Restoring the splendor of the Royal Castle in Budapest

It is only on the surface that today’s topic is not about politics. Actually, I believe that in Hungary these days everything has something to do with politics.

A few days ago the Hungarian public learned that billions of forints, part of which will of course come from Brussels, will be spent on the reconstruction of the Castle District (Várnegyed) and the Royal Castle. The whole project might take twenty years. László L. Simon, the undersecretary in charge of culture, is responsible for the project, named the National (what else?) Hauszmann Plan. The plan is grandiose and, in my opinion, unnecessary. Fueling it, I suspect, is Viktor Orbán’s megalomania.

First of all, let’s clear up a few common misconceptions. The Vár is the area that in the thirteenth century King Béla IV enclosed with a city wall. Within that area he built a royal castle, which was enlarged and “modernized” by several of his successors. During the Turkish occupation the royal palace was used for barracks, storage, and stables but otherwise stood empty, decaying. And during the great siege of 1686 when Buda was captured by allied Christian forces, this medieval/renaissance castle was destroyed. In 1715 the whole structure had to be demolished.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, during the reign of Maria Theresa, a Baroque palace was built, but it was a white elephant. Maria Theresa didn’t quite know what to do with it. First she offered it to the Sisters of Loreto, but they left after a year, finding it too extravagant for a convent. For a while it housed a university (today ELTE). Later the palace became the residence of the palatines. In 1849, during the Hungarian troops’ attempt to retake the city from the Austrians, the palace was again badly damaged.

After the revolution of 1848-49 the palace was rebuilt (1850-56) but for the most part stood empty. Franz Joseph visited the Buda Castle only twice, once in 1856 and again in 1857. After the Compromise, when there was an economic boom in Hungary, the decision was made to build a truly magnificent royal castle. The architect was Alajos Hauszmann, the man after whom Orbán’s ambitious plan is named. The construction went on for almost forty years, between 1875 and 1912. To give some idea of the vastness of the place: it had 860 rooms, among them two throne rooms–the Grand Throne Room and the Small Throne Room–and a riding-hall. The rooms were huge and lavish. But it was yet another white elephant. It stood there empty. The emperor-king visited the place only a few times during his long reign.

Between the two world wars at last the royal castle had permanent residents: Miklós Horthy and his family. Their quarters were in the guest wing. But during World War II the castle was again badly damaged and once again reconstructed during the 1950s and 1960s. According to its critics, the changes that were made were not the most fortunate. Currently the palace houses the National Széchényi Library, the Hungarian National Gallery, and the Budapest History Museum. Plans call for the library and the gallery to be relocated.

After the planned restoration what will the building be used for? It will be a palace museum, we are told. Try to imagine reconstructing and furnishing those 860 rooms. The undersecretary in charge has very ambitious plans: even the throne rooms can be recreated. He also likes the idea of rebuilding the riding-hall. I wonder what they plan to do with the horses. It seems that the most important consideration in the project is to remake the royal palace as it was before 1945. Whatever changes were made since then will be obliterated. With 1945 time stopped. It is the same basic principle that was put into practice when Kossuth tér in front of the Hungarian parliament was restored to the way it looked before 1945.

Photo Sándor H. Szabó / MTI

Photo: Sándor H. Szabó / MTI

Viktor Orbán has been eyeing the Castle District for a very long time as the most appropriate place for the seat of his government. Between 1998 and 2002 he practically rebuilt the Sándor Palace, which before 1945 served as the office and home of Hungarian prime ministers. He was planning to move there, but his ambitions were thwarted when he lost the election. His successor did not want to occupy the building, and eventually it was designated as the office of the president.

Orbán still desperately wants to be in the Castle District. His latest plan is to move to another large historic building located not far from the Sándor Palace. All in all, great suspicion surrounds Orbán’s restoration project. There is talk of his plans to become a powerful president Russian style and perhaps move into part of the royal castle. So, on Friday, when he launched the National Hauszmann Plan, he tried to emphasize that the project is not for himself but for the Hungarian nation.

In his speech he called the Hauszmann Committee, which is preparing the details of the plan,”the war council” and his decision to undertake the project “the reconquest of the castle” for the Hungarian people. The castle is an organic part and symbol of the Hungarian nation, the Acropolis of Hungarian culture, he said. The nation needs a “living castle where life is robust.”

