Budapest - Light and Shadow

Budapest History Museum

Selection from the permanent exhibition of Castle Museum. The history of Budapest in the 19-20th centuries.

Becoming a Capital 1686-1848
Buda and Pest were slow to come back to life after the Turks were expelled. By the end of the 17th century there were still only a few hundred settlers among the ruins. In 1703, however, both cities regained their status as “free royal towns” and new inhabitants began to arrive, a trend that strengthened through the 18th century. Residence in the area within the castle walls of Buda was restricted to Catholic Germans, settlers in Pest included, as well as Germans, Serbs and Greeks from the Balkans and a steadily rising proportion of Hungarians. Pest-Buda took on the character of a Baroque small town during the 18th century, with only some larger ecclesiastical buildings standing above the mass of one- and twostorey houses. Economic life revolved around providing services to transit traffic, merchants and cattle-drovers. Through the cities’ markets and fairs, especially those held in Pest, Pest-Buda became one of Central Europe’s foremost trading centres in the second half of the 18th century. As yet, however, it still lacked the status as a centre of power essential to a true capital city. A great change came during the reign of Emperor Joseph II (1780–1790). He dissolved the religious orders, leaving vacant buildings in which he installed central government authorities, which he transferred from Pozsony (now Bratislava). The population started to rise steeply in the late 18th century. Pest had 20,000 inhabitants by the end of the century, up from 3500 at the beginning. Such was the pressure of expansion that Pest’s city walls and gates all disappeared by 1808. The real boom came with Count István Széchenyi’s national movement in the early 19th century, one of whose prime objectives was to develop Pest-Buda into a national centre. In 1839, work started on the construction of the Chain Bridge, the first permanent bridge over the Danube and a symbol of these reform aspirations. The practical aspects of urban development – granting permits for new construction, regulating traffic routes and laying out the streets – were the remit of the Pest Improvement Commission, which started up under Palatine Joseph Habsburg in 1808. Through the political movements of the Reform Era and the activity of the Improvement Commission, Pest increasingly became the centre of economic, cultural and political life in Hungary. It had become a real capital city.

Museum Kiscell holds many distinctive objects from the world of the guilds. This pewter jug made for the millers’ guild in 1738 has legs in the form of the imperial coat of arms, water-wheel decorations representing the trade, and a figure on the lid holding a millstone.

Devastating flood on the Danube, 1838
A large part of what is now Budapest used to lie on the Danube flood plain. In cold winters, ice on the river often built up and held up the flow of water, flooding lowlying areas along its banks. We know of 54 major floods from medieval times up to 1838. Pest-Buda suffered its greatest natural catastrophe in March 1838. After an extremely cold winter with heavy precipitation, the ice on the river built up at the tip of Csepel Island. On 13 March, the Danube broke through the dyke on the Pest side and flooded the city. In the hardest-hit area, Ferencváros, where most houses were built of adobe, 83% of them collapsed. A total of 2281 buildings were destroyed in Pest, 204 in Buda and 397 in Óbuda. There were 151 fatalities in Pest alone. More than 50,000 people were made homeless. A temporary accommodation was set up in the Invalidus House, the Franciscan Friary, the County House, the “New Building”, the Ludoviceum and the royal palace of Buda. The royal family launched a large-scale charitable operation, and donations to it from various sources added up to 1,160,000 forints by the end of 1838. Reconstruction got underway under a building directive issued in 1839. Following the Viennese model, it required that plans be produced for new buildings, and set a standard pattern of single- and three-storey buildings for Pest-Buda. The 1838 flood ultimately had a beneficial effect on the modernisation of Pest-Buda. Although the building boom gave rise to inflation, the investments were a great stimulus to commerce. Floods remained a constant threat, and in response, the city started to construct a quayside along the Danube in the 1850s. Under the supervision of the engineer Ferenc Reitter, a 380 metre long quay was built between 1857 and 1867, after which construction continued to the south, as far as the Greek Church. Regulation of the Danube took on new momentum in the 1870s, and the 1876 flood was met by a new quay on both banks.

Plaques commemorating the devastating flood of 1838 with a mark showing the level reached by the floodwater are to be found on many buildings in Pest and Buda. This flood plaque in Hungarian and Serbian is from the house at number 15 Döbrentei utca, in Tabán, also known as Rácváros (“Serbs’ town”). There is an exact replica in the building today.

