Makers of Destiny, Makers of Disaster – The Millennium of Hungary National Exhibition (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #8b)

The Millennium of Hungary National Exhibition is more than a book or an album of photographs. It is a 19th century supersized version of an art exhibition catalog. It is the Kingdom of Hungary on steroids. The photos displayed on its pages were a thousand years in the making. The exhibition represented something besides people, places and structures, it was also a symbolic celebration of the self-confidence, some might say arrogance, of Hungary and Hungarians at their peak. I found it to be both enthralling and depressing. Enthralling, to think how all everything documented on those pages had once been in a single country, under a two headed empire that managed to keep a towering babel from toppling under the weight of its own contradictions. Depressing, to know that it could never be reclaimed except on these same pages. Here was the photographic memory of an entire kingdom that no longer existed, at least not in this form. 1896 was more than a year of celebration in Hungary, it was the pinnacle by which everything else in Hungarian history would be measured. The memory of the Millennium Exhibition still has the power to mesmerize.

Lost Glory - Detail from 1896 poster for the Hungarian Millennium National Exhibition

Lost Glory – Detail from 1896 poster for the Hungarian Millennium National Exhibition

On The Verge – A Problem That Refused To Go Away
The Millennium of Hungary book unravels a roadmap to a specific mentality that existed in late 19th century Hungary. The only thing the book lacks is a retroactive blurb on the back cover that would invite the curious to: “Follow the path laid out through photos and text to discover how Hungarians saw themselves and their kingdom at the turn of the 20th century.” Proud and boastful, confident even in their insecurities and assuming what they believed was their rightful place among the great nations of Europe, this is the attitude that pervades those beautiful pages. To be honest, much of this is understandable, 1896 was a heady moment for Hungarians. At this point in their long and deeply conflicted history they were free of foreign control. The thought process went something like this: now that the yoke of oppression from Ottoman and Austrian overlords had finally been cast aside after three and a half centuries of misrule, the Hungarians had risen to their rightful place. The uncanny thing was that they were right, but little did they know that their Kingdom was reaching the pinnacle of its power.

Within a generation the millennial celebration, like the kingdom itself, would become an anachronism. It is hard to believe that a people, a thousand year old kingdom and an ideal, could fall so far, so fast. It is easy to blame it all on the First World War, an event that once started, was seemingly beyond anyone’s control. While the war did take on a logic all its own, that ignores the fact that Hungarians had their own logic as well. The book claims that they were the makers of their own destiny. If that is true, then it is equally true that they could be the makers of their own disaster. For all the impressive accomplishments splayed across the book’s pages, it cannot completely obscure the chronic problems that plagued the Kingdom. The most volatile of these was the nationalities issue, an unquiet ghost that materializes in several of the photos, a haunting reminder of a problem, like the peoples who represented them, that refused to go away.

Makers of Destiny - Vadjahunyad Castle re-creation in Varosliget for Hungarian Millennium

Makers of Destiny – Vadjahunyad Castle re-creation in Varosliget for Hungarian Millennium (Credit: Landwirtschaftliches Museum-Brück & Sohn Kunstverlag)

“Well To Do”  – Causes With Consequences
The nationalities issue is vividly portrayed in the most patronizing of manners in one of the photographs and accompanying text. On the photo page for the Romanian Dwelling House, we see a “well to do” peasant family standing in front of a home with thatched roof and a single outbuilding. Whatever “well to do” meant in a countryside not far removed from serfdom, it looks like hard work. Grinding out a living on the land was anything but easy. The text describes Romanians as “quick-witted, their customs are modest and their wants easily satisfied.” The reader is assured that, “they are steadily advancing in culture under the brotherly protection of the Hungarians.” Well that was one way of putting it. The Romanians, like the Serbs and Slovaks, were restive minorities that were becoming increasingly aware of how marginalized they were in the Kingdom. One might discern from the text that their rightful place was eking out an existence via agriculture. The professional classes, parliament and politics were largely closed off to them.

Of the many photos found in the book, that of the Romanian Dwelling House is one of the most arresting. That is mainly because it portrays Romanians the way Hungary’s government at the time viewed them, contentedly rural, non-threatening yeoman who were economically backward. In other words, their place in the pecking order was on the lower rung. Nothing is said of the festering resentment that marked the Kingdom’s relations with them. The nationalities were viewed as “subjects” rather than fellow citizens. Those innocent looking peasants dressed in what amounts to antiquated folk custom would help bring the Kingdom of Hungary to its knees. The greatest strengths of the Kingdom, industriousness, technological progress, a reverence for tradition and fierce pride to the point of chauvinism were reserved for Hungarians or those who would give themselves up to Magyarization. In that sense, the Millennium of Hungary book is a photographic and literary record of the successes and failures, the causes and conflicts that led to the Kingdom’s collapse. The cataclysm would come less than twenty-five years after the exhibition.

Distant Memory - Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest's City Park

Distant Memory – Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest’s City Park

Terrific & Tragic – From Enchantment To Disillusion
After an initial, mesmerizing glance through the book, I purchased it in Veszprem for a mere 2050 forints, the equivalent of seven and a half dollars. I still find myself flipping through its pages, by turns astonished, fascinated and saddened by the photos. Astonished, because the breadth of beauty and industry portrayed in the photos provides compelling evidence for the Kingdom’s greatness. Fascinated, because I can see how the Hungarians viewed themselves and the nationalities. And saddened because I know it will all come to an end soon. The seeds of the Kingdom’s eventual dissolution are planted on the book’s pages. It is a narrow, exclusive world built by and for Hungarians. For everyone else, including outsiders such as myself, entering the Kingdom as it is presented in this book, begins with enchantment and ends in disillusionment. The Millennium of Hungary National Exhibition is a terrific and tragic book.