Death In Vienna: Plague Columns In Central & Eastern Europe (Part One)

One of many sobering memories that kept coming back to me as the United States fell into the grip of Covid-19 were the Holy Trinity (Plague) Columns that I have seen during my Eastern European travels. These monuments of morbidity are almost impossible to avoid in historical city centers.  To give but one example, within the first couple of hours after setting foot in Hungary, I walked into the magnificent Szechenyi Square in Pecs where I saw among other things, the beautiful bronze equestrian statue of Janos Hunyadi, the Mosque of Pasha Qasim, an eclectic façade of the Fatebenefratelli Church, the neo-baroque inspired City Hall and a Trinity column, otherwise known as a plague column. The architectural mood of the pastel colored facades, domes and details of the structures surrounding the square was both grand and festive. The only ominous exception was the Plague Column which despite its baroque splendor filled me with a dreadful curiosity.

I always found Plague Columns too beautiful to protect against something so ghastly as a disease that could reduce a city sized population to insignificance in a matter of weeks. The Bubonic plague was the most notorious and an all too common occurrence from medieval to early modern times. Characterized by swollen lymph nodes (also known as buboes), flu like symptoms accompanied by fever and vomiting, Bubonic plague was extremely lethal. Evidence of its wrath is marked In town square after town square across Austria, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic by Plague Columns. These ornately decorated Baroque monuments from the 17th and 18th centuries rise above cobbled streets. I found them to be photogenic, with their angels, saints and putti swirling around in charismatic scenes. I always felt a bit guilty photographing the columns for their artistic beauty and exquisite craftsmanship. After all, the historical tragedies they memorialized were a recurring scourge in Central and Eastern Europe.

A Hope For The Future - The Holy Trinity Column & the Mosque of Pasha Qasim

A Hope For The Future – The Holy Trinity Column & the Mosque of Pasha Qasim (Credit: Pudelek)

Periodic Pestilence – Supersized Brushes With Death
The plague is most often connected with the legendarily horrific Black Death of the 14th century which wiped out approximately 50 percent of Europe’s population at the time. Unbeknownst too many, this was only the first of successive outbreaks of the plague (many of them Bubonic) which reconfigured the demographic destinies of empires, kingdoms and other polities of those times. The plague was a recurring menace that left depopulation and depression in its wake. A capricious source of terror, it inflicted untold suffering upon thousands. Combating the plague was often as much a matter of faith as it was medicine. Plague Columns are one of the few things that outlasted the periodic bouts of pestilence that wreaked havoc from medieval to early modern Europe. That is not surprising since they were erected after a city had managed to survive these supersized brushes with death.

Vienna and Budapest, these two cities are redolent of the charms and grandeur of Old Europe, but a great deal of their development is a post 17th century phenomenon. This is true for almost all of Budapest and a great deal of Vienna as well. This is because during the latter part of the 17th century, Budapest was under the Ottoman yoke, while Vienna was a city not far from the military frontier and under imminent threat. A great deal of destruction was wrought upon both cities both during and after the Ottoman Turks. While many are familiar with the epic siege of Vienna by the Ottomans in 1683, far fewer are aware that the plague ravaged the city just four years before that.

Death in Vienna - Plague Hospital in 1679

Death in Vienna – Plague Hospital in 1679

Disease Ridden – The Great Plague of Vienna
The Great Plague of Vienna that struck in 1679 was one of the worst outbreaks to strike a European city and would lead to the ubiquitous plague columns that have become standard monuments in towns throughout the Habsburg Empire. During my first visit to Vienna a decade ago, I was struck by the sheer cleanliness of the city. Everything, from the sidewalks to major thoroughfares to public transport, was sparkling clean. Cleanliness is a modern virtue of the Viennese. Those who are less than historically minded could be forgiven for believing that it was always this way. The historical record tells a very different story. In 1679, Vienna was an exceedingly foul and polluted place filled with the detritus of human squalor. Its citizens piled their garbage in the streets, drainage was poor to nonexistent and its streets were crucibles of festering sickness. This fetid environment was a breeding ground for rats to run rampant and by extension, disease.

That is just what happened in 1679 when the plague broke out in the city. The result was a disaster that rivaled anything in the city’s historical experience. An estimated 76,000 people died, that was at least a quarter of the population. Disposing of the bodies was problematic. Pits were dug on the city’s periphery to burn the bodies. Unwisely, the authorities decided to pile as many bodies into these pits as possible, leaving them exposed for days. This only served to allow rats into the pits and stimulate even greater pestilence. While this was occurring, the Habsburg Emperor Leopold I fled the city fearing for his life. Before leaving for Prague he was said to have prayed to God for the city’s deliverance from the plague. He also vowed to have a column constructed as thanks for mercy if the plague ended. It took fifteen years and numerous iterations, including a wooden one erected by the Viennese, before the column was completed in 1694. It became known as the Holy Trinity or Plague Column (Pestsaule) due to its origins and design.

A Show of Mercy - Pestsaule (Plague Column) on the Graben in Vienna

A Show of Mercy – Pestsaule (Plague Column) on the Graben in Vienna (Credit: Thomas Ledl)

Powerful Messenger – A Model Of Faith
Vienna’s Plague Column still stands today in the Graben, one of the inner city’s most famous streets. It became the model for Plague Columns that were later erected across Habsburg ruled lands. The column was meant to send a powerful message to the Emperor’s subjects that Leopold I’s intercession with God saved the city from both the plague and the Ottoman siege. To that point, Leopold is shown on a lower pedestal praying to God. Angels, acting as a mediator with God, are represented in the area above Leopold. The column’s top portion portrays the Holy Trinity. This consists of a gilded God the Father, Jesus the Son holding a cross and the Holy Spirit represented by a dove in the center of the sun.

The iconography is rich with detail and filled with symbolic meaning all done up in the lavish style of Baroque art. Sadly, much of the column’s spiritual power is lost on the throngs of tourists who spend a few minutes at most staring at the column and nothing more. The Viennese of the late 17th and 18th centuries would have been much more devout. They knew that there was a possibility that at any moment the plague might return. And that is exactly what would happen across many parts of the Habsburg Empire.

The Little Princess & The Fat Policeman – Budapest: A Little Bit Less Than Serious

Budapest can rightfully be called a city of statues. No matter where one goes there seems to be a statue or sculpture occupying a prominent place on a street corner, sidewalk or public square. Green spaces in the Belvaros (inner city) are as much a breeding ground for statuary as they are for green grass. Show a Hungarian official an open space in a public area of the city and they are quite likely to say, “This is a good place for a statue.” Show them an area of national importance, such as the grounds of parliament, then they are likely to say, “this is a good place for several statues as well as sculptures.” Past heroes are not hard to find in Budapest.

Lightness & Levity - The Little Princess in Budapest

Lightness & Levity – The Little Princess in Budapest (Credit: misibacsi)

An Ideological About Face – Lightening Up
Events as well as people are commemorated, including rather obscure ones that did not turn out the way Hungarians might have hoped. The one that immediately comes to mind is the lion sculpture in Buda on the south side of Margaret Bridge. It commemorates the Siege of Przemysl during World War One in which Hungarian forces played a prominent and ultimately futile role. The overwhelming majority of the statues are quite serious in subject matter, style and tone. They usually commemorate politicians, military figures and cultural icons who left their mark on Hungarian history. Two statues stand out in my mind for bucking this trend. They are uniquely light hearted, adding a bit of levity to the pervasive intensity of Hungary’s most famous figures immortalized in stone. Neither of these statues commemorates a specific person which makes them that much more memorable.

