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Chicago of the Balkans: Budapest in Hungarian literature 1900-1939

By Blog Admin, on 27 June 2013

József körút (Boulevard), c. 1935, Pest as the centre of the press

József körút (Boulevard), c. 1935:
Pest as the centre of the press (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

From the golden age of Hungarian Jewish culture to inter-war anti-semitism, Budapest is constantly being rewritten, finds Gwen Jones.

Writing in 1910, a good decade before Al Capone and associates attained international notoriety, the Hungarian critic and arts patron Lajos Hatvany (1880-1961) introduced an imaginary Western European reader to the latest developments in his country’s culture and history. Tracing Hungary’s elevation following the 1867 Compromise with Austria, from ‘a rudimentary agricultural people to a higher rank’, into the era of economic growth and progress, he suggested that the country was not merely Europeanizing, it was Americanizing: ‘Budapest will become the Chicago of the Balkans’.

My book takes its title from Hatvany’s ironic remark, and discusses the ways in which Hungarian intellectuals viewed and wrote about their capital city from the turn of the twentieth century until the outbreak of World War Two. Referring to the speed with which Budapest grew in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and contrasting this with a dusty ‘Balkan’ backwardness on the periphery, Hatvany placed the Hungarian capital within an absurd contradiction. In this, he was far from alone.

While compiling the book’s index, which was by far the most entertaining part of the entire writing process, I began by listing references to ‘Budapest is Hungarian’, and then for ‘Budapest is not Hungarian’. Next, I compiled various images writers had used to describe the city over this forty-year period. Budapest had been compared to, among other things, Babel, Babylon and Sodom. It was a ‘New Jerusalem’ built by Jews, and ‘Judapest’, the latter description attributed to Karl Lueger, who was mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910. Budapest was the Hungarian Paris, a muse, a parvenu, a Potemkinopolis, a whore and a volcano. Moreover, the Buda side was stuffy and conservative, much like an elderly uncle, while Pest, the centre of commerce, journalism and cabaret, was a cocotte, a fashionable prostitute. In the words of Rezső Seress’s popular interwar chanson, Hiába van palotád Budán, ‘No point your having a villa in Buda, it’s Pest where you go for fun’.

In 1873, Parliament had united the towns of Pest, Buda and Óbuda to create Budapest, a confident new capital that was to embody the unity and strengths of the Hungarian nation, and the aspirations of Hungarian liberalism. As the city’s population grew at an unprecedented rate, its inhabitants discarded German, Slovak, Serbian, Yiddish and other regional languages in favour of Hungarian. Most newcomers streamed into Pest, on the eastern side of the Danube, where the outer reaches of Erzsébetváros, Budapest’s seventh district, were nicknamed Csikágó (a Hungarianization of Chicago) on account of the speed with which this new residential area was built. By 1910, Budapest was Europe’s eighth largest and second fastest-growing city.

For the first half of the forty-year period covered in the book, Budapest was, after Vienna, the second city of the multinational Habsburg empire. Often referred to as the ‘happy days of peace’ until the outbreak of World War One, these years were a golden age of Hungarian culture and, in particular, Hungarian Jewish culture. There followed from 1918 a short-lived social democratic government, an even briefer Soviet-style administration in 1919, and occupation by Romanian troops until November that year, when Admiral Horthy arrived and declared from on horseback that he would punish the ‘sinful city’ for its crimes. Following the Treaty of Trianon in June 1920, Budapest was the capital of a much smaller, far more homogenous state, which had now lost many of its earlier urban centres. Furthermore, the notion of the capital, and many of its inhabitants, were subjected to a battery of ‘national’ loyalty tests over the interwar years, cumulating in the almost total disintegration of a coherent, positive image of Budapest as the capital of Hungary.

Two dandies, Budapest, c. 1935

Two dandies, Budapest, c. 1935 (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

It is customary in much of the secondary literature to focus on just one of the periods outlined above, and also to distinguish between authors who chose to embrace the capital and its pleasures, and those who regarded Budapest as a noxious, ‘alien’ place. Instead, I read works of fiction and non-fiction prose written between 1900 and 1939 that dramatized the capital and whatever it was supposed to represent, and discerned a distinction between works that attributed a monolithic, metaphoric character to the city, be it positive or (more likely) negative, and works that represented the city as physical form, often fragmented, where the devil is in the details of colloquial speech, humour, and areas, streets and people that had been forgotten, discarded or excluded. Many of the latter works employed the device of a guide, taking the reader to obscure or unfashionable parts of the city, and reflecting on the subjective experiences of memory, disillusionment and exile. I do not see a useful distinction between pro- and anti-Budapest writers or works, but rather a set of concerns that remained present throughout this forty-year period, with varying degrees of emphasis, on assimilation, the transformation and ‘usurpation’ of prized urban space by Jews, occupation of the city, and its rebirth.

Put simply, the radicalization and implementation of the desire to redeem the ‘sinful city’ took place at the same time as the radicalisation and implementation of antisemitism, which was first elevated to the level of state policy in 1920. But anti-urbanism and antisemitism are not the same thing. Anti-urbanism is opposition to cities, or even to the idea of the city, and nobody suggested Budapest be abolished — not even its critics, the vast majority of whom lived, wrote and published there — although plenty of people proposed it be de-Jewified. In other words, and in particular in the interwar period, discussions of the ‘Jewish Question’ were inseparable from political struggles for the capital city and its culture.

Every self-respecting modern state needs a capital city — a jewel in the national crown — and accordingly, the desire to rewrite and the city’s history, stories, and personnel is by no means limited to the early twentieth century. The High Stalinist era, for example, saw forced deportations to the countryside of ‘undesirables’, the carving up and redistribution of residential flats aimed at hastening the realization of new Socialist hierarchies, show trials, and monolithic public art projects. After 1989, the names of Marx, Lenin, Béla Kun and other luminaries all disappeared from the streets, while the statues themselves were removed and re-arranged in a theme park south-west of the city. And in November 2010, following Fidesz’s resounding victory at municipal and local elections, the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, announced that Hungary had now, in the spirit of national unity, reclaimed its capital city. The renaming of public squares and streets continues apace, as does the restoration of Kossuth Square in front of Parliament to its 1944 incarnation. Transforming and rewriting the ‘Chicago of the Balkans’, then, remains to this day a rewarding rhetorical and political enterprise.

Gwen Jones‘ book Chicago of the Balkans was published by Legenda Press in 2013, and is based on the doctoral thesis she completed at UCL SSEES in 2006. She is Web Editor at the Open Society Archives, Budapest, and Hon. Research Associate at the UCL Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies.  

Photographs are reproduced from Fortepan under the terms of its Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.