The expression “golden age” carries a variety of meanings. Originally, it was used in Greek mythology. The golden age was the era of harmony among the gods. It was the age ruled by Khronos, the god of time. People were not yet envious or greedy, and violence was an unknown phenomenon. They needed no laws, nor did they have to struggle to make a living. The concept of the golden age appears in other cultures as well. The Hindus mark time with this concept.

Christianity also borrowed the notion of the golden age from Greco-Roman mythology. Indeed, Paradise is nothing other than the state to which this mythological concept refers. In Paradise, people lived in harmony with the world, with themselves and with God. The loss of harmony becomes equivalent to expulsion from Paradise.

The golden age, therefore, is a cloudless era of utter light-heartedness and proximity to the divine.

Colloquial language in some sense has borrowed this mythological and religious content. When people talk about the golden age, they are referring to some kind of a peaceful, ordered period, dominated by harmony. People also use the term high point to refer to the golden age.

There has always been an inclination for people to locate the counterpart to the mythological or religious golden age here on Earth. It was believed as early as Roman times that the Age of Augustus was the golden age or high point. In European culture, the expression golden age is often used in a variety of contexts. It is almost a commonplace to refer to the boom in the 17th century Low Countries or Netherlands as the golden age (of course, others merely call this the Age of Rembrandt).

Virtually everything may have a golden age: football, the waltz, water polo and the operetta.

There are people who consider the reign of Hungarian King Béla III as the golden age of Hungarian history; others use this term for the age of Louis the Great, while still others look back to the era of Matthias Hunyadi. Hungarian writer Mór Jókai regarded the first half of the 17th century history in Transylvania as the golden age.

However, we should be careful with our tendency to create labels. Earthly existence can never, ever be equivalent to the mythological world for the plain and simple reason that everything is imperfect here. When we use the term golden age, therefore, we must always clarify the sense in which we mean it.

We may use this term, but we must be aware of its relativity.

This relativity comes partly from the fact that we are able to draw comparisons after the fact; we can say whether a period was better than that which came before or after it. We can say whether the large majority of the people lived in peace or not. And we can also say – because this is also a part of relativity – that an earthly golden age is always loaded with tensions, disharmonies and inequalities.

An earthly golden age, therefore, does not exist in its fullness, but can be observed in its relativity.

For Hungary too we can create labels and make declarations after the fact. In my opinion, there was a period in our modern history, which started in 1848, characterised by a peaceful order in an era marked by an upward trend for a large portion of the people living here – even if everything was exactly as imperfect as a world of human co-existence can be.

I believe the period of the Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1867 and 1914 meets the above criteria. I am referring to almost half a century of peaceful liberal development filled with disharmonies.


The pillars of the golden age

The age of the dual monarchy in Hungary was marked by a growing middle class and a cultural rejuvenation. That is to say, people’s lives changed, and what we simply refer to as modernity in our daily lives became an increasingly decisive factor in the lives of an increasing number of people. The age saw the emergence of an education system and a Public Education Act; hospitals and an institutional epidemiology network; plumbing and indoor bathrooms; a flourishing theatre culture and vibrant modern art; new-found metropolitanisation and freedom of the press; a railway network and higher education for women.

That which emerged, emerged relative to something else, and what emerged became the central trend of the age. And the trend saw the entire region – with varied internal pacing and to varying degrees – begin to assimilate more and more to the Europe that the thinkers of the age considered to be the norm. The age of the empire was and indeed became the cultural breakthrough.

A middle-class lifestyle developed, took root in society and became the norm, and this provided the framework and content for changes in civilisation. And since this middle-class lifestyle embraced almost all walks of life, its daily presence was clear to everyone. The skilled labourer worked in a factory in a hat and often with a pocket watch with a chain the way a banker did; veal cutlets were called “Sunday meat” by the poor – because they were only placed on the table on Sunday, but then they were indeed there. Everybody knew that time-off was part of a middle-class lifestyle, but of course not everyone shared in this concept equally. However, it was considered to be the norm, and people worked toward it. And of course more and more people thought that it was fitting for a member of the middle class to go for a stroll, eat pastries and frequent cafés.

