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Fun City

Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and Its Culture

by John Lukacs
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 255 pp., $20.95

Few great cities in Europe have suffered more damage in recent centuries than the Hungarian capital; few have shown a greater capacity for renewal. Berlin and Vienna collapsed into ruins during World War II, and Madrid in the Spanish Civil War; Prague, Paris, and Rome have largely escaped devastation, but not so Budapest. The city, or rather three cities, for Buda, Pest, and Óbuda (“ancient Buda”) were officially united only in 1873, flourished as a seat of humanistic learning under King Matthias Corvinus in the fifteenth century, only to fall into the hands of the Ottomans in 1541, and slowly decay for over a century. Budapest was liberated, and almost totally destroyed at the hands of Christian armies in 1686. During the sixteen or so decades punctuated by the revolutionary wars of 1848–1849, it developed into a lively commercial and cultural center. The city was badly damaged during the mid-nineteenth-century uprising, but, ever self-renewing, it then became a dynamic metropolis, the proud capital of a self-confident—over-confident—Great Hungarian Kingdom. Shaken by a lost war and the left-wing revolutions of 1918–1919, it subsequently became the overblown capital of impoversihed and grievously truncated counterrevolutionary Hungary.

Still, the city was culturally alive, at least until 1944, when the Hungarian variety of Nazism descended on Budapest and especially on its Jewish inhabitants. In what amounted to a second Battle of Stalingrad during the winter of 1944–1945, the city was destroyed, but it revived a little in the succeeding short-lived democracy, only to become the shabby seat of the cultural and political monstrosity that was Stalinist Hungary. In 1956, Budapest erupted in an anti-Soviet revolt, which damaged it physically but saved its soul. Repaired and renewed, it is now the appealing capital of an economically troubled but politically hopeful country.

John Lukacs would have us visit Budapest in 1900, the year of its zenith and a turning point in its history. In what is perhaps a discreet allusion to Carl E. Schorske’s classic Fin-de-Siècle Vienna, Lukacs asserts that, unlike other studies, which concentrated on select themes, his own aims at drawing a composite “portrait of a city on many levels, including its physical description together with the description of the lives of its various classes of people.” Such an approach is not without its risks, for it could easily deteriorate into a glorified Baedeker, but it does not: Lukacs’s book is a lyrical, sometimes dazzling, never merely nostalgic evocation of a glorious period in the city’s history.

In 1900, exuberant and not always subtle Hungarian architects were putting the finishing touches on many of the city’s great public and private buildings; business was flourishing. There was an atmosphere of peace and security, and the public congratulated itself on its accomplishments as well as on the thousandth anniversary of independent Hungary. Meanwhile, a young generation of Hungarian artists and intellectuals, in a select few of the capital’s six hundred cafés, was challenging society’s traditional values and preparing to create a democratic nation.

Budapest had grown from a mere 11,000 inhabitants in 1720 to 280,000 in 1867, the year of the Compromise Agreement with Austria, which made Hungary an equal political partner with Austria in the so-called Dual Monarchy. By 1900, its population numbered 716,000 and by 1914 almost a million. It very nearly monopolized the country’s learning, industry, finance, and commerce, to an even greater extent than did Paris in France. Such phenomenal expansion, paralleling that of Chicago in this period, was owing not to natural population increase, for the birth rate in Budapest had taken a sharp turn downward by 1900, but to immigration. In the first half of the nineteenth century, most of the city’s immigrants had been skilled workers from the west or German, Swiss, Greek, Serbian, and Jewish entrepreneurs and tradesmen. In the second half of the century, impoverished gentry landowners in search of a position in the rapidly expanding state bureaucracy began arriving, along with thousands upon thousands of peasants. The newcomers from the countryside were taking on urban airs: peasant dress was fast disappearing. Clothing, even that of the working class, now followed middle-class standards, as Lukacs explains.

Among the immigrant peasants, the Slovaks, coming down from the mountains of northern Hungary, took an essential part in the building of bridges, Europe’s first underground railway (1896), the great railroad stations, and many palaces and factories. Budapest resembled Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland, not only because of its miraculous rate of growth, but also because its labor force often spoke the same tongues as those toiling in the American Midwest. In fact, the road for many led from the Hungarian villages and hamlets to Budapest, from there to the American or Canadian Midwest, and then back again to Hungary, with money to buy a little land or to build a house. Moreover, as in the American cities, this immigrant population rapidly adopted the state language: German, Slavic, and Romanian arrivals soon became Magyars. Their children had to learn Magyar in the Budapest elementary schools and the Magyar authorities encouraged citizens to learn Hungarian.

