Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Book Review: The Hungarians

The non-fiction book The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat, by Paul Lendvai, is an older book I stumbled across while perusing the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, that great big building of books in downtown Cincinnati.

The book covers about 1100 years of history.  It starts with the conquest Magyars in 896 of what is now Hungary, and continues through to the dawn of the post-communist era in 1990.  Of necessity, even at length of over five hundred pages, the depth it can afford to any time frame is limited. Moreover, firm details of the earliest years are in scant supply, and for the first few hundred years only the most major of events and personages are covered. As the book marches onward into the early modern era and into recent history, details become much more readily available, and the it switches from being cursory due to lack of available details to being cursory due to a need to filter out the surfeit of details.  I make this point not as any sort of attack or criticism, but simply to warn the prospective reader that if you've got a narrow area of interest, it probably gets no more than a few pages of coverage, perhaps a couple dozen at most.

First off this is a long book.  There are over five hundred pages, not including material at the back such as time line, index, notes, etc.  I am a relatively fast reader, but I misplaced the book thrice, accidentally left it behind several times, and deliberately read a few works of fiction instead a few times.  The reading of fiction instead was a necessary antidote to the horrifying portions of 20th century Hungarian history, such as of the Red and White Terror resulting from the emergence of the 1919 Hungary Soviet Republic and its subsequent suppression, the 1944 takeover by the Nazis, and the period 1948-1957 period, which say backstabbing, denunciations, oppression, and in the year before Stalin's death, anti-Semitism, run rampant and destroy lives wholesale.  (When Stalin tells your regime its being too aggressive about pursuing collectivization, that's a really bad sign.)  So it took me about three weeks, mostly at lunch time and before bed, to finish this book.

I'm glad I did.  I knew a good bit about bits and pieces of Hungarian history, but nothing comprehensive.  The more extended treatment of the subject helps explain some things that had puzzled me before. Also, this is the first work on the subject I've read on the subject that was actually written by a Hungarian, as opposed to by an American, or an Austrian whose work had been translated to English.  The resulting difference in perspective was quite apparent.

The book was originally published in 1999 in German.  It was translated to English by Ann Major and published in the United States in 2003.  The author, Paul Lendvai, is an expatriate Hungarian Jew with decades of experience as a journalist.  His childhood years were spent in the Hungary of the Horthy regime, but he reached adulthood under the post-war communist-dominated regime, at which time he embarked upon a careers as a journalist.  His affiliation with the Social Democrat party lead to a period of imprisonment when the communist hard-liners asserted control, and he ultimately fled to Austria in 1957, not long after the crushing of Hungarian revolt of 1956.  Understandably, the author seems to take a pretty dim view of the regimes he lived under, although he does seem to have some grudging respect for Horthy and for Kadar, the post-1956 leader of Hungary - alongside some pretty scathing remarks on their failings.

So do I recommend it?  Conditionally.  If you seek a broad overview of the history of Hungary, certainly.  If you're seeking any information on Hungary before 896 or after 1990, no.  If you're looking for details on events after roughly 1700, it might make a good starting point.

And now I need to remember to return this book in the next couple of days, so I don't get fined by the library.  :)

No comments:

Post a Comment