|Stephen Sisa : The Spirit of Hungary|
The "Greatest Hungarian":
Count István Széchenyi
"He was a man who felt quite at ease on wildly galloping horses, amidst the fire of cannons and a hail of bullets, in dueling with sword, in the reception halls of kings and great leaders, in leading his company of hussars to the attack or in storming the hearts of beautiful women in their parlors.
He knew most of the great personalities of Europe. He had lunched with the King of Bavaria, dined with the Duke of Wellington, and was a frequent visitor at the home of Louis Philippe. He was a friend of Alexander Humboldt and the Duke of Gouiche, and was often a guest of the Duke of Northumberland and of the British Ambassador, Granville, in Paris. Socially he was in frequent contact with Metternich, the Princes Grassalkovich and the Eszterházys, to name only a few."
And when this "aristocrat of aristocrats" returned to Hungary, his father took him, along with his two brothers, to one of the several Széchenyi estates. There, old Széchenyi lined up his sons before a delegation of serfs who had come to greet their landlords, and said:
"Look at these serfs, my dear sons. It is their work and sweat which produces the wealth that enables you to live according to your rank, never forget this and treat them accordingly. Always show them compassion, love and gratitude. And to demonstrate this gratitude, step forward, my sons, and kiss the hand of the oldest serf in this deputation.
The Széchenyi brothers complied obediently and ceremoniously.
Un-Hungarian Magyar Magnates
This was the spirit that reigned in the family of Count Ferenc Széchenyi, the scion of a long line of soldiers and churchmen distinguished for honorable service to their country. István, the youngest of the brothers, was born in Vienna on September 21, 1791, since his parents divided their time between the Austrian capital and their estates in Hungary, as was customary with many members of the higher Hungarian nobility. The Magyar aristocrats of the time, enticed by the splendor of Vienna, did not care much for living in Hungary; rather they lived off what riches they could take from Hungary. Even less did they bother to cultivate Hungarian culture or learn the Magyar language. Thus, the potential leadership of the Hungarian nation was in the process of losing its national identity.
This situation was spotlighted by an episode which took place when a delegation of Magyar magnates led by Palatine (nádor) Joseph visited Italy. During their tour they stopped at Bologna, the seat of Cardinal Mezzofanti, the famous linguist. The Cardinal, to please and surprise his guests, welcomed them with a speech delivered in Hungarian. The delegates felt visibly uncomfortable throughout the speech, and the reason soon became apparent: Not a single member of the delegation understood what the Cardinal had said!
So it was not unusual that when István Széchenyi received an education deemed proper for a youth of his standing, that education left little room for the specific culture of his country. He soon forgot whatever knowledge he might have had of the Magyar language when at the age of 18 he was sent with his brothers to join the Imperial Army in a war against Napoleon. As a Captain of Hussars he distinguished himself in the battle of Leipzig, or more correctly on the eve of the battle, when in a long, death-defying ride through enemy territory he personally delivered a message of vital importance to Bernadotte, the King of Sweden, whose troops were waiting for a signal to join the battle against Napoleon.
The deed of the young Hungarian Count became the talk of Vienna, enhancing his reputation, especially among women, who already regarded him with considerable interest. All the more so, because, as was common knowledge, his father had already allotted his vast estates to his three sons, making István the prospective owner of 70,000 acres. To all these advantages it may be added that he was by no means unpleasant in appearance. His eyes, though dark and piercing, were sometimes sad and gentle. The continued movements of his finely-shaped dense eyebrows gave his face an expression of uncommon energy. His voice was deep and sonorous and his manners amusing, though somewhat bold, and, as his future wife remarked, "perfidious, ironical and mystifying."
Széchenyi was still a young man of twenty-two at that time and had not yet embarked upon his public career. Into this period of his life fell the peccadilloes of youth that reached their climax in the sound whirl of the Congress of Vienna. Much of his time was spent on leave in Vienna, where he lived the gay and luxurious life which the Court and society of that brilliant city offered young men of his rank - a life varied, in his case, by periodic visits to France and England.
But, as it turned out, this kind of life failed to satisfy him in the long run. His definite desire for self-improvement was allegedly triggered by a conversation he overheard during a dinner he had attended at the home of a French diplomat in Paris.
In an adjoining room one diplomat had asked another, "Who is that handsome Hussar officer?" The other diplomat had replied, "A Hungarian magnate who is very witty but incredibly ignorant. It is a pity that he is wasting his talents and wealth aimlessly instead of using them to benefit his country."
The young captain was shaken by what he had just heard, and suddenly realized that the men were right. Upon returning home Széchenyi began to search for a purpose and a cause, but first of all sought to improve his rather uneven education which had been interrupted by war. An exuberant imagination and a restless and original intellect accelerated this process of self-improvement. From the reading of English, French, German and Italian writers, he went on to the study of English political writings and of English conditions in general. He was particularly impressed by the democratic equality prevailing in England. When he left that country, he concluded that: "there are three things in England which must be studied: the Constitution, engines and horse breeding." About engines in Hungary he later said: "Feudalism does not like the smell of steam."