Hungarian Forces at the Gates, 1849
The Hungarian revolution was one of the many European revolutions of 1848. The revolution grew into a war for independence from the Austrian Empire ruled by the Habsburgs. When an independent Hungarian government with national and bourgeois aspirations formed in spring 1848, the Austrian imperial court in Vienna determined to re-establish its authority by armed force. In the winter campaign, Duke Alfred Windisch-Grätz, commander-in-chief of the imperial forces, marched into the evacuated Hungarian capital on 5 January 1849. His advance faltered, however, and in March 1849 it was the Hungarian army under General Artúr Görgei which went on the offensive. In a period of less than four weeks during the spring campaign, the Hungarian army forced the imperial troops out to the western outskirts and encircled Buda Castle. Komárom had just been relieved, and at the urging of the Governor-President, Lajos Kossuth, and influenced by the military arguments of General György Klapka, Görgei laid siege to Buda. For the defence of the by-then obsolete castle, Major General Heinrich Hentzi von Arthurm had under his command four companies (about 5000 troops) of soldiers, mostly from Croatia and Italy, and 85 pieces of ordnance. The besieging Hungarian army consisted of four corps with more than 30,000 troops and 140 pieces of ordnance. Görgei called on the defenders to surrender on 4 May. Hentzi refused, and over the next few days responded by firing on Pest several times without reason, setting fire to and seriously damaging the buildings on the riverside. Görgei brought up siege guns to the castle, and after five days’ bombardment, ordered the final assault on the dawn of 21 May. The castle fell to the Hungarian army by 7 am, and Hentzi himself was fatally wounded in the fighting. The capture of the castle was one of the major Hungarian victories of the War of Independence. The capital city remained in Hungarian hands for two months after the siege, during which time – on 24 June 1849 – Prime Minister Bertalan Szemere issued a decree uniting Pest, Buda and Óbuda. Russia’s military intervention and a new offensive by the imperial army forced the government to move back to Debrecen.

This painting is a real curiosity, because the painter, Ferenc Újházy, had been an eye-witness to the scene represented when he was a soldier. In an inscription on the back, Újházy described how four soldiers carried Imperial Colonel Allnoch on a stretcher improvised from a ladder after he sustained fatal wounds in an unsuccessful attempt to blow up the Chain Bridge.

A Modern Metropolis, 1849-1914
Although the capital of the Revolution faced political reprisals after 1849, the economic and social transformation of the Reform Age continued. By the 1870s, the capital city had become the principal traffic intersection of the country, and its largest industrial and financial centre. Industrialisation was accompanied by a great influx of people. The city’s population increased by 20,000 to 192,000 between 1851 and 1857, and reached 269,000 by the census of 1869. The majority of the expansion was in Pest, while Buda, retaining its old urban traditions, grew more slowly. Industrialisation and population growth demanded major infrastructural development. Although there was no official urban planning before the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, development proceeded on several fronts in the 1850s: work started on the water supply, the first gasworks went into operation in 1856, and gas lighting also appeared in Buda in 1864. The Tunnel under Castle Hill, greatly facilitating transport in Buda, opened in 1857, and the first horse tram in Pest started in 1866. One of the main objectives of the post-Compromise Hungarian government was to build up Pest-Buda into a real capital city. The first step was taken in 1870, when Count Gyula Andrássy set up the Metropolitan Public Works Council. This tried to impose a common urban development plan in Pest and Buda, and made preparations for the unification of Pest, Buda and Óbuda in 1873. Upon becoming a single city, Budapest finally became a European capital, the centre of a country which had equal status within the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. By the turn of the century, Budapest’s cityscape had been transformed. The Public Works Council under Baron Frigyes Podmaniczky drew up the general development plan for the city, Budapest’s system of radial and concentric roads was laid out, and the city centre was reorganised. Entire districts grew out of nothing from one year to the next, with multistorey blocks of flats, shops, and busy streets. By the turn of the century, Budapest had become one of the world’s leading cities with more than 700,000 inhabitants. It was famous throughout Europe for its vibrant cultural life, cafés, spas, places of entertainment and nightlife.