This cultural breakthrough and societal embedding of the middle-class lifestyle took place during a relatively long period of peace. (The peaceful nature of the era was disrupted by the occupation of Bosnia in 1878, but this did not affect the majority of the people living here.) In short, it can be stated that it was the consolidation and effort toward consolidation that provided the context for the great changes. Now this might be perfectly natural in the case of Great Britain, but in Central Europe it is, for the most part, something approaching miraculous. The co-existence of change and peace causes one to wax nostalgic today. In this framework, Franz Joseph and Queen Victoria become equivalent.

People believed in progress in Hungary and in Europe as well. In the 19th century, they all believed that the world moves forward, so to speak, and industrialisation provided the basis for this belief. They could prove on an almost daily basis that man was gaining ground in the relation between himself and nature. Man conquered distance with the railway. He stopped epidemics sooner or later with the power of science. With the power of machines, he provided cheap goods for those in need. The second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century bore out this conviction with ever more evidence. The telegraph, the telephone, the automobile, the aeroplane and many other inventions that benefited the common man bore witness to this progress. Scholarly theories tended to reinforce this belief. Marx (following Hegel) thought that the “Weltgeist” finds its way back to the image of the proletariat and that this process thus leads to the resolution of history, which is the perfection of human freedom, or communism. Spencer put his faith in evolution and organic development in his book “First Principles”. John Stuart Mill theorised on the possibility of perfecting political freedom.

In the 19th century, people began to breed plants and dogs as part of their belief in progress. Some even wanted to apply the biological theory of Darwin to society and the world of people. Their time, however, only came in the 20th century – in the 19th century, the intellectual framework had not yet been defined by social Darwinism.

A great deal of tension in the societies undergoing transformation in the 19th century already demonstrated that a great many breaking points had arisen in the relations between people. But at the time nobody questioned whether progress was indeed progress. After the Compromise of 1867, the Hungary of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was basically characterised by an ethos of spreading culture and middle-class values. Practically every contemporary agent in this endeavour thought that the purpose of these efforts was the cultural elevation of the nation in the 19th century sense of the word: from József Eötvös to Ágoston Trefort to Gyula Wlassics; from Kálmán Széll to Károly Kerkapoly to Sándor Wekerle; from Ernő Hollán to Gábor Baross to Károly Csemegi to Dezső Szilágyi; from Gyula Andrássy to Frigyes Podmaniczky – just to mention a few examples.

The age of the empire was a decisive period for the rise of the middle class in Hungary, one which demonstrated great achievements. It cannot be determined whether this all could have happened without the reigning ethos of the time. It can surely be said, however, that the ethos of a national culture was organically tied to the age and came about in this spiritual field of energy.

The economic potential of the empire delineated the cultural borders. Many attempted to quantify the measure of economic growth in the empire in a variety of ways. The results were very different, but it is probably not a major error to place the average annual growth for the period between 1870 and 1911 at 1.5 and 2.5%. In Hungary, the pace of growth was even more rapid. According to almost all the calculations, average annual growth here roughly exceeded the pace of development in the other half of the empire by 0.5%, which was also expressed by the fact that with the passing of time Hungary’s contribution to the joint state budget grew in terms of percentage, while that of Austria shrank.[2] As for how and for what this potential was used, it depended on the people and the decision-makers, who of course were also in possession of the ethos of the time and wanted to give a moral and spiritual purpose and justification for their intentions.

Even if I cannot provide a detailed analysis of the rise of the Hungarian middle class within the empire here and now, I cannot neglect to paint a general picture. Perhaps the central feature of this general picture is the fact that the rise of the middle class here was often exponentially disproportionate and extremely uneven.

