Earlier in the week, I reviewed They Were Counted, the first book in Hungarian writer and politician Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy (also known as The Writing on the Wall). It’s a sweeping epic full of politics, love affairs, family tensions and dirty dealings, days at the races and nights at the ballroom – quite different from the stereotypical image of Transylvania as the land of gothic castles and vampires. If you missed it, you can read my review here.
At nearly 600 pages, They Were Counted is a big book in every sense of the phrase. As such, I couldn’t find enough room in my review to include a passage on the political developments of the time. So, for the interested, I thought I would post a couple of extended quotes here, particularly as they help to illustrate one of the key themes in the book, the tensions over the fate of the Hungarian nation in the early 20th century. (The trilogy spans the ten years prior to the start of WW1 and the subsequent dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.) Hopefully, they will give you a flavour of some of the political themes and the tone.
The novel covers the key political developments affecting Hungary in the run-up to the Great War. Other than Count Balint Abády, the young independent politician and the main protagonist in Banffy’s marvellous epic, many of the other Hungarian politicians of the day seem rather blinkered and insular in their focus. Several of the parliamentary debates end in mayhem with politicians eagerly jostling for position, and there is much dogmatic, underhand behaviour along the way.
First up is a quote from one of the early chapters of the first book – it is worth reading in full. The year is 1905: Tisza is the Prime Minister of Hungary; Slawata, a Counsellor to the Foreign Office, is rumoured to be close to the heir to Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian throne. Unlike the ruler of the day (Franz Joseph I), the Heir is a fan of centralisation with one grand central council controlling everything from the politics to the economy to the armed forces, a point that Slawata has already revealed to Balint during a previous conversation. The quote also says much about Balint’s character, that of an inherently good man trying to do his best in a rapidly evolving world.
Balint pondered the programme outlined by Slawata: centralization, rule by an Imperial Council, the ancient kingdom of Hungary reduced to an Austrian province, and national boundaries to be re-arranged statistically according to the ethnic origin of the inhabitants! Why all this? To what purpose? Slawata had given him the answer: Imperial expansion in the Balkans so that feudal kingdoms for the Habsburgs reached the Sea of Marmora; and it was all to be achieved with the blood of Hungarian soldiers and paid for by Hungarian tax-money! So it was merely to help Vienna spread Austrian hegemony over the nations of the Balkans that Tisza was to be helped to build up the Hungarian national armed forces.
It seemed now to Balint that both parties in Parliament were fighting instinctively, but without a clear understanding either of their motives or of the inevitable results of their policies and strategy. While Tisza battled to strengthen the army, he could have no inkling that, once strengthened, it would be used to suppress the very independence it was designed to assure – and when the opposition delayed the implementation of Tisza’s policy by petty arguments about shoulder-flashes and army commands, they were unaware that, inadvertently, they were providing ammunition for those very arguments that in the near future would threaten the integrity of the constitution.
How simple everything could seem if one looked only at the figures, those cold statistics that took no account of people’s feelings and traditions. How much would be destroyed if men were to be treated as robots! What of the myriad of individual characteristics, passions, aspirations, triumphs and disappointments that together made one people different from another? How could anyone ignore all the different threads of experience that, over the centuries, had formed and deepened the differences that distinguished each nation?
How would anyone believe that any good was to be obtained by adding the Balkan states to the already unwieldy Dual Monarchy and so increasing the Empire to a hundred million souls with differing cultures and traditions? Of course armies could be recruited and young men could die, but great States evolved only through centuries of social tradition and mutual self-interest; they were not imposed by bayonets. To believe the contrary would be as mad as the folly which had put the Archduke Maximilian on the throne of Mexico. (pgs. 126-127, Arcadia Books)
This next quote highlights the insular nature of the Hungarian politicians, many of whom are intent on focusing on their own internal affairs at the expense of keeping abreast of developments on the broader European stage, By now we are a couple of years down the line.
In the great world outside Hungary events were taking place that would change all their lives: the uprising in Russia, the dispute over Crete, the Kaiser Wilhelm’s ill-timed visit to Tangier, the revelation of Germany’s plans to expand its navy – but such matters were of no importance to the members of the Hungarian Parliament. Even events closer to home, such as the rabble-rousing speech of an Austrian politician in Salzburg urging revolt among the German-speaking minorities in northern Hungary, or the anonymous pamphlet, which appeared in Vienna and revealed the total unpreparedness of the Austro-Hungarian forces compared with those of the other European powers, went unnoticed in Budapest. Naturally when Apponyi made a speech in favour of Deszo Baffy’s proposal to limit the demand for Hungarian commands in the army to using Hungarian only in regimental matters, everyone listened and discussed it as if their very lives depended on it. (pg. 314)
I may well write another (shorter!) piece on Banffy’s evocation of the natural world, one of the many pleasures of this trilogy. Next weekend, perhaps.
They Were Counted is published by Arcadia Books.