The Will to Survive: A history of Hungary

TitleThe Will to Survive: A history of Hungary
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsLojkó, Miklós
Author(s) of reviewed materialCartledge, Brian


PublisherLondon: Timewell Press
ISSNISBN 1857252128
Review year


Full Text

There has recently been a proliferation of works on the history of Hungary in various Western languages, many of them perfectly reliable and professional. However, truly good and comprehensive histories of the country written in English are few and far between. This new volume, written by Brian Cartledge, Britain’s former ambassador in Hungary (1980-83) and a Cambridge history graduate, may well serve as one of the best single-volume histories of Hungary available in any language. The strengths of the work, which covers Hungarian history from the origins of the Magyar tribes up to the present-day political debates, lie in the astute and evocative descriptions of the events and the aura of the 20th century, especially the Kádár régime, where the author can draw on his own invaluable personal experience. Yet the three-part book is well-proportioned, and the former ambassador’s painstaking study of the latest secondary literature on medieval history has enabled him to address with authority the early period as well. Thus, such controversial issues as the circumstances of the settlement of the Magyars in the Danube Basin, the significance of the Bulla Aurea of 1222, or disintegration of medieval Hungary in the 16th century, are discussed in the book in plentiful detail, often using refreshingly original arguments.

Part One, entitled “The Medieval Kingdom”, addresses Hungary’s European ascendancy and eventual fall amidst external as well as internecine conflict; Part Two: “The Habsburg Kingdom”, carries the story from 1526 to 1919, while Part Three is entitled “Triple Tragedy and Rebirth”. The three tragedies of the 20th century: loss of historic integrity at Trianon; the “Faustian Pact” with Hitler; and the Communist take-over, are treated with particularly discerning and scrupulous care. While the author could not have had first hand experience of the Horthy period (1920-1944), his portrayal of its characteristic personalities, including that of the Regent, and their uniform policy of revisionism, as well as his subtle description of the régime’s successes, blunders as well as tragedies, make these eighty pages one of the most enjoyable and useful sections of the book.

There is no doubt that this is a history quite sympathetic to the Hungarian cause. That does not mean, however, that the author pulls his punches when he feels it appropriate to criticise politicians or régimes for incompetence or overweening arrogance, even if they tend to be spared censure in popular Hungarian accounts.

Language and style are often left unmentioned in reviews of historical works. The pleasant, yet erudite, style in which this book has been written makes reading it a exceptionally uplifting experience even if the reader is no aficionado of Hungarian history. The carefully selected and high quality illustrations, including a potentially amusing picture of the diminutive figure of Hungary’s communist dictator, Mátyás Rákosi, (Illustration No. 65), are an added bonus in this valuable book.