This article was published online by the Magyar Nemzet on 24 March 2022.
The two neighbors have been the shields of christianity for centuries
“Hungarians welcome the Poles,
A new acquaintance, an old friend.”
– János Arany: Az Egri Leány (“The girl from Eger”)
“There is no historical precedent of two neighboring nations sustaining such great relations,” said Adorján Divéky in 1934, a prominent researcher of Hungarian-Polish relations, in his book summarizing what Hungary did for Poland during WWI. To conclude, he cites the turning point of the Polish-Bolshevik war of August 1920 where the Hungarian shipment of artillery led to the historic victory at the Vistula miracle.
Indeed: it is easy to create a parallel narrative of the two countries’ history.
We both joined the world of Occidental Europe around the same time with the adoption of Christianity and the founding of the state. The Poles’ symbolic date of 966 refers to their baptism, while for us, St. Stephen’s coronation was at the turn of the millennium. The common symbol of these decisive decades is St. Adalbert (of Czech descent) who played a key role in helping the new faith take root. Our community of destiny is essentially the same geopolitical situation from the beginning to the present. As we are commonly referred to: on the border of the East and West. The trope, born in the late Middle Ages, called our countries Antemurale Christianitatis – the shield of Christianity
against the Eastern conquerors (Mongols, Tartars, Ottoman Turks, Muscovite Russia).
Just look at a contemporary map from the middle of the XV. century: The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and on the other side of the Carpathians, the Hungarian and Croatian Kingdoms reaching the Adriatic. The overarching direction of the greatest storms of European history was East-West. Their path of destruction regularly hit this stretch. The defensive wall of inner Europe was first broken at Mohács on the southern end and subsequently with the division of Poland at the end of the XVIII century.
The mountain ridge separating the two countries and their geopolitical interdependence reduced the possibility of North-South conflict. The histories of the two countries were characterized by dynastic and trade relations, common kings – but we can also find a few conflicts (for example, King Matthias who had to face a Polish claimant to the throne). Yet the friendship-turned-legend made tensions and conflicts increasingly irrelevant. The friendship between Hungary and Poland is a truly rare phenomenon in the history of European culture. It became a special source of “remembrance” in the age of the modern nations from the end of the XVII. century when the centuries-old existence of the northern neighbor became doubtful in the grip of the great powers. Our common border along with our noble cultures and mentality strengthened our relations. The double mirror through which we viewed each other was especially interesting. The example on the other end seemed to be superior: on one side the Hungarians, on the other the Poles. The famous student song of the Hungarian Reform Era, “The Pole cries for his country”, goes through all the European nations and comes to the conclusion that only the Polish were fighting for their freedom.
The thinkers of the Hungarian enlightenment closely monitored the fate of the neighboring country. After the first division, Abraham Barcsay said in his epistle, The End of Military Practice, with some hope: “No matter how small, as long as there is a Kingdom of Poland, it will be our neighbor.” However, by the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Ferenc Kazinczy wrote bitterly in a letter from March 1815: “What can humanity – Austria, Germany, our nation – expect? …. The Antemurale is gone (ie. Poland!) and now danger lurks from both sides.”
During the Great War of Independence of 1830-31, sympathy for Poland flooded Europe. We viewed the uprising with consensus and enthusiasm; it had great influence on both political life and young intellectuals. Thirty-seven Hungarian counties issued a request to the ruler to support the Poles. Lajos Kossuth, who was just at the beginning of his career, said in June 1831 at a Zemplén county meeting: “I can confidently declare that whomever does not bless their just fight, does not love their king or their nation.” The Polish situation captured the Hungarian youth; this was a cause for freedom and national independence. Wearing the “Polish cap” became trendy. Protesters nationwide expressed their agreement with Polish efforts.
In Budapest at the “White Ship” (Fehér Hajó) restaurant, young people enthusiastically sang “Poland is not yet Lost” (which later became their anthem) and was recorded frequently as the “famous battle cry of the Poles”. At the Zala county meeting, Sándor Kisfaludy said of the tsarist power and the future of our region: “We must shake with fear as we witness the disparaged Polish cry out for help to freer countries to no avail; they get closer every day to their final hours which will end in starvation, frailty, or defeat… we must be that much more afraid as we see the iron armor of the northern giant already surrounding us through Poland, Romania, Moldova, Serbia, Bosnia…”
The Hungarian parliament began discussing the Polish question in 1832. Ferenc Kölcsey spoke out twice on the debate: “… the whole world witnessed them defeat the country which was for centuries considered along with us the defensive wall of Christianity; without which Vienna’s towers would be in ruins… This was the nation that the far-sighted Caterina saw weakened by division and stabbed in the heart of Europe causing a wound that, if not treated, will cause universal death.” And on the geopolitical connections: “But we owe ourselves, because it is impossible to hide the danger that threatens us when a civil constitution is arbitrarily trampled at our border and the northern power increasingly spreads around us.” Historical Hungarian figures Miklós Wesselényi and Ferenc Deák also brought up the Polish issue in the National Assembly.
Some of our best writers – Mihály Vörösmarty, József Bajza, János Erdélyi – eternally expressed their condolences to the Poles who fought and later went into hiding in the form of literary works. According to our authors and poets, Polish friendship was equivalent to patriotism and freedom. It was no
coincidence that this spirit was common in the Hungarian public opinion in the 1840s. When Kossuth announced in 1848 that “The Polish question is a Hungarian question,” he was applauded. In the mythology of the Hungarian freedom fight, General Bem and the Polish Legion took center stage.
Polish characters and figures of our common history are present in the works of our classical prose – think Jókai and Mikszáth – along with those who fled the freedom fight over the Carpathian Mountains, to this side. “Pole and Hungarian brothers be,” goes the old saying which later turned into “two good friends” who fight and toast together.
In times of crisis, this sense was almost reflexive considering the experiences of the centuries-long common destiny behind us. Just as in both September 1939 and the autumn of 1956. As János Kodolányi expressed in his article, days before the outbreak of WWII: “… Polish freedom and independence are closely connected with the inviolability of Hungarian freedom and independence. And vice versa.” These quotes here and there are extemporaneous pieces, gems, of our past, our friendship. An extensive anthology could be compiled ofthe Polish-Hungarian friendship throughout our history. I do not think there is another culture that could even compare.
Granted, we must not forget that part of the reality during WWII included a Hungarian writer who considered it folly that the Poles did not accept Nazi Germany’s offer and decided to fight against the force majeure (which was compounded by the Soviet attack from the other end two weeks later). There were also those who looked down on the Poles. And still, a good many of those Hungarian publicists are alive, who considered the large-scale freedom movement, Solidarity, in 1980-81 to be a hot-headed, meaningless enterprise. They spoke with “insider knowledge” about the Poles who do not like to work. This is the full picture. But it is not worthy of our common heritage to conclude this with darkness.
About 100 years ago, Gyula Krúdy formulated the main message of the Hungarian-Polish friendship: “Perhaps there are no other two nations in the world, than those that formerly bordered each other, who have such a rich custom of freedom, gazing at the same star shining above from the North and South of the Carpathians as ours.”
Csaba Gy. Kiss
Literary historian and university professor