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A doomed army fighting to the bitter end - brings a city and its population down in flames
on 18 September 2008
The Battle for Budapest is no light reading - in any sense. Technically the book is scholastic and it is hard to get a good overview because of all the detail presented. To me its flaw is the part about the battle itself, here you are flooded by so much minor detail that the bigger picture is hard to see. There are quite a few maps but these too are so crowded in detail you get rather lost and have to work at placing the narrative with the map since each map has so many parts of the narrative.
The main text is well written (although it could have done with some editing) and the English is very good, for which we can thank the excellent translation of Ladislaus Löb. The text is also cut in palces to give a personal experience and these small texts are valuable.
The history it tells is one of a doomed army fighting on to the bitter end with no hope of victory, a very dark and horrific tale ultimately of needless sacrifice. The book is strong in that it represents the Soviets as well as the Germans and their Hungarian allies although to a lesser extent and certainly not down to the basic level. Actually since the Soviets are painted in broader strokes their overview is a little better. The fighting is described at street level, fitting for a city but almost impossible to follow, and for a non Hungarian the names of places are hard to keep up with as well. This may seem fitting for a book about a city siege but somehow it becomes more a technical detail than a feel for the battle itself.
But the book goes further and also tells the horrific tale of civilian population and the persecution of the Jews. This part is better than the battle since it is much easier to follow and the pace of the book is better.
This is a book packed with information and that is also a weak side, there is so much it is hard to process. No doubt Krisztián Ungváry has researched his subject well and brings all his knowledge into this book to a fault. It is hard to see the forest because of the trees, the tree because of its branches and in the same way a detailed description of branches does not do justice to a tree, so does the feeling of the battle get a little lost.