Between east and west

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.

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Well, give the Hungarians chock-therapy in the form of Viktor Orban. Either he is God’s gift to Humanity, who invented that you do not need to have austerity measures to fix the Hungarian economy, “just stimulate it”, or he is the guy who will finally put Hungarians on the straight and narrow road, by totally wreck the finances for the next 5 years.
To wait until 2010 for the “Viktor Orban Road Show” seems more and more like the worst alternative. Let us admit we, who live in Hungary, need 5-10 really bad years with this banana currency, before it can be any consensus in the Hungarian society on needed reforms.
The real chock for the Greater Hungarian Ego will be when both Romania and maybe even Bulgaria adopts the Euro before Hungary.


@Viking. I dont think we need to wait until 2010 for economic disaster. At the rate the US recession is unravelling, I’d say the gloval effects will be felt here by the end of the year.

Odin's lost eye
Mr Viking did you mean shock therapy? A ‘chock’ is a large block of something (usually wedge shaped) used to prevent a larger object from rolling. If spelt ‘choc’ it also means a morsel of chocolate. Since 1526 (except for a few brief years) Hungary has been a ‘Subject Nation’ in which ‘personal survival’ was the order of the day. The intervening 482 years (some 96 generations) have bred a ‘specialist in survival’, a seemingly obedient, saboteur. The Hungarian is a person whose natural instinct is to resist, all be it by stealth and where possible to cheat or swindle all those with whom he has dealings. There have been occasional ‘flashes of genius’ and brutal ‘flare-ups’ of true resistance, but these only go to prove the rule. “The economic, social, and cultural topography of Europe slants downward from west to east” referred to by Ms Balogh is very true. However there is also a North-South graduation as well. This is caused by the ‘Protestant (or Non-Conformist) work ethic’ –work is to the ‘Glory of the Lord’, work is good for the soul, a man must work for his salvation and the Lord rewards those who work hard ect”-. As… Read more »

I also believe Hungary’s future is to be dominated by another larger power. It’s more likely to be the EU, since it befits Hungary to be drawing more revenues from the partnership than it is putting back. (the EU doesn’t want Hungary to get unstable when we are next door to potential problems in the Balkans) However, if Mr. Orban does have his way and most assuredly weakens the country with his economic policy, the rising specter of a strong Russia with their valued energy resources could put Hungary “in play” especially since the EU can be compromised because of its indecisiveness.
I’m somewhat optimistic with the younger generations that have had more exposure to Western Europe. My hope is that as these persons can overcome the reflexive veneration for the older generation who selfishly let history happen and act more responsibly instead of getting left behind comparatively to the better performing economies of the Czech Rep, Slovakia, and perhaps, horror of horrors, Romania.