Aside from peasants, the other large immigrant group in the city was mostly Yiddish-speaking Jews from the east. They too learned to speak Hungarian and, in some cases, Hungarian only. Even the city’s original, mostly German-speaking population had changed its language: around 1850, an absolute majority of the city’s population were German speakers, but by 1900 only an insignificant minority spoke no language other than German. In the census of that year, most of the city’s inhabitants indicated Magyar as their mother tongue. German remained, of course, as the second language of virtually all of the educated classes and the lingua franca (today sadly lacking) of Central and East Central Europe.

Hungarian politicians were proud of the successful “nationalization” of Budapest, and of the attraction the Magyar nation exercised on the ethnic minorities, which made up about one half of the country’s total population in 1900. In reality, integration or assimilation took place mainly in the cities, particularly in Budapest; in the rural districts, the valiant efforts of the government not-withstanding, ethnic boundaries remained stable, or in a few cases changed slightly in favor of the non-Magyar population. Lukacs rightly attributes the Magyarization of the metropolis to the inherent prestige of the landed nobility. This seeming contradiction becomes understandable if we consider that the numerous Hungarian nobility had traditionally dominated the country and, in 1900, still held political and social, if no longer economic, sway.

The magic appeal of the Hungarian noble values and way of life to the urban populace has fascinated historians and literary people, and it figures prominently in the Proustian novels of Gyula Krúdy, who is indisputably John Lukacs’s favorite Hungarian. Krúdy’s Budapest was a curious mixture of the very modern and the very provincial: a place where aristocrats, burghers, and workers preferred the same food; where the finance aristocracy dreamed of buying country manors and estates; and where hundreds of industrialists, businessmen, lawyers, judges, and artists sought and obtained patents of nobility from Emperor-King Francis Joseph. The Hungarian ceremonial dress, a remarkably ornate costume allegedly modeled after that of Hungary’s ancient noble warriors, but in reality a recent creation of mostly non-Magyar tailors, was worn on solemn occasions not only by a Prince Esterházy but also by a commoner mathematics professor at Budapest University and by József Lukács, an ennobled banker and father of the Marxist-Leninist philosopher Georg Lukács. At the millennial celebration of 1896, among the many gorgeously caparisoned delegations parading before Francis Joseph, appeared the mounted delegation of the Budapest municipality, which included two Jewish mill owners. Adulation of the landed nobility and country life was reflected in the Budapest mania for gypsy music, in popular plays idealizing peasants, and in the bourgeoisie’s ostentatious disregard for bourgeois thrift, which it nevertheless practiced, in secret.

Budapest’s was a highly class-conscious society, with at least five forms of salutation, as John Lukacs relates, ranging from “Gracious Sir,” through “Dignified Sir” and “Great Sir” (accorded to ordinary members of the middle class), all the way down to a mere “Hey, You!” There also existed three forms of address: “He/She” (note that Hungarian does not differentiate between genders!), “You,” and “Thou,” which caused a maid to say such things to her ailing mistress as, “Great Lady! It is Her pleasure to be very ill?” And yet, in turn of the century Budapest, there was also a good deal of social mobility.

This was indeed a colorful place, magnificently embellished by the Danube, which flows straight through its center between Buda and Pest. The Buda side of the city rises in steep terraces above the Danube, providing a grand amphitheater for the panorama below. On Castle Hill, aristocrats and patricians resided in age-old town houses; in other Buda districts, German and Hungarian artisans still plied their ancient trades. Further out, on the higher hills of Buda, lilacs were as common as peach trees. On the Pest shore stood great new hotels and public buildings, which served as a wall to obscure crowded tenements, factories, and slums (as well as a few districts of elegant villas) from the gaze of passengers on the Danube steamships.

The further one moved away from the Danube in Pest, the more likely one was to meet with poverty. There was even a Jewish ghetto, although its boundaries were never clearly defined, and it served merely as a transit station for immigrants from the east. Those who could afford it moved rapidly into one of the freshly constructed districts or even into elegant old ones. Neither in Buda nor in Pest were social classes strictly segregated, in part because of the Central European practice of erecting huge rectangular tenement buildings whose opulent fronts gave on the street, while their much more modest back sides opened onto a usually dreary courtyard. And whereas the front section housed the well-to-do bourgeois, the three other sections housed the lower classes, in one-room flats with, at most, a kitchen. The worst were those flats whose tenants had been driven by economic necessity to admit “bedgoers,” in alternating night shifts and day shifts. Bedgoing was a common practice in Budapest, a phenomenon John Lukacs barely mentions, since he is not much interested in the lives of the poor. It is true, however, that housing conditions had been getting better even for the proletariat.