When the Iron Curtain collapsed in 1989, Hungary was a nation in serious need of some light heartedness. While many Hungarians were elated with their newfound freedom, the economic legacy of communism meant the country was in for a tumultuous ride on the road to capitalism. Part of the transition from communism to democracy was cultural, which meant statues of apparatchik icons were out. In many cases these were to be replaced by statues which had been hidden away for decades and re-imposed in public spaces. An ideological switcheroo was soon underway. The end of communism in Hungary also meant that statues exuding a less serious side could now be more prominently seen in public, one of the first of those to appear would become rightfully famous.

Catching A Ride - The Little Princess & Tram 2 in Budapest

Catching A Ride – The Little Princess & Tram 2 in Budapest (Credit: Mister No)

Model Arrangement – A Fairy Tale Come True
In 1972 the sculptor Laszlo Marton had an idea for a statue that would be unlike anything seen in Budapest at that time. There would be no grim looking bureaucrats or militaristic theme, no idealized workers marching toward a nonexistent utopian paradise. Instead Marton would portray childlike frivolity and playfulness with “The Little Princess” (Kiskirálylány in Hungarian). The model for this statue was Marton’s five-year old daughter Evike, who often dressed as a princess while on the playground in Buda. Her outfit was homemade, including a crown made of newsprint.  This inspired Marton to use Evike as a model in the family’s back garden for “The Little Princess”. The statue portrays a child wearing a robe and pointy crown. In 1990, the statue was placed atop an iron railing. The Little Princess sits on the rail relaxing, looking like the very definition of cool just a stone’s throw from the Danube. The tracks for tram line #2 run just past the statue. Across the Danube, Buda Castle rises above the city.

The Little Princess has her back turned on this dramatic scene with not a care in the world. The statue’s novelty is also part of its power. Rather than gravitas, the Little Princess portrays levity. This is the last thing a visitor would expect to see in one the most stunning settings the city has to offer. It seems entirely fitting. The Little Princess acts as a counterpoint to the usual expressions of seriousness portrayed by so many other statues in Budapest. The princess’s look of serene happiness coupled with a willful nonchalance to her surroundings makes the statue positively delightful. Perhaps She seems to be communicating a message to passersby, enjoy the moment as well as the city. The Little Princess quixotic presence has made her more than a statue, she has also become a symbol of Budapest, a city that can sometimes seem like a fairy tale.

An Old Friend - The Fat Policeman in Budapest

An Old Friend – The Fat Policeman in Budapest

The Golden Belly – For Luck & Levity
The Little Princess is not the only statue that showcases the lighter side of Budapest. Within sight of the neo-classical splendor of St. Stephen’s Basilica, stands a statue known as The Fat Policeman. He jovially guards the intersection of Oktober 6 and Zrinyi Miklos utcas (streets) with his plump, protruding belly polished to a golden bronze. His golden belly is the product of tourists hoping to glean a bit of good luck by giving The Fat Policeman a lucky tummy rub. The policeman is all but impossible to miss for those strolling up and down the street. Throngs of tourists often crowd around the statue to get their photos taken with everyone’s favorite Budapestian policeman. The Fat Policeman is warm and friendly, with his upturned mustache and peaked cap he looks the opposite of a stereotypical cop.  The sculptor of the statue, Andras Illyes, is said to have modeled it after his grandfather who must have had a very pleasant demeanor by the looks of his look-a-like. The statue was installed in 2008. Since that time, it has become a must see, as well as a must rub.

The Little Princess and The Fat Policeman are memorable precisely because they are so unlike most statues in Budapest. In a city where it seems like almost any statue is fraught with meaning, both political and personal, it is nice to see a few that reflect a more pleasant side to the city’s persona. While the statues do not pay homage to any specific historical figures, nor do they express an ideological point of view, their most revolutionary aspect is happiness. Maybe that is why they are viewed with such fondness. They remind visitors that for all its grandeur and glitz, Budapest is also the kind of place where a princess and policeman prove that above all else, levity reigns supreme.

An Empty Room – Armistice of Villa Giusti: The End of Austria-Hungary

It is hard to say exactly where the Austro-Hungarian Empire began. Some would say when the Turks surged through the Balkans and arrived in Eastern Europe, so weakening the Kingdom of Hungary that it would undergo a slow, but steady assimilation under the Habsburgs. Others would say after the defeat of Rakoczi’s War of Independence in 1711. Hungary then had no other choice, but submission to Habsburg rule. These two examples are lacking in one regard. Though these historical events may have pushed Hungary ever closer to the Austrians, neither speaks to the equality between the two that was a hallmark of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Because the Dual Monarchy was officially formed in 1867, we might need to search for an event closer to that date.

An Empty Room - Site where the Armistice of Villa Giusti was signed

An Empty Room – Site where the Armistice of Villa Giusti was signed (Credit: Armistizo)

Starting Points – The End of A Beginning
To my mind, it is the Austro-Hungarian defeat at the Battle of Koniggratz (Hradec Kralove in the Czech Republic) in 1866 by the Prussian Army that signals the unofficial beginning of the Dual Monarchy. Fear is a great motivator, and it was fear that of absorption in a new German Empire that motivated the Austrians to look for an internal partner to help save the Monarchy. Despite, or perhaps because the Hungarians had rebelled against Austrian rule in 1848-49, Franz Josef and the Austrian leadership decided that union with Hungary made the most sense. The Hungarians had other advantages as well. They were the second largest ethnic group in the Habsburg Empire.

Hungarians were an unruly bunch that were as difficult to control as they were to please. There was also the personal chemistry and connection between Queen Elisabeth (otherwise known as Sisi) and Count Gyula Andrassy that led Elisabeth to lean on her husband, Franz Josef to consider the creation of a Dual Monarchy. Like most empires, there is not a single point that acts as a definitive starting point for the beginning of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. On the other hand, there was a defining event that solidified the Monarchy’s creation. The crowning of Franz Josef and Elisabeth as King of Hungary and Queen of Hungary at the Matthias Church atop Castle Hill in Buda on June 8, 1867. This symbolically united Austria and Hungary under the person of Franz Josef. It would stay that way until his death over a half century later.

Where History Was Made - Villa Giusti as it looks today

Where History Was Made – Villa Giusti as it looks today (Credit: Red Foxes)

An Empire’s Demise – Nails In The Coffin
If finding a starting point for Austria-Hungary is difficult, finding an end point is just as troublesome. Revolutions sprouted up like mushrooms across imperial lands from Transylvania to the Tyrol in the autumn of 1918. The revolutions were followed by splintering states as a plethora of obscure pseudo-political entities – such as the Republic of Prekmurje and Republic of Banat to name but two – arose and fell with hardly anyone taking notice. There were other events great and small which portended total collapse. King Karl relinquishing his throne, mutinies on the Eastern Front, the once glittering imperial capital of Vienna swelling with starving citizens. Many of the places and all the people involved in the Empire’s dissolution have long since vanished. Finding a tangible site associated with the empire’s demise is not easy.

