In Defiance of Fate (Part One) -The Republic of One Day: Carpatho-Ukraine

On March 15, 1939, the sun rose on the eastern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, in the land known as Subcarpathia. A new day was about to dawn both literally and figuratively. For the eight hundred thousand-odd people living in Subcarpathia at the time, it would be their last day ever as part of Czechoslovakia. The area was about to experience an identity crisis of historic proportions. This remote land, a forgotten backwater, began the day as an autonomous region of Czechoslovakia. At lunchtime it was a newly independent nation, known as the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine. By the next morning it was part of Hungary. Independence was fleeting, it did not even last the night. In just twenty-four hours, the population had been part of three separate nations. If given a choice, the majority of the populace would have preferred independence, but history was not on their side. The story of this land and its people’s geo-political situation over the past century is filled with fits and starts, false hopes and lost dreams. Independence turned out to be a dead end, but in the process, due more too historical accident rather than design, by the end of the 20th century, the region had received the next best thing, virtual autonomy. Through it all, in defiance of fate, the majority Rusyn population of the area retained a distinct identity.

Carpatho-Ukraine in March 1939

Carpatho-Ukraine in March 1939

Playground of the Powers: Great & Small
Carpatho-Ukraine is a beautiful, bucolic land. It contains the foothills and smaller mountains of the Carpathian range. The Carpathians are well known in Europe, but not the small slice that is part of Ukraine. The majority of the Carpathians lie further south in Romania, famous as part of Transylvania. This is a forgotten land, relatively unknown, with a modern history that is complex and confusing. Ukraine, roughly translated means borderland, and Carpatho-Ukraine, is the ultimate borderland in a border country. A quintessential frontier, it has been an appendage of empires and nation-states from time immemorial. In the last one hundred years it has been the playground of a withering array of political entities. These have included the Austro—Hungarian Empire, the Hungarian Red (Communist) Republic, Romania, the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Soviet Union and the Ukraine. It has been conquered and occupied, as well as autonomous and independent. Presently it is a province of Ukraine, but has a coat of arms and flag that is almost an exact replica of the one that was used when it declared independence.

The idea of an independent republic that could not even last a day seems to be an historical absurdity. Was Carpatho-Ukraine unworthy of nationhood? Was this an attempt to take advantage of a specific geo-political situation? This slice of the sub-Carpathians failed as an independent nation in 1939 because it was crushed by powerful geo-political entities carving up Europe to suit their own interests. Paradoxically it was only because of power politics that Carpatho-Ukraine was able to gain its independence, if only for one day.

Occupying force - a Hungarian soldier in Khust  (Credit:

Occupying force – a Hungarian soldier in Khust (Credit:

History As Opportunism: The Disintegration of Czechoslovakia
To understand, the situation Carpatho-Ukraine found itself in, one must understand what was happening to Czechoslovakia, the nation-state it was part of from 1919 to 1939. Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany first began to dismember Czechoslovakia by occupying the Sudetenland to “protect” the German population from the Czechs. Hitler and his henchmen were not the kind of geo-political players who could ever be appeased. It was not long before the Nazis wanted all of Bohemia and Moravia, the traditional homeland of the Czechs. In addition, Hitler had allowed Hungary to take the southern part of Slovakia, with its large Hungarian population. Meanwhile the rest of Slovakia had declared autonomy. Because of this, Czechoslovakia was being divided or perhaps more to the point, hyphenated. Its name was actually changed to Czecho-Slovakia, reflecting the virtual separation of Slovakia from the Czech portion of the state. Forgotten in the unfolding of this historical tragedy was a third, bit player.

The far eastern quarter of Czechoslovakia was known as Trans-Carpathia. It was neither Czech nor Slovak. Neither was it Hungarian, even though it had been part of the Hungarian portion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire prior to World War I. It contained a smattering of Slovaks, Germans, Hungarians and Jews, but two-thirds of the population was Rusyn or Ruthenian, a people who were akin to the larger Eastern Slav population of Ukraine. Eventually, perhaps inevitably they would come to be called Ukrainians and the land they inhabited as the Carpatho-Ukraine. Following World War I Ukraine as a political entity had failed. Thus, Carpatho-Ukraine was attached to Czechoslovakia in 1919. Fast forward two decades, with Czechoslovakia disintegrating, Carpatho-Ukraine declared autonomy on October 11, 1939. Five months later, on March 14th, as the Germans stormed into Bohemia and Moravia, and Slovakia about to become an independent nation, a Carpatho-Ukrainian parliament convened in the city of Khust. There they voted to become an independent republic.

