A Brief History of Hungary

By Tim Lambert

Ancient Hungary

During the last ice age, humans in Hungary lived by hunting mammoths and reindeer with stone weapons. When the ice age ended they hunted smaller animals. However, about 5,000 BC farming was introduced into Hungary although the farmers still used stone tools. Then about 2,000 BC, they learned to use bronze. About 800 BC people in Hungary learned to make iron tools and weapons. After 500 BC they traded with the Greeks. They also learned to use the potter’s wheel.

Then, about the time of Christ, the Romans conquered what is now Hungary. They reached the Danube in 11 BC and in 9 AD they crushed a rebellion by a native people called the Pannons. The Romans then created a province they called Pannonia.

In time Pannonia became fully integrated into the Roman Empire and the Romans founded several towns. They included Pecs, Szombathely, Sopron, and Buda. In the early 2nd century the Romans also conquered the east of Hungary, which they called Dacia. However, in the 3rd century, the Roman Empire declined. Dacia was abandoned in 271 AD. From the end of the 4th century, the Romans withdrew from Pannonia and it was overrun by Germanic peoples.

In the 6th century, an Asiatic people called the Avars conquered Hungary. They ruled the region until the end of the 8th century. At that time Charlemagne, the leader of the Franks, in what is now France, conquered central Europe, including Hungary. He forced the Avars to accept Christianity.

However, in 843 the Frankish Empire was divided into three. Hungary became part of the Eastern Third.

The Magyars in Hungary

The Magyars are descended from the Finno-Ugric people who were also the ancestors of the Finns and the Estonians. Originally they lived in what is now Russia. About 1,000 BC they split. The ancestors of the Magyars moved west and southward. By the late 9th century they had begun raiding the eastern part of the Frankish Empire. In 896, under their leader Arpad, they conquered eastern Hungary. In 900 they captured the western part. Hungary became the Magyar homeland.

However, for decades, they continued raiding other parts of central Europe. But in the early 10th century the Magyars suffered defeats. Finally in 955 the Germans under Otto I crushed them at the battle of Augsburg. Afterward, the Magyars gradually settled down and became civilized.

In the late 10th century Prince Geza invited German missionaries to come and preach Christianity to the people. Geza himself was baptized but he also continued to worship pagan gods.

Geza also wielded all the Magyars into a single, united people. Until then they were divided into tribes but Geza made himself a powerful ruler. His son Stephen (1000-1038) continued his father’s work. He confiscated much of the land in Hungary and he built a network of castles or var across Hungary. Stephen was the first truly Christian ruler of Hungary and he founded several monasteries. He was canonized (declared a saint) in 1083.

After Stephen’s death, there were a series of succession crises in Hungary. Order was restored by Laszlo I (1077-1095).

In the 11th and 12th centuries, Hungary became firmly a part of Western civilization. Bela III (1172-1196) reformed the administration, modeling it on that of the Byzantine Empire. Settlers from Germany and Romania came to Hungary and in the 12th century foreign visitors described it as a prosperous country. Furthermore, in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, trade flourished and new towns were created in Hungary.

However, in the early 13th century, Hungary was ruled by Andreas II (1205-1235). He proved to be incompetent and he provoked a rebellion. In 1222 he was forced to issue the Golden Bull. This document safeguarded the rights of all freemen in Hungary and it has been likened to the Magna Carta in England. One clause gave the lords the right to resist the king if he broke the conditions of the Bull.

Disaster struck Hungary in 1241 when the Mongols invaded. The Hungarian army was routed at the battle of Muhi in 1241. The Mongols only occupied Hungary for a year but they caused devastation. Crops were burned or left unharvested and a terrible famine followed. The Mongols also sacked Hungarian settlements. As a result, the population of Hungary fell substantially. Afterward, there was a slow process of rebuilding.

The last king of the Arpad dynasty in Hungary was Andreas III (1290-1301). He died childlessly. Charles Robert of Anjou was crowned king of Hungary but until 1310 other men also claimed the throne. However, Charles Robert was eventually recognized by all the Hungarians.

