Prisoner To The Past – Mihaly Tanscis Radical Of The 1848 Revolution (For The Love of Hungary – Part 9)

March 15th is the preeminent date in modern Hungarian history. As such, it has also become one of the most important national holidays in the country. The date is when the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 broke out. The revolutionaries began the day by marching through Pest reading aloud Sandor Petofi’s National Song (Nemzeti dal) along with their 12 Points for reform in response to the onerous rule of the Habsburg-led Austrian Empire. The most famous event of that day was a mass rally at the newly completed National Museum. There was another event that day atop Castle Hill in Buda which is much less well known than it should be. The culmination of this event was the release of a Hungarian freedom fighter whose egalitarian ideals and democratic radicalism was as much an expression of the revolution, as his liberation from prison was representative of the changes suddenly brought on by the revolution.

Mihaly Tancscis - Statue by Imre Varga

Mihaly Tancscis – Statue by Imre Varga (Credit: Globetrotter19)

A Surfeit Of Surnames – Gate To The Past
Go anywhere in Hungary and you will find a surfeit of surnames gracing the streets of cities, towns, villages and neighborhoods. Make a name for yourself in Hungarian history and it will become a street name somewhere in the country. Sometimes streets in famous districts do not always have the most familiar names attached to them, at least not famous to a westerner such as myself. This was the case with Mihaly Tancsics utca, which begins just off Besci ter (Vienna square) then runs along the northeast side of Castle Hill and ends not far from the Matthias Church. I knew nothing about Mihaly Tancsics and most guidebooks did not devote any space to explaining who he was or what he had done. I figured that Tancsics must have done something of historical importance to have his name given to one of the main streets on Castle Hill. What I did not realize, until I later did my own research, was just how much of Tancsics remarkable life story was connected to this area.

Mihaly Tancsics can be found just below the walls that still guard the northern side of Castle Hill today. I walked right past a statue of him, barely taking the time to notice that it had been placed not far outside the Vienna Gate (Becsi kapu). I had no idea who he was or what he had done to gain such a spot. He was portrayed wearing a cloak that covered the upper half of his body. In his right arm he held several books. It was an odd representation, open to interpretation because of his portrayal in such a benign manner. It did little to make me want to learn more about Tancsics. Considering what I would later discover about his life, this was a shame. The fact that a statue of Tancsics stands just outside the Vienna Gate is ironic. In a sense he has finally been freed from the confines of the Castle District. A place where he spent two different periods of his life imprisoned behind walls there.

Jozsef Barracks - The building where Mihaly Tancsics and Lajos Kossuth were imprisoned

Jozsef Barracks – The building where Mihaly Tancsics and Lajos Kossuth were imprisoned

A Restless & Radical Hungarian – Simmering With Discontent
From its very beginnings as the seat of Hungarian power in the 13th century right up through today, most people have come to the Castle District by choice. Mihaly Tancsics was different, he was brought here against his will. Most people, including myself, would like to spend more time in the Castle District, Tancsics would have preferred to spend less. Yet now Tancsics is commemorated just outside the gate that once guarded the road between Buda and Vienna. A Vienna that was home to an administrative apparatus that held the power of life, death and imprisonment over Tancsics beginning in the mid-1840’s. This was a time when Hungary had grown increasingly restless under Austrian rule. Tancsics was both restless and radical. He wrote and printed pamphlets that propagated ideas that were a threat to the powers that be. Prior to the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 he advocated for universal suffrage, an abolition to serfdom with little to no compensation for landlords and equal rights for all.

Tancsics used the power of his pen to disseminate these ideas for publication. And he enjoyed the additional asset of authenticity. The fact that his parents were serfs and he had an intimate understanding of their struggle made his writings that much more powerful. Tancsics was a self-made man, who had managed to work his way up the ladder of life, from weaver to school teacher. He then proceeded to travel across much of Europe on foot. These life experiences gave him a unique perspective on the problems faced by the working and lower classes in Hungary at that time. The Austrian authorities had Tancsics arrested in 1847 for his writings. His ideas were too radical, especially in a Hungary that was chafing under imperial authority and simmering with discontent. He was imprisoned in the Jozsef Barracks on Castle Hill.