Panorama of Khust, Ukraine - the capital of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine (Credit: Власна робота)

Panorama of Khust, Ukraine – the capital of the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine (Credit: Власна робота)

No Man’s Land – Oppressors and the Oppressed
Within a few hours of this declaration the leaders of Carpatho-Ukraine fled into exile. The reason, Hungarian troops were already crossing the border. By the evening of March 15th a Hungarian force the size of two army divisions had invaded Carpatho-Ukraine. The new republic’s defense force, known as the Carpathian Sich, consisted of only 5,000 troops. By the next morning, Carpatho-Ukraine ceased to exist. It was now part of Hungary, despite the fact that less than ten percent of its population was ethnically Hungarian. Why did the Hungarians want this region? It allowed them a strategic wedge between Romania and Czechoslovakia (which ironically now ceased to exist). These states had dismembered “Historic” Hungary in the aftermath of World War I. Now the Hungarians were reconstituting their former domains. Amidst this geo-political morass were the Carpatho-Ukrainians. Their incipient state vanished into oblivion, their autonomy was gone. Nonetheless, a historic seed had been planted.

The Hungarians would come to regret their land grab. Although the Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine lasted less than a day, Hungarian rule over the area was also fleeting. Only five years later, in 1944, the Soviet Army came roaring out of the east. Many of the Hungarians and virtually all Germans in the area were either deported to the Gulag or murdered. Carpatho-Ukraine now became part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic which was part of the Soviet Union. Thus, Carpatho-Ukraine became a constituent of a constituent republic. Interestingly, the idea of a Republic of Carpatho-Ukraine did not end on that fateful Wednesday of March 15th, 1939. It has had an intriguing after life, one that will be discussed in a coming blog post.



In The Hands of History (Part Two) – Geza Nagy & Brian Walton: A Voice From Russia

Geza Nagy and his fellow Hungarian soldiers began the longest walk of their lives by following a trackless path across endless expanses of ice and snow. They shivered their way across blindingly white landscapes during the day. At night, the darkness was all consuming, not only up in the sky, but also in each man’s soul. Who knows how many of them dropped dead along the way? This nightmare continued for weeks on end. Five long months of frost bite or knee deep mud, with defeat and death shadowing their every step. Somehow, despite the distance and the weather, in a land swarming with enemy partisans, thousands of haggard, tired Hungarian soldiers, epitomized by men like Geza Nagy, managed to stumble their way back to Hungary. They were home, but the war was far from over.

World War 2 hit Hungary hard  - badly damaged Chain Bridge with Buda Castle in the distance

World War 2 hit Hungary hard – photo of a badly damaged Chain Bridge with Buda Castle in the distance

Out of Death & Into Life
Brian said that Nagy was only allowed a brief respite in his homeland before the Soviet Army reappeared. They had fought their way from the Don to the Danube. Communism was ascendant in Hungary and for that matter, in Eastern Europe as well. The Soviet Army brought the Cold War with them. Having been an officer in the old Hungarian Army made Nagy a wanted man. As an intellectual, he was also an enemy of the state. Nagy did not wait to be arrested, he left his country behind.  Somehow he had survived to live another life. And what a life it turned out to be. Geza Nagy’s postwar life raises more questions than answers. What was his role during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956? What was he doing in his work for Interpol? How did he get to Canada, then the United States? A life of learning and scholarship had been transformed into one filled with mystery, intrigue and adventure. Did this compensate for the shame of defeat, loss and exile that had preceded it? Who can say? Perhaps even Nagy himself did not know the answer to that question.


A Soviet soldier hangs a sign in Budapest with the city's name translated into Russian

A Soviet soldier hangs a sign in Budapest with the city’s name translated into Russian

While Geza Nagy was running from one war to the next, Brian Walton was hard at work in school, excelling in every subject imaginable. He was a brilliant student, one of his nation’s brightest minds, the polar opposite of his surroundings. The post-war Britain he grew up in was not one of majesty and splendor, but of gritty factories and brown skies. Britain may have been on the winning side during the war, but it had hardly been victorious. The war left a long shadow over the British economy that stretched all the way into the 1960’s. After completing his university education at Cambridge, Brian Walton fled west as well. He came to the United States where professorships and pay were much greater. America was the land of opportunity for those exiled by war, economics or ideology.

