Budapest: Between East and West

I received a copy of this book from the publisher, Hachette Australia, at no cost. It’s out now; $32.99.

Things I knew about Budapest before reading this: it used to be two towns, and pictures of Soviet tanks in the streets in 1956. I think that’s about it, really.

An intriguing aspect of this book is that it’s written by a man born in Budapest, whose family fled Hungary when he was a child. Sebestyen makes no secret of this, and of his connection to the country and the city. So there’s a mix of ‘objective’ history, and also the occasional mention of how things relate to him personally. I like this kind of honesty a lot.

One annoying aspect – and this might just be a personal gripe – isn’t peculiar to Sebestyen, and is at least partly a reflection of the historical record (and my personal preferences). The book begins with a very brief look at what is known of the area around Budapest from pre-history, and then moves to what the Romans did. There’s barely a discussion of Attila and the Huns. By p30 we’re up to the year 1000. p109 and we’re already at 1800 and at p272 it’s the accommodation between Hungary and Hitler’s Germany. The book is 377 pages long. While I know that there’s a lot more evidence for the alter centuries, it always makes me despair that history is given such an unbalanced presentation. As if the modern world is the only bit worth discussing. Sigh.

Despite this preponderance of modern history, Sebestyen does give a good overview of the history of Budapest – as Simon Sebag Montefiore notes in the front cover quotation., it’s really a history of Central Europe. You can hardly have a history of the city without discussing the history of (what is now) the country; and in this particular case, at least some of what was happening in Austria for a few centuries. And so I learned more about the Turkish occupation, as well as how the Habsburgs managed to create Austria-Hungary as a dual monarchy; and of course the role of Hungary in both world wars and then as part of the Soviet bloc.

The story is largely told chronologically, with occasional chapter breaks about particular themes – one in particular that stood out was about the role of the Jewish population in the city. I had no idea that Hungary had been something of a haven for European Jews, although they were still not safe from the occasional pogrom (because anti-Semitism is apparently just too easy). The way that Jews stood outside of the feudal system, basically – and the incredibly bizarre way Hungarian feudalism was structured, with a massive number of nobles who refused to get into trade or anything similar – meaning that Jewish artisans and traders filled that niche.

This book fits into a tradition of using city histories as a way of looking at changes over time, to everything from culture and tradition to language and politics and everything else. The sub-title is pointed, here: part of Sebestyen’s argument is that Hungary doesn’t really fit into the way Europe sees itself, and doesn’t particularly fit elsewhere either. (The story of Hungarian as a language, and the efforts to revive and develop it, is a particularly fascinating part of the book.)

Thoroughly enjoyable.

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