One of the more interesting sites associated with the dissolution of Austria-Hungary can be found in a place where you might least expect to find it. In the Veneto Region of northeastern Italy, outside the city of Padua, stands the Villa Giusti, home to an empty room where the empire crumbled. For an empire that is usually associated in the popular imagination with aristocracy, grand palaces, glittering balls and gilded romances, the Villa Giusti is a fitting place to contemplate Austria-Hungary. One might be forgiven, to think the Villa Giusti would be more representative of the empire at its apogee rather than its conclusion. In those strange and historic days that made up the final phase of World War I, the Villa Giusti was one of the final acts in the imperial endgame.

The Dual Monarchy Disintegrates – End of War, End of Empire
Long before the First World War brought the Villa Giusti fame and notoriety, its history began not as a noble manor, but the result of martial efforts in the region. Historians believe the Villa first took shape as a medieval fortification before it was eventually converted to a residence. In the latter part of the 19th century the villa underwent a restoration that made it a bit more appealing, but it was never an aesthetic delight. The villa was owned by Count Vettor Giusti del Giardino, one of those European aristocrats who seems just as antiquated as the empire which crumbled to bits beneath the roof of his villa. Giardino was mayor of nearby Padua and appointed a senator in Italy during the war. His villa was used as a temporary residence for three months during the war by Italian King Victor Emmanuel who sought to avoid the aerial bombardment being inflicted upon Padua.

The Villa was selected for armistice negotiations at the beginning of November 1918 due to its proximity near the front and the fact that Austria-Hungary’s intelligence services knew little about it. The negotiations took three days and were contentious at times, causing the Italian commander Badoglio to threaten to break off talks on the final day. This broke the impasse and resulted in what became known to history as the Armistice of Villa Giusti. Effective within 24 hours, Austro-Hungarian forces were to cease all hostilities. They were also to withdraw from Italian territory and any territory that was disputed with Italy. And this was just the start. Triple Entente forces (France, Great Britain and Italy) would be allowed rights of transit through Austro-Hungarian territory which meant Germany would be facing a new front.

An Unexpected Setting - The Villa Giusti as it looked in 1967

An Unexpected Setting – The Villa Giusti as it looked in 1967 (Credit: Paolo Monti)

The Breaking Point – A Singular Event
Speaking of Germany, their forces were to be expelled from Austria-Hungary within 15 days. The Germans had propped the empire up throughout the war out of self-interest. The idea was for Austria-Hungary to fight on to keep Germany’s soft southern underbelly was safe from enemy incursions. Now Germany could face war on multiple fronts, while its forces in France were stretched to the breaking point. The armistice’s effect was devastating to both the empire and its allies. Austria-Hungary was left with virtually no means of defending itself against its enemies, internal or external. This meant that the Entente Forces had a free hand in the old imperial lands and revolutionaries could run amuck. Either could impose their will and implement whatever policies they felt were necessary. The war was over for Austria-Hungary, the empire was not far behind.

As for the Villa Giusti, it outlived the historic events that occurred within its walls. Today the room where the armistice was negotiated has been left in the same condition as it was at the time. Anyone can visit and contemplate a singular event that helped topple the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It is both strange and humbling to see where an empire that once encompassed the shores of the Adriatic Sea, massive mountains ranges such as the Carpathians and Tatras and across the rich agricultural lands of Hungary and western Ukraine, collapsed in an old, forgotten and decrepit villa. Those words, “old” “forgotten” and “decrepit” also describe Austria-Hungary at its end. At the Villa Giusti, the empire was finally put out of its misery.

Going Back & Going Beyond – The Power of Pecs, Lviv and Thessaloniki (Part Two)

The delights of a provincial rather than a capital city is an acquired taste, one that I have been lucky enough to gain in an Eastern European nation on three memorable occasions. My experience was all the better for it and not just with my first love in Pecs, Hungary. The first time I traveled to Ukraine, I did make it a point to visit the capital, Kiev. That was my second stop though. My first one was Lviv, a sparkling jewel of a city in western Ukraine. Lviv colors my opinion of Ukraine to this very day, even nine years after my first visit I cannot help but have a fondness for Ukraine because of that initial experience. It pains me when I hear people discuss Ukraine as though it is a dangerous country that should be avoided. Ukraine may have dangerous regions (the Donbas where an asymmetric war continues to rage is to be avoided by tourists) and endemic corruption (signified by the national government in Kiev), but Ukraine for me is a charming place full of magic rather than malevolence.

Street Art - Lviv

Street Art – Lviv

Lusting After Lviv – Falling For A Ukrainian Super Model
Lviv was then, what it still is today, the historical hub of Ukraine, a place where I could reach out and touch the past. On my return trips to the city I felt a sense of nostalgia, not just for Lviv’s past, but my own past in the city. The friends I met and kept over the years, the mystical churches that deepened my curiosity for the mysterious sensuality of the eastern world and the sheer exoticism of finding renaissance architecture in far eastern Europe. Kiev on the other hand, was a raucous and at times, menacing metropolis. I am fortunate that I avoided making it my first stop in the country. I have never been back and have no plans to go there again. I enjoyed certain aspects of the Ukrainian capital and the city center was well worth visiting. Conversely, there was something impersonal and at times outright inhuman about Kiev.

Perhaps it was the Stalinist architecture to be found on its most famous avenue or the hectic pace or the pushing and shoving on the metro that remains so vivid in my memory. Whatever the case, I could hardly wait to leave. I sensed then what I can still feel today, I would be unlikely to come back for a visit. If I did, it would only be to pass through the city. Bigger is rarely better and Kiev bore that truth out for me. Lviv is my idea of a Ukrainian super model, sleek, seductive and spectacular. Voluptuous in its charms, my eyes ogled its many beautiful buildings. I felt a pathological sense of romance in its city center. If there is such a thing as lusting after a city, then I fell for Lviv with uninhibited inclination. And I hope to get back to Ukraine, to visit Uzhhorod and Mukachevo, the type of provincial cities that are likely to give me a Lviv sized experience. Now when I look at a map of Ukraine, Kiev has vanished and all the smaller cities in the country are magnified. To lust like this, is to live travel forever.

The Dawn of a New Day - The Old Byzantine City Walls in Thessaloniki

The Dawn of a New Day – The Old Byzantine City Walls in Thessaloniki

Anywhere But Athens – Beyond The Obvious
My first visit to Greece last year was made with one thought in mind which can be summed up as “anywhere but Athens.” The capital of the classical world has never appealed to me. Perhaps it comes from disappointment at its failure to host the 100th anniversary of the Olympic Games. When Athens lost out to Atlanta, it lost something else, my respect. Then there are the stories I have read about the congestion and pollution that clogs and clouds the city. I have never heard a single person ever say anything nice about its modern iteration. The Parthenon, the Acropolis and a clutch of world class museums filled with astonishing artifacts do not provide enough an allure for me. This is snobbery in reverse, I find a perverse pleasure in the provincial when it comes to Greece. I cannot see the appeal of Athens. That is likely the product of my imagining throngs of tourists crowding me out. These feelings and an affinity for Byzantine and Ottoman history led me to first set foot on Greek soil in Thessaloniki, a city whose modernity is unsightly in the extreme.

What I found was another Greece mostly unknown to the western world. One with deep multi-cultural roots. Thessaloniki had more in common with Balkan culture than modern Greece, a place where digging in the dirt had unearthed entire worlds that existed before the blight of fires, wars and unchecked development smothered whole swathes of antiquity. Thessaloniki was an acquired taste, one that did not come easy. It asked visitors to look beyond the obvious or the famous, to the obscure and the infamous, to the Ottomans, the Sephardic Jews, the Byzantines and to the Rome of late antiquity. I want to believe that the difference between a visit to Athens and one to Thessaloniki, is like the difference between staying in a former five star hotel and staying in someone’s home. There is hospitality in search of your wallet and hospitality in search of your heart. Thessaloniki for me, was all about the latter.