It was uneven in terms of regional development because there was a world of difference between Máramaros and Vas.

It was uneven socially because there was a world of difference between the lifestyle of the poor peasantry and that of the middle class.

It was uneven in terms of infrastructure because a there was a world of difference between the expanding farmstead culture and the expanding capital city.

It was uneven in terms of culture because there was a world of difference between the increasing number of illiterates and those who bought up the hundred-volume gift edition of Jókai’s works.

And it was uneven economically as well because there was a world of difference between the large number of emigrants and that of people still searching for hope here at home.

There were record achievements and achievements that fell below the norms of the age.[3]

The railway became a record achievement. While 178 kilometres of railway spanned Hungary in 1848, this figure was 2.160 kilometres in 1866 and (together with Croatia) totalled 21.798 kilometres by 1913, with which the country approached the railway density of western European states. The relativity of comparisons and the unevenness of Hungarian development is indicated by the fact that in mortality rate the Kingdom of Hungary was only exceeded by Spain and Russia. The vast majority of railway infrastructure by the late 1880s and early 1890s was bought up by the state-controlled Hungarian Railways. The number of local railways that joined major lines increased, with which the possibilities for regional mobility and shipping of goods also grew incredibly. In parallel, the role of the rivers, logically, shrank, although river regulation projects continued. The primary use of these projects had more to do with flood control and increasing the amount of arable land and less to do with shipping and water transport. The most spectacular part of these projects was the regulation of the Iron Gate between 1889 and 1899, which had previously been initiated by Széchenyi. The most useful, however, has turned out to be the development of a system of dams along the Danube and the Tisza.

Besides the modernisation of the railway system, however, the development of the road system was rather neglected. The majority of the roads were owned by counties and villages, and they were not very keen on developing them. Characteristically, while the state road system was in better shape, of the 11.000 kilometres of state road that had been built by the end of the era, only 200(!) kilometres were actually paved with stone or asphalt. This again indicates that traditionalism continued to thrive in tandem with modernity: the rule of mud continued to live on and rugged transport conditions from previous eras co-existed with developments that approached western Europe. (Although at the end of the century, left-hand automobile traffic set off in the country, and in 1900 the auto club was also established.) In parallel, telecommunication was also modernised. In the late 1880s, Gábor Baross founded the post office, which was the organisational framework not only for postal traffic, but also for telegraph and telephone traffic as well. The post office, which operated at an excellent standard, and the development of the telephone system, which functioned at a western European standard, yet again contributed to a framework that increased the level of civilisation in the country.

On the other hand, as I have already mentioned, the mortality rate in Hungary approached that of Spain and Russia, which were considered to be underdeveloped at the time.

This was so despite the fact that the number of physicians doubled during the era of dualism and by the end of the era there were thirty doctors for every 100,000 inhabitants. In the last year of peace, over 400 hospitals were serving patients in Hungary, and almost 90% of them were established after the Compromise. (Roughly the same can be said of pharmacies as well.) With the introduction of compulsory smallpox vaccinations, one of the most feared illnesses was stopped in its tracks.

Nevertheless, a few very serious problems remained within healthcare, a fact which powerfully questions the effectiveness of the changes. One of these was infant and child mortality. Progress was quite modest there: even in 1910, every fifth infant died before the age of one. Only 690 out of a 1.000 children reached the age of five. The indicators were made worse by the fact that tuberculosis with its 40-50.000 victims annually had become an epidemic. All of this resulted in the fact that Hungary, in terms of death, took the lead in Europe and naturally it also had an impact on the average life expectancy, which had only grown from the 1870s to the end of the period from 30 to 40 years. Obviously, the unhappy data cannot be blamed exclusively on healthcare, but, from the perspective of the rise of the middle class, healthcare did play a decisive role. Improvements in this area did not reach the countryside, where the majority of the population lived. A neglect of preventive health also resulted in the fact that people were obliged to use their own centuries-old remedies. Their methods mixed various processes of natural healing familiar even today and various forms of quackery. And if one considers what kind of struggles had to be fought among doctors to introduce the most elementary health regulations in delivering babies in the 1850s and 1860s, one can only imagine what kind of culture of hygiene reigned in areas never seen by a doctor. Ignác Semmelweis is deservedly thought of as not only one of the greatest figures in Hungarian medicine, but also in the development of civilisation in Hungary.