Good Men & Bad Causes – The Voice of Russia
The legacy of World War II shaped the lives of Nagy and Walton as it did to millions of others. It pushed them far away from their respective homelands. It also brought them together. Who would have imagined that a brilliant intellectual from a small village in the Zemplin Hills of Hungary and a British scholar raised in the public housing of gritty, industrial Stockport would come to teach the history of western Civilization in a beautiful backwater of the Appalachian Mountains? They brought brilliance with them, but also their own attitudes and prejudices as well. Brian said that Nagy still professed an undying belief in the cause for which he had fought, even though it nearly destroyed him and his country. That cause turned out to be a hopeless one. The attempt to restore historic Hungary by aligning with the fascists only brought suffering, sorrow and decades of Soviet occupation to Hungary. Nagy and his country came to regret their mistake not just one time, but continuously.

A Hungarian soldiers cemetery in the Ukraine

Good men dying for a bad cause – A Hungarian soldiers cemetery in the Ukraine

“Plenty of good men have died for bad causes” were the words Brian once used to describe the disastrous folly of so many wrong-headed wars. That quote brings to mind all of those Hungarian soldiers who were swallowed up by the sheer size, scale and epic mismanagement of the Hungarian 2nd Army. Nagy escaped with his life, but only for a while. Eventually the Eastern Front caught up with him as well. Brian said Nagy used to cough horribly from bronchial problems he had contracted during the icy retreat. The wheezing, the hoarse coughing, might be interpreted as a voice from Russia, echoing down the decades as a cruel reminder of the horrors of war. In 1976, Geza Nagy finally died. His heart, of such great courage, was not enough to overcome the weakness of his lungs.

Haunted by History – The Difference Between Us
As for Brian Walton, at the time of Nagy’s death he was much younger, healthier and in the prime of his life. He would teach all the way into the 21st century. In his lifetime the British Empire collapsed, but the British economy surged once again. The row house in which he grew up was knocked down and housing for the middle class erected in its place. The war into which he was born became a distant, yet distinct memory. He never quite trusted the Germans, but fear of the Teutonic juggernaut, which had once ruled Europe and threatened the very existence of Britain, slowly disappeared. Time and distance healed many of the war’s wounds, but scars still remained.

The dream of a united Europe may prove illusory (Credit: Leena Saarinen)

The dream of a united Europe may prove illusory (Credit: Leena Saarinen)

Brian never really believed that Europe could be truly unified. The European Union was an artificial creation, an attempt to keep the Germans from becoming too powerful. If not German military power, than German economic power would come to rule Europe. The French were obsessed with being difficult, the British were not continentals and never would be, the Italians were wonderful people, but their politicians ridiculous, other European countries were too small. The only exception was Russia, which wasn’t really European. It was riddled with corruption and hell bent on screwing things up. Europe’s past was its future, but God forbid another cataclysmic war should come to Europe. Brian never had to see that day, he died in July just as Russian troops were crossing the border into the Ukraine.

*An End Note: Brian Walton, like Geza Nagy spent his professional life studying and teaching history. He had a natural curiosity about all things historical, but even the most brilliant scholars are limited by time and interest. This was especially true for Brian when it came to Eastern European history of which only knew a very limited amount. Perhaps this had something to do with the era he was born into. For nearly fifty years, Eastern Europe was closed off behind an Iron Curtain. Most of what Brian knew about the region’s past came from Eastern Europeans themselves, men such as Geza Nagy. The anecdotal evidence from one man’s experiences can be more telling than thousands of pages of facts. This was certainly true of Geza Nagy and it was also true of Brian Walton. These men not only taught history, they also helped make it. By looking back at their lives and their experiences we can, just for a moment, recapture the past. In death, as in life, they are still teaching us history.


A Shared Legacy: Romanians, Hungarians, Matthias Corvinus & the Identity of Cluj

Cluj-Napoca (commonly known as Cluj), the largest city in Transylvania, holds a special place in the hearts of Romanians and Hungarians. To Romanians it is a university city. The 50,000 strong student population of Babes-Bolyai University gives the city a vibrant, pulsating energy. As one of the largest cities in Romania, it has a thriving economy that has done much better than the rest of the country. This comparative wealth has made it a magnet for the youth of Romania who are looking to get ahead and enjoy a better quality of life more in line with other European Union nations. To Hungarians, it will forever be known as Kolozsvar, once the capital of Erdely (the Hungarian name for Transylvania). Koloszvar was the urban and cultural heart of a land Hungarians see as inseparable from their history. Erdely was cut asunder from Historic Hungary by the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon. This left the ethnic Hungarian population of Cluj isolated deep in the heart of Transylvania. This has left them yearning for what a lost past. This longing colored relations between the Romanians and Hungarians throughout the 20th century and was the central force in Cluj’s history for nearly a century.

Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj

Babes-Bolyai University in Cluj

From Majority to Minority – The Hungarians of Cluj
The fact that Hungarians continued to be the majority ethnic group in Cluj long after the Treaty took effect meant they were a force to be reckoned with in the city’s economic, political and cultural life. Hungary was even able to regain their beloved Koloszvar, along with northern Transylvania, as a gift (or a bribe) from Hitler for entering World War II on the German side. This gift proved to be both ephemeral and costly. It vanished as ill-gotten gains so often do. This left Koloszvar’s Hungarian population in limbo once again. As late as 1948 Hungarians still made up 57% of Cluj’s population. With the communists taking control of post-war Romania, the Hungarian population became a distrusted ethnic group stuck in the wrong country at the worst time. Hungarians had held economic power in the city for centuries. The communists soon limited the civil rights of Cluj’s Hungarian population. Communist oppression proved overwhelming. The ethnic Hungarian populace sought refuge abroad.

Those who were unable to flee the city, suffered mightily under the policies fomented by the iron fisted dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaucescu. Ceaucescu was deeply suspicious of all ethnic Hungarians, branding them enemies of the state. In 1974 the communists led by Ceaucescu decided to change the name of Cluj to Cluj-Napoca. Napoca being the pre-Roman name for a city that stood on the site of Cluj two thousand years before. It was a lackluster attempt to prove that Romanians predated Hungarians in Transylvania by a thousand years. Ceaucescu’s efforts to settle historical disputes with pompous decrees turned out to be short-lived. On Christmas Day 1989, Romanians as well as ethnic Hungarians cheered as he was relegated to the dustbin of history. He was arrested, quickly given a show trial where he was found guilty of crimes against his own people. Within hours he had been executed, along with his wife. As for Cluj-Napoca, nearly everyone still refers to the city as Cluj. After the fall of Ceaucescu, ethnic Hungarians sought to better their fortunes in other countries, namely Hungary. This emigration resulted in a large loss of the ethnic Hungarian population in Cluj. Presently they make up only 16% of the city’s population.

The Matthias Corvinus Statuary Group - in Cluj's Union Square

The Matthias Corvinus Statuary Group – in Cluj’s Union Square

A Shared Legacy – The Birthplace of Matthias Corvinus
The present situation is an improvement over the not so distant past. Both Romania and Hungary are members of the European Union, which acts a strong guarantor of minority rights. This, along with the city’s relative prosperity has caused tensions to wane. Acts of violence by one group against the other are now scarce. The biggest barrier to integration is a deep sense of mistrust. This is the main legacy of the Ceaucescu era. Yet there are still some Romanians who would prefer that all the Hungarians in Cluj and Transylvania move to Hungary once and for all. Conversely, Hungarian nationalists (the large majority of whom live in Hungary) want Kolozsvar and Transylvania given back to Hungary. There is little chance either group of extremists will get there way. Commonalities between the two groups are rarely emphasized in the news. Conflict and controversy sell, peaceful coexistence does not.

Strangely enough in Cluj’s main square, Piati Unirai (Union Plaza) there is a statue that has proven contentious, despite the fact that it serves to emphasize a common historical figure who was both Romanian and Hungarian. This is the equestrian statue of the Great “Hungarian” King, Matthias Corvinus. Corvinus is remembered as the king who kept the Ottoman Turks at bay in the late 15th century. In addition, under his rule, Hungary became the first European state outside of Italy to experience the Renaissance. One of the most famous Corvinus historic sites, his birthplace, can be seen in Cluj.

St. Michael's Church - legacy of the Saxons

St. Michael’s Church – legacy of the Saxons

Identity Crisis – The Roots of a King
In the winter of 1443, Corvinus was born at a small guesthouse in Cluj. His father was none other than Janos Hunyadi (Ioan de Hunedoara to Romanians), Voivode (Governor) of Transylvania. A famed military figure who had worked his way through the ranks of the nobility to a leading position in the Kingdom of Hungary. Corvinus mother, Erzsbet Szilagyi, came from an influential Hungarian family. Now what’s interesting is that Hunyadi, who is celebrated as a national hero by Hungarians was also partly Romanian. He descended from a noble family of Wallachian origin. Wallachia was the historic heart of Romania. At the time, chronicles referred to Hunyadi as Valchus (the Wallachian). This means that Corvinus was half-Hungarian and half Romanian. Both Hunyadi and Corvinus are lauded as Hungarian national heroes, but no one much bothers to mention their Romanian blood. At the heart of Cluj’s inner town lies the Matthias Corvinus statuary group.

