The sound of boots marching across the marble floors of Esterhaza announced that a new, more terrible era had come to this far corner of western Hungary. These ancestral lands of the Esterhazy family were being overrun, first by the Wehrmacht and then by the all-conquering Red Army. In comparison with past conflicts, the cataclysm to come was on an entirely different scale. Esterhaza had managed to escape the First World War unscathed, the Second was to be an entirely different matter. German and then Russian echoed down the corridors where Prince Miklos Esterhazy had once strolled in a diamond encrusted robe. In the ornate spaces where queens, princes and counts had once conversed, now officers, soldiers and nurses went about their duty with grim determination. The palace floors no longer sparkled or shined, they were now smeared with mud and dung. Areas that had once been the drawing rooms of women in the finest clothing and with the most impeccable manners had become temporary housing. The 126 rooms of Esterhaza were apportioned for armed forces on the move or soldiers so sick that they must have wondered if the last moments of their lives would be spent hundreds of kilometers east of Soviet soil.
Unexpected Guests – Lost In Place
Esterhaza was not built to withstand a war, instead the palace was irreparably modified by it. In 1945 the Germans suddenly arrived at its gates, unexpected guests on a hastily organized retreat. The palace was just a wayside stop on the long march to defeat. The Wehrmacht converted parts of Esterhaza into a military headquarters, a losing proposition if ever there was one. By this point the war was all but lost. The Germans were unsuccessfully scrambling to hold back the Red Army, which was preparing to invade Austria. The German stay at Esterhaza was short lived. They would soon be pushed out of the premises. The Soviets followed in their boot steps for what would be a much longer stay. They setup a military hospital for soldiers who were suffering from typhoid. The soldiers, whose ill health permitted an inordinately long stay, left traces of their presence which can still be seen today.
The most poignant part of my tour through Esterhaza was when the guide pointed out a drawing done by a convalescing Soviet soldier. Scrawled on a whitewashed stone wall were several airplanes that looked like they were in combat. A reminder of what one man had seen on his long journey from Soviet soil. Such artistic renderings were relatively innocuous reminders of the Red Army presence. It was what could no longer be seen that was more troubling. Almost all of the palace’s furniture had been carried off by the Soviets. Anything of even miniscule value was fair game for theft. The material possessions contained in the palace likely ended up flung out on some anonymous roadside, in a soldier or officer’s home or hidden away in a Soviet museum collection.
Consumed By Time & Fate – The Way It Had To Be
World War II did not put an end to Esterhaza, but it ushered in a new era that threatened the palace’s preservation. In 1946 a horticultural college was established in one wing of the palace. The Versailles like garden was converted into a fruit farm by the communists. The palace’s interior also underwent changes. The roof deteriorated until it was in a state of ruin. Rainstorms then drenched the palace interior, causing mildew and decay. The floors were rotting, the walls were peeling and the palace was in a state of dilapidation. A strange thing happened on the way to complete destruction, the Hungarian state, which now fully owned the property, decided it would undergo renovation. This process started in 1959 and was still going on over four decades later. On the day I toured Esterhaza, restoration work was in progress. It was a time consuming process, made more so by the rare skills needed by the artisans. Marble floors, Chinese paintings and recreating frescoes was just some of the restoration work that had already been done and there was much more to come. Finding those who could do such work was about as difficult as the work itself. Cost was also an impediment. Over four billion forints (Hungary’s currency) was spent trying to bring back a semblance of the glamor that Esterhaza once enjoyed.
The original creator of Esterhaza, Miklos the Magnificent, had set such a stratospherically high standard of luxury and haute couture that decades of restoration would never be able to recreate his original vision. This was lamentable, but also understandable. There could be only one Esterhaza in the history of Hungary, just as there could be only one Versailles in the history of France. What can be seen of either today is but a small approximation of the glory and gilded decadence of that time. To some Miklos was a visionary, a man whose striving for social ascendance brought world class art, architecture, music and culture to a rural netherworld. For others, Miklos was a wastrel, a rich aristocrat with limitless fiscal resources. He was able to realize the most fantastical ideas at the expense of thousands of serfs who labored on his lands. Neither view is incorrect. He was a great man, but like all great men terribly flawed. Esterhaza Palace reflects the man as much as the age.
Never To Return – Family Connections
The tour of Esterhaza left me wanting more. Perhaps it was the language barrier (I hardly understood a word the guide said in Hungarian) or all those vacant rooms, but I wanted to know more about what had happened at Esterhaza, especially during World War II and in its immediate aftermath. I wanted to know what had happened to all those members of the Esterhazy family that had once reigned supreme over much of western Hungary and eastern Austria. For centuries it seemed like they owned everything and everyone in this land. And then suddenly it was gone, never to return, at least to their ownership. I wondered what had happened to the heirs who were supposed to inherit Esterhaza? They had vanished, like the palace furnishings had vanished, but whereas the furnishings were shipped east, the Esterhazy’s had been banished to the west. What became of them? I imagined they had turned out much like Esterhaza, their lives filled with the glitter of lost glory.