The History of Hungary

Hungary boasts a rich and varied history, one that stands apart from those of its neighboring countries.

The Magyar people came to Hungary from Central Asia late in the ninth century. Though they quickly established ties with their Slavic neighbors, their language and culture remain distinct to the present day. Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language, which holds no resemblance to the Slavic language family.

Prior to World War I, Hungary joined with Austria to form the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The outcome of the war brought an end to this union in 1918, devastated the population, and resulted in the loss of much of Hungary’s territory. When World War II began less than thirty years later, Hungary joined with the Germans and Italians, hoping to reclaim the lands lost in the previous world war. Early in 1945, the German forces in Hungary were defeated by the Soviets. The Soviet victory foreshadowed the onslaught of the communist regime which was to rule Hungary for the next four decades.

In 1956, an uprising against the Soviet-backed government, which included student rallies in Budapest, forced the Soviets to bring in their tanks. The secret police opened fire on demonstrators, students attempted to take over the radio station, and rebel units of the Hungarian army fought against the incoming Soviet tanks. After nearly a week of fighting and general unrest, the Soviets agreed to withdraw. Later in the year, however, the Soviet army returned to Budapest in even greater force to crack down on the unrest. The tanks showed no mercy by destroying buildings, while Soviet troops sprayed machine gun fire at Hungarian civilians. Thousands died and an even greater number left the country.

Though the Soviet tanks were effective in their mission to quell the popular uprising, the relatively quiet period that followed could not be construed as tacit acceptance of Soviet policy in the region. The Hungarians continued to express their disenchantment in more subtle ways. In the late 1960s, the government introduced several economic reforms that resulted in greater decentralization of control and management of the larger production facilities. Though these reforms helped to increase the standard of living among the general population, they did not put the larger factories and production entities into private hands.

At this point, Hungarians may have been further along than their Central and Eastern European neighbors in terms of economic productivity and individual freedom, but they still lagged far behind Western Europeans.

The reforms and subsequent increases in productivity during the 1970s did not create enough momentum to carry Hungary on the same track during the 1980s. Among other things, obsolescence in the industrial sector dragged the economy into a period of decline. Rampant pollution further exacerbated Hungary’s problems. And with the Soviets going bankrupt, the whole region slid into a state of disarray.

Centralized socialist economies simply could not keep up with the burgeoning markets of the rest of the developed world. In 1989, the ruling communist party in Hungary fell from power after the Soviets could no longer provide economic assistance. The Hungarian people replaced the single party system with a multi-party parliamentary democracy in 1990 and held free elections.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which so poignantly symbolized the collapse of the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, did not bring immediate relief to the people of the region. For many, it further complicated their lives. The personal freedoms that resulted brought sighs of relief from many people, but the challenges that lay ahead seemed bewildering, even frightening, to the many people who had only dim recollections of the period before 1945. Without the widespread government subsidies and full -employment policies of the old regime, many would be left to fend for themselves in the unfamiliar environs of an open market.

It will take years, if not decades, for the Hungarian economy to function smoothly enough to compete with the well-established market economies of the West. Hopefully, Hungary’s experience with the gentler brand of communism that allowed some free enterprise, combined with a willingness to improve upon their situation will bring economic prosperity in the not-so-distant future.

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