It’s always a good idea to call your history short. It’s attractive to readers and it provides you with a ready-made defence in case any critics detect gaps in your arguments or coverage: would have loved to put it in, but, sorry, just no room...Stone himself pays homage to the best all-in-one English language history of Hungary, Bryan Cartledge’s The Will to Survive, a remarkable (huge) labour of love by a former British ambassador. However, if you want a punchy, entertaining account of the past 150 years of Hungary, this is the book.
He wears his prejudices on his sleeve, and there are a lot of them, occasionally rather wearisome. At one point, he compares Austria’s Empress Elisabeth from the 19th century, the “Sisi” beloved by Hungarians, with Diana, Princess of Wales: “She simpered for Austria.”
On the whole, though, this is Stone clear-eyed and on sparkling form. He concludes that this is a time of hope for Hungary, with the world’s gaze once again on the country. But then he points out that it is a place that has built a new Iron Curtain against outsiders, where hundreds of thousands of young, educated people desperately want to leave. Obsessed by immigrants, Hungary’s principal problem is emigration. This doesn’t strike one as hopeful.
His affection and knowledge of its people and events illuminate the pages of his new book. As he readily acknowledges, other historians, notably the former British ambassador Sir Bryan Cartledge, have done much more comprehensive jobs. His aim is to be readable and concise... The result is by turns erudite, glib, patronising and tantalising. Dense slabs of names and places are leavened by sparkling turns of phrase... Stone’s brain is brimful with knowledge of European history, but it sometimes overflows in the wrong places... If relevance is one problem, accuracy is another. Precision sometimes takes second place to colour.
As polyglot as an educated archduke, he knows Hungarian in addition to German, French, Russian and Turkish. Moreover, he has been visiting Hungary for more than 50 years, since he first went as a student in the dark days of 1962... Stone’s book shows a profound knowledge of Hungary and will become indispensable for travellers. It may, however, inspire even in ardent nationalists distrust of the nation state, and what Stone calls ‘patriotic clamour’.
Unfortunately, the author does not satisfy the expectations raised in the preface. Aside from scattered sentences saying that Orban was “an excellent speaker and very well-read in English as well as in Hungarian”, Stone is silent about the epoch-making changes that have taken place under Orban. He knows a lot about Hungary and does not hide his sympathy for the country and its people. More regrettable is the fact that he often digresses from the main story to more distant subjects such as the Crimean war... The end result is a slightly unbalanced book: strong on witty observations and general gossip, short on historical and sociological analysis. Given the importance of Hungary in the European debate right now, that is a pity.