A Lasting Memory - Pecs Cathedral

A Lasting Memory – Pecs Cathedral

Crossing Frontiers – My Wildest Imagination
At some point during my visit to Thessaloniki, I began to look further afield. My eye was not drawn to the obvious in Greece, neither islands nor Athens caught my attention. Instead, it was the hinterlands that I began to focus on. Those provincial outposts of interest that no sane tourist would take time to visit. This would be my Greece in the future. Thessaloniki made all of Thrace suddenly seem possible. The region, a Balkan borderland holds a magnetic attraction for me. I know not a single person who has traveled in its more obscure parts. I have not been back to Greece since my visit to Thessaloniki, but I already know what will come next. Crossing frontiers in my mind, as much as on the land.

The frontier between Greece and Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, Greece and North Macedonia, the frontiers that only exist on a map and now appear in my mind. At one time these frontiers were as unfamiliar to me as any other lines drawn upon a foreign land, now I want to become as familiar with them as the lines on my hand. My future travels in Greece, will be like my past ones in Hungary, my future travels in Ukraine will be like my past ones in Hungary and my future in Hungary will be a place like Pecs, and in Ukraine a place like Lviv and in Greece a place like Thessaloniki. I could never have imagined the day I set foot in Pecs, that I was entering a whole new world, one that led the way down a path of endless possibilities. Soon it will be time to go back and go beyond my wildest imagination.

Souls of a Nation – The Power of Pecs, Lviv and Thessaloniki (Part One)

My initial impression of Hungary was formed by the first city I visited in the country. The most surprising thing, it was not Budapest. Instead it was Pecs, a sublimely beautiful and historic city in southern Hungary that was on the verge of becoming a European Capital of Culture when I arrived there. That visit pushed me to travel into provincial Hungary in search of similar cities. I was soon scanning the map to find places comparable to Pecs. That led me to Gyor, Sopron and Szombathely. And these cities were just the start of a personal effort to visit all the best places in provincial Hungary. Eventually this led me to visit smaller towns and villages in the countryside. After a few trips, I discovered that covering all the counties in Hungary was within reach.

This new goal sent me further afield. It was only upon later reflection that it occurred to me why I have always found it so comfortable traveling far and wide in provincial Hungary as compared to other Eastern European countries. It is precisely because my first experience in Hungary did not take place in Budapest. My first, formative Hungarian experience occurred in Pecs. First impressions are lasting ones and as such the Hungary I am always searching for is the same one I discovered on that early spring day in Pecs nine years ago. It has become my frame of reference for the entire country. The first time I ever set foot on Hungarian soil was at the train station in Pecs, everything has flowed forward for me in Hungary from that first moment.

The First Time - Arrival by railway in Pecs

The First Time – Arrival by railway in Pecs

Capital Losses – A Distorted Image
Budapest almost always comes first in Hungary, but not for me. I did not realize until many years later how my first impression of Pecs gave me such an affinity for provincial cities and places in Hungary. This became more apparent when I compared my Hungarian experience to my initial impressions of other Central and Eastern European countries. The first place in Austria I set foot in was Vienna. Austria is supposed to be mountainous alpine glory, the only thing mountainous in Vienna is the cash it takes to keep the city glittering. In Slovakia, a nation known for its spectacular nature and innumerable castles I found myself in the capital city of Bratislava looking at Hungarian and German inspired architecture. If this was Slovakia, then it was suffering from a multiple personality disorder. My experience of the Czech Republic will forever be framed by Prague, where I spent many days on my first visit to the country. Prague is a beautiful city, totally unlike anywhere else in this part of Europe and that includes the Czech Republic.

Then there was Warsaw, where I started and ended my first trip to Poland. I could not get away from it fast enough. In Latvia there was Riga, which is the mightiest city in the Baltic lands and completely unlike the Latvian hinterland. In Lithuania I alighted in Vilnius and never got more than 50 kilometers from the capital. I first experienced Bulgaria through Sofia, much of which is the anti-thesis of this beautiful Balkan country. It was the same in Romania, where I headed straight to Bucharest, a Ceaucescuian set piece of concrete and dilapidated faux grandeur that has little in common with much of the country. In the Balkans, I found myself in one capital city after another, what I never found was these nation’s heart and soul. Now I have come to realize that capital gains were capital losses when it came to authentically experiencing any of the above countries.

A Provincial Beauty - Pecs city center

A Provincial Beauty – Pecs city center

A Nation On Steroids – Obscured By Monumentalism
A capital city is basically the nation it represents on steroids. There is the usual glitz and glamor of lavish buildings, national symbols, traditions and heroes are all deified in a withering array of monumentalism. Capitals always come with a thick coat of makeup, government money supplies the mascara to cover up anything that might resemble reality. Grand buildings in a capital city have a duty to distract, statues of heroes are forever getting in the way, soldiers stand at attention guarding entrances to ministries filled with faceless figures. Show me a capital city in eastern Europe and I will show you a mirage. One that is as disconcerting as it is unreal. There is no way to really get up close and personal with the grandiose. There is a reason that tourists are rarely allowed inside even the most anonymous government buildings. The wizards of this less than wonderful world see it as their duty to keep the curtain drawn.

On the few occasions I have entered a house of parliament, it is empty. There is a reason for that. Capitals are nationalist Potemkin villages where politicians promote narratives that are largely unreal. Capitals have been expanded exponentially by governments over the past century hoping to put on their best face while growing government that if it is not against the people, then it is certainly not for them either. If you want to see a country, then you need to see it naked. To strip away the excess and see a country as it is, rather than as the powers that be would have you believe it to be, take a trip to the provinces where a national capital can put in its proper perspective, remote, shadowy and obscure.

Memory Blurs - The First Walk Around Pecs

Memory Blurs – The First Walk Around Pecs

Pride Without Pretensions – A Place Called Pecs
Provincial cities and places have a certain pride without the pretensions. Just being themselves is good enough. I felt like Pecs was the type of place that was proud of itself. The city seemed to have a certain self-confidence. Pecs was built on a human scale, sure it had plenty of monuments, statues and architectural eye candy, but it felt like the kind of place I could call home. After leaving Pecs, I thought that I was done with it, little did I realize that it was not done with me. Everything I have searched for in Hungary since that time has somehow had to measure up to that first provincial impression. Realizing this led me to search my memory for the countries and cities where my first impression was somewhere outside the capital. There were only two – in the cities of Lviv in Ukraine and Thessalonikki in Greece – and their example was instructive.

Click here for: Going Back & Going Beyond – The Power of Pecs, Lviv and Thessaloniki (Part Two)

Illuminating the Shadows – Prit Buttar & The Eastern Front of World War I (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #9b)

It might be said that Prit Buttar’s first work of history was a baptism of fire, one that was almost entirely due to the subject matter. Dr. Buttar chose to write about the campaign in East Prussia between the German Army and the Soviet Red Army at the tail end of World War II. He could have hardly selected a more dramatic or horrific moment in a war full of them. The campaign was filled with human drama, profound violence, and wanton destruction. The subject matter and stories which arose from the campaign must have been daunting to research and then retell, but Dr. Buttar was prepared from the start. The formative experience that laid the foundation for his first history book occurred when one of his patients, who had been a nurse in East Prussia during the war, told him about what she had witnessed when the Red Army invaded the region. To say that Dr. Buttar was intrigued would be a massive understatement.

