10: Hang the Kings!
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Or behead them like the French? Belgium broke away from the Habsburg realm, and,
although the dying king had withdrawn his decrees, Hungary also threatened to do the same.
For this reason, the younger brother of Joseph II, Leopold II (1790-1792), hastily
announced that he would follow his mother's path and not his brother's. A lengthy
bargaining about the details of his course and the ways of dividing power commenced
between the Estates and the monarch.
The Jacobin movement in Hungary, which ended in tragedy, was a part of this. Ignác
Martinovics, a Franciscan friar, was the leader of a secret society faithful to the
principles of the French Enlightenment but never able to win the masses over. This
ardently capable and polymathic scholar and materialistic philosopher was an agent
provocateur, a secret agent of Vienna. What did the court want from Martinovics?
Nothing more than to exert pressure on the conservative aristocracy to take the wind out
of the sails of a radicalism, made all the more dangerous because it was uncontrollable,
through the sheer existence of the group he organized and recruited from a middle class
longing for bourgeois liberty. And in addition, to "draw the badger out of the
bushes", to establish the identity of the revolutionary, the seditious group. Though
Martinovics was a figure full of ambition who indulged himself in double and triple games
and gambled perilously, it still cannot be denied that, in his own blundering
Machiavellian way he meant well. At times he deluded himself with the belief that he could
induce the king to undertake reforms, at times with the idea that his undercover work was
purely tactical and that he would ultimately have the upper hand. A split personality, he
did not see the net he had woven for himself; he was even less able to retreat when his
cause was fated to fail. And there was another change on the throne: the son of Leopold
II, Francis 1(1792- 1836), was a decidedly retrograde ruler who immediately ended all
ambiguity about the Hungarian Jacobin movement. He put its participants on trial and
beheaded its leaders, with Martinovics in the fore. Four authors, the best of the
Hungarian Enlightenment, were also among those given long prison sentences.
Leopold II had barely embarked on the war against revolutionary France; it was Francis
I who deployed the troops. This is not the place to explore in detail how this war
requiring so much Hungarian blood turned into the struggle against Napoleon, into an all
European involvement. Perhaps it is enough to point out that Marie Antoinette, the French
queen beheaded in Paris in 1793, was Maria Theresa's daughter; in touchingly naive
letters, the mother warned her daughter about the frivolous life that undoubtedly had a
role in the eruption of the French people's wrath. Barely seventeen years later, in 1810,
the defeated and disgraced Francis I could save the savable only by giving his daughter,
Marie Louise -thus Marie Antoinette's second cousin- in marriage to Napoleon, whose first
marriage had ended under tasteless circumstances. (. . . you, happy Austria, make
marriages...?) It was of small consolation to the arrogant Habsburgs that by now Napoleon
had been emperor for a long time, wanted to establish a dynasty, and had, for the most
part, liquidated the achievements of the French Revolution.
Meanwhile, did the Hungarians cast wary eyes at Paris, as the Jacobin poet, János
Batsányi, recommended they do? Maybe. We cannot even say for certain how they perceived
it. No doubt, the French Revolution's swift and surging veerings aroused their interest
and, indeed, their enthusiasm as well, though its real impact did not unfold then but a
half century later. The changes in France rather alarmed the nobility. Later, Napoleon
could, as emperor, again exercise magnetism with his imposing victories. Yet, not very
many cherished the hope that Hungary's national interests could actually be realized
through him. This Corsican was too greedy, his fortunes were too fickle! This opinion was
also reflected in the fact that when Napoleon -the living legend himself- in 1809 entered
Hungarian soil with his armies and in a proclamation (composed by Batsányi) called on
Hungarians to break away from Vienna, his summons fell on deaf ears.
The year 1809 was a memorable one in Hungarian military history and social development.
A call for the nobility to take up arms was issued for the last time. And the army of the
Hungarian nobility, joining an Austrian force of similar strength, was annihilated at
Györ despite its slight edge in numbers.
