What History Did To Hungary – The Phoenix Land (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #6)

“The true use of history is not external, but internal. Not what you can do with history, but what history does to you” – Jacques Barzin

Hungarians in exile, Hungarians abroad, this has been a reoccurring theme for the past one hundred sixty years in Hungary. Whether it was because of failed revolutions (1848 and 1956), seeking better opportunities abroad (the late 19th/early 20th century & 21st century since EU membership) or fleeing radical ideologies and chaotic political upheaval (post World War I, World War II and the immediate years thereafter), on numerous occasions Hungarians have found themselves far, far away from their homeland. Despite this dislocation or perhaps because of it, they have used their creative talents to make a name for themselves. Hungarians provided much of the brain power behind the atomic bomb, the moon and mars rover, supersonic flight, jet propulsion, full length motion pictures and Microsoft Office to name just a few of their innovations. Even personalities as famous and disparate as Joseph Pulitzer and Harry Houdini were both originally from Hungary.

This seems almost too good to be true. It makes one wonder what would have occurred if all those famous Hungarians who went abroad could have stayed in their homeland, what heights might the country have attained? Hungarians are justly proud of their fellow countrymen’s accomplishments abroad. Conversely, there is rarely any discussion of Hungarians who returned to their homeland. This is something which is rarely spoken of, if ever. In today’s installment of A Trip Around My Bookshelf, we will learn about some Hungarians who returned from abroad, the near abroad of Transylvania in the first case and the trenches of World War I in the second. In both of these cases the central figure is Miklos Banffy, as both subject and recorder of changes  that would roil 20th century Hungary.

Miklos Banffy as photographed in 1912

Miklos Banffy as photographed in 1912

One Hungarian who was cut asunder from the nation and also went abroad for a time was the author Miklos Banffy (1873 – 1950). Banffy left his homeland for a short time and was something of an internal exile through no fault of his own, since Hungary lost Transylvania in the peace which followed World War I. Many people who are quite knowledgable about Hungary have never heard of Banffy, that is such a shame. Miklos Banffy was born into one of the pre-eminent aristocratic families in Transylvania, back when it was an integral part of the Kingdom of Hungary. He was an incredibly talented writer, artist and politician. He wrote one of the great works of period literature, what is known as The Transylvania Trilogy, a three volume set of novels under the stark titles, They Were Found Wanting, They Were Counted and They Were Divided. The books follow the life and times of Transylvanian aristocracy from the turn of the 20th century up to the outbreak of the First World War. We get to know not only a cast of characters whose tragic excesses, love affairs and  aristocratic traditions are the essence of great drama, but also a people who are inextricably attached to a land which seems to almost be a physical part of them. Fortunately one of Banffy’s descendants saw fit to have these books translated into English. The trilogy is now readily available for purchase in the English language sections of good Hungarian bookstores, in addition to online.

Somewhat hidden in the shadow of this towering literary achievement is Banffy’s other book, The Phoenix Land. The name metaphorically implies the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes, just as Hungary rose from the calamity of World War I, the chaotic aftermath of revolution and counter-revolution which followed and the disastrous Treaty Of Trianon whereby Hungary lost over two-thirds of its land and population, including Transylvania. Banffy was named the foreign minister for a time following the war. He offers insight into the negotiations and political machinations that took place in order to keep the country from totally falling apart. These memoirs deal with the interwar years, as the Hungarians attempt to deal with the shocking reality of defeat, occupation and dismemberment. This is not just a memoir of a man, it is also the memoir of a national trauma. Banffy is both insider and outsider. He no longer has his country, but his country will forever have him. The same could be said of the relationship between Hungary and Transylvania, even today. The exile of over a million ethnic Hungarians is all the more painful because of the mother nation’s close proximity. Banffy and his fellow Transylvanians do not have an ocean or a continent separating them from their mother country, they only have an invisible political barrier, a border. It is a scar that all Hungarians live with. The Phoenix Land is much more an interpretation of mental rather than physical scars.

The Last Coronation - Emperor Charles, Empress Zita and Crown Prince Otto

The Last Coronation – Emperor Charles, Empress Zita and Crown Prince Otto

The only part of the book which does not deal with the interwar years may also be its best. Banffy describes with eloquence and melancholy what became the final coronation of a Habsburg monarch.  In late 1916, long time Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef died after sixty-eight years on the throne, the last forty-nine of which saw him lead the Dual Monarchy as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. With his death a new coronation was quickly arranged. This event would crown his great nephew Charles as the new monarch.  He would become King Charles IV (Emperor Charles I). Banffy was in charge of planning, organizing and staging the coronation which took place at the Matyas Church in Budapest on December 30, 1916.

It was at this final coronation that the coming fate of the Kingdom of Hungary was foretold by an unanticipated scene, one that is hardly known, yet symbolic of the state of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at that time. In this historic moment we find Hungarians, specifically the Knights of the Golden Spur returning from the trenches in order to be present at the coronation. The coronation ceremony itself was steeped in tradition and protocol. Soon after it begins, Charles had the Holy Crown of Hungary and St. Stephen’s robe placed upon him. He then retired along with his wife, Queen Zita, to the sacristy. Soon he was to step outside and take the royal oath. Before this though, with the church now empty, protocol took precedence. Suddenly the ghostly Knights of the Golden Spur appeared to receive accolades from the newly crowned king.  Banffy describes what happened next:

“There must have been about fifty of them, all officers coming from service in the front lines. Most of them were in iron-grey uniforms, faded, mended, with worn leather belts and blackened straps…In the forefront were men with wooden legs leaning on crutches, limping, knocking against each other, coughing and breathing heavily with the effort of movement. Through that side door and out into the glow before the altar there poured all the sad grey tragedy of war to flood the space where a few moments before all had been shine and glitter.
No one spoke. They were all utterly silent, not a word passing between them. All of them just stood there, looking straight ahead with a stare that was both eloquent and at the same time passive. Their eyes were the eyes of men who, day after day, looked death in the face.”

The King, crowned with St. Stephen’s Crown and wearing St. Stephen’s mantle, now came back into the church and ascended the throne. The first name was called out. A grey broken ruin of a man pulled himself up on two crutches. An orderly rushed to his side to prevent him falling and guided him forward. At the steps of the throne he faltered just as St. Stephen’s Sword touched his shoulder the ritual three times. Then he was lifted to his feet and, supported by his orderly, tottered away.”

The entire ceremony was a metaphor, but not for traditional imperial principles. Instead, the glittering coronation represented what the Kingdom of Hungary had been. Then suddenly the Knights of the Golden Spur appear and represent the stark reality of what the Kingdom has become: broken, feeble, on its last legs. The end is near. The future will be a different place, where nothing will ever be the same. The resplendent beauty of the empire is now transitory, fading fast. The Dual Monarchy is disintegrating at the front and the soldier’s scars, bear witness to the mortal wound that the Habsburg Empire has suffered. Reading this, it is much easier to understand what happened in the years that followed. The monarchy dissolved, Hungary’s best and brightest had been killed or irreparably wounded at the front fighting for an ideal that had been vanquished. This was foretold by those Knights of the Golden Spur who had returned to the homeland. Perhaps we should now acknowledge the ultimate Hungarian exile of the 20th century, the monarchy. It left, never to return and nothing has been the same since then. Ironically, it was returnees, the Knights of the Golden Spur and Miklos Banffy, who foretold the future and what was to come.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s