In 1814, at the age of 23, he started a diary which he kept for the rest of his life. Owing to this diary, his inner thoughts have become more accessible to posterity than those of any other great leader of Hungary, before or since.
In his diary he analyzed himself day by day, year by year, decade by decade. He was a pessimist and bent on fretting like his father a great patriot who founded the Hungarian National Museum and the Széchenyi National Library, and who held high offices as a favorite of the Emperor-King. However, when the elder Széchenyi saw the "Germanizing" tendency of the government, he gradually withdrew from public affairs with a wounded heart. He sank deeper and deeper into melancholy, seeking consolation in religion and spending most of his time in his twilight years in praying in the family chapel. In his diary István wrote: "I learned only after my father's death that all these years he had been mourning the sorry state of the nation, and worrying that Hungary was beyond rescue. As a Magyar he died without hope."
Hungary's condition during these years was very sorry, indeed. The Széchenyi children grew up in an era when a system of spies and secret police exercised strict censorship and controlled the whole country, which had sunk to the status of a Habsburg province in desperate economic straits.
Ferenc Széchenyi may have died without hope, but not without leaving István a deeply touching last testament filled with admonitions encompassing all aspects of life. He exhorted him to always protect his serfs and to regard his personal wealth not so much as his own but as a trust for which he would be held responsible by God. Concerning manners, the elder Széchenyi observed:
"It may be true that the way we receive a visitor depends on the clothes he wears, but the manner in which we see him to the door is determined by the way he had conducted himself."
István valued his father's last message so much that he bore it on his person at all times encased on a chain hanging from his neck. Once when Széchenyi toppled into the Danube under the Chain Bridge in Buda-Pest the message was almost ruined. but his wife succeeded in restoring the washed-out script.
A decisive event in Széchenyi's life occurred in
1820 at Debrecen when he first met Baron Miklós Wesselényi, who was only 23 at the time but whose fame had already swept across the border from Transylvania into Hungary proper.
To Széchenyi's searching, fretting soul meeting Wesselényi was like finding an oasis in the desert, for this young man encompassed all the virtues of the Magyar race; not only was he Széchenyi's equal but he surpassed him in many respects. In him, Széchenyi could find someone to emulate, though Wesselényi was six years his junior. After meeting Wesselényi, Széchenyi jotted in his diary: "His love of the land, his lofty conceptions and charisma have enchanted my soul..."
The two young men soon became close friends and during the next year Széchenyi spent months in Miklós' estate in Zsibó, studying horse breeding and absorbing the spirit of Transylvania from his friend. The following year the two aristocrats undertook an unusual journey through Europe mostly on foot.
A "Grand Passion" for Life
They arrived home in the spring of 1823. For the time being, Széchenyi settled down in the family castle at Nagycenk in Hungary. By now his parents were dead (Széchenyi himself was 32) and his relatives were urging him to marry and raise a family. But this was not to be just yet, for the woman he fell in love with was already married to another man, the aging Count Károly Zichy. The Countess, née Crescence Seilern, the mother of three children, became the grand passion of Széchenyi's life for several reasons. Although she was beautiful, she differed from those famous beauties who had attracted him in earlier years. Comparing them to Crescence he wrote in his diary:
"They all try to pierce one with their glance. I like eyes that take in my glance and reflect it gently and modestly." Such were the eyes of Crescence. Her whole personality was gentle and tender, feminine and affectionate. If her beauty attracted him at first, it was her virtue that held him at a distance while she had been the wife of Count Zichy - and this was no small achievement, for Széchenyi was impatient and passionate.
This extraordinary woman was destined to be the guiding spirit who inspired Széchenyi to define and pursue the main goal of his life: the regeneration of Hungary.
In a memorable letter Crescence encouraged Széchenyi with these words:
"Our country must rise through you. I will help you in this endeavor; I want to gain distinction myself in serving our beloved Hungary...We must not miss a single day without doing something to promote our great enterprise. It is our duty to do as much as possible. To only begin is not enough. You have to pursue your beautiful mission relentlessly!"
Crescence wrote these words in German because she was an Austrian, but in her heart she felt Hungarian.
For ten years their friendship remained on the level of an exceptional devotion on Széchenyi's part, and pure friendship and wise counsel on Crescence's. These years were for Széchenyi a period of sweet suffering. He compared himself to Tasso: "He should indeed be envied for his sufferings, envied by those who do not know the sweet torments of love."
Then in 1835 Crescence's husband died, and finally, a year later, Széchenyi and Crescence were able to marry. Happily married, they eventually had two sons.
A Great Deed in Five Sentences
Széchenyi began his great reform work in a peculiar way: He introduced horse racing and founded the National Casino in Buda-Pest, patterning it after English clubs which were meeting places for noblemen to discuss public affairs and play cards.
Far from being frivolous endeavors, Széchenyi's moves to concentrate these activities in Buda-Pest were a shrewd way of enticing back from abroad those Hungarian magnates who were then pursuing their favorite