NEW BOOKS IN HUNGARIAN

Gergely Romsics: Nép, nemzet, birodalom. A Habsburg Birodalom emlékezete a német, osztrák és magyar történetpolitikai gondolkodásban 1918–1941 (People, Nation, Empire. The Memory of the Habsburg Empire in German, Austrian, and Hungarian Historiography and Political Thinking, 1918–1941).
Budapest, Új Mandátum, 2010. 465 pp. (Habsburg Historical Monographs, 9.)
ISBN 978-963-276-040-7

Almost immediately after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the process of transforming the memory of the Monarchy into narrative began. While the works of belletrists, such as Musil, Zweig, Canetti and Krleža, may have acquired world fame, the better part of the fashioning of public discourse and discussion on the historical trauma fell to historians, essayists and so-called historico-political thinkers. In the interwar period, the “middle ground” genre of historico-political publications offered a sufficiently flexible framework for dialogue, monologue or parallel narratives. Gergely Romsics’s probing and thoroughly documented monograph on the subject offers a detailed discussion of the social tendencies that tore at the fabric of the Monarchy well before its actual fall, tendencies that were visible early on in the two slowly dying empires, Germany and the Habsburg Monarchy.

In contrast with the ideology of Habsburg patriotism, which was more a matter of theory than reality, new ideologies arose deriving from the notion of the eigenständiges Volk, “the eternal, self-contained people that seeks only to realize itself.” In Germany the concepts of the Drittes Reich (not Nazi), Zwischen-Europa, and the Volk state were formulated as corollaries to the “völkischer Gedanke” (the idea of an organic people or Volk). According to these concepts, the multiethnic Monarchy of the past could never constitute an example to be followed. In Hungary, assessments of the centuries of Habsburg rule were essentially determined by the so-called Kuruc-Labanc disputes, an opposition which had grown rigid over time and which did little more than heap advantages against disadvantages in an attempt to demonstrate either the virtues or vices of Habsburg rule.

The critical evaluation of the period between the disastrous loss at the battle of Mohács in 1526 and the signing of the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 became something of an obligation for the prominent thinkers of the newly independent country as a means of attempting to discern the possibilities for the future. With keen, clear logic Romsics manages to unknot the complex tangle of ideas, in which the völkisch idea (in Hungarian the népi gondolat, though the origins of the term lie in the works of German writers) was transformed into a political force by the new Populist movement (strongly opposed to Nazi expansionism), while traditional conservativism found its ally in Legitimism. Definitions of the allegedly distinctive features of the “people” (the closest English approximation of the German word Volk and the Hungarian word nép), and the question, thematized discourse, with a whole “What makes a Hungarian?” and the spectrum of possible answers. The presentation of the various opinions and debates gives nuanced depictions of historians Gyula Szekfű, Ferenc Eckhart, and Elemér Mályusz, political historian Gusztáv Gratz, and the writer-ideologues László Németh and Dezső Szabó. Gergely Romsics’s innovative questions, precise clarification of concepts, and subtle analysis of the German sources that functioned at times as points of reference for the Hungarian authors contribute to create a work essential to furthering our understanding.

Katalin Bartha-Kovács: A csend alakzatai a festészetben. Francia festészetelmélet a XVII– XVIII. században (Forms of Silence in Paintings: A Theory of French Painting in the 17–18th Centuries).
Budapest, L’Harmattan, 2010. 174 pp. (Laokoón Books)
ISBN 978-963-236-335-6

By publishing the present monograph as a continuation of her 2004 book on the beginnings of the theory of painting in France, Katalin Bartha-Kovács, a young instructor at the University of Szeged, has attempted to introduce a field previously unexplored in Hungarian critical writing. “Can we define the notion of silence in connection with the arts?” the author asks in the first, very enlightening chapter of her book, in which she experiments with definitions of the term “silence.” She offers not only an interpretation of contemporary philosophers and artists, but also touches on the answers (which were influential at the time) provided by Eastern philosophies. The author considers the interpretation of the notion of silence and its positive and negative promptings (which stimulated artistic production) characteristic of the period, a period in which, in the words of Claude-Henri Watelet (1792), the terms “great silence” and “beautiful silence” were used to refer to a carefully thought-out composition that “had an overall effect that filled the soul of the viewer with tranquillity.”

The interpretation of the term is further nuanced with a discussion of the application to painting of the categories of rhetoric and poetry used by Leonardo. Further chapters of the book explore concepts of silence (grace, charm, sublime, melancholy and the unspeakable) in connection with the works of enigmatic masters of French painting, Georges de La Tour, Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Jean-Antoine Watteau, Claude Joseph Vernet, Hubert Robert and Claude Lorrain.

As Katalin Bartha-Kovács concludes, as a critical notion silence interrogates the priority of the analytical method “based on narrative categories and developed for the interpretation of Italian painting” and “reconsiders the relationship between picture image and speech.” The muteness of silence is not a deficiency, but rather a wealth of meaning, for it is capable of giving expression to that which lies beyond the boundaries of language.

As Merleau-Ponty claimed, “in the end, language says things, while the sounds of paintings are the sounds of silence.”


Attila Zsoldos: Magyarország világi archontológiája 1000–1301 (The Secular Archontology of Hungary Between 1000–1301).
Budapest, Historical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Science, 2011. 282 pp. (Historia books. Kronológiák, adattárak, 11.)
ISBN 978 9627 38 3

Attila Zsoldos, a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, has chosen a telling motto for his book borrowed from the Croatian writer Nedjeljko Fabrio’s novel entitled City on the Adriatic: “for history did not drop from the sky, but rather is in people.” Without comprehensive knowledge of the members of the political elite who shaped history, their social networks, and the history of systems of ownership, one cannot offer an authentic picture of the Hungarian Kingdom of the Middle Ages. The creation of a data base concerning this topic is not only the final stage of many years of work, but also the starting point of a comprehensive new research project. Anyone who reads the introduction can begin to fathom the scope of the endeavour. The author makes modest and characteristically objective mention of the fact that the archontology can be compiled only on the basis of all the available resource materials, which, in addition to the narrative sources, “only” means some 10,000 charters, one-tenth of which have not even been published. However, there is no manual indicating which charters have not been published and which have not or clarifying “the relationship between the charters held to be from the Árpád era from the perspective of textual heritage, in other words, whether they are original texts, transcriptions, content transcripts, mentions, or copies.” The majority of the research consists of the comparison and source-critical selection of the original manuscripts already published and stored in archives. As a result of this project, a fascinating data base has been created which chronologically catalogues and precisely marks all the known information related to the barons of the Hungarian Kingdom, the prelates, bishops, archbishops, members of the chancellery, county magistrates, governors, minor officers, and constables. Therefore, with the help of this book, the data base of the political elite in power between 1000–1457 (i.e. ending with King Mathias’s enthronement) has been completed. It represents an essential tool in furthering our understanding of the political relations of the age and constitutes an ideal complement to the similar treatise covering the period between 1301–1457, which was compiled by Pál Engel and published in 1996, when Attila Zsoldos had already begun work on the present project.

Much as Pál Engel’s influential work rewrote our image of the 14–15th century history of Hungary and exerted a profound influence on Hungarian art history, castle history, and economic history, presumably Attila Zsoldos’s book will earn similar status. He has enriched Hungarian reference literature with a work which is outstanding even in an international context.

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