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?