John Lukacs’ “Budapest 1900”

Historian John Lukacs was born in Budapest in 1924. A Catholic, Lukacs’ mother was Jewish, so he was targeted by the Nazi racial laws but, after spending some time in a work camp, he was able to survive the war in Budapest. His biography on Wikipedia I recommend highly.

“Budapest 1900” is not one of his better known books, but I also recommend it highly. Part city description, part demographic study, part political analysis, and part intellectual history, it provides a remarkably well rounded description of Budapest at the end of the 19th century, with just enough history to let it all make sense.

Now, would most people enjoy the book as much as I did? I am not sure. If you are not a native Hungarian, so many of the names, not only of the politicians, but also of the literary figures, are totally foreign, although Lukacs speaks as if knowledge of them is commonplace, while admitting that the uniqueness of the Hungarian language is a major isolating factor.

Also, I have traveled twice to Budapest, in 1972 and 2005, so I have seen it under very different circumstances, and I like the city, feel very comfortable there, although I know nothing of the language (oh, yes, the word for ‘store’ is ‘bolt’). This also made the geographic description of the city much more meaningful to me.

Budapest has gone through quite a bit. Ottoman rule, Austrian rule, 1848 revolution, joint Austro-Hungarian empire governance, independent republic, home grown communist state, fascist government, Nazi occupation, Soviet bloc communism, 1956 revolution, and finally social democratic/capitalist state. Just think of that.

Lukacs does spend a fair amount of time discussing the position of the Jews of Budapest – they at one time constituted a sizable section of the population, and in 1900 constituted 40% of the voters. As would be expected, they were lawyers and doctors and teachers and journalists and bankers. And they by and large anxious to assimilate and become Hungarian speaking citizens, and were, for the most part welcomed, until everything fell apart.

So, if the topic interests you (or if you are interested in turn of the century Europe in general), this is a book you should strongly consider.

3 thoughts on “John Lukacs’ “Budapest 1900”

    • Saw the video (it took a while to load). Enjoyed looking at Budapest. We missed the marzipan castle. We stayed at the Hilton on Buda Hill and had a view of the river and Parliament. We went to the Dohanyi Street Synagogue and the museum and took a Jewish tour run by a local company. Saw the shoes and the Raoul Wallenberg safe house, and a couple of other synagogues and former synagogues and a few more Jewishy statues. We also saw La Boheme at the opera, and had some excellent food. And we wandered a lot.

      Your interest in the shoes — “Budapest by the son of a shoe salesman”?

  1. I hadn’t thought of it that way; interesting. Other people in our group were moved to tears by the shoes; I don’t think they had connections with the shoe business (but maybe they did). From my experience as the son of a shoe salesman, there was a lot to be sad about.

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