This painting by an unknown artist probably shows the disastrous moment in 1903 when the “Turul”, a balloon belonging to the Hungarian Aero Club, collided with a wall. It had broken from its moorings in strong winds and crashed into the building of the Lipótváros Gasworks. One of its passengers, landowner Pál Ordódy, fell out of the gondola and died. The painter – to judge from the costumes and the 18th century-like houses – placed the event in a past time.

From an Austro-Hungarian Capital to a "Sinful City", 1914-1920
The First World War had contradictory effects on life in the city. War production gave a boost to economic affairs, but mass immigration and the deteriorating circumstances elsewhere in the country put a great burden on the population. The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy disintegrated after the defeat, and dissatisfaction among the Budapest population fermented into revolutionary movements. The city became a central arena for political events that affected the whole country. The “Aster Revolution” on 31 October 1918, which put the Hungarian National Council into power, succeeded mainly on the support of soldiers returning from the front en masse, and on the mobilisation of radicalised industrial workers. Violent street disturbances prepared the ground for the communist takeover of 21 March 1919 and the proclamation of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. A Romanian invasion in August brought the 133-day communist rule to an end. A mission from the Entente saved Budapest from being looted. At the instruction of the Peace Conference, the Romanian army finally withdrew its troops from the city in mid-November. Leaders of the revolutions of 1918 and 1919, and the leaders of the counter-revolution, frequently emphasised Budapest’s role in the series of socio-political changes in the country. During the revolutions, they extolled the heroism of the city and its people, but Miklós Horthy, who led the National Army into the city on 16 November 1919, and lent his name to the ensuing era, regarded Budapest as a “sinful city”. The post-war Treaty of Trianon (1920) reduced the country’s territory by two thirds and its population by 58 per cent. In the new political situation, the question often arose as to whether such a large concentration of population in the capital city was healthy given the new conditions.  

After the armistice at the end of the First World War, tens of thousands of people fled the areas of Hungary invaded by the Czechoslovakian and Romanian armies to the reduced territory of Hungary, a large proportion of them public officials and teachers, with their families, who went to Budapest. The city temporarily accommodated the refugees in railway wagons. Several charitable campaigns were launched to help the “wagon dwellers”, and this poster advertises one of these, a collection by the South Hungary League in 1920.

Great Capital of a small Country, 1920-1944
Despite being a capital of a much smaller country, Budapest was not, in social and economic terms, “oversized” after 1918. Its population, although more slowly than before the war, continued to grow, further boosting its prominence in industry, trade, administration and culture. Although the conservative regime’s anti-Budapest mood persisted and was taken up by the new radical right-wing movements, nobody doubted the significance of a capital city with a million inhabitants. Miklós Horthy was elected “Regent” of the Kingdom of Hungary on 1 March 1920. The regime he presided over, which lasted until the end of the Second World War, had a special kind of duality. Its conservative view of society and power, and the steady drift to the right in the 1930s, did not prevent modern developments in economic affairs, and in science and culture. This duality shows up clearly in the history of Budapest. Although the Christian-conservative factions never lost their control of municipal government, liberals and social democrats presented a strong opposition. Extreme right-wing parties gained strength in the late 1930s. The succession of anti-Jewish Laws came down particularly hard on life in Budapest after 1938. Most of the refugees from areas of Hungary awarded to neighbouring countries under the Treaty of Trianon sought a new home in Budapest. Thousands lived in wagons in the railway stations, and poor quarters grew up in various parts of the city. Thanks to an ongoing population growth new areas of land were built on, mostly in Újlipótváros, beyond the “Great Boulevard”, and in Szentimreváros in the south of Buda, founded in 1930. The village-like district of the city, Tabán, was demolished in the 1930s, and modern villas for the well-to-do were built on the Buda Hills. There were also big changes in infrastructure. Macadamised roads were replaced with asphalt, and the quaysides were converted to major roads. The first traffic lights were installed in 1926, and the public transport intersection in Széll Kálmán tér went into operation in 1941. The 1920s saw the construction of the Free Port of Csepel and the inauguration of regular commercial flights between Vienna and Budapest. Budaörs Airport opened in 1937, and work on a new airport at Ferihegy started soon after.

In its original state, the doors of this two-part ornamental cabinet – designed by Emil Kajdy and made by Béla Kajdy around 1928 – opened to reveal a map of Great Hungary, as can be seen on the contemporary photograph. The map has since disappeared, its previous owners having replaced it with a mirror.

