Hungary History

Updated September 9, 2022 | Infoplease Staff

Pre-Hungarian History

For most of human history, the land we now know as "Hungary" wasn't home to the ethnic group known as "Hungarians." The Magyars, who are now the largest native group to the region, didn't arrive en masse until the Medieval Era, when they forcefully made the country their new homeland.

By 14 B.C.E. western Hungary was part of the Roman Empire's province of Pannonia, and by 106 C.E. Rome incorporated more land in the province of Dacia. These provinces were named after the peoples who lived in the area. The Romans also found confederates in the Sarmatian people who lived east of the Danube River, though they weren't incorporated as Roman subjects. The Roman period saw the founding of important cities like Budapest, as well as the widespread adoption of Christianity. 

After the decline of Roman authority, the fertile farmland of Hungary was a prime target for settlement by the Huns. The Huns established a sizable empire in the area, though they were eventually driven out by neighboring Germanic peoples. Hungary then saw steady migrations from northern Slavs and Lombards, who were conquered by the Avars, who were in turn conquered by the Franks and the Bulgarians. By the late 800s CE, modern Hungary was split between the nations of East Francia, the Bulgarian Empire, and Great Moravia. As a result of these regular migrations and changes in government, Hungary ended up populated by many different ethnic groups. 


The Magyar Conquest

The Hungarian people originally lived on the far side of the Carpathian mountains, where they were divided between seven major ethnic subgroups and upwards of one hundred extended clans. During the Middle Ages, these groups unified. 

In the 890s, the Magyars invaded the region in a series of military expeditions and popular migrations. They achieved rapid success. Magyar armies destroyed Great Moravia within a decade, and won subsequent victories that led to their attaining uncontested control of their new homeland.

The Magyars were semi-nomadic and loosely organized. They regularly traveled throughout Hungary, bolstering their economies by striking out into neighboring German and Byzantine lands. This nomadic period of Hungarian history lasted around another century, until the risks of raiding the Magyars' powerful neighbors came to be seen as not worth the reward. This marked the broad transition into a more typical Medieval farming society. By the turn of the millennium, the Kingdom of Hungary was founded and its borders stabilized.


The Kingdom of Hungary

The year 1000 C.E. marks two very important moments in Hungarian history. The first is Stephen I abandoning his old title of "Grand Prince of the Hungarians" and becoming the King of Hungary. Stephen's kingdom would last for around 500 years, and play a significant role in the historic conflicts between the Habsburgs and the Ottoman Empire. The other is Stephen I adopting Christianity as the official religion of Hungary, for which he is revered as a saint in local Christian traditions. 

Hungary, like many medieval kingdoms, was embroiled in numerous military engagements. The worst of these was a devastating invasion by the Mongols, which killed half of Hungary's population in 1241. The peak of Hungary's great period of medieval power came a century later during the reign of Louis I the Great (1342–1382), whose dominions touched the Baltic, Black, and Mediterranean seas. After his death, and a several year succession crisis, the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund would become king, beginning a new era of relations between the HRE and Hungary. 

War with the Turks broke out in 1389, and for more than 100 years the Turks advanced through the Balkans. The conflict was somewhat managed through the reign of Matthias Corvinus, who also checked Habsburg encroachment on Hungarian sovereignty by occupying Vienna. Under his rule, Hungary would experience significant economic and cultural growth partly due to top-down policies, as well as changing market forces across Europe. After Corvinus's death, however, the Hungarian state proved less and less capable of resisting the Ottomans—during this same time period, the Ottoman Empire would come under the rule of its most recognized and revered Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. The Turks smashed the Hungarian army in 1526, after which the country fragmented. Western and Northern Hungary accepted Habsburg rule to escape Turkish occupation, and Transylvania became independent under Hungarian princes.


The Kingdoms of Hungary

Until the 1700s, the region would experience regular fighting between the different hegemonic powers looking to influence Hungary. The Habsburg Kingdom would eventually win out, and the Austrian monarchy would maintain effective control of the country for some time. The history of Hungary isn't just military conflicts, however. As an important focus of several global powers, Hungary saw a great deal of cultural growth and change during this time period; developments in poetry, folk dance, and craftsmanship all contributed to a slowly cultivated sense of Hungarian identity. This solidifying image of Hungarian culture would contribute to rebellions against Habsburg rule after the end of conflict with the Turks. The most significant of these was the Revolution of 1848, one of the many Revolutions of 1848


Wars Cost Hungary Much of Its Land

After the suppression of the 1848 revolt, led by Louis Kossuth, against Habsburg rule, the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary was set up in 1867. The dual monarchy was defeated, along with the other Central Powers, in World War I. After a short-lived republic in 1918, the chaotic Communist rule of 1919 under Béla Kun ended with the Romanians occupying Budapest on Aug. 4, 1919. When the Romanians left, Adm. Nicholas Horthy entered the capital with a national army. The Treaty of Trianon of June 4, 1920, by which the Allies parceled out Hungarian territories, cost Hungary 68% of its land and 58% of its population.

In World War II, Hungary allied with Germany, which aided the country in recovering lost territories. Following the German invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941, Hungary joined the attack against the Soviet Union, but withdrew in defeat from the eastern front by May 1943. Germany occupied the country for the remainder of the war and set up a puppet government. Hungarian Jews and Gypsies were sent to death camps. The German regime was driven out by the Soviets in 1944–1945.


Communist Party Takes Control

By the Treaty of Paris (1947), Hungary had to give up all territory it had acquired since 1937 and to pay $300 million in reparations to the USSR, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. In 1948, the Communist Party, with the support of Soviet troops, seized control. Hungary was proclaimed a People's Republic and one-party state in 1949. Industry was nationalized, the land collectivized into state farms, and the opposition terrorized by the secret police. The terror, modeled after that of the USSR, reached its height with the trial and life imprisonment of József Cardinal Mindszenty, the leader of Hungary's Roman Catholics, in 1948.

On Oct. 23, 1956, an anti-Communist revolution broke out in Budapest. To cope with it, the Communists set up a coalition government and called former prime minister Imre Nagy back to head the government. But he and most of his ministers sympathized with the anti-Communist opposition, and he declared Hungary a neutral power, withdrawing from the Warsaw Treaty and appealing to the United Nations for help. One of his ministers, János Kádár, established a counterregime and asked the USSR to send in military power. Soviet troops and tanks suppressed the revolution in bloody fighting after 190,000 people had fled the country. Under Kádár (1956–1988), Communist Hungary maintained more liberal policies in the economic and cultural spheres, and Hungary became the most liberal of the Soviet-bloc nations of eastern Europe. Continuing his program of national reconciliation, Kádár emptied prisons, reformed the secret police, and eased travel restrictions.


Hungary Makes Difficult Transition to Democracy

In 1989, Hungary's Communists abandoned their monopoly on power voluntarily, and the constitution was amended in Oct. 1989 to allow for a multiparty state. The last Soviet troops left Hungary in June 1991, thereby ending almost 47 years of military presence. The transition to a market economy proved difficult. In April 1999, Hungary became part of NATO.