Let’s face it, this castle in all its iterations has nothing to do with the Hungarian nation or Hungarian culture. It was a creation of the Habsburgs, who resided in Vienna and spent no more than a few nights in it. Yes, it looked magnificent from the other side of the Danube, but it served no purpose other than housing the Horthy family and being the site of a few balls between the two world wars. How one can possibly create a “living castle” out of this, I have no idea. At least now Hungarian culture is represented within its walls with the National Art Gallery and the National Széchényi Library. They are visited by more people daily than at any time between the two world wars. But making it a palace museum? Where tourists, after paying for their tickets, can wander around the 860 rooms? This is an enormous and on the surface senseless undertaking. One must ask: what are Viktor Orbán’s real plans? To build himself a Hungarian Kremlin?


  1. Here we go again. The Land Of The Goulash will have a royal castle with no royals …

    I “schmitted” this from Professor Gati’s article. It’s and old joke.
    Read the original too. There is a version with Obama in it:

    FDR: Is hungary a kingdom or a republic?
    Aide: a kingdom, Mr. President.
    FDR: What’s the King’s name?
    Aide: Hungary doesn’t have a King.
    FDR: Then who runs the kingdom?
    Aide: A Regent by the name of Admiral Miklós Horthy.
    FDR: Admiral? Then Hungary must have a powerful navy.
    Aide: Hungary has no navy; it doesn’t even have access to the sea.
    FDR: Wars are often fought for religious reasons. What’s the main religion there?
    Aide: Catholicism, Mr. President. But Admiral Horthy is Protestant.
    FDR: Did this admiral declare war on us because of territorial claims then?
    Aide: Hungary’s territorial claims are against Romania.
    FDR: In that case, did Hungary declare war on Romania?
    Aide: No, Hungary and Romania are allies.
    FDR: Let me get this straight. Hungary is a kingdom run by a Regent who’s an admiral without a navy, and it is allied with Romania against which it has territorial claims but it has declared war on the U.S. against which it doesn’t.
    Aide: That’s right, Mr. President.

  2. I sincerely hope, that the enormously expensive and unnecessary reconstruction of the Palace will not take place, for the simple reason, that the Stadionbuilder viktor and his gang will get arrested soon for abusing and absconding the tax moneys and they will be moved to the Csillagbörtön in Szeged (The big old Jail). He can hold audiences in his throne room in the jail, to his panderers and admirerers.
    I went to see the paintings in the Hungarian National Gallery in the Palace a few times (it is an enormous exhibit), and two years ago, by accident I was able to wander into three, dimly lit, closed rooms, because there were no barriers. I quickly made pictures too, there were no guards. There they were, all of the well known huge historical paintings from Benczúr, Munkácsi, perhaps Szinnyei-Merse Pál and many others, ready to be stored and much much later to be moved to the Fine Arts Museum They were NOT exhibited any more. Just as I finished my pictures, the guards came and asked me to leave. They were very polite and they were all very sorry, that this beautiful exhibit will be moved because of the megalomaniac idiot, the half-wit peasant viktor think of himself as a monarch.
    He should be named perhaps; felcsúti (the traitor) king viktor I. All in lower case letters, like “nemecsek ernő áruló”.

  3. It gets crazier and crazier …
    A bit OT or not?

    Has anyone else realised that many of the grandiose plans have German/Austrian names like Klebelsberg, Hauszmann?

  4. Last March, the EU promised to introduce a new mechanism (proposed by Professor Scheppele, if I am not mistaken) to force a member state that is a habitual offender of Rechtstaat principles (like Hungary) to the right path. The mechanism would have been weaker than article 7, which has the misnomer “atomic bomb”, but would had teeth.

    It turns out that the new proposal by the Italians created a toothless version:

    “Instead of an atomic bomb, blanks”

    Net result: any member state can become a dictatorship.

    Orban, rejoice.

  5. Government debt & shifting statistical numbers

    NET central government debt on 12-31-2013, data provided by the National Bank (MNB)

    Date of evaluation:
    mid 02-2014: 19750.5
    mid 05-2014: 19741.0
    mid 08-2014: 22531.1
    mid 11-2014: 22582.9

    According to the data published today, the NET debt of the central government reached
    24720.6 on 09-30-2014.

