Hungary is much in the news at the moment, whether it’s fish finger apartheid (I am not making this expression up) or, rather more seriously, concerns over its right wing government’s attitudes towards freedom of speech and ethnic and religious minorities, and about the growth of far-right extremism generally. So it was a good time to read this book, about this lovely country which deserves a lot better than it’s currently getting – but, given that I’m always on the lookout for historical fiction set in Central and Eastern Europe, I have no idea how I’ve never come across this book, set (mostly) in 20th century Hungary, before! It’s older than I am. And it’s excellent. (And I can’t believe I’ve just used the terms “historical fiction” and “20th century” in the same sentence. Bleurgh!!)
For some reason, I thought, when I found this going cheap for Kindle, that it was going to be set in the 19th century, so I was expecting Kossuth, Liszt and the Ausgleich (Kiegyezes, in Hungarian – I’ve just had to look up because I’ve only ever come across the German term for it, which is probably quite telling). When I think about Hungarian history, I think about the Arpadians, the Mongol invasions, the Battle of Mohacs, the Thirty Years’ War, the wars with the Ottomans, the Rakoczi Uprising and, as I said, Kossuth, Liszt and the Ausgleich.
I know what happened during the 20th century, obviously, but I’m better with anything that happened before the First World War … but I think it did me a lot of good to be made to think a lot longer and harder about what happened in Hungary from 1914 to … well, I was expecting the book to finish in 1956, with the uprising and the Soviet invasion, but it actually finished in 1948. Oh, and, because it finished in 1948, I can’t get Ferenc Puskas and the rest of the Mighty Magyars in anywhere, so I’ll just mention them here! Seriously, when I went to Hungary, people were far more interested in talking to me about that match in 1953 than about anything else!
Just going back to fish finger apartheid, to prove that I really didn’t make the expression up, apparently some food manufacturers are supplying supermarkets in former Eastern Bloc states with poorer quality fish fingers (this is also happening with biscuits, Nutella, cocoa powder and various other things) than the supposedly identical ones supplied to supermarkets elsewhere in Europe. Honestly, this is true. Hungarian, Polish, Czech and Slovak officials have held talks about it. OK, OK, it’s not funny …
The book revolves one extended family, and, in particular, the four children – Amalia (Malie), Eva, Jozsef and Leo – of impoverished Catholic aristocrat Martha Ferenc, nee Bogozy, and her wealthy Jewish middle class husband, Zsigmond Ferenc. Their niece Kati Racs-Rassay, the daughter of Zsigmond’s sister and her Catholic aristocratic husband, is the third of the three girls around whose lives the book revolves early on. So you get the idea – this family is of mixed heritage. But that wasn’t uncommon in the big cities of Central Europe at the time – although the book isn’t actually set in a city, but, mainly in an unnamed town, and also in the families’ country homes/farms. We also have the Kaldys, who are of 100% aristocratic descent but haven’t got much money, Karoly Vilaghy, who is also 100% aristocratic but has even less money, David Klein, who is a member of the cultured, well-educated, liberal Jewish middle-classes, and Janos Marton, a very bright peasant boy who lives in poverty on the Kaldys’ estate. So it’s very cleverly done – a lot of different social groups are represented.
I always feel bad about using the word “peasant”, because it has such negative connotations in England, where the idea of “peasants” really went out with the Middle Ages, but it’s different in most Continental countries. Serfdom was not fully ended in Hungary until 1848 – only thirteen years before it was abolished in Russia, the country which most people would probably think of first when asked about the subject. Budapest grew and expanded rapidly in the late nineteenth century, and became of the leading cultural centres in Europe, but most Hungarians still lived in the countryside. Name the second biggest city in Hungary. Can you? It’s Debrecen. United played their team in a Champions League qualifier 13 years ago: until then, I’d barely heard of the place. So, yes, Hungary isn’t really a country of cities. Several sections of the book are set in Budapest, though, and others are set in Vienna and Berlin.
The book starts in 1914, with the coming out ball of Kati Racs-Rassay. It’s not quite like Gone With The Wind, where all the young men gallop off to war in the middle of the Twelve Oaks barbecue, but war breaks out fairly soon afterwards. And it was, of course, Austria-Hungary which dragged everyone else into war. OK, if it hadn’t been the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, it would have been something else – the Kaiser had been spoiling for a fight for years – but it was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, or, rather, Austria-Hungary’s ridiculous behaviour towards Serbia as a result of it. And there is very much that Gone With The Wind feeling there – one minute, Malie and Eva, like Scarlett O’Hara, have got nothing more to worry about than which young men they fancy and what they’re going to wear for their next social event, and, the next minute, they’re caught up in a long and terrible war – the difference being that we do actually see what the men in the army are going through, as well as what’s happening on the home front.