Memorial plaque to Mihaly Tancsics on the Joszef Barracks where he was imprisoned

Memorial plaque to Mihaly Tancsics on the Joszef Barracks where he was imprisoned (Credit: Janos Istok)

Further Than They Had Ever Gone Before – Rallying A Nation
The building in which Tancsics was confined still exists today. Ironically, it can be found on a street in the Castle District now named for him. In a room on the street side of #9 Tancsics utca, Mihaly Tancsics spent the year before revolution broke out in prison. Two plaques adorn the wall of this building, one tells how Lajos Kossuth – one of the most famous men in Hungarian history – was also imprisoned in the structure during the 1840’s. The other, just two windows down from the entrance, commemorates Tancsics’ imprisonment.

In Hungary both men are well known, but Kossuth’s fame transcends borders. He is an icon of Hungary and his portrait can be found in many English language history books on Modern Europe. Kossuth’s name and face are synonymous with the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. He is the historical standard bearer, along with Sandor Petofi, of the fight for Hungarian independence from the Austrians. And yet Tancsics was much more in touch with the common man, the uneducated, the serfs and wage laborers. Most Hungarians in the 19th century had more in common with Tancsics than Kossuth. And Tancscis, not Kossuth, was the focus of specific events on March 15th which rallied the masses to go further in revolt than they had ever gone before.

Click here for: The Re-emergent Revolutionary – Mihaly Tancscis: An Eccentric Iconoclast (For The Love of Hungary – Part 10)

 

A Dazzling Island In The Sky – Castle Hill In Buda (For The Love of Hungary – Part 4)

This was just my second visit to Budapest, but like the first one I felt the magnetic pull of Castle Hill. Something about castles and hills have a way of drawing throngs of tourists to the most important cities in Central and Eastern Europe. Prague, Krakow and Budapest are among the most prominent places sporting a hilltop castle. In each city’s case, a castle stands high above a famous river. The most famous of these rivers is the Danube or the Duna as Hungarians call it. The river slides between Buda and Pest, a ribbon of slate grey luminescence that is transformed into liquid fire at dawn and dusk. Standing by the Duna looking up at the conical spires reaching upward toward the sky, Castle Hill provides the viewer with an aesthetically enthralling sensation that is nothing short of spectacular.

Elements of magic - Buda Castle & Castle Hill lie up at night

Elements of magic – Castle Hill lie up at night (Credit: hpgruesen)

Elements Of Magic – A Splendid Sensation
This scene was first set out before me a year and a half earlier on my first trip to Budapest. It left me with indelible impressions that have stayed with ever since then. On this my second trip to the city, I found myself on a beautiful autumn morning traveling from the gritty working class district of Kispest to the regal splendor of Castle Hill. This trip when done by way of public transport takes a little less than an hour. Upon arrival, I had one goal in mind on this visit, to spend the better part of a day walking around Castle Hill. This would be done in the hope of gaining a better understanding of its history and architecture. That rocky plateau had been home to triumphs, sieges and cataclysmic battles that had served to shape Hungary’s destiny.

On my previous visit to Budapest, I had spent just a little over an hour atop Castle Hill, not nearly enough time to get to know the place. My most lucid memory was of standing outside the Matthias Church listening to a guide on the Budapest Free Tour explain how the structure had been co-opted as a model for the castle in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. I have never been to Disney World and have no desire to visit a make-believe world when there are real places of much greater interest. I must admit though, that there does seem to be an element of magic associated with Castle Hill. It provides a suitable destination to explore the fantastical. That first visit lodged itself in both my memory and imagination. A trip to Budapest would never take place again without a visit to that dazzling island in the sky that Hungarians call Varhegy (Castle Hill).