Fortress Budapest, 1944-1945
By the end of the Second World War, Hungary was completely in the grip of Nazi Germany. Having invaded in March 1944, the Germans moved to forestall an attempt by the Hungarian government to quit the war in mid-October by replacing it with the unquestioningly German-friendly extreme right-wing Arrow Cross Party. On 23 November, Hitler declared the city a fortress, ordering it to be held to the last man. In the meantime, the rapidly-advancing Soviet Red Army broke through the defensive lines around Budapest and encircled the city by Christmas 1944. Units of the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Front of the Soviet Army started the siege on 30 December 1944. Budapest was defended by five German and four Hungarian divisions and other smaller formations; the defenders’ total strength was no more than 90,000. Hitler appointed Waffen SS General Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch as commander of the defending forces. They were faced by six Soviet and one Romanian corps, with a total of more then 160,000 men under Marshall Malinovsky and Marshall Tolbuhin. The ensuing month-and-a-half long urban combat started without any opportunity to evacuate the civilian population of nearly a million. The street fighting, bombing and shelling destroyed or seriously damaged 27 per cent of the nearly 40,000 buildings in the city. To slow the Soviet advance, the Germans blew up all of the bridges across the Danube. The Royal Palace and almost the entire Buda Castle District were destroyed, and the buildings beside the Danube seriously damaged. Some 38,000 civilians were killed in the siege, and more than 52,000 wounded. The Soviet forces took complete control of Pest on 18 January 1945. Following an unsuccessful break-out attempt by the German and Hungarian forces, squeezed into Castle Hill in Buda, fighting came to an end on 13 February 1945. This was the end of the most destructive siege in Budapest’s history, and one of the longest and bloodiest of all urban battles of the Second World War.

One of the most notable photographers who recorded the Second World War was Yevgeny Khaldei, whose most famous picture was of the Soviet flag being unfurled on the Reichstag in Berlin. Khaldei was also in Budapest during the siege, and he took this moving picture of a Jewish couple following the liberation of the ghetto in Pest.

The Communist Greater Budapest, 1945-1989
The price of the 1945 siege was terrible destruction. The streets were covered in rubble and unburied corpses. But even as the siege was still raging in Buda, the first tram started up on the Pest side and the first train ran into Nyugati Station. On 21 March, Buda was linked up with Pest by two pontoon bridges, and the temporary Kossuth Bridge, on the south side of Parliament, was opened in January 1946. The Budapest National Committee was responsible for overseeing reconstruction. The Committee did not become a democratic forum for multi-party city politics, because the Hungarian Communist Party, with it support from the Soviet Army, tried to suppress the city’s autonomy. In 1949, Parliament passed a law creating the twenty-two-district Greater Budapest by the absorption of peripheral towns and villages. The city’s autonomy was finally lost when the Budapest City Council was formed 15 June 1950. All local economic control was also taken away: Budapest had a fifth of the country’s population, was responsible for 60 per cent of industrial production, and was the home of 80 per cent of its academics, but was nonetheless reduced to being just one of the country’s twenty counties. The era from 1957 up till the transition, known by the name of Party Secretary János Kádár, left lasting marks on the architecture and cityscape of Budapest, and on its social composition. Although there was no longer any attempt at total dictatorship, nobody could question the legitimacy of the regime. The Kádár system based itself on the everyday satisfaction of the population, and so the main aim of its economic policy was to raise the standard of living. This prompted major infrastructural developments, and consumer goods became more easily available. This was when system-built houses were put up on a huge scale to satisfy the hunger for housing, and public transport developments included the first subways, the east-west Metro line (opened 1970), and the north-south line (1976). The developments and maintenance of living standards, however, had serious economic consequences. The country was forced to take out Western loans and became increasingly indebted, taking it to the point of economic collapse in the early 1980s.

The Hungarian communist party leader János Kádár – having learned the lesson of his predecessors – always prevented the emergence of any cult involving himself. For that reason, there are very few works of art recording his image. Nonetheless, Pál Pátzay, an eminent sculptor of the time, somehow managed to get Kádár to sit for this bust to be made of him. It was given to the Budapest Municipal Gallery, where it lay for a long time in a storeroom.