The moment that former nurse told Dr. Buttar her story would only mean something if the good doctor took the opportunity to transcend time and place in much the same manner his patient did. Thankfully for those of us who always wanted to know more about the Eastern Front that was just what he did. Though Dr. Buttar has never divulged his patient’s name, one can only imagine the powerful effect that the woman’s experiences must have had upon him. A routine checkup was transformed into a moment that would change the English language historiography of the Eastern Front during World War I for the better. It also sparked the next phase in Buttar’s career, where he would become as much a doctor of history as he was a doctor of medicine.

The Eastern Front during World War I – Three works of Prit Buttar

The Passionate Amateur – A Doctor Finds His Calling
The upshot of that initial meeting between patient and doctor took eight years before it came to fruition. In 2010, Dr. Buttar’s Battleground Prussia: The Assault on Germany’s Eastern Front 1944-45 was published to widespread acclaim. Ironically, the book’s success spurred Buttar to not only research and write another work on World War II in Eastern Europe (Between Giants: The Battle for the Baltics in World War II), but undertake the monumental task of writing a multi volume history of the Eastern Front during World War I*. With the centennial of the war fast approaching, there was certainly going to be a market for such books. The question was whether Dr. Buttar was up to the task.

The project would have taxed the resources of the most accomplished professional historians. There were a multitude of reasons why no one had ever written such a series in English. The languages were a barrier, archives were difficult to access, documentation was scattered, and the scale of the front was daunting. None of this was going to stop Prit Buttar. He may not have been a “professional” historian, but he was certainly an indefatigable one. Dr. Buttar would work assiduously to illuminate the shadowy Eastern Front for the English speaking world. He stepped into a historical breach. The Eastern Front was an area that very few historians in the western world had ever confronted. Those who had usually limited their efforts to a single volume on a specific battle. Passion combined with zeal, intellect fusing information with interpretation, a clear and concise writing style, these were the traits that Dr. Buttar brought to bear upon the project.

His efforts resulted in four volumes that together amounted to the first truly comprehensive history of the Eastern Front during World War I in the English language. From 2014 to 2017, Buttar published one book per year. Such a prodigious output required moving at warp speed when compared to other historians. The amazing thing is that Dr. Buttar managed to straddle the line between scholarly and popular history without sacrificing one for the other. While the books are readable by armchair historical amateurs, they are done to the highest professional standards. An academic would be more than proud to have these books as part of their resume. As for myself, I was ecstatic that Buttar had taken up the task to provide amateurs and professionals alike with a written narrative that enhances understanding of what occurred on the Eastern Front and why it mattered so much then and still does today.

Running for their lives – German refugees and soldiers on a road in East Prussia during World War II

Soldiers In Space – Deeper Into The Abyss
For anyone looking to read these books, I would suggest they start with the introductions provided at the beginning of each volume. These offer valuable context that explains why warfare on the Eastern Front was fundamentally different from that on the Western Front. These introductions also help explain why the war on the Eastern Front was so difficult to win. Some of the most compelling interpretation in the books concern these difficulties specific to the Eastern Front. It was Winston Churchill who once said, “in the west, the armies were too big for the land, in the east, the land was too big for the armies.” Dr. Buttar provides telling details and critical analysis showing that this was indeed true. For instance, in the introduction to the third volume, Russia’s Last Gasp: The Eastern Front 1916-1917 he says:

In many respects, the fighting on the Eastern Front was very different, with the front line moving back and forth as the vast spaces of Eastern Europe allowed armies to exploit weaker areas. However, the very space that allowed for such movement also made a conclusive victory unachievable. As early as October 1914, the Germans had correctly calculated that it was impossible for armies to maintain operations more than 72 miles (120 km) from their railheads and both sides rapidly realized that there were few if any strategically vital objectives within such a radius.”

While several battles on the Eastern Front were decisive tactical victories, including Tannenberg, the Siege of Przemysl and Lake Naroch, they did nothing to relieve the stalemate. Such victories drew armies deeper into the vast spaces which swallowed armies. The war continued to grind on until it ground down the German, Austro-Hungarian and the Russian Empires. The latter of which imploded spectacularly in revolution.

Death in the Carpathians – Polish troops on the Eastern Front during World War I

An Unwinnable War – From One Extreme To The Next
The Eastern Front series by Dr. Buttar is not just a dry recitation of facts and obscure maneuvers that only make sense on a map. He sprinkles his narrative with first person accounts from officers and soldiers that bring the experience of warfare on the Eastern Front to life. Eyewitness accounts are used as invaluable aids to illuminate aspects of the fighting. Nowhere is this truer than in the obscure and catastrophic campaign of 1914-15 in the Carpathian Mountains. The fighting took place in some of the worst conditions of anywhere in the entire war. In Germany Ascendent: The Eastern Front 1916, Dr. Buttar intersperses his narrative on the campaign with first hand accounts such as this:

“On 23 January, we pushed forward into the frozen hell of the Carpathian battlefield…a blizzard engulfed the troops. The reports from those days are terrible. Hundreds froze to death every day. The wounded that were unable to drag themselves along were left behind to die….Pack animals couldn’t advance through the deep snow, The men had to carry their own supplies on foot. The soldiers went without food for days. Food rations froze solid at -25 C.”

This gives the reader an inside view of what it was like for common soldiers caught up in that cauldron of conflict the likes of which the world had rarely, if ever, seen before. The Russians ended up with the advantage in the Carpathian campaign, but in the process lost tens of thousands of troops for minimal gains which they would later have to abandon. In the final analysis, winning was akin to losing and vice versa. In this case, Dr. Buttar’s narrative shows that both the Austro-Hungarians and Russians fought themselves to exhaustion.

The conflict on the Eastern Front made winning a battle barely distinguishable from losing one. Nowhere was this truer than on the German side. A prime example of this was the Battle of Tannenberg, as complete a tactical victory as any army won in the war. Strategically the battle’s legacy ended up having major consequences, one of which was catastrophic.  The team of Hindenburg and Ludendorff used to eventually gain command of the entire German military apparatus. They failed as miserably as all the other German commanders in breaking the stalemate in France and Belgium. In the process they proved that success on the Eastern Front could not easily be transferred to the Western Front. The war in the East was an entirely different one, to understand why read Prit Buttar’s series. 

* The four volumes are:
Collisions of Empire: The War on the Eastern Front 1914
Germany Ascendant: The Eastern Front 1915-16
Russia’s Last Gasp: The Eastern Front 1916-1917
The Splintered Empires: The Eastern Front 1917-1921


The Doctor Is In – Prit Buttar & The Eastern Front of World War I (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #9a)

Imagine a warfront that stretched almost a thousand miles, equivalent to the distance between New York and St. Louis, where millions of men fought for over three years in mountain passes and across wide swathes of steppe, in supersized fortresses and squalid villages. Where one and a half million Germans, over three million men from Austria-Hungary and an estimated six million Russians were either killed or wounded. And grasp the fact that the Russian Revolution, the destruction of three empires and much of old, aristocratic Europe were brought to heel by the fighting on this front.

