György Ránki (1930-1988), the eminent Hungarian historian whose specialty was economic history, once said that the economic, social, and cultural topography of Europe slants downward from west to east. The exact reasons for this tilt are not clear. Although historians have tried to give comprehensive explanations, none of them is quite convincing. And yet even within a small country like Hungary one can discern a noticeable difference between the economic development of the western and the eastern regions. Another Hungarian historian, Péter Hanák, noted that the line of the Danube, which was the border of the Roman Empire, even today is a line of demarcation between the more and the less developed parts of the country. And if you were Prince Metternich sitting in Vienna, you could say in 1820, as he did, "Asia begins at the Landstrasse," the road leading from Vienna to Hungary. Today, Hungarians often say of Transdanubia that it is Pannonia (the Roman province situated there) and east of the Danube, Hunnia. Pannonia is the cultured Roman province; Hunnia–well, we know what they mean.
Endre Ady ( 1877-1919), one of the outstanding Hungarian poets of the twentieth century who also wrote profusely on political topics as a journalist, was an unforgiving critic of Hungarian backwardness. He compared Hungary to a ferryboat trying to move between the two banks, East and West. The ferry is coming from the East, it is trying to reach the western shore, but it doesn’t quite reach it. Because of currents or the captain’s clumsiness, it moves backward again. Then joltingly forward again, but more often backward than forward.
All this came to mind last night after thinking about Hungarian unwillingness to move forward on a road that should lead to faster economic development. Here’s a brief timeline of Hungary’s backwardness relative to the West. In the time of Saint Stephen (975?-1038) there were some fairly large cities in Western Europe; Hungary, by contrast, was still mostly covered by forests. Pál Engel, historian of the Hungarian Middle Ages, compared Stephen’s country in the eleventh century to the eighth-century Carolingian state; that is, there was a 200-250 year gap between Hungary and France. While universities sprang up in Italy, France, and England in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, Hungary first attempted to establish a university in 1367. It never achieved any real importance, even in comparison to Cracow or Vienna. It didn’t last long either. After the death of Louis the Great (1382) it disappeared. Until very recently archeologists couldn’t even find its exact location.
Hungarian cities were inhabited by "hospeses," "guests," or, in modern usage, immigrants. Immigrants who were granted all sorts of privileges by the crown, including their own jurisdiction and the use of their mother tongue. Some of the German hospeses managed to survive until the twentieth century in Transylvania and in today’s Slovakia. (The Germans of Transdanubia who were forced out of the country after 1945 were later immigrants who came at the end of the seventeenth century to repopulate the center of the country devastated by the Turks.) The cities were small, often village-like, especially east of the Danube. The somewhat larger ones remained German enclaves. The Hungarians were not city dwellers but peasants working on large estates. The one hundred and fifty years of Turkish occupation only aggravated the original backwardness.
The short period between 1867, the year of the Compromise, and the outbreak of World War I is considered the golden age of Hungarian economic development. The Hungarian economy grew at an unprecedented rate: about 6% a year. Of course, this is nothing like China or India today but, given the region’s sluggish economic development, it was considered a great success. Yet Hungary was behind Austria (about 85% of the Austrian economy) and Austria was behind the Czech lands (Bohemia, Moravia and the Sudetenland) in economic development. World War I had a terrible impact on the country, but surprisingly Hungary recuperated relatively quickly. By 1929 the per capita GDP was the same as in 1913. Then came the Great Depression and World War II when the country became a battlefield. In the next couple of years, in spite of the large burdens the Soviet Union exacted from the country in the form of compensation, the Hungarians made a remarkable recovery. The communist takeover and with it the Soviet-type command economy undid the gains that had been made. The Rákosi regime’s economic policies set the country back years: in 1956 the standard of living was lower than it had been in 1939. In the seventies there was steady growth and relative prosperity, but the gap between Hungary and the west only widened. Today Hungary with a population of 10 million has a GDP of $112,899 million a year. Austria with a population of 8 million $323,826 million. I don’t think I have to say more.
Without reforms there can be no successful economic development. No catching up. But somehow Hungarians don’t want to embark on a road that is not tried and true. The tried and true is a dirt road; the only way forward is via a superhighway.