Ever since the Iron Curtain was swept aside there has been talk of removing the statue. The larger than life sculpture portrays Corvinus in heroic fashion, towering above the viewer. Below him are four of his leading generals (admittedly they were all Hungarian). Instead of arguing about whether the statuary group should be removed, perhaps an information board or plaque of some type should be placed close by to inform visitors, especially Cluj’s citizenry, that it’s most famous son is reflective of the city’s multi-ethnic history. Corvinus was one of the greatest kings in history. That is something everyone in Cluj should be proud of. His dual ethnicity illuminates the complex and conflicted history of the area. Cluj and Transylvania was an ethnically mixed place, it still is today.

Speaking of mixed up, the Corvinus statuary group stands in front of St. Michael’s Cathedral. This mighty Gothic structure is one of the finest examples of a medieval hall church in Europe. It is a product of the German Saxons who called the city Klausenberg. In Transylvania, the deeper one digs into history, the more complicated and diverse it gets. No one in Cluj really owns the past, instead they all share it.

Failure to Assimilate: Count Apponyi & the Fate of Historic Hungary at the Paris Peace Conference

At 2:30 p.m. on January 16, 1920 at the Quai D’Orsay in Paris, Count Albert Apponyi prepared to give a verbal presentation of the Hungarian position on the peace terms submitted to Hungary by the Allied powers. The terms of the treaty to be imposed on Hungary were shocking in the extreme. If there were no alterations, the Kingdom of Hungary would lose over two-thirds of its land base and population. Even worse, one-third of the Kingdom’s ethnic Hungarian population would end up under foreign rule. The redrawn borders would sever ancestral homelands. Such historic territories as Transylvania (Erdely in Hungarian) and Upper Hungary (Felvidek) would be taken away. The rulers were on the verge of becoming the ruled.

Count Albert Apponyi - man of letters & proponent of Magyarization

Count Albert Apponyi – man of letters & proponent of Magyarization

Speaking In Tongues – Historic Hungary & The Nationalities
Apponyi must have been unsettled by the historically twisted position he found himself in. As Minister of Education for the Hungarian Kingdom thirteen years before, he had been one of the main proponents of what became known as the Apponyi Laws. These laws required that instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic for students could only be given in Hungarian. This had been the ultimate outcome of a process known as Magyarization, in which ethnic subjects of the Kingdom – whether Romanian, Slovak, German, Serb, Slovene, Croat, Rusyn or Jew – were to be educated socially and culturally in Hungarian. They were to be transformed from Slav, Teuton and Latin into loyal Magyar subjects in the Hungarian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Count Albert Apponyi had been born into one of the most ancient and noble families in Hungary. He was uniquely qualified for the role he was about to play in Paris. He was extremely accomplished in politics and literature. A man of vast intellectual gifts, over the final twenty-two years of his life he would be nominated no less than five times for the Nobel Prize. A successful career in letters saw him pen eleven books. These focused mainly on politics and philosophy. A brilliant orator, fluent in six languages, his speech at the Quai d’Orsay was to be given first in English, followed by French and Italian. None of these three languages were his mother tongue. That is revealing.

Historic Land Grab – The Ethnic Backlash
Apponyi’s first language was Hungarian. The overriding majority of those present on that mid-winter’s day would have scarcely understood a word of Hungarian. The fact was that those who sat in judgment of Hungary knew very little about it. What mattered was that it had ended up on the losing side of the Great War as one-half of the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most importantly, the lands of historic Hungary contained a majority of ethnic minorities.

This transformation, which had been greatly resisted by the subject peoples, had been halted by the First World War. Now these same ethnic groups had thrown off the yoke of servitude and were in the process of either creating new nation-states or expanding their existing borders at the expense of historic Hungary. Meanwhile the Hungarians lay defeated, torn asunder by internal tumult as rival democratic socialist, communist and nationalist forces took control of a rapidly dwindling homeland. Parts of the nation were occupied by Romanian, Czechoslovak and Serb forces. A historic land grab was in progress.

