Ferenc, L. u.a. (Hgg.): Magyarország globális története [The Global History of Hungary]

Magyarország globális története, 1869-2022.

Laczó, Ferenc; Varga, Bálint
Budapest 2022: Corvina
448 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Bence Kocsev, Budapest

How can local political, economic, social, cultural, or ecological events and processes be read from a transnational and global perspective? Or vice versa, in what ways can transnational influences, interconnections, and similarities determine the fate of a country? And above all, how can the complexity of global and local interconnections and interdependencies be deciphered from a historical perspective and thereby enrich national and global historiographies? These are some of the main questions addressed in The Global History of Hungary, edited by Bálint Varga and Ferenc Laczó, in short essays that seek to reveal how the local and the global are interwoven in a very essential way in the history of a small Central European country.

As in daily life, fashions prevail in the intellectual sphere too, decisively shaping the foci and methodologies of contemporary scholarship in the individual disciplines. In historiography, the imperative to overcome the blinders of methodological nationalism, which refers to the nation-state as the central unit of investigation, is one of these fashions. One of the important yields of this scholarship is that it goes beyond the national perspective and considers the interconnections with the outside world as crucial to the understanding of the history of the individual countries and regions, thereby seeking to promote a global interpretation of the national pasts. (Apropos fashion: it is particularly interesting how the book – using a kind of Alltagsgeschichte approach – takes up everyday topics like fashion and the closely related topics such as lifestyle and consumption as sources for the history of society.1)

Fashions, as we have known at least since Georg Simmel, are collective actions. The volume is therefore not a unique and isolated endeavour, as it joins recent developments in historiography, providing various fora and avenues to escape the “iron cage” of methodological nationalism and Eurocentrism and the teleological perspective that sometimes accompanies them. The book’s immediate source of inspiration lies obviously (and explicitly) in the series that commenced with the publication of the Histoire mondiale de la France, edited by the French medievalist Patrick Boucheron, which was followed by a number of similar endeavours. These accounts not only reflect the dynamic nature of research on global history (and on adjacent or competing practices, from world history through comparative and transnational history to some recent methodological frameworks), but also show the extent to which these are distinctively practised and conceptualized within Europe.2 Until now, however, a work on a Central and Eastern European country was sorely lacking from this series, which, with its own particular approach, would complement these initiatives. Although in the last decades more and more Hungarian researchers have been successfully involved in projects dealing with the transnational and transregional or even global history of the country, such work has not yet been published on Hungary, while titles on national history keep filling the bookshops.3 This debut on the “market” of global historiography alone makes the book per se interesting.

This multifaceted account provides a number of genuinely new insights into the history of a country that has been in almost constant flux over the past 150 years and that has been much more connected to the world around us than was originally thought. Apart from the major turning points (1956 and 1989), the global embeddedness of the country and its complex transnational entanglements, which have long been concealed by the narratives and chronologies of national historiography, have hardly been treated so systematically in previous studies. The book is therefore a welcome prelude to what is hoped to be a long series of contributions on the global history of the country.

With an outstanding collective of established and young authors with a variety of affiliations (the 100 chapters were written by 82 scholars), the volume reaches beyond the typical disciplinary confines of historiography and results in a genuine Gesamtkunstwerk in which historians join forces with literary scholars, ethnographers, anthropologists, economists, political scientists, sociologists, experts in international relations, and media scholars. Given these circumstances (the diversity of disciplinary backgrounds as well as the different affiliations of the authors, spanning the globe), the book is a par excellence transnational endeavour not only in its subject and scope but also in its implementation.

With its main message that Hungary throughout its modern history has been interwoven with diverse and far-reaching transnational connections and has been constantly intertwined with phenomena from different regions, the volume focuses on a plethora of actors shaping the history of the country and examines the impact of ideas, religions, philosophies, and cultural products, as well as the effect of political, economic, cultural, social, and environmental conditions that framed the development of the country. The fact that the contributions are properly addressing issues that are increasingly important today, such as ecology, consumption, diseases, gender, social cohesion, and (forced and voluntary) migration is particularly welcome, as it helps to understand these phenomena within larger global and temporal contexts.

