Book Summary: The Once and Future Budapest

    Robert Nemes. The Once and Future Budapest Dekalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005.

Robert Nemes’ exploration of nineteenth-century Budapest offers a refreshing and convincing reinterpretation of the Hungarian national revival with broad implications for the study of modern nationalism.  At once an urban, cultural, and political history, The Once and Future Budapest focuses on the institutional mechanisms that generated Hungary’s national identity and fueled its independence movement from Austria.  Like Prague at the turn of the nineteenth century, the twin towns of Buda and Pest were solidly German, unflinchingly Habsburg, and displayed few portents of national homogeneity.  Nationalism, where it existed, summoned neither linguistic nor ethnic loyalties, but worked to reinforce the territorial integrity of the Hungarian kingdom while strengthening its nobility’s privileges and monopolies.  A convergence of factors encouraged the development of Magyar ethno-linguistic nationalism: public outcry over Joseph II’s German language laws; the example of revolutionary France; and the leadership of the National Diet in Pressburg, which at times lent its support to nationalist agitation.  More important for Nemes, however, was the emergence of an activist public sphere after 1815 which steadily refashioned the medieval capital into a crucible and showcase of Hungarian national identity.  The result was a foundational political culture, which, for better or worse, ensured the full-scale Magyarization of Budapest by century’s end.   

Most English-language histories of nineteenth-century Hungary follow the same political narrative crafted by the leaders of the national movement.  Thus, the landmark works on Stephan Szechenyi and Louis Kossuth by George Barany and Istvan Deak respectively present the Hungarian national movement as a pivotal chapter in the broader struggle of European liberalism against absolutism and privilege.  Useful as this triumphalist story line may be as political history, it says little about the experience of ordinary men and women whose lives intersected with Hungarian nationalism.  As Nemes argues, it was the multitude of voluntary organizations that really taught Budapest how to be Hungarian.  Sporting a bewildering variety of causes and agendas, which the author analyses in fascinating detail, Budapest’s public sphere attracted a diverse rank-and-file membership which transcended divisions in social status and even gender.  Just about anyone and everyone was invited: sharpshooters, fashion queens, blacksmiths, town planners, architects and ballroom dancers, not just students, journalists, poets and noble politicians.  Since political organizations were banned—especially under Metternich and the neo-absolutist regime of the 1850s—agitators employed weapons of the weak such as “traditional” costumes, Hungarian storefronts, and monumental architecture built in the “national” style.  It was a cultural movement with sufficient grassroots support to survive the opposition of the city’s German population, not to mention Habsburg repression.  While none of this should come as a surprise—cultural historians have been unearthing these kinds of artifacts for many years now—Nemes’ use of such a vast and varied source base challenges the traditional top-down political narrative of the Hungarian national movement.

Nemes further revises narratives of Hungarian nationalism by systematically integrating German, Jewish, and Slovak communities into his analysis.  It is no exaggeration to say that each victory for the Hungarian cause furthered the alienation of Budapest’s non-Magyars who had once dominated its civic life.  Indeed, for every Magyar association there was a non-Magyar equivalent vying for public attention and validation.  Theirs proved to be a lost cause.  The same liberals who used the mechanisms of the public sphere so effectively against Habsburg absolutism also learned to manipulate civic institutions against Hungarians who failed to fit Magyar ethnic stereotypes.  As Nemes demonstrates with generous portions of statistical, journalistic, and anecdotal evidence, for many citizens of Budapest Hungarian nationality was not necessarily the same as speaking Magyar or coming from Magyar parents, but simply meant residing in Hungary regardless of one’s ethnicity.  As Hungarian nationalism morphed into an ethno-linguistic movement to promote Magyar exclusivity, these groups were forced to adapt the Magyar language or risk the ostracism of their native city.  Of course, the ethnic chauvinism of Hungarian liberals is no great secret—it has been the bread and butter of English-language historiography on modern Hungary since Seton-Watson first exposed it nearly a century ago.  But most of the attention has gone to ethnic conflicts in the outlying regions of Transylvania and Slovakia after the 1867 Compromise.  By tracing the origins of Magyar ethnic nationalism back to Budapest of the Vormärz era—long before the rise of Magyarization as official policy—Nemes highlights the narrow exclusiveness inherent in most national movements, no matter how liberal they may appear at first sight.  Without sentimentalizing the multi-national heritage of the Habsburgs, Nemes subtly shifts our attention away from the teleological storyline of the nation-state to the cultures and communities erased by the forces of modern nationalism. 

Multifaceted in its approach and rich in documentation, The Once and Future Budapest offers a compelling study of nationalism at the ground level of everyday life.  While Nemes makes a convincing argument for the primacy of civic organizations in the movement, however, he still needs to explain how Hungarian national identity became synonymous with Magyar ethnicity.  Twentieth-century nationalists claimed it was inevitable, of course, but Nemes’ evidence points to more inclusive alternatives that the Hungarian national movement chose to ignore.  On that note, Ernest Gellner’s theories on nationalism may have served Nemes well.  Although somewhat dated, Gellner’s model still makes a good case for analyzing national movements (particularly those in the Habsburg Empire) as expressions of the dislocation and alienation triggered by the industrialization of agrarian societies.  For a book that so skillfully links ethno-linguistic nationalism with urbanization, it is a bit puzzling that The Once and Future Budapest never even references Gellner’s influential work.  But that is the only deficiency in an otherwise outstanding book that calls to mind the excellent work of Derek Sayer on the Czech lands, Keely Stauter-Halsted on Poland, and Irina Livezeanu on Romania.  It should become standard reading for all students of Eastern European history and nationalism in general.