Treaty of Trianon - this map shows the vast consequences of the Paris Peace Settlement which dismembered Historic Hungary

Treaty of Trianon – this map shows the vast consequences of the Paris Peace Settlement which dismembered Historic Hungary

The Last Bastion of Defense
Count Apponyi’s words would be the last bastion of defense for Historic Hungary. Nothing less than the Magyar homeland was at stake. In accented English he began to speak:

In the first place we cannot conceal our astonishment at the extreme severity of the conditions of the peace. This astonishment can easily be explained. The conditions of the peace treaties contracted with the other belligerent nations, with Germany, Austria and Bulgaria were certainly also severe. But not one of these contained such significant territorial changes inevitably affecting the national life, as those we are called upon to accept.

You, Gentleman, whom victory has placed in this tribunal, you have pronounced guilty your former enemies, the Central Powers, and have decreed that the burden of the war should be cast upon those responsible for it. So be it in that case, I think, in dividing the burden, the measure of guilt should decide the proportion. Hungary being punished by the most severe conditions, threatening her very existence, one would think that of all nations she was guiltiest.

…the peoples right of self-determination should be considered. A statement might be hazarded as to the rights of minorities being more effectually assured on the territories of the new states than they were in Hungary.

I do not, on this occasion, wish to plead the case brought against Hungary relative to the alleged oppression of the non-Hungarian races. I will confine my words to declaring myself well pleased should our Hungarian brethern on the territories torn from our country enjoy the same rights and facilities as the non-Hungarian citizens of Hungary enjoyed.

Hungary was in possession of every condition of organic unity with the exception of one: racial unity. But the states to be built up on the ruins of Hungary – according to the terms of the Treaty – will also lack racial unity, the one condition of unity missing in Hungary – nor, may I add, will they possess any other.

Count Apponyi - in his later years he represented Hungary at the Paris Peace Conference, but failed to get the peace terms changed

Count Apponyi – in his later years he represented Hungary at the Paris Peace Conference, but failed to get the peace terms changed

Actions Versus Words – A Failure To Assimilate
Apponyi’s oration stated the Hungarian position precisely while at the same time exposing its fatal flaws. The ethnic minorities of Hungary had been given extremely limited rights when it came to the use of their mother tongue. The basic right they had been given: was to become Hungarians. This was something they would never be, because this was something they never wanted to begin with. Even after decades of forced Magyarization, they still spoke their own languages, kept their own customs and obeyed their historic traditions. The failure to assimilate these minorities was fatal to Historic Hungary.

Apponyi as the former minister of Education surely understood all this very well. He had tried – along with many of his countrymen- to make Hungarians out of people who were not. His speech in defense of historic Hungary was in vain. The terms of the Paris Peace for Hungary went unchanged. They would be imposed later that same year. It was not so much that Apponyi had failed that day in Paris, it was more that he had failed with his education policies many years before. His actions had already spoken and they were much more convincing than his words.

A Crowning Achievement – St. Martin’s Cathedral: Where Hungarian History Reigns Supreme

Over a period of nine hundred years, the monarchs of the Kingdom of Hungary were crowned in four different cities. Three of these four cities still lie in the territory of the Hungarian nation today. They are Esztergom, Budapest and Szekesfehervar. Interestingly, it was the last of these three towns that saw more Hungarian monarchs crowned than any other. From the middle of the 11th century through the middle of the 16th, no less than 37 kings and 39 queens consort were crowned in Szekesfehervar, at the Basilica. This was exactly how the first King of Hungary, Stephen I had planned it. Stephen had ordered the construction of a grand basilica around the year 1010 for just such ceremonies. It was one of the largest and most prominent buildings in Europe during the Middle Ages, a symbol of the power, majesty and Christianity of the Kingdom. Long before Visegrad or Budapest came to prominence, Szekesfehervar was the nerve center of Hungary during the Middle Ages.

St. Martin's Cathedral - Coronation site of Hungarian monarchs from 1563 to 1830

St. Martin’s Cathedral – Coronation site of Hungarian monarchs from 1563 to 1830

The Coming of the Turks – The Path to Pozsony 
As with so many things in the history of the Kingdom of Hungary, this underwent radical change with the invasion of the Ottoman Turks.  In 1543, the Turks occupied Szekesfehervar. They proceeded to loot the tombs of the 15 kings and queens buried in the Basilica. Their banditry knew no bounds. It respected neither tradition nor religion. Insultingly, the Basilica was turned into a storage site for gunpowder. With much of their kingdom occupied, Hungarian leaders had little choice, but to move the coronation site. Beginning in 1563, coronations took place in upper Hungary, at St. Martin’s Cathedral in Pozsony (present day Bratislava, Slovakia).  For over two-hundred and fifty years, prospective monarchs strode through the Old Town of Pozsony along the coronation route. They made their way to the Gothic confines of the cathedral where kings and queens were crowned.

