Budapest, Hungary – March 23 marks Polish-Hungarian Friendship Day, formalised on that same day in 2007 by the Hungarian Parliament, with Polish authorities following suit.
Hungarian historian Professor Gábor Lagzi describes the Polish-Hungarian friendship as ”a phenomenon […] like two oak trees that grow separately, but their roots are fused, grown together in the soil.” Today we take a journey through the centuries and examine the “intense political, economic and cultural relations” that led to those two trees, so deeply rooted in the tumultuous centre of Europe, becoming so intertwined.
Warring in the Middle Ages
From its earliest days, the Polish Commonwealth maintained close relations with the Kingdom of Hungary. Polish princes were elected to the Hungarian throne throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, including King Władysław III.
Conversely, in 1576, the Hungarian noble Stefan Báthory became King of Poland and is fondly remembered as one of that epoch’s most effective rulers.
He presided over a modernisation drive of the Commonwealth’s armed forces – including the creation of the soon-to-be-famous Winged Hussars – and led them to numerous military triumphs, starting with the Battle of Lubieszów where Polish and Hungarian troops roundly defeated numerically superior German forces.
Military conflict was, indeed, one of the primary means by which the Polish-Hungarian bond was strengthened. As British historian Norman Davies put it, “common fears inspired common attitudes,” perhaps first among which was that of the Ottoman Empire.
Together, Poland and Hungary formed a bulwark for Christendom against the Islamic East, and the two states fought side-by-side in a number of battles such as Varna (1444), Kosovo (1448) and Mohacs (1526).
Poles and Hungarians fight for independence
Norman Davies points out that the two mighty kingdoms mirrored each other’s fates throughout the early modern era. Hungary’s dissolution in the 6th century was followed two centuries later by the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The establishment of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy in 1867 coincided with the granting of considerable autonomy to Polish Galicia, which was granted its own parliament and where Polish was recognised as an official language.
These concessions by the Hapsburgs came in response to decades of nationalist resistance by the Poles and Hungarians – among others – more often than not in concert with one another. When the Hungarian nobleman Francis II Rákóczi launched his War of Independence against Austria in 1703, Poland gave the rebel armies shelter and supplies. When the uprising collapsed in 1711, Rákóczi and other leaders fled north where they were protected from Hapsburg reprisals by the Polish Royal Court.
Roughly a century later, after Poland had suffered Hungary’s earlier fate, many Hungarians made their way to Poland to fight in the 1830–1831 November Uprising. In advocating loudly for Poland’s right to independence, the Hungarian Parliament was a lone voice in Europe and this was acknowledged by the exiled Polish National Committee in Paris, who publicly thanked the Hungarian people and declared, “there is no nation which would more openly and boldly acknowledge the friendship and righteousness of our cause”.
The Poles returned the favour two decades later. When the Hapsburg Emperor dissolved the Hungarian Parliament to force Hungary into centralised rule by Vienna, Poles in Galicia passionately defended the rights of Hungarians to self-determination, and after receiving many thanks, announced – in words that would henceforth become a mantra for Polish freedom fighters – “Your cause is our cause, and our cause is your cause”.
Poles and Hungarians continued to fight side-by-side in the spirit of “for your freedom and ours”. In Poland, several hundred Hungarian volunteers fought alongside the Poles in the doomed 1863–1864 January Uprising against Russia, with some 4,000 Polish insurgents later taking refuge in Hungary. Hungarians and Poles even fought together outside their homelands for foreign patriotic causes, such as Giuseppe Garibaldi’s successful campaign to reunite Italy and overthrow the Bourbon regime in 1861.
The 1848 Hungarian Revolution
Perhaps the greatest example of Polish-Hungarian ties from this era was the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, in which the Polish general Józef Bem became a national hero of both countries.
Even before his entrance into Hungarian history, Bem was a seasoned warrior: he’d distinguished himself with a Polish artillery regiment in Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, then fought with valour against Tsarist forces in the November Uprising.
In 1848, Bem was recruited by Lajos Kossuth, Hungarian leader of a rebel anti-Hapsburg government, to serve as one of its chief military commanders. Over the subsequent ten months, Bem conducted approximately 30 battles that saw the Hungarians consistently prevail over larger Austrian, Russian and Romanian forces. Even though they couldn’t understand a word he said, the Hungarian soldiers came to revere their brilliant and passionate Polish commander, nicknaming him “Bem apó” (“Grandpa Bem”).