Most authors place their stories within larger historical contexts (here the reader might sometimes get the feeling that the broader macro-analysis has not left enough room to address the actual micro-problem), and each chapter concludes with a small number of literature suggestions and a reference to relevant related sections.

It is, however, a risky and courageous undertaking to embark on such an ambitious project and, in particular, to join the aforementioned series of global histories, as the editors must be careful to avoid possible shortcomings of previous volumes while also overcoming the methodological and technical pitfalls of their predecessors. The authors solve this task quite creatively.

First, unlike in some of the previous titles, the book managed to counteract “the enthusiastic and exaggerated discussion” of the national past and the emphasis of national grandeur that – despite all efforts to the contrary – still characterized some of our previous volumes.[4] By deliberately dispelling many myths that underpin a certain image of Hungary, the volume seeks to decentre specific fixtures of the national past. However, the authors had to do this with a certain sensitivity not to trigger a predictable debate on national identity but to provide a valuable opportunity to initiate and bolster important disputes in the field of historiography and to reconceptualize the modern history of the country.

Second, contrary to its predecessors, The Global History of Hungary does not aspire to span a broad timeframe, which really helps to maintain the coherence of the book. Whereas the preceding books began their narratives with the paintings of the Chauvet cave, the appearance of Homo heidelbergensis, or the vestiges of the Neanderthals in the Lage Landen, thereby exposing the book to some valid criticism, the temporal ambition in this volume is more restrained. It is already in 1869 (two years after the Austro-Hungarian Compromise) when, in the first chapter, we board the steamship with János Xantus during the Austro-Hungarian expedition to East Asia and begin to trace the global history of Hungary. The choice of the starting date from the second half of the nineteenth century is not accidental, as the book attempts to take up the thread about the time of the emergence of the “global condition”, when the multiplication of worldwide processes and connections started to – in a qualitatively different way – reshape the spheres of economy, culture, public life, and lifestyle. Even though the history of globalization and world history are not equivalent and do not necessarily concern the same issues, it seems more appropriate to approach the topic from this period. Otherwise, it is often difficult to avoid being forced to integrate local and regional events into a global perspective.

There is, however, another lesson that the authors want to convey when they decided on a limited temporal scope, namely that the country has largely followed semi-peripheral trajectories. It is precisely in the nineteenth century that we embark on this historical journey that witnessed the consolidation of a significant divide in economic development and prosperity. By emphasizing the structural features of the world system that constituted and constantly reinforced these linkages, the authors maintain the core-periphery view of the world and show how uneven global developments have repeatedly relegated Hungary, a country with relatively modest resources and limited economic and political opportunities, to a semi-peripheral position.

Within various spatial contexts and arrangements, from the imperial order of the (kaiserlich und königlich, k. u. k.) monarchy through the Cold War and the demise of the bipolar world up to most recent phenomena, the book demonstrates how actors sought to engage with the political and economic structural rigidity of the system and aimed at leveraging their positions. However, the book repeatedly underlines that this semi-peripheral position only seems to allow for path-dependent development scenarios and renders all possible efforts to escape it obsolete. Especially interesting is how the volume shows that semi-peripheral development patterns were constrained to the field of economy but also uneven social and political patterns occurred, which have been affecting, for instance, the long-term processes of democratization or the country’s social cohesion at different historical periods, including today.

Being in a semi-peripheral position is of course not just an economic concern, and here the book offers a number of avenues for looking at the social and political processes associated with this position and provides a very coherent overall conceptual structure in which they can be interpreted. The only problem with this particular narrative that the book is trying to convey – at least for the present reviewer, whose tastes in public affairs seem to be somewhat different from those of the authors – is that the line between a scholarly publication and a political pamphlet seems to be blurred from time to time. While it is especially interesting how the book deals with global crisis symptoms that have existed since the early 2000s (or even before) and with the question of how their local ramifications played out in issues like migration and social polarization, here the book seems a bit biased in its political orientation.