However, the great national project that had begun in the Reform Era represented another record achievement, the unification of the capital city in 1873.[4]

In Europe, the speed of development in Budapest was only comparable to that of Berlin. In 1867, the capital only had 280.000 inhabitants, but in 1910 this grew to almost 900.000. (If we add to this outlying areas that had been separate administratively but had formed part of the city in practical terms, the number reaches 1.1 million people.) While at the time of the Compromise, Budapest was 17th among European cities in population, by the turn of the century it claimed eighth place.

The outstanding role of the city was not due to the fact that such a large percentage of the population of Hungary lived there, as is the case today. Only 4-5% of the country’s population lived in Budapest. However, as a particular characteristic of Hungary’s urban development, the second largest city, Szeged, boasted only 12% of the population of Budapest. Therefore, the capital grew exceptionally large in relation to the country’s other cities. The city’s rival to the west was Vienna, the tacitly accepted capital of the empire. Tacitly, because, although no law had been passed in this regard, the joint ministries were located there. Budapest started to rival Vienna and, although it did not manage to become the centre of the empire, it did begin to converge with Vienna. On the other hand, Budapest was also measured in relation to the centres of the “East”. (The “East” should be put in inverted commas because it is not meant in the geographic sense.) A significant element of the “Budapest Plan”[5] was that the Hungarian capital should be unrivalled in the east, in the south and in the north. The capital, therefore, should become the economic and cultural hub of the region as well as its point of reference. The capital concentrated, so to speak, and spread the key content of cultural development to provincial towns and cities. At the end of the 1880s, tram transport was introduced (and the underground in 1896), and as early as 1905 taxi service was launched with Hungarian-made Marta automobiles (speeding along at 30-40 kilometres per hour!). In the late 1890s, a system of mains was set up as the basis for indoor plumbing that would provide both tap water and wastewater removal. As early as the 1870s, the first electric streetlights appeared and electricity began to replace gaslight. The first telephone was put in operation in 1881 (the third in the world), and, by 1913, 27.000 private subscribers enjoyed telephone service in Budapest.

The urbane quality of a city is also determined by a sense of comfort. In this regard, Budapest was yet again in the lead. By the turn of the century, there were over 400 cafés, numerous pubs and restaurants, and, of course, public toilets for the convenience of locals and visitors alike.

The roads and walkways of the city centre were paved, and there was no obstacle, therefore, for shoes to replace boots. Cultural facilities were also widely available. From the Orpheum to the Opera, everyone could enjoy their free time in line with their social position and tastes. The repertoire at the theatres served the citizens of the city in many ways. The theatre buildings were often a model for theatres in provincial towns and cities – often because the same architect designed them. The expansion of the press on the national level is illustrated beautifully by the fact that 200 different newspapers were published at the time of the Compromise, while the last year of peace would see this number rise to 2.000(!).

The sense of metropolitan comfort was increased by the nature of the buildings and streets. On the one hand, the representative institutions of the state were gradually being built up, while several-storey-high stone and brick buildings were also spreading. While at the time of the Compromise, 2-3% of the buildings had four storeys or more, by the 1910s, this percentage was increased to 20-25 per cent.

The distinctive layout of the city was also established during this period. The outer and inner boulevards were constructed, along with the pearl of the city, the Hungarian Champs Elysées, Andrássy Road.