I won’t give the story away in terms of which of the beaux survive the war and which don’t, and who ends up married to whom, but suffice it to say that none of the three girls ends up with a man of her choice. Despite that, one of the marriages turns out very well, one has its ups and downs but turns out OK in the end, and only one is a disaster.
The war, then. The Austro-Hungarian army – I really want to write a long essay on the historical background going back to the 16th century and the marriage of Ferdinand Habsburg and Anna Jagellon, but better not – was initially involved on two fronts, one against Serbia and one against Russia. Italy then declared war on Austra-Hungary in 1915, as did Romania in 1916. As the war continued, the Empire began to fall apart, with the various Slavic groups within it calling for independence. There was industrial unrest, and there were severe food shortages. In October 1918, with the war obviously lost and everything collapsing, Hungary dissolved its union with Austria, and the liberal Hungarian People’s Republic was set up, in the Aster Revolution.
The British tendency is usually to focus on domestic issues and the Irish situation, when thinking about the period immediately after the First World War, so we probably don’t think that much about the follow-up mess. Well, we do about the civil war in Russia, I suppose – I do, anyway – but not so much so about the wars between Russia and Poland, Greece and Turkey (even though Lloyd George and Churchill were all for Britain joining in with that), and Hungary and Romania. What is generally acknowledged is that the settlements at the end of the First World War were, with hindsight, a mistake, and that the problems they caused contributed big style to what happened in Germany in the 1930s. But what about Hungary?
What had been the Kingdom of Hungary lost two thirds of its territory, more than any other European state did in the post-First World War carve-up. OK, much of that territory, notably Slovakia and Croatia, was largely inhabited by non-Hungarians, but Hungary also lost many areas where most or a majority of the population was Hungarian. Sorting out borders when land empires collapse is a messy business, and there are areas all over Central Europe and the Balkans where political borders and ethnolinguistic borders don’t quite match, but it really is – and was – more of an issue for Hungary than for any other state. Austria lost South Tyrol to Italy, and some other mainly German-speaking areas to Poland, but that was nothing compared to what happened with Hungary. There are still large numbers of Hungarians in Vojvodina in Serbia (an autonomous province which, strangely, never seemed interested in independence from Serbia when Yugoslavia broke up), in Transylvania in Romania, and in parts of Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Ukraine and, in particular, Slovakia. There’s been some unpleasantness very recently over Ukraine’s decision to ban teaching in Hungarian (and Romanian) in secondary schools, and there’ve been similar issues in Slovakia since 2009.
Hungary was also banned from having an air force or from having tanks, and, like Austria, was denied access to the sea. And Czechoslovakia got most of the industry, because of where it was located. I’ve usually tended to think of Hungary as getting most of the decent farmland, and Austria getting the worst deal economically, but Hungary was cut off not only from the industry but also from the banking and financial institutions.
The “Little Entente” of Czechoslovakia, Romania and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, with strong support from France … well, didn’t exactly gang up on Hungary, but there was certainly a sense of being prepared to back each other against any attempts by Hungary to regain territory, and also against any prospect of a Habsburg restoration. Hungary was still officially a kingdom throughout most of the inter-war period, albeit one without a king in situ, and to this day the Habsburgs are far more popular in Hungary than they are in Austria, so that was a concern. So Hungary was not in a good place, to use the modern parlance.
Going back to the Aster Revolution and the Hungarian People’s Republic As with Kerensky’s government in Russia, that might have worked OK … but, in mid-1919, it was overthrown in a communist coup. The Hungarian Soviet Republic was set up, and the Red Terror launched against those it considered its enemies. It lasted four and a bit months. Romania invaded. Some Czechoslovak troops also invaded Hungary, and some Hungarian communist troops invaded Czechoslovakia, and set up a Slovak Soviet Republic, which lasted for three weeks. Keep up! The communist leaders did a runner, and counter-revolutionary soldiers launched the White Terror, torturing and killing communists, liberals … pretty much anyone else they didn’t like, especially Jews. By 1921, it’d all calmed down, and Hungary went back to being the Kingdom of Hungary. Without a king. Effectively, a dictatorship under Miklas Horthy. Nothing much was done do deal with economic inequality, and there was discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, over and over again.