Not everything was well with Hungary or Budapest, of course, and, as Lukacs shows, 1900 or, rather, the years soon thereafter marked a turning point for the worse in their history. The main trouble was Hungarian megalomania, nowhere better expressed than in the titanic parliament building, the largest in the world, close to completion on the Pest shore. In Lukacs’s words, its architecture is an “eclectic combination of Magyar-medieval, French-Renaissance, [and] Westminsterian neo-Gothic, with a neobaroque ground plan, and much polychrome inside.” It aimed to demonstrate the virtues of the Hungarian parliamentary system, allegedly as old as that of England; it served, rather, as a monument to Hungary’s great-power dreams. Nonetheless, it offers an impressive sight as it stretches along the Danube and also serves, in the predominance of its soaring Gothic spires, to identify Budapest irrevocably with the culture of the West.

Officially termed the “Hungarian Empire,” the country was in practice Austria’s junior economic partner, a tutelage the Hungarians bitterly resented. Instead of tackling such questions as the prevalence of great landed estates and rural poverty, or the demands of the national minorities, the parliamentary deputies concentrated on relations with Austria, especially the intractable “army language question.” On this issue, both the conservative-liberal “Government party” and the equally conservative-liberal “Opposition party” (also called the Independence party) were of the same opinion, except that the former wished to move more slowly.1 Both parties wanted a great national army, completely separate from that of the other half of the Habsburg monarchy; or, if this could not be achieved, they held that army regiments originating in Hungary should use Magyar, and not German, as their language of command and service. Either policy would have caused the dissolution of the Dual Monarchy, for the Common or Joint Army was the sole real tie binding the two partners together.

Francis Joseph had consistently vetoed these projects, but the Hungarian parliament persisted and, in 1905, national elections brought in the Independence party with its program of dividing the Joint Army. Few cared to note that one half of the recruits in the new Hungarian national army would have been non-Magyar speakers, and that without the protection of the multinational, ethnically and religiously indifferent Joint Army, Hungary would have been hard pressed to defend itself against its covetous neighbors or to defend the Magyar oligarchy against the lower classes and national minorities. There followed a major political crisis and near civil war, which ended, it is true, with a new compromise between Francis Joseph and Hungary in 1906. But this compromise was clearly understood as only temporary, and a final showdown between Austria and Hungary as well as between Magyars and the domestic nationalities seemed inevitable. During the crisis, a grand alliance of the crown with the Hungarian bourgeois democrats, socialists, and the national minorities had begun to take shape, but nothing came of that, and the opportunity for genuine reform was lost. At all times, Francis Joseph demonstrated a better understanding of the Hungarian dilemma than did the Magyar politicians: his view was that a small nation was attempting to preserve its historic rights over a region much too large for its means.

The army language issue was actually a time-honored national grievance, alive since the 1790s.2 More troubling was the gradual change in public attitudes, which Lukacs describes most convincingly. To put it briefly, there occurred a partial turning away from the country’s liberal tradition, together with a growing revolt against capitalism and against those who in Hungary stood for capitalist development, namely the Jews. No doubt this was a general European phenomenon, more threatening in France, for instance, than in Hungary, but it began to put an end to the great domestic compromise between the historic nobility and the new business elite. The anticapitalist trend was noticeable even in the Government party, to say nothing of the Opposition, and among great landowners as well as among craftsmen. A new mass political party also entered the scene, whose “Catholic” label clearly conveyed the message that it was neither liberal nor Jewish. Parliament had always been marked by a preference for monologues over rational discussion; now there was even more speechmaking. A deep cultural pessimism had begun to invade both politics and journalism, with more and more talk about the nation’s great historical mission, its tragic fate, its struggle for survival, and its racial superiority. Nationalism was taking on a populist aspect, which ultimately meant anti-urbanism and xenophobia.

