The birthday of Budapest

To say that the year 1849 was a most peculiar one would be a major understatement. The previous year, 1848, was the year of revolutions all over Europe, but those slowly died down, having accomplished their main objective: the dissolution of the post-Napoleonic security system of Vienna, thus ushering in the era of rapid capitalistic progress. Not so in Hungary. The young, impetuous emperor, Franz Joseph, who approved and signed most demands of the revolution in 1848, insisted on the submission of Hungary and sent in the army. But the army proved useless in the face of Hungarian resistance; and a serious war ensued, which the Austrians were gradually losing. However, refusing to accept defeat, Austria called for Russian support, which did arrive and two hundred thousand Russian troops gradually overwhelmed the Hungarians. In August, 1849 the Hungarian army capitulated.

Faced with the reality of a threat from the encroaching Russian army, the Hungarian Parliament had legislated their main political objectives, as a last minute effort, in June of 1849. Most of these were not carried out then, but remained on the books, waiting to be realized in a better, more favourable time. Amongst them was the creation of a new, independent capital city: by uniting Pest, Buda, and Óbuda, the three neighbouring cities on either side of the Danube. On their own, each of them was quite insignificant; in fact, they were so different from each other that no sane person would have considered uniting them. But there was a new development, a new fixed bridge, that opened in the fall of 1849, that created a new condition in the life of these cities.

The 1849 legislation already ordered the uniting of Buda, the supposed capital city of Hungary and Óbuda, a small sleepy and rural village to the north, to be amalgamated as one single municipality. Nothing much happened then, but the law was enacted already, so with the gradual reconciliation between the Habsburg Empire and the sulking and sore Hungary, which then became acute by 1867, the unification of the three cities was also timely. The intervening eighteen years had not passed without some effects on the cities of the impending unification. Buda, the nominal capital, was a German-speaking center of the national administration: the economy, the military and the bureaucracy, quiet and efficient. Pest, in the meantime, developed into a boisterous, major commercial center, of over two hundred thousand inhabitants, most of whom were German-speaking and were busy making, selling, brokering and otherwise supplying everything that the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire needed. Pest also developed into a kind of multicultural center of Jews enterprising, Slovaks populating the feverish construction boom, Romanian, Armenian and Greek merchants dealing in the copious produce of the land, while German, Swiss and Austrian entrepreneurs were establishing nascent industries, and refugees from the Turkish occupation of Serbia, produced wine and a hospitality industry for the entire city. The decades beginning in 1867 turned out to be the most productive and most profitable times of Hungary and even more so Budapest. There was a definite need for a capital city and there was no other idea offered than Budapest to be that  capital.

The negotiations of unification started in 1870. But because it was a Hungarian affair, and the final outcome was already obvious at the outset, surely they wasted three years just negotiating, knowing full well what to expect at the end. Finally, they came to an agreement, the city at last, to everybody’s relief, was united. The newly unified National Capital was officially opened for business on the 17th day of November 1873. Yes, exactly hundred and fifty years ago today.

The city became a great success in every respect, but most of all, economically. At the time of the 1910 census, it was found that the GDP of Budapest was 18 times greater than the industrial heartland of the Empire, the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia combined.

So, here is to Budapest, the birthday boy, as feisty and as attractive as ever, boisterous and elegant, the world’s second most popular tourist destination. Happy birthday! And many happy returns!

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