerful neighbours. There was a brief hiatus under King Ladislas I (László; r 1077-95), who ruled with an iron fist and fended off attacks from Byzantium; and also under his successor Koloman the Booklover (Könyves Kálmán; r 1095-1116), who encouraged literature, art and the writing of chronicles until his death in 1116.

Tensions flared again when the Byzantine emperor made a grab for Hungary’s provinces in Dalmatia and Croatia, which it had acquired by the early 12th century. Béla III (r 1172-96) successfully resisted the invasion and had a permanent residence built at Esztergom, which was then the alternative royal seat to Székesfehérvár. Béla’s son, Andrew II (András; r 1205-35), however, weakened the crown when, to help fund his crusades, he gave in to local barons’ demands for more land. This led to the Golden Bull, a kind of Magna Carta signed at Székesfehérvár in 1222, which limited some of the king’s powers in favour of the nobility.

When Béla IV (r 1235-70) tried to regain the estates, the barons were able to oppose him on equal terms. Fearing Mongol expansion and realising he could not count on the support of his subjects, Béla looked to the west and brought in German and Slovak settlers. He also gave asylum to Turkic Cuman (Kun) tribes displaced by the Mongols in the east. In 1241 the Mongols arrived in Hungary and swept through the country, burning it virtually to the ground and killing an estimated one-third to one-half of its two million people.

To rebuild the country as quickly as possible Béla, known as the ‘second founding father’, again encouraged immigration, inviting Germans to settle in Transdanubia, Saxons in Transylvania and Cumans on the Great Plain. He also built a string of defensive hilltop castles, including the ones at Buda and Visegrád. But in a bid to appease the lesser nobility, he handed them large tracts of land. This strengthened their position and demands for more independence even further; by the time of Béla’s death in 1270, anarchy had descended upon Hungary. The rule of his reprobate son and heir Ladislas the Cuman (so-called because his mother was a Cuman princess) was equally unsettled. The Árpád line died out in 1301 with the death of Andrew III, who left no heir.

Medieval Hungary

The struggle for the Hungarian throne following the death of Andrew III involved several European dynasties, but it was Charles Robert (Károly Róbert) of the French House of Anjou who, with the pope’s blessing, finally won out in 1308 and ruled for the next three and a half decades. Charles Robert was an able administrator who managed to break the power of the provincial barons (though much of the land remained in private hands), sought diplomatic links with his neighbours and introduced a stable gold currency called the florin (or forint). In 1335 Charles Robert met the Polish and Bohemian kings at the new royal palace in Visegrád to discuss territorial disputes and to forge an alliance that would smash Vienna’s control of trade.

Under Charles Robert’s son, Louis I the Great (Nagy Lajos; r 1342-82), Hungary returned to a policy of conquest. A brilliant military strategist, Louis acquired territory in the Balkans as far as Dalmatia and Romania and as far north as Poland. He was crowned king of Poland in 1370, but his successes were short-lived; the menace of the Ottoman Turks had begun.

As Louis had no sons, one of his daughters, Mary (r 1382-87), succeeded him. This was deemed unacceptable by the barons, who rose up against the ‘petticoat throne’. Within a short time Mary’s husband, Sigismund (Zsigmond; r 1387-1437) of Luxembourg, was crowned king. Sigismund’s 50-year reign brought peace at home, and there was a great flowering of Gothic art and architecture in Hungary. But while he managed to procure the coveted crown of Bohemia and was made Holy Roman emperor in 1433, he was unable to stop the Ottoman onslaught and was defeated by the Turks at Nicopolis (now Bulgaria) in 1396.

There was an alliance between Poland and Hungary in 1440 that gave Poland the Hungarian crown. When Vladislav I (Úlászló) of the Polish Jagiellon dynasty was killed fighting the Turks at Varna in 1444, János Hunyadi was declared regent. A Transylvanian general born of a Wallachian (Romanian) father, János Hunyadi began his career at the court of Sigismund. His 1456 decisive victory over the Turks at Belgrade (Hungarian: Nándorfehérvár) checked the Ottoman advance into Hungary for 70 years and assured the coronation of his son Matthias (Mátyás), the greatest ruler of medieval Hungary.

Wisely, Matthias (r 1458-90), nicknamed Corvinus (the Raven) from his coat of arms, maintained a mercenary force of 8000 to 10, 000 men by taxing the nobility, and this ‘Black Army’ conquered Moravia, Bohemia and even parts of lower Austria. Not only did Matthias Corvinus make Hungary one of central Europe’s leading powers, but under his rule the nation enjoyed its first golden age. His second wife, the Neapolitan princess Beatrice, brought artisans from Italy who completely rebuilt and extended the Gothic palace at Visegrád; the beauty and sheer size of the Renaissance residence was beyond compare in the Europe of the time.