Jews made up about 5 percent of the country’s inhabitants but one fourth of the population of Budapest, and because suffrage was tied to educational and financial qualifications, they made up nearly one half of the city’s voting population. This was perfectly acceptable to the old liberal nationalists, who regarded the Jews as mainstays of the economy and as enthusiastic assimilationists; but it exasperated the new nationalists, who saw Jews as the cause, among other things, of urban decadence and immorality. Clearly, Budapest had become too successful, too big, and too modern for the rest of the country. It was an anomaly for the Jewish 5 percent of the population to own most of the mines, factories, and banks, and to predominate in the arts, journalism, and the free professions. But the anti-Semites overlooked the fact that all had benefited from Jewish economic and cultural activity, and that the proportion of Jews in the population had already begun to decline, while a good many Jews, largely from the educated classes, converted each year to Christianity. The opponents of Jews saw the Jewish legislators, judges, professors, generals, capitalists, and landowners. Students, especially, were in the forefront of the anti-Jewish drive, powerfully assisted by a few younger priests. For the first time in Hungary, the assimilationist trend had begun to be reversed, and some clubs were closing their doors to Jews.

Yet contemporary Hungarian anti-Semitism should not be exaggerated (and Lukacs does not do so); for Francis Joseph, the Hungarian government, and much of the public remained supremely tolerant throughout those years. In fact, never in their history did Jews achieve more personal dignity than precisely in this period, when careers were still open to them and when, as would happen during World War I, thousands of Jews wore the officers’ golden porte-épée. In any case, an unheard-of economic prosperity obscured, for the time being, the growing economic rivalry between Jews and Gentiles.

John Lukacs attempts to draw not merely the portrait of a city at a specific moment of its history but also the collective portrait of a generation, that of “1900.” For him, this stands for the creative intellectuals who were in their formative years at that time. In reality, he describes the lives and doings of more than one generation, with birth dates ranging over several decades. He writes about all those whom he admires—and about some whom he detests.

There were, in the first place, the ones who became world famous: the musicians Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, Ernst von Dohnányi, Joseph Szigeti, George Szell, and Eugene Ormandy; the movie makers Sir Alexander Korda, Joseph Pasternak, Michael Curtiz (Kertész), and the actor Paul Lukas; the photographers André Kertész and Brassaï; the architects Marcel Breuer and László Moholy-Nagy; the economist Thomas Balogh; the play wrights Ferenc Molnár and Melchior Lengyel; the journalists Theodor Herzl and Arthur Koestler; the sociologist Karl Mannheim; the philosophers Michael Polányi, Karl Kerényi, and Georg Lukács; the scientists Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, George Békésy, Leo Szilárd, Theodore von Kármán, Lipót Fejér, and Georg de Hevesy; as well as “one of the most adventurous mountebanks of the twentieth century,” Ignác Trebitsch-Lincoln. Most of these luminaries eventually became expatriates: some because of their cosmopolitan profession; others because of their opposition to one or another of Hungary’s post-1918 regimes—Communist, rightwing, and then again Communist; others because of the lure of German or French culture; and, finally, many more because, as Jews, they no longer felt at home in interwar Hungary. Indeed, most of those I have listed were Jews or converted Jews.

Lukacs attributes the international success of the expatriates mainly to the Hungarian educational system, created in the 1870s by such great liberal reformers as Baron József Eötvös. Emphasizing the “discipline of brainwork” over character building, this system was also tolerant of different religions to a degree almost unmatched elsewhere. Tolerance extended to the nations’s private schools, with the result that some of the greatest Jewish scientists received their training, of all places, in the Budapest Lutheran Gymnasium.

John Lukacs’s true sympathy lies, however, not with the famous expatriates, but with the writers and intellectuals who lived and died at home: the poets Endre Ady and Mihály Babits; the novelists Ferenc Herczeg, Sándor Hunyady, Frigyes Karinthy, Dezsö Kosztolányi, Gyula Krúdy, Kálmán Mikszáth, and Zsigmond Móricz; the political essayist Dezsö Szabó; the playwright Ernö Szép; the literary historian Antal Szerb; and others. Their names have become household words in Hungary, but because, unlike Theodor Herzl or Georg Lukács, they wrote solely in Hungarian, they have remained little known outside the country. In recent decades, scores of Hungarians have endeavored to convince a skeptical world of the superior virtues of early twentieth-century Hungarian letters, and they have actually won a few converts, such as Edmund Wilson, who learned Hungarian in order to read Endre Ady and other Magyar poets in the original. Wilson was enchanted with what he found, but as I myself had occasion to observe during conversations with him, his interpretation of Hungarian poetry was unfortunately very much his own, with scarce support from the original text.

