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 …

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