A Global History of Hungary: Concept, Implementation, Reflection

By Ferenc Laczó, András Vadas, and Bálint Varga

As a recent project on the global history of Hungary aims to demonstrate, studying Central and Eastern Europe through the systematic application of transnational methods and from a truly global perspective can offer original and valuable insights. Central and Eastern Europe has tended to be a semi-peripheral area in the global scheme of things and it has thus been much closer to the global average than some of the parts of the world on which much of recent global historiography has focused. Central and Eastern European countries have also developed numerous and still underexplored intercontinental connections outside the Western core that should be of special interest in our age of global multipolarity.[1] At the same time, it can be assumed that this diverse area, as a rather peripheral part of Europe in a formerly largely Eurocentric world, has played the role of a “secondary colonialist” for significant parts of modern history – a topic that should be researched and critically scrutinized in more detail than has been done so far. Moreover, the predominant transnational orientation of this “suburb of Europe” (Jerzy Jedlicki) has shifted repeatedly and sometimes dramatically,[2] creating a complex pattern of legacies (or “continuities in discontinuity”) that can only be properly analysed through a transnational history on the longue durée.

The two new volumes on the global history of Hungary which the three authors of these lines have recently co-edited under the title Magyarország globális története (A Global History of Hungary) intend to capitalize on these four insights (for the Table of Contents of these volumes, see here and here).[3] Our volumes do so without exaggerating Central and Eastern Europe’s historical role. They much rather aim to show how, as the lives of the diverse people of Hungary have come to be interconnected with and shaped by phenomena originating in all the various parts of the globe, transnational and global trends clearly have exerted a much greater impact on their country’s multifaceted history than the other way round.

In this essay, we would like to outline our agenda of applying transnational methods to the long-term reinterpretation of a country’s history and reflect on our ambition to embed Hungarian history comprehensively in global frameworks. We will also discuss the specific ways in which we have implemented this agenda, not least to explain how the contributing authors – 159 scholars in total – have taken up and adapted a recent Western European approach to historiography, what challenges this has entailed, and what opportunities such a process of adaptation offers.

The two volumes of “A Global History of Hungary”. Photo by Ferenc Laczó

The two volumes of A Global History of Hungary contain 203 brief chapters on a total of 1.048 pages; numerous historians, but also geologists, archaeologists, linguists, scholars of literature, historians of art and architecture, scholars of religion, anthropologists, economists, political scientists and scholars of International Relations, sociologists, and media studies scholars have contributed chapters of about five to seven pages each.The resulting volumes cover historical developments from “the very beginnings” (in this case: the formation of the Pannonian Plain, an area that largely coincides with the current territory of the Hungarian state, about a million and a half years ago) all the way to 2022 and the recent global pandemic. The narrative developed thus stretches from geological matters and questions concerning the early spread of human settlement and agriculture, through the emergence of world religions and the era of European colonialism and imperialism, all the way to key issues in the multipolar and contested globalization of today. This narrative arc already suggests why such global history volumes may be needed in the more peripheral parts of Europe, such as Hungary, where more substantial and critical discussions on the country’s place and role in the global scheme of things are arguably only beginning – and, given the current right-wing hegemony in the country, promise to be rather contentious.

In a basic sense, transnational and global histories explore connections across borders and between continents. As a number of recent examples show, the preferred methods and thematic priorities of these approaches can be usefully deployed to reconceptualize the history of particular places. Combining approach and theme in this way can bring greater attention and new interpretation to aspects of a country’s history that may have previously received rather little of it, but are now seen as particularly important in a more interconnected world. Such a combination of approach and subject allows scholars to challenge in a detailed empirical manner prevalent perceptions concerning the supposed internal logics of national history – logics that have been depicted in a detailed and thoroughly professional manner in mainstream works of Hungarian national historiography such as, perhaps most famously, those penned by Ignác Romsics in recent decades.[4] To use an analogy: according to the internalist perspective to which our volumes aim to develop an alternative, the main actors in history – also called nations – behave much like billiard balls. They hit and maybe bounce off each other but remain solid in the process and – unlike in the actual games we play – our main concern should be what is happening inside those balls anyway.

Rather, we were interested in Hungary’s diverse integration into the world, whereby the term “world” can refer to its immediate neighbors or nearby areas, to Europe and Eurasia, to religions (Christianity, especially, but certainly not exclusively), to the semi-peripheral areas that exist on various continents, but also to the entire planet with all its continents and oceans. What A Global History of Hungary offers may be described as an impressionist painting. Objects and actors are depicted in a somewhat unusual way, their contours appear less sharp, and yet they remain easily recognizable. Hopefully, it all amounts to a colorful, enjoyable, and thought-provoking experience for the reader.