Budapest, which had developed into a metropolis both in terms of appearance and available services, showed signs of an unfolding urbanisation. The other tendency that characterised the era stood in diametric opposition to that in Budapest: the spread of small, isolated farmsteads.

It is extremely difficult to say the size of the population affected by this trend, especially if we also consider the population on the outskirts of the sprawling market towns along the Alföld plain. One thing is certain. The farmstead population grew significantly, and this does not mean that American-type family farms were being established. On the contrary, it signified that the upward mobility of the peasantry became stuck and that hundreds of thousands were pushed to return to a life of extensive farming and to the lifestyle that characterised the previous century. The growth of farmsteads was indicative of a type of internal migration; the main push factor was the pure desire to make ends meet – usually with a superhuman effort and a subhuman existence. All told, by the 1910s, the farmstead population is estimated at 700.000 to 1 million – roughly the same as the population of the metropolitanised capital city. In terms of their living conditions, the farmsteads more or less represented complete traditionalism. The poor road conditions reminded one of previous centuries just like the prejudices that even in the 1960s (!) suggested the existence of elements of witchcraft in some places. People on farmsteads only occasionally enjoyed institutionalised forms of public health and education, while they were untouched by the cultural achievements. In their living conditions, they were centuries behind the capital in terms of the middle-class transformation and urban improvements.

These contradictions indicate that the contemporary rise of the middle class was a significant process, but hardly without tension – and then I have not even mentioned the complexity of lifestyles and values.

People at the time were aware of the achievements and wished to show them to the world. In large part, the Hungarian millennium of 1896 was centred on just that.

1896 was meant to make people aware of three major values. These values were seen as being equivalent.

First, they wanted to make it known that the Hungarian state had found its rightful place and after so many unfortunate historical periods it had finally reached a plateau of calm. This found expression in the fact that there was a “plan” afoot to have a statue of Franz Joseph complete the planned pantheon of 14 Hungarian kings at the millennium memorial. It was also captured by the fact that historical Hungary (the “empire” of St. Stephen) was understood as a given for eternity in the various statements made, despite the fact that half the population living in the country was partly composed of nationalities that had solid ethnic and state support systems across the country’s borders. It was further captured by the fact that the ceremonies were conceived in the spirit of historicisation: the present appeared as the positive fulfilment of history.

Second, the millennium of 1896 said that that Hungary was suffused with Hungarian supremacy. Hungarians were economically, culturally and politically superior, and this superiority was authentic and justifiable. This found expression in the mythification of the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin itself. The diorama painted by Feszty, which is on display again today and in which the conquering Hungarian men “take” the Slavic women.[6] But the millennial exhibition expressed the same, in which every accessory of this justified supremacy was on display and where minorities only occupied a place in an artificial, open-air museum set up to look like a village.

Third, and this element authenticated the first two, the millennium said that the country was ready to advance into the world of modern culture and civilisation and could embrace the leading European values of industrialisation and middle-class transformation. This was captured by investments made by state authorities, developments in infrastructure and major investments in culture – which functioned as museums and bore witness to the capacity to accumulate cultural capital. These all objectified the concept of progress in the 19th century and made it both tangible and accessible for all. And if progress, unquestionable progress, shows itself, then the historical and political situation is fulfilled and reaches a resting point, as does Hungarian supremacy as well. As the most widely read writer of the age – indeed, someone whose works have become literary classics – Mór Jókai said, “It is not the task of Hungary to spread out, but to rise up”.[7]

Two of the three value statements of 1896 have proved to be illusory. By the time the millennium memorial was completed, the Habsburg Empire no longer existed, nor did historical Hungary (the empire and historical Hungary existed exactly 22 years after the millennium). Obviously, this fact also ended the politically backed existence of Hungarian supremacy. In other words, two of the three value statements existed 22 years beyond the millennial celebrations. In contrast, the cultural achievements have proved to be lasting and have become part of our everyday lives.


