Ancient human footprints, tools, and a skull found at Vértesszóllós date the earliest occupants of present Hungary at a period from 250,000 to 500,000 years ago. Close to that site, at Tata, objects used for aesthetic or ceremonial purposes have been
discovered, among the earliest such finds made anywhere in the world.
Celtic tribes settled in Hungary before the Romans came to occupy the western part of the country, which they called Pannonia and which the Roman Emperor Augustus conquered in 9 BC . Invasions by the Huns, the Goths, and later the Langobards had little lasting effect, but the two subsequent migrations of the Avars (who ruled for 250 years and, like the Huns, established a khanate in the Hungarian plain) left a more lasting impression.
The Magyars (Hungarians) migrated from the plains south and west of the Ural Mountains and invaded the Carpathian Basin under the leadership of Árpád in AD 896. For half a century they ranged far and wide, until their defeat by Otto the Great, king of Germany and Holy Roman emperor, near Augsburg in 955. They were converted to Christianity under King Stephen I (r.1001–1038), who was canonized in 1083. The Holy Crown of St. Stephen became the national symbol, and a constitution was gradually developed. The Magna Carta of Hungary, known as the Golden Bull of 1222, gave the nation a basic framework of national liberties to which every subsequent Hungarian monarch had to swear fidelity. Hungary was invaded at various times during the medieval period; the Mongols succeeded in devastating the country in 1241–42.
Medieval Hungary achieved its greatest heights under the Angevin rulers Charles Robert and Louis the Great (r.1342–82), when Hungarian mines yielded five times as much gold as those of any other European state. Sigismund of Luxembourg, king of Hungary, became Holy Roman emperor in 1410, largely on the strength of this national treasure. During the 15th century, however, Turkish armies began to threaten Hungary. The Balkan principalities to the south and southeast of Hungary developed as buffer states, but they did not long delay the advance of the Turks; nor could the victories of János Hunyadi, brilliant as they were, ultimately stem the Turkish tide. With the Turks temporarily at bay, the Hungarian renaissance flourished during the reign of Hunyadi's son, Matthias Corvinus (1458–90), but his successors in the 16th century overexploited the gold mines, brutally suppressed a peasant revolt, and allowed the Magyar army to deteriorate. Hungary's golden age ended with the rout by the Turks at Mohács in 1526.
Thereafter, warring factions split Hungary, but power was gradually consolidated by the Habsburg kings of Austria. With the defeat of the Turks at Vienna in 1683, Turkish power waned and that of the Habsburgs became stronger. The Hungarians mounted many unsuccessful uprisings against the Habsburgs, the most important insurrectionist leaders being the Báthorys, Bocskai, Bethlen, and the Rákóczys. In 1713, however, the Hungarian Diet accepted the Pragmatic Sanction, which in guaranteeing the continuing integrity of Habsburg territories, bound Hungary to Austria.
During the first half of the 19th century, in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, Hungary experienced an upsurge of Magyar nationalism, accompanied by a burst of literary creativity. The inability of a liberal reform movement to establish a constitutional monarchy led to the revolt of 1848, directed by Lajos Kossuth and Ferenc Deák, which established a short-lived Hungarian republic. Although Hungarian autonomy was abolished as a result of intervention by Austrian and Russian armies, Austria, weakened by its war with Prussia, was obliged to give in to Magyar national aspirations. The Compromise (Ausgleich) of 1867 established a dual monarchy of Austria and Hungary and permitted a degree of self-government for the Magyars.
After World War I, in which Austria-Hungary was defeated, the dual monarchy collapsed, and a democratic republic was established under Count Mihály Károlyi. This was supplanted in March 1919 by a Communist regime led by Béla Kun, but Romanian troops invaded Hungary and helped suppress it. In 1920, Hungary became a kingdom without a king; for the next 25 years, Adm. Miklós von Nagybánya Horthy served as regent. The Treaty of Trianon in 1920 formally freed the non-Magyar nationalities from Hungarian rule but also left significant numbers of Magyars in Romania and elsewhere beyond Hungary's borders. The fundamental policy of interwar Hungary was to recover the "lost" territories, and in the hope of achieving that end, Hungary formed alliances with the Axis powers and sided with them during World War II. Hungary temporarily regained territories from Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia. In March 1944, the German army occupied Hungary, but Soviet troops invaded the country later that year and liberated it by April 1945.