More remarkable was the fact that until relatively recent times, trying to find English language books on the Eastern Front of World War I was a difficult task. Perhaps that was because of the language barrier or the revolutions which swept away many of the source materials. It might also have been because of the totalitarian regimes and Iron Curtain which cordoned Eastern Europe off from the world for much of the 20th century. Whatever the reason, a hundred years would pass before the Eastern Front was given its proper due in English language works of history. One of these, Prit Buttar’s multi-volume history, finally gave the Eastern Front the kind of long overdue coverage it deserves.

Keeping an eye on the Eastern Front – Prit Buttar

Gap Years – The Unknown War

While in high school I first became interested in the Eastern Front. There was only one problem, it was difficult to find many decent English language history books on the topic, let alone books dedicated to separate campaigns or individual battles. My reading was relegated to general reference works and a few specialized, but hard to find titles. The Marshal Cavendish Encyclopedia of World War I was invaluable in this regard. It provided an unprecedented scale of coverage. Volumes specifically dedicated to the Eastern Front were extremely hard to come by. Two of the very few that did focus on the front were Norman Stone’s The Eastern Front 1914 – 1917 and The Unknown War, by far the most obscure work in Winston Churchill’s monumental multi-volume The World Crisis. Even the authors of these works might have been hard pressed to recall that they had written about this extremely important and overlooked front. I know this from first-hand experience.

A couple of years ago I had dinner with Professor Stone in Budapest. When I mentioned that I spent part of a South Dakota winter reading The Eastern Front, he looked at me with a combination of confusion and bemusement. He then laughed and said, “I didn’t think anyone remembered I wrote that.” I commended him for providing an entry point into that part of the war. Stone’s work was a rare exception. The fact that it was written in 1975 and still considered essential would have surprised no one familiar with the lack of coverage. For much of the 20th century in English language histories, the Eastern Front seemed to start and end with Germany’s crushing victory at the Battle of Tannenberg over the Russians in the early weeks of the war. Never mind that the battle, at least from a strategic standpoint, did little to settle the war. Fighting would continue all along the Eastern Front for three long and largely horrific years.

Classic work – The Eastern Front 1914 – 1917 by Norman Stone

The gap in Eastern Front historiography between the Battle of Tannenberg and the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in English language history books was a yawning chasm. That only began to change during the past decade. The main driver of growing interest in the Eastern Front was the centennial commemorations of the Great War. Publishers became much more interested in areas and aspects of the war that had been overlooked in the past. Scholarly and in several cases popular histories, offered coverage of topics related to the Eastern Front such as the Siege of Przemysl (Alexander Watson’s Fortress), Germany & Austria-Hungary during World War I (Watson again with Ring of Steel), the Gorlice-Tarnow Campaign (Richard DiNardo’s Breakthrough), The Carpathian Winter War of 1915 (Graydon Tunstall’s Blood on the Snow) and Austria-Hungary’s opening campaign for the war on the Eastern Front (Geoffery Wawro’s A Mad Catastrophe) have been among the works that shed light on previously underexplored parts of the Eastern Front. These books were all written by professional historians and are well worth the time it takes to read them. Nevertheless, the most comprehensive history of the Eastern Front happens to be four magnificent volumes that have come from the pen of an amateur.

Total war – Soviet troops in Konigsberg East Prussia 1945

Total War In East Prussia – History Makes A House Call 

Prit Buttar was a doctor, not of history, but medicine. Now retired, Dr. Buttar was a General Practitioner at Abingdon surgery just south of Oxford, where he completed part of his studies. He also spent five years as a medical officer and surgeon in the British Army. A man of prodigious intellect, Buttar became interested in the Eastern Front after an unforgettable experience he had with one of his patients in 2002. The woman, an ethnic German who had long since emigrated to Great Britain, had served as a nurse in East Prussia. She proceeded to tell Dr. Buttar her story of survival on the Eastern Front during World War II. As a nurse she had been an eyewitness to the German Army’s collapse as the Red Army invaded and conquered East Prussia. During that time, the region was consumed by an orgy of violence.

It is not an understatement to say that East Prussia in 1944-1945 was one of the most violent places in human history. Murder and rape were commonplace. Ethnic Germans fled the area in droves. Many were lucky to make it out of the region alive. Whatever they left behind was destroyed or stolen. The entire region was a battlefield. From aristocratic homes to remote hamlets, tiny villages to the once sparkling provincial capital of Konigsberg, nothing was safe. Total war took place on an apocalyptic scale. It resulted in the destruction or expulsion of almost every ethnic German in the province. Look on a map of Europe today and East Prussia does not exist. The next time you hear the phrase wiped off the map, think of East Prussia. A steel stake was run through what the Soviets believed was the heartland of German militarism. As for Dr. Buttar, he was riveted by the stories he heard. Little did his patient know that her tales were laying the groundwork for Dr. Buttar’s second career as an historian. After hearing her experiences, Dr. Buttar felt compelled to research and write his first non-fiction work of history. Many more were to come. They would all have one thing in common, the Eastern Front.

Click here for: Illuminating the Shadows – Prit Buttar & The Eastern Front of World War I (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #9b)

Forced Separation – German West Hungary & The Burgenland: Austria vs. Hungary (Part Two)

It is a strange thing to be in a region that was considered more or less part of Hungary for the better part a millennium and then to realize this same region bears very few overt traces of its Hungarian past. Anyone traveling through the tidy towns and quaint villages of the Burgenland region of eastern Austria today, would be hard pressed to notice much of anything identifying it with the Kingdom of Hungary. The transformation was radically subtle and had a great deal to do with the border alterations that occurred in the region after World War I. In retrospect, the new lines that were drawn turned out to make a great deal of sense since they followed ethnic demography. Nonetheless, there were winners and losers. The nation of Hungary was certainly one of them.

After the First World War ended, Hungary endured the dismemberment of its kingdom by the hands of peacemakers who poured over maps in Paris. They relied on experts to advise them on the best course of action. Such courses were fraught with danger. The decisions that were made, especially in regard to the Kingdom of Hungary, created a sense of grievance that endures to this very day. Oddly, that sense of grievance is largely absent in the Burgenland even though Hungary lost land to its former ally, Austria. In the postwar peace process, Hungary could not win, even against the losers.

Fertile Fields - Looking east towards Hungary from the Burgenland

Fertile Fields – Looking east towards Hungary from the Burgenland (Credit: Jacquesverlaeken)

An Agricultural Lifeline – The Food Network
Creating Austria was not easy. Many disparate provincial pieces had to be brought together, one of the most important of which, the Burgenland, is largely overlooked today. To understand the Burgenland’s importance, consider how geographically different it is from the rest of Austria. While the mountains of Austria might be beautiful, the words alpine and agriculture are not synonymous. Some 60% of Austria is mountainous, while only 17% of the land is arable. Trying to grow crops at high altitudes is a non-starter, especially for populations that were rapidly growing as industrialization and urbanization proceeded apace. The far western region of the Kingdom of Hungary, known as German West Hungary (Deutsch-Westungarn), offered a pastoral lifeline for a newly forming nation that suffered from a paucity of decent agricultural land. The land just happened to be located east of the River Leitha, a symbolic dividing line and in this case an administrative border between what had been the Austrian (Cisleithania) and Hungarian (Transleithania) ruled regions of the former empire.

This region included portions of the pre-war Hungarian counties of Vas, Moson and Sopron. It offered choice ground for cultivation. The land was an extension of Transdanubia, a region of fertile fields west of the Danube in Hungary that yields excellent crops. It was unlike any other region that would help form Austria. It was also badly needed. Areas where Austria used to get its food supply, such as Moravia, were now going to be part of the newly constituted nation of Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, Hungary was in no mood to deliver food to their former allies. In 1919, it was every nation for itself. Austria and Hungary were no longer allies, that meant everything was up for grabs, including land that had been administered by Hungary before the war. Borders could be changed at the stroke of a pen, as soon they would be.