The cultural milieu of the golden age

The different national, religious and cultural identities often defined themselves in opposition to one another. Therefore, the element of alienation, hatred and condescension was always present. Almost everybody hated everybody else, but hatred had not yet turned into detestation, as it did in the 20th century. The empire represented ideal ground for prejudice as well. Metternich, who was the state chancellor of the Habsburg Empire in the first half of the 19th century, said the Balkans start at Karlsplatz. In his worldview, everything east of Vienna was stigmatised as culturally inferior. And this wave of condescension which moved from west to east filtered into national cultures as well. The Czechs were somewhat condescending to the Slovaks, the Hungarians to the Romanians, the Croatians to the Serbs, and the assimilated Jews to the Galician Jews. Cultural identity is expressed in opposition to the other: this is one of the features of the imperial legacy, which often still lives on today. The contemporaneity of living side by side, of mixing and of hatred built on prejudicial condescension was built into the mental culture of Central Europe. The mixture of harmony and disharmony triggered very unusual understandings and ways of thinking.

People lived in a state that ensured a stable institutional framework, more or less predictable relations and stable currency, while nobody really identified with it. If they scratched a so-called Austrian, a German appeared beneath the surface. If he was considered German, it turned out that he was not German, but Austrian. The empire was big and bureaucratic, and everybody knew that order and sloppy mess lived side by side. There was mess behind order, but mess was always limited by order. It is no surprise that the theory of bureaucracy by Max Weber was formed in Germany and not in the empire. As a result of the dualist structure, the Hungarians were in a ruling position, but they were also dissatisfied. They served Franz Joseph, but they bowed before his opponent, the leader of the 1848-1849 war of independence, Kossuth, and created a cult to him. The Czechs and the Germans were rivals, but they knew their economic development was largely a product of their being locked in together.

It became the basic cultural norm in the Habsburg Empire that nothing is as it seems. In his play, “The Last Days of Mankind”, Karl Kraus observed that people who wanted to emigrate from here had to complete a form with the question: why do you want to emigrate? According to Kraus, the proper question would have been: Why do you want to stay? This phenomenon is reflected in Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities” as well as in the works of Franz Kafka, which convey a much darker image.

The experience of “nothing being what it seems” triggered the cultural production of the region which still affects us today. An appropriate response to the phenomenon was irony – this was what lent a point of view and meaning to the absurd and meaningless. Based on the worldview of Jaroslav Hašek, idiotism can only be survived with idiotism.[8] The Central European IDIOT – all caps – Švejk, became the symbolic figure of the whole region, although the Czechs rightfully claim him as their own. But the irony is present in a different form in the works of Kálmán Mikszáth as much as it is in the works of the Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler. And since later history has not confuted the Central European basic thesis of “nothing being as it seems”, the Czech film director Jiří Menzel, the Hungarian writer István Örkény and the Polish dramatist Sławomir Mrożek carry on this tradition.

And of course there was another cultural consequence as well: if the reign of appearances prevails anyway, then let us make it complete. Let us aestheticise appearances. Buildings designed by great talents who represented the empire through their architecture, an empire loaded with internal tensions, were reminiscent of Classicism. Huge public buildings were created – the size of the buildings was often in indirect proportion to the true weight of the institutions located in them, as illustrated by the building of the Hungarian parliament.[9] This concept left less of a mark on the 18th century intimacy of Prague since it was not a capital. Vienna and Budapest, however, faithfully represent the culture of the aestheticisation of appearances. Domestic architecture, if possible, is an even more powerful example of this tendency. The façades of large middle-class blocks of flats were populated by plaster Atlases. Rebellion was already being reflected in Art Nouveau: it wished to replace the aesthetics of appearances with the aesthetics of other appearances.

