From its original settlement by the Celts and Romans to the creation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the establishment of a free and democratic state in 1990, Hungary has a long and varied history.
The ancestors of Hungarians took possession of the Carpathian Basin in 895–900 AD, when the area was inhabited by Celts, Romans, Huns and Avars. As the first and unmistakable sign of approximation to the West, Grand Prince Géza of Hungary (971–997 AD) converted to Christianity. His son, Vajk – who was later given the baptismal name Stephen – was crowned king in 1000 AD in recognition of full right membership to the European Christian community. Stephen (Árpád dynasty, 1000–1038 AD), established the church organization in Hungary, and the royal comitat became the basic unit of public administration. The Monarch, who was canonized in 1083, depicted his empire as a welcoming, tolerant country in his advices to his son, entitled “Intelmek” (Book of Admonitions). Hungary’s first charter (Golden Bull of 1222) was issued under the realm of Andrew II (Árpád dynasty, 1205–1235), its basis being the English charter Magna Charta.
Material and territorial growth was cut short by the Mongol invasion (1241–1242), but Béla IV (Árpád dynasty, 1235–1270) rebuilt the country, invited settlers to deserted areas and strengthened the defence system with fortresses.
The heritage of the Árpád dynasty left its mark on Hungary: it became the country of religious tolerance, a multiracial state, in which the different ethnic groups enjoyed considerable autonomy.
When the Árpád dynasty died out, the Anjou dynasty gained Hungary’s throne. At the first Congress of Visegrád in 1335, the kings of Bohemia and Poland, and Charles Robert of Hungary (Anjou dynasty, 1308–1342) eased tensions of territorial claims and laid the foundations of a broader cooperation. In 1370, Louis the Great (Anjou dynasty, 1342–1382) seized the Polish throne, which resulted in a personal union between Poland and Hungary. His son-in-law, Sigismund (House of Luxembourg, 1387–1437), who was also King of Germany and Bohemia, and Holy Roman Emperor, threw his enormous international authority into the scales to prevent the Catholic schism, and Europe joined forces under his leadership to stop the expansion of the Ottoman Turks. His successor, Albert became the first Habsburg king of Hungary. (As one of the most prominent royal houses of Europe, the House of Habsburg occupied the Hungarian throne from 1540 to 1918).
In the 15th century, Regent-Governor John Hunyadi stopped the Turks several times, and in 1456, with the help of John of Capistrano (an Italian theologian and preacher), he scored a victory in Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade) which was widely acclaimed in Europe. His son, Matthias Corvinus, (House of Hunyadi, 1458–1490) organised a permanent army of mercenaries, which was Europe’s most powerful and experienced military corps. Matthias was a genuine Renaissance monarch, his library was one of the biggest collections in the continent, and he surrounded himself with humanist philosophers. As he had no legitimate heir, the throne descended to the Lithuanian-Polish Jagiellon dynasty. Vladislaus II (Jagiellon dynasty, 1490–1516) was followed on the throne by his ten-year-old son Louis II (Jagiellon dynasty, 1516–1526), but even the boy’s legal guardians, who led the country, were unable to stop the Ottoman army which crushed the weathered Hungarian troops in 1526, at Mohács.
After the partition of Hungary, the Ottomans took the castle of Buda by ruse (1541). The Sultan’s army ravaged the system of Hungarian border fortresses, but failed to conquer the castle of Eger, despite the fact that it was 30 times superior in number to the defenders. In 1532, they suffered a similar defeat in Kőszeg, where a strong garrison of 1000 soldiers stopped Suleiman, who had prepared to siege Vienna. As Transylvania backed John Zápolya’s claim to the throne instead of Ferdinand of Habsburg, the country split, and the Principality of Transylvania was formed, although it was an Ottoman vassal state for most of its existence. It lived its days of glory under Stephen Bocskai, Prince of Transylvania (1605–1606), who founded schools and libraries, guaranteed freedom of religion to Protestants, and was involved in the Thirty Years’ War.
In the second half of the 17th century, voices in favour of driving the Turks out got stronger, but a disadvantageous peace treaty was the best the weak country could attain, so more and more people fled from Ottoman Hungary to Upper Hungary or Transylvania. When the Ottomans acknowledged the leader of the exiles, Imrich Thököly as reigning prince of Upper-Hungary, the country split into four.
In 1683 the Turks failed to make their long-cherished dream of invading Vienna come true, but the weakened Transylvania could not avoid its fate either, and become absorbed in the Habsburg Empire. After 150 years of Ottoman dominance, Buda was liberated under the command of Charles V, Duke of Lorraine, and the Austro-Ottoman War was concluded with the Treaty of Karlowitz.
Even though the whole territory of Hungary was liberated from Turk domination, the Habsburgs’ influence continued to grow: Leopold I (House of Habsburg, 1657–1705) made the Hungarian diet of 1687 ratify the male-line succession of the Habsburgs.
At the end of the 17th century, anti-Habsburg sentiments gained ground in Hungary. The claim for independence first culminated in the uprising of Hegyalja in 1697, whose suppression lead to Francis Rákóczi’s War of Independence in 1703–1711. Eventually, the completely helpless Kuruc army surrendered in the fields of Majtény, and the leadership of the uprising chose voluntary exile.
