Jewel in the national crown: conquering Budapest

The drive to symbolically “nationalize” Budapest, and rewrite the capital in the government’s image, has never lost its appeal. Although Hungarian political discourse takes place in a radically different society than it did 100 years ago, the motifs and illiberal rhetoric of the Horthy years have once again found center-stage in Hungarian politics.

Photo: CreativeCommons/Laura Lafond

27. 01. 2016

All self-respecting modern states need their capital cities to represent the best the country thinks it has to offer, to shine like a jewel in the national crown. Capitals are fond of presenting themselves as dynamic, forward-looking places with big institutions and big personalities to match, preferably with a large dose of national tradition too, as if to say, “look how far we’ve come!”

Cities, particularly capital cities, have historically been the sites of power, trade, experimentation, modernization and mass immigration. 1 For Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire, Fichte and Adam Smith, urban centers represented civilized virtue, industry and higher culture; cities also offered refuge from what one English translation of The Communist Manifesto described as, “the idiocy of rural life.”  2 The city has also been as a place that alienates one from the self, and home to vice and the cult of money; in 1929 the Völkischer Beobachter memorably described Berlin as, “the melting-pot of all evil … prostitution, bars, illness, movies, Marxism, Jews, strippers, Negro dances, and all the disgusting offspring of so-called ‘modern art’.”  3 For all political ideologies and projects, capital cities are crucial sites in the struggle to inscribe and exercise power.

Modern Budapest was created in 1873 to concretize the ambitions of Hungarian liberals, when the cities of Pest, Buda and Óbuda were united to create a new center for the Hungarian state, a world-city to, “continually gather the most effective tools of national intellectual and material development, and by means of the most expedient furnishing and handling of municipal institutions, function as a pleasing rallying point of orderliness, culturedness and elevated social principles.”  4 During its tenure as the second city of the Dual Monarchy, Budapest grew rapidly to become the eighth largest and second fastest-growing city in pre-WW1 Europe;  5 the outer reaches of the seventh district in Pest were even nicknamed “Csikágó,” a reference to the speed at which Chicago was built to accommodate numerous incomers.  6

While concerns that the Hungarian capital was excessively modern, brash, and anti-national, were already in circulation at the start of the 20th century, it was only after the collapse of the Dual Monarchy, and the two revolutions – one in 1918 that seated a social democratic government for five months, before it was replaced in 1919 by a Bolshevik-style system, lasting all of 133 days – that these notions were elevated to the level of state policy. Arriving triumphantly on horseback in November 1919, Admiral Miklós Horthy announced that the capital had become the corrupter of the nation: “Here, on the bank of the Danube, I confront the Hungarian capital with its crimes: this city has denied her millennial past, the city has trampled its crown and national colors in the mud and dressed in red rags.” Horthy promised to forgive only when the city returned to its homeland; when, “those who feel guilty will repent and help with redoubled effort in the rebuilding of Budapest resplendent in national aspirations.”  7

Following the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, Hungary’s territory and population were cut by around two-thirds, leaving over 3 million Hungarians outside the new reconfigured borders, thus severing the relation between the state and the concept of the nation. Budapest became the capital of a radically truncated and now far more homogenous state, where increased competition for resources and opportunities were addressed, for example, with the numerus clausus that same year that radically restricted Hungarian Jews’ access to higher education – these were the first in a long series of interwar legislative moves designed to rectify the Jews’ perceived “usurpation” of prized positions in economic and intellectual life. During the interwar years, at the same time as this “capital resplendent in national aspirations” was being created, no significant land-ownership or electoral reforms took place, and a “Christian-national” change of guard was attempted across the board. In US historian Hillel Kieval’s words: “As discourse, anti-Semitism had the function of organizing knowledge in order to identify the Jewish danger to culture and society; as political mobilization it aimed to take back the city.”  8

By the late 30s, political and intellectual battles over the capital served merely to reinforce the notion that Budapest should be subjected to a cleansing, purification and rebirth. Under pressure from groups on the radical Right, positive discrimination measures and a series of race laws were introduced. This meant that by the time Hungary joined the Axis in 1940, a large part of the initiative to exclude Hungarian Jews from full membership of society had already been completed.  9 Notwithstanding the 1944 deportation of almost half a million Jews from the countryside in under six weeks, about half of Budapest Jewry survived the yellow-star houses  10 and ghettoes.