A step up - The climb to Castle Hill begins

A step up – The climb to Castle Hill begins

Scaling The Heights – To The Pinnacle Of Power
I made the mistake of walking, rather than riding to the top of Castle Hill. This mistake turned out to be quite revealing. Though I exercise each day, getting to the top of Castle Hill proved to be a workout. It stands on a mile long plateau of rock, rising two hundred feet above the Danube. Two hundred feet may not sound like much of a climb, but when that elevation rises over a length of just a thousand feet, scaling it can be exhausting. I decided against a frontal assault and scaled the hill up a set of stairs along its western side. This approach conveyed to me the importance of topography in the history of Castle Hill. The first capital of the Kingdom of Hungary was not located here, instead it was on another hill further north overlooking the Danube, in the city of Esztergom. Buda only became the administrative seat of power in Hungary after the Mongol invasion in 1241.

The capital at the time of invasion was in Esterzgom, but that city proved no match for the Mongols who destroyed most of it. The King of Hungary at the time of the Mongol Invasion was Bela IV (1235 – 1270). He was forced to flee all the way to an island off the coast of Dalmatia to avoid being killed. After the Mongols withdrew from Hungary a year later, Bela decided that the only way to protect the Kingdom from another invasion was by building hilltop fortresses. These were constructed all over Hungary. Bela had a fortress and accompanying residence built atop Castle Hill. In the 14th century, a castle was built atop the hill as well. Then during the long reign of Sigismund (1387 -1427) a Gothic Palace and protective fortifications were added. By this time, Buda had become without a doubt the epicenter of political power in the Kingdom of Hungary.

The Castle District got a renaissance makeover during the long and storied reign of Matthias Corvinus (1458 – 1490). This period was the height of cultural and architectural achievement in medieval Hungary, ushering in a gilded age for Castle Hill. Marble fountains, expansive new Renaissance style buildings and crushed gravel pathways covered the district. During this time, the Kingdom of Hungary expanded its borders into lower Austria and Bohemia. This expanding empire had at its core Castle Hill. It must have seemed at the time that nothing could threaten the district. It stood secure, floating high above the Danube, a spectacular reminder of the wealth and power of Matthias’ reign. This peak turned out to be something of a false summit, for it was all downhill after the death of Matthias. The Kingdom of Hungary began a period of decline which led to defeat and occupation by the Ottoman Turks. The Castle District fell into the hands of the Ottoman Turks after their successful siege of Buda in 1541. They then made it their seat of power. Though the Turks converted plenty of churches to mosques on Castle Hill they left the royal palace intact.

Scaling the heights - Statue atop Castle Hill

Scaling the heights – Statue atop Castle Hill

Baroque Beginnings – The Castle District Rises Again
The end of Turkish power in Buda and most of Hungary came in 1686, it also brought an end to the old Castle District. The successful siege by a Habsburg led army resulted in the historic architecture that stood on Castle Hill being laid waste. Very little was left to build upon. This meant an entirely new version of the district, heavily influenced by the Baroque era, would slowly arise. Much of the architecture from that period still exists today. This was what confronted me when I finally I made it to the top of Castle Hill and caught my breath. I was soon to discover it was worth every bit of energy that I expended to get there.

Click here for: The End Of Eighty-Six Worlds – The Ghosts Of War On Buda’s Castle Hill (For The Love of Hungary – Part 5)

 

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.

The Last Coronation – Funeral Rites for the Dual Monarchy

Matthias Church, atop Castle Hill in Budapest, is an architectural fantasy. With its diamond patterned roof tiles and gargoyle covered spire there is scarcely a more stirring scene of eclectic grandeur in the whole of Europe. This beautiful building was reconstructed in the late 19th century to a rough approximation of its medieval self, with flourishes of neo-Gothicism added to recreate it for the modern age. The church has been the site of numerous historical events, including the wedding of famed Hungarian Renaissance King Matthias Corvinus to Queen Beatrix of Naples. It was also the scene of multiple coronations. The last of these, less than one hundred years ago, was the setting for one of the most disturbing scenes in the history of Hungary.  It was at this event, what turned out to the last coronation of a Habsburg Emperor, that the fate of the Habsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was foretold by an unanticipated event that took place in the church. This event exposed the crumbling decay that was the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the First World War.