This humiliating defeat later served the progressive forces of Hungary as an important
argument in support of modernization. Namely, it revealed how definitely obsolete was the
legal system under which the nobility paid for its privileges by defending the homeland
-in case of an attack- with their swords. For all practical purposes, the nation now
terminated this "social pact" that was agreed upon very long ago and was so
vaguely outlined. It no longer asked for "protection" from the nobles, who had
turned boorish, had lost their military virtues, whose cast of mind was engulfed in
cobwebs and their swords covered with rust, and whom the Corsican drubbed so ignominiously
This verdict was entirely justifiable from a historical perspective. It is, however,
worth mentioning that it was naive to expect twenty thousand insurgents who have just been
mustered into an army from their humble village estates -and as many Austrians who, though
regulars, were nevertheless demoralized- to break the neck and block the way of that
Bonaparte who more than once had rolled victoriously with his veterans from one end of
Europe to the other. The problem was not with the personal courage of the majority of
Hungarian nobles entering battle at Györ. They fought hard, bled, died, and were routed
-they did their duty. Their crime was not the defeat. It was that they did not sense
earlier that time had passed them by. (Of course, I myself am biased. Namely, one of my
ancestors and his brother, lesser nobles from Zala County, were there; saving each other's
lives and that of their commanding officer, they distinguished themselves in that ominous
battle at Györ.)
On the other hand, both the Hungarian nobility and the nation derived substantial
profit from the Napoleonic wars for a long time: demand for and prices of agricultural
products increased. At this time, the chief export items, in addition to wheat, were wool
and tobacco. However, the conservative restoration which the Holy Alliance organized by
Vienna imposed on Europe weighed ever more heavily politically on Hungary too. And with
regard to the economy, war expenditures and defraying of debts with paper money, and the
inflation of currency, particularly its frequent devaluation, once again sharply
confronted the ruler, who had returned to absolutism, and the Hungarians.
Among the latter, national awakening took a new direction. Writers -including those who
had been imprisoned as Jacobins- stood at the head of that trend of the Hungarian
Enlightenment which discovered our language. In our country, Latin was the traditional and
second mother tongue of the nobility -Horace was a frequently quoted "domestic"
poet, almost a family member in most country seats of the nobility and since the sixteenth
century, the pressure to make German the official language of the state kept reviving. But
could it be possible for Hungarian to remain the poor, tolerated third language in its own
country! Let it take its rightful place everywhere! And if to this end it must be
developed, then the writers will invent and form new words and make this language suitable
not only for the national literature but also for the purposes of science and state life.
The desire for modernization had many roots. The cities and the middle classes were
powerless, but they did exist. They could not stand in the forefront, but they could show
their faces. While many of them had earlier traveled around Europe as soldiers, now, with
the advent of more peaceful decades, it was the aristocrats who traversed the continent
and had the opportunity to make comparisons. The best of them recognized the shocking
symptoms of backwardness and the curse with which it depressed their own and the nation's
prosperity. Many of the lesser nobles became poor: their ancient estates were broken up or
disappeared from under them. They had to take on official duties, and this was not just a
new phenomenon in their lives; their participation in community life was also something
entirely different from the time when they viewed the world through the protection of the
sheepskin, or precisely for its protection (in other words, their patents of nobility
traditionally written on parchment prepared from sheepskin).
The giant of this period, the first half of the nineteenth century, was an aristocrat
with an athletic build and a noble, sharp-featured face, Count István Széchenyi. His
father had already founded two of our major public institutions with generous donations,
the National Museum and the National Library that today bears his family's name.
Széchenyi himself gave an almost extravagant sum for the establishment of the Hungarian
Academy of Sciences. But this was only one episode in his life.
"Shall the waters of the homeland always flood with boundless rage its most
fertile regions, and shall the arbitrariness of poison emitted by swamps always breed
misery and death? Shall the peaks of the Severin and the crags of the Danube always block
our communication with other inhabitants of the world? A single lean year plunge half the
country into mourning in future as it so often has in the past? The small tax now levied
upon the people become increasingly burdensome with the passage of time? Shall a permanent
bridge never link the heart of the homeland, Buda and Pest? A national theater forever be
denied to a people who, so to speak, possess nothing outside their own language? A better
knowledge of agriculture never clothe in green our sun soaked, barren plains and
leaf-littered heaths? Manufacturing, fabrication, and trade never elevate the wealth of
our country? The Hungarian forever remain unknown abroad? No, no! Our country, deserving
of a more beautiful life, must cast aside this pity or these blemishes worthy of
disdain." (Hitel [Credit], 1831.)