    So the growth of the NET debt, in the first 9 month of the year was

    as little as 9.47% [from 24720.6/22582.9], or

    as much as 25.22% [from 24720.6/19741.0]

  6. @tappanch: re Brussels

    What’s the big surprise?

    Isn’t this EXACTLY some of us have been saying all along?

    The EU is absolutely impotent, hopelessly divided and in any case doesn’t care about dictators.

    There’s no atomic bomb and there never was any. Even the EU and the nuclear option in the same sentence is a cruel joke.

    Orban and his lawyers knew all along and acted accordingly. Actually everybody knew this who dared to look and face reality.

    The Germans, as it was said, but let’s repeat this again will forever finance Orban (until Orban can retain power in any capacity, that is, whether as prime minister or as president) and the ECB QE will also help him.

    Within the current EU setup it is absolutely inconceivable that the Germans or other paymasters would threaten to withhold financing from more or less “performing” (ie, the Maastricht criteria) member states.

    Since Hungary can continue to massage the numbers so as to more or less comply with the critera it will continue to receive funding.

    Ukraine is conceding defeat as we speak and is pulling out of Eastern Ukraine. The EU is not a political institution. It is a free trade zone aka the common market to which there is a bureaucracy attached to the members of which it is allowed to play the comedy titled “Important people”. But Eastern Europeans like Orban know exactly that this is just a show and there’s nothing behind the curtains.

  7. The smallest number for the 12-31-2013 debt is excellent to be compared with the debt on 12-31-2012 , while the largest number is good to be compared with the latest debt number
    to lower the ratio.

  8. Oops, I figured out the reason of the large change in the 12-31-2013 debt
    measured in May and in August…

    From the mid August report, MNB started to include the nationalized and wasted private retirement funds MaNyuP as government liability, 2854.5 billion forints !

  9. Net debt of the general (= central + local +social security) Hungarian government,

    with the spent portion of the initially (May 2011) nationalized private retirement funds

    (the interest on the funds + later nationalizations excluded for lack of exact data)

    09-30 of each year; y/y growth

    2010: 16491.9;
    2011: 16988.1; 3.0%
    2012: 18555.0; 9.2%
    2013: 20869.0; 12.5%
    2014: 22733.6; 8.9%

    Thus the growth of the net debt of the general government was 37.85% since the 3rd quarter of 2010.

    The debt in euro terms, using the official exchange rates of the MNB:

    2010-09-30: 59.467
    2014-09-30: 73.249 billion euros,

    a 23.18% increase.

  10. The net financial position of the general Hungarian government on September 30 of each election year in billions of current US dollars:

    1990: +30.0 surplus
    1994: + 0.1 surplus
    1998: -14.0 debt
    2002: -22.9
    2006: -53.5
    2010: -81.1
    2014: -92.7 debt

    The net financial position of the general Hungarian government on September 30 of each election year in billions of current euros:

    2002: -23.3 debt
    2006: -42.2
    2010: -59.5
    2014: -73.2 debt

  11. The Hungarian parliament building at the Danube is not designed by Walt Disney but it could have been judged from its fake gothic profile and its oversize. These features are not the reason why Viktor Orban is dissatisfied with the building as a symbol of his power. The reason is that from its lowly situation at the river bank one cannot look down at the common people. A second reason is that the parliament building will be difficult to defend against the people when the time comes. Fortunately for Orban and unfortunately for everybody else there is the Castle Hill on the opposite shore where Orban would be physically exalted and feel safer. Let’s move up there. Expenses don’t matter.

    The Australian parliament house in Canberra, finished in 1988, was designed by the American/Italian architect Romaldo Giurgola. It is nested in an artificial crater that was dug into the top of a modest hill so that the building cannot be seen from the town. The only visible feature is a flagpole. The architect’s explanation of the low structure:
    “We felt if Australia’s new Parliament House was to speak honestly about its purpose, it could not be built on top of the hill as this would symbolise government imposed upon the people.”

  12. The saddest part of this story is that Hungary, in the powerful move of putting its National Library in place of the former seat of the King sent the world a signal that it, as a nation, it put forward a shared dignity through the values of scholarship, open access and treasuring the Hungarian language, a truly noble basis for a republic. And if an imperfect republic, it was at least a concrete sign of belief in a more perfect republic.