But while Matthias, a fair and just king, busied himself with centralising power for the crown, he ignored the growing Turkish threat. His successor Vladislav II (Úlászló; r 1490-1516) was unable to maintain even royal authority, as the members of the diet (assembly), which met to approve royal decrees, squandered royal funds and expropriated land. In May 1514, what had begun as a crusade organised by the power-hungry archbishop of Esztergom, Tamás Bakócz, turned into a peasant uprising against landlords under the leadership of one György Dózsa.

The revolt was brutally repressed by noble leader John Szapolyai (Zápolyai János). Some 70, 000 peasants were tortured and executed; Dózsa himself was fried alive on a red-hot iron throne. The retrograde Tripartitum Law that followed the crackdown codified the rights and privileges of the barons and nobles, and reduced the peasants to perpetual serfdom. By the time Louis II (Lajos) took the throne in 1516 at the tender age of nine, he couldn’t count on either side.

The battle of Mohács & Turkish occupation

The defeat of Louis’ ragtag army by the Ottoman Turks at Mohács in 1526 is a watershed in Hungarian history. On the battlefield near this small town in Southern Transdanubia a relatively prosperous and independent medieval Hungary died, sending the nation into a tailspin of partition, foreign domination and despair that would be felt for centuries afterward.

It would be unfair to lay all the blame on the weak and indecisive teenage King Louis or on his commander-in-chief, Pál Tomori, the archbishop of Kalocsa. Bickering among the nobility and the brutal response to the peasant uprising a dozen years before had severely diminished Hungary’s military might, and there was virtually nothing left in the royal coffers. By 1526 the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent occupied much of the Balkans, including Belgrade, and was poised to march on Buda and then Vienna with a force of 100, 000 men.

Unable – or, more likely, unwilling – to wait for reinforcements from Transylvania under the command of his rival John Szapolyai, Louis rushed south with a motley army of 26, 000 men to battle the Turks and was soundly thrashed in less than two hours. Along with bishops, nobles and an estimated 20, 000 soldiers, the king was killed – crushed by his horse while trying to retreat across a stream. John Szapolyai, who had sat out the battle in Tokaj, was crowned king six weeks later. Despite grovelling before the Turks, Szapolyai was never able to exploit the power he had sought so single-mindedly. In many ways greed, self-interest and ambition had led Hungary to defeat itself.

After Buda Castle fell to the Turks in 1541, Hungary was torn into three parts. The central section, including Buda, went to the Turks, while parts of Transdanubia and what is now Slovakia were governed by the Austrian House of Habsburg and assisted by the Hungarian nobility based at Bratislava. The principality of Transylvania, east of the Tisza River, prospered as a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, initially under Szapolyai’s son John Sigismund (Zsigmond János; r 1559-71). Though heroic resistance continued against the Turks throughout Hungary, most notably at Kőszeg in 1532, Eger 20 years later and Szigetvár in 1566, this division would remain in place for more than a century and a half.

The Turkish occupation was marked by constant fighting among the three divisions; Catholic ‘Royal Hungary’ was pitted against both the Turks and the Protestant Transylvanian princes. Gábor Bethlen, who ruled Transylvania from 1613 to 1629, tried to end the warfare by conquering ‘Royal Hungary’ with a mercenary army of Heyduck peasants and some Turkish assistance in 1620. But both the Habsburgs and the Hungarians themselves viewed the ‘infidel’ Ottomans as the greatest threat to Europe since the Mongols and blocked the advance.

As Ottoman power began to wane in the 17th century, Hungarian resistance to the Habsburgs, who had used ‘Royal Hungary’ as a buffer zone between Vienna and the Turks, increased. A plot inspired by the palatine Ferenc Wesselényi was foiled in 1670 and a revolt (1682) by Imre Thököly and his army of kuruc (anti-Habsburg mercenaries) was quelled. But with the help of the Polish army, Austrian and Hungarian forces liberated Buda from the Turks in 1686. An imperial army under Eugene of Savoy wiped out the last Turkish army in Hungary at the Battle of Zenta (now Senta in Serbia) 11 years later. Peace was signed with the Turks at Karlowitz (now in Serbia) in 1699.

Habsburg rule

The expulsion of the Turks did not result in a free and independent Hungary, and the policies of the Habsburgs’ Counter-Reformation and heavy taxation further alienated the nobility. In 1703 the Transylvanian prince Ferenc Rákóczi II assembled an army of kuruc forces against the Austrians at Tiszahát in northeastern Hungary. The war dragged on for eight years and in 1706 the rebels ‘dethroned’ the Habsburgs as the rulers of Hungary. Superior imperial forces and lack of funds, however, forced the kuruc to negotiate a separate peace with Vienna behind Rákóczi’s back. The 1703-11 war of independence had failed, but Rákóczi was the first leader to unite Hungarians against the Habsburgs.

