- The Will to Survive: A History of Hungary by Bryan Cartledge
Written as a tribute to the people of Hungary, Bryan Cartledge’s third edition of The Will to Survive: A History of Hungary is a comprehensive, if largely celebratory, history of a nation whose story is little known or appreciated outside of East Central Europe. Tracing Hungary’s political development from the ninth century through to its accession to the European Union in 2004, Cartledge weaves a detailed though very accessible tale of a people who have often found themselves in the geopolitical crosshairs of one or more of Europe’s Great Powers.
Drawing on his academic training as a historian and also on his experience as British ambassador to Hungary from 1980 to 1983, Cartledge claims to have a written an objective history of Hungary, one that also reflects his “great respect and affection” for the Hungarian people (p. xiv). On some levels, this sympathetic approach works quite well. Though he limits himself almost exclusively to English-language scholarship, and though he fails to situate Hungarian history in a broader global context (a fact that perhaps renders this book of little interest to world historians), Cartledge nevertheless provides a meticulous account of the major political and diplomatic developments that have shaped Hungarian history over the course of the last millennium. Focusing primarily on the long twentieth century (roughly half the book is dedicated to this period), Cartledge’s narrative is dotted with important, and sometimes even profound, insights into Hungary’s past. Cartledge notes in passing, for example, the ecological consequences of Hungary’s territorial dismemberment after World War I, something that is often overlooked even by Hungarian historians. His assessment of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 is also noteworthy in that it accurately casts the revolutionaries as socialist reformers rather than anti-communist nationalists, while his account of the educational reforms that followed in the wake of the 1956 revolution points to some of the achievements that were made under Hungary’s socialist regime.
Despite these otherwise impressive factual insights, Cartledge’s analysis is dominated by a more or less heroic account of Hungary’s past, one that, though by no means uncritically right wing, nevertheless draws upon a number of apologetic narratives consistent with Hungary’s nationalist revival since the fall of Communism in 1989. Beyond simply celebrating Hungary’s improbable survival in a continent dominated by aggressive imperialist powers, Cartledge highlights [End Page 903] a series of twentieth-century tragedies that “would have destroyed a less resilient nation” (p. 319). Following in the narrative footsteps of many well-established Hungarian historians writing in both Hungarian and English, Cartledge views the Communist period, for example, as one in which a foreign system was imposed on Hungary with the help of a handful of treacherous Hungarian leaders. By contrast, the shift to the radical right in the interwar period and the subsequent alliance with the Nazis are explained—and in some ways even dismissed—in terms of the unfortunate but largely excusable acts of otherwise good and noble men who made some bad choices because of the historical and geopolitical situation they found themselves in. This assessment of the interwar period and of Hungary’s involvement in World War II is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the book. In addition to glossing over the Holocaust, Cartledge positions himself squarely—if perhaps unwittingly—in the camp of Hungarian historians who have taken it upon themselves to rehabilitate Hungary’s interwar and wartime ruling elite by means of an apologetic reassessment of their politics and actions.
Though he falls short of casting these men as national heroes, he nevertheless paints them as honorable Hungarian patriots who had been poisoned by the harsh and punitive peace treaty imposed on Hungary after World War I, and whose political and geopolitical choices were more or less determined by forces outside of their control. Writing of Miklós Horthy, who served as regent and head of state from March 1920 to October 1944, Cartledge...