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The Will to Survive: A History of Hungary Paperback – 1 Feb 2011
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'. . . a very accessible and invaluable companion, both as a narrative of Hungarian history per se and as a constant source of information to complete the various bits of knowledge gathered during expeditions to museums, libraries and monuments.' ----The Budapest Times
'Though this is a political history, the social and economic aspects are well covered. Cartledge has ... a perceptive eye and an elegant pen. The Will to Survive is set to become the standard work on Hungary.' ----International Affairs
'The most detailed and balanced narrative of Hungarian history currently available in English.' ----Canadian Journal of History
'Though this is a political history, the social and economic aspects are well covered. Cartledge has ... a perceptive eye and an elegant pen. The Will to Survive is set to become the standard work on Hungary.' (International Affairs)
'... a very accessible and invaluable companion, both as a narrative of Hungarian history per se and as a constant source of information to complete the various bits of knowledge gathered during expeditions to museums, libraries and monuments.' (The Budapest Times)
'The most detailed and balanced narrative of Hungarian history currently available in English.' (Franz A.J. Szabo, Canadian Journal of History)
'This is the best history of Hungary in the English language.' (John Lukacs)
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Is it, in the claim quoted on the front cover 'the best history of Hungary in the English language'? I have no idea, but it is certainly not without faults. For the general reader this is a book which is hard work, which does not fully repay the effort, principally because of the bureaucrat-like writing. In places there is too much (unhelpful) detail and whilst the book is long on narrative it is short on analysis.
Stronger editing would have helped; it would have cut the extraneous, improved the punctuation and excised the infelicities - such as 'modalities" (who uses that word?) and 'interlocutor' (yes, Sir Humphrey). It would have removed some of the excursions, too; we know (from the cover) that the author was British Ambassador to Hungary for some three years - we do not need to be reminded of that in a footnote (on page 462) and again (in case we were not paying attention) fifteen pages later. As to the author's 'weekend riding and carriage-driving lessons ... through villages near Budapest' (page 478) !!!
The description of Matyas Rakosi (in the caption to photograph 65) as 'dwarfish' was gratuitously unpleasant.
Did I learn anything from this book? Quite a lot, but I suspect that I would have enjoyed it a lot more had it been half as long. Its scope and objective were unclear; it had too little (especially too little that was novel) for an academic reader, but too much for a general reader.
Is it worth reading? Probably, but only once - if that; so get it from the library.
Indeed, as a former ambassador to both Russia and Hungary, Bryan Cartledge brings his own personal encounters with leading political figures into the book and includes dispatches to London (p481). He's masterful at sketching the European context whilst remaining focused on Hungary, more specifically when he focuses on the English viewpoint to a peace settlement post WW1(p327) (about which Cartledge has written a short monograph). Should you go to Hungary or meet a Hungarian elsewhere the outcome of the Treaty of Trianon will be a source of great indignation. Cartledge, however, offers a cool (but not nonjudgmental) appraisal, highlighting Lloyd George's reservations about creating a crippling Peace Treaty - which were ignored - and Beveridge's and Nicolson's at best ambivalent attitude towards Hungary's fate. Too few people had too great a influence and, for example Seton-Watson, a long-standing animus against the Hungarians.
I felt safe in Cartledge's judgments (which have a worldly view to them): he frequently draws parallels with other periods of Hungarian history, for example placing Soviet occupation just above the Mongolian invasion in the 13th century in terms of calamity. He is also at pains to stress both Hungary's compliance and defiance of Hitler regarding the Jews. One also understands why Transylvania has such a hold on modern Hungarians since it was a great source of gold and romantically rugged terrain (for anyone wishing to pursue this question read Holly Case's Between States).
That said, at 600 pages, this book is not for the faint-hearted and, despite Cartledge's guidance, the names, locations and events can sweep past the reading eye. One example: 'Elizabeth died in the following year, and recognizing Wladislas in return for the promise of her son; the infant Ladislas V survived, as a ward of Frederick III, to claim the throne some years later'(p54).
The opening chapter on early Hungarian history is drawn from only a handful of secondary sources, even though some primary sources are quoted (usually from secondary literature). I would have liked to have seen more discussion of Simon of Keza and other early chroniclers,whose unreliability Cartledge notes but does not expand upon, as for example Lendvai does in his book 'The Hungarains'. (I would also recommend the translation of Simon Keza's Gesta Hungarorum by Laszlo Veszpremy and Fran Schaer, which has a wonderful introduction - translated from German - by J. Szucs; I'd also recommend Martyn Rady's excellent introduction to and translation of the chronicler Anonymous, which can be found online.)
As for other parts of Cartledge's book,I thought that, while The Mongol invasion is short, sharp and lucidly written, I would have liked more alternative motives, as Cartledge does in fact do most of the time. For example, some scholars (Rossabi) think that the Mongols withdrew, not because the Great Kahn had fallen, and so induced a rush back to Mongolia for legitimacy to be conferred (although this is most likely), but simply for the practical reason of a dearth of grass for their horses.
This book has an excellent index (Bavaria, for example, is indexed). Cartledge's style is crisp, grammatically meticulous, if politically minded and not infrequently turgid.
From a reader's perspective, I think that someone with a broader understanding of 20th century history than I do would be better equipped. Basic knowledge of the Habsburgs, too, would be desirable - to fill in the blanks perhaps try to flit back and forth between Joachim Whaley's outstandingly excellent 'Holy Roman Empire' and this book.
Otherwise, the color maps are an excelled aid and are a welcome contrast to most books' rushed and unhelpful maps.
This is a truly excellent history book, showing the continual centrality of Hungary in European history outside of 1956, from which a newcomer to Hungary can absorb Hungary's rich historical colors and a more hardened historian can appreciate and also perceive the deft angle of the author's strokes.
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