The Rise & Fall, The Fall & Rise – The History of a City, The History of a Nation: Miskolc & Hungary

Miskolc, the name evokes dirty thoughts among many Hungarians. This is not due to any kind of moral outrage that has taken place in northeastern Hungary’s largest city. Instead Miskolc has a reputation as a well past its prime, dying industrial wasteland, pockmarked by the residue of a failed planned economy.  A once thriving center for heavy industry, Miskolc was hit harder than any Hungarian city after the fall of Communism.

An abandoned factory in Miskolc - one of many

An abandoned factory in Miskolc – one of many

Forging A New Hungary – Miskolc’s Mighty Industry
Growth exploded in Miskolc following World War II. It became the predominant provincial industrial center in Hungary, a leader in iron production and metalworking.  In a nation whose post-war economy turned away from agriculture, Miskolc became the poster child for a city transformed by heavy industry. Between 1945 and 1980, the population of the city doubled as thousands moved in from the countryside to take relatively good paying factory jobs that offered secure employment. Miskolc became the second largest city in Hungary. An offshoot of this growth was the construction of tower apartment blocks on the city’s western side. Meanwhile, government subsidization kept the factories running at full speed, even if they would have been uncompetitive in a less controlled economic environment. Two-thirds of city workers were employed in heavy industry. This over reliance on an industrial economy came back to bite the city with a vengeance when the socialist era came to an end.

The long post-war boom brought relative prosperity to Miskolc - along with endless rows of apartment blocks

The long post-war boom brought relative prosperity to Miskolc – along with endless rows of apartment blocks

Once the free market arrived at the beginning of the 90’s, the city’s population began to plummet. Now the economy of post-communist Miskolc had to compete with the western world on the free market. Without government subsidies whole industrial sectors collapsed when faced with stiff competition. Hungary’s heavy industrial enterprises had been highly inefficient and wasteful. Jobs and wages could no longer be guaranteed, in fact jobs became scarce. Unemployment soared and the exodus to Budapest and further abroad began. Miskolc’s population suffered an alarming decline. In the twenty year period between 1990 and 2010, the city lost 40,000 people, nearly 20% of the population. Factories closed down as protected industries had virtually no chance against efficient western enterprises.  A period of darkness and despair set in as abandoned factories multiplied across what was now a post-industrial urban cityscape. Miskolc had been a consistently rising phoenix in the four decades that had followed the Second World War, now its wings had been clipped. It floundered amid the ashes of an economic plan laid waste by centralization, subsidization and above all else, inefficiency.

Memorial to the Great Flood of 1878 in Miskolc - the worst in Hungary during the 19th century (Credit: Serinde)

Memorial to the Great Flood of 1878 in Miskolc – the worst in Hungary during the 19th century (Credit: Serinde)

A Succession Of Calamities – Miskolc’s Ill Fated Past
Yet upheaval and change were nothing new to Miskolc. By historical standards the problems of the late 1990’s looked mild by comparison. Going back almost five hundred years, the history of Miskolc seems to be one calamity after another. In 1544 the Ottoman Turks burnt Miskolc to the ground. If that was not bad enough they then exacted heavy tribute on a regular basis from what was left of the city for the next 130 years.  Austrian rule turned out to be less than a saving grace. While much of Hungary began the process of redevelopment following the ouster of the Turks, Miskolc got caught up in the War of Independence (1703 – 1711) against Habsburg rule. Halfway through the war, Miskolc suffered devastating destruction at the hands of the Habsburgs. Yet the city managed to rebound and soon became the center for county government.  Destruction and regeneration seemed to be engage in a historical competition to define Miskolc.

In each succeeding century since the Middle Ages, Miskolc has been struck by catastrophe. The late 19th century, a golden age for Hungary, was anything but for Miskolc. In the late 1870’s two tragedies occurred. First a cholera epidemic in 1873 depleted the populace. Five years later the “Great Flood” of 1878 destroyed much of the city.  The flood was the deadliest in Hungary during the 19th century.  That is really saying something when one considers the numerous times that the Danube burst its banks prior to the advent of flood control. In Miskolc’s case, the Sziva and Pece streams overflowed, wrecking the inner town. Yet this crisis was also an opportunity for urban renewal. There are parallels here with what happened to the Hungarian city of Szeged which was destroyed by the flooding Tisza a year later. In the twenty years that followed the “Great Flood”, the city’s population doubled. The heart of the city was reconstructed with many fine buildings of Art Nouveau and Eclectic architecture.

Cave bath in Miskolctapolca - time to relax and see what happens next

Cave bath in Miskolctapolca – time to relax and see what happens next

The Modern History of Miskolc: Falling Upwards
Miskolc’s rise continued in fits and starts during the first half of the 20th century. The city somehow kept on making the best of bad situations. If things were bad in Hungary during that conflicted century, then quite paradoxically Miskolc seemed to thrive. Following the vast losses of Hungarian territory that the nation experienced due to the post World War I Treaty of Trianon, Miskolc rather than Kassa (annexed to Czechoslovakia – known as Kosice) became the economic center of northeastern Hungary. When hardline Stalinist industrial policy reshaped Hungary for the worse in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Miskolc began its long boom, a boom that would not last. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, hailed all over Eastern Europe, Miskolc’s current travails began in earnest.

The present situation of the city is one of economic stagnation. Locals can take heart though by looking back at Miskolc’s star crossed past. The rise and fall cycle historically has been replaced by an opposite effect. The city does have quite a bit to recommend it today. Its location on the edge of the magnificent Bukk Hills has brought a mini boom in tourism. The wonderful Barlangfurdo (Cave Bath) in Miskolctapolca (suburb of the city) has brought thermal spa enthusiasts from all over Europe. A student population of over 14,000 gives a vitality and optimism to the city that is palpable to those who look beyond the remnants of heavy industry. The seeds of a new economic and cultural life are beginning to sprout. That being said, Miskolc best be wary. Over the last five centuries any spurt in progress has been followed by unforeseen and often deleterious circumstances.  In that way, it is a reflection of its parent nation. Miskolc still has far to go in order to retain its former prosperity. The journey is likely to be filled with ups and down, anything but dull. The same could also be said of Hungary as a whole.

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