Saturday, April 26, 2008
Throughout the l9th century, there was a growing sense that Hungarians are powerful, Hungarians have a great language, Hungarians can and should live independently and free—free of Mongols, free of Turks, free even of Austrians, free of all non-Hungarian invaders, occupiers, rulers. Of course, Buda and Pest will be a big part of this movement because they are the heart of Hungary, and a lot of the events associated with the drive for Hungarian freedom happen in Budapest
There are several people whose names you need to know in connection with Budapest and the Hungarian independence: Lajos Kossuth, Sandor Petofi, Gyula Andrassy, the man for whom the main street of Pest is named. But there is no one more important than Istvan Szechenyi, the man who built a bridge, united Buda and Pest into one capital, and united the Hungarian nation.
Since Roman days, it had always been a problem getting across the Danube.
The Romans used pontoon, difficult because of flooding, instability; the Mongols had to wait until it froze so they could gallop their horses over into Pest. The Turks constructed a bridge mounted on oil drum-type structures. But none of these solutions was very satisfactory. After the l800, when the Hungarian national movement was underway, people began thinking seriously about the necessity of building a modern bridge, so that links between Buda and Pest could be improved, so that the Hungarian capital cities could be modernized and improved with an eye towards the future.
Count Szechenyi would be the man to realize this objective. He had motivation after trying to cross from Pest to Buda in January of l820 in a wild winter storm. After this ordeal, he declared, “I will give a year’s income if a permanent bridge is built between Buda and Pest.”
And he put his money and effort where his mouth was. In l832, Szchenyi formed a sort of lobbying association on behalf of a good bridge on the Danube, the Bridge Association of Budapest. This was interesting, because to my knowledge no one had ever united the words “Buda and Pest” into Budapest. Already there was thought that this bridge would make for one united capital city.
This is kind of a DeWitt Clinton story…the chain bridge is the product of a man with a vision, an ability to see into the future and determine what was necessary to make the most of that future. In the l820s, Szechenyi, like a lot of young Hungarians, was thinking about three things: first, what had happened to Hungarians and Budapest since the reign of King St. Stephen: invasion by the Mongols, invasion by the Turks, takeover by the Habsburgs.
Secondly, they were thinking about what the French had done in their revolution: thrown off their King, established a democratic government and then nearly conquered the world. Perhaps Hungarians could follow their example
Third, they were thinking about Buda and Pest and realizing that it could be a major city, a capital for the eastern part of central Europe. They were even thinking that it could be a capital of an autonomous, even independent Hungary.
That was Szechenyi’s world view at that time…how to provide for a different and successful future for Hungary?
But even if it was an accidental inspiration, the bridge really seized Szechenyi’s imagination, and he gave over all his efforts and energy to making it a reality. This was a bigger deal than people in this country probably realized, because in Hungary of that day, and in the empire of which it was a part, there really was no such thing as citizen action. If projects were to be undertaken, the ideas came from on high, from the court or court circles, and imposed on the citizenry.
Szechenyi decided that this model wasn’t correct for a society that wanted to join the modern world. The modern world was built on the ideas and inspiration of ordinary people—the Frenchmen who had made the French revoloution, the Americans who had made the American revolution, the Britishers who had made the city of London the most important city in all the world. In Szechenyi’s opinion, everything depended on the actions of the individual.
“We cannot overcome time, and must be patient to see what it may bring. But it IS in our power to stand in the right place. And for Hungarians, the right place cannot be but Buda and Pest, which nature has so designated, because this is the heart of the nation—it must be in order and beat with all its vigor, and gush the lifeblood into the nation’s arteries.”
In l832, he founded a sort of lobbying assocation for the bridge, called the Buda Pest bridge organization—the VERY FIRST time anyone had ever used the term Buda-pest publicly.
This group of citizens began by arranging for a scientific analysis of the features of the Danube bank where the bridge would be built. Then they began to solici the opinions of engineers and architects about what kind of bridge would be best.
Once they had those details, in other words once they had a real start, they approached the Pest county diet, or legislature, with their plan. “The signatories claim with the utmost sincerity that creating a bridge between Pest and Buda is no longer physically impossible.”