Stamp of Approval - Lajtabansag 100 korona stamp

Stamp of Approval – Lajtabansag 100 korona stamp

Forget Me Not – From Trianon To St. German-en-Laye
To be fair, Austria might be getting a piece of territory at Hungary’s expense, but it was losing plenty of its old imperial holdings. Today, Hungarians are never shy about reminding people how they lost two-thirds of their territory due to Trianon, but you would be hard pressed to find an Austrian who would remind you that they lost 60% of their territory due to the Treaty of St. Germain-en-Laye. This included Bohemia and Moravia whose German population would become a huge point of contention in the lead up to the Second World War. They were also losing south Tyrol to the Italians. Getting German West Hungary would not compensate for all those losses, but it would ameliorate them to a certain extent. The Austrians had demographics on their side in the tussle for control. In the 1910 census, the last one taken prior to World War I, ethnic Germans made up 74% of the population in the region.

Strangely enough, though the region was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, ethnic Hungarians were not even the second largest ethnic group in the region. This status was reserved for ethnic Croats at 15%. Ethnic Hungarians came in at only 9%. This demographic breakdown was nothing new and went all the way back to when Hungarians first gained control of the area during the Middle Ages. A Germanic majority existed at the time. This was the frontier or Marchland as it was then known on the Kingdom of Hungary’s western border. The Hungarians who settled there were border guards. The Croats had come in much later, during a fifty year period in the mid-16th century when their lands in Slavonia had been laid waste by the Ottoman Turks. Hungary had nominally retained control of the area throughout much of the past 900 years. This was something of an historical anomaly since so few of the residents were ethnic Hungarians. Thus, it made sense to attach the region to Austria, but logic is one thing, passion quite another.

A Land Apart - The Burgenland

A Land Apart – The Burgenland (Credit: ariva.io)

An Afterthought – The Course of History
Dispassion and reason were not exactly hallmarks of the postwar peace process. Demographic evidence certainly did not make the loss any easier for Hungarians to stomach. After all, it had lost a massive amount of territory due to the Treaty of Trianon. Losing German West Hungary only served to add insult to injury. Interestingly, the Hungarians did not give up German West Hungary without a fight and it would pay off in at least one instance. On August 19, 1921, the handover to Austria of German West Hungary region was due to occur. This resulted in an armed uprising led by ultra nationalist Hungarian forces. They succeeded, albeit only briefly, in carving out their own state, the Lajtabansag (Banat of Leitha) which lasted little more than a month during the autumn. The “state” managed to issue some stamps and implement custom duties.

This “state” did not enjoy support from the Hungarian government which was susceptible to pressure from the Allies. It did not take long for Lajtabansag to disintegrate. One offshoot of the uprising was that the city of Sopron held a plebiscite to see whether it would go to Austria or Hungary. Sopron and three of the surrounding villages voted to stay in Hungary, while five villages voted to stay in Austria. Due to the size of Sopron and the weight of its vote all eight villages would remain in Hungary. Meanwhile, German West Hungary became the Burgenland. The Austrians had gained a valuable new territory, the only one of its nine provinces which had never really been part of Austria proper. It would now and remains part of Austria today. As for the Hungarians, they focused their irredentist energies on Transylvania and southern Slovakia. The Burgenland became what it continues to be for them, an afterthought.

Click here for: Conceived in Chaos – The Burgenland & Trianon: Austria vs. Hungary (Part One)

Conceived in Chaos – The Burgenland & Trianon: Austria vs. Hungary (Part One)

Last autumn I went to have lunch at a Hungarian Club in northeast Ohio. These meetings are always of great interest to me because I get to meet Hungarians who immigrated to the United States, most of them as a result of World War II or the 1956 Revolution. Each one of them has a unique story that is worth hearing. If you want to appreciate what you have, listen to someone who lost everything and took the chance of life in the hope of a better future far from tyrannical ideologies. Almost everyone I spoke with at the lunch had a connection to a major historical event. After the initial pleasantries, I found myself asking several people where they were from in Hungary. The question is always a good conversation starter.

A Land Apart - The Burgenland in Austria

A Land Apart – The Burgenland in Austria (Credit: TUBS)

I proposed it to a man who was sitting behind a table at the entrance and collecting money from those paying to have a traditional Hungarian meal for lunch. The man, who had a full head of mostly greying hair, an intelligent face and warm demeanor, politely answered my question by saying, “Szombathely.” This was the green light for an engaging conversation. I had been fortunate enough to visit that pleasant little city in western Hungary on several occasions. We spoke at length about several sites in the city center. As our conversation proceeded, I asked the man whether his parents were originally from that area. This was when he mentioned that his mother – an ethnic Croat – was from a village further to the west that was no longer in Hungary. Immediately, my level of interest soared.

A Paradoxical Peace – Losing Territory to the Losers
Now it is not uncommon for Hungarians to speak about areas beyond the nation’s current borders that are no longer part of Hungary. Transylvania usually elicits tortured responses, southern Slovakia deep sighs, northern Serbia and southwestern Ukraine irritated shrugs, but I had never heard anyone say a word about eastern Austria. The post-World War I Treaty of Trianon stripped Hungary of two-thirds of its territory and left millions of Hungarians living outside the mother country. What was different in my conversation with this man concerned his reply when I mentioned Trianon. He said, “what really gets me is that even the Austrians got territory from Hungary due to Trianon. No one ever talks about that. How did they get away with that? It is unbelievable.” I usually just listen when Hungarians get going on Trianon. I have learned from experience that it is an open wound which can lead to endless lamentations. In this case though, I had to agree with the gentleman. It was incredible that Hungary had not only lost territory to the victors, but also the losers.

Welcome to the New World - Burgenland Guest House in 1930

Welcome to the New World – Burgenland Guest House in 1930

His remark got me thinking. I knew that Austria had gained territory at Hungary’s expense because of Trianon, but I had never thought much about it until a couple of years earlier when I traveled around the eastern end of Austria, in the region that is known today as the Burgenland. The map I was using on that trip showed multiple names for towns, one was in German, another in Hungarian and a third in Croatian. It became rather obvious to me that this was a region with multiple layers of complex ethnic issues from a not so distant past. This was when I first became cognizant of the fact that Austria had been given the Burgenland in the Treaty of Trianon. I assumed that was because it was filled with ethnic Germans. Like everything else in the post-World War I peace process, that was true but not without a complicated caveat..

Anyone’s Guess – A Nation Being Born
Why had I not heard more about Hungary losing what is now eastern Austria? To my mind, there were two reasons, size and economic development. Size certainly matters when it comes to the memory of the land losses that Hungary suffered due to Trianon. Hungary lost 14 times less territory to Austria than it did to Romania, 8 times less to Czechoslovakia and 3 times less to Yugoslavia because of the treaty. Economic development also matters. I have a suspicion that many Hungarians, at least in the far western part of the nation, might wish that their towns and villages had ended up on the Austrian side of the border. The Iron Curtain, which ran along the Austria-Hungary border among many other areas, cut the Hungarians off from a market oriented economy for four decades. During that time, Austrian incomes soared. Many Hungarians probably spent a good deal of time wondering why their country could not have been more like Austria. They could be forgiven for looking enviously on ethnic Hungarians, who by historical accident found themselves living in the Burgenland. They had been lucky enough to end up on the right side of the border. Capitalism triumphed over communism, which explains a great deal about the difference between western Hungary and eastern Austria. At least that is one way of looking at the situation from a 21st century perspective.

