A Tale of two Hungarian Cities: The Making and Reading of Modern Debrecen and Szeged 1850-1914

Thesis author: 
Livia Szelpal
Academic Area(s): 
Year of enrollment: 
Duration of thesis project: 
Sep, 2006 - May, 2013
Thesis supervisor: 
Judit Bodnár
CEU unit: 
Department of History
Thesis abstract: 

The Topic and Aims of the Dissertation
This dissertation is a tale of two cities and envisages the urban development of two towns, Debrecen and Szeged, alongside their place in the Hungarian urban network in the period between 1850 and 1914. I analyzed the factors that influenced the visual and textual images of these two cities in the second half of the 19th century and investigated the representation and urban identity of these two Hungarian towns, their consequent development in given geo-political contexts, and their historiographical features in a comparative way. My approach is complemented by an investigation of the idiosyncratic cultural and social history of these urban areas.
This research is a rather unconventional work of urban history and an interdisciplinary project. In this work, urban history meets issues related to architecture, sociology, cultural history, literature and ethnography since A Tale of Two Hungarian Cities aims to map the paradigms of change within the methodology of urban history by offering an interdisciplinary analysis of both towns. I focus on the (self) representation of each city, a manner of representation which gains increased importance by a transformation from the narrated city to the cultural translatability of the narrating city.
There is a longstanding tradition of urban historical research in the Hungarian historiographical tradition. However, there are still a number of methodological questions, which are waiting to be explored, among them the comparative analysis of provincial cities. This dissertation maps the histories of Debrecen and Szeged in a less traditional way: besides analyzing the economic and social histories of the two towns, I focus on their cultural histories (and their development) and on the identity-making processes in these towns, especially as presented in their local newspapers.
I analyze the representation of these cities in three areas: 1. urban planning and architecture; 2. local press, and 3. associational life. It is through these foci that I show how Debrecen and Szeged that had been only emerging provincial towns took off after the Compromise of 1867, and developed through different trajectories, especially after the Great Flood of 1879 in Szeged. I argue that their interurban competition played a formative role in their development.

The Structure and Methodology of the Dissertation
The terminus a quo of the dissertation aims to place Hungarian urbanization in its Central European context. The research aspires to highlight the differences between the capital and the regional centers, and to rethink the function and definition of the regional center. Moreover, the dissertation focuses on the theoretical question of modernization and urban modernity in the Hungarian countryside. Debrecen and Szeged differed in their religious, social and economic status, as I highlight in the first chapter titled as Debrecen and Szeged in the Hungarian Urban Network of the 19th Century. By the turn of the century, Szeged was the second largest city after the capital Budapest, but was neither an Episcopal city nor a county administrative city, but had a Catholic majority and also a strong Jewish community. Although at this time Debrecen was still economically stronger than Szeged, it had started to decline as a cultural center of the region. Though Debrecen was the second largest city in the 18th century, later it lost its position and became only the third largest town, due to its strong economic hinterland. Debrecen was traditionally a Calvinist city with a long tradition as a regional center. During the Reform Era, with the modernization process underway, many smaller urban centers developed. Among all these emerging sites, Szeged became a striking example of rapid urbanization; meanwhile, Debrecen seemed to lag behind in its development.
My research includes the investigation of the cityscapes of Szeged and Debrecen, that is, the different layers of architectural styles of these towns, in the 19th century presented in the second chapter titled as The Urban Planning and Modernization of Szeged and Debrecen in the Post-Compromise Period. The Flood of 1879 in Szeged was so devastating that it completely destroyed the city. The reconstruction was planned after the Parisian and Viennese Ringstrasse model by designing boulevards and avenues. Meanwhile, Debrecen followed the old city planning model by preserving the historic core of the city.
