The history of Budapest: from hot springs to Cold War
The twin city combining Buda and Pest straddling the Danube rose to prominence in the Middle Ages. It has faced takeovers by Mongols, Ottomans and the Habsburgs, and played a role in the fall of European communism. Thomas Lorman explore the history of the Hungarian capital
Evidence of people living in the Budapest region stretches back even before the arrival of modern humans. Neanderthals in the Érd Valley, a little south-west of the modern capital, dined on rhinoceros perhaps 40,000 years Vago. But the first proper settlements in the place where Budapest now stands were established in the Bronze Age, on Csepel Island in the middle of the Danube.
In the third century BC, Celts arrived and recognised the area’s natural resources: fresh water and fish from the Danube, a good climate for wine-making, and caves providing secure storage and refuge. They founded their oppidum, or fortified settlement, on the tallest prominence by the Danube, today called Gellért Hill. You can see gold artefacts from that time in the Hungarian National Museum.
By the first century AD, the eastern border of the Roman empire was guarded by a series of forts along the Danube. The most famous in this area was Aquincum, north of central Budapest, which attained the status of a colonia – a Roman town with everything you'd expect: marketplaces, temples and the rest. It now has an excellent museum.
When the Roman empire collapsed, like the cork shooting out of a bottle, wave after wave of peoples flooded across the Carpathian Basin into western Europe. One of those groups was the Huns, from whom some Hungarians – and certainly medieval chroniclers – claim descent; the name Attila is still quite popular in modern Hungary.
The rise of Budapest
According to a traditional Hungarian nationalist narrative, a multi-ethnic coalition known as the Seven Tribes conquered the region in a series of epic battles. The Seven Tribes were led by a man whom chroniclers called Árpád, based in Óbuda (now part of northern Budapest). Certainly, from the late ninth century, Hungarians terrified the rest of continental Europe.
In the year 1000, the pagan chief Vajk accepted Christianity, and was crowned King Stephen I, marking the official conversion of Hungarians. His base was originally in Székesfehérvár, about 40 miles south-west of Budapest, while the archbishops made their primary residence to the north in Esztergom.
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In the 13th century, the Mongols smashed their way into the kingdom. Székesfehérvár was destroyed, as were innumerable villages: almost 90 per cent of settlements disappeared in this period.
During the reconstruction that followed, Hungarian kings decided that the Buda hills west of the Danube provided some protection against forces attacking from the east, and built their royal castle on the hill now known as Castle Hill, establishing the new capital.
As the site of the royal courts, Buda became hugely important. Diets evolved here, which were groups of nobles, effectively early parliaments. Charters were introduced, including the so-called Golden Bull, the Hungarian equivalent of Magna Carta.
Mining – for salt, silver and other resources – increasingly brought both wealth and migrants. These included warriors, miners and others who understood modern technologies. Whole villages effectively moved wholesale to the region – many of them went to Transylvania, but there was significant German settlement in Buda.
One of the few relics from this period is the ruins of the monastery of St Margaret on her namesake island, in the Danube between Buda and Pest, slightly to the north of the city.
During this medieval period, Pest – the flatter area on the Danube’s east bank– developed as the market district, while Óbuda, to the north of Castle Hill, gained a reputation for the cultivation of vineyards. But this was still a border zone: there were profits to be made, but also risks.
Something of a golden age followed the accession of Matthias Corvinus, a classic Renaissance monarch, in 1458. A fabulous library was established, along with universities, and the old medieval dwelling on Castle Hill became known as one of the great palaces of medieval Europe.
But in 1526, a vast Ottoman army defeated Hungarian troops at the battle of Mohács. Hungary’s king and archbishop were killed, along with many nobles, leaving a political vacuum.
Buda effectively became an Ottoman town, and traces of this period remain. There's a Sufi shrine to the dervish poet Gül Baba, some wonderfully preserved 16th-century baths – still in use today – were built, and the grand Matthias Church on Castle Hill was converted into a mosque. There was also a substantial Ottoman middle class and educational system.
In the 1680s, the Habsburgs retook Buda with the help of a multinational crusader force. The Ottoman community – and the Jewish community, which had thrived in Buda since the medieval period – was essentially wiped out. The city was left totally devastated.
Budapest as a Habsburg powerhouse
The surviving members of the influential old noble families moved to Pozsony (known in German as Pressburg, now Bratislava in Slovakia), where the Hungarian diet was held, and where a succession of Habsburg monarchs were crowned – including, famously, Maria Theresa (r1740–80).
Yet Buda’s location ensured it remained an administrative centre under Habsburg rule, managed by German-speakers tasked with reconstructing and stabilising the country and city. The market town of Pest, too, recovered quite rapidly.
There were, naturally, grumblings – and a Hungarian nationalist movement emerged in the late 18th century. In the first decades of the following century, the great statesman Count István Széchenyi pushed to revive Hungary’s glories. That meant restoring Buda and Pest, turning them into a modern metropolis.
Széchenyi raised funds to establish a Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which still stands in the centre of Budapest, and invited Adam Clark to build the first permanent span over the Danube since the Roman era – now called the Széchenyi Chain Bridge.
In 1848, radicals in Pest demanded changes, reflecting the social and political turmoil shaking Europe. Though that revolution was ultimately put down, in 1867 Hungary gained autonomy and home rule. The diet was moved back to Budapest, which again became the country’s political centre.
Budapest as an Art Nouveau epicentre
The capital was now self-consciously built to fit the mould of a major city at the end of the 19th century. A stunning parliament building was erected on the east bank of the Danube, along with a beautiful Art Nouveau opera house and grand boulevards such as Andrássy Avenue.
To commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the conquest of old Buda by the ‘Seven Tribes’ in AD 896 (a conveniently chosen date for a semi-mythical event), a huge Transylvanian castle was recreated, along with vast parks, avenues and squares, even briefly a recreation of a 16th-century Ottoman bazaar.
Meanwhile, Pest was becoming Hungary’s industrial and financial powerhouse. With extraordinary rates of growth, in the late 19th century nobles built grand new houses in Buda and Pest, and the capital began to live up to its reputation as the ‘Paris of the East’. It also attracted immigrants from across central Europe, roughly 20 per cent of whom were Jewish.
In some senses, though, this grand reconstruction was a mirage: under the surface, tensions were bubbling. A socialist movement emerged, protesting the unfair distribution of wealth and the treatment of minorities. Though the city was unified in 1873, with Óbuda, Buda and Pest designated a single municipality, divisions remained between the different areas and between social classes.
Budapest during the First World War
The First World War ratcheted up these tensions. Economically, it destroyed Hungary: the conflict broke out in the middle of the 1914 harvest, and the food supply never recovered. By 1918, the population was starving, and casualties were immense: just under three million Hungarians were killed, wounded or taken prisoner.
The regime that had presided over the economic growth of the late 19th century now faced a welter of recriminations, and accusations were aimed at groups ranging from Jewish ‘profiteers’ and a failing Catholic church to the political elite. The embodiment of that era, prime minister István Tisza – whose statue stands now outside the Hungarian parliament – was shot dead in October 1918, symbolically marking the collapse of the old regime.
The Habsburg monarch Charles I withdrew from politics, the parliament was essentially shut down, and for a brief period Hungary became a republic led by Mihály Károlyi, the richest man in Hungary.
He proved unable to bring about radical social change, and in March 1919 communists under the Transylvanian former journalist Béla Kun took over. The country was ripped apart, with territory seized by Slovaks, Romanians and Serbs uniting with their ethnic kin across the borders.
Even after the communists were forced out and a counter-revolutionary government installed in 1920, the Treaty of Trianon reduced the land area of Hungary by three-quarters. Huge numbers of refugees from across the country poured into Budapest, a city itself wracked by revolutionary violence and murder.
Despite the huge social and economic problems that ensued, Hungary was able to stabilise during the 1920s and 30s. Yet even as Budapest was being reconstructed, there remained a palpable anger about the loss of territory and prestige, and a hostility towards the Bolsheviks and the capital’s substantial Jewish community that was, rather unfairly, associated with them.
From the 1930s, Hungary came to believe that the only way to regain its lands and reputation was to align with Germany. But though Hungary regained territory, it lost political control. In 1944, it was militarily occupied by German forces that moved in to stop the advancing Soviet army.
In spring 1944, Hungary was pressured by Germany to deport its entire Jewish community – some 600,000 people – to Auschwitz. Despite this, about half of Budapest’s Jewish population survived the war, because the ghetto established in the seventh district was never completely liquidated, though conditions were terrible.
Soviet forces ultimately fought their way into Budapest. The city came under siege, with German and Hungarian forces penned in on Castle Hill. Shelled by the Soviets, the Royal Palace itself burned for three days, and the rest of the city suffered huge destruction.
Communism and beyond
After the Second World War, an attempt to re-establish a democratic regime was not tolerated by the Soviets. From 1948 to 1956, Hungary was turned into a functioning communist state under Mátyás Rákosi, whose brutality earned him the nickname ‘Stalin’s best student’.
In 1956, the Hungarians rose up in revolt. In Budapest, students marched in a demonstration that got out of control, and shooting started on the afternoon of 23 October 1956. For 12 days, Hungarian revolutionaries took over the city, led by communist politician Imre Nagy.
But on 3 November, Soviet troops with tanks fought their way back into Budapest, blowing up a part of the National Archive and reasserting control. Almost 10,000 people were killed and another 300,000 fled, many departing for the US or Britain.
The new Hungarian regime, led by János Kádár, adopted a more moderate form of socialism. A series of hotels was built along the east bank of the Danube, and in the 1980s even Margaret Thatcher came to Budapest to witness Hungary’s economic and social progress.
Hungary played a critical role in the fall of the Iron Curtain. In 1988, Kádár resigned and was replaced by a reformist generation. In 1989, new political parties were permitted, rules governing free speech and demonstrations were relaxed, and – in an episode called the ‘pan-European picnic’ – the border fence with Austria was symbolically cut, opening the borders.
People from countries such as Poland and East Germany used Hungary as an escape route, flooding out to the west and increasing pressure on those regimes. Hungary embodied the best and worst of what took place afterwards. The transformation was peaceful: not a single person was killed, and reformers transformed every aspect of society, encouraging investment and industry. But many Hungarians paid a steep economic price: pensions were reduced and unemployment went through the roof.
On Csepel Island south of the centre, the remnants of huge factories still stand empty, mothballed after the fall of the Iron Curtain. They’re now being converted into artists' residences, film studios and so on. So today in Budapest you can see the traces of transformation – it’s a vibrant cultural and social hub – but also of an older world, an older poverty.
What to see: Budapest in four places
There’s much more to the twin city on the Danube than its hot springs and Cold War heritage. Thomas Lorman highlights five sites to visit in the Hungarian capital
1. Castle Hill
The limestone plateau where the Royal Palace stands – built in the 13th century, after Mongol attacks, and much developed since into an extensive complex of excellent museums – is called Castle Hill.
When it was being reconstructed after getting badly damaged in the Second World War, historians made an interesting decision.
Rather than rebuild it as it had been in 1939, the 19th- and 20th-century additions were stripped away to recreate a Habsburg-era townscape.
As well as visiting the Budapest History Museum, the Museum of Military History and the Hungarian National Gallery, you can gaze across the Danube from the neo-Romanesque Fisherman’s Bastion, or delve into the labyrinth of caves riddling the hill beneath.
And in the evening, after the crowds have left, if you half-close your eyes you can imagine yourself back in the 18th century.
2. Nyugati Station
When the railways were constructed in Hungary, they were based on the British model, aiming to capture the wonder that trains had brought to this country.
Opened in 1877, Nyugati (Western) Station was built by the Eiffel Company, and some of that spirit is evident in its ornate glass-and-iron frontage.
But it’s interesting also for its Royal Waiting Room, tucked away at its northern corner. It’s not always accessible to the public, but go around the side of the station and you’ll spot the grand entrance where the Habsburg monarchs could come and go in privacy.
Railways didn’t just oil the wheels of trade and commerce, and facilitate the movement of people – they were also avenues along which political power flowed. This station, like Budapest itself, was a place where royal, political and economic power intersected.
3. Gellért Hill
One of the most important locations in Budapest, the Gellért Hill was the site of a third-century BC Bronze Age oppidum (fortified settlement).
In the 11th century, it was the spot where Christian missionary St Gellért was martyred, reputedly placed in a spiked barrel and thrown off the cliff – a reminder of the challenges faced by those aiming to convert Hungary to Christianity.
It’s topped by a brutal Habsburg citadel constructed after the failed 1848 revolution to keep an eye on the Hungarians below. At its eastern end soars the Liberty Statue, a woman holding aloft a palm leaf, that was erected by the Soviets in 1947.
From the top of the hill, you can enjoy a fantastic panorama – by far the best sunrise view of the city – but it’s also a reminder that this is a contested city.
Over the centuries, it’s been attacked or claimed by Mongols, Ottomans, Habsburgs, Nazis and Soviets – a powerful contrast to the sense of freedom and openness in the streets below.
4. Vajdahunyad Castle
If you stroll through City Park you’ll find what appears to be a mighty medieval bastion fronted by a lovely lake, perfect for ice-skating in winter.
In fact, it’s a romantic replica of the 15th-century Corvin (or Hunyadi) castle in Hunedoara, Romania, and was built for the 1896 celebrations commemorating the millennium of the semi-legendary conquest of the Carpathian Basin by the ‘Seven Tribes’ who, according to tradition, seeded the state of Hungary.
It houses an agricultural museum, reflecting the fact that Hungary was, into the 1950s, a largely rural country worked by peasants: urbanisation came later here than in much of western Europe.
But it’s also another reminder of how history in Budapest is entwined with that of the wider country and its neighbours. Wander the streets of Budapest, and you’ll meet locals and tourists, but also people from all over Hungary, from Transylvania in Romania, and from Serbia and Slovakia, where significant Hungarian communities still live – reflecting long stories of migration and movement.
Thomas Lorman is lecturer in Central European History at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, and author of The Making of the Slovak People's Party: Religion, Nationalism and the Culture War in Early 20th-Century Europe (Bloomsbury, 2019).
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