Those of you who follow the Hungarian-language media on the refugee crisis and the Hungarian government’s response to it are most likely familiar with Viktor Orbán’s historical allusions to the Ottoman danger Hungary faced between the fifteenth and the seventeenth centuries. All Hungarian schoolchildren learn about the Hungarians’ heroic struggle against the Turkish invaders by which they saved Christian Europe from Islam. It is widely believed, again based on high school textbooks, that in that struggle Hungary was left to bear the burden alone. As recent and not so recent historical research has revealed, however, the events of those centuries are much more complex than this simplistic interpretation would suggest. In fact, the struggle against the Turkish invaders was a joint international enterprise.
Viktor Orbán at one point called himself the János Hunyadi of our times and on another occasion a knight of a border fortress (végvár). Hunyadi was an outstanding military leader of Romanian-Hungarian background whose armies were made up of fighting men from many areas in the region, including Serbian, Wallachian, and Albanian principalities. Hunyadi received help from as far as Bohemia and some of the German principalities. As for the myth of lonely warriors at the border fortresses between the Turkish-occupied parts of country and Royal Hungary, as the unoccupied western and northern parts of the country were called, it has pretty well been discarded as the result of recent research.
Viktor Orbán is certainly no János Hunyadi (1406-1456), who as a son of the fifteenth century didn’t even look upon himself as a Hungarian. He was a nobleman who served at the pleasure of four Hungarian kings who hailed from Luxemburg, Austria, and Poland. His father was a Wallachian nobleman who, at the invitation of King Sigismund, moved to the Hungarian court. Most of his battles took place in Serbia, even Bulgaria, and his troops came from all over Central and Southeast Europe. He and others didn’t fight primarily for Christianity but against the Ottoman Empire, which was gobbling up territories frightfully close to the Kingdom of Hungary. Hunyadi’s name will, of course, be forever associated with the Battle of Belgrade (1456), which kept the Ottoman advance at bay for over fifty years.
From a historiographical point of view Orbán’s reference to the knights of the border fortresses is much more interesting because new research has shown that our understanding of those skirmishes has been all wrong. Let me summarize briefly what an average Hungarian learns in high school about these knights. Abandoned by the world for 150 years, these brave Hungarians single-handedly fought the Ottoman troops, who otherwise would have easily occupied Vienna. Because of their sacrifice, they saved Europe from the Ottomans and Islam. This is the view that Orbán cherishes. I don’t even blame him, because this is the generally accepted interpretation of the 150 years of Ottoman occupation of the large, central portion of Hungary.
The first misconception is about the immediate consequences of the Battle of Mohács (1526). The battle itself didn’t mean the occupation of most of the country, although we are prone to look at it this way. It took another twenty years for the Turks to occupy Buda (1541), Székesfehérvár, and Esztergom (1543), at which point Europe became alarmed. The Turks were about 200 km from Vienna.
Hungarian historiography until very recently claimed that Vienna left Hungary languishing, giving the country no aid, either material or military. However, recent research in the archives of Vienna and Bratislava, the capital of Hungary after Mohács, shows that large amounts of money were given not only by the Crown but also by individual provinces of the Habsburg Empire. A system had developed by which provinces closest to the border fortresses were responsible for financing them. So, Lower Austria was responsible for the defense of Győr, and the Croatian fortresses were the responsibilities of Carinthia and Steiermark. As Géza Pálffy, a young historian, says, “In the survival of Hungary in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Habsburgs had an essential historical role…. We are talking about a mutual dependence that served the interests of both Hungary and the Habsburgs. And we know that the stakes were high … the goal of the Turks was the occupation of the whole country.”
In the past, historians liked to portray Hungary as a “buffer state,” but nowadays experts of the period prefer the designation “bulwark.” As Pálffy explains, “I am part of a bulwark while a buffer zone is a territory outside of me.” For King Matthias (1458-1490) Bosnia was a buffer state. He occupied it and kept soldiers there, but he was not the ruler of Bosnia. “But Ferdinand was the legitimate king of Hungary, and therefore for him and his successors Hungary wasn’t a buffer state or a colony. It was part of their monarchy.”
Some people may ask how it is possible that historians only recently discovered the documents that prove that Hungary received heavy subsidies from the rest of the Habsburg lands between the 1540s and 1690. The answer is simple. Hungarian historians now have unlimited access to Austrian and Slovak archives, which are treasure troves of documents for that period.
Viktor Orbán’s current policies do not, contrary to his claims, resemble the country’s responses to the Ottoman advance. In fact, if anything, just the opposite is true. In both cases international cooperation ruled the day and served the interests of both Hungary and the rest of Central Europe.