One of the great pleasures of spending time in Budapest is admiring the city’s restoration. Despite war, communism and 1956, the architecture of the city is overwhelmingly pre-World War I, and the repair of the magnificent buildings proceeds energetically to correct the neglect of the communist period. That means for example the closure of the exquisite 1884 opera house – directed for a time by Gustav Mahler – for the next couple of years. But on the other hand the equally fine Fine Arts Museum will soon reopen after a major makeover. Meanwhile, Budapesters rejoice as Belle Epoque cafés, closed down by the communists as bourgeois relics, are reborn – while concrete architectural monstrosities produced by the Hungarian People’s Republic are torn down. Because post-war architecture in Hungary is associated with communist oppression, there’s no discernible lobby which advocates that brutalist reminders of the grim Soviet satellite years should be preserved on heritage grounds. All this means lots of dust, but in a good cause.
John O’Sullivan, international editor of Quadrant and former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, has added considerably to the intellectual life of Budapest with the Danube Institute, of which he’s president, which was founded in 2013. Set up as a centre for debate especially on Central European issues and to strengthen linkages between the region and the English-speaking world, John, assisted ably by his American wife Melissa, runs a flourishing programme of public lectures.
A recent highlight was a presentation by the Hungarian-born Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at Canterbury in the UK, who spoke depressingly if amusingly on the idiocy of trendy parenting and educational theories. We learnt that the term school ‘principals’ is hopelessly archaic and that ‘head learners’ is the way of the future. Also that expecting university students to read entire books is considered pretty reactionary. ‘Validating’ students, irrespective of their talent or effort, with lots of smiley faces on report cards, is the way to go. Furedi, a revolutionary Marxist when he was in his 20s, laments the disappearance especially in English-speaking countries of traditional education including the study of history. (You can watch his presentation on the Danube Institute website).
Another interesting Danube Institute event is Michael O’Sullivan’s presentation on his new book, Patrick Leigh Fermor: Noble Encounters between Budapest and Transylvania, on the young Englishman who chronicled the pre-World War II last glory days of the Hungarian nobility in Between the Woods and the Water. O’Sullivan reminds us of a conversation Leigh Fermor had in which a new friend described Hungarian, unrelated to most other European languages, as a member of the Ural-Altaic family. His interloctor said the language closest to Hungarian was Finnish. Leigh Fermor asked ‘How close… like Italian and Spanish?’ The answer ‘Well no, not quite as close as that… About like English and Persian’.
I never cease to be amazed by the ease of travel these days between the two great capitals of what was the Austro-Hungarian empire. $60 gets you a return rail fare from Budapest to Vienna, with trains running most of the day about every hour and without passport checks as you speed across a former Iron Curtain border. Recently I caught the first (06.40) train to Vienna, sat in the dining car the whole way, then enjoyed a leisurely stroll to the Habsburgs’ chapel, the Augustinerkirche, where every Sunday at 11am they perform one of the great masses with full orchestra and choir. My 1900 edition of Baedeker’s guide to Austria tells me I could have done the same thing then. This time it was Haydn’s glorious Mass for a Time of War, first performed in 1796 when Austria feared defeat by Napoleon’s forces. Surprisingly few foreign visitors seem aware of this amazing free Viennese treat on offer every Sunday.
I also revisit the apartment at Berggasse 19, now a museum, where Sigmund Freud lived with his family from 1891 until his forced departure from post-Anschluss Austria in 1938. The photographs of Freud and his daughter Anna on a countryside excursion in Austrian national dress are very poignant. Sadly the Café Freud underneath no longer advertises a ‘happy hour’, which seemed an appropriate touch in an establishment named after the founder of psychoanalysis.
The huge charms of Central Europe come with regular jolting confrontations with the darker side of its history. I visit the pretty villa of the great Austro-Hungarian operetta composer Franz Lehár, best known for The Merry Widow, at Bad Ischl in the heart of Austrian Sound of Music country. Left much as it was when he died in 1948, the villa features a happy photograph of Lehár with the librettist for many of his operettas, Fritz Löhner-Beda. In 1942 Löhner-Beda, who was Jewish, was dragged off to Auschwitz.
Lehár had cordial ties with Hitler – he gave him a birthday present in 1938 and Hitler, who enjoyed his music, twice personally presented him with high awards. And Goebbels arranged for Lehár’s Jewish-born wife Sophie to be offered ‘honorary Aryan’ status. She accepted – unlike the other great Austro-Hungarian operetta composer of the time, the Jewish Imre Kálmán, whose music Hitler also enjoyed. Kálmán fled Hitler’s Third Reich, while Lehár stayed.
Lehár tried to use his links with Hitler to save Löhner-Beda, but tragically to no avail. He was beaten to death by one of the infamous kapos within two months of arriving at Auschwitz. Despite apparently every artwork and award accumulated by Lehár being on display at his charming villa, the two awards presented to him by the Führer are curiously not in evidence.