To be sure, the kind of public historiography – to borrow Michael Burawoy’s term – that seeks to enliven the discussion on current issues when dealing with historical topics is an important genre; nevertheless, it is a difficult one. Towards the end of the book, it gets quite impossible to disentangle the main message from particular political agendas, and one has the feeling that the otherwise extremely interesting topics have fallen victim to ideological debates. While the ideal of sine ira et studio is certainly an unrealistic methodological prescription for historiography and social sciences, it might have been better to avoid explicitly political comments in some posts, as the authors thereby risk to significantly weaken many otherwise important arguments.

The political biases aside, the book offers an exciting takeaway when showing how historical contexts – beyond commonplace assumptions – could in fact facilitate the understanding of current phenomena. Though not explicitly mentioning current reverberations, the case study on the Hungarian Scientific Institute in Constantinople, dealing with how Hungary searched for an alternative global space in the East during the interwar period, for example, intriguingly shows how past endeavours could have contemporary echoes. What is also particularly eye opening for the understanding of the country’s current conditions – and here I would like to return to my earlier comment on the structural rigidity of the world system – is the way the authors examine the country’s semi-peripheral position and its development from an economic, social, and political point of view and also outline some of the strategies that offered the only hope of catching up, but the results were mixed at its best.[5]

The volume’s formal and stylistic accuracy, while avoiding technical jargon as much as possible, and, above all, the restriction to a consumable number of pages per contribution are all very appealing. By skilfully blurring the lines between academic and popular history writing, the volume deserves a wide (scholarly and general) readership and thus should be on the shelves of anyone interested in the history of Hungary. Without knowing what the publishers’ intentions are or whether anything has already been done in this regard, the book definitely deserves an English edition regardless, as it could become a thoroughly relevant volume for readers outside the Hungarian-speaking community as well.

As for the appearance of the book, there is, however, a minor annoyance that should be highlighted for the end of this review. Despite the time (and possibly financial) constraint the editors had to struggle with, notwithstanding the fact that content is more important than appearance, it would have been worth including some colour images or, at least in some cases, images with better resolution.

1 See the entries, e.g.: 1883 The founding of the Hungarian Vegetarian Association; 1900 The opening of the first Julius Meinl shop in Budapest; 1919 The Hungarian Fashion Industry magazine is published and 1926 The Corvin Shopping Centre opens; 1964 The Merkur Passenger Car Sales Company is founded; 1968 Coca-Cola production begins in Kőbánya; 1972 Construction of the Békásmegyer housing estate begins.
2 For the predecessors, see, e.g.: P. Boucheron et. al. (eds.) Histoire mondiale de la France, Paris 2017; A. Giardina (ed.) Storia mondiale dell’Italia, Bari-Roma 2017; B. de Riquer (ed.), Història mundial de Catalunya, Barcelona 2018; X. M. Núñez Seixas (ed.), Historia mundial de España, Barcelona 2018; M. Beyen et al. (eds.) Wereldgeschiedenis van Vlaanderen, Kalmthout 2018, for the French version, see: Histoire mondiale de la Flandre, Waterloo 2020; L. H. van Voss et al. (eds.) Wereldgeschiedenis van Nederland, Amsterdam 2018 and its sequel, the Nog meer wereldgeschiedenis van Nederland (Amsterdam 2022); A. Fahrmeir (ed.) Deutschland. Globalgeschichte einer Nation, München 2021.
3 For example, Hungarian scholars have already contributed to the projects in the above series: O. Réthelyi delivered a chapter to the Wereldgeschiedenis van Nederland and Edina Bozóky to the Histoire mondiale de la France.

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