Budapest drew the geographical short straw. The city was founded during the Roman Empire and the ethnic Hungarians arrived in the 9th century. Their history has been rife with war, however, as that first settlement was pillaged by the Mongols in the 13th century, and spent 150 years under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.
Actually two individual cities separated by the Danube River – Buda & Pest – were unified in 1873 and became the second capital of the Austro–Hungarian Empire, which wasn’t dissolved until the end of The Great War in 1918. World War II arrived on the Hungarian’s doorstep, but the people were no strangers to strife. They originally allied with Nazi Germany and when they tried to pull out of the war, their leaders were overthrown and a puppet regime was installed.
That regime was called the Arrow Cross Party. From the 15th of October 1944 until the 28th of March 1945, this socialist political party ruled over Hungary and murdered or deported 600,000 Jews (many to Auschwitz, other shot into the Danube). The Arrow Cross shared many similarities and ideologies with the Germans; even the symbol of the party (an ancient symbol of the Magyar tribes who settled Hungary) slightly resembles the Nazi swastika.
The Arrow Cross rose to power by signing treaties with both the Nazis and the Soviets, directly leading to cease-fires. Prior to the winter of 1944-45, the Party committed atrocities against its own people living in Budapest and across Hungary. The short-lived rule birthed death squads, deportations, slave labor, and forced military battalions. When historians mention the Holocaust, the Nazis remain front and center, but the vast majority of exterminated Jews happened in, or came from, Hungary – and were committed by the Arrow Cross Party.
Toward the end of the war, Soviet forces surrounded and laid siege to the city (the Battle of Budapest), squeezing the lifeblood out of the people and the Arrow Cross Party. In the spring of 1945, the USSR’s Red Army officially took control of the city (their rule lasted until the Revolution of 1956), and during the Cold War that followed, Hungary maintained ties to Russia. The country didn’t actually gain its true freedom from tyranny until 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.
This violent history is obvious when walking around the city. Most, if not all, has been rebuilt, but one can feel the undercurrent of suspicion rippling through the landscape. I suppose it’s natural for a people who were placed smack-dab in the middle of two ‘evil’ superpowers and had been attacked and pillaged by various ’empires’ for centuries to be a bit wary of life. I’m not sure how, but they still manage to smile to tourists.
Hasta La Promixa…