Reviewed by Richard Tutin
Reading Victor Sebestyen’s very rich and detailed history of Budapest reminded me of when my wife and I visited the city as members of a tour group in 2010. That brought on the urge to dig out of their various hiding places some video and photos we took during the two days we spent there. Doing this helped put things into perspective though Sebestyen has done a very good job of weaving the story of one of Europe’s most interesting cities.
Going back to the beginning to the time when the thermal springs of Buda were found by the second century Romans, Sebestyen shows that the city’s position on the banks of the Danube River was both strategic and crucial. Both Buda and Pest developed as two separate communities that grew to became one city that is now the capital of Hungary.
The current hostilities between Russia and the Ukraine remind us of the volatility of eastern Europe. Hungary has been invaded many times by different overlords especially the Ottoman Turks, the Hapsburg Empire and Russia itself. Sebestyen shows that, as a result, Hungary often finds itself in an isolated situation politically. This has led to the Hungarian lament that the rest of Europe does not really care about the nation’s fate unless it wants to or can gain some advantage.
I was reminded, as I read, of the atmosphere of the city during our visit so long ago. Placed as it is on the line between east and west, relationships between the various sections of the population haven’t always been peaceful. In fact, as is shown, they have been very violent and destructive. This is especially true of the treatment shown to the members of the Jewish community whose business acumen was often viewed jealously to the point that pogroms occurred until it was realised that the community was needed because commercial activity stalled and stagnated after they were driven out.
Because of his long association with Budapest, Sebestyen reveals some interesting facts and responses the city authorities have developed in response to the changing political and social landscapes that revolutions, war and uprisings have caused. Many cities around the world have in recent times been removing the statutes of once revered historical figures because their ideas and treatment of people are now no longer in line with the current thinking of the present time. Budapest is no exception to this activity except instead of destroying these relics of the past they are quietly moved to a park in the suburbs where they have become part of an open-air museum that tells their story but does not revere it.
As well as a reminder of a past visit, Budapest is a solid in-depth and well researched story of a city that occupies an interesting space in the wider histories of Eastern and Western Europe. I will feel its influence if I ever visit the city again.
Victor Sebestyen is the acclaimed author of Twelve Days (2006), Revolution 1989 (2009) and 1946 (2014). He was born in Budapest. He was a child when his family left Hungary as refugees. As a journalist he has worked for numerous British newspapers and reported widely from Eastern Europe when Communism collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. He is an associate editor of Newsweek.
Budapest: Between East and West
by Victor Sebestyen
ISBN 978 147461 000 1