In the formation of Szeged’s urban consciousness two main rival newspapers, Szegedi Híradó (from 1859 published twice a week) and Szegedi Napló (from 1878, daily) were instrumental; both of them substantially influenced the image of the city. The civil consciousness of the town was defined vis-à-vis the other main city in the countryside, Debrecen. Thus, Szeged became, as Szegedi Napló testifies, the symbol of cultural dynamism and openness to the world, in contrast to the self-enclosed constructed image of Debrecen, which I discuss in the third chapter titled as The Constructed Image of Debrecen and Szeged in the Post-Compromise Period. My research also includes the investigations of the voluntary associations and local literary societies, which had a cultic function and were run by local journalists, who were well-known writers, for example: Kálmán Mikszáth (1847-1910), Ferenc Móra (1879-1934) and István Tömörkény (1866-1917). These personalities had a strong impact on the construction of local society and the urban image of the given city that I highlight in the fourth chapter titled as Associations and their Impact upon Debrecen and Szeged’s Urban Image in the 19th Century. The time-frame of my research ranged from the second half of the 19th century to the outbreak of the First World War (1914).
The primary sources for the research are the local newspapers of Debrecen and Szeged found in the National Széchenyi Library (OSZK) and the Somogyi Library, Szeged: Szegedi Híradó (1859-1890 [1925]), Szegedi Napló (Politikai, közgazdasági és irodalmi napilap), 1879-1944), together with magazines and journals such as Hüvelyk Matyi (1889-1919, élcz lap, a Szegedi Napló vasárnapi melléklete), the Debreczen (Politikai és közgazdasági hírlap, 1869-1919), and the issues of the Debreceni Képes Kalendáriom [Debrecen Picture Almanach]. Besides the local newspapers, this dissertation aims to use the literary works of local journalists, authors and poets (e.g. Ferenc Móra, István Tömörkény and Gyula Juhász). Photographs about the old Debrecen and Szeged, the Great Flood, and the reconstruction are also primary sources as historical documents and used not only as illustrations; I found them in the Magyar Nemzeti Múzeum [Hungarian National Museum] and in the Magyar Néprajzi Múzeum [Hungarian Museum of Ethnography]. Moreover, crucial sources are the minutes of the towns’ general assemblies, the files of the Csokonai Kör [Csokonai Circle] stored in the Hajdú-Bihar Megyei Levéltár [Hajdú-Bihar County Archive], Debrecen (hence abbreviated as HBML) and the Dugonics Társaság [Dugonics Society] preserved in the Csongrád Megyei Levéltár [Csongrád County Archive], Szeged (abbreviated as CSML), and the registers of the General Assemblies of the Municipal Committee [Törvényhatósági Bizottsági Közgyűlési Ügyek Mutatója] stored also in the HBML.
I found particularly useful the journal databases and indexes in the Fordham University Library in New York, especially the Making of America e-collection of Cornell University, the American Periodicals Series Online and the ProQuest Historical Newspapers New York Times (1851-2006). The articles about Hungary, Szeged (mentioned as Szegedin in the contemporary sources) and Debrecen (named mostly as Debretzin) helped me to embed their urban development in a broader international context.
Theoretical Background
My basic stance stems from Norman Davies and Roger Moorhouse book, Microcosm. Portrait of a Central European City, in which they argue that the analysis of the historical portrait of a middle-ranking provincial center can be more fruitful than the study of individual histories of major cities of Central Europe, such as Vienna, Prague, Berlin, and Budapest. These major cities did not portray the country’s authentic level of development as its provincial centers did, which “found themselves on the receiving, rather than at the ruling end” [Davies and Moorhouse 2002, 10]. Major influences on my research, focusing on middle ranking provincial cities, were also Rosemary Wakeman’s study on Modernizing the Provincial City Toulouse, 1945-1975, Markian Prokopovych’s work on Habsburg Lemberg: architecture, public space, and politics in the Galician capital, 1772-1914.
Writing an unbiased urban history that does not dwell on provincialism was a real challenge, especially in the context of Szeged and Debrecen. Among my primary sources were early urban history monographs such as János Reizner’s pre-Flood history of the old Szeged [A régi Szeged, 1884-1908] and Zsigmond Kulinyi’s history of the New Szeged after the Great Flood [Szeged uj [sic!] kora: a város ujabb [sic!] története és leírása, 1901]. Their unique narrative style provided an excellent example of the period’s particular historical imagination. The end of 19th century and the beginning of 20th century was the golden age of local histories and urban biographies; all emphasized the nation-building role of the given city and their citizens. The main aim of these local histories was to ferment local patriotism among their citizens. This entailed the idea that the improvement of the country was strongly connected with the development of its cities. This idea was stated by Gyula Éhen, the mayor of Szombathely (town in Transdanubia), in his work on The Modern City [A modern város, 1897], a paradoxically neglected book, the forerunner of urban monograph in Hungary and a worthy counterpart to the Chicago-School urban historian Robert E. Park’s Modern City and Its Problems.