Matthias Church - site of the last coronation

Matthias Church – site of the last coronation

“Creating Reality From Imagination” – Crowning A Final King
In the latter part of 1916, Emperor Franz Josef died after sixty-eight years on the throne, the last forty-nine of which he was at the helm of the Dual Monarchy as Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary. With his death a new coronation was hastily arranged. The demands of a raging war were set aside for the sake of tradition. This was imperative since the tottering monarchy needed to adhere to the trappings of power in order to give the appearance of strength and unity. The coronation in Budapest was set for the next to last day in December of 1916. Franz Josef’s great nephew, the man who would become Emperor Charles I was to ascend the throne.

The coronation ceremony itself was steeped in pageantry and protocol. Soon after it began, Charles had the Holy Crown of Hungary and St. Stephen’s robe placed upon him. He then retired along with his wife, Queen Zita, to the sacristy. Soon he was to step outside and take the royal oath. Before this happened, the audience – made up of the crème de la crème of the aristocracy – was to exit the church. We have an astonishing first-hand account of what happened next from Miklos Banffy, the director of the State Theatres, who was charged with organizing the ceremony. As Banffy watched, “the court ladies and those in waiting started to descend slowly from their places in the gallery on the left of the church…They came down, one by one or in pairs, down the steps from the gallery and into the center aisle, all in dresses of gold and white and silver studded with jewels and glittering like figures from ancient times suddenly come alive again, creating reality from imagination. As they moved slowly out of the church in procession they were accompanied by the softest of organ music as if the disappearance of all this beauty imposed silence in the now emptying basilica.”

Emperor Charles I, his wife Empress Zita and son Otto at the last coronation on December 30, 1916

Emperor Charles I, his wife Empress Zita and son Otto at the last coronation on December 30, 1916

“The Sad, Grey Tragedy of War” – The Knights of the Golden Spur
With the church now empty, it seemed just a matter of moments before the king and queen would exit as well. Yet protocol took precedence as suddenly the Knights of the Golden Spur arrived to receive accolades from the newly crowned king. They were a seen of tragic poignancy at the ceremony:

“There must have been about fifty of them, all officers coming from service in the front lines. Most of them were in iron-grey uniforms, faded, mended, with worn leather belts and blackened straps…In the forefront were men with wooden legs leaning on crutches, limping, knocking against each other, coughing and breathing heavily with the effort of movement. Through that side door and out into the glow before the altar there poured all the sad grey tragedy of war to flood the space where a few moments before all had been shine and glitter.
No one spoke. They were all utterly silent, not a word passing between them. All of them just stood there, looking straight ahead with a stare that was both eloquent and at the same time passive. Their eyes were the eyes of men who, day after day, looked death in the face.

The King, crowned with St. Stephen’s Crown and wearing St. Stephen’s mantle, now came back into the church and ascended the throne. The first name was called out. A grey broken ruin of a man pulled himself up on two crutches. An orderly rushed to his side to prevent him falling and guided him forward. At the steps of the throne he faltered just as St. Stephen’s Sword touched his shoulder the ritual three times. Then he was lifted to his feet and, supported by his orderly, tottered away.”

A greater contrast of scenes occurring in just a matter of moments could hardly have been imagined. Majesty met a deathly sense of duty. Splendor was overcome by decay and decline. The entire ceremony can be interpreted as a metaphor of life imitating art. In this case, art foreshadowed a tragedy of historic proportions. In the church that day the ladies represented what the empire had been, the alluring glamour and beauty of the aristocracy. The Knights of the Golden Spur were the stark reality of what the empire had become: broken, feeble, on its last legs and fading fast. The future was to be a very different place. After what these men – who were just a few of many millions – had endured nothing could or would ever be the same. The empire was disintegrating at the front. The broken soldiers were the physical embodiment of a mortally wounded monarchy.  The end was near.