The focus at this point switches to the men. It’s not really great that the social stuff focused on the women and the political stuff on the men, but, OK, different times. Both Leo Ferenc and Janos Marton are attracted by communism, and Felix Kaldy, the eldest Kaldy son, by fascism. The far-right in Hungary, whilst – as in Germany – not generally popular with aristocrats, particularly appeals to Felix because of his anti-Jewish views. Hitler also played on Hungarian feelings of injustice about the post-war settlement by talking about restoring some of Hungary’s lost territories – which he duly did, giving Hungary control of part of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and part of Transylvania in 1940 – and, during the Depression, Hungary had become heavily dependent on Germany economically. When war came, Hungary allied with the Third Reich and joined it in invading first Yugoslavia and then the Soviet Union. Leo’s sent into a labour battalion and Janos into the army, but both try to work with the Soviets, genuinely believing that the answer lay in communism. Poor families like the Martons had gained nothing from the collapse of the Empire. Families with Jewish connections, like the Ferencs, had been better off before.
Large numbers of Jews and Roma were deported to concentration camps – and this is the fate of most of the characters, other than those in the army or labour battalions, who are either Jewish or have Jewish ancestry. Sent to Auschwitz where all of them, apart from Malie, are murdered. Eva, her two children and Kati’s son manage to go into hiding – but, when the Red Army invaded Hungary in 1944, the Soviet troops carried out mass rapes of Hungarian women, and we hear that Eva and her daughter Terez were amongst those attacked. This happened in Germany and Austria as well, and Japanese troops carried out similar crimes in China and Korea. It continues to happen – it happened during the partition of India in 1947, in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, to Yazidi women in Iraq, to women attacked by Boko Haram forces in Nigeria, to Rohingya women in Myanmar, to women and even children in refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s thought that Soviet troops raped two million women in Germany alone.
We don’t actually see the attacks on Eva and Terez, and we don’t see any scenes at all at Auschwitz. I don’t know why the author chose not to show that: maybe it was something she found too difficult to write about, or maybe it was just that ideas about what was and wasn’t appropriate for inclusion in a mass market book were different in the 1970s, when the book was written. We do miss large chunks of every character’s life, but that’s inevitable unless there’s only one main character, but it does particularly strike the reader that we don’t actually see Auschwitz. But we hear bits about it. And we know that Malie’s the only one of the characters sent there who comes back.
As the Soviets advanced, the Nazis retreated, wrecking the place as they went, and the Hungarian fascists continued to deport or murder thousands of Hungarian Jews. After the war, Hungary’s pre-1938 borders were restored – minus a bit of land awarded to Czechoslovakia. Some ethnic Germans were deported, as they were from Poland. Elections were held in late 1945 – democratic elections, the first ones in Hungary on a universal franchise – and won by a centre-right peasant party. But the Soviet-backed communists weren’t having that. They forced the Smallholders’ Party into a coalition and, after failing to win the 1947 election either, they forced the Social Democrats to merge with them, and forced all opposition leaders out of the picture completely, mainly into exile.
Leo Ferenc and, in particular Janos Marton, had had such high hopes of communism. When I was a little kid, I didn’t actually know what communism was. I thought the word just meant “totalitarianism”. Not that I knew the word “totalitarianism” when I was a little kid, but that sort of thing. We were just taught that communists were baddies. I remember being amazed when I found out what communism was actually supposed to be, and being told off when I remarked that it actually sounded like something … well, really quite good. It’s never had the chance to be that, has it? And, because of that, we forget how much hope people placed in it. Leo and Janos both have their idealistic views shattered by the party apparatus. Leo defects. Janos tries to forge a life as an ordinary bloke, as far as possible from the political system in which he once played a big part.
The book ends before the passing of the Hungarian Constitution of 1949, but that set up the People’s Republic of Hungary, along Soviet lines.
I can hardly believe that, next year, it’ll be thirty years since the Berlin Wall came down. It started with Hungary, didn’t it? OK, Poland had Solidarity et al, but the 1989 thing started with people moving freely between Hungary and Austria. Down came the Berlin Wall. Down went most of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe. Then, in February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The lion was going to lie down with the lamb and we were all going to live happily ever after. Remember that? Lasted until the beginning of August, when Iraq barged into Kuwait. Oh well, we had a few months of feeling optimistic. We’re not exactly in that position now, and the state of affairs in Hungary is part of that.
The author does try to end on a positive note, with Eva and Malie reminiscing about their days as the belles of the ball and joking that they’re still the fabulous Ferenc sisters. And, although the subject matter of the book sounds so depressing, it’s actually a very good read. But poor Hungary. It just seems, as I said earlier, to keep jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.