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.

A Reflection in Reverse – The Millennium of Hungary National Exhibition (A Trip Around My Bookshelf #8a)

“Unreal city, under the brown fog of a winter’s noon.” those were the words of T.S. Eliot in one of his most famous poems, “The Wasteland.” The poem is filled with dazzling wordplay, obscure allusions and a sublime melancholy that evokes the post-World War I world. That world did not seem so far away as my wife and I made our way on the 11:56 Intercity from Budapest Deli to Veszprem, one of Hungary’s most historic and beautiful cities. Veszprem is located a mere 30 kilometers northwest of Lake Balaton. Eliot’s words were not lost on me when we arrived at the city’s train station. A leaden sky hung over the town. This was no different than the perpetual gloom which had hung over the country for days.  Hungary was experiencing groundhog days of greyness. I began to wonder if blue sky was something only seen in paintings. The only thing that might brighten the gloom was a colorful city such as Veszprem. As we made our way toward Castle Hill, I suddenly spied one of my most passionate vices, a used bookstore. I felt that burst of life known to me by a single transcendent word, “books.”

Buy the Book - The Millennium of Hungary National Exhibition

Buy the Book – The Millennium of Hungary National Exhibition

Breathtaking Scope & Scale – The Thousand Year Exhibition

Finding English language books in a provincial Hungarian city is not quite impossible, but it is definitely a challenge. The bookshop in Veszprem was brimming with used books, the smell of which acts as an aphrodisiac that can evoke near orgasmic ecstasy in me. I lust for knowledge, often feeling naked and exposed if a books are not near me or easily within reach. I found this bookshop seductive in the extreme, such was its voluminous allure. The multicolored spines were so appealing that I forgot for a moment that the language they were written in was lost on me. The main problem was that I have never taken the time to learn Hungarian. Thus, I spent time in this bookshop lamenting my inability to decipher the titles to most of the tomes.

This was tantamount to torture for me. Here I was surrounded by books, but I had no way of knowing what they were really were about. This made me self-conscious, a stupendous insecurity threatened to overwhelm me. I consider myself relatively well read, but in this bookshop I was nearly illiterate. What I needed was a lifeline in the form of an English language book. I had faith that amid the thousands of volumes, a few might be intelligible to me. I would soon be pleasantly surprised since all it takes is one book to make me an insanely happy man. In Veszprem, a city with no great number of English speakers, I would discover that one book. Amid a pile of volumes, one stuck out, a rectangular shaped volume with lavish artwork across the cover. What caught my eye was the book’s title which was not just in one, two or even three languages.

Incredibly, it was written in bold and exquisitely styled fonts in four languages across the front cover. In English it read, The Millennium of Hungary and National Exhibition. The same words were rendered in Hungarian, French and German. I immediately opened the book and entered another world. Suddenly, it was 1896 all over again. That was when the thousand year anniversary of the coming of the Hungarians into the Carpathian Basin was celebrated in Budapest’s City Park (Varosliget) with an exhibition of breathtaking scope and scale covering the lands, people and structures that made the Kingdom of Hungary unique.

A Portal to the Past Present & Future - maion gate to the 1896 Millennium Celebration in Budapest

A Portal to the Past Present & Future – Main gate to the 1896 Millennium Celebration in Budapest

Photo SynthesisAn Insatiable Addiction
After opening the book and flipping through a few pages, I had the same feeling that I imagine an addict gets every time they begin to stick a needle in their arm. My appetite for Historic Hungary became instantaneously insatiable as I flipped through the pages. Large photos, some of which were spread across two pages, transported me backwards by over a century. Here was the largest city and de facto capital of Transylvania, Koloszvar, shown in a panoramic view. I had never seen the city this way, long before modernity had coated its surroundings with development. From this late 19th century vantage point I could make out one of the most enduring artifacts bequeathed to future generations by the Saxons, the Gothic inspired greatness of St. Michael’s Church. I had stood in the church’s shadow a year earlier. Now with the help of this photograph I could look back at both the 19th century and myself. In any photo that captures our interest, we always see something of ourselves. Even if it is just a glimpse, memorable photos have a way of drawing us in and making us part of more than the scenery. We find ourselves on the inside looking outward, a reflection in reverse.

One of the more entrancing photos in the book showed Kazan Pass in the Iron Gates area of the Danube. Despite the spectacular subject matter, this photo evoked an abiding sadness within me. During the latter half of the 20th century, this natural wonder was submerged beneath a reservoir. The urge to harness nature for industrial strength usage effectively drowned much of the Iron Gates in a watery grave. Today, the mighty Danube scarcely flows at all through the area, an exceedingly poor representation of the river that once raged through that spectacular defile. While Hungarians wish to the point of desperation that this area was still part of their nation, I looked forward to something much more inevitable, albeit hundreds of years into the future, when the dam that had drowned the Iron Gates gave way. Then the river would freely flow once again. Sadly, I would not live long enough to see it. That thought did not stop me from dreaming. The book, with one stunning photo after another, stimulated my imagination.

Historicism at the Millennium Exhibition - Ignac Alpar's Recreation of Vadjahunyad Castle in the Varosliget (City Park)

Historicism at the Millennium Exhibition – Ignac Alpar’s Recreation of Vadjahunyad Castle in the Varosliget (City Park)

Frozen in Time  – An Album of Photographic Evidence
Many of the photos showed places that were unfamiliar to me. These included buildings, natural landscapes, castles, churches and ruins that were in the old pre-World War I Kingdom of Hungary, but now could only be found by crossing into the nations that swallowed them up during the post-World War I peace process. I had never seen so much tangible evidence of the beauty, history and geography of Historic Hungary until I cracked open this book. The Millennium of Hungary National Exhibition was an album filled with photographic artifacts. Most of the places still exist, but they have been irreparably altered by modernity. One hundred and twenty years does not seem like that long ago, until you see compelling evidence of just how much has changed. The Hungary shown in this book really was history.