The teaching of history often consists of little more than forcing students to memorize a seemingly endless litany of inane facts and dates. The connections and contexts which are so critical to historical understanding often get lost in a maze of minutia. This is unfortunate, because history is really about trying to understand human actions that have occurred in the past. Since these actions were committed by people, they are full of complexities and contradictions. Thus, it is hardly surprising, that history is an inexact science. It is very difficult to predict the future from what has happened in the past, precisely because human actions are quite unpredictable, even as they are influenced by the past. The small unassuming village of Paradsasvar tucked into the Matra Mountains of northern Hungary holds a structure and a life story that illustrates the complexities of one man who shaped history in the form of his own contradictory character.
Privilege, Splendor and Failure – The Karolyi Conundrum
Arriving in Paradsasvar visitors are almost immediately drawn to the Karolyi-kastely. This otherworldly creation of the famed architect Miklos Ybl is a contradiction in and of itself. For all intents and purposes the kastely is an imaginative concoction of wickedly steep roofs, including a turret not for defense, but decoration. Covered by a faded red coat of color trimmed in vibrant yellow, it is an architectural fiesta, nothing less than a celebration of opulence and eclecticism. The contradiction comes from the castle’s setting, surrounded by thick, dark forest. This confection of neoclassicism is the direct opposite of its cloistered natural setting.
Like the Kastely, its former owner is a contradiction as well. The castle was one of the many homes belonging to Mihaly Karolyi, one of the most controversial figures in Hungarian history. He was born at nearby Fot, into the immense wealth and prestige of the noble Karolyi family. The family was part of a stable of rich landowning aristocrats in the pre-World War I Kingdom of Hungary. These elites ran the country, enjoying vast political prestige and power. They were the crème de la crème of a rigid class system. Karolyi grew up in this world of wealth and privilege. He was something of a wastrel in his youth, squandering both opportunity and money in equal measure.
A Nightmare of Contradictions – Karolyi & the Common Man
In 1910 Karolyi was elected to parliament as a member of the opposition. Though opposed to many of the ruling government’s traditional policies, Karolyi like almost everyone else at the time supported Hungary’s entry into the First World War. As the war dragged on, Karolyi became extremely critical of the government in power. He was seen as something of a rebel. For instance, he supported the right to vote for war veterans and women. He also pushed for land reform. By today’s standards these views seem perfectly normal. Judging by those of early 20th century Hungary, he was an extreme radical, especially considering his aristocratic lineage.
And therein lay the contradiction, this man who had benefited from aristocratic birthright, who was a scion of one of Europe’s richest families, was advocating policies diametrically opposed to the nobility’s interests. He wanted to free the peasantry from the yoke of virtual serfdom, giving them land and rights they had never experienced before. Here was Mihaly Karolyi who lived in the most opulent circumstances imaginable fighting for the common man. Was his benevolence born of guilt? Was Karolyi trying to make up for his physical defects? After all, he spoke with a lisp and had been something of an outcast in aristocratic circles. Perhaps he was trying to get back at his own class. Was he a naive idealist who lacked the vision to see that his beliefs might actually bring about the Kingdom of Hungary’s disintegration? Was he a reckless wastrel who only knew how to squander power? Was he a visionary or a hypocrite? It is hard to say, but he certainly was a contradiction.
Chaos & Dissolution – Karolyi at the Helm
The cliché that character is destiny certainly holds true in Karolyi’s case. His character informed his short, unhappy term at the helm of a Hungary thrown into chaos by loss of the war. He was given the reins of power at the single worst possible moment. Just days after the war ended, with the Kingdom crumbling, Karolyi took charge of the government. He expressed the same idealistic beliefs of the victorious allies, self-determination and a peace free of reparations. He trusted the British and French to believe that he, Mihaly Karolyi could not only right the wrongs of the past, but also lead Hungary toward the bright uplands of liberal democracy. He would extend the franchise beyond the meager six percent of the male population that were allowed to vote. He would give land to the peasants. He even set a stirring example by dividing his own estates up for the peasants.
Meanwhile, the Allies pretty much ignored Karolyi. He had decided to disband the Hungarian Army, a fatal mistake. The Romanians, Czechs and Serbs soon invaded Hungary. Karolyi’s government was a disaster. In power for only a matter of months, he ended up turning the nation over to the communists which was an even greater disaster. The upshot was chaos and dissolution. Hungary eventually was forced to sign the Treaty of Trianon, losing two-thirds of its land and population. Nothing was ever the same again. Karolyi had been at the helm when the chaos was at its worst and he suffered much of the blame.
The Grand Delusion
It is hard not to look at the Karolyi-kastely, with its fantasy like appearance and wonder how in the world a man who once lived in this palatial mansion, surrounded by natural beauty and material bounty could have ever involved himself in such misguided radicalism. Perhaps the castle offers a clue. It looks like a fantasy and contradicts its natural surroundings. This is much like Karolyi himself, who while surrounded by the glitter of wealth and aristocratic splendor fomented the cause of radical socialism. Karolyi was enchanted by what turned out to be nothing more than a grand delusion. His life, his politics and Karolyi-kastely are filled with contradiction and complexity, reflective of the competing impulses that ruled and wrecked his life.