Where the Dual Monarchy died - Austro-Hungarian troops at war on the Eastern Front in Galicia

Where the Dual Monarchy died – Austro-Hungarian troops at war on the Eastern Front in Galicia

The Verge of Oblivion – The Dual Monarchy On Its Knees
Studying this scene, it is much easier to understand what happened in the months and years that followed. The shimmering power of the monarchy had all but disappeared amid the dark shadows of war. It was a relic of a bygone era which had come to an end far from the neo-Gothic splendor of the Matthias Church. Belief in the monarchy had been buried in muddy and bloody trenches, drowned in the marshlands of Galicia and blown to bits high in the Italian Alps. The survivors were barely better off than the dead. The Knights of the Golden Spur were the last, stumbling vestige of a tradition that was on the verge of oblivion.  Soon the monarchy, the empire and the Kingdom of Hungary would cease to exist. Chaos would soon reign supreme.

A Battle That Should Have Never Been Fought – The Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Nine)

Listen to the audio cast: A Battle That Should Have Never Been Fought – The Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Nine)

As the siege came to its final, tragic end, Budapest, the “pearl of the Danube” was largely in ruins. Famed Hungarian author Sandor Marai left this impression, “What I see is at first sight horrifying, but after every hundred meters becomes more and more grotesque and improbable. The mind boggles. It is as if the wanderer were passing not through city districts but through excavations. Here is a wall of a building where a friend used to live, there the remnants of a street, in Szell Kalman Square the wrecks of streetcars and then the devastation of Vermezo Meadow, Naphegy Hill and the Castle.” Marai’s words recapture a surreal, otherworldly moment seared into the city’s consciousness by the all-consuming flames of total war.

Memorial plaque in Buda at the site of Marai's home from 1931-45 in District I - Krisztinavaros

Memorial plaque in Buda at the site of Marai’s home from 1931-45 in District I – Krisztinavaros

The Great Forgetting
Ironically, the siege and ensuing battle for Budapest are hardly spoken of today. It suffers from a case of historical amnesia. It has been nearly forgotten by popular historians, but physical evidence in the form of bullet and shell holes is still readily apparent to the discerning eye.

So why is the siege relatively unknown? Well for one, there were more famous, but not greater battles to come. The battles for Vienna and Berlin were respectively six and fourteen days in length. Compared to the fifty-one day siege of Budapest those battles lasted for a short period of time. Consider also, that the fighting in Vienna and Berlin would not have concluded so quickly without the huge loss of German forces during the siege of Budapest. The Germans bought time for themselves with their futile defense of the city, but it came at so high a cost that later battles were over relatively quickly due to a lack of manpower and weaponry.

Another reason for the relative anonymity of the battle is that there were really no famous figures that met their fate here. There was no Hitler shooting himself in a bunker, only thousands of common soldiers slowly expiring beneath the streets of Buda. There was no General Zhukov creating a historical legacy on the rubble of the Reich, only men with such forgettable names as Malinovsky, men who history would soon forget, but who led the Soviets to victory in the most terrible war ever known to mankind.

A view of Buda Castle from the slopes of Gellert Hill

A view of Buda Castle from the slopes of Gellert Hill in the siege’s aftermath

A Battle That Should Have Never Been Fought
And finally, there were really no heroes to proclaim. The siege of Budapest was a battle that should have never been fought. The Hungarians, whose capital had been sacrificed, did not want it. The common German soldier was not allowed to surrender, only sacrifice – first their Hungarian allies, but in the end, also themselves. And the Soviet’s would gladly have accepted a Hungarian armistice and bypassed the whole horrific affair. Their designs lay further west, Hungary was a land that had to be crossed, but ended up as a prolonged battle that never should have occurred.

The Soviet commander of the 2nd Ukrainian front, Rodion Malinovsky, furious at the protracted fighting, is said to have told the German commander Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch following his surrender, “If I weren’t obliged to account for your head in Moscow, I’d have you hanged in the main square in Buda.” Many others were not as lucky. The Soviets took revenge on those who had slowed their drive westward. They also imposed their will on the Hungarian people over the months, years and decades to come.