In 1711, Charles III (Hapsburg Dynasty, 1711–1740) managed to have the female succession of the Hapsburg Dynasty accepted. Acting as Hungary’s supreme executive body, the Governing Council moved to Pozsony, the infrastructure was restored and the Catholic Church came to have a stronger structure. In 1740, the crown was passed to Charles’ daughter, Maria Theresa (Hapsburg Dynasty, 1740–1780), who settled the status of serfs, issued an edict on education, and modernised public administration in the counties. Her first-born son, Joseph II (Hapsburg Dynasty, 1780–1790), who refused to be crowned king of Hungary, proclaimed freedom of religion, made German the language of public administration; and issued an edict on serfs. Meanwhile, education had risen to an unprecedented level: György Festetics founded an academy of economics in Keszthely, the mining school in Selmecbánya, which also became an academy, and the university in Nagyszombat moved to Pest.
The first third of the 19th century is known as the Reform Age. In 1825, Count István Széchenyi, a politician and economist, offered the annual income of his estate to establish the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and his father, Ferenc Széchenyi, is credited for founding the Hungarian National Museum. At that time, poet Ferenc Kölcsey, author of the Hungarian National Anthem, and liberal politician Ferenc Deák, later called the Sage of the Country, making their first appearance in the Reform Parliament.
In 1848, the wave of revolutions which swept across Europe, reached Hungary. At the initiative of Lajos Kossuth, mass demonstrations were held for a constitution. On 13 March, Vienna was taken over by the revolutionists. Two days later, the revolution achieved a bloodless victory in Hungary. On 11 April, Hapsburg King Ferdinand V sanctioned the last feudal Parliament’s laws, which lay the foundations for a constitution and civil transformation. This turned Hungary to an independent civil constitutional monarchy. The executive power was vested in the Independent Responsible Ministry (Government) set up in Pest-Buda, and Lajos Batthyány became the first Prime Minister. However, the legitimate Hungarian state power was forced to wage a war of self-defence due to the Croatian rebellion, which was fuelled in Vienna. Parliament declared the dethronement of the Hapsburg Dynasty and the Hungarian State’s independence in Debrecen, on 14 April 1849. But the intervention led by Russian Tsar Nicholas I, sealed the fate of the war of independence. Commander-in-chief of the Hungarian Army Artúr Görgey, the plenipotentiary warlord, surrendered in Világos on 13 August.
The period between 1849 and 1859, the first ten years of the rule of Francis Joseph (Hapsburg Dynasty, 1848–1916), is known as Neoabsolutism. The Hungarians faced cruel retaliations orchestrated by Austrian warlord Julius Jacob von Haynau: Batthyány was executed along with thirteen generals in October 1849. On the grounds that the Hungarians had forfeited their rights by rebelling against their legitimate ruler, Austrian Prime Minister Felix zu Schwarzenberg started large-scale centralisation. Vienna turned the reorganised gendarmerie and police into the means of political repression. While in exile, as one of the best known and most popular politicians in Europe, Kossuth tried to gain international sympathy for the cause of Hungary, but his search for a diplomatic solution failed, and the proponents of passive resistance came to be the majority in Hungary.
The achievements of the revolution produced economic, social and intellectual effects, which promoted the gradual adoption of capitalism. In 1867 Hungary concluded what came to be known as the Compromise with the Hapsburg Empire, with shared control of foreign affairs, national defence and finances, the necessary coverage for both fields. Hungary and Transylvania reunified, and a law was made to emancipate each resident of Transylvania irrespective of their nationality, language or religion.
Between 1867 and 1914, Hungary’s industry achieved a growth bringing the country to the forefront of Europe. Hungary built out its electric industry among the first of its kind worldwide, and agriculture was boosted by milling as its most prosperous sector. Based on a modern school system with an underlying network of first-rate scientific institutions, education demonstrated excellence by European standards with its liberal orientation. The principal achievements of science were produced by Ányos Jedlik (electrical engine), Kálmán Kandó (phase shifter), György Hevesy (radioactive isotope procedure), Loránd Eötvös (Eötvös Pendulum), Tivadar Puskás (telephone exchange) and physician Ignác Semmelweis, the “Saviour of Mothers” (for discovering the cause of childbed fever). The best painters included Mihály Munkácsy, Pál Szinyei Merse, József Rippl-Rónai, and Tivadar Csontváry-Kosztka, and in terms of music, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály made Hungary a real superpower.
In World War I, Hungary suffered unprecedented human and financial losses, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed. In late October 1918, hundreds of thousands demanded that the Hungarian National Council, led by Mihály Károlyi, an aristocrat of the left-wing opposition, take over the government. In the early hours of 31 October, the revolution came to a peaceful victory, and Hungary had its first republic proclaimed. After receipt of the note verbale Vix, which demanded the evacuation of the Eastern parts of the country, the Government resigned, and the power was taken over by a proletarian dictatorship, under People’s Commissioner Béla Kun. The Red Army was defeated by the invading Romanian and Czechoslovakian forces, causing the Hungarian Soviet Republic to be overthrown after 133 days in office, on 1 August 1919.