Eventually Kossuth’s rebellion collapsed and Bem, already wounded three times and now one of the most wanted men in both Austria and Russia, fled to Turkey. He went on to do many more great things, including becoming the governor of Aleppo where, at the risk of his life, he saved the Christian population from being massacred.
However, it was his starring role in Hungary’s 19th century that has made him a figure of great affection and admiration. Indeed, his statue in Budapest would serve as ground zero for the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, prompting the journalist Sebastien Roblin to reflect, “Even long in the grave, the Polish general continued to bedevil foreign occupiers.”
A chaotic interwar period
Following the collapse of the imperial order in 1918, both Poland and Hungary were re-established as independent nation-states. However, exact borders remained a contentious issue in the ill-defined post-war map. When the 1920 Treaty of Trianon decreed that Carpathian Ruthenia should transfer from Hungary to Czechoslovakia, the Polish Government refused to ratify it.
A year later, the Czechoslovak Government got revenge by blocking 30,000 Hungarian cavalry from entering Poland to assist in its defence against Soviet invasion.
In 1938, when Czechoslovakia was annexed by Nazi Germany in a disturbing premonition of things to come, the re-establishment of a common Polish-Hungarian frontier nevertheless sparked scenes of jubilation, with border guards from both sides fondly embracing each other.
An enduring Polish-Hungarian friendship through dark times
Although the two countries found themselves on opposite sides of the Allied-Axis divide, Professor Gábor Lagzi points to World War II as “one of the most beautiful moments in [the Hungarian-Polish] relationship”.
In 1939, when Hitler requested transit of German forces through Hungary to attack Poland from the south-east, Hungary’s leader, Admiral Horthy, flatly refused “as a matter of Hungarian honour”. This refusal would allow members of the Polish Government, as well as thousands of Polish soldiers and pilots, to escape and regroup to continue fighting on new fronts.
Max Hasting’s All Hell Let Loose recalls a typical episode from this period, when Hungarian loyalty to the age-old friendship became a rare light in Poland’s darkest hour:
“A few Polish cavalry units made good their escape into Hungary, where they surrendered their arms. At the barracks of the 3rd Hungarian Hussar Regiment, exhausted fugitives were moved to find themselves greeted by the unit’s officers, led by the elderly Colonel von Pongratsch, drawn up in full ceremonial uniform. A few days later, when the Poles left to face internment, the bewhiskered veteran embraced each one before bidding them farewell. Such old-world courtesies were welcome, because they had been banished from the pitiless universe of which most Poles now found themselves inhabitants.”
Altogether, Hungary took in more than 100,000 Polish refugees. “At that time,” Professor Gábor Lagzi reminds us, “Hungary was in an alliance with Germany… but it still proved to be a safe haven for Polish refugees. The German authorities […] were not happy. Still […] all Hungarian people, from aristocrats to commoners, felt a lot of sympathy for the Polish people.”
Indeed, 27 schools were established for Polish children to be able to continue their education, centred around a Polish Youth Camp in Balatonboglár. Only in March 1944, following the German occupation of Hungary, was the facility shut down and the teachers sent to concentration camps. Today, the building in which the youth camp was located now hosts the House of Polish-Hungarian Friendship.
In 1944, when troops of various nationalities were summoned to help crush the insurrection in Warsaw, the Hungarian Government quietly issued orders to its soldiers not to fire on their Polish counterparts. Instead, the Hungarians provided the insurgents with food, medical supplies and even ammunition, and helped wounded insurgents and civilians escape the burning city. They did so at great risk, since German policy was to execute any Axis soldier caught fraternising with the Poles.
The log of the German Ninth Army describes the reality on the ground during the uprising as far as Polish-Hungarian interactions were concerned:
“The Hungarian Corps has been transferred to the ninth wing of the SS Panzer Corps. However, the general commanding the Hungarian Corps has reported quite openly to Ninth Army that no purpose is served by using his reserve division to block the flow of Polish reserves into Warsaw. The Polish population has always had very warm relations with the Hungarians thanks to their centuries-old tradition of friendship. The general’s troops are inclined to fraternise with the locals; and it cannot be said how long they will remain under their officers’ control. Their equipment is minimal, and consequently their effectiveness in combat is virtually nil. The Ninth Army command has taken the decision not to employ the 12th Reserve Division in a security role.”