Once Budapest was the capital of the Communist People’s Republic, the official post-war line stipulated two mutually contradictory interpretations of wartime behavior: that Hungary was, in essence, a pro-Fascist country, yet one that had ended up on the winning anti-Fascist side, thanks to the Soviets. 11 Following the revival of interwar debates among competing opposition groups in the mid to late 80s, and the first public discussions of the Holocaust and the crushing of the 1956 Revolution, those involved in early post-Communist Hungarian political life were quick to reach back further into the past for inspiration or a spectacle. One such instance was the 1993 reburial of Horthy in his hometown on the Great Plain.

A recent, innovative mapping project by students at the Media and Communication department at ELTE University in Budapest, illustrates the locations of all renamed streets in the capital since 1990, and the governments under which each happened. 12 Unsurprisingly, the administration most active in the “Great Renaming,” was that of József Antall, who, between 1990 and 1993 deleted all the, “Lenins,” “7 Novembers” and “Liberations” from the map. For many, and not only the Right, “Liberation” by the Soviets meant the beginning of a new, unwanted dictatorship imposed from outside.  13

In second place comes the second Orbán government, elected in April 2010 with 53% of the vote, which translated into a two-thirds parliamentary super-majority. On November 3rd that year, the day of Fidesz’s resounding victory at the municipal and local elections, Orbán chose to paraphrase Horthy’s November 1919 declaration, announcing: “With this solidarity, Hungary has become truly unified because today it has reclaimed its capital city. For the past 20 years Budapest has always stood in dispute with other parts of the country, in one way or another. […] From today Budapest is […] once again the capital city of the nation.”  14

Under István Tarlós’s municipal administration, a substantial number of Budapest streets and squares have been renamed. Thus, for example, Moscow Square in Buda has now reverted to its interwar name, Kálmán Széll, (Minister of Finance 1875-8 and Prime Minister 1899-1903); while Republic (Köztársaság) Square in Pest’s eighth district has been renamed in honor of Pope John Paul II, which remains perpendicular to Luther Street.

Intensifying throughout the 2000s, a “Horthy-cult” had meanwhile been carefully nurtured by the radical Right,  15 where interwar personalities and symbols are recycled enthusiastically (and lucratively) for post-Communist consumers. A brief sojourn through neo-Nazi websites throws up numerous republications of earlier anti-Semitic and revisionist texts, the vast majority of which were banned in 1945. The rise of Jobbik, which positions itself as the sole radical and authentic challenger to a sick and corrupt status quo, has seen the number of Horthy statues mushroom across the country, along with monuments to other Rightist cult figures, including revisionist authors Albert Wass and Cécile Tormay, who have both successfully been imported into the mainstream and are now widely read.  16 In 2012 the government removed the statue of Count Mihály Károlyi, a Roman Catholic social democrat, who served as Hungarian PM in 1918, from Budapest’s Kossuth Square, following high-profile demonstrations by Jobbik, during which a kippah was placed on the statue’s head and a sign around its neck, which read: “I am responsible for Trianon.” A downtown Budapest street formerly named after Mihály Károlyi is now simply Károlyi Street.

During Fidesz’s first administration from 1998 to 2002, the interwar Horthy years was already functioning for Fidesz too, as a totally acceptable, useable past – the last known incarnation of true Hungarian sovereignty. This conviction was first embodied in the House of Terror museum, which opened in 2002 on Andrássy Boulevard,  17 and is now enshrined in the Preamble to the Constitution, which states: “We date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the 19th day of March 1944, from the 2nd day of May 1990, when the first freely elected body of popular representation was formed. We shall consider this date the beginning of our country’s new democracy and constitutional order.”  18