    In the five years when we lived in Hungary and had visitors from abroad, showing them the library at the center of the capital was always a highlight and always left a positive impression. Now, to replace the library with the offices of a politician, is a decided step backwards. And is it not lost that the separation of parliament and head of state to different sides of the river was a fundamental feature of Hungarian democracy, not a flaw?

    Please, Hungary, don’t try to “fix” the parts of your country which are not broken!

  13. Net EU contribution to the Hungarian operating budget balances in billions of euros:

    2003: 0.00
    2004: 0.19
    2005: 0.59
    2006: 1.11
    2003-2006 total: 1.89

    2007: 1.61
    2008: 1.11
    2009: 2.72
    2010: 2.75
    2007-2010 total: 8.19

    2011: 4.42
    2012: 3.28
    2013: 4.93
    2014: cca 5.0
    2011-2014 total: cca 17.63

  14. Approximate * net government debt without EU grants, in billions of euros
    (* debt on September 30, grants on December 31)

    2002: 23.3
    2006: 44.1, increase of 89%
    2010: 69.6, increase of 58%
    2014:100.9, increase of 45%

  15. I apologize for posting one more painting, but this is a beauty from 1686:

    As we can see, the Palace looked different on each occasion.

    But Orban insists on restoring the infamous 1944 in everything.

  16. @Zorro

    Your prayers shall be answered. But pls. wait until 2017.

    Hasenstab by the way has a very simple strategy. He bets on highly problematic, relatively small countries (not so much Italy or Spain, because too many people have those debts so his fund couldn’t make much of a difference in terms of yields) which, he hopes, will not got bankrupt or get restructured. This means that when the market realizes that the country will not go bankrupt after all the prices should go up. I don’t think he bets on Greece or Venezuela which are clear basket cases. He invests in the category just above that.

  17. “Thousands of people have protested against Czech President Milos Zeman on the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, which ended communist rule.

    Demonstrators carried football-style red cards as a warning to Mr Zeman, while others threw eggs. One accidentally hit the German president.

    Many are angry with Mr Zeman, who they see as too sympathetic to Russia. ”

    From the BBC.

  18. One can’t imagine the coward Orban facing any kind of non-vetted crowd like Zeman.
    The day Orban does will be the day he “discovers” how strong his “2/3” really is.

  19. OT. Thousands of people at Kossuth Square today protesting, and there is a huge police presence. The whole city is loud with sirens and tourists are confused about what is going on. Many ambulances are buzzing by also.

  20. D7: Orban knows that he’s under no obligation to stand out and face any hostile crowds. In Argentine during the junta people couldn’t even know the names of the people who were in power exactly or connect the names to faces. The generals rarely appeared in public. They just exercised power from somewhere. One can call Orban a coward, but it doesn’t matter. He has The Power and that’s that. People are allowed to call him names. He says: Let that be their freedom. At the end of the day, they know that they are below and Orban is on top (amassing another billion by next Monday) and that gives Orban all the satisfaction in the worlds. He’s daring the youngsters to catch him, but they’re just to weak to stage a revolution and so he’s safe. Orban’s not handing over power to anybody for anything less than a violent revolt.

  21. “Orban’s not handing over power to anybody for anything less than a violent revolt.”

    The overthrow of and bloody cowardly dictators generally comes in the least expected way and at the least expected time- I won’t bore you with the numerous precedents.

    There certainly won’t be a violent revolt on the part of the pro-democracy movement, bloodshed and violence is more the fascist Fidesz/Jobbik style.

    But you seriously underestimate the hatred the coward engenders in so many people and not just amongst the pro-democracy followers.

  22. The key sentence in whistle-blower Horvath’s speech was that he had heard from inside the Hungarian IRS (NAV) that their leaders and the Fidesz leadership is busy destroying evidence of their criminal activities with respect to VAT fraud.

    Once they finished destroying evidence (“iratrendezés”, shifting of documents), they will start the investigation, which is supposed to yield no result.

  23. Kossuth tér tonight: I was late for the party, after a Hungarian lesson… Budapest on a wettish November Monday night is a strangely quiet place; my walking route took me through Kecskeméti utca, Váci utca and Vörösmarty tér, which were all lit up but almost deserted, with warmly-dressed waiting staff standing outside trying to coax a few people into the restaurants.

