The Will to Survive: A History of Hungary

Article excerpt

The Will to Survive: A History of Hungary, by Bryan Cartledge. New York, Columbia University Press, 2011. xvi, 604 pp. $35.00 US (cloth).

This broad survey of Hungarian history from the emergence of the Magyar tribes in antiquity to the year 2000 was first published in Britain in 2006 on the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. It quickly found its way to a second edition the following year, and to a Hungarian translation as "To Survive: a Hungarian History through English eyes [Megmaradni: A magyar tortenelem egy angol szemevel]" in 2008. A third edition followed in Britain in 2010, of which the present volume is the first North American printing. The sheer number of editions over the brief period of five years alone speaks to the success of this survey, which also has the distinction of being the most detailed and balanced narrative of Hungarian history currently available in English.

The sub-title of the Hungarian translation of this work is significant because Bryan Cartledge is the first non-Hungarian to produce a major English-language survey of Hungarian history since C.A. Macartney. Most such surveys over the past generation have been written either by Hungarians or Hungarian expatriates. Though a student of history at Cambridge and subsequently a research fellow at Oxford, Cartledge was drawn into the British Diplomatic Service, in part through his experience as research assistant for Anthony Eden's memoirs, and nurtured an interest in the history of Hungary not as part of an academic career, but as a consequence of being British ambassador to that country in the early 1980s. Sympathetic but fair-minded,, his account compares favourably to but is more detailed than what has been the best recent English-language survey--that of Laszlo Kontler (1999/2002)--and is more sober and balanced than that of Paul Lendvai (2004), which tends to be more journalistic, anecdotal, and uneven. Collaborative volumes of Hungarian history, such as those edited by the late Peter F. Sugar (1990) or the late Istvan Gyorgy Toth (2005), certainly have the benefit of having its component sub-sections written by leading authorities in each sub-field, but these collections tend to lack narrative coherence.

Hungarian histories begin with the semantic problem that the Hungarian word for Hungary, Magyarorszag, literally means "land of the Magyars" much as the Czech word for the Bohemian lands is Cesko (lit.: Czech lands), whose ethnic premise has long been the favourite tool of nationalists in their attempt to carve a national narrative out of a non-national or multi-national past. For its part, Cartledge's history certainly proceeds from a Magyar perspective, but does not capitulate to traditional Magyar nationalist myths. Each of the cornerstones of that myth --the conquest of the Carpathian basin by Magyar tribes, the conversion to Christianity, the Golden Buli of 1222, the era of medieval "greatness," Istvan Werboczy's Tripartitum, the Ottoman conquest and impact, Habsburg rule, but above all the Rakoczi rebellion, 1848, the Compromise of 1867, Trianon and the 1956 uprising--are subjected to a balanced critical analysis that does not seek to gloss over the ambivalences and complexities of each development. As Magyar nationalism matured in the nineteenth century, Cartledge certainly shows how it was often its own worst enemy. …