The Hungarian Parliament, one of the most recognizable buildings in Budapest, looms over the Danube River. The parliament is just steps away from the American embassy. Photo by TTstudio
By Bryan Cronan, Cassia Waligora, and Márk Kollár
On the banks of the Danube River lies the historic city of Budapest, the so-called “Pearl of the Danube.” The city sits between the Budai mountains and the lowlands of Hungary, a geographic representation of the city’s two personalities. Buda’s lush green hills contrast with the architectural masterpieces that line Pest’s streets. These different faces of Budapest provide the city its unique appearance.
Budapest was formed in 1873, when three cities, Óbuda (“Old Buda”), Buda, and Pest, united following the 1867 Compromise between Austria and Hungary. The newly formed Budapest immediately became the cultural center of Hungary.
Although the geographic distance between Budapest and Vienna is less than 250 kilometers, at times the cultural gap can feel vast. Hungary is often seen as a border country between cultures, prompting famous Hungarian poet Endre Ady to call Hungary the ferry country. This ferry moniker accurately describes Hungary’s approach to international affairs—carefully navigating between the East and the West.
Many empires have ruled Hungary over the course of its history, leading to a wide variety of historical and cultural sites. In Óbuda, there is a Roman amphitheater built in 145 A.D., which hosted Roman military exercises. Nearby there is a traditional Turkish bathhouse at Gellért Hill on the Buda side, which is still operational.
In Pest, there is the historic Jewish Quarter, home to the Synagogue of Dohány Street, the largest synagogue in Europe. The Jewish Quarter remains one of the most vibrant parts of the city. Hungarian Jews played a vital role in the country’s culture and history. There were many famous Jewish Hungarian poets, and almost all of Hungary’s 13 Nobel Prize winners were Jewish. Tragically, more than 550,000 of Hungary’s 825,000 Jews were killed during World War II.
The Danube river plays a significant role in the lives of Budapest’s residents. It has been an important commercial route, with merchant ships sailing from Germany to Romania. The Danube also serves as a symbol of freedom, as a passageway to Europe and the West. King Mathias, one of the greatest kings of Hungary, was crowned on the ice of the Danube River in the 15th century.
Hungarians hold tightly to their history and culture, possibly because so many other cultures have attempted to rule the country. Restaurants serving traditional dishes, such as goulash, Hortobágyi palacsinta (the Hungarian version of a crepe), and the potent fruit brandy known as palinka can be easily found in nearly every town.
Although the historical connection between the countries is much longer, 2021 marked the 100th anniversary of official diplomatic relations between the United States and Hungary. Of course, the relationship between the United States and Hungary has experienced ebbs and flows over the last century, but the bedrocks of the partnership—security, economic, and cultural relations—endure.
U.S.-Hungarian diplomatic relations began in 1869 with the establishment of the first U.S. diplomatic post and consular agent to the Kingdom of Hungary. A consul was assigned in 1874, and the post later became a consulate general in 1904. Hungary also opened its first consular post in the United States in 1922, a consulate general in New York City.
Relations between the two countries came to a halt in 1917 after the United States declared war on Germany. After World War I ended, the American Commission to Negotiate Peace and the U.S. Food Administration sent missions to Hungary in 1919, re-establishing ties between the two countries. Formal diplomatic relations resumed, Aug. 29, 1921, after the signing of the postwar treaty and Hungary’s independence. The American Legation in Budapest was established, with Commissioner Ulysses Grant-Smith serving as chargé d’affaires.
Relations between the United States and Hungary were severed again in December of 1941. After WWII ended, President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated H. F. Arthur Schoenfeld as the U.S. representative to Hungary, presenting his credentials on January 26, 1946. A decade after the 1956 Hungarian revolution against the Soviet Union, the United States formally upgraded its legation in Hungary to embassy status.
Today, the U.S. relationship with Hungary is multifaceted. A NATO Ally, Hungary has at times pursued policies at odds with U.S. goals and interests, including their investment in relationships with geopolitical rivals of the United States. Subsequent to Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine, Hungary supported a series of NATO and European Union efforts to provide assistance to Ukraine and impose costs on Russia, but it has also signaled an interest in maintaining close relations with the Kremlin. Hungary has made much progress transitioning to a market economy since the end of communism in Europe, but its democratic institutions are under pressure, as the ruling party has reduced checks and balances, consolidated control of media, and increased the role of the state in the economy.