During his reign, Hungary prospered. In the 1320s gold was discovered in Hungary and soon large amounts of gold and silver were exported. The money raised greatly helped the treasury.

Hungary also escaped the Black Death of 1348 because it was sparsely populated and the epidemic did not spread. (In 1308 a Frenchmen described Hungary as ‘an empty land’). However, in the late 14th century, the population rose.

Louis I (the Great) ruled Hungary from 1342. In 1345 his brother was murdered in Naples. In 1347 Louis led an army into Italy and in 1348 they captured Naples. Louis then called himself king of Naples but he was forced to retreat before the Black Death and the native ruler returned. The Hungarians tried to regain Naples in 1349 and 1350-52 but without success.

In 1370 Louis’s uncle Casimir, king of Poland died and for a short time, the two countries were united under Louis’s rule. However, Louis died in 1382 without an heir. Poland became a separate realm in 1386.

Meanwhile, Sigismund of Luxembourg became ruler of Hungary. During his reign, the Ottoman Turks became an increasing threat. In 1354 they took Gallipoli. After the battle of Kosovo in 1389, they advanced into the Balkans. Sigismund fought a series of campaigns against the Turks in the years 1390-1396 but without success. Sigismund died in 1437.

In 1453 all of Europe was shaken when the Turks captured Constantinople and ended the Byzantine Empire. There was now no stopping them.

However, in 1458, Matthias became king of Hungary. He was known as Matthias the Just because of his fairness. Matthias was a Renaissance ruler. He was a patron of the arts and learning. He also raised a mercenary army called the Black Army. With its help Hungary became strong.

Yet when Matthias died in 1490 Hungary declined. A diet (national assembly) met to elect a successor. The diet wanted a king ‘whose braids they could hold in their hands’. (In other words, they wanted a weak king they could control). So the crown was given to Ulaszlo II. Under him, the monarchy in Hungary grew weaker. The Black Army was disbanded in 1492.

Furthermore, the condition of the peasants in Hungary deteriorated. They lost the right to move from one village to another and the landlords burdened them with more forced labor.

Eventually, the peasants rebelled. It began in 1514 when the pope called for a crusade against the Turks. Many Hungarian peasants joined.

However, the nobility was unhappy about losing so much of their labor force, and some tried to prevent their peasants from leaving. Those peasants who had already joined refused to disband and under their leader, Gyorgy Dozsa they rebelled. The peasants attacked castles and burned manor houses. However, the nobles crushed the revolt. Dozsa was captured and executed.

As a result of the rebellion, there was a backlash against the peasants in Hungary. The Diet of October 1514 passed a law condemning the peasants to eternal serfdom. (Serfs were halfway between slaves and free men).

Hungary 1500-1800

In 1526 the Turkish ruler Suleiman the Magnificent led an army northwards. The Hungarians met them at the battle of Mohacs on 29 August 1526. The Hungarians were routed and their king was killed. In September the Turks burned Buda. Most of the Turks then withdrew with their loot. However, they did leave behind soldiers to man key fortresses. Although they did not attempt to conquer Hungary in one go they intended to take it in stages.

There were now two claimants to the throne of Hungary, Ferdinand of Habsburg, Archduke of Austria, and Janos Szapolyai. Ferdinand seized western Hungary and he was crowned Ferdinand I. However the Hungarian nobles also crowned Janos king. Hungary was divided between them.

When Janos died in 1541 the Turkish Sultan took central Hungary. He made Zapolyai’s son ruler of Transylvania (the easternmost part of Hungary). It became the Principality of Transylvania but was only semi-independent of Turkey. The Turks ruled central Hungary directly. Hungary was divided into three parts until the end of the 17th century.

Meanwhile, like the rest of Europe, Hungary was rocked by the Reformation. In the 1540s Protestant doctrines swept Hungary and gained many supporters. However, in the early 17th century the Catholic Counter-Reformation won many converts, especially in western Hungary.

