Whether you’re heading to Hungary for a long-term stay or just a short visit, it’s worth studying up on the long and varied history of this wonderful country. To that end, here are a few great books about Hungary’s history to explore.
I’ve read a few of them, but not all of them; however, the ones I haven’t yet read come highly recommended. If you know of a great book that’s not on this list, please mention it in the comments below!
Non-Fiction books about Hungarian history
Castles Burning: A Child’s Life in War is a well-written and moving story told from the perspective of a 9-year-old Hungarian Jew whose father abandons her and her family in Budapest in 1939. I’m not even all the way through it yet, but I had to hop on and recommend it. This is the story of author Magda Denes’ own life, one spent hiding with her family (sans dad) from the Nazis in Hungary, and reading the story through a child’s eyes gives fresh insight into both the horrors of war and the perseverance of those who endure it. This book is required reading for students involved in an exchange program with Karoli Gaspar University here in Hungary; they read it in line with a trip they take to Krakow, Poland, and the Auschwitz concentration camp.
The Story of Hungary, written in 1886, tells the history of Hungary from the dawn of time, essentially, to the end of the 19th century. It’s a cheap purchase on Kindle, and it’s the first book I purchased when I wanted to start learning about Hungary.
It’s a well-written book that is rather laudatory of Hungary (justifiably, I might add). Just consider the opening:
“Alexander Petöfi, the great Hungarian poet, in one of his beautiful poems, sings thus of his native land:
‘If the earth be God’s crown
Our country is its fairest jewel.’
And truly were we able to ascend the airy heights and obtain a bird’s-eye view of Hungary, we would fain admit that it is one of the fairest and most blessed spots on the face of the earth.”
Makes you want to visit, right? Or at least read the book?
The Bridge at Andau from James Michener is a nonfiction telling of the end of the famed Revolution of 1956, still widely celebrated today throughout Hungary, and the role that a small bridge at Andau, into the neighboring country of Austria, played in the aftermath.
As Michener put it, the bridge was, previously, probably the least important bridge in all of Europe. But after the Soviets quelled Hungary’s 1956 uprising, some 200,000 Hungarians fled the country for the freedom that Western countries provided — many of them across the Andou bridge.
An early subtitle for the book makes plain the place in history that the Hungarian Revolution would hold, both here in Eastern Europe and around the globe: “The heroic story of the revolt by the Hungarian people that made crystal clear to the world the true face of communism.”
I was assigned the book Postwar by Tony Judt in a class at school, and I’m glad I was. It’s a fascinating book that covers not just Hungarian history, but the history of all of Europe after World War II.
Born in Britain in 1948, at the close of World War II, Judt came of age in a post-war Europe. His life in the United Kingdom (where he graduated from Cambridge) and in the United States (to which he moved in the late 1970s to teach in California and again in the late ’80s to teach in New York, at New York University) was in a world struggling to come to terms with itself after the war.
In the book, Judt traces the path of Europe from a region of intense poverty in 1945 to a position of international strength by the end of the century. He describes the different stories of Western and Eastern Europe — one democratic, one ruled by the Red Army — while also pointing out their similarities, highlighting for example that both halves of Europe in the post-war years had to manage “a burdensome inheritance.”
After exploring Europe’s slow transformation after 1945, Judt lays out in a cohesive succession of brief histories the fall of Communism in the late 1980s as it occurred in Poland, Hungary, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria. He relates each country’s machinations to those of the others, all of it explained in terms of the overarching role played by the USSR and, specifically, by Mikhail Gorbachev.
As I said, it’s a fascinating read for anyone interested in recent world history, particularly in Europe.
I Kiss Your Hands Many Times is a family memoir that tells the story of the author’s parents’ love story in Hungary during World War II. To be honest, I’ve always been a sucker for memoirs. I’m fascinated by the seemingly simple — but often extraordinarily complicated — life events that help shape what people do, how they think, and who they are. This book, based on a number of letters written in the 1940s, tells an “intimate and epic” story of the “complicated relationship Hungary had with its Jewish population—the moments of glorious humanism that stood apart from its history of anti-Semitism—and with the rest of the world,” according to the publisher.
The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat tells the proud history of Hungary and, more to the point, its proud, resilient people. I haven’t read this book, but it’s on my list; I’m eager to learn of the heroic (but rarely victorious) history of these resilient people. Paul Lendvai’s book, according to the publisher, details “the fascinating story of how the Hungarians, despite a string of catastrophes and their linguistic and cultural isolation, have survived as a nation-state for more than 1,000 years.”
Austria-Hungary once ruled much of Europe and was a major player in World War I, as Ring of Steel details. The book, by Alexander Watson, details the Great War from the perspective of the losing side — namely, the Germans and the Austro-Hungarians. Hungary, you might know, has never participated in a war in which it has come out on the winning side. Even today, I think that fact is not lost on the Hungarian people. They are a resilient people, proud of their heritage and yet aware, as many Americans might not be, that war isn’t always won, and the aftermath of a war often means picking up the pieces of defeat rather than celebrating victory.
During a recent trip to the city of Eger and a visit to its famous castle, we stumbled across another classic book of Hungarian history. The castle of Eger is the site of one of Hungary’s best-loved stories. It’s where 2,000 Hungarians ― including women and children ― held off an advancing horde of 40,000 Ottoman Turks in 1552. That, at least, is the story told by the book Eclipse of the Crescent Moon, written in 1899 by Géza Gárdonyi and translated to English by B.J. Harrison. One website dedicated to Eger strongly recommends it for reading before a visit to the castle. We didn’t know about the book before our trip, but I’ve added it to my list of must-reads.
Have you read any of these books? Do you have any others to recommend? Post in the comments below so that I and others can learn more about them!