The Ultimate Hungarian Love Affair – Empress Elisabeth: Falling At Her Feet

The more times I visited Hungary, the more I began to notice that very few women are commemorated by statues, monuments or memorials. Statues of such national denizens as Lajos Kossuth and Istvan Szechenyi can be found in every sizeable town. Monuments and memorials to those who fought and died in both World Wars grace the squares of even the smallest villages, but try to find one dedicated to the memory of a woman and your search will largely be in vain. Why is this? Many experts in culture have noted “Hungarian Chauvinism”, a tendency towards what might best be described as “bigheadedness”. In effect this means that Hungarians tend to put themselves above all others, this tendency manifests itself in a will to dominate. I remember having dinner with a Hungarian acquaintance several years ago, who leaned over and said in a particularly expressive manner “we love to dominate things.”

Hungarian chauvinism is usually noted in reference to the treatment of ethnic groups that once fell inside the borders of the Kingdom of Hungary, such as Slovaks, Romanians and Serbians. Since this chauvinism was political and Hungarian politics has always been dominated by men, this chauvinism may primarily be a male thing. Perhaps this goes some way in explaining the lack of women commemorated throughout the country. Whatever the case, finding a Hungarian female memorialized is a rare occurrence. This is ironic because Hungarian women are known for their remarkable beauty and style. Maybe it is because of an emphasis on the superficial that their accomplishments have been overlooked. Whatever the case there is at least one woman whose presence is front and center in the hearts of Hungarians. And this woman was not even a Hungarian.

Elisabeth as Queen of Hungary

Elisabeth as Queen of Hungary (Credit: Emil Rabending)

“Friend of the Hungarian People” – The Eternal Queen
In the center of Budapest, laid across the Danube River, stands the Elisabeth Bridge named after Elisabeth, Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary or as she is most famously known, Sisi. There is no more beloved woman in all of Hungary. Elisabeth was the wife of Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef, a man who was reviled in the wake of Austria’s victory over Hungary in the revolutionary uprising of 1848. The harsh reprisals carried out on the order of Franz Josef did little to endear him to the Hungarian nation. Less than two decades later, times had changed and Austria’s position as one of the great powers in Europe was threatened. Its power was waning due to the rise of Prussia. Austria needed a new partner to avoid being subsumed in what was soon to be the German Empire. Many historians and almost all Hungarians believe Elisabeth used her influence to persuade Franz Josef to compromise with Hungary. This led to the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867, setting off a golden age in Hungary which saw the country’s rapid economic and cultural transformation.

Coronation of Franz Joseph and Elisabeth as Apostolic King and Queen of Hungary

Coronation of Franz Joseph and Elisabeth as Apostolic King and Queen of Hungary (Credit: Edmund Tull)

Elisabeth’s love for Hungary was a reflection of her extraordinary relationship with Count Gyula Andrassy. She admired Andrassy as the essence of rugged, exotic manhood. Their platonic romance (some believe it may have been more than that) helped unite the two nations. For her role, Elisabeth forever became known as a “friend of the Hungarian people.” And she was certainly fond of them, going so far as learning to speak the exceedingly difficult Hungarian language. Elisabeth was most at home in Hungary, far away from the stifling court protocol of Vienna. Her home away from home was the palace of Godollo, just 20 miles northeast of Budapest. It was a gift to her and her husband from the Hungarian people following their coronation in 1867. Godollo was a place where Elisabeth was free to be herself. She remarked that “Here no one disturbs me, as if I were living in a village where I can come and go as I please.” The Hungarian people reciprocated the love shown to them by Elisabeth. It is not a stretch to say that she was the most popular woman in Hungary at the time and probably still is today.

Thus it is no surprise that the most prominent statue of a female in Hungary is the one of Queen Elisabeth which now stands on the Buda side of the Danube, adjacent to the bridge that is also named for her. The fact that this statue still stands illustrates the reverence and respect Elisabeth has been given by Hungarians. Getting the statue up in the first place was a long and drawn out process. Following Elisabeth’s death a million crowns was quickly raised to erect a statue dedicated to the memory of her. Raising money was the easy part, selecting a winning design proved much more difficult. It took five competitions over a twenty year period yielding over one hundred and thirty designs before a winning design was selected. Then there was another interminable delay caused by confusion over where the statue would be located. Among the choices were multiple spots on Castle Hill in Buda and the City Park in Pest. It was eventually decided to place it on the Pest side of the Danube adjacent to the bridge also named after Elisabeth.

Queen Elisabeth statue in Budapest

Queen Elisabeth statue in Budapest

An Undying Love – Elisabeth By The Danube
In 1932, over three decades after it was first conceived, the statue was dedicated, but it would not stay at its original location. Oddly, it was not until the end of Hungary’s hard line Stalinst era in 1953 that the statue was removed.  Elisabeth’s statue may have been mothballed, but the communists could not bring themselves to destroy it. Despite the fact that she was a royal princess, everything the communists professed to loathe, the statue was kept in what turned out to be long term storage. It finally reappeared, oddly enough not after, but before the Iron Curtain fell. In 1986 the statue took another prominent position beside the Danube. Thirty-three years after its removal the statue rematerialized, on the opposite side of the Danube at Dobrentei ter where it can still be found today. The statue of Elisabeth sculpted in stone looks positively radiant, just as she did when all of Hungary fell for her 150 years ago. On the banks of the Danube that love affair continues.

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