In 1946, a republican constitution was promulgated, and a coalition government (with Communist participation) was established. Under the terms of the peace treaty of 1947, Hungary was forced to give up all territories acquired after 1937. The Hungarian Workers (Communist) Party seized power in 1948 and adopted a constitution (on the Soviet model) in 1949. Hungarian foreign trade was oriented toward the Soviet bloc, industry was nationalized and greatly expanded, and collectivization of land was pressed. Resentment of continued Soviet influence over Hungarian affairs was one element in the popular uprising of October 1956, which after a few days' success—during which Hungary briefly withdrew from the Warsaw Treaty Organization—was summarily put down by Soviet military force. Many people fled the country, and many others were executed. From that time on, Hungary was a firm ally of the USSR. In 1968, the New Economic Mechanism was introduced in order to make the economy more competitive and open to market forces; reform measures beginning in 1979 further encouraged private enterprise. The movement toward relaxation of tensions in Europe in the 1970s was reflected in the improvement of Hungary's relations with Western countries, including the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the FRG in 1973. A US-Hungarian war-claims agreement was signed that year, and on 6 January 1978 the United States returned the Hungarian coronation regalia.
The New Economic Mechanism that had been instituted in 1968 was largely abandoned, at Soviet and Comecon insistence, a decade later. This compounded the blows suffered by Hungary's economy during the energy crisis of the late 1970s, leading to a ballooning of the country's foreign indebtedness. By the late 1980s the country owed $18 billion, the highest per capita indebtedness in Europe.
This indebtedness was the primary engine of political change. The necessity of introducing fiscal austerity was "sweetened" by the appointment of reform-minded Karóly Grosz as prime minister in 1987. Faced with continued high inflation, the government took the step the following year of forcing János Kádár out entirely, giving control of the party to Grosz. In 1989 Grosz and his supporters went even further, changing the party's name to Hungarian Socialist Party, and dismantling their nation's section of the Iron Curtain. The action that had the most farreaching consequences, however, came in October 1989 when the state constitution was amended so as to create a multiparty political system.
Although Hungarians had been able to choose among multiple candidates for some legislative seats since as early as 1983, the foundations of a true multiparty system had been laid in 1987– 88, when large numbers of discussion groups and special interest associations began to flourish. Many of these, such as the Network of Free Initiatives, the Bajscy-Zsilinszky Society, the Hungarian Democratic Forum, and the Alliance of Free Democrats, soon became true political parties. In addition, parties that had existed before the 1949 imposition of Communist rule, such as the People's Party, the Hungarian Independence Party, and the Social Democrats, began to reactivate themselves.
All of these groups, or the parties they had spawned, competed in the 1990 general election, the first major free election to be held in more than four decades. No party gained an absolute majority of seats, so a coalition government was formed, composed of the Democratic Forum, Smallholders' Party, and Christian Democrats, with Forum leader Jozsef Antall as prime minister. Arpad Goncz, of the Free Democrats, was selected as president. An important indicator of Hungary's intentions came in June 1989, when the remains of Imre Nagy, hanged for his part in the events of 1956, were reinterred with public honors; politicians and other public figures used the occasion to press further distance from Communism and the removal of Soviet troops. Another sign of public sentiment was the first commemoration in 40 years of the anniversary of the Revolution of 1848.
Under Antall Hungary pursued a vigorous program of economic transformation, with the goal of transferring 30–35% of state assets to private control by the end of 1993. Hungary's liberal investment laws and comparatively well-developed industrial infrastructure permitted the nation to become an early leader in attracting Western investors. However, there were large blocs in society, and within the Democratic Forum itself, that found the pace of transition too slow, particularly since the government did not keep to its own time schedule.
In addition to its economic demands, this radical-right contingent also has a strongly nationalist, or even xenophobic, agenda, which has tended to polarize Hungarian national politics. Approximately 10% of the Hungarian population is non-Hungarian, including large populations of Jews and Roma (Gypsies). There are also large Hungarian populations in neighboring states, particularly in Romania, all of whom had been declared dual citizens of Hungary in 1988. The appeal to "Hungarian-ness" has been touted fairly frequently, widening preexisting tensions within the dominant Democratic Forum party, and weakening their coalition in parliament. The Smallholders Party withdrew from the coalition in 1992, and in 1993 other elements were threatening to do the same.