The diet gave its preliminary approval, and so Szechenyi and his lobbying committee set out for London, where the acknowledged masters of bridge-building lived and worked.
There they met a man named Tierney Clark, who had built a bridge near Hammersmith in suburban London that was the most modern and attractive bridge built to date. Clark agreed to draw up the plans, to do the engineering tasks associated with the bridge-building.
Another Englishman, whose name was ADAM CLARK, no relation to Tierney, would direct the actual construction of the bridge. In l834, the two men collaborated on the dredging of the Danube at the place where the bridge would be built
The main issues were, first—who would own the bridge and have primary responsibility—Buda or Pest? How would the bridge be financed? That one was easy—you charge a toll—except that noblemen were exempt by long tradition from paying tolls or fees.
It took more than a year of arm-twisting, persuading, threatening and speechmaking—much of it done by Szechenyi himself—to get the legislators to agree that Buda and Pest city governments would jointly administer the bridge, and that noblemen as well as ordinary citizens would be required to pay the toll. If everyone in Buda and Pest would benefit from the bridge, everyone should be happy to pay his or her fair share of its costs—a very radical notion for that day.
In March l836, approval was finally given, and the proposal passed on to the Emperor of Austria, who had the last word.
In March of l838, a little sign from on high that this was an excellent idea: Buda and Pest were hit with the worst flood in history. A terrible winter with lots of ice gave way to a sudden thaw, which burst the Danube dams and inundated Buda and Pest. 3/4 of the buildings in pest were damaged or demolished in the flood; Buda escaped mostly because its buildings were higher up the bank
At any rate, the only bridge then existing across the Danube was obliterated in the first hours.
Meanwhile, the planning for the bridge was only slightly interrupted; in l839, Emperor Leopold approved the plan for the bridge; in l842, the city saw the triumphal laying of the cornerstone.
This bridge is a huge, defining event and symbol in Budapest history for several reasons:
tt was the first permanent bridge over the Danube in Hungary, and it confirmed the positive and negative aspects of geography in Budapest’s history: it was located along one of the great rivers of Europe, a river town, but rivers divide people unless they are bridged. So the appearance of the bridge was a kind of triumph over geography, much as the Erie Canal was in New York.
It unified the two biggest cities in Hungary physically, made them physically one town; it was only a matter of time before they united administratively. By the same token, as you will see, the Brooklyn bridge made inevitable the union of Brooklyn with New York, followed by the rest of the five boroughs in l898. First the physical union, then the political.
The building of this bridge is also cited as the dawn of a new Hungary, the first step towards its becoming a modern entity, the first step on its road to self-determination and independence, to controlling its own destiny. As we just said, this bridge marked the first time in which one individual took it upon himself to launch a project for the betterment of society. Individual inititiative is key to a society’s development, as we’ve seen in New York and other places, and that hadn’t been seen in Hungary prior to this time. Secondly, the bridge was the first instance in which EVERYONE contributed to something that had made life better. Previous to that, noblemen never paid taxes, never contributed anything unless they felt like it. The toll on this bridge that applied to everyone was the first step on the road to all citizens being equal under the law, another indispensable quality of a modern state.
The writer Gyula Krudy:
“Beneath the lofty arches of the Chain Bridge old Hungary passed over into New Hungary. The bridge had a hole, and thorugh it our grandfathers cast outmoded catchwords and ideals from their memories into the Danube. On the bridge the wind was strongest, disseminating the seeds of liberty and renewal along the shores, in the hearts and minds of people.”
The Chain Bridge is a survivor. Even before it was finished, it managed to avoid being blown up in the Hungarian war for independence in l849. It survived the hospitalization of its inspiration, count Szechenyi, in l849. It survived the terrible times Budapest and Hungary went through between World war I and II, and even though Budapest was eventually invaded by the Germans in World War II, it managed to survive until the Russians arrived from the east to chase the Germans from the city; at that time, the Germans detonated not just the Chain Bridge, but all the other bridges across the Danube: the Margit bridge, the Elizabeth bridge, the Franz Joseph Bridge, the Arpad bridge. All of them had to be rebuilt.
All were rebuilt, however, and the Chain Bridge stands again today, as one of the two most important symbols of Budapest and Hungary and the most beloved place in the city.