The harmonisation of the world of appearances could be found in music as well, especially in outstanding works by excellent composers. The cult of the enchanting Viennese waltz, the czardas and polka was embodied in the music of Johann Strauss – among others. He caused the empire to shine. And naturally there was the operetta as well, which also resulted in world-class productions. If we listen to the most famous – and still successful – operetta by Imre Kálmán, Czardas Queen,[10] we may feel that the fantastic world of melody, the syuzhet that bridges social differences, and the happy ending justify only beauty and optimism in life. If we also know that it was put on stage in Vienna in 1915 and in Budapest in 1916, we cannot escape the force of contextualisation. After all, those were also the days in which the dead bodies of soldiers in field grey uniforms lay in masses on the battlefields of the First World War.

The Central European model of multi-ethnicity and the mass cultural co-existence of multiculturalism can be observed most in the culinary culture. It can be said that we can find examples here of non-violent internal colonisation as much as heroic resistance. The wiener schnitzel, which is derived from an Italian idea but whose name evokes Vienna, conquered the empire, that is Central Europe. Indeed! Its power to spread was so great that it spread beyond the boundaries of the empire and even reached the New World, America. Even if the empire did not colonise a significant portion of the world, the wiener schnitzel certainly has. Hungarian goulash also set out on a wide-ranging expansion. It has practically reached everywhere. Perhaps the story of goulash is the most successful Hungarian story. And if this statement holds true, then it is an implicit commentary on the success of Hungarian history. The Czech knedli, however, heroically resisted. It did not capitulate, nor did it expand. In contrast, Czech beer,[11] along with its Austrian colleague, subjugated Hungarian souls that were used to wine – it became a drink for the common man. Pálinka, schnaps, țuică, vodka, slivovitz, borovička and pesachovka, however, upheld their pluralism with dignity – they did not expand at each other’s expense, and each one endeavoured to make its position unshakeable. (This, in fact, is also about nothing being what it seems since we may believe we are dealing with seven different drinks, but in fact we are all drinking the same thing.) And the resurrection of cafés constitutes an organic part of the reincarnation of the middle-class lifestyle after communism.[12]

A great many people view the elements of integration that existed as a lifestyle norm below the level of politics as much more important now than people once regarded them. Perhaps they are right.

Here, of course, we return again to the basic cultural legacy of nothing being as it seems. This is not merely a source of irony and the multi-faceted aestheticisation of appearances. It is a source of other things too, namely the inclination toward illusion and the fact that it is often difficult to determine the difference between appearances and what we call reality. And if we chase illusions or make highly erroneous judgements, then this may surely lead to all manner of horrible and unfortunate consequences.

The political culture of appearances and illusions in a certain sense is one of our most significant and most dangerous political and cultural legacies. The most certain sign of its existence is that it is a common practice in our region to think of ourselves as different and more than who and what we are. The German Nazis did not trust in the result of a referendum on the Anschluss and marched into Austria. Then they held the referendum and won by a wide margin because even the social democrats supported the annexation. This was because nobody knew what Austria was, what the Austrians were and how many of them there were. Between the two world wars, a Hungary without a sea was headed by an admiral, who made power politics out of the illusion in order to re-establish historical Greater Hungary. Poland was governed by people who participated in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in cooperation with those who would occupy Poland not much later. The Croats and the Serbs continuously attempted to prove their power over the other until they were finally occupied by a third party. And as for the rivalry between the Czechs and the Slovaks, Czechoslovakia ended up being the loser.[13]

The disproportions of self-evaluation and the culture of illusion ended up costing a great deal for the nations that live here.


The Hungarian culture of remembrance does not call the age of the empire the golden age. It is usually referred to as the “happy days of peace”.

Given the Hungarian culture of complaining, this is a great compliment since our nation is very critical – it is very difficult for it to show respect.

Perhaps I am not completely mistaken if I interpret the topos of the memory of the “happy days of peace” as the Hungarian golden age.

It is beyond question that the period between 1867 and 1914 gave more to the country and the majority of the people living here than the previous era of neo-absolutism. It also seems clear that the period named after Horthy also achieved less than the Hungary of the empire.