The realization of central government plans for the restoration of Kossuth Square in front of parliament to its 1944 incarnation is now complete. The monument in memory of the 1944 German occupation, erected without ceremony in the early hours of July 20th 2014 on nearby Freedom (Szabadság) Square,  19 is now complemented by an unofficial “Living Memorial,” a permanent protest constructed by members of the public who want to turn the site from a, “lying, cold occupation monument-monster into a starting point for Hungarians […] to listen to one another!”  20 Just behind the new monument(s) stands a bust of Horthy on the steps of the Church of Homecoming, led by Calvinist preacher and Jobbik stalwart, Lóránt Hegedűs.  21 Recent unconfirmed proposals would see the construction of a “Government district” in the Buda Castle, where Orbán’s new offices would be slightly larger than the area of the parliament’s gigantic building. 22 Having been emptied of political function by the Communists, it goes without saying that the last Hungarian leader to occupy the castle was, of course, Miklós Horthy. Naturally, competition with Jobbik and other radical Right groups is evidenced elsewhere, too: in September 2014, Orbán stated that Hungary didn’t ask Western Europe to cohabit with a large Roma minority, and thus nobody could tell Hungary to cohabit with a large number of immigrants. 23

The drive to symbolically “nationalize” Budapest, to rewrite the capital in Hungary’s own image, has thus never lost its appeal. Although 21st century Hungarian political discourse takes place in a radically different society, one transformed by the Holocaust, Communism, capitalism, and EU membership, the motifs and illiberal rhetoric from the Horthy years are now center-stage in Hungarian politics. During the dark years in opposition, before he was re-elected once and for all in 2010, Orbán cited Horthy again when discussing how to deal with the radical Right: give them two slaps and send them home. 24 Presumably, this is because that tactic worked so well the first time round. In 2016, having successfully executed state capture, 25 the government’s practice of retroactive legislation is complemented by its fondness for historical rehabilitation, which has brought it into fruitful competition with Jobbik, now the second party in Hungary.

With the exception of their on-going bromance with the Polish right,  26 Fidesz is largely unwilling and unable to forge meaningful partnerships within the EU, and so it looks back (as well as to the East). 27 The alleged continuity from the interwar years is necessarily a fiction, one that relies on the fantasy of an unchanging, immutable historical identity 28 Today’s Budapest is the site of extreme inequality, centrally-funded revisionist building projects and memorials and an indebted public transport system that the central government will not bail out.  29 If one swallows the lie that Fidesz equals Hungary, then this truly is a capital resplendent in national aspirations, jewel of the nation crown.


