Ungarn seit 1945

TitleUngarn seit 1945
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsHarms, Victoria
Author(s) of reviewed materialvon Klimó, Árpád


PublisherGöttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht
Review year


Full Text

Recent Hungarian history has been largely neglected by German academics. Although cultural exchange flourished in the inter-war years, professional German expertise by and large ends with the Dual Monarchy. General knowledge of what followed tends to be restricted to the 1956 revolution, catch-phrases like ‘goulash communism’, and the country’s direct contribution to the demise of the Eastern German communist state. Certainly, there exists non- or semi-academic literature by Hungarian émigrés (mostly based in Austria) focusing either on 1956 or re-telling the myths of national history since St.Stephen. Yet not a single German historian has put forward a coherent study of the country since World War II.


Only in 2006, a German historian finally published such a monograph: Hungary since 1945 by Árpád von Klimó, son of a Hungarian émigré, and at the time the book was published, a researcher at the Zentrum für Zeithistorische Forschung in Potsdam who also teaches modern history (neuere Geschichte) at the Free University of Berlin[1]. Already von Klimó’s professorial dissertation from 2003 -- Nation, Konfession, Geschichte. Zur nationalen Geschichtskultur Ungarns im europäischen Kontext (1860-1948)[Nation, Denomination, History. On Hungary’s National Historical Culture in a European Context] -- has been justly praised for an impressive familiarity with primary sources as well as an unusual sensitivity to the country’s self-perception as well as its many historical twists and turns.


In this well-written publication, von Klimó confirms this level of quality by coherently outlining the country’s social composition, strata and constituents, pointing out overt or covert relations between different cultural, religious and political institutions, elites and individual actors, and also discussing their motivation and intentions. In that, he convincingly abandons a chronological narrative; instead he chose to analyze the past 60 years via well-argued themes: ‘The State: ruptures and continuities’, ‘Foreign policy: from Warsaw Treaty to European Union’, ‘Economy: from capitalism to planned economy and back’, ‘Social structures and mobility’, ‘Changing lifestyles’, ‘Ethnic homogenization and minority politics in Hungary and neighboring states’, ‘Churches and religion’ and ‘From change of regime 1989 to European Union 2004’. Justifiably so, these chapters are preceded by a separate chapter on the events and consequences of the Hungarian revolution of 1956, whose symbolic appeal has been dominating Hungarian politics and historiography. Moreover, ‘56 explains the more fundamental reasons for the ‘happy barrack’-myth for which Hungary was known in both German states.


Obviously, Ungarn seit 1945 is aimed at a German audience unfamiliar with, but genuinely interested in the region. Therefore, von Klimó, a long-time affiliate of Jürgen Kocka, proves very convincing when making comparisons and transcending the national frame by indicating entanglements with other countries. Consequently, he explains the complex and idiosyncratic entity of Hungary in categories and terms intelligible for an educated German audience. A profound and conclusive annotated bibliography featuring mostly English and German translations of the latest research by Hungarian professionals enables the reader to continue his or her readings. Unfortunately, this first edition of the book does not have any visual materials besides well-employed tables.


Von Klimó uses four overarching themes to organize his history of Hungary. These themes help construct an image of Hungary as a country that has been both in negotiation with and embedded in an all-European context, rather than merely characterize the country as divergent from some ideal Western model. Throughout the ten chapters he investigates: (1) continuities and caesurae of the state, (2) the specific form of Hungarian state socialism, (3) Hungarian culture in relation and exchange with others, and (4) Hungary within the European discourse. Each chapter begins with a one-page introduction indicating the research question addressed and the related main theses. Where necessary, the author reaches beyond the chosen starting point of 1945 (e.g. the 1920 Trianon Treaty and its consequences). At times, some conclusions --like the optimistic outlook-- might surprise the reader. Some subchapters are heavy in data and hard facts, thus leading to a savvy blend of cultural and social history. Yet it remains clear that von Klimó's explicit aim is to define categories and construct well-grounded periods, independent from previous conventions and common national historiographies.


While von Klimó does elaborate on mentalities and everyday life, he neglects the arts and literature although these cultural products are as essential in mirroring the respective Zeitgeist as a t-shirt (see p.146). This exclusion is even more surprising, when he addresses rock music, fashion and soccer in the subchapter on the 1960s, which provides a brief but enlightening look onto this important decade of economic and cultural change (p.157). Unfortunately, he marginalizes the role of the ‘democratic opposition’ by arguing it had little tangible influence. Although this claim is partly justified, the democratic opposition should not go unmentioned, given Hungary’s long history of political ideas. Moreover, the events in the early 1990s can be viewed as a reaction if not rejection of their ideas (p. 208). Additionally, a few more words on fundamental intellectual forces would have contributed to a deeper understanding of the specific political polarization into ‘urbanites’ (urbánusok) and ‘populists’ (népiek) which pervades Hungarian politics and history for much of the 20th century, but leaves many foreigners puzzled and clueless.


Though von Klimó has been criticized for his choice of narrative, it allows him to point out the problematic legacy of the Kádár regime and goulash communism that still trouble the democratic successor state. His emphasis on long-lasting structures and late social effects show that 1989 was not a complete turn-around, but a systemic change, a ‘negotiated revolution’ that allowed parts of the elite to survive in adaption and disguise while the majority of Hungarians have not seen their fortunes improve in the difficult last 16 years. Hence, the non-chronological narrative avoids the pitfalls of national history and its concomitant caesurae. Von Klimó maintains a coherent style and logic of argument and contextualizes Hungary within the European framework well. Unfortunately, there are some distracting factual mistakes that need to be eliminated in the next edition. Presenting Hungarian history since 1945 on 230 pages is necessarily selective, but von Klimó negotiates well between Hungarian particularities – “Eigenlogik der ungarischen Geschichte”– and the perception of contemporary history and politics by his German audience (p. 43). Thus, he provides an excellent introduction and a balanced and convincing picture of the country’s recent history that actually lifts the discussion above the conventional national-historical approach.


[1] Since 2008, von Klimó has been the visiting DAAD professor at the University of Pittsburgh.