Following the expulsion of the Turks from the lands of historic Hungary in the late 17th century, coronations continued to take place in Pozsony. The last one occurred in 1830. In the meantime, the basilica in Szekesfehervar had longed since ceased to exist. It was destroyed in 1601 when a Habsburg Army unsuccessfully laid siege to the city. The gunpowder stored inside the basilica was sparked by fire from the ongoing battle and consequently blew up. Meanwhile St. Martin’s served the purpose of continuity and tradition. As the site for the coronation of 19 kings and queens, including no less a historical personage than Maria Theresa, it played an integral role in both Hungarian and Habsburg history. The coronations may have ended in Pozsony by the mid-19th century, but history was not through with the place.

Coronation of Maria Theresa at St. Martin's Cathedral in 1741

Coronation of Maria Theresa at St. Martin’s Cathedral in 1741

Historical Twists  – The Fate of Hungary’s Coronation Sites
The city was lost by the Hungarians, along with Upper Hungary (Felvidek) to the newly created state of Czechoslovakia, due to the post-war Treaty of Trianon that followed World War I. Today Pozsony is Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Other than tourists, the presence of ethnic Hungarians in the city is minimal. In a historical twist of fate concerning the coronation sites, Hungarians had been detached from their history during the Middle Ages at Szekesfehervar due to an external threat. Nearly four hundred years later, they were once again severed from their historical past, but this time by an internal disruption. St. Martin’s Cathedral with its glorious past was cut asunder from its historical antecedents.

Today the cathedral still stands on the western edge of what was the Old Town of Pozsony. Within a stone’s throw, a major highway acts as a conduit for automobiles racing back and forth over the Novy Most Bridge and the Danube. In the last decade and a half, the church has undergone stabilization due to the vibrations caused by the nearby traffic. In this case, the past has become present once again, in prior centuries the church survived fires, earthquakes and lightning strikes. Today the question is whether it will survive the rumblings of modernity? Perhaps this is an apt metaphor for the presence of Hungarian history in Bratislava. It rests on shaky foundations.

Crowning achievement - The gold plated replica of the Holy Crown of Hungary atop St. Martin's Cathedral

Crowning achievement – The gold plated replica of the Holy Crown of Hungary atop St. Martin’s Cathedral

St. Martin’s Cathedral – Where History Reigns Supreme
The question today is how will the rich history of St. Martin’s Cathedral be viewed in a Slovakia which looks more toward the future?  As opposed to a Hungary which is obsessed with its past. Strangely enough, there is a magnificent reminder that all has not been lost. Quite literally a crowning achievement tops St. Martin’s. Atop the church’s Gothic steeple is a gold plated replica of the Holy Crown of Hungary. At 85 meters (279 feet) it soars above the Old Town, just as it did when it was first placed there in 1847. It was meant to commemorate the church’s historic role in royal coronations. The crown is still there today, resting on a gold pillow, a spectacular reminder that no matter what nation rules over this land today, it is still history which reigns supreme.


Formidable Yet Forgotten – Palanok Castle & Historic Hungary

Of all the lands lost by Hungary in the post-World War I Treaty of Trianon, those defined as the sub-Carpathians are the least discussed. Today the region is part of southwestern Ukraine. This is a land defined as much by nature as by its people. It is a beautifully rugged landscape covered by thick woods and volcanic hills tucked into hidden, secluded valleys. Following World War I the area was placed in the new nation of Czechoslovakia. This placement did not even last two decades. Prior to the outbreak of World War II it was given back to Hungary by the Germans who were in the process of dismembering Czechoslovakia. By the end of the war it was occupied, as was all of Hungary, by the Soviet Army. It then became part of the Soviet Union. Following the dissolution of the Soviet state, it became part of Ukraine. This remote land was passed from one political entity to the next with little forethought as to the wants or needs of its population. The majority population was Ruthenian, a Slavic people who have become assimilated in the Ukrainian state and are known as such today.

