Villages in Hungary are strikingly similar. There are usually several blocks of houses in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. The tallest structure is almost always a church with its steeple visible from just beyond the village limits. Behind wooden gates large dogs bark at the slightest hint of movement. Transport around the village is usually done with a bicycle or on foot rather than by car. The streets and sidewalks are cracked, but still walkable. And close to the center, there is almost always a four sided monument with a soldier atop it. These memorials honor those soldiers killed in the First World War serving in the Hungarian Landwehr (Royal Hungarian Honved) fighting for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
A Frightening Lethality – The Great War & Hungary
The monuments are a stark reminder of the toll that the war took on Hungary. For example, in Fertod a village of no more than 200 inhabitants, there are 36 names listed on the monument to the “Great War.” Some might take offense to the word “Great” to describe the war. That was the name given to it because these monuments were installed in the 1920’s and 30’s before there was a Second World War. The war may have been “Great” for the victors, but it was the opposite of that for those who ended up on the losing side. It is hard to overstate the unmitigated disaster World War I was for Hungary.
Villages such as Fertod act as a measuring stick for the horrific loss of life that occurred in Hungary because of the war. The village was never much bigger than its present size. Thus the frightening lethality of the war and the exacting toll it took upon the community can be extrapolated by dividing the number of names on the monument from the population of the village. If thirty six men died at the front, that means every fourth family in Fertod lost a son, brother or husband. Everyone in the village would have personally known multiple men who died fighting at the front.
Last Testament – Hungarian Villages & the Memory of World War I
Consciousness for those Hungarian soldiers killed in the conflict still survives today, if barely. This happens most notably through the names inscribed on the Great War Monuments which can be found in almost every Hungarian town and village. The slabs of carved and sculptured stone are often topped with a soldier rushing towards an invisible foe. Some monuments show ladies with their heads bowed in mourning, silently grieving for the lost sons, brothers, fathers and husbands. These monuments are the last testaments to those who gave their lives. They are the only thing left standing between grief and oblivion when it comes to historical memory of the common Honved soldier’s sacrifice during the war.
Often military history is viewed through the prism of “great men” or “decisive battles.” But what courage could “great men” have possessed that the average Honved soldier did not? On a personal level, what implications of a “decisive battle” can compete with the loss of a loved one? Were the upheavals in Hungary after World War I caused by anonymous social and economic forces or because good men died fighting for empire, honor and homeland? By the latter part of 1918 the ranks of men who could have defended Hungary against their gathering enemies had been decisively thinned.
War on the the Unconscious – Remembering World War I in Hungary
To a foreigner, all those monuments to Honved soldiers lost in the First World War come as a shock. World War II dominates historical discussions of the 20th century. Hitler, the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor, D-Day, the Battle of Berlin and Hiroshima are all common topics in history classes worldwide. The First World War has become a forgotten afterthought or at best, is given a handful of pages in a history textbook. The monuments in Hungary say something quite different. The centrality of the war in the history of modern Hungary cannot be overstated. In those village squares, with their endless lists of Nagys and Vargas, Baloghs and Banffys, it seems the war was lost over many years, in many battles, with thousands upon thousands suffering. Their names are both known and unknown, but even the known are so numerous as to render them numbingly faceless. The final result was not decided by brilliant maneuvers or heroic leadership, but by the sheer weight of numbers. By this reckoning Hungary nearly lost it all. The monuments tell this story in row upon etched row of names.
In the wake of this overwhelming loss is it any wonder that Hungary was thrown into chaos. Radical forces extolling the virtues of communism, fascism and even royalism all reared their ugly heads in a Pandora’s Box of competing ideologies. When the armies of these rival movements appeared, all those men who could have defended their villages had long since perished in burned out fortresses such as Przemysl, disappeared into the marshes of Galicia, froze to death in the snowy passes of the Carpathians, shattered by splintering stone on the rocky ledges of the Italian Alps or slowly succumbed in the squalor that of prisoner of war camps on the Russian steppes. In those forlorn locales, blood soaked the soil and consecrated the ground with human stains that would soon disappear, much like the ideals of honor, glory and heroism had on the battlefield.
One Life At A Time
Meanwhile back in Hungary all that remained were empty beds, unplowed fields and a deep, penetrating grief. An all-consuming silence was pervasive in the years that followed. Those villagers left behind passed weeks, months and years without end and without loved ones. And at dates that are now lost to history, the monuments were dedicated as a reminder of those who vanished forever at the front. These monuments are now all that is left in those quiet little towns and villages. Places where the losses of a nation can still be counted one life at a time.