In other words, our ambition has not been to deconstruct national narratives as such. It has rather been to substantially enrich such narratives and reconceptualize them for an age of manifold global interconnectedness. To put it differently, the words “Hungary” and “global” are equally significant parts of our title. Ultimately, we believe that it is their juxtaposition and extensive interweaving on these pages that may also give our project some public relevance today.

The recently published volumes in the Hungarian language are themselves integral parts of a transnational wave of scholarship. Building on decades of dedicated research and growing interest in global history, the specific wave we are referring to started in France back in 2017 with the publication, to great acclaim and amidst some fierce polemics, of a volume titled Histoire mondiale de la France.[5] Our volumes on the global history of Hungary may in fact be qualified as the tenth project – following the French, Italian, German, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Flemish, and Sicilian versions[6] – that employs a template of writing history originally developed by Patrick Boucheron and his colleagues.

What are basic features of this approach, and which are some of the concrete paths our authors have taken to implement the volumes’ concept? Individual chapters in all these projects begin by describing a concrete event connected to a specific year, an event that is seen as an illustration of a larger transnational trend developing over a more extended period. It is this larger trend that is then discussed and analyzed in a concise manner in the rest of the chapters. To take just a few examples from the volumes on Hungary: one of the contributions by Róbert Balogh introduces the story of the first black locust planted in Pest in 1789 to consider larger questions of scientific knowledge transfer and ecological colonization processes; the chapter contribution by Sándor Révész discusses the foundation of the Esperanto Society in Hungary in 1901 to then reflect on the search for a common, universal language in modern times; the 1941 publication of the famed A világirodalom története (A History of World Literature) by Antal Szerb[7] in turn provides Eszter Pálfy with an opportunity to discuss the transformation of European and more global literary canons and how Szerb’s interpretations relate to those; while state socialist Hungary’s agreement with the International Monetary Fund in 1982 allows András Pinkasz to analyze the rise of global finance in contemporary times, with a focus on its connections to and consequences for the country and its regime.[8]

This approach, first used to reinterpret the history of France, has not only offered an attractive template that could be adapted to reconceptualize Hungarian history. Our discovery of it – which happened via the Dutch, Flemish, and German adaptations – in fact encouraged us to launch our endeavor in the first place; our becoming aware of this way of writing history has made us first realize the very feasibility of a large-scale global history of Hungary. We ought to mention that we find it surprising that this approach to writing global history seem not to have found adaptors outside Europe yet, even though the history of countries such as, for example, India, Brazil, or Australia, among a host of other places, would certainly provide exciting and eminently suitable subjects.

As co-editors, we considered and reconsidered which subjects individual chapters should analyze, the desirable proportions between them, the list of potential contributors, and – already together with the respective authors – the specific developments or events that were to serve as entry points into the larger themes. We came to agree that the nine overarching themes of our volumes should be set as follows: 1) transnational economic trends and the making of world economies; 2) political ideas, political rule, and regime types; 3) war and violence; 4) migration; 5) cultures and religions; 6) colonialism, racism, and questions of decolonization; 7) everyday life and consumption; 8) environment and diseases; and 9) stigmatized and marginalized groups. As these nine larger themes keep on recurring as the reader moves along the centuries, the chapters get interwoven in intricate and hopefully suggestive ways.

Having agreed on our main themes, the next task was to formulate more specific research questions for each of these areas. For example, economic innovations and crises were chosen as the central themes of the chapters concerned with the modern economy. This in turn generated research questions such as “how did various economic innovations arrive in and impact the Hungarian economy and how did the country compare to others in this respect?” or “how was Hungary’s economy impacted by various major economic crises and why? More specifically, how can we account for the particularly negative consequences by global comparison that several of those slumps came to exert on the country?” Let us take another example: trends of democratization and de-democratization in transnational and global perspective have been placed at the heart of chapters on types of political rule in modern and contemporary times. This led to research questions such as “how can the processes of democratization and de-democratization in the country be embedded in relevant global trends and how have they been shaped by various transnational influences?” But also “what might account for Hungary’s specific place and role in those trends at various times?” Such research questions in turn helped us decide the subjects of individual chapters. For instance, separate chapters are devoted to the impacts of the 1873, the 1929, and the 2008-09 economic crises.[9] The same goes for women’s right to vote, the right-wing authoritarian power grab of 1919, the revolutionary (or in Timothy Garton Ash’s apt phrase combing reform and revolution: refolutionary) changes in 1989, or current trends of de-democratization, all of which are explored from a global perspective. [10]  