How numerous are the themes in just these few lines, in a single paragraph of his
written lifework extending over countless volumes: improvement of waterways, a bridge, a
stone theater, agricultural knowledge, industrial manufacturing, commerce. Let us look at
just one of them: the flooding. The Carpathian Basin is an enormous flat-bedded
"skillet" in which the streams all flow to the interior; the Danube is the only
one flowing outward. And even with just the territory of present-day Hungary in mind, half
its inhabitants live in such an area, and one-third of the agriculturally cultivated land,
most of it the best- lies in regions that floods regularly destroyed in earlier times,
before Széchenyi initiated defensive operations. Holland is the only other example in
Europe of similar struggles between water and man, where the ocean is the enemy and where
polder reclamation continues today.
But we also regard István Széchenyi as the father of inland steamboat navigation. And
adopting the methods of MacAdam, the Scottish engineer, he organized the construction of a
network of stone streets. He promoted bank and credit enterprises and supplies of money
for the economy. He recognized the value of the Balaton, the largest lake in Central
Europe, which others wanted to drain and put to the plow. He supported horse racing as one
of the bases for modern animal husbandry. It would take too long to list his other
far-reaching ideas and accomplishments. Now it can also be revealed that while, as today,
the developed West mightily protected its inventions, its technical achievements from the
East, the aristocratic Széchenyi, at the cost of bribing a customs official, smuggled
across the Channel a gas appliance whose export was banned under the imposition of the
death sentence. On that occasion, perhaps, of greater consequence to him than the risk of
his own life was the possibility that his arrest would have very painfully affected his
relatives and his friends in the most exclusive circles of the British aristocracy and the
court who a few days earlier had gathered around him so enthusiastically.
And yet, the life of this splendid man was nothing but inner struggle, discord, and
anguish. He had to struggle until his death, not only with his country's backwardness but
also with blockheads or, perhaps, the very hotheaded. His rash and sinful relationship
with his older brother's wife, an Englishwoman named Caroline Meade, cast a shadow on his
youthful period; he won his great love only after many years, after her husband's death,
though this greatly desired, patiently awaited, and late marriage failed to succeed. And
in connection with Széchenyi, too, we must mention his Hamlet-like character: his journal
is crammed with doubts, terror, and thoughts of death.
Younger than he by a decade and more radical (perhaps merely apparently so) was the, in
fact, déclassé Lajos Kossuth, a member of the gentry who built first a
provincial and then a parliamentary career for himself. With him -and the dispute about
Széchenyi and Kossuth still the subject of heated debates, today- we arrive at the
Hungarian chapter of the 1848 wars of independence in Europe.
In the middle of the century, youthful parliamentarians -delegates, secretaries, and
deputies- law students, young writers, and other intellectuals introduced into Hungary the
ideas that roused even a whole series of capital cities between Paris and Prague even to
the point of revolution at the end of winter and in the spring of 1848. Lajos Kossuth
played a paramount role in these events. When speaking of him, we must mention the special
merging of social roots, character, and possibilities he manifested. He spent the years of
his youth in Zemplén, the locale of Tokay wine, and, holding office in the county's
administration, he bore a lion's share in suppressing the uprising resulting from an
outbreak of cholera in 1831. The embittered and impoverished serfs of northern Hungary
held their own masters responsible for the epidemic, believing blindly that wells
disinfected with chlorine had actually been poisoned. The army suppressed their rebellion,
and bloody reprisals, executions, and mass floggings followed. At this time, Kossuth,
displaying more than a modicum of courage and executive ability, protected his own class,
though he increasingly perceived the symptoms and consequences of stagnant social
development in Hungary in the rebellion.