In comparison, this was surely a better period.

As we have seen, the era was filled with tension, disharmony and illusionism – many things that later led to quite serious problems.

But it had a secret. And the secret was expressed in one line: “Live and let live!” It seems that the golden age will come sometime when there is room for disharmony.

For it is in the co-existence of disharmonies that we manage to create earthly harmony.



[1] This essay was originally published in: Europa’s Fraternal War 1914-1918. Public Endowment for the Research on the Eastern and Central European History and Society, Budapest, 2014. 51-66. pp.

[2] On economic calculations, see GOOD, David F.: The Economic Rise of the Habsburg Empire 1750-1914. Berkeley – Los Angeles – London, 1984. University of California Press.

[3] I describe the general characteristics of the rise of the middle class in the era of dualism in greater detail in GERŐ András: Dualizmusok. A Monarchia Magyarországa. Budapest, 2010. Új Mandátum. My discussion of culture during the era of dualism is drawn from this book.

[4] Basic works on the history of Budapest include Budapest története. (Ed. Károly Vörös.) Vol. 4. Budapest, 1978. Akadémiai; and Bécs Budapest. Műszaki haladás és városfejlődés a 19. században. (Ed. Péter Csendes, András Sipos.) Vienna – Budapest, 2005. Bécsi Városi és Tartományi Levéltár – Budapest Főváros Levéltára.

[5] We should feel free to use the term “plan” here. After all, the city’s leadership and the Capital City Public Works Council, which was established by Prime Minister Count Gyula Andrássy and based on a London model, spared no effort toward the goal of improving the city. (Mention should be made of Frigyes Podmaniczky, the aristocrat referred to as the checked baron because of his unique clothing, who, as vice chairman of the Council, was tireless when it came to the fate of Budapest.) In the case of Budapest, therefore, we cannot speak of a development that was merely spontaneous, but of a purposefulness in a conceptuality of development. A number of writings by Gyula Krúdy cover Podmaniczky and the milieu of Budapest at the beginning of the century.

[6] The Feszty Panorama has been painstakingly restored over many years and is now on display at the Ópusztaszer National Park. On its history, see SZŰCS Árpád WOJTOWICZ Malgorzata: A Feszty-körkép. Budapest, 1996. Helikon.

[7] JÓKAI Mór: Utószó. In: A magyar nemzet története. (Ed. Sándor Szilágyi.) Vol. 10. Budapest, 1898. Athenaeum, p. 840.

[8] Hašek was primarily made known through Švejk. It is less well-known that Hašek had prophesied political idiotism as early as 1906, when he established the Party of Moderate Progress within the Bounds of the Law. His relevant writings are included in HAŠEK, Jaroslav: Szemelvények a törvény keretein belül mérsékelten haladó párt történetéből. Budapest, 2002. Glória Kiadó és Švejk Társaság.

[9] See MORAVÁNSZKY Ákos: Építészet az Osztrák-Magyar Monarchiában. Budapest, 1988. Corvina; and MORAVÁNSZKY Ákos: Versengő látomások. Esztétikai újítás és társadalmi program az Osztrák-Magyar Monarchia Építészetében. Budapest, 1998. Vince.

[10] GERŐ András – HARGITAI Dorottya – GAJDÓ Tamás: A Csárdáskirálynő. Egy monarchikum története. Budapest, 2006. Habsburg Történeti Intézet – Pannonica.

[11] KING, Jeremy: Budweiser into Czehs and Germans. A Local History of Bohemian Politics 1848-1918. Princeton, 2002. Princeton University Press.

[12] Budapest a kávéváros. In: Budapesti Negyed, No. 12-13., Summer-Autumn 1996.

[13] For a comprehensive history of the region between the two wars, see ROTSCHILD, Joseph: East Central Europe between the Two World Wars. Seattle – London, 1977. University of Washington Press.