From the Stalin Monument to Corvin Lane
It was in Budapest where the political oppression of the 1950s first met with armed rebellion. The Revolution started on 23 October 1956 with a demonstration of university students demanding democratic reforms, but that same evening, at the Hungarian Radio building, shots were fired. During the night, the crowd toppled and broke up the monumental Stalin statue, the symbol of Soviet rule. Soviet troops entered Budapest the next day, and fighting on the streets began. The armed conflict led to the fall of the government, the withdrawal of Soviet forces and the start of moves towards democracy. The reform Communist Imre Nagy formed a government on 27 October. Pursuing the cause of reform, the political leadership sought negotiations with the Soviet Union about Hungary’s withdrawal from Warsaw Pact and recognition as a neutral country. In the meantime, the armed struggle continued. The determined resistance of the revolutionaries brought the Soviet attacks to a halt. The government ordered a ceasefire on 28 October and accepted the revolutionaries’ principal demands. The situation consolidated for a few days. The Soviet leaders soon reconsidered their initial willingness to negotiate and, seeing that the Western powers were preoccupied with the Suez Crisis and would offer no support to the Hungarian government, ordered a renewed attack against Budapest at dawn on 4 November. Hardly more than ten years after the end of the Second World War, Budapest was once again a city under siege. Despite desperate fighting by the revolutionaries, they were no match for overwhelming Soviet forces. The Revolution attracted intense international attention, and some 250,000 Hungarians left the country. Large numbers of people who had taken part in it were imprisoned in 1957; many, including the Prime Minister, Imre Nagy, were executed.  

This documentary picture from 1956 was taken by the amateur photographer Gyula Nagy, and as can be seen, he was not alone. Nagy exposed nearly forty rolls of film in October 1956. Many photographers destroyed or hid their work to protect themselves after the Revolution was put down. Nagy did neither. He was arrested in 1957 and his photographs were confiscated. Fortunately, 29 rolls of photographs have survived. This one, which he entitled “Körút, tanks, and life in motion”, was taken in Corvin köz [lane] some time around 30 October.

A New Era Dawns: the End of Communism
By the 1980s, it had become clear that the model of “actually existing socialism” was not viable. As the dictatorship loosened its grip, an opposition movement took shape, and samizdat (“do-it-yourself”) publication started up in 1977. By the late 1980s, the opposition was organising mass demonstrations on the streets of Budapest. Demonstrations against the Bős-Nagymaros hydroelectric power station, 15 March celebrations and commemorations of the 1956 Revolution expressed criticism of the socialist regime and a desire for democracy. The first parties formed in the late 1980s. In a radio interview on 28 January 1989, Imre Pozsgay, a member of the politburo, described the events of 1956, hitherto officially called a counterrevolution, as a “people’s uprising”. On 15 March, several tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Budapest and heard speakers demanding the country’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. A few days later, the Opposition Round Table was formed. On 16 June 1989, several hundred thousand people gathered in Heroes’ Square for the ceremonial reburial of the former prime minister Imre Nagy and his associates, who were executed after the 1956 Revolution. The first free parliamentary elections, in spring 1990, were followed by local elections which started off Budapest’s new democratic system of local government. This was based on a Metropolitan Council and district councils having a high degree of autonomy. The new leaders of the city set about privatising state-owned buildings and companies, removing statues to heroes of the workers’ movement and demolishing Soviet barracks, and most of all refurbishing neglected buildings and dilapidated infrastructure. The last of the occupying Soviet troops left the country on 30 June 1991, and an event which has been commemorated on the last weekend of June each year since, as the “Budapest Farewell”. The process now referred to as the “transition” meant more than just putting a new legal and political framework in place, and has also involved far-reaching social and economic changes.

A signal event of the political transition was an attempt by the opposition Hungarian October Party to remove the street signs of Münnich Ferenc utca and restore the original street name. In 1989, the organisation’s founder, György Krassó, climbed a ladder, crossed out Münnich’s name, and put up the former name of the street. Later, the authorities removed the Nádor utca sign, prompting Krassó to obscure Münnich’s name with red paint – whereupon the Budapest Council had a new sign made. The name was finally changed after the transition.

Credits: Story

Concept: Roland Perényi
Reproductions: Ágnes Bakos, Judit Szalatnyay, Bence Tihanyi
Video Animation: Judit Wunder
Translation: Alan Campbell

Kiscell Museum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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