In another account, cited in Norman Davies’ Rising ‘44, the camaraderie is even more blatant:
“The approaching column of Hungarian infantry was beset by passers-by, and was forced to stop. We were standing right on Krasiński Square and from all sides we threw questions at the soldiers in different languages. Earlier they had smiled at us rather sheepishly. But lately, they expressed their sympathies quite openly. Traditional Polish-Hungarian cordiality was breaking through the walls of the enemy camp, and the chasm that had divided the enemies of Hitler, like us, from his allies, was crumbling.
“‘Long live Poland!’ shouted one of the Hungarian soldiers.”
Under the Soviet yoke
After World War II, both Poland and Hungary found themselves under Moscow’s control – a state of affairs, history had already made clear by then, that neither people would accept in the long run.
Sure enough, in 1956, a rebellion broke out in the Polish city of Poznań that would quickly spread to Budapest and lead to the Hungarian Revolution. A little-known fact about that seminal event of the Cold War is that it was, initially, a show of support for what was happening over in Poland.
As Professor Paweł Machcewicz put it, “The very direct ignition for the Hungarian events came from Poland, because the people who gathered in Budapest on October 23 wanted to demonstrate solidarity with the Polish struggle.” This was symbolised by the fact that, in the words of the Hungarian ambassador to Poland Mihaly Györ, “our revolution started with a march to the monument of General Józef Bem, the Pole who fought for Hungarian liberty.”
When news of the fierce street fighting in Budapest got back to Poland, the Poles immediately swung into action. More than 11,000 Poles donated blood and over 44 tonnes of medical supplies were flown to Budapest, with much larger quantities following by rail. As British historian Nicholas Bethell writes:
“Collection boxes were placed in the streets of Polish towns, quite unguarded, and passers-by put money in them to provide food and medical supplies for Hungary, which were flown there by aeroplane… Other Polish supplies for Hungary were dispatched by train, only to be refused transit across Czechoslovakia… A few train loads were actually escorted across Czechoslovakia by the forcible efforts of Polish paratroop units – an admirable, though shockingly illegal measure that damaged Polish-Czech relations… It was incidents like these that gave rise to the oft-quoted sayings about October 1956 that “the Hungarians behaved like Poles, the Poles like Czechs, and the Czechs behaved like the swine they are”. It was a vicious, partly justified gibe that was to sound very out-of-place twelve years later when the situations of the three countries were entirely reversed.”
Hungarian historian János Tischler said of Poland’s outpouring of support: “We owe Poles a debt of gratitude. It was a very practical manifestation of the long-lasting friendship between the Polish and Hungarian nations.” Later, Poland was – unsurprisingly – the first Soviet-bloc country to commemorate the Hungarian uprising, unveiling a plaque in Warsaw in 1986. Just three years before the two nations would finally shake off the Soviet yoke within months of each other.
“Whether with sword or tankard in hand”
In 2015, a memorial plaque commemorating the Polish-Hungarian friendship – as embodied by the events of 1944 and 1956 – was unveiled in Budapest’s Corvin köz, one of the central locations of the Hungarian Revolution. “The past has proven numerous times that cohesion gives those in trouble an extraordinary strength”, said the deputy mayor of the district, Sára Botond. “Solidarity gave both nations perseverance in their struggles.”
In 1991, following the collapse of communism in central Europe, the leaders of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia convened in the Hungarian town of Visegrád, where 600 years earlier Kazimierz III of Poland, Károly I of Hungary and Jan I of Bohemia had held a similar congress to foster trade and political cooperation. There they formed the Visegrád Group which remains an important collective voice in European politics today.
When the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán visited Poland in 2016, he praised the long story of Polish-Hungarian relations as “a tried and tested friendship, with a history going back hundreds of years. We are talking about two peoples who value the past, appreciate it and see it as important. Friendships which go back centuries are extremely rare treasures in Europe.”
Indeed, to this day, virtually anyone in Warsaw or Budapest can repeat the age-old jingle in its Polish or Hungarian form:
“Polak, Węgier, dwa bratanki,
Tak do szabli jak do szklanki
Lengyel, magyar – két jó barát,
együtt harcol s issza borát.
The Pole and the Magyar like brothers stand
Whether with sword or with tankard in hand.”
By Mateusz Buczko
Mateusz is an Australian of Polish descent living in Melbourne. A communications specialist by day, he has a passion for European history outside of work and is currently writing a historical fiction novel about the ‘cursed soldiers’ of post-World War 2 Poland.