The Land and Climate
Hungary is located in the heart of Europe—a cross-roads between the east and the west. Though until 1989 it was behind the "Iron Curtain" it is considered by Hungarians to be in Central, rather than Eastern Europe. Hungary is bordered by Austria to the west, Slovakia to the north, Ukraine to the northeast, Romania to the east and southeast, and the republics of the former Yugoslavia to the south— Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. Two-thirds of Hungary is a fertile plain rising no more than 200 feet above sea level. There are rolling hills in the west and low mountains (3,300 feet being the highest) in the north. The Danube river (Duna) forms the border with Slovakia in the northwest and then divides the country with a little more than 1/3 to the west and a little less than 2/3 to the east as it turns south above Budapest. Lake Balaton in west-central Hungary is Central Europe's largest freshwater lake.
Hungary is almost exactly the size of Indiana, being slightly larger than Austria, with a similar, though drier climate. Located in the Carpathian mountains basin, Hungary is generally protected from the extremes in climate one might expect at this northern latitude. (Budapest is at the same latitude as the northern tip of Maine.) In the winter the temperature is seldom below 10 degrees F with minimal snowfall and seldom above 95 degrees F in the summer, with rain mostly limited to occasional thunderstorms.
The People and the Culture
The population of Hungary is approximately 10 million, with over 2 million living in Budapest, the capital. Completed in 1849, the Chain Bridge united the cities of Buda on the hilly western bank and Obuda (an ancient Roman settlement) with the larger city of Pest on the flat eastern side of the river. Budapest is the largest city in Hungary, with only two others having populations around 200,000. However, there are over 3,000 cities, villages and communities throughout this country.
The Hungarian people, known as Magyars (Maw-djarz), migrated as seven tribal groups into the Carpathian basin over 1000 years ago. The traditional date of the founding of the country is AD 896. As a people, the Magyars have sometimes been confused with the Huns (whose most famous king was Attila). This was because the nomadic lifestyle and tactics on the battlefield of the two peoples were quite similar. However, it is now generally accepted that there is no ancestral relationship between the two, with the Huns no longer identifiable as a people group.
Prior to WWI the Austro-Hungarian Empire encompassed an area roughly three times that of present-day Hungary, with twice the population. Before that time, the borders cut across many ethnic and linguistic boundaries, so that not all Hungarians were Magyars. Today, however, except for a few minorities, the population is such that most Hungarians are Magyars. Another result of the post-WWI division is that almost 3 million Hungarians now live in adjoining areas of the surrounding countries, with the majority in Transylvania (a province of Romania).
Because of Hungary's location in Central Europe, it has held the strategic interest throughout its 1000 year history. As a result, Hungary has experienced a number of invasions and conquests that have threatened its very existence. However, Hungarians have managed to maintain their identity as a distinctive culture and society in the region.
Hungarians are known for their hospitality, with a strong sense of social propriety. If invited into a Hungarian home, it is almost always expected that you will join them for a meal. In contrast to the fast-food mentality of the United States, meals are an important part of the social life of the country. Hungarians are well-educated and take pride in their history, culture and language. The cities and villages of Hungary are filled with museums and monuments. Music and theater are also an important part of Hungarian life.
Just as Hungary is a distinctive cultural island in the region, it is also a linguistic island. The official language of Hungary is Hungarian or Magyar and it is spoken as the mother tongue by about 98% of the population. Hungarian is a unique language in Europe, not being of Latin, Slavic, or Germanic origin and is completely unintelligible to the speaker of any other language. Some have suggested that Hungarian may be the third most difficult language for native English speakers to learn.
Throughout the communist era, Russian was compulsory in the public schools. However, English is the most common second-language today. Hungarians are very much aware of the difficulty of their language and appreciate efforts by foreigners to learn it.
About 65% of Hungarians consider themselves Roman Catholics. Various Protestant groups claim the majority of the remainder of the population, with the largest being the Reformed church, having an estimated membership of approximately 16% of the population. The Lutheran church has almost half a million members. The Baptists claim approximately 30,000 members and the Brethren church less than about 3,000. The Jewish population suffered greatly during WWII and declined from a pre-WWII population of over 500,000 to the present-day 80,000.
At the present time there is religious freedom in Hungary. However, the influx of cults from both the east and west has resulted in increasing skepticism and concern within the government and the established traditional churches. Many more would claim to be atheists today than during the communist era. The consequence is that there is freedom to speak about Biblical Christianity in public forums than during the early 1990’s
Government and Politics
Hungary was ruled by the Communist Party (Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party) for more than forty years. As in most communist countries, the Party maintained strong control over the political, economic, and social life of the country. However, hard-line communism began to crumble after Stalin's death in 1953, eventually leading to an attempted revolution in 1956. The revolution failed, but a Party chief was installed who eventually oversaw the development of the most liberal regime of the former Eastern Bloc.
In 1989, Hungary's decision to open its border with Austria was the catalyst that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and ultimately the complete dismantling of the "Iron Curtain." The first free, multi-party elections since 1946 were held in the spring of 1990.
The country is governed through a Parliamentary system, with both a president and a prime minister. Local government is administered through councils that oversee the affairs of Hungary's 19 counties and mayors are elected officials in villages and cities.
Hungary's economic and political transformation in the 1990’s was generally considered a success by western analysts. The stable political climate and the drive toward a free-market economy attracted massive foreign investment and spurred many Hungarians to attempt entrepreneurial capitalism.
This transition period away from a centralized economy has seen mixed results and benefits to different sectors of the population. The benefits have been much slower in coming to the rural villages and to the many retired residents of these areas who are now on fixed incomes that are still influenced by the communist-era wages and prices.
A strong socialist philosophy of government and economy continues to provide a fairly high level of social services, but at a significant cost of very high taxes as well as increasing unemployment and inflation rates. Personal income is taxed at 18% on the first $7500 and 36% on everything above that. The VAT tax (similar to sales tax) on all goods and services is 20% and is added at every point where “value” is added. In addition, employers’ pay 30% on top of wages into the social benefit system.