ACCORDING to legend, the Hungarians are descended from Noah's grandson Magyar. The Magyars of Hungary bear no ethnic kinship to their Slavic neighbors in the Balkans, and of all Europe's peoples are related only to the Finns and Estonians. Latecomers to Central Europe, fierce fighters and skillful horsemen, they were driven southward over the centuries from their early home on the slopes of Siberia's Ural Mountains, and in 895, under the leadership of their tribal chief Arpad, crossed over the Carpathian Mountains into the great plain that is now Hungary.
Crossroads. A vast (100,000-square-mile) basin watered by two great rivers, the Danube and the Tisza, and completely ringed around by mountains, the Magyars' new home was a richly fertile and well protected fortress, but no sheltered hideaway for the shy or the meek. Located at the crossroads of the historical highways along which the crusaders of Christendom would press toward the East and raiding Asian conquerors would drive south and west in endlessly repeated waves, the Danube basin had already been overrun and evacuated by dozens of conquerors before Arpad arrived. To ensure their own survival, fierce Magyar expeditionary forces soon extended their realm far over the mountains to cover what is now most of Russia's Balkan satellite empire.
By 1000 A.D. Hungary's powerful rulers had become Christian, and in that year Pope Sylvester II gave Arpad's great-great-grandson King (later Saint) Stephen the Holy Crown which, its cross knocked askew through the ages, is still Hungary's most precious treasure. (After World War II it was taken in custody by the U.S. Government.) In 1222, only seven years after the barons of England forced King John to sign their Magna Charta, the freemen of Hungary made their own King Andrew sign a comparable document known as the Golden Bull, the first charter of human rights on the European continent. But Hungary, unlike insular England, was set like a bastion between the conflicting civilizations of East and West, and under the strain of constant warring, the rights guaranteed by the bull and the crown had to be fought for again and again. Democracy as it is known in most of the West today has never found Hungary congenial for long.
Rebellion. The Turks ruled the Magyars for 170 years, and when at last in the 17th century they were driven out, the remaining Magyars found themselves a vassal state in the empire of the Austrian Habsburgs.* In 1848, when all Europe was arumble with the thunder of revolt, young Poet Sandor Petofi and Lajos Kossuth, the lawyer son of a Magyarized Slovak family of the Hungarian petty nobility, together sparked Hungary's most successful revolution. Poet Petofi died in the fight. Lawyer Kossuth went on to proclaim himself the head of an independent Hungary, but his triumph was short-lived. Skillful players at the old European army game, the Habsburgs invited the Russians to move in from the East while they themselves bore down from the West. Between these two juggernauts, Kossuth's puny armies were mercilessly crushed.