At the beginning of the 1990s, the notion of urbanization in historiography corresponded to the macro-dynamics of modernization, which emancipated urban history from the anachronism of local history that focused on the history of one particular settlement only. This paradigm change was, among others, promoted by the institutionalized activities and conferences of the “Hajnal István Kör” [HIK, István Hajnal Society] that focused, besides other issues, on the questions of Hungarian urban history.
After 1989, the representation and perception of the cities went through radical changes. Urban studies moved from empirically grounded research to the level of postmodern theoretical reflections and the field of comparative urban history began to flourish. Gábor Gyáni, in his Történészdiskurzusok [Historical Discourses, 2002] takes into account the general linguistic turn together with the changing narrative paradigms of history. In Identity and Urban Experience: fin-de-siécle Budapest (2004), Gyáni points in the direction of (re)phrasing urban identity, and adapts the theories of Georg Simmel [The Metropolis and Mental Life, 1903] and Richard Sennett [The Fall of Public Man, 1978] to the Hungarian context.
This dissertation is one of the new contributions to the field to the post-socialist type of Hungarian comparative urban history. The novelty of the present research to this branch of studies is threefold. Firstly, it provides a new and additional comparative dimension to the study of the Hungarian urban network by focusing on the relations and interurban competitions of two regional centers in the countryside in the Post-Compromise Period, all analyzed within an interdisciplinary framework. Similar works published in this field are Lajos Rúzsás’s A városi fejlődés a XVIII-XIX. századi Dél-Magyarországon [Urbanization in Southern Hungary in the 18th and 19th Century] and Lajos Timár’s Debrecen társadalma, 1920-1944, [Debrecen’s Society, 1920-1944] and his A gazdaság térszerkezete és a városhálózat néhány sajátossága a két világháború közötti Magyarországon [Some Characteristics of the Economic Structure and the Urban Network in the Inter-War Period]. These works, however, are not interdisciplinary and do not focus on the issue of the city’s image and representation.
Secondly, my work aims to critically rethink the regional center function (Cf. Beluszky Pál) by questioning what makes a provincial town a cultural regional center in the Habsburg Monarchy and to present the connections between the cultural region and the regional identity in a Central European context.
Thirdly, it targets for investigation the visual and textual images of the towns by ‘reading the city,’ a new paradigm in understanding urban areas. I use the ‘reading the city approach’ as an intellectual framework, since the texts that I focus on are concentrating on different layers of interpretation of the provincial town’s image and can be considered as texts; each text produces an image that is constructed by the local media, its social relations, civic associations, and literary societies.
This dissertation presents the unconventional tale of two cities, Debrecen and Szeged in the second half of the 19th century. Their narratives, at some points, cross each other: in their competition for the third university, in their aims to erect statues as cultural commemorations, in the relations of their associations and local journalists. However, their stories diverge in a sense that Szeged’s urban development was more spectacular and accelerated after the Great Flood of 1879; meanwhile, Debrecen followed a more static urban progress model. I am interested in what made Debrecen and Szeged determining provincial urban sites despite their pertaining rural fringes and characters. The research focuses on the making of their identity as debreceniség [authentic Debrecen identity] (cf. Balogh István) and szögediség [authentic Szeged identity] (cf. Bálint Sándor) that consequently contributed to the identity and mentality of their citizens. Moreover, the dissertation concentrates on the texts written by foreigners that saw these cities, and who described the life and lifestyle of its citizens.
I argue that the identity of each of these cities is constructed and structured on different levels giving birth to multiple dominant narratives, which can diverge from the image constructed by public history or by a glorified memory. The city as a work of art is not simply a cultural representation but a palimpsest of interpretations. In this regard, my analysis focuses on the development of the cityscape (including conscious landscaping projects), the constructed image of the press about Debrecen and Szeged, the identity-forming role of the voluntary civic associations, the foundations of civil societies in both cities. The research aims to move from the conventional classification of towns (e.g. legal and functional definitions) and to focus on the representation strategies and legibility of these cities.