At the end of the 17th century, Turkish power waned. In 1683 they unsuccessfully besieged Vienna. Austria and its allies then turned on the Turks. In August 1687 they crushed the Turks at the battle of Mount Harsanyi. Finally, in 1697, the Turks were routed at Senta. In 1699 they made peace. The Habsburgs (rulers of Austria) gained almost all of Hungary.

However, the Hungarians resented Hapsburg rule almost as much as the Turkish. (They especially resented the taxation). In 1703 the Hungarians rose in arms. The War of Independence lasted until 1711.

However superior Hapsburg forces eventually won the day. The Hungarians were defeated at the battle of Trencsen on 3 August 1708 and their hopes faded. By 1711 the Hapsburg army was victorious and the Hungarians accepted the peace of Szatmar in April. The Austrian Emperor agreed to respect the rights of the Hungarian nation and to rule with the diet.

During the 18th century, Hungary remained an overwhelmingly agricultural country. There was little industry. A census of 1787 showed Hungary had a population of 8.7 million.

Hungary in the 19th century

From the end of the 18th century onward nationalism in Hungary grew steadily as did interest in Magyar, language, culture, and history.

Meanwhile, the period 1825-1848 was an age of reform and the diet carried out several fiscal and economic reforms. Furthermore, industry in Hungary began to develop.

However, in 1848 demands for further reform exploded in a revolution in Hungary. It began when the French king was deposed. That triggered demonstrations and demands for reform throughout Europe. In Hungary, the diet drew up a list of demands in March, and in April the Austrian Emperor gave in and agreed to 31 new laws passed by the diet, known as the April laws. Serfdom was abolished and the vote was given to more people. Hungary was to be a constitutional monarchy sharing a king with Austria.

However, problems arose over the large minorities in Hungary, who demanded autonomy from the Magyars. Meanwhile, the Austrians regained control of other parts of their empire (North Italy and Czechoslovakia). The emperor was then determined to restore the old order in Hungary. In August 1848 he declared the April laws null and void. In September an Austrian army entered Hungary but was defeated in a battle at Bakozd. They were defeated again in April 1849. In April 1849 the Hungarians, led by Lajos Kossuth declared Hungary independent.

The Austrians were forced to rely on the Russians for help. The Tsar sent an army and the Russians defeated the Hungarians at Temesvar on 9 August 1849. The Hungarian army surrendered on 13 August 1849. There followed a period of repression and reprisals.

However, in 1866, Austria suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Prussia. With their weakness exposed the Austrians decided some reform was necessary. In 1867 the Dual Monarchy was formed. Austria and Hungary became separate states linked by a shared monarchy. They also shared foreign policy. However other minorities within the Austro-Hungarian Empire were not given autonomy.

In the late 19th century Hungary developed economically. Industry grew rapidly (although Hungary was still a mainly agricultural country in 1914). Meanwhile, marshlands were drained for farming and agriculture increased its output.

Furthermore, the population of Hungary rose to 18 million in 1910 and the percentage of people living in towns increased substantially. Meanwhile, in 1868 compulsory education was introduced for 6 to 12-year-olds in Hungary.

Hungary in the 20th Century

In 1906 a Hungarian named Ferenc Szisz won the first Grand Prix race. n Unfortunately in 1914 Hungary, as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, became involved in the First World War on the side of the Germans. By the autumn of 1918, Austria-Hungary was exhausted and it was obvious the war was lost.

In October Mihaly Karolyi led a movement demanding independence for Hungary. The people demanded Karolyi be made Prime Minister. On 30 October 1918, they demonstrated wearing asters. So it became known as the Aster revolution. Karolyi became PM of Hungary on 31 October 1918.

However, with the end of the war, the Slovaks and Romanians within Hungary broke away and joined their countrymen. As a result, Hungary lost more than half its territory.

Meanwhile, on 24 November 1918, Bela Kun formed the Hungarian Communist Party. On 21 March 1919, the Social Democrats in Hungary formed a government with the Communists. They began nationalizing industry and land. However, the nationalization policy was unpopular. So were attacks on religion.