    By this time (about 20:30) there was no sign that anything unusual was going on. Even a few streets away from the parliament, everything was quiet – until I got close enough to see the blue lights of dozens of police vans and cars, parked and doing nothing but ready for action.

    The scene on Kossuth square was oddly isolated by this time, but still spectacular. The backlighting of the scene by the floodlights on the building helped. A relatively small crowd in front of the steps was banging on drums and chanting, with a dispersed crowd standing behind them in patches, reaching to the No.2 tramlines, and clearly being there (as I was) in support, if not particularly active support. A lot of Hungarian and EU flags waving, including some holed ’56 flags. Big mix of people – old, young, in between, no particular “look” to the crowd at all. The feel was very relaxed. I liked the big guy wandering around in traditional costume selling giant pretzels. Minimal police presence except for the lines of riot police at the top of the steps.

    I caught the tail-end of the demonstration, but by then people were clearly just being there and doing what they were doing, in an oddly-relaxed way. Favourite placard, given the announcement about monopoly of tobacco suppliers: “A haveroknak dohányt”!

    Interested to see how this is reported tomorrow. According to Budapest Beacon, apart from Budapest Szeged was a pretty active demonstration, with some entertaining-sounding stuff.

  24. Amazingly Horvath’s speech was carried in the live feed. From what I could understand of his speech he gave some confusing or maybe contradictory comments relating to his hope that Orban would remove the corrupt officials from NAV, but he was disappointed that he had not done so. Possibly I misunderstood that.

    He spoke of the NAV staff eliminating evidence – a nyomait megszüntetése- was the phrase I recall him using. After listening to him or what I could understand of him from the broadcast I came away thinking he was once a believer in Orban who had become disenchanted. I would be interested in what other people heard who were at the protest and not watching it thousands of miles away in an office tower in downtown Chicago.

    Are there more Horvaths lurking in various government positions? That is a thought that could well keep some Fidesz officials up at night.

  25. @tappanch: Exactly! Thanks for the heads-up, but I was happy to already get that pun at the time. Very timely!

  26. @Istvan re Horváth. In my opinion Horváth is a naive man. A year ago when he came out with his revelations, he wanted to let Orbán know that something was a miss at NAV. He asked for his help. He made noises to the effect that Orbán will be able to fix things. Perhaps Orbán just doesn’t know what’s going on in NAV. I think that he is slowly learning that he was wrong but he has difficulty admitting it to himself. As I understand he is a former Fidesz voter.

  27. @tappanch: Nice! A very commendable crowd, especially that the organizers are young and total newcomers to politics!

    I think many people are fed up… anger is brewing. The challenge is to come up with tangible goals and not to let anger turn into violence. The demonstration against the internet tax worked wonderfully, as there was a single purpose: to have the tax withdrawn (accomplished, at least for now). Similar, short term goals could help give traction to these demonstrations. Ideally, anger needs to be channeled into specific demands (to keep the momentum going and avoid anger turning into violence).

  28. @Tappanch, thanks, I saw another picture where I could see the crowd all the way to the Irgalmasok temploma. Quite a bit south from here. I also liked the slogan: Fly Peacock! The Fidesz mayor’s family name is Páva = peacock.

  29. sebt “By this time (about 20:30) there was no sign that anything unusual was going on. Even a few streets away from the parliament, everything was quiet – until I got close enough to see the blue lights of dozens of police vans and cars, parked and doing nothing but ready for action.”

    There were police cars, TEK carsand ambulances zooming by on Muzeum korut, Deak ter, and even on Blahe Lujza ter/Jozsef korut, so I would not describe this as everything was quite. As I mentioned on an other thread, even tourists were puzzled about the “traffic” of emergency vehicles.

  30. Some1: “There were police cars, TEK carsand ambulances zooming by on Muzeum korut, Deak ter, and even on Blahe Lujza ter/Jozsef korut, so I would not describe this as everything was quite. As I mentioned on an other thread, even tourists were puzzled about the “traffic” of emergency vehicles.”

    I’m sure you’re right as well. I wasn’t meaning to give a definitive history of the entire demonstration: I wasn’t even outside until 19:45, and not near Kossuth Sq (or even Kalvin tér) until 20:00-20:30, so all I saw was the later stage of things. The earlier crowd on Kossuth tér in the pictures tappanch posted looks spectacular – glad there was a good turnout!

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