The resulting volumes contain chapters of four kinds. These chapter types may be described as follows: some focus on the local-national manifestation of global events and trends as well as the interconnections between transformation on the national and on larger, more global scales. Examples of these include world wars, climate and landscape changes, and pandemics, but also more specific subjects such as Gothic architecture and the Renaissance, the rise of universities, witch-hunts, or the opening of the stock market in Pest. Other chapters primarily aim to reconceptualize cases that have often been studied on local-national or at most regional levels through transnational methods and broader global contextualization. Examples that might be worth mentioning are the foundation of a Christian state, the spread of the idea of religious freedom in the 16th century, attempts to institutionally protect minority populations in the twentieth century, or the introduction of neoliberal austerity measures in more recent decades. A third type of chapter explores the appearance and impact of people and phenomena on Hungary that originated on other continents. Relevant examples include plagues and other pandemics, the Pax Mongolica, the spread of pepper and coffee, the early reception of democracy in America, the reception of Latin American cultures during the Cold War, religions that originated in India, or recent and ongoing investments by companies from East Asia. Fourth, some chapters foreground the diverse activities Hungarians have pursued in various parts of the world. Examples that may be mentioned here are the scholarly insights that were sort of the byproducts of the search for “the ancient homeland” of the Hungarians (such as, for example, the first Tibetan-English dictionary), the spread of hussar regiments, attempts to discover “the heart of Africa,” Orientalist paintings produced in the 19th century, scientific research in the United States leading to the development of the atomic bomb, engineering projects in the decolonized world, such as independent Algeria, or, more recently, Hungarians’ role in the “war on terror” in Afghanistan, or in prostitution in contemporary Switzerland.

It has been evident to us from the very beginning that our list of subjects cannot be exhaustive; our choices should certainly not be seen as exclusive. It would in fact be justified to object that key terms such as “Hungary,” “global” or “transnational” sound anachronistic when applied to past centuries and millennia. Admittedly, no one had a sense of all continents prior to the 17th century; except for certain parts of Asia and Africa, European maps started adding the continents known to us today during the early modern period, a process we study in volume one.[11] However, we argue that historians may still apply the term “global” to describe the widest relevant contexts of historical processes in previous epochs, or to try and consider all territories that were known to various historical actors.

Széchenyi Square, Pécs in 1920. Source: Fortepan / Erky-Nagy Tibor

The term Hungary (Magyarország) is admittedly even less justifiable when it comes to centuries prior to the 10th century of the common era – not to mention the undeniable global complication that the currently dominant mode of counting centuries, employed also in these volumes, is connected to the history of Christianity even in its secularized version. Ultimately, we have decided to include several chapters at the beginning of volume one in which Hungary and Hungarians play no role at all, such as the geological processes that formed the territory where the Hungarian state in its various manifestations came to be situated much later, or the natural vegetation of this area that had been completely transformed by the time Magyar and other settlers arrived in this place. At the same time, the volumes contain chapters on the arrival of the Hungarians in the Pannonian Basin and the foundation of the Hungarian Kingdom as well.[12] However, the basic intention behind these chapters was rather to relativize the importance of these events which tend to appear as crucial or even as decisive moments in more conventional national narratives – not least because the diversity of cultural and religious identities and political statuses continued to have a more powerful impact beyond those dates than the sense of belonging to a country, not to speak of belonging to a “unified” or even “homogeneous” nation, which are much more recent, essentially modern ideas.

The transnational wave in historiography described above has unfolded primarily in Western Europe until now. A Global History of Hungary can in fact be qualified as the first adaptation of this new, popular way of writing global history to a case in Central and Eastern Europe. In other words, we have adapted the approach originally developed to interpret French history to the admittedly rather different case of Hungary, which has raised some special challenges. It has perhaps also enabled the contributors to develop some innovative aspects of this transnational wave in scholarship in a slightly new direction.