Some of the “home-bound” writers and poets have had a few of their works translated into English, French, and most often German, yet none has received the international recognition that John Lukacs considers his due. He too sets out to explain Hungarian literature to English-speaking readers. Though I have no idea whether or not he will succeed, few interpreters of Hungarian literature have made a more touching and eloquent attempt. Lukacs writes of Gyula Krúdy:

He is translatable only with the greatest of difficulty…. One reason for this is the alluvial soil of his imagination and memory, whereby his writing is full of rich and unique allusions to Magyar things, places and times…. Another reason is the lyrical tone of his prose, a slow cello-like music rising and falling, in accord with the rhythm of the Hungarian language.

The reason for this frustrating situation lies, Lukacs believes, in the peculiarities of the Magyar language, so completely alien to Indo-European tongues. Among many other strange habits, Magyar speech puts the emphasis always on the first syllable, which gives it a wild and unfamiliar ring. Certainly, the leaders of pre–World War I Hungary’s numerous ethnic minorities never ceased to claim that learning Magyar was excruciatingly difficult as well as useless, and that a nation speaking such an outlandish tongue deserved no political predominance in the Carpathian Basin. In reality, as we have seen, immigrants to Budapest learned to speak Hungarian with relative ease.

There may not have been a generation of 1900, but there definitely was a distinctive group of young intellectuals at that time, whom Hungarian historians call the “Second Reform Generation.” (The First Reform Generation flourished in the period before 1848.) It included several of the writers and poets already listed, but its leaders—if one can speak of leaders in such a vaguely organized group—were sociologists and political thinkers. They centered around such clubs and journals as Nyugat (“Occident”) and Huszadik Század (“Twentieth Century”), and their politics were of the left, even though the leftist views of some, such as Endre Ady and Oszkár Jászi, must be seen in relation to the stodginess of official conservative-liberalism. They wished to create a new morality, to make society more democratic, to bring the benefits of learning to workers, and to foster social as well as ethnic equality.

John Lukacs turns on the radicals within the Hungarian intelligentsia with almost the same vehemence with which he treated the populist nationalists. He believes they were a boisterous and intolerant lot who mixed an incurable naiveté with strident internationalism and blatant anti-Christian tendencies. No doubt the radicals’ unconditional progressivism helped contribute to the rift between left and right, between city and country, between the intelligentsia and most others, and also between Jews and Gentiles. No doubt, too, some radicals were utopian dreamers and some later helped to run the inept and ruthless 1919 Republic of Soviets. But others, such as Oszkár Jászi, recoiled in horror from Bolshevism. And if the Second Reform Generation was utopian, so, to a much greater extent, was the new nationalist elite which believed that one could perpetrate and even expand the “Hungarian Empire.” When their dreams seemed threatened, the nationalists willingly made war in 1914. Even the miserable Republic of Soviets must be seen as part of Hungarian society’s reaction to the lost war and the failure of the old regime.

This, then, was 1900 or, better, the first decade of the twentieth century: the culmination of a truly inspiring development in Hungary, but also the beginning of moral and spiritual decline. Much of Budapest’s self-confidence had been incurably naive, a naiveté perfectly illustrated by the gorgeous funeral of the painter Mihály Munkácsy in 1900, eloquently described here by Lukacs. This fashionable artist, for whose dramatic biblical and historical scenes American collectors had been paying fortunes (a large tableau hangs in the New York Public Library), but whose shortcomings had long been exposed by Western European and Hungarian art critics, was buried in Budapest as Hungary’s favorite artist and greatest son. Not untypically, Munkácsy was a Hungarian patriot of German stock.

Surely, the glitter of fin-de-siècle Budapest was partly phony. Still, it was paradise compared to what would come later: two wars, poverty, mindless nationalism, fascism, genocide, Nazi and Soviet occupation, and Stalinism. From these tragedies, the city and the nation have yet to recover.

  1. 1

    “Conservative-liberal” is a term often used by modern Hungarian historians to describe a political elite that was as feudal as it was progressive, attempting to maintain a precarious balance between a traditional social hierarchy, freedom of conscience, and free enterprise. 

  2. 2

    From among John Lukacs’s numerous major publications, this is the first to deal with Hungary. It might be the reason for the small historical errors it contains, especially on Hungary’s pre-1900 history. Fortunately, none of these mistakes misleads the reader about historical events.