I am diving into research for my next novel, Ella, based on the life of my maternal grandmother. Ella was born in Nazykanizsa, a Hungarian town of about 20,000 at the time of her birth in 1884. I must learn everything about Hungary between 1880 and 1930 to write this novel and a good place to start is Hungarian history.
I had already studied Hungarian history starting around 1910 to sometime in the 1930s. The period just after World War I was particularly difficult and therefore also particularly interesting. The Hapsburg Empire collapsed at the end of the war and Hungary had, at last, her freedom from foreign rule. But that freedom came at a price. Hungary lost 72% of its former land area and 62% of its former population.
In addition, populations once under Hungarian rule, for example the Romanians, attacked Hungary and the newly formed pacifist government did nothing to repel these attacks. The pacifist government fell and was replaced with a Soviet-style communist government, which managed to wreak economic and civil havoc in its brief 133 days of control.
The Social Democrats, who replaced the communists, governed for three days before the Romanians invaded Budapest. In the weeks Romania controlled Budapest, they took everything they could load on railroad cars: livestock, food, furniture, jewelry, artworks and on and on. And they kept the trains.
The ravage of Budapest ended when Admiral Horthy rode into Budapest on a white horse. Horthy became the “regent” for Hungary and ruled until 1944.
This was hell, a great background for a page-turner. Ella’s life, through her 30s, could not possibly be as interesting.
Or could it?
In 1843 Hungary had been a conquered country for centuries. Tariffs and travel limitations impaired modernization. The Magyar aristocracy lived off the land, had almost complete control over their serfs, did not pay taxes, and was, essentially, the law in their domains. Latin was the language of Hungarian courts and administration. A citizen of medieval Europe would have felt at home in 1847 Hungary.
By 1867, after the Ausgleich (Compromise) with Austria, the serfs were freed, tariffs were reduced, travel bans lifted, and the privileges of the aristocracy greatly reduced. The country was ready for economic take-off. Agricultural output soared, railroads were built, telegraph, telephone, and electricity were installed. Industries such as coal and iron mining, grain milling, engineering, textile, leather and clothing manufacture all thrived.
Budapest, the center of this growth, bustled. By 1900 it had three times as many people as it had in 1867. It had built the first subway system on the continent. It was the largest milling center in the world. It had built an opera house, and palace-like villas graced its main boulevard, Andrássy út. Famous poets, writers, musicians, and painters, as well as gymnasium boys and their teachers, frequented its cafes. The Parliament Building, completed in 1904, embodies the frenzy of 1900 Budapest; it covers six acres, has 10 courtyards, 13 passenger and freight elevators, 27 gates, 29 staircases and 691 rooms.
But this magnificent city rested on an unstable foundation. Almost 50% of Hungary’s population was non-Magyar: Croats, Romanians, and Serbs among others. Jews had prospered during the economic boom and some had become “Robber Barons,” while the aristocracy had become poorer and conservative. The Magyars still wanted their independence from Austria and the non-Magyars wanted their independence from the Magyars. Budapest and the rest of Hungary were no longer sure they liked each other. Coalitions broke apart. There were riots in the streets, and even riots in the new Parliament building.
It is said that a Hungarian is someone who enters a revolving door behind you but comes out in front. Perhaps Hungarians need these supernatural powers to survive their history. And such a history makes a great setting for a page-turner.