Hungarian History in the Making
Published: June 2009
By Richard Holbrooke
Budapest hides well the scars of its recent past. But to Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, architect of the Balkan peace accords and an astute observer of political change, its ghosts are still palpable
Hungary is a normal country now: elections, economic ups and downs, traffic jams, entrepreneurs; even, unbelievably, membership in NATO. But just beneath the surface, easily available to a visitor with a sense of history, lie powerful reminders of the country's turbulent—and sometimes tragic—recent past.
As Hungarians walk the streets of Budapest, do they remember their remarkable journey to freedom over the past 12 years?Do they still see the bullet holes from the 1956 revolution that pockmark many buildings?Do they hear the ghosts from the 1989 demonstrations in Heroes' Square—the beginning of the end of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe?Or do they see only the new, emerging Budapest, symbolized by a three-floor fast-food joint that proudly claims to be one of the world's largest Burger Kings?
When my wife, Kati Marton, walks with me through Budapest, I see the city through her eyes. Kati was born here under Communism. Her parents, both Hungarian reporters for American wire services, were jailed by the secret police in 1955 on trumped-up charges that they were spies for the CIA; she and her sister were farmed out to a family that was paid by the Associated Press to take care of political orphans. Kati's Budapest still contains the opening in the fence between her parents' house and that of the American diplomats next door, through which she and her sister would slip to taste Western-style freedom (and food). When we go to the central market, she marvels over the rich variety of goods and recalls the shortages of her childhood. When we visit the ambassador's elegant office in the U.S. Embassy, she sees the very room where Cardinal József Mindszenty stayed during the 15 years he lived there under American protection. Kati's parents were released just before the revolution in 1956, and when the Soviets crushed the uprising, the family also received refuge here. For weeks, the two Marton girls joined the cardinal in his nightly prayers. (It was Kati's father, Endre Marton, who sent the famous "last message" from Budapest, calling, in vain, on the world to help the Freedom Fighters.)
BUDAPEST HOLDS SPECIAL MEMORIES FOR ME NOW, too. We try to visit at least once a year, to see Kati's aunt and to check on the changes coming over the country. We were married there, in the garden of the residence of Donald Blinken, then the American ambassador, and his Budapest-born wife, Vera. This was Kati's wish: in her childhood, the building had represented the freedom denied to Hungarians, and the excitement of a distant and then-unattainable land.
Kati, still fluent in her native tongue, walks through the streets like a little girl again, wondering at the once-unimaginable transformation. For me, the walks are an exercise in history—not just a testament to people's capacity to move forward, but a stark reminder of those regions, some only a few miles away, where such progress has yet to occur. Sarajevo, Belgrade, Banja Luka, Pristina, Tetovo, and Tiranë all lie just south and east of Budapest; some of post-World War II's worst moments have taken place in the nearby Balkans, and the drama is not yet over. Many Hungarians live unhappily in neighboring countries—Slovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia—as a result of international boundaries drawn in punishment against the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. Woodrow Wilson is no hero in Budapest.
In good weather, Kati and I like to cross the Danube on the Chain Bridge, completed in 1849 to connect the cities of Buda and Pest. Knowing the bridge's tortured history over the last 60 years makes the walk more meaningful: it was used to brutally murder Hungarian Jews, who were thrown by the Nazis into the freezing water in the winter of 1944-45; destroyed by the retreating Germans in early 1945; rebuilt after the war by the Soviets, who added the red star of Communism to the Hungarian coats of arms carved into either side (they were only recently removed).
A STROLL DOWN BUDAPEST'S GRANDEST AVENUE, Andrássy Út, gives a simultaneous sense of the splendors of Budapest during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the decay of the Communist period, and the city's latter-day rebirth. Unlike the Champs-Élysées, on which it was modeled, Andrássy has retained its original flavor, with great buildings and mansions along its 11/2-mile length. Each time we visit Andrássy, more of the buildings have been repaired, but there are still plenty that continue to deteriorate after decades of neglect or abuse. Nevertheless, the splendid Opera House and many glorious cafés suggest the flavor of the city before World War I, when Hungary was at its most optimistic and sophisticated. Many street signs show crossed-out Communist-era names and their more recent replacements; Andrássy itself regained its original name after having been the Avenue of the People's Republic during the Cold War.
Budapest's cafés and coffeehouses are among its greatest pleasures. Their number declined precipitously in the last century, but those that remain evoke another time, a more leisurely way of life. The once-glorious Café New York, for a while turned into a sporting goods store by the Communists, has closed for two years while foreign investors return it to its former state. Other venerable places, like the pastry shop Gerbeaud and the trendy Centrál in Pest, have already been revived. George Lang, the Budapest-born restaurateur (Café des Artistes is his New York City gem), has restored the fin de siècle Gundel's, opened several more excellent establishments, and set a standard that others are now emulating—good places to eat are sprouting up everywhere. Budapest's grandest hotel during the interwar period, the Gellért (in whose baths Kati's family once swam), is coming back to life again after years of neglect. Gresham Palace, a 1906 Art Nouveau masterpiece right on the Danube, is to become a Four Seasons hotel in 2003.
Our friends in Budapest tell us that Hungarians don't think much about ghosts these days. Unlike Kati, they no longer marvel over the extraordinary progress their country has made in little more than a decade, over the peaceful dismantling of a Communist state. They don't talk much about the 1956 revolution. Instead, they complain about the economy and unemployment and prices; they gossip about who's up and who's down politically and socially. Just as in normal countries. In fact—remarkable fact—Hungarians serve with NATO forces in the Balkans, and the country will be one of the first in Central Europe to enter the European Union, probably in 2004 or 2005.
To understand the history of Budapest is to appreciate this great city better. This is, after all, the first time in a thousand years that Hungary is both democratic and free. Budapest is not just another pretty European capital but—like Prague, Warsaw, Dresden, Riga, and other cities that until about a decade ago lived in Moscow's grip—an extraordinary voyage in compressed history.
Hungarians are enormously proud of their capital, which they constantly compare to Paris. Even if you are not fortunate enough to have married a Hungarian (Kati told me to say this), Budapest is a memorable place to visit; visit it before its recent past has all but vanished.
Hotel Gellért 1 Szent Gellért; 36-1/466-6867, fax 36-1 /466-6631; doubles from $156.
Café Gerbeaud 7 Vörösmarty Tér; 36-1/429-9000; dinner for two $60.
Centrál 9 Károlyi Mihály Utca; 36-1/266-2110; dinner for two $30.
Gundel 2 Allatkerti út; 36-1/468-4040; dinner for two $80.
Before You Go Holbrooke and Kati Marton recommend three books and a film. Alan Furst's thriller Kingdom of Shadows (Random House, $25) is about a Hungarian aristocrat caught up in pre-World War II intrigue. Michael Korda's 1973 memoir Charmed Lives: A Family Romance is out of print but worth locating for its portrait of postwar Budapest. Marton's own Wallenberg: Missing Hero (Arcade, $12) is a biography of the legendary Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of countless Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. Sunshine, starring Ralph Fiennes, is István Szabó's searing story of the rise and fall of a Hungarian Jewish family in the 20th century.