Sopron, known as “the most historic town in Hungary”, is a medium sized city of 60,000 located on the extreme western edge of Hungary, within just a few minutes of the Austrian border. Sopron’s catchphrase did not come easily. Its status as “most historic” is due to what did not happen there historically, as opposed to what did happen throughout the rest of Hungary on multiple occasions. The city was NOT ravaged by the Mongols in the 13th century, NOT taken by the Turks in the 16th or 17th centuries and it was left virtually untouched by the Austrians during the imposition of Habsburg Imperial rule. It even managed to avoid the worst excesses of the fighting at the tail end of World War II. Sopron seems to have pulled a Houdini act on Hungarian history, escaping the ravages of conquerors, rulers, invaders and of all things, peace treaties. Treaties brought about 20th century Hungary’s lowest point. This was a conquest by the stroke of pens rather than swords.
A Diabolical Irony – To The Defeated Goes The…
Famously, the Treaty of Trianon gave approximately two-thirds of Historic Hungary to Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Yet there was another treaty which is rarely spoken of, but also partitioned a slice of Hungary. The Treaty of St. Germain-en-Laye gave the Burgenland, a German speaking part of extreme western Hungary, to Austria. This was an extremely bitter pill for Hungarians to swallow. After all, it was Austria that had led the Dual Monarchy into the Great War, a conflict that brought an end to both the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Historic Hungary. In a mind boggling paradox Hungary was being forced to hand over territory to an erstwhile ally that had played the leading role in its defeat. Here was an exceedingly rare case of “to the defeated goes the spoils.” To paraphrase a bit of Orwellian logic, “all defeated countries were equal, but some defeated countries were more equal than others.”
In his memoirs, The Phoenix Land, the famous writer and Foreign Minister of Hungary during this time Miklos Banffy states the situation as, “a diabolical irony. For centuries Hungarians had fought successfully to defend Hungarian land from Austria; but now, when the Allies had broken up the Austrian Empire, it was demanded of us that we should surrender to Austria land that had always been ours…This was a most perverse idea. It seems to have originated in the desire of the victorious powers to drive a wedge between Hungary and Austria…” It looked like Hungary was fighting yet another lost cause. In the case of Sopron, it turned out differently. Here would be that rarest of instances, where Hungary was actually victorious during the 20th century. A small victory, improbably won considering the historical context of the times.
Loyalty, Faith & History – All Along The (Firewatch) Tower
The Hungarians negotiated a plebiscite to take place among Sopron’s citizens. This would decide whether the city wanted to be part of Hungary or Austria. The odds of a victory were not exactly in favor of Hungary. The last pre-war census taken of the city in 1910 showed that Sopron’s population was 51% ethnic German, 44% Hungarian. It probably helped matters for Hungary that there were independent Hungarian led militias in the area, answerable to no government. Though violence was minimal, the psychological effect of such force offered a hidden incentive for Sopron to vote for Hungary. The plebiscite was held just eleven days prior to Christmas in the winter of 1921. 65% of the citizens voted to keep Sopron and eight surrounding villages in Hungary. Sopron was given the title (depending upon the translation) “the Most Loyal” or “the Most Faithful” town.
What Hungary gained can still be seen today as Sopron’s historic architecture is largely intact. The city’s Belvaros (inner city) is packed with buildings constructed in Baroque style. Out of 115 monuments and 240 listed historic buildings one of the most famous is also one of the tallest, the Firewatch Tower. The guards who staffed the tower for centuries not only kept a watch out for fires, but they also blew trumpets from the balcony every 15 minutes to keep the city’s citizens informed of the time. That’s quite a lot of trumpeting! Unfortunately, the Firewatch Tower guards could not stop the great fire of 1676 that would consume the upper half of the structure. That fire also burnt much of the original city to the ground. The rebuilding that followed, successfully meshed one architectural style with another. The tower’s base is built on the old Roman town wall. The cylindrical lower half goes back to the 12th century and is quintessentially medieval in character. The tower is then topped off by a Baroque balcony and helm roof. That’s nearly two millennia of history incorporated in a single structure. It can be said that the most historic town in Hungary also has one of the most historic structures.
The Heart Of A Nation
The Firewatch Tower is the place to get magnificent views of Sopron’s Belvaros (inner city). Looking out over its Baroque elegance one can see why the Hungarians wanted to keep this city part of their nation. The beauty and elegance on offer along these winding, cobblestones streets is aesthetically pleasing. It can almost lead one to believe that historically little has ever been lost by Hungary. An illusion for sure, but an alluring one nonetheless. Sopron can never make up for all that was lost of Historic Hungary in the aftermath of the Great War, but it offers every Hungarian a bit of solace. Here on the very fringes of Hungary can be found the heart of a nation, faithful, self-confident, forever loyal.