Mixed Loyalties - Bilingual (German-Croatian) sign in Burgenland village

Mixed Loyalties – Bilingual (German-Croatian) sign in Burgenland village (Credit: Mihaly)

Going back to the period just after the First World War ended provides a much different context. The situation at that time for both Austria and Hungary happened to be difficult at best. Neither nation was in a desirable negotiating position vis a vis their enemies nor their former Allies. The Austria that exists today, prosperous, neat and orderly is a far cry from the Austria of 1919. The nation, if anyone could have even called it that at the time, was the core rump of the old Habsburg Empire. Glittering imperial Vienna was now an unruly city beset by revolutionary angst. The people were half-starved, the workers on the verge of full scale revolt and the political environment was incendiary. The outlying provinces (those that make up Austria today) were not much better off.

Carinthia was a hotbed of ethnic unrest between ethnic Germans and Slovenes. The Tyrol was on the verge of falling under Italian control, something ethnic Germans in the northern part of the region found intolerable. Those who lived in the Voralberg in far western Austria were hoping to be absorbed into Switzerland. And then there was far western Hungary, which had a majority population of ethnic Germans wondering what would happen to them. Nothing was clear by the middle of 1919. All anyone knew was that both Austria and Hungary were on the verge of irreparable change. What that change would look like was anyone’s guess.

Click here for: Forced Separation – German West Hungary & The Burgenland: Austria vs. Hungary (Part Two)

Makers of Destiny, Makers of Disaster – The Millennium of Hungary National Exhibition (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #8b)

The Millennium of Hungary National Exhibition is more than a book or an album of photographs. It is a 19th century supersized version of an art exhibition catalog. It is the Kingdom of Hungary on steroids. The photos displayed on its pages were a thousand years in the making. The exhibition represented something besides people, places and structures, it was also a symbolic celebration of the self-confidence, some might say arrogance, of Hungary and Hungarians at their peak. I found it to be both enthralling and depressing. Enthralling, to think how all everything documented on those pages had once been in a single country, under a two headed empire that managed to keep a towering babel from toppling under the weight of its own contradictions. Depressing, to know that it could never be reclaimed except on these same pages. Here was the photographic memory of an entire kingdom that no longer existed, at least not in this form. 1896 was more than a year of celebration in Hungary, it was the pinnacle by which everything else in Hungarian history would be measured. The memory of the Millennium Exhibition still has the power to mesmerize.

Lost Glory - Detail from 1896 poster for the Hungarian Millennium National Exhibition

Lost Glory – Detail from 1896 poster for the Hungarian Millennium National Exhibition

On The Verge – A Problem That Refused To Go Away
The Millennium of Hungary book unravels a roadmap to a specific mentality that existed in late 19th century Hungary. The only thing the book lacks is a retroactive blurb on the back cover that would invite the curious to: “Follow the path laid out through photos and text to discover how Hungarians saw themselves and their kingdom at the turn of the 20th century.” Proud and boastful, confident even in their insecurities and assuming what they believed was their rightful place among the great nations of Europe, this is the attitude that pervades those beautiful pages. To be honest, much of this is understandable, 1896 was a heady moment for Hungarians. At this point in their long and deeply conflicted history they were free of foreign control. The thought process went something like this: now that the yoke of oppression from Ottoman and Austrian overlords had finally been cast aside after three and a half centuries of misrule, the Hungarians had risen to their rightful place. The uncanny thing was that they were right, but little did they know that their Kingdom was reaching the pinnacle of its power.

Within a generation the millennial celebration, like the kingdom itself, would become an anachronism. It is hard to believe that a people, a thousand year old kingdom and an ideal, could fall so far, so fast. It is easy to blame it all on the First World War, an event that once started, was seemingly beyond anyone’s control. While the war did take on a logic all its own, that ignores the fact that Hungarians had their own logic as well. The book claims that they were the makers of their own destiny. If that is true, then it is equally true that they could be the makers of their own disaster. For all the impressive accomplishments splayed across the book’s pages, it cannot completely obscure the chronic problems that plagued the Kingdom. The most volatile of these was the nationalities issue, an unquiet ghost that materializes in several of the photos, a haunting reminder of a problem, like the peoples who represented them, that refused to go away.

Makers of Destiny - Vadjahunyad Castle re-creation in Varosliget for Hungarian Millennium

Makers of Destiny – Vadjahunyad Castle re-creation in Varosliget for Hungarian Millennium (Credit: Landwirtschaftliches Museum-Brück & Sohn Kunstverlag)

“Well To Do”  – Causes With Consequences
The nationalities issue is vividly portrayed in the most patronizing of manners in one of the photographs and accompanying text. On the photo page for the Romanian Dwelling House, we see a “well to do” peasant family standing in front of a home with thatched roof and a single outbuilding. Whatever “well to do” meant in a countryside not far removed from serfdom, it looks like hard work. Grinding out a living on the land was anything but easy. The text describes Romanians as “quick-witted, their customs are modest and their wants easily satisfied.” The reader is assured that, “they are steadily advancing in culture under the brotherly protection of the Hungarians.” Well that was one way of putting it. The Romanians, like the Serbs and Slovaks, were restive minorities that were becoming increasingly aware of how marginalized they were in the Kingdom. One might discern from the text that their rightful place was eking out an existence via agriculture. The professional classes, parliament and politics were largely closed off to them.

Of the many photos found in the book, that of the Romanian Dwelling House is one of the most arresting. That is mainly because it portrays Romanians the way Hungary’s government at the time viewed them, contentedly rural, non-threatening yeoman who were economically backward. In other words, their place in the pecking order was on the lower rung. Nothing is said of the festering resentment that marked the Kingdom’s relations with them. The nationalities were viewed as “subjects” rather than fellow citizens. Those innocent looking peasants dressed in what amounts to antiquated folk custom would help bring the Kingdom of Hungary to its knees. The greatest strengths of the Kingdom, industriousness, technological progress, a reverence for tradition and fierce pride to the point of chauvinism were reserved for Hungarians or those who would give themselves up to Magyarization. In that sense, the Millennium of Hungary book is a photographic and literary record of the successes and failures, the causes and conflicts that led to the Kingdom’s collapse. The cataclysm would come less than twenty-five years after the exhibition.

Distant Memory - Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest's City Park

Distant Memory – Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest’s City Park

Terrific & Tragic – From Enchantment To Disillusion
After an initial, mesmerizing glance through the book, I purchased it in Veszprem for a mere 2050 forints, the equivalent of seven and a half dollars. I still find myself flipping through its pages, by turns astonished, fascinated and saddened by the photos. Astonished, because the breadth of beauty and industry portrayed in the photos provides compelling evidence for the Kingdom’s greatness. Fascinated, because I can see how the Hungarians viewed themselves and the nationalities. And saddened because I know it will all come to an end soon. The seeds of the Kingdom’s eventual dissolution are planted on the book’s pages. It is a narrow, exclusive world built by and for Hungarians. For everyone else, including outsiders such as myself, entering the Kingdom as it is presented in this book, begins with enchantment and ends in disillusionment. The Millennium of Hungary National Exhibition is a terrific and tragic book.