The armistice may have brought the fighting to an end, but Hungary was now little more than a province of the Habsburg Empire. Five years after Maria Theresa ascended the throne in 1740, the Hungarian nobility pledged their ‘lives and blood’ to her at the diet in Bratislava in exchange for tax exemptions on their land. Thus began the period of ‘enlightened absolutism’ that would continue under the rule of Maria Theresa’s son Joseph II (r 1780-90).

Under both Maria Theresa and Joseph, Hungary took great steps forward economically and culturally. Depopulated areas in the east and south were settled by Romanians and Serbs, while German Swabians were sent to Transdanubia. Joseph’s attempts to modernise society by dissolving the all-powerful (and corrupt) religious orders, abolishing serfdom and replacing ‘neutral’ Latin with German as the official language of state administration were opposed by the Hungarian nobility, and he rescinded most (but not all) of these orders on his deathbed.

Dissenting voices could still be heard and the ideals of the French Revolution of 1789 began to take root in certain intellectual circles in Hungary. In 1795 Ignác Martonovics, a former Franciscan priest, and six other prorepublican Jacobites were beheaded at Vérmező (Blood Meadow) in Buda for plotting against the crown.

Liberalism and social reform found their greatest supporters among certain members of the aristocracy, however. Count György Festetics (1755-1819), for example, founded Europe’s first agricultural college at Keszthely. Count István Széchenyi (1791-1860), a true Renaissance man and called ‘the greatest Hungarian’ by his contemporaries, advocated the abolition of serfdom and returned much of his own land to the peasantry.

The proponents of gradual reform were quickly superseded by a more radical faction who demanded more immediate action. The group included Miklós Wesselényi, Ferenc Deák and Ferenc Kölcsey, but the predominant figure was Lajos Kossuth (1802-94). It was this dynamic lawyer and journalist who would lead Hungary to its greatest-ever confrontation with the Habsburgs.




The 1848-49 war of independence

Early in the 19th century the Habsburg Empire began to weaken as Hungarian nationalism increased. Suspicious of Napoleon’s motives and polcies, the Hungarians ignored French appeals to revolt against Vienna and certain reforms were introduced: the replacement of Latin, the official language of administration, with Magyar; a law allowing serfs alternative means of discharging their feudal obligations of service; and increased Hungarian representation in the Council of State.

The reforms carried out were too limited and far too late, however, and the Diet became more defiant in its dealings with the crown. At the same time, the wave of revolution sweeping Europe spurred on the more radical faction. In 1848 the liberal Count Lajos Batthyány was made prime minister of the new Hungarian ministry, which counted Deák, Kossuth and Széchenyi among its members. The Habsburgs also reluctantly agreed to abolish serfdom and proclaim equality under the law. But on 15 March a group calling itself the Youth of March, led by the poet Sándor Petőfi, took to the streets to press for even more radical reforms and revolution. Habsburg patience was wearing thin.

In September 1848 the Habsburg forces, under the governor of Croatia, Josip Jelačić, launched an attack on Hungary, and Batthyány’s government was dissolved. The Hungarians hastily formed a national defence commission and moved the government seat to Debrecen, where Kossuth was elected governor-president. In April 1849 the parliament declared Hungary’s full independence and the Habsburgs were ‘dethroned’ for the second time.

The new Habsburg emperor, Franz Joseph (r 1848-1916), was not at all like his feeble-minded predecessor Ferdinand V (r 1835-48). He quickly took action, seeking the assistance of Russian tsar Nicholas I, who obliged with 200, 000 troops. Support for the revolution was waning rapidly, particularly in areas of mixed population where the Magyars were seen as oppressors. Weak and vastly outnumbered, the rebel troops were defeated by August 1849.

A series of brutal reprisals ensued. In October Batthyány and 13 of his generals – the so-called ‘Martyrs of Arad’ – were executed, and Kossuth went into exile in Turkey. (Petőfi died in battle in July of that year.) Habsburg troops then went around the country systematically blowing up castles and fortifications lest they be used by resurgent rebels.

The dual monarchy

Hungary was again merged into the Habsburg Empire as a conquered province and ‘neoabsolutism’ was the order of the day. Passive local resistance and disastrous military defeats for the Habsburgs in 1859 and 1865, however, pushed Franz Joseph to the negotiating table with liberal Hungarians under Deák’s leadership.

The result was the Act of Compromise of 1867 (German: Ausgleich), which created the Dual Monarchy of Austria (the empire) and Hungary (the kingdom) – a federated state with two parliaments and two capitals: Vienna and Pest (Budapest when Buda, Pest and Óbuda were merged in 1873). Only defence, foreign relations and customs were shared. Hungary was even allowed to raise a small army.

Read more: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/hungary/history#ixzz3dPfZpfPp



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