Places to visit: Marai Memorial plaque on his former home at Miko utca in Buda, District 1, Krisztinavaros.

Sources: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, Yale University Press, 2006.
Specifically: Chapter Six, The Siege and the Population, pgs. 257 – 373   
                           Epilogue, pgs. 374 – 380.
Memoir of Hungary, Sandor Marai, Central European University Press, 2001.
Marai quote from A Walk in Buda, Budapest, Sandor Marai, December 1945.
Malinovsky quote from:  The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 376.

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What Lies Beneath: The Labyrinth – Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Eight)

Listen to the audio cast:  What Lies Beneath: The Labyrinth – Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Eight)

Much of the fighting at the end of the siege took place on Castle Hill in Buda. Today bullet holes from the final stages of battle still pockmark the facade of the former Military Ministry building which stands equidistant between Buda Castle and the Matthias Church. Such battle scars have been left as a physical reminder of the ferocious fighting throughout this area just before the siege’s end. The building could now be easily repaired, unlike the damage that was done to the bodies and psyches of thousands left in the city as the siege neared its end. Many of those who stayed behind, spent their final days in the ground directly beneath the Castle District.

What Lies Beneath
The Buda Castle district contains over six miles of underground passageways, known as the Labyrinth. During the war these were used by approximately 20,000 German and Hungarian soldiers as shelter from the constant bombardment of the Soviet Air Force and artillery. As the circle around the defenders continued to close, this area became as much a tomb as it was a shelter. The Castle complex was one of the last areas to surrender.

Corridor of the Hospital in the Rock as it looks today

Corridor of the Hospital in the Rock as it looks today

Following the failed breakout attempt on February 11th, those left behind included about 5,000 Hungarian soldiers. Many of them lay among the thousands of badly wounded, unable to leave makeshift, underground field hospitals. The Hospital in the Rock – which can be visited today – was one of several subterranean areas beneath the hills of Buda, that held the wounded, infirm and those brought to the very edge of sanity by the siege.

Even the magisterial grandeur of Buda Castle, had become a house of horrors. In its cellars lay a couple of thousand wounded. These included many who had been wounded in the failed break out attempt only a day earlier. One medical officer, Werner Hubner, described the scene as where “sheer madness ruled. The weeks of encirclement had driven everybody to the brink of insanity….Pistols were going off in every corner of the huge underground infirmary: nobody wanted to be captured by the Russians in a wounded state.

Unfathomable Scenes
Soon the infirm and starving were roused and consequently enraged by the discovery of large amounts of food that had been withheld from them by their commanders in the underground chambers. One non-commissioned officer happened upon the now vacant bunker of the German commander Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, found his uniform and decided to wear it. He was soon shot dead by a furious soldier who had mistaken him for the commander. And where was Pfeffer-Wildenbruch? This “leader” who had neither the courage to disobey Hitler’s futile orders to holdout or the bravery to lead the breakout, was busy on the morning of February 13th surrendering himself to the comparative safety of the Russians. As a commander he would be held as a prize of war, his soldiers would not be so lucky.

Meanwhile, the situation in the cellars continued to devolve into a morass of suicide, death and despair. By the time of the surrender, it was too late for many. For days afterward, those left intact in body or mind witnessed scenes that are even now hard to fathom.  Medics were reduced to doing surgeries in an underground hospital that contained a large store of ammunition. A shootout took place among two combatants who made their way into the makeshift hospital. The discharges from their firearms set the place ablaze. The fire spread rapidly, as shells and grenades began exploding. Flames engulfed everything in the hospital, including the patient’s straw beds. This tragic incident was one of many that were all too common in the final days of the siege.

Places to visit: Castle District, Hospital In the Rock

Sources: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, Yale University Press, 2006. Specifically Chapter Five, The Break-Out, pgs. 201 – 256.

Hubner quote from:  The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 242.
Pfeffer-Wildenbruch’s uniform story from The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 243.
Shootout in underground hospital from The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 244.

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