A People of Extraordinary Contradictions

A history of the Hungarians, by a Hungarian, for everyone.

Issue: Fall 2003

Paul Lendvai, The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat, translated by Ann Major (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 572 pp., $29.95.

IT IS GOOD that Mr. Lendvai chose to entitle his book The Hungarians and not Hungary. Most of present-day Hungary's inhabitants are of course Hungarians, but that is a relatively recent condition. The ancient kingdom of Hungary (the geographical Carpathian basin) was never entirely filled up by Hungarians--the kingdom also included Slovaks, Romanians, Serbs, Croats, Rutherians, Germans, etc. That was one source for the many recurrent troubles of the Hungarian state. For a very long time that state and the Hungarian population were not coterminous. Lendvai's otherwise pithy introductory phrase, "a country of extraordinary contradictions" should instead read: a people of extraordinary contradictions. Were you to say to a Frenchman that you like France while you do not like Frenchmen, he would not be pleased, but he would understand; if you were to tell him that you like Frenchmen but you do not like France, he would be speechless. On the other hand, were you to say to a Hungarian that you like Hungarians better than you like Hungary, he would understand, sadly, perhaps with a melancholy smile.

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