A People of Extraordinary Contradictions

A People of Extraordinary Contradictions

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

by Author(s): John Lukacs

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.

Most of Lendvai's book is a survey of one thousand years of Hungarian history, written by a well-read and often thoughtful journalist. It has a fair number of mistakes, most of them minor ones. One cannot separate, of course, a book from its author. Lendvai's main interest is that of the last hundred years, a history peopled by all kinds of good and bad, colorful but never drab, Hungarians. This has led him to give disproportionate space to all kinds of bizarre adventurers and mountebanks, each of them deserving a little book at least, but too much of them here. Besides this disproportion and besides the errors, the editing is wanting: many of the footnote references do not match the actual footnotes. (The translation by Ann Major is very good.)

The Hungarian state had an extraordinary founder, St. Stephen (1001-38), who was both a great statesman and a saint. He could have chosen a geographically almost natural alliance and convergence with the Byzantine empire and the Eastern Church. Instead, St. Stephen chose Roman Christianity and a dependence on the Pope, a Hungary looking to the West. His main domestic problem was with a bitter, dark, cruel pagan remnant among his people whom he was forced to fight and defeat. For a thousand years this Hungarian dichotomy would reappear again and again. There is a pagan strain in the Hungarian national character--a savage tribal nationalism--that Lendvai does not quite comprehend. He is a fairly clear writer, but his occasional lapses of style suggest a certain want of understanding, as when he writes about Hungarians after 1920: "the historically well-known transformation of nationalism from an ideology of liberation to one of distraction." "Distraction", no. "Historically well-known transformation", no. Hungarian nationalism is sui generis, and cannot be separated from the tug of war between East and West. Hungary was torn, and for a long time even partitioned, between East and West, most notably between the Turks and Austrians. At times it was forced to accept a dependence--usually only partial--on an Eastern Power when that condition was inevitable (for the last time, on Russia from 1945-89).

But the great and deep problem for Hungarians was, and remains: what kind of West? For a long time, and for a considerable number of Hungarians, the West was the Germanic West of Central Europe. For many of the best Hungarian minds, and for many of the patriotic nationalists too, the Germanic embrace could be stifling and disastrous. So, they looked not only beyond Vienna but beyond the Rhine. There exists a long history of Latin learning and of a Latinate culture, especially in Western Hungary, and there is (or rather was) also an at least 150 year-old history of Hungarian Anglophilia. Unfortunately such Hungarian affections went unrequited. Except for a few popes, no statesman west of the Rhine paid any interest to Hungary and to its problems. Why should they? An independent Hungarian state did not exist for centuries; besides, it was far away.

Yet the number--and, more interestingly, the variety--of men and women of Hungarian origin who have made extraordinary careers in the West is endless; Paul Lendvai is unduly preoccupied with them. He dwells on the frequent bon mot among exiled Hungarians: "Everybody is a Hungarian" (more precisely: you can find a Hungarian almost everywhere in the world). Ergo the title and the contents of Lendvai's last summing up chapter: "Everybody is Hungarian. Geniuses and Artists." Well, yes, except for two caveats. His attribution of "genius" to some recent Hungarians with successful careers is sometimes too easy and broad. Also: at least some of these often uneasily denied that they were Hungarians but then resumed their self-identification as Hungarians when that had become chic. Yes, we (this reviewer is also Hungarian) are a people of extraordinary contradictions.

And of an extraordinary mixture or compound. Already St. Stephen knew that there were not enough ethnic Hungarians to people that near-perfect geographical unit, the Carpathian Basin. He admonished his son and his people to be hospitable to other tribes and nationalities, for "by fulfilling your duty in this way you will reach a state of happiness." In the very long run this did not work--and not only because of the Hungarians' assertion of sovereignty and superiority over their non-Hungarian inhabitants. Nationalism is a destructive element, which is something that the liberals of a century ago (vide Woodrow Wilson) failed to see.

THIS BROUGHT Lendvai, and brings this reviewer, to a not unimportant matter to which nevertheless he devotes possibly too much space. Yet attention it deserves, even now--perhaps especially now, since Hungary and France remain the only countries in Europe where a Jewish population amounts to more than one percent of the inhabitants, whence the occasional, but only occasional, appearance of anti-Semitism in both countries. Anti-Semitism of course existed, exists and will exist everywhere in the world, in different forms, some more deplorable and destructive than others. But the relationship of Hungarians and Jews had, and still has, some exceptional features. There is hardly any country in the world where the assimilation of Jews, including many intermarriages, was as widespread (and deep) as in Hungary. But the seeds of troubles were there, and after World War I this once so promising cohabitation (it was more than a coexistence) became deeply, at times tragically, damaged. Now, three or four generations later, disturbing symptoms still exist, but their frequency and their echoes may be diminishing, while the "Hungarianness" of Jewish Hungarians remains inexpugnable--it goes on and on.

A more important feature of the history of Hungary and of the Hungarians is summed up in the insightful subtitle of Lendvai's book: "A thousand years of victory in defeat." Hungarians are not the best survivors (both the death rate and the suicide rate have been unusually high among them, the first of these through many centuries). Yet they, despite their inveterate pessimism, have a deep-seated appetite for life and a repugnance of death that slowly, imperceptibly grows and bears fruits above and beyond their worst national catastrophes. There are innumerable examples of this--oddly more in their national history than in their individual personal lives. One of them was the great Hungarian Rising of 1956, defeated and crushed by brute force. Yet there followed a gradual easing of tyranny and restrictions and eventually the end of a more and more merely nominally communist regime, an ending which was not only bloodless but peaceful. Since then Hungary's fortunes have been rising: it will enter the EU in 2004. However, the number of Hungarians has been, alas, dwindling. So La Rochefoucauld's great maxim may be applicable to Hungary (as well as to the United States): "It takes greater character to carry off good fortune than bad."

John Lukacs is a historian. His latest work is Churchill: Visionary, Statesman, Historian (Yale, 2002).

Essay Types: Book Review