I have sweet memories of Hungary since my visit in the summer of 1987, when it was still a “light” Communist dictatorship (known as Goulash Communism, referring to the probably best-known traditional Hungarian dish). First, I spent three days at a camping site in Budapest with my two cousins from East Berlin. After visiting Szeged, Debrecen and Eger, I returned to the same location in Budapest, but didn’t have my own tent.
Instead, I had the brilliant idea that some Eastern compatriots would let me sleep in theirs! Quickly I established contact with two young soldiers from Saxony and the girlfriend of the older, who were very friendly and willing to help out. I had deposited the little stuff I was carrying around at the place they had chosen for the night. My camouflage was so good that at the beginning they didn’t realize that I was actually a “class enemy”.
However, suddenly the one that was in charge, probably a professional soldier from the Nationale Volksarmee (NVA, National People’s Army), mumbled the magic word “NSW”: That was the abbreviation for the very Communist term Nichtsozialistisches Wirtschaftsgebiet (non-socialist economic area). The party was abruptly over, as for them any contact with “Westerners” was strictly prohibited. I had to pick up my backpack and leave. The other two looked at me with an expression of disbelief and embarrassment, but they didn’t want to get themselves into trouble. I wasn’t angry, just sad. At the end, I got lucky anyway and another Saxon offered me accommodation. He had been born in West Germany before the Berlin Wall was built in August 1961, but for political reasons his father decided to move to the “Workers and Farmers State” called German Democratic Republic (GDR)…
The Hungarian capital and especially Lake Balaton were a popular tourist destination for West and East Germans. Hungary was one of the few countries to which citizens of the GDR could travel freely. But it was a relatively expensive choice for them, so they had to watch their money. In consequence, it often showed that brotherly love between socialist nations had very substantial limits. When visitors with hard currency arrived, the poor relatives were asked to leave. You might call it “beach apartheid”.
Despite this unequal treatment by the locals, Hungary remained a center of fraternization for all Germans that kept alive the idea that the remains of Germany after 1945 II were part of one nation and should be reunited. Luckily for everybody involved, this unnatural situation seems like ancient history now.
Budapest was heavily damaged during the battle that bears its name in the final stage of World War II (December 29th, 1944 – February 13th, 1945). It again suffered during the Hungarian Uprising against Soviet occupation (October 23rd – November 10th, 1956). The amazing reconstruction work done shows that Magyars are people proud of their past, who will do everything to preserve it. The only architectural crime is remember is the Hilton Hotel with its glass facade, built by Bela Pinter right into the city center in 1976.
At the time, the food was quite heavy on pork, something typical for the political system and therefore excusable. The Bolsheviks managed to ruin the gastronomy culture everywhere they came to power. Fortunately, culinary traditions were kept alive at home and I’m sure that 33 years later, foreign guests can easily enjoy amazing dining experiences.
At the very beginning of my now finished drinking career and without any weight problems, I still found it disturbing that on the labels of the half-a-liter glass bottles the amount of calories you were ingesting was carefully noted. It somehow ruined the fun. Probably due to a lack of choice, most of the time I enjoyed Austrian beer brewed locally.
In the final stage of this trip I met with my parents and some older East Germans in Pécs (Fünfkirchen in German), famous for its hots springs. It’s also home to the second biggest German minority in Hungary, made up by descendants of Catholic Bavarians and Swabians that settled in the area at the end of the 17th century. Our host were lovely, and spoke very good Germans. Just some of the expressions or verbs they used indicated that they had been separated from their former motherland for centuries.
From 1946 to 1948, 200,000 ethnic Germans were expelled to Germany and 130,000 ended up in Russian labor camps. Some of them returned to their impoverished homeland. In 2013 the Hungarian parliament voted to declare January 19th the day to remember the deportation of their German compatriots. That represents a touching gesture that I deeply appreciate, and shows how close the bilateral relations could be if current German leaders would be able to distinguish between real and false friends. For me personally, there’s no doubt about Hungary’s status.