Of all the lands lost by Hungary in the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon, those defined as the sub-Carpathians are the least discussed. Today the region is part of southwestern Ukraine. This is a land defined as much by nature as by its people. It is a beautifully rugged landscape covered by thick woods and volcanic hills tucked into hidden, secluded valleys. Following World War I the area was placed in the new nation of Czechoslovakia. This placement did not even last two decades. Prior to the outbreak of World War II it was given back to Hungary by the Germans who were in the process of dismembering Czechoslovakia. By the end of the war it was occupied, as was all of Hungary, by the Soviet Army. It then became part of the Soviet Union. Following the dissolution of the Soviet state, it became part of Ukraine. This remote land was passed from one political entity to the next with little forethought as to the wants or needs of its population. The majority population was Ruthenian, a Slavic people who have become assimilated in the Ukrainian state and are known as such today.
Until World War II there was also a sizable Jewish population which actually constituted a majority in many towns, including Munkacs (Mukacheve, Ukraine). As for Hungarians, they were mostly found during the early 20th century as they are today in urban environments. The population of ethnic Hungarians in this region is approximately 150,000. Compared to the 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians in Romania or the 450,000 in Slovakia, those in Ukraine are unlikely to garner much notice. Nonetheless, just as in Romania and Slovakia, the Hungarian influence in this area is marked not just by the people, but also the region’s history. Their cultural heritage is still alive and dynamic. In Hungary, there is scant awareness of this land that was both lost to history and forgotten by memory. Nowhere does the Hungarian historical legacy in the sub-Carpathians come to prominence as dramatically as Palanok Castle in Munkacs (known as Mukachevo in Ukraine).
Deep History – Munkacs: Centuries and Millenniums
Today Munkacs is a city of 93,000 people. It is less than an hour’s drive from the border of northeastern Hungary. Far and away the large majority of the populace is Ukrainian. They make up 77% of the inhabitants. Meanwhile, a bit less than ten percent are ethnic Hungarians. A century ago, the demographic makeup was quite different. Munkacs was much smaller, but in those days it was no less a city. It had a population of 18,000, three-quarters of which were Hungarians, many of them Jewish. The area had first come into possession by the Hungarians when the first Magyar tribes arrived in the Carpathian Basin at the end of the 9th century. They entered the basin just sixty kilometers north of Munkacs, at the Verecke Pass. During the Middle Ages, Munkacs was made a Royal Free Town. This designation, along with its placement along the Latorica River, helped it become a hub for trade and merchantmen.
Yet it was many millenniums before, that Munkacs future prominence was decided. 68 meter (223 ft.) high Lamkova Hill was created by volcanic activity. This created a nearly impregnable outcropping, with clear lines of sight extending in every direction. Rulers of the area could not help, but notice. The first major constructions built atop this geological formation occurred under the direction of an early 14th century Lithuanian prince, Fedir Koriatovych. Koriatovych was the first of many nobles who made what would become Palanok Castle their home. These included no less a personage than Janos Hunyadi, Regent of Hungary, famed for defeating the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Nandorfehervar (Belgrade) in 1458.
Bastion of Defense – The Fight For Independence
The most interesting period in the castle’s history occurred when it became a center for military activity during the Hungarian fight to stay independent of Habsburg rule. Munkacs had formerly been attached to Transylvania in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which had helped guarantee it a degree of independence even as the Ottoman Turks reigned supreme over much of Hungary. When the Turks were finally ousted, the Habsburgs looked to extend their hegemony over all historic Hungarian lands. The notable freedom fighter, Ferenc Rakoczi II made the Palanok Castle his base in what became known as Rakoczi’s War of Independence (1703 – 1711). Like so much of Hungarian history Rakoczi and his forces resisted valiantly, but it was to no avail. The Habsburgs broke their resistance and Rakoczi fled into exile. In 1726, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI granted the castle along with several hundred villages in the area as an estate to the noble, Lothar Franz Von Schonborn who had helped put the emperor on the throne. The Schonborn family kept the castle up until the early 20th century. During much of that time it served as a prison. On one notable occasion, in 1805 -1806 it also served as a safe house for the Holy Crown of Hungary. It was taken there in order to protect it from theft by Napoleon’s forces.
The Walls of Palanok – Presence of the Past
The castle’s towering position above Munkacs offered it a high degree of protection across the centuries. This helped preserve the works for posterity. Today it is a historical monument that is open to visitors. The castle is made up of three parts: the low, middle and high. The towering presence of the entire complex would give any potential conqueror second thoughts. In its prime, the fortress sported no less than 164 cannon which could unload a fuselage of shot. This would be all the more deadly due to the force of their weighty plunge from the towering heights. Military engineering and technology, along with its natural situation, made it one of the most formidable works in the whole of historic Hungary.
Formidable yet forgotten, this is the lot of the sub-Carpathian lands that were once an integral part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Wild landscapes with an infusion of Hungarian history dot the area, nowhere more so than Munkacs. The sub-Carpathians are one of Europe’s least visited regions. The fortress at Munkacs makes a fantastic starting point for a visit. It showcases the presence of a past that is not so far or so distant. This is a place where history was shaped and formed by Hungarians. Their successes and failures can still be discerned behind the towering walls of Palanok Castle.