Despite occasional political complications in the relationship, the vast majority of Hungarians hold favorable views of the United States. The embassy’s public diplomacy section leverages this goodwill to achieve policy goals via a robust bilateral Fulbright Program, various speaker programs, an energetic Youth Council, and several traditional and social media platforms and campaigns.
One of the strongest connections between Hungary and the United States is economic, and the embassy’s foreign commercial service and political/economic section work to maintain and deepen that relationship. The United States is Hungary’s second largest investor after the European Union. The significance of that cannot be overstated. More than 105,000 Hungarians are working for more than 1,700 U.S. companies operating in the country. In the security sphere, the 2019 signing of the Defense Cooperation Agreement illustrated that Hungary is a valued defense partner of the United States, and the strong ties between the two countries militaries undergird the bilateral relationship.
A unique aspect of the bilateral relationship is the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA). In 1994, the United States and Hungary came together to create the first regional training facility to support and train criminal justice professionals. ILEA supports the embassy’s mission by developing global relationships between U.S. law enforcement and officials around the world. Since opening, ILEA Budapest has trained more than 24,000 professionals in Central and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and North Africa.
Post housing includes apartments in Pest and a mix of apartments and freestanding homes in Buda’s residential neighborhoods. Both Buda and Pest offer numerous parks, thermal baths, shopping, and other modern amenities. And because Budapest is a popular tourist destination, one can easily live in the city without learning Hungarian. Public transportation throughout Budapest is also safe and efficient.
Hungary’s central location allows for easy access to most of Europe. A two-hour drive in most any direction and one will find themselves in a new country. Budapest’s Ferenc Liszt International Airport is a short drive outside of town and provides flights to most countries and cities in the region. The travel opportunities are bountiful.
For those looking for activities within Budapest, there is no shortage of cultural and wine festivals, concerts, and recreational parks. In the summer months, one can spend every weekend at a different festival in Budapest and neighboring cities. Ruin bars are a phenomenon in the city, where neglected, pre-war buildings situated in the historic Jewish Quarter were transformed into hipster bars and cool clubs. For a more relaxing atmosphere, Budapest residents turn to the numerous thermal baths and springs, and many flock to Lake Balaton, the largest lake in central Europe, for its serene beaches and nearby winding vineyards.
For families, Budapest hosts several international schools. The most popular being the American International School of Budapest, which serves as the main partner school of Embassy Budapest and is attended by around 95% of the community’s children.
Embassy Budapest is located downtown on Liberty Square, a short distance from the iconic Parliament building. The chancery embodies the long and storied relationship between the United States and Hungary. The chancery has been home to the U.S. embassy since 1935 and has been the scene of several important events in Hungary’s history. During WWII, the chancery temporarily operated under the Swiss Flag. Swiss Consul Carl Lutz, operating from his office on the first floor, helped save as many as 50,000 Hungarian Jews from deportation from 1942 to 1945. Lutz also indirectly assisted the more famous Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg in his rescue efforts. There are stories that Jewish refugees were hidden in the lower levels of the building during the war.
From Nov. 4, 1956, to Sept. 28, 1971, the chancery served as the home of Cardinal József Mindszenty, who was granted refuge during the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. For almost 15 years, Mindszenty lived in what is now the ambassador’s office. Embassy officers brought him food and reading material, walked with him in the embassy courtyard, and attended mass with him.
A notable moment in the bilateral relationship came on May 2, 1945, when a Hungarian Army colonel entrusted Hungary’s Holy Crown to an American Army colonel to protect it from the quickly advancing German and Soviet armies. The crown was originally given to St. Stephen by the pope in the year 1000, and was one of the most powerful symbols of the Hungarian nation. The Holy Crown was secured in Ft. Knox, Ky., until 1978 when President Jimmy Carter sent a distinguished delegation to return the crown to the country in which it belonged, warming the relations between the two countries. Visitors can see the Holy Crown on display in the Dome Hall in the House of Parliament.
The last 100 years of diplomatic relations between the United States and Hungary have been marked by momentous events that have resonated far more than might be expected for a small landlocked country in Central Europe. What the next century holds is anyone’s guess, but there is no sign that it will be any less eventful.
Bryan Cronan is a Pickering fellow in the public diplomacy section. Cassia Waligora is the Rangel fellow in the regional environmental, science and technology, and health (ESTH) section. Márk Kollár is a Hungarian summer intern in the ESTH section.