On 16 November 1919, after the Entente ordered the Romanian Army to leave Hungary, naval officer Miklós Horthy led his National Army to Budapest. The first session of the National Assembly held on 16 February 1920, chose constitutional monarchy without a king as the new form of government, and elected Horthy as Regent of Hungary on 1 March.
World War I was concluded by the peace treaty, which was signed in the Grand Trianon, a palace in Versailles, on 4 June 1920. The Kingdom of Hungary had its territory reduced from 282 to 93 thousand sq. kilometres, and its population from 18.2 to 7.6 million, with more than 3.2 million Hungarians compelled to live beyond the new state borders. The country’s mutilation was seen as a national tragedy and came to determine much of Hungary’s foreign and internal policy in the interwar period.
Head of Government István Bethlen, performed a successful consolidation, repelled the (second) return attempt of Charles IV, which resulted in the dethronement of the Hapsburg Dynasty in 1921. The momentum of consolidation was broken by the 1929 global depression. Afterwards, Hungary gradually shifted to the political right. Prime Minister Gyula Gömbös expected Adolf Hitler’s takeover to redress Hungarian grievances, and the Governments of Kálmán Darányi and Béla Imrédy also acted under the shadow of the Nazi Empire.
Despite its commitment to neutrality in armed conflicts, Hungary became involved in World War II, due to the Tripartite Pact of Germany, Italy and Japan. László Bárdossy, an unconditional servant of Nazi interests, was replaced by Miklós Kállay, more slanted to the Western powers, but he did not manage to conclude a separate peace either. Deployed in the Don Bend, the 2nd Hungarian Army was destroyed by the Soviet Red Army in 1943. Hungary was occupied by the Germans on 19 March 1944, and from April the Jews were gathered in ghettos and deported. After a failed withdrawal from the alliance, the Regent resigned and far-right military officer Ferenc Szálasi, became Prime Minister. The reign of terror of the Arrow and Cross Party was suppressed by the Soviet Army, which liberated Hungary from the Nazis, only to be occupied by them for several decades.
Hungary signed a ceasefire pact on 20 January 1945, recognising the Trianon borders and committing to paying 300 million dollars in reparations. On 31 January 1946, the National Assembly adopted a bill on the proclamation of the republic, and Zoltán Tildy was elected President of the Republic on 1 February. Backed by the Soviet troops stationing in the country, the Communists got rid of their main political rivals, then became the country’s most powerful party by means of the infamous fraud called “blue-ballot” elections in 1947.
A year later, in 1948, the Communists merged with the Social Democrats, which gave rise to a proletarian dictatorship, under Mátyás Rákosi. In 1949, after the absorption of the Social Democrats, they held the first one-party elections and adopted a Soviet type constitution. An unprecedented persecution of religions broke loose. The Communist leaders did away with their rivals, even inside the Party,and forcefully established industries and cooperatives. In 1953, Head of Government Imre Nagy, guaranteed the security of property, supported private enterprises and dissolved the internment camps. But the Soviet opponents of his reforms replaced him with Rákosi again, then with Ernő Gerő.
On 23 October 1956, hundreds of thousands demonstrated for free elections and the withdrawal of the Soviet troops. An armed fight began in the streets of Budapest, and the revolution came to cover the entire country. On 25 October, Gerő was replaced by János Kádár, who became the leader of the party. On 31 October, Imre Nagy announced that negotiations were underway to abandon the Warsaw Treaty and to oblige the Soviet troops to leave Hungary. Given the engagement of France and the UK in the Suez crisis, and the USA’s reluctance to interfere, the Soviet Union began to stage a military intervention against Hungary and attacked Budapest on 4 November. The war of independence was defeated, with retaliations continuing well into 1957. Imre Nagy and his companions were convicted on false charges and executed in 1958.
After restoration of the state party, Kádár consolidated his power and proclaimed general amnesty in 1963. Therefore, the UN removed the Hungarian issue from its agenda, and Hungary broke out of its diplomatic isolation. The economic governance reform (“new economic mechanism”), announced in 1968 gave state companies greater autonomy, but did not change the direction of the political wind.
With a slow improvement of living conditions, Hungary enjoyed greater freedom in its political life than other Communist countries. However, when Soviet Party Chief Leonid Brezhnev took over, reformers were pushed to the periphery, the failure of the forcible establishment of heavy industries became clear with the 1973 global economic crisis, and an inevitable series of borrowings from the West made Hungary indebted for decades. Gaining more and more strength, the opposition movement managed to establish a multi-party system in 1988 and 1989, with the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, the state party, compelled to give up its hegemony. Hungary contributed to the fast collapse of the Communist system in Eastern Germany, and to the German reunification by opening its borders, allowing East German refugees to leave Hungary for the West.
Led by the Opposition Round Table, later re-christened as the National Round Table, Hungary started a peaceful political changeover through negotiations, and 23 October 1989 saw the proclamation of the third Republic of Hungary.