Saturday, 12 February 2011

Budapest - Queen of the Danube

Those who know me, or who have read my most recent book, The Budapest Betrayal, will probably realise that I have a deep love for Budapest, Hungary and, indeed, all things Hungarian.

Heroes Square, Budapest

My first visit to Hungary was in 1962, while I was spending part of the summer learning German in Vienna. It was a short, long-weekend, trip and was the only time that I have ever had a loaded rifle pointed at me. It was less than six years after Hungary's gallant attempt to throw off their Soviet oppressors and the border with Austria was still a heavily guarded crossing point between East and West. Our coach-load of (mostly) young people had never seen anything like this before and, naturally, several of us took out our cameras to record this new experience. It was only when I saw that the guard whose photograph I was about to take had raised his rifle to point directly at me that I realised that perhaps this was not a good subject for a photograph!

Even then, however, Budapest was a beautiful city - although the ravages of both the events of October and November 1956 and the 'liberation' of the city by the Red Army twelve years earlier were still plainly visible wherever one looked. One of my lasting images of that time was the window of a department store which contained a single pair of women's stockings - and nothing else.

It was another fourteen years before I returned - this time at the invitation of the Computer and Automation Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. As I was driven into the centre of the city, which was alive with neon advertising signs, I found it hard to believe that this was the same city as the one I had visited a decade and a half earlier.

But it was the following year that really began my love affair with the city and, by extension, the whole Hungarian nation. At the end of my earlier visit I had been invited to return for a year and, thanks to the generosity of the University of Sheffield, who granted me a year's leave of absence, I was able to take my wife and two small children to spend a year in this wonderful city.

The Hungarian Parliament, Budapest

It was a memorable year for us all. My son, aged seven, and his sister, whose fifth birthday occurred a week after we arrived, went to school in the British Embassy, where their classmates were the children of diplomats from countries across the world. My wife had a part-time job in the British Council library in the Embassy - which helped to pay the school fees - and I spent my time working alongside a group of very talented Hungarians in the Computer & Automation Institute. So we had friends who were diplomats of many different nationalities, and whose children were in the same class as ours, and we had many Hungarian friends. One night we had dinner  in the British Residence with the Ambassador and a clutch of diplomats and Hungarian churchmen (really!), and the next night we ate round a tiny table in the small apartment of a Hungarian friend and listened while he told us of his experiences in 1956. It was a memorable year in so many ways.

Since then I have returned to Budapest at regular intervals for holidays, for professional purposes and to defend my doctoral thesis in front of seven members of the Academy of Sciences, and forty or so other interested parties - all of whom could, and in some cases did, ask questions about my work. The subsequent award of the degrees of Candidate of Technical Sciences and Doctor of Philosophy are a permanent reminder of my links with Hungary.

I was in Hungary in July 1989 and a friend who I visited at his holiday cabin on the shores of Lake Balaton told me that something would have to be done about the East German refugees who were living in makeshift 'refugee camps around the lake in the hope that they would be allowed to escape to the West.  "The country is sinking under the weight of them all," he told me. Barely six weeks later Hungary opened its borders with Austria, thousands of East Germans crossed the border - many leaving their Trabant cars behind as they violated Austria's strict exhaust pollution regulations, and the collapse of Communism in Europe had begun.

Sadly, the euphoria did not last. Most of the old Soviet block countries elected right-of-centre governments in their first 'free' elections, and then returned to more leftward leaning ones consisting of many old members of the Communist party (or the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party, as it was known in Hungary) at the next one. After all, at least they knew how to run a country! But the stresses of the change from a socialist society have brought many, much more serious problems, and there has been a rise in racist attitudes, alongside a crime boom. And now, just as it has taken over the revolving Presidency of the European Union, Hungary is in crisis over a new media law which its opponents, both within Hungary and outside, notably within the European Commission, claim is an attempt to impose old-style censorship on the press and other media.

But Hungary has survived worse, and I am confident that it will survive its present difficulties to fulfil its destiny as a major European nation. After all, in the heart of its Parliament lies the ancient Holy Crown of Hungary which, according to legend, was presented by Pope Sylvester II for the coronation of King Stephen (István) on Christmas Day in the year 1000. Few, if any, countries in Europe have such a distinguished history.

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