Key challenges we faced in preparing two large volumes on Hungarian history with such a global horizon arose from the rather weak institutionalization of transnational and global historiography within Hungary itself, but also the fact that intra-regional and intra-European references may have been more directly relevant to some of the actors we study and therefore much more evident in the historical record. In the latter cases, a proper global contextualization often requires original comparative analyses. For example, Hungarian feminists, who were clearly part of a significant transnational wave of activism prior to WWI and even hosted the Seventh Conference of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Budapest in 1913, may have been inspired by parallel British or German trends, above all. At the same time, some of their concerns as well as their structural position made them rather similar to their counterparts in places like Argentina or Egypt – something that the comparative method can elucidate.

The just mentioned key challenges were practically the flipside of what we perceived as a major opportunity – to produce a fresh and in many ways original interpretation of Hungarian history through the consistent use of transnational methods and the application of broader, more global perspectives. As mentioned above, authors depict Hungary on these pages as a country with multifaceted and substantial transnational connections whose history and society have gradually come to be intertwined with phenomena from all the diverse parts of the globe. Our volumes also insist that Hungary is a Central and Eastern European country which has in many ways been peripheral within Europe and semi-peripheral globally, even if to varying degrees and in various ways across time, and a state that has tended to define its place in the world as a European state, and which has thus also had numerous links to the processes of colonization and decolonization in recent centuries, often as a kind of secondary colonialist.

The volumes of A Global History of Hungary ultimately seek a fine balance between regional, continental, and global forms of contextualization through which they are meant to relativize but not ignore the historical role of Eurocentrism. As the introduction states, the European horizon of Hungarian history may in fact appear more prominently in these volumes than on the pages of several of their West European counterparts, just as the marked emphases on the global connections of Hungarian history may strike many of our readers as more original or even as surprising. A Global History of Hungary thus aims to foster urgent critical reflections on Eurocentric perspectives that have shaped much of Hungarian culture and politics.

A Global History of Hungary will hopefully be perceived as an original and rather creative adaptation of the approach developed by Boucheron and his colleagues, not least because it clearly shows that transnational and global trends have exerted a much greater impact on Hungary than the other way round. The latter assertion should hardly require extra justification, we find, in a country whose current territory was part of the frontier region of the Roman Empire; a Hungarian state founded in an area that was then part of the outermost fringes of Latin Christendom and partly located in a zone of transition to Byzantium; an area that in the early modern period was simultaneously on the periphery of the Ottoman Empire and the European Christian world; that for much of the 20th century was on the western edges of the Soviet empire; one that has never really belonged to the dynamic core regions of the world economy – and that today could be considered a rather poorly integrated member state of the European Union.

The intention behind A Global History of Hungary is certainly not to offer a teleological story of the continuous deepening of connections and permanent increase of global embeddedness. Even though numerous cases analyzed on these pages indeed show how transnational connections got denser and the primarily European and Eurasian scale of phenomena expanded over time, the volumes also demonstrate that the global history of the country was similarly characterized by major shifts in its predominant transnational relations, such as via Christianization, the Ottoman conquest, or the process of Sovietization. Moreover, specific chapters – such as, for example, the one on the Armenian diaspora in Hungary or the decline of universities – point to powerful contrary trends.

What the two volumes of A Global History of Hungary thus show is rather that the basic tendencies of various epochs have markedly differed from one another. For example, medieval Hungary may be classified as a place where many of the newest trends in Europe and Eurasia played out in parallel or even in combination, whereas in early modern times, the country experienced a stark process of peripherialization within Europe and within the Ottoman Empire that, remarkably enough, coincided with a multifaceted global opening. To provide just one suggestive illustration of the latter: Ottoman subjects drank coffee from Chinese porcelain in Buda castle around the same time that silver from Latin America was used to finance the Catholic armies that were attempting to (re)conquer this province. Our project ultimately proposes that the study of such complex patterns may offer some original and valuable insights into global history – and grasping the nuances of such intricate patterns might also help us to account for the often-contradictory tendencies of our own age.

A longer version of this text appeared first in Turkish translation under the title “Macaristan’ın Küresel Tarihi: Kavram, Uygulama ve Çalışmaya Dair Değerlendirmeler” and was published in the Autumn 2023 issues of Tarih ve Toplum.


References

[1] On such ‘East-South connections’ during the Cold War, see James Mark, Paul Betts et al., Socialism Goes Global. The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the Age of Decolonisation (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2022).

[2] See Jerzy Jedlicki, A Suburb of Europe. Nineteenth-Century Polish Approaches to Western Civilization (Budapest: CEU Press, 1999).

[3] Ferenc Laczó and Bálint Varga (eds.), Magyarország globális története. 1869-2022 (Budapest: Corvina, 2022). Ferenc Laczó, András Vadas, and Bálint Varga (eds.) Magyarország globális története. A kezdetektől 1868-ig (Budapest: Corvina, 2023).