Szeged, on the basis of the analyzed texts, is a ‘newcomer’ melting pot, a place of religious openness, cultural, and industrial dynamism, while Debrecen is represented as economically strong but at the same time rather self-enclosed within its religiously homogenous community. Moreover, the urban modernization of Debrecen was relatively stagnant in comparison to the rapid urban development of Szeged after the Great Flood of 1879. One of the recurring metaphors in the newspaper Debrecen is the ‘civilizing mission’ of the city, based on its prosperous economic status, and the enduring cívis tradition. Nevertheless, both cities prove to have the same aspirations for ‘colonizing’ and ‘civilizing’ their own hinterland, and seeking the local patriotic idealistic role of a national capital by using the tools of literature and journalism.
Both Debrecen and Szeged were able to revive after natural disasters, which developed in the architecture, artistic life and the newspapers of the cities. Szeged’s geographic position proved to be (alas, at times quite disastrous but finally) rather fortunate than Debrecen’s. However, the socio-geographical positions of both market towns were advantageous concerning their regional border position. After the Compromise of 1867, Debrecen and Szeged reflected a modern urban image, with the emergence of the public sphere and the increasing urban consciousness of the citizens. However, both towns preserved their rural character - as a striking contrast to the modern city center - in the surrounding ‘tanyavilág’ [‘homestead’] since they were agricultural towns in origin. Debrecen’s urban development took place in smaller steps, due to the reigning cívis attitude and Calvinism. However, this is a contradiction and proves to be a peculiar Debrecen phenomenon, since Reformation did not mean stagnation in other countries; rather, due to its protestant ethic, what Max Weber defined in Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus, 1934], it helped the progression of capitalism. Szeged had the ability to be totally reborn, while Debrecen preserved the traditions and values of the past.
The tragic event of the Great Flood of 1879 had also some quite positive consequences for Szeged; it encouraged the state authorities to readdress the issue of the regulation of the river Tisza, and to finance this project together with the rebuilding of the city. In spite of their similarities in the mixture of urban and rural elements, Szeged and Debrecen were different in their urban growth. While Debrecen was the product of an ‘organic’ and natural spatial development, Szeged had a touch of artificiality because it was rebuilt and replanned completely after the Great Flood. The city’s planners had a practically free hand in introducing the latest achievements of urban planning when they designed the new master plan of the town. Consequently, the high quality and the remarkable speed of the reconstruction accelerated Szeged’s urbanization and modernization in numerous spheres. The master plan created a united and modern architectural layout for the town by introducing a modern infrastructure, which would serve as a model for other provincial towns in Hungary. As a result, by 1910, Szeged had become the second largest city in Hungary, after Budapest.
Meanwhile, Debrecen followed the old city planning model by preserving the historic core of the city. In spite of the subsequent improvements, street regulations and transformation of the street network, the historic core of Debrecen still include[d] the elements of small medieval villages and the main routes linking them to the old market place. Despite the more conscious urban planning after the Compromise Period, Debrecen’s urban planning took place in several waves in the 19th century, a process that changed the irregular street network of the downtown and the rural character of the city’s edge. One of the manifestations of the emerging bourgeois consciousness was the investment in architectural infrastructures which was the prerequisite for social and cultural transformation.
The research focuses on the modern urban identities of Debrecen and Szeged, and highlights the crucial differences in their reaction to natural disasters (floods in Szeged and sequential fires in Debrecen), and the architectural infrastructure boom fostered by the Compromise of 1867. As my research shows, Szeged strived for the title of ‘progressive modern urban model,’ while Debrecen remained a ‘static modern urban environment.’ The stereotypical picturing of Szeged vis-à-vis Debrecen and this production of locality have their origins in the economic and religious differences of the cities. These local newspapers gave a new conceptual framework for historical imagination, e.g. the revival of the frontier myths of Szeged.
My research concludes that the local newspapers, voluntary associations, and literary societies in both cities had crucial impact upon the image of these cities and had several important functions: they engendered local patriotism within Szeged’s and Debrecen’s own civic communities, strengthened the sense of local solidarity, and urged the local elite to embark on the construction of a new, prominent local identity. These social, political and cultural factors were the basis of a dynamic local society, which was more open to modernization than many other cities of similar size at the turn of the century in Hungary.