  1. See the influential essay by Carl E. Schorske, ‘The Idea of the City in European Thought: From Voltaire to Spengler’, in The Historian and the City, ed. by Oscar Handlin and John Burchard (Boston MA: MIT Press, 1963), pp. 95-114.
  2. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition, with an introduction by Eric Hobsbawm (London: Verso, 1998), p. 40.
  3. Cited in Barbara Miller Lane, Architecture and Politics in Germany, 1918-1945 (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), p. 155.
  4. Interior Minister Vilmos Tóth, cited in Andor Csizmadia, A magyar közigazgatás fejlődése a XVIII. századtól a tanácsrendszer létrejöttéig (Budapest: Akadémiai, 1976), p. 137.
  5. Thomas Bender and Carl E. Schorske, ‘Introduction: Budapest and New York Compared’, in Budapest and New York: Studies in Metropolitan Transformation, 1870-1930, ed. by Thomas Bender and Carl E. Schorske (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1994), pp. 1-28.
  6. See photo album of Secessionist ‘Csikágó’ by Henriette Tiborcz at and
  7. ‘Horthy Miklós fővezér válasza Bódy Tivadar polgármesternek a nemzeti hadsereg bevonulása alkalmával a Gellért szálló előtt mondott üdvözlő beszédére’, in Források Budapest múltjából, ed. by Ágnes Ságvári, 6 vols (Budapest: Budapest Főváros Levéltára, 1971-88), III: Források Budapest történetéhez 1919-1945, ed. by József Szekeres (1972), p. 21.
  8. Hillel J. Kieval, “Antisemitism and the City: A Beginner’s Guide,” in People of the City: Jews and the Urban Challenge, ed. by Ezra Mendelsohn, Studies in Contemporary Jewry XV (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 3-18 (p. 14-15).
  9. On the ubiquitousness of antisemitism in interwar political life, see András Mink and István Rév, ‘Introduction: Budapest 1944-2014: The Yellow-Star Houses’, at The Arrow Cross sympathiser Zoltán Nyisztor (1893-1979) rejected Horthy’s ‘sinful city’ trope in the name of his love for the city, which in practice entailed the deportation and murder of the vast majority of Hungarian Jews: “Sinful city? Let us delete this degrading epithet once and for all, and let us write with the thorns of our passions on Budapest’s wreathed forehead that it is the city of heroes!” Zoltán Nyisztor cited in “A mételyes görvély,” in András Nyerges, Rendes ország, kétféle történelem. 113 színrebontás (Budapest: noran, 2005), pp. 107-9 (p. 109).
  11. See István Rév, Retroactive Justice: Prehistory of Post-Communism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005); and Tatiana Zhurzhenko, ‘Heroes into victims: The Second World War in post-Soviet memory politics’, Eurozine, 31 October 2012, at
  12. ‘A nagy átnevezés’, Hungary’s Got Data, 6 December 2015, at
  13. On the radical Right, the system changes of 1990 only brought new oppression by international capitalism. To paraphrase a recent Jobbik slogan, “the tanks gave way to the banks.”
  14. Viktor Orbán, “A magyarok a kormányzásról mondták véleményt,” speech given at a press conference on 3 October 2010, at
  15. Keno Verseck, “’Creeping Cult’: Hungary Rehabilitates Far-Right Figures,” Der Spiegel, 6 June 2012, at
  16. See, for example, John Neubauer, “Albert Wass: Rebirth and Apotheosis of a Transylvanian-Hungarian Writer,” in John Neubauer and Borbála Zsuzsanna Török (eds), The Exile and Return of Writers from East-Central Europe (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009), pp. 538-575; and Gwen Jones, “Cécile Tormay: A Gentlewoman Fascist in the Graveyard of the Hunchbacks” in Rebecca Haynes and Martyn Rady (eds), In The Shadow of Hitler: Personalities of the Right in Central and Eastern Europe (London: IB Tauris, 2011), pp. 105-120.
  17. From the webpage describing the “Double Occupation” room in the House of Terror: “The room displays the two successive foreign occupations of Hungary. One part of the monitor-wall depicts the genocidal Nazi régime: Hitler and the jubilant crowds, as well as the horrifying photographs of Bergen-Belsen, while on the other side we can see the Red Army, the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and military parades along Red Square. […] Hungary’s sovereignty came to an end on March 19, 1944.  For more than four decades, Soviet occupation troops remained on her territory.  The last Soviet soldier left Hungary on June 19, 1991.” See
  18. The Fundamental Law of Hungary, 25 April 2011, signed into law by President Pál Schmitt on 25 April 2011, and which entered into force on 1 January 2012. See
  19. Masha Gessen, “Ronald Reagan and Other Hungarian Heroes,” The New Yorker, 21 July 2015, at
  20. From the Living Memorial group’s Facebook page, at
  21. Botond Csepregi, “Ismét egyházi bíróság tárgyalja Hegedűs Lóránt Horthy-szoboravatási ügyét,”, 19 October 2015, at
  22. Péter Hamvay, “Álljon a bál – kormányzati negyed a budai várban,” Magyar Narancs, 26 November 2015, at
  23. Szabolcs Panyi, “Miért hozza össze Orbán a menekülteket a cigányokkal?”, 24 September 2015, at
  24. István Dévényi, “Orbán kioszt két pofont,”, 23 May 2008, at
  25. See, for example, Transparency International’s 2011 report on Hungary, at
  26. Annabelle Chapman, “Poland and Hungary’s defiant friendship,” Politico, 6 January 2016,
  27. Keno Verseck, “Putins Besuch in Ungarn: Orbán verschaukelt die EU,” Der Spiegel, 15 February 2015,
  28. See interview in Hungarian with historian András Mink, ‘”A nemzet erkölcsi tartását roppantja meg’ – Mink András történész a budai vár felújításáról,” Magyar Narancs, 27 February 2015, at
  29. Orbán told Mayor István Tarlós that Budapest was “not a financial question, but a literary one.” “Orbán Tarlós szemébe mondta, mit is gondola Budapestről,”, 13 January 2016, at
Gwen Jones

Gwen Jones

wrote a PhD at the University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies on early twentieth-century depictions of Budapest in Hungarian literature, and later completed a post-doc on Hungarian and Polish antisemitism at the UCL Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies. She is currently web editor for the Yellow-Star Houses project at the Open Society Archives, Central European University in Budapest.