[4] See, above all, his recent general history of the country published as Ignác Romsics, Magyarország története (Budapest: Kossuth, 2017).

[5] Patrick Boucheron (chief ed.), Histoire mondiale de la France (Paris: Seuil, 2017). English translation: Patrick Boucheron (chief ed.), France in the World: A New Global History (New York: Other Press, 2019).

[6] See the following titles: Storia mondiale dell’Italia; Historia mundial de España; Història mundial de Catalunya; Storia mondiale della Sicilia; Wereldgeschiedenis van Nederland and Nog meer wereldgeschiedenis van Nederland; Wereldgeschiedenis van Vlaanderen; Deutschland: Globalgeschichte einer Nation; História Global de Portugal (English translation: The Global History of Portugal: From Pre-History to the Modern World).

[7] Antal Szerb, A világirodalom története I-III. (Budapest: Révai, 1941).

[8] See Róbert Balogh, “1789: A fehér akác megjelenik a pest–budai utcákon” in 1868-ig, 404-409. Sándor Révész, “1901: Létrejön a Magyar Eszperantisták Egylete” in 1869-2022, 72-77. Eszter Pálfy, “1941: Megjelenik Szerb Antal A világirodalom története című könyve” in Ibid., 226-230. András Pinkasz, “1982: Magyarország csatlakozik a Nemzetközi Valutaalaphoz” in Ibid., 371-74.

[9] See György Kövér, “1873: Kolerajárvány és tőzsdekrach” in 1869-2022, 21-25. Ágnes Pogány, “1929: A nagy gazdasági világválság” in Ibid., 189-192. Dóra Piroska, “2008: Beüt a globális pénzügyi és gazdasági válság” in Ibid., 461-465.

[10] Dóra Czeferner, “1913: A Nők Választójogi Világszövetségének kongresszusa Budapesten” in Ibid., 106-110. Ferenc Laczó, “1919: Horthy Miklós belovagol a budapesti Gellért térre” in Ibid., 145-148. Ervin Csizmadia, “1989: A szovjet rendszer bukása és a demokratikus átmenet” in Ibid., 397-401. Dániel Hegedűs, “2017: A Lex CEU elfogadása” in Ibid., 470-474.

[11] See Zsolt Győző Török, “1542: Johannes Honterus világtérképe Amerikát is ábrázolja” in 1868-ig, 226-230.

[12] See Péter Langó, “891: A magyarok megtelepedése a Kárpát-medencében” in Ibid., 58-63. Gábor Thoroczkay, “1000: Istvánt királlyá avatják” in Ibid., 75-78.


About the Authors

Ferenc Laczó is an assistant professor with tenure (universitair docent 1) in history at Maastricht University, an editor at the Review of Democracy (CEU Democracy Institute), and István Deák Visiting Assistant Professor at Columbia University in 2023-24. He received his PhD from the Central European University in 2011 and was previously employed as a postdoctoral researcher at the Imre Kertész Kolleg Jena. He is the author or editor of thirteen books on Hungarian, Jewish, German, European, and global themes.

András Vadas is an assistant professor of medieval history at the Eötvös Loránd University (Budapest). He holds a Ph.D. from there (2015) as well as from the Central European University (2020). His research focuses on the environmental, urban, and economic history of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period. He is the author of The Environmental Legacy of War on the Hungarian-Ottoman Frontier, c. 1540-1690 published with Amsterdam University Press (2023) and co-editor of several volumes on the economic and urban history of East Central Europe including Medieval Buda in Context (Brill, 2016), The Economy of Medieval Hungary (Brill, 2018), and The Medieval Networks in East Central Europe: Commerce, Contacts, Communication (Routledge, 2019).

Bálint Varga is an assistant professor in modern history at the University of Graz, Austria. He authored the award-winning monograph The Monumental Nation: Symbolic Politics and Magyar Nationalism in Fin-de-Siecle Hungary (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, hardcopy 2016, pbk 2019) and several studies on the transnational history of modern Central and Eastern Europe.  He currently works on a book project about discourses of civilization and colonialism in the Habsburg lands.


Citation: Ferenc Laczó; András Vadas; Bálint Varga, A Global History of Hungary: Concept, Implementation, Reflection, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 06.02.2024, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/50351



Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2024, 6. Februar). A Global History of Hungary: Concept, Implementation, Reflection. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 29. Februar 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/vriz

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