Admiral Miklos Horthy (formerly an admiral in the Austro-Hungarian navy) formed a national army opposed to the government.

Meanwhile, Hungary continued to quarrel with her neighbors Czechoslovakia and Romania. The Communist regime lost all support when the Romanian army marched into Hungary and occupied Budapest. Kun fled abroad and his regime collapsed. There then followed a period of reprisals in which many Communists were executed.

However even after the Communists fell from power Horthy refused to disband his ‘army’. In October 1919 the Romanians left Budapest. On 16 November 1919 Horthy entered the capital.

Elections were held in Hungary in January 1920. Parliament decreed that the throne of Hungary was ‘vacant’. On 1 March 1920, they elected Horthy ‘regent’ or head of state.

On 4 July 1920 Hungary was forced to sign the Treaty of Trianon with the victorious powers of the First World War. Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory and about 60% of its population.

Horthy introduced an authoritarian regime during the 1920s and 1930s. Furthermore, Hungary remained a relatively primitive country. Many people were very poor. Electricity and running water remained luxuries.

Moreover, in the 1930s Hungary came under the influence of Nazi Germany. In 1937 the Hungarian Socialist Party (known as the Arrow Cross Party because of its symbol) was founded. In the late 1930s, Hungary rearmed and also took anti-Semitic measures.

When Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939 Hungary regained some of the territory lost after the First World War.

Then, in November 1940 Hungary joined the Tripartite Pact (originally made by Germany, Italy, and Japan). When the Germans invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941 Hungary regained still more territory. Then in June 1941, Hungary joined the attack on Russia. In December 1941 Britain declared war on Hungary.

However, after the German defeats at Stalingrad and Kursk in 1943, the Hungarian government sought to leave the war. However, from September 1943 Operation Margarethe, was the military occupation of Hungary. The German army entered Hungary on 19 March 1944 and a right-wing government was installed. Hungarian Jews were deported and most died in concentration camps.

From April 1944 the Allies began to bomb Budapest and other Hungarian cities. In the autumn of 1944 with the Germans facing certain defeat Horthy negotiated an armistice with the Russians. The armistice was announced by radio on 15 October 1944.

However, the Germans removed Horthy from power and replaced him with Szalasi Ferenc of the Arrow Cross. However, the Russians captured Budapest on 13 February 1945. Fighting in Hungary ended on 12 April 1945.

Before the war ended a provisional government was formed in Hungary. In March 1945 it passed a land reform law. The rich landowners lost most of their estates and the land was redistributed.

Elections were held in November 1945. Zoltan Tildy became president of the new republic. Ferenc Nagy became prime minister.

However, the Communists were determined to take power in Hungary gradually. They adopted ‘salami tactics’, dividing their opponents and eliminating them one by one. (Crucially the minister of the interior, in charge of police, was a Communist named Rajk. He purged the administration of ‘right-wingers’. More than 60,000 officials were removed between May and November 1946. Then in July 1946, the Communists dissolved what they called ‘reactionary associations’. These included the Catholic Youth Association.

The ‘salami tactics’ continued in 1947 assisted by the presence of Russian soldiers. Some Hungarian politicians went into exile abroad at that time. Meanwhile, the Communists nationalized industries one by one, and agriculture was collectivized.

In August 1947 more elections were held in Hungary. However, the Communists rigged the elections. Nevertheless, they only gained 22% of the votes.

However, the Communists continued their ‘salami tactics’ and their remaining opponents were removed from power. Finally, in 1948, the Communists took over Hungary completely. The president was forced to resign and the Social Democratic Party was forced to join the Communists as a single Workers Party.

The Communists introduced a tyrannical regime in Hungary. Nationalization of industry was completed and church schools were taken over by the state. Many Hungarians were executed or imprisoned.

The Stalinist executions in Hungary continued through the early 1950s. Once they had eliminated all opposition outside the party the Communists turned on themselves. Former interior minister Laszlo Rajk was executed in October 1949. Many other people were executed or imprisoned after show trials. Many Communists were accused of ‘Titoism’ i.e. wanting to be autonomous of the Soviet Union like Tito the Yugoslav leader.

