Worth a Thousand Years
On the 12th day of March, 1999, Hungary - along with Poland and the Czech Republic - joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Thus ended a quest that began in Anno Domini 1000 or, as some believe, 1001.
Be the exact date as it may, King Stephen - better known as Saint Stephen - asked for and received his crown from Pope Sylvester II of Rome. He might have turned to Byzantium, but decided once and for all that Hungary's future was with the West. Indeed, his concern with that future prompted him to convert Hungarians to Roman Catholicism with a fervor that earned him the title "Apostolic." Actually, he did not think Hungarians had a future except as part of the West.
Thus began the long wait for the fulfilment of King Stephen's dream, and a number of things happened on the way. By some fluke, in 1222 Hungary found itself with a king not unlike England's weak King John, who had been forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, and with freemen of somewhat similar ideas. The resulting "Golden Bulla" - while in many ways not the equal of the Great Charter of English Liberties - was a respectable attempt at constitutional government, centuries ahead of any similar thoughts in the region.
Alas, History had different designs, and Hungary was virtually destroyed in 1241 by the Mongols pushing West. Rising from the ashes, a century later Hungarians could water their horses alongside the Black Sea in the East, the Baltic in the North, the Adriatic in the Southwest. In 1456, their victory over the advancing Ottoman Empire caused church bells to be ordered up at noon for all time. By 1490, the renaissance court of King Matthias was fabeled for its library, and Vienna had trembled before his troops.
Then came 150 years of Turkish occupation, followed by two centuries of Habsburg rule. The period mistakenly referred to as the "Austro-Hungarian Empire" - in fact it was a dual Monarchy with limited independence for Hungary - was golden but brief: 1867 to 1918, of which the last four years were spent in World War I. The end of that saw a decision by the victors to create all sorts of new countries, like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, for which purpose they required large chunks of Hungary. Rumania was rewarded with Transylvania. Europe's new map was of French design, but no one seemed to mind, and - though Hungary was now independent - the novel experience of needing a passport to visit cousins was not taken well. Since Hungarians have no ethnic ties with Latin-Germanic-Slavic Europe, it mattered especially for families to be separated by less than friendly frontiers.
In fact, the frustration sent Hungary right into the arms of Hitler's Germany. But when the deportation of Hungarian Jews was required and the Hungarian government declined, Germany decided to invade its own ally on a Sunday morning before dawn, while the Hungarian leadership was being entertained in Berlin. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, put Adolf Eichmann, his best man, in charge of deportations from Hungary. Eichmann performed to the tune of about 500,000 women, children and elderly sent to Auschwitz in a few months.
And, while In October of 1944, the legitimate Hungarian government proclaimed the end of its alliance with Germany and asked the Allies to accept a capitulation, the relatively small Arrow Cross (Hungary's equivalent of Germany's National Socialists) seized power. For three months, they instituted a degree of terror unimaginable even in a country that had gotten a taste of terror already in 1919, during six months of communist dictatorship.
Once again, with Budapest virtually bombed out of existence, Hungary rose from the dead. But in 1949, the Russian troops who never left after the end of World War II, installed a regime trained in and directed from Moscow, and incorporated Hungary into what they called the Warsaw Pact. The conditions that followed sent fourteen-year-olds to attack Russian tanks with their bare hands by 1956. Once again, the legitimate leaders asked the Western Powers to help Hungary out of an "alliance" by recognizing its new government.
In 1989, it was time again for Hungary to play its historic role. Having stopped first the Mongols, then the Turks, in their Western aspirations, it now had the opportunity to drive the first nail in the coffin of Russia's Western expansion - then operating under Soviet flag. Hungary simply opened its borders to East German tourists, "vacationing" in Hungary, and helped them into the safety of Austria.
In a matter of weeks, the Berlin Wall fell.
The next Sunday, David Brinkley recalled the story on his Sunday show, and ended with the words, "would that the West not forget what little Hungary accomplished."
Thank you, Mr. Brinkley.
The West did not forget.
Meanwhile, two Russians, General Lebed and Mikhail Gorbachev, made their voices heard during the induction ceremonies. They compared the event to Germany's humiliation through the Versailles Treaty after World War I. They sought to imply that the countries just admitted to NATO had been somehow a part of historic Russia.
True, Poland has been a favorite play-thing of the czars. They shoved it back and forth, as if on casters, with the kings of Prussia as their playmate. The last such tournament occurred in 1939, when Stalin and Hitler split Poland between them and competed for the "Most Poles Killed" prize.
But Bohemia, as the land of the Czech was know by many, was for long an integral part of the Austrian cultural sphere and Prague, where the purest German was spoken, lies considerably farther West than Vienna.
As for Hungary, its sole pre-World War II connection with Russia was the Czar's brutal suppression of Hungary's 1848-49 freedom fight against - Austria.
Isn't history full of surprises?
The one that occurred in Washington on March 12, 1999, happens to be a "surprise" whose coming had been awaited for just under one thousand years.
It was worth the wait.