He was an Adonis and a magnificent orator. When his career in Zemplén County came to a
standstill, he sought a new arena for himself in Pozsony (Bratislava). Exchanging the
provincial forum for the national, he discerned with great sensitivity the shortcomings of
the press and the deficiency of information, the paralyzing effect of censorship. First
his parliamentary reports -handwritten in the beginning- constantly obstructed by
established authority, and then his ever-widening publicist and political activities
increased his prestige and circle of followers. He helped organize the boycott of Austrian
goods and the development of domestic industries, based, lacking capital, on national
zeal; while engaged in these, he promoted the wearing of national attire by women.
And thus, that Kossuth was maturing whose leadership role seemed to become almost
unmistakable in 1848-49. He was already the chief political factor when the concrete role
he took was still narrow in scope.
In Hungary, the sparks of ideas flying back and forth between Vienna and Pest -and
Pozsony, where Parliament was in session- detonated the popular movement on March 15,
1848. Even though the uprising would be terribly fiery and seething, the road was, in the
beginning, still open to constitutional resolution. Compelled only by the obstinate and
perfidious attitude of the court in Vienna and swept along by the innate laws of
radicalization, the Hungarians arrived at armed conflict and then the act of dethronement
at the parliamentary session in Debrecen.
"What do the Hungarian people want? Let peace, liberty, and harmony prevail!
1. We want freedom of the press, the abolition of censorship.
2. A responsible Ministry in Buda and Pest.
3. An annual parliamentary session in Pest.
4. Civil and religious equality before the law.
5. A National Guard.
6. A joint sharing of tax burdens.
7. The cessation of socage.
8. Juries and representation on an equal basis.
9. A national bank.
10. The army to swear to support the constitution, our soldiers not be dispatched
abroad, and foreign soldiers removed from our soil.
11. The freeing of political prisoners.
12. Union with Transylvania. Equality, liberty, and fraternity!"
These were the Twelve Points. Instead of going into the details as to what the demanded
cessation of socage, in the given period of Hungarian feudalism, really meant or why the
union with Transylvania, which earlier had again been forced under the rule of Vienna, was
judged necessary, I would rather call attention to the degree to which the imprint of
place and time is felt in the drafting of this dramatic proclamation: the fervid haste,
the makeshift formulation that occurred in the heat of the moment. The twin of the Twelve
Points is Sándor Petöfi's "National Song", written in the
course of the night of March 15, 1848, which opens on this high-sounding note:
Rise Hungarians, your country calls!
The time is now, now or never!
Shall we be slaves or free?
This is the question, choose!
To the God of the Hungarians
We swear we shall slaves
No longer be!
The "National Song" could only partially fill a role as the
Hungarian "Marseillaise" in the 1848-49 War of Independence, because
neither then nor now was truly good music composed for it. So, when actors and zealous
patriots recited it, the crowd could speak mainly the refrain aloud with them but not sing
The Twelve Points and the "National Song" are the two texts
with which revolutionary Pest indicated that there was no longer a time lag between word
and deed. If the abolition of censorship was present in the first point, demonstrators
seized the best-known press in Pest, and, immediately printing the prose and poetic
proclamations, they flooded the streets with leaflets. In
Buda they freed the prisoner" Mihály Táncsics from jail, which was such a
notable act of the 1848 bourgeois revolution because Táncsics was a forerunner of the
still non-existent Hungarian proletariat.
We shall continue to follow only the main currents of events. The Habsburg Empire
became inflamed or glowed on the verge of flaring up, and the king, Ferdinand V
(1830-1848), or rather his councilors acting in the place of the sick and undistinguished
monarch, at first easily -too easily- assented to the formation of a responsible Hungarian
government, in which both István Széchenyi and Lajos Kossuth occupied posts as Minister
of Public Works and Transportation and Minister of Finance respectively. The Prime
Minister was Count Lajos Batthyány, who did not really want a post so open to many
pitfalls but who, precisely because of his well-known unparalleled integrity and
composure, enjoyed wide confidence.
Were fire and water being mixed in this government? Well, Széchenyi and Kossuth had
never disagreed about major goals, only about paths leading to them. Széchenyi was afraid
of a sea of flames, whose spread he considered unstoppable; he believed that the barriers
that Kossuth would have ignited by throwing firebrands at them could be removed by
argument and patience. Széchenyi liked to argue and could do so, Kossuth was able to
inspire. But soon there was no need for arguments. Inspiration, on the other hand, became
indispensable ammunition, supplementing gunpowder occasionally. But it is not certain that
all this vindicates the inspirer against the arguer .