However, when Stalin died in 1953 Rakoski the Hungarian Communist leader fell from power. He was replaced by Imre Nagy. He introduced what he called a ‘new course’. Stalinist policies were moderated. The government reduced investment in heavy industry and invested more in making consumer goods. Forced collectivization of farms ended. The people of Hungary were allowed a little more freedom and the reign of terror ended. However, in 1955 Nagy fell from power and Stalinist policies returned.

The Hungarian Uprising 1956

In July 1956 Rakoi fell from power and the party began to backtrack. People who had earlier been executed were rehabilitated. Imre Nagy, who had been expelled from the party was readmitted. On 6 October Rajk was reburied and many Hungarians turned out to attend his funeral, as a protest against Stalinist policies.

Soon popular discontent began to boil over in Hungary. From 20 October onward meetings were held in universities. They demanded independence from Moscow and free elections.

On 23 October a demonstration was held in Budapest. Some demonstrators tried to occupy radio headquarters to voice their demands. The secret police fired at them, which provoked further unrest. Erno Gero, the Communist leader, appealed for Soviet help. Soon fighting took place between Soviet tanks and ordinary people armed with Molotov cocktails and whatever weapons they could find.

Nagy was reinstated as prime minister of Hungary but unrest continued and spread to other cities. Nagy attempted to cooperate with the demonstrators and on 29 October the Russians began to withdraw from Budapest. However, they simply regrouped in the countryside and awaited reinforcements.

Meanwhile on 1 November Nagy announced that Hungary was leaving the Warsaw Pact and becoming a neutral country.

Then on 4 November, the Russians attacked Budapest and other cities. The Hungarian people fought heroically but the Russians were much stronger and after a few days, they crushed the uprising.

However, the workers continued to resist and strikes were held until January 1957 even though there were mass arrests. Meanwhile, about 200,000 Hungarians fled to the west.

The Communists then cracked down and began reprisals. Hundreds of people were executed and thousands were imprisoned. Nagy himself was executed in 1958.

However, in the 1960s, Janos Kadar began a process of gradual and limited reform. In 1962 he introduced the phrase ‘he who is not against us is with us’. Kadar also made some very cautious economic reforms. As a result of Kadar’s reforms, Hungary became a relatively prosperous country. Generally, the Hungarians had a higher standard of living than people in other Communist countries.

However, in the 1980s things turned sour. Hungary began to suffer from inflation, which particularly hurt people on fixed incomes. Furthermore, Hungary ran up a huge foreign debt. Poverty became widespread. As conditions deteriorated Kadar fell from power in 1988.

In the late 1980s, a wave of discontent and demands for reform grew in Hungary. This time there were many reformers in the Communist Party as well as without.

In July 1989 Nagy was reburied and rehabilitated. Then Hungary dismantled its border with Austria. East Germans flocked to Hungary to make their way to West Germany.

In October 1989 the Hungarian Communist Party renamed itself the Hungarian Socialist Party and changed its policies. They also allowed other political parties to form. Furthermore, a Communist paramilitary organization called the Workers Guard was disbanded. Then on 23 October, the constitution was amended to allow an orderly transition to democracy and capitalism.

Remarkably the Hungarians managed the transition to freedom peacefully. In 1990 the first free elections were held and Jozsef Antall became prime minister but he died in 1993. However, the Socialists (former Communists) returned to power in 1994.

Inevitably there was an economic crisis in the 1990s and the transition to capitalism was a painful one. However, Hungary is now a prosperous and free country. In 1999 Hungary joined NATO.

Hungary in the 21st Century

In the very early years of the 21st century, the Hungarian economy was still growing strongly although it slowed dramatically from 2007. In 2004 Hungary joined the EU.


Hungary suffered during the recession of 2009. However, it soon recovered and today its economy is growing steadily. Today Hungary is a prosperous country. In 2024 the population of Hungary was 9.6 million.

In 2022 Katalin Novak became the first woman president of Hungary.

Last revised 2024