At its January 1993 congress, the leading coalition party, the Democratic Forum, accepted the necessity of expelling its right wing, led by the populist, and openly anti-Semitic, Istvan Csurka. Csurka combined with other populists to form the Hungarian Justice and Life Party. However, this did little to help Antall's government, which continued to lose parliamentary and public support. Perhaps the greatest cause for dissatisfaction was the continued attempts by Antall's government to control the public media, which it claimed were serving the political opposition. The Forum's viability was also hurt by Antall's illness, which in December 1993 led to his death. He was replaced by Peter Boross, formerly Minister of Internal Affairs.
The Democratic Forum's loss of popularity was vividly exposed in the parliamentary elections of May 1994, when the party, led by acting head Sandor Leszak, lost almost one-third of the seats it had controlled. In that election voters turned overwhelmingly to the Hungarian Socialist Party, giving the former Communist party an absolute majority of 54%. Voter turnout in the two-tier election was as high as 70%, leaving little doubt that Hungarian voters had repudiated the Democratic Forum and its programs of forced transition to a market economy.
Hungary's international indebtedness remained very high—the country ran a $936 million trade deficit for the first two months of 1994 alone— obligating new prime minister Gyula Horn to continue most of the same economic reform programs which the Socialists' predecessors had begun. There was concern, however, that the Socialists' absolute majority could lead to a reversal of some of the important democratic gains of the recent past. Those concerns sharpened in July 1994, when Prime Minister Horn unilaterally appointed new heads for the state-owned radio and television, who immediately dismissed or suspended a number of conservative journalists. A vigorous debate also continued over economic policy, resulting in the resignation of key government figures, including finance minister Lajos Bokros.
On 8 January 1994 Hungary formally accepted the offer of a compromise on NATO membership. The offer involved a new defense partnership between Eastern Europe and NATO. By July 1997, NATO agreed to grant Hungary full membership (along with Poland and the Czech Republic) in the organization in 1999. In order to help them qualify to join NATO and the EU, Hungary and Romania signed a treaty on 16 September 1996 ending a centuries-old dispute between the two neighbors. The agreement ended five years of negotiations over the status of Romania's 1.6 million ethnic Hungarians. On 12 March 1999, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic were formally admitted to NATO, becoming the first former Warsaw Pact nations to join the alliance. The admission to NATO occurred during NATO's bombing of Serbia, raising fears of Serbian reprisals against the ethnic Hungarians living within Yugoslavian borders. However, Hungary was obliged to allow NATO planes access to its air space during bombing raids.
Despite improvements in the economy, the position of the Socialists was undermined by dissatisfaction among those negatively affected by privatization and austerity measures, as well as by financial scandals in 1997. The Socialist government was toppled in national elections held in May 1998, and a new center-right coalition government was formed in July by Viktor Orbán, leader of the victorious Federation of Young Democrats-Hungarian Civic Party (Fidesz).
In 1997 Hungary was invited to begin negotiations leading to membership in the European Union. It was formally invited to join the body in 2002, with accession expected for 2004. In 2000, parliament elected Ferenc Madl as president.
Under Victor Orbán, Hungary experienced increasing prosperity, but also increasing social division. Fidesz is a strong supporter of ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries. Indeed, parliament in June 2001 passed a controversial law entitling Hungarians living in Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia to a special identity document allowing them to temporarily work, study, and claim health care in Hungary. Orbán's party was challenged in the April 2002 general elections by the Socialist Party, which chose Péter Medgyessy as its candidate for prime minister. Although Medgyessy characterized his party as patriotic, he stressed it was less extreme than Fidesz, and supported diversity as well as traditional values of fairness and social justice. The 2002 campaign was divisive, and saw nationalists come out in force in favor of Fidesz. Although it won the largest bloc of seats in the National Assembly in the second round of voting (aligned with the Hungarian Democratic Forum), it was the Socialists in concert with the Alliance of Free Democrats that formed a coalition government with Medgyessy as prime minister. In June 2002, allegations surfaced that Medgyessy had worked as a counterintelligence officer in the secret service under the communist regime in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Medgyessy claimed he never collaborated with Moscow's KGB, but instead sought out Soviet spies attempting to disrupt Hungary's efforts to join the IMF. Upon his admission, his popularity soared.