When Vienna came to its senses, it did not attack frontally. Exploiting the fact that
Croatia, which was directly dependent on the Hungarians within the Habsburg Empire, would
have itself liked more independence from the Hungarians even as we did from the Austrians;
the court, thus offering something that did not, or did not directly belong to it within
this peculiar system of state law, mobilized the Croatians. However, their forces invading
from the south did not reach Pest. The hastily mustered Hungarian army, which consisted
mainly of territorials, dispersed and routed them. But since they fled to Vienna and not
home to Zagreb, their pursuers also headed in this direction.
They did so all the more because an uprising was occurring in Vienna at the beginning
of October. If not the king himself -even Petöfi was to "recommend" this only
in a later poem- the rebels did hang the Minister of War on the street. The first
responsible Hungarian government, which, in fact, was a coalition balancing various
tendencies, resigned. The Committee of National Defense replaced it. Lajos Kossuth was its
leader. However, the Hungarian army, though it did cross the national border, came to a
sudden halt before Vienna. Not before the enemy. For a time, caution and the fiction of
constitutionality gained the upper hand. And when the situation at home continued to grow
more radical -and in the meantime, the displaced court tried to turn the Serbians as well
as the Rumanians against the Hungarians- the Hungarian army which eventually moved ahead
to relieve a Vienna besieged by the reorganized Imperial forces suffered defeat.
At the end of 1848, the court compelled the incompetent Ferdinand V to resign. Francis
Joseph I (1848-1916), his nephew, who was sixteen years old at the time, took his place,
even "stepping over" his heir-apparent father. Though at the time of succession
to the throne he was in the clutches of his bigoted and dictatorial mother, it can be said
of him now that he was to fill a determinative role in the region for sixty-eight years.
Who was being verified at home by later developments, if, indeed, the quest for
verification can really have any meaning in a revolutionary situation? Victorious in
Vienna, the Imperial forces soon launched attacks on Hungarian soil as well and occupied
both Buda and Pest. Then, although battles of varying success went on almost everywhere in
the country, the 1849 spring campaign essentially produced victories for the Hungarians.
In Transylvania, the Polish General Bem provided brilliant leadership; he was the
impassioned itinerant soldier of Central European revolutions, who was to close his life
in final exile in Aleppo as a Turkish pasha, a convert to Mohammedanism. The Hungarian
commander-in-chief of the army, Arthur Görgey, became, perhaps, the most frequently and
most widely controversial general in our history, although no one could ever question his
personal courage and military capability; however, his temperament did not make him very
suitable to lead a revolutionary army. His obstinacy and vanity embroiled him in
an inevitable rivalry with Kossuth, who, in many respects, had a similar temperament. The
friction between the political and military leadership of the revolution was ceaseless.
Meanwhile, the army itself was not unified; it was rent by generals of divergent
character, cast of mind, political views who sought to outvie one another.
Thus the domestic situation was both encouraging and troubling. For a time, the nation
successfully supported with paper money -called the Kossuth banknote- an economic lifeline
for uniforms, food, and munitions for the armed forces that was not bad under the
prevailing circumstances. In the newly established war industry, jack-of-all-trades
Hungarians worked competitively -the Székely Áron Gábor created a cannon factory almost
out of nothing- and so did industrial and manufacturing families that had recently
immigrated but were quickly becoming Hungarians at heart. The personal participation of
Jews in Hungary in the War of Independence was extensive and not only in the sense of a
But history repeats itself. The conflict of interest between the noblemen and serfs had
already appeared in the Rákóczi period. The law had already declared the liberation of
the serfs. True, but the court in Vienna had also accepted this law. Consequently, this
achievement had only a slight connection with the issue of national independence. On the
other hand, many of the less important services of serfs remained in place to which the
law did not apply; their survival or abolition continued to be the subject of debate. The
destitute peasant, the cotter, gained nothing worth defending.
