The Siege of Budapest

The merits of Krisztián Ungváry’s Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II are at least twofold. First, as a military history it is unrivaled. None of the otherwise quite good military histories of the battles of Stalingrad or Warsaw or Berlin comes close to its minute details and to its vivid reconstruction of where and when and how troops moved and fought. Military historians ought to study The Siege of Budapest with jewelers’ eyes. So must the people of Budapest, and the diminishing minority among them who experienced its siege sixty years ago (as did I, a historian, who found many details in this superb reconstruction that were new to me).

Krisztián Ungváry’s second merit may be even greater. He has written not only a military history par excellence but a civil, political, sociographic reconstruction of a dreadful and sordid (and, on occasion, heroic) drama of a siege of a great capital city, inevitably including one million inhabitants, whose very existences and minds were also involved in a brutal civil war that was at the same time a war within a war. And so not only the extent but the complexity of that dreadful (yes, full of dread—there may not be a better word) drama is without equal, with a meaning that lives even beyond the history of the Second World War.

Such a history, with many of its difficulties, poses a problem for readers thousands of miles and at least two generations away. This is why I have taken it upon myself to write a necessary foreword to this magisterial work. To the difficulties of its very complicated subject matter I must now turn.

One is the psychological situation even now. A curious condition—which, to the best of my knowledge, has not been approached, let alone analyzed, by psychohistorians—is the distinct reluctance of many civilians to talk about their horrible and demeaning experiences during a war. (A recent description of this phenomenon was made by the excellent German writer W.G. Sebald. He was astounded by how few German men and women spoke about their sufferings in the air raids during the war: strange, since they and we knew of the increasingly indiscriminate bombing of German cities, as well as the otherwise frequent German tendency to self-pity, especially after their defeat.)

Such a psychic condition applies, not exactly but to a great extent, to Budapest and to much of Hungary in 1944–1945, when the sufferings of war included, among other horrors, Russian soldiers raping thousands of women. Shame and fear may perhaps explain this condition of unspoken or suppressed memories. But in the case of Budapest there was, and remains, something more than that. For many reasons—political and not only psychological ones—many Hungarians have not been able or willing to rethink (in plain English, to digest) the tragic history of their country and of its people in 1944–1945. And this in a city where a few ruins …

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