“Hungary at War” -Excerpt

The introduction to the book I am reading/recommended earlier this week is very

Hungarian Parliament Building

Photo Credit: Katalin G. Bultman (c) 2007

interesting from a historical point of view.  Therefore I am “sneaking” in this post before returning to my usual Hungarian historical postings (in chronological order)…  The author is a retired Professor of English (Cecil D. Eby) at the University of Michigan, and has authored 8 more books, including Comrades and Commissioners; The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War.  On a side note, one of my recent followers recommended a few websites online for those that still like to “actually” buy print books!   Thriftbooks.com & Bookfinder.com  Great sites and excellent prices!!  The last paragraph of this preface I am sure you will find as interesting as I did!


Although other events of World War II have been chronicled many times from a variety of perspectives, historians of the West have written little about the role of Hungary during the war.  The reasons for this neglect are obvious.  Because the country was occupied in 1945 by the Soviet Union and was by 1948 sealed hermetically into the Communist bloc, opportunities for “objective” history (as we like to call it in the West) were confounded, both there and here.  In Hungary historical reconstruction of the war years had to conform to a totalitarian ideology that rendered content secondary to intent, while in the West traditional avenues of research were closed off.  Moreover, Hungary is, and has always been, a linguistic terra incognita, a small island in a vast Teutonic and Slavic sea.  The strangeness of its agglutinative language, its aversion to loanwords, its disconnection from other Western tongues-all these have contributed to the neglect of Hungarian culture  and history by mainstream Anglo-Europeans.  For example, fewer then a half-dozen American universities regularly offer instruction in Hungarian.  Even now jokes about Budapest’s being confused with Bucharest are legion.  Thus it comes as no surprise to learn that at the end of the war, when Hungarian fliers stranded in Austria tried to surrender to the American army, they had to explain to MPs that the United States and Hungary had officially been at war.

Between 1988 and 1990 I spent eighteen months in Budapest and Szeged researching this book, and returned in 1993 and 1995 for further interviews.  To date I have interviewed nearly one hundred men and women-many of them repeatedly-who actively participated in or merely passively endured the war in Hungary.  One major handicap must be explained at the outset.  I have no oral fluency in Hungarian, and only elementary reading ability.  However, I had the good fortune of having a Elenora Arato, a native of Budapest who holds a doctorate in linguistics from Eotvos Lorand University, a superb translator (one of those rare interpreters who can listen to a cacophonous babel of English and Hungarian spoken at the same time yet somehow make sense of both).  Further, through her connections as a teacher and administrator at both Semmelweis Medical University in Budapest and Tudomayos Ismeretterjeszto Tarsulat (the “open” university), I was able to reach a variety of Hungarians, with backgrounds ranging from landed gentry to party stalwarts.  Fifty-eight of these interviews were concluded in Hungarian, twenty-seven in English.  Fifty-one were with men, thirty-four with women.  Although the principle value of my book resides in the major historical works in English treating the period between the Treaty of Trianon and the Russian occupation.  Foremost among these is C.A. Macartney’s two-volume masterwork, “October Fifteenth”, which has yet to be superseded, in any language, as the authoritative account of Hungarian history between 1918 and 1945.  Nicolas Nagy-Talavera’s “Green Shirts and Others” supplied invaluable insights into the politics of the period.  The memoirs of Regent Miklos Horthy and Prime Minister Miklos Kallay were indispensable primary sources.  For background on the Jews of Hungary the definitive work is Randolph Braham’s two-volume “Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary,” which builds upon Eugene Levai’s earlier “Black Book on Martyrdom of Hungary Jewry.”  Other secondary works are cited in my notes.

My objective has been to write an account of the final years of the war that would record and analyze the experiences of “ordinary” people forced to cope with extraordinary crises imposed upon them by external forces of history.  My primary focus is upon domestic, not military, history.  The progression is roughly chronological and conforms to what I see as four evolving “moods” through which a majority of Hungarians passed between 1938 and 1948–from optimism to skepticism, to pessimism, to despair.

As David Henige observes in his “Oral Historiography” (1992), history is never synonymous with that elusive entity we call “the past,” but rather consists only of whatever relics-whether words or artifacts-happen to survive.  Oral sources share with written sources the limitation of being, as Henige puts it, “prisms on the past-not windows.”  For the most part, traditional historians are more comfortable with the written word than with the spoken, even though utterance precedes transcript in the majority of cases.  Perhaps they prefer to believe that prismatic refraction is less when a text is pinned to a page rather than free-floating as sound.

(I highlighted the last paragraph, finding it significantly relevant!! ~Kat)


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