Francis Joseph I's Olmütz Constitution was prepared. In some ways it put Hungary in a
situation similar to that which was characteristic of the time after the Turks, when
martial law prevailed. It, however, declared the equality of rights for the minorities in
the Habsburg Empire. The Hungarians should have done at least that much as well. Or would
not even this have satisfied every natural desire of the non-Hungarians living in the
border provinces of the Carpathian Basin?
In this situation, the dethronement proclaimed in Debrecen after extensive debate was a
daring leap forward. Kossuth became regent; his government, however, had moderate
tendencies and was open to negotiation. Was the dethronement both a severance and a search
for compromise? But no one was left to negotiate. A few weeks after the act of
dethronement, the Czar of all the Russians, Nicholas I, offered armed assistance to the
Austrians. At their meeting in Warsaw, Francis Joseph I publicly thanked him by kissing
The czar's army, made up mainly of Cossacks, forged ahead, not without forced delays
but enjoying superiority nevertheless, against the Hungarian forces caught between two
fires, who sometimes fought magnificently, but sometimes were demoralized. By now, a
decision enunciating the rights of nationalities or any other endeavor would have been
futile. Kossuth resigned and fled to the east. On August 13, Görgey, invested with full
powers, surrendered with the main Hungarian army to Russian troops at Világos, in Arad
As with Count Sándor Károlyi's act in 1711, we are again pierced by doubt: was Arthur
Görgey a traitor or not? To this very day, volumes that would fill a library and dozens
of dramas addressed this question. Let us lay down some arguments and facts. The Hungarian
forces kept decreasing and weakening, both in morale and equipment. The dethronement
turned many away. Cholera was destroying the czar's troops, but an epidemic is hardly
selective. General György Klapka, who withdrew to the powerful fortification at Komárom
with his own garrison troops and with the mass of people joining them, put up resistance
even after Világos, and obtained complete amnesty for himself and all his men when he
finally capitulated. Görgey trusted the amnesty promised by the czarist generals;
however, the Austrians disregarded it after the surrender, to the disgust of Russians with
finer feelings. There might have been a corner of the country -for example, the Tihany
peninsula stretching into Lake Balaton- where the remaining insurgents, barricading
themselves, could have made the siege so costly that they might have won terms comparable
to those gamed at Komárom.
Generally, in history, we call it fruitless to raise the question "what would have
happened if . . . ?" But it is a tragic fact that whereas Görgey capitulated with
his main army on August 13, the Austrian Council of Ministers instructed the military
regime on August 16 to undertake negotiations with very favorable terms; however, when
news of Világos arrived in Vienna, a new order calling for severe reprisals replaced this
The czar's army marched out of Hungary. The Austrian Field-Marshal Haynau had command
over life and death in the country. On his orders, the death sentence was carried out on
October 6 in Arad against thirteen generals by a hangman or -out of mercy- by a firing
squad. Perhaps, weighed against the great numbers of other victims, it is somewhat unfair
for us to mention the Arad Thirteen so frequently; the day of their martyrdom is a day of
national mourning, although another hundred or so died and thousands were imprisoned,
while tens of thousands drafted as common soldiers had to serve unpredictable numbers of
years in the godforsaken spots of the empire.
On October 6, 1849, the Austrians also executed in Pest Count Lajos Batthyány, the
former Prime Minister who had, however, counted on being a moderating element to the very
end. It is a question for psychologists to answer why Francis Joseph I afterwards kept the
painting of Batthyány's execution in the Burg apartments so that he could look at it
every day. Was he so imbued with hatred toward him? Or was he repenting in a peculiar way?
Both are plausible in an emperor with such a strange character.
Haynau, who was also called Hyena of Brescia because of his earlier atrocities in
Italy, created an atmosphere that even Vienna soon could not stomach. The emperor relieved
him. On his last day, in his wounded fury, in a schizophrenic and capricious manner,
Haynau ordered immediate executions and performed unexpected acts of mercy at the same
time. His name and portrait were so well known, so widely spread throughout Europe at the
time that when he traveled as a private citizen, English longshoremen recognized him and
beat him up. At the end of his life -again a strange turn- he bought a village estate in
eastern Hungary and lived there as a meek landowner. Not so long ago, a researcher
collected fantastic tales about him and his family still being told by people living in
this area. In them, Haynau is a Dracula-like vampire.
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