Until World War II there was also a sizable Jewish population which actually constituted a majority in many towns, including Munkacs (Mukacheve, Ukraine). As for Hungarians, they were mostly found during the early 20th century as they are today in urban environments. The population of ethnic Hungarians in this region is approximately 150,000. Compared to the 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians in Romania or the 450,000 in Slovakia, those in Ukraine are unlikely to garner much notice. Nonetheless, just as in Romania and Slovakia, the Hungarian influence in this area is marked not just by the people, but also the region’s history. Their cultural heritage is still alive and dynamic. In Hungary, there is scant awareness of this land that was both lost to history and forgotten by memory. Nowhere does the Hungarian historical legacy in the sub-Carpathians come to prominence as dramatically as Palanok Castle in Munkacs (known as Mukachevo in Ukraine).

Palanok Castle - atop Lumkova Hill and Munkacs

Palanok Castle – atop Lumkova Hill and Munkacs

Deep History – Munkacs: Centuries and Millenniums
Today Munkacs is a city of 93,000 people. It is less than an hour’s drive from the border of northeastern Hungary. Far and away the large majority of the populace is Ukrainian. They make up 77% of the inhabitants. Meanwhile, a bit less than ten percent are ethnic Hungarians. A century ago, the demographic makeup was quite different. Munkacs was much smaller, but in those days it was no less a city. It had a population of 18,000, three-quarters of which were Hungarians, many of them Jewish. The area had first come into possession by the Hungarians when the first Magyar tribes arrived in the Carpathian Basin at the end of the 9th century. They entered the basin just sixty kilometers north of Munkacs, at the Verecke Pass. During the Middle Ages, Munkacs was made a Royal Free Town. This designation, along with its placement along the Latorica River, helped it become a hub for trade and merchantmen.

Yet it was many millenniums before, that Munkacs future prominence was decided. 68 meter (223 ft.) high Lamkova Hill was created by volcanic activity. This created a nearly impregnable outcropping, with clear lines of sight extending in every direction. Rulers of the area could not help, but notice. The first major constructions built atop this geological formation occurred under the direction of an early 14th century Lithuanian prince, Fedir Koriatovych. Koriatovych was the first of many nobles who made what would become Palanok Castle their home. These included no less a personage than Janos Hunyadi, Regent of Hungary, famed for defeating the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Nandorfehervar (Belgrade) in 1458.

Palanok Castle & Munkacs - drawing from 1686

Palanok Castle & Munkacs – drawing from 1686

Bastion of Defense – The Fight For Independence
The most interesting period in the castle’s history occurred when it became a center for military activity during the Hungarian fight to stay independent of Habsburg rule. Munkacs had formerly been attached to Transylvania in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which had helped guarantee it a degree of independence even as the Ottoman Turks reigned supreme over much of Hungary. When the Turks were finally ousted, the Habsburgs looked to extend their hegemony over all historic Hungarian lands. The notable freedom fighter, Ferenc Rakoczi II made the Palanok Castle his base in what became known as Rakoczi’s War of Independence (1703 – 1711). Like so much of Hungarian history Rakoczi and his forces resisted valiantly, but it was to no avail. The Habsburgs broke their resistance and Rakoczi fled into exile. In 1726, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI granted the castle along with several hundred villages in the area as an estate to the noble, Lothar Franz Von Schonborn who had helped put the emperor on the throne. The Schonborn family kept the castle up until the early 20th century. During much of that time it served as a prison. On one notable occasion, in 1805 -1806 it also served as a safe house for the Holy Crown of Hungary. It was taken there in order to protect it from theft by Napoleon’s forces.

Palanok Castle from a distance 1

Palanok Castle from a distance

The Walls of Palanok – Presence of the Past
The castle’s towering position above Munkacs offered it a high degree of protection across the centuries. This helped preserve the works for posterity. Today it is a historical monument that is open to visitors. The castle is made up of three parts: the low, middle and high. The towering presence of the entire complex would give any potential conqueror second thoughts. In its prime, the fortress sported no less than 164 cannon which could unload a fuselage of shot. This would be all the more deadly due to the force of their weighty plunge from the towering heights. Military engineering and technology, along with its natural situation, made it one of the most formidable works in the whole of historic Hungary.

Formidable yet forgotten, this is the lot of the sub-Carpathian lands that were once an integral part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Wild landscapes with an infusion of Hungarian history dot the area, nowhere more so than Munkacs. The sub-Carpathians are one of Europe’s least visited regions. The fortress at Munkacs makes a fantastic starting point for a visit. It showcases the presence of a past that is not so far or so distant. This is a place where history was shaped and formed by Hungarians. Their successes and failures can still be discerned behind the towering walls of Palanok Castle.