(From the beginnings to the Treaty of Trianon)
Author: Historian Seat Captain Vitez Attila Bánó de Tapolylucska et Kükemező
It is difficult to discuss Hungary’s early history without provoking academic debate, given that the results of research in linguistics, archaeology and genetics have so far failed to corroborate each other or, even if they did, they did so only partially. Still, there is a growing amount of information indicating that the earliest known ancestors of Hungarians were related to the European Huns, who, in turn, were genetically closely related to Asian Huns living north of China.
The information on pre-conquest times, as preserved in ancient Hungarian legends (the legend of the miraculous deer, the legend of Csaba, the legend of the Turul, the legend of the white horse), is parallel with many elements of the Hun legends. Many researchers deemed that the concept of a Hun–Hungarian kinship, handed down in the form of folk legends, was not provable. Yet it is becoming clear that the customs and traditions of the Hungarians of the Conquest Era are indeed rooted in the Hun and the Turkic heritage (the latter being mixed with Iranian and Scythian culture).
The language of the Hungarians belongs to the Eurasiatic language family. Therefore, it is safe to say, without denying the Finno-Ugric linguistic aspects, that there is a Hun–Hungarian linguistic kinship, especially as far as the similarities related to culture, way of life or warfare are concerned. According to Gyula László, professor of archaeology, the Hungarian language was close to the language of the Avars, who lived in significant numbers in the Carpathian Basin at the time of the conquest.
The setting of the prehistoric myths of the Hungarians and the ancient homeland was the area stretching from the northern regions of the Caspian Sea and of the Black Sea to the Caucasus. The earliest archaeological finds related to Hungarians show similarities with some of contemporary finds from Asian Hun tombs. Hungarians knew plough farming and viticulture. Their society was based on tribal organisation and dual principality. Around AD 700 or 750, they moved to the area between the Don and the Dnieper, the ancient homeland of Levedia. About a century later, they moved further to the west, to the area of Etelköz. They lived there only for some decades, until the conquest (which, according to Gyula László, was the second one) around 895. Then they took possession of the Carpathian Basin, inhabited partly by Avars (or, as assumed by some, by early Hungarians) and partly by Slavs.
Prior to the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin, Svatopluk of Moravia (Zuentibald, 840–894), the most prominent member of the Moymirid dynasty fought against the Eastern Franks successfully, and destroyed Pannonia in two military campaigns (883–884). For a short period of time, he annexed the southern Vistula region (around 885) and the Czech country (890) to the Moravian principality, which then served as basis for the evolution of the concept of the “Great Moravian Empire”, a manifestation of the Czech-Moravian-Slovak unity in modern Slavic historical approaches.
Svatopluk sometimes allied with the Hungarians, and sometimes was hostile to them. Arnulf of Carinthia (850–899), king (later emperor) of East Francia, made an alliance with the Hungarians, who then attacked the Moravian prince in 892. Yet only two years later it was Svatopluk who allied with the Hungarians against the Eastern Franks. Svatopluk died in 894, during the Hungarian invasion of Transdanubia. Before his death, he divided his country between his two sons, Mojmír II and Svatopluk II, who however, started to wage war against each other in 898. This helped Hungarians to consolidate their power in their new homeland.
Some historians opine that Hungarians were forced to leave Etelköz and to conquer the Carpathian Basin by the arrival of the bellicose Pechenegs. It is probable that the Pechenegs attacked the Etelköz area when Hungarians, allied with Byzantium, were fighting against the Bulgarians. But the theory of fleeing Hungarians is unsustainable. The conquest was a conscious act of an ethnic group in its full force, prepared for military action. This is corroborated by the fact that the conquest and the subsequent settlement took place fast and almost smoothly, as did the invasions or military campaigns to the west and later to the south, which filled the peoples of Europe with fear.
The Hungarians could not take their survival in the Carpathian Basin for granted. When Árpád (845−907), the conquering prince died, they were facing the major threat of a large-scale attack of the East Francia. For the Hungarians, keeping their recently acquired homeland was at stake. In the crucial battle of Pressburg of 907, the Hungarian army scored a decisive victory over the army of East Francia (consisting mainly of Bavarian troops), thus consolidating the status of the Hungarians in their new homeland.
A growing number of researchers think that the Hungarian term for western campaigns, “kalandozások” (meaning “adventures”) is not adequate, given that the Hungarians carefully prepared and planned their military campaigns (usually at the request of a Western ruler). (The first campaign of the kind was launched before the conquest, in 862, from Etelköz, north of the Black Sea. Most certainly, the Hungarians had been thoroughly acquainted with the conditions in the Carpathian Basin at that time.) The “adventures” ended in 955 with the battle of Lechfeld the near River Lech, when the united German army won a decisive victory over the Hungarians. The Hungarian chieftains Lél (or Lehel), Bulcsú and Súr were captured and then hanged in Regensburg.
But the memory of the dreaded arrows of the Hungarians was going to haunt Europe for a long time. The Litany of All Saints of the Catholic Church contained the widely known phrase: ‘Save us, o Lord, from the arrows of the Hungarians.” This supplication remained for the longest time in the German litany (until 1965). It was not until then that, influenced by the liturgical reform of Second Vatican Council, the Germans deleted this passage, which, by then, had been in the liturgy for more than a thousand years.
Árpád’s great-grandson, Grand Duke Géza (945−997) and then his son, King Stephen I (c. 975−1038) adopted Christianity, and invited priests to convert the Hungarians. King Stephen I (founder of the Hungarian Christian kingdom, crowned around Christmas in 1000) had to engage in intense fight with the rebel chieftains who were unwilling to give up their religion. But, eventually, the king emerged victorious from the conflict. He organised the county system and contributed greatly to making Hungary part of Christian Europe.
The Árpád dynasty, which gave grand princes and, later, kings from 889 (the beginning of Árpád’s reign) onwards, descended from the Hun ruler Attila and was the ruling dynasty of the Kingdom of Hungary for three centuries. At this point, of the many significant events of the period mention must be made of the issue of Golden Bull of 1222. The Golden Bull was an edict, sealed with a golden seal, which established the rights of the Hungarian nobility and, therefore, is often referred to as the “Magna Charta of the Hungarians”. Another major event of the period was the devastating Mongol (Tatar) invasion of Hungary in 1241−1242. King Béla IV, in an attempt to thwart recurring invasions, constructed castles and made alliances.
After the male line of the Árpáds ended with the death of András III in 1301, cognate rulers came to power. The House of Anjou reigned from 1308 onwards, the House of Luxembourg from 1387, the House of Habsburg from 1437, the House of Jagiellon from 1440, then again, the House of Habsburg from 1452, the House of Hunyadi from 1458, and the House of Jagiellon from 1490. After the battle of Mohács in 1526, Hungary was divided as a result of the Turkish invasion and the rivalry between the Szapolyai House and the Habsburg House. Between 1740 and 1918, members of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine ruled Hungary.
Significant events of Hungarian military history include the military campaign of Louis I the Great (1326−1382) in Italy. But, above all, János Hunyadi’s (1407−1456) victory over the Turkish army in the Siege of Nándorfehérvár of 1456 must be highlighted. Before the siege, Pope Callixtus III ordered the bells of all churches to be rung every day at noon, which has been a tradition since then. To commemorate the triumph, the Pope ordered Christians to celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus on 6 August, the day when the pope was informed of the victory. King Matthias I (1443−1490), son of János Hunyadi, established a famous library and a standing army. He employed scientists and artists in his court in Buda. For a few years, he extended his rule to the city of Vienna. Matthias was one of the most successful Hungarian rulers.
Other notable tragic events were the defeat at the Battle of Mohács against the Turks in 1526, and the Turkish siege of the fortress of Szigetvár in 1566, which ended with Turkish victory and the suicidal charge of the heroic captain, Count Miklós Zrínyi and his soldiers. The powerful Ottoman sultan Suleiman died in Szigetvár a few days before the end of the siege.
After the siege of Buda in 1686, Emperor Leopold I (1640−1705), with the Holy League’s armies, gradually made the Turks withdraw. The siege marked a major step towards victory in the war against the Turks in Hungary. The absolutist, anti-Protestant policy of Leopold I, coupled with high taxes, the cruelty of his mercenaries and his unconstitutional measures against the Hungarians, strengthened the movement of the kuruc insurgents. This is why between 1679 and 1682 Count Imre Thököly, and then between 1703 and 1711 Francis II Rákóczi decided to become leaders of the Hungarian’s fight for freedom.
The Habsburg rulers often disregarded the constitutional rights of the Kingdom of Hungary. They managed Hungary’s resources as per the Empire’s interests, and failed to respect the Hungarian language and culture. The reform movement of the first half of the 19th century made attempts to counterbalance the situation with the establishment of institutions and with the launch of initiatives to promote culture.
In 1848, partly in response to the European freedom movements, revolution broke out in Pest, marking the beginning of the War of Independence. Its emblematic leader was future Governor Lajos Kossuth. The Habsburg ruler, the young Franz Joseph I, defeated the Hungarian forces with Russian help, and then introduced military rule. In 1867, he was forced to compromise with the Hungarians, who, prompted by statesman Ferenc Deák, were engaging in passive resistance. The compromise marked the establishment of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.
In 1914, Franz Joseph (in response to the Sarajevo assassination, and ignoring counterarguments) decided to declare war on Serbia. World War I broke out. Franz Joseph died in 1916. His descendant, Charles IV ruled until 1918; he was the last Hungarian king.
The Treaty of Trianon, an unprecedentedly unjust peace treaty is probably the most tragic event in Hungary’s history: the victorious Allies annexed more than two-thirds of Hungary’s territory neighbouring countries. (!) As per its narrower definition, Greater Hungary had a territory of almost 283,000 square kilometres (or 325,500 square kilometres together with Croatia-Slavonia). Of this territory, almost 103,000 square kilometres were annexed to Romania alone. The annexed territories of Transylvania, Máramaros (Maramures), Partium and Kelet-Bánság (East Banat) together exceeded the territory of mutilated Hungary. Czechoslovakia was given Felvidék (Upper Hungary), Kárpátalja (Carpathian Ruthenia) and Csallóköz, a total of more than 61,000 square kilometres. Yugoslavia received Drávaköz (the Drava region), Muravidék (the Mura region) etc., a total of 21,000 square kilometres (Croatia and Slovenia not included). The Őrvidék (Burgenland) was annexed to Austria; even Poland received a tiny piece.
In 1910, Hungary’s population exceeded 18 million; in 1920, in the mutilated country, it was less than 8 million. One third of Hungarian-speaking people were stranded in the annexed areas. Yet Hungary was able to emerge from this seemingly hopeless situation, mainly due to the determination and wisdom of governor Vitez Miklós Horthy of Nagybánya (1868−1957) and his talented politicians. World War II, stemming from the Paris Peace Treaty, forced him to take a path: his exit attempt from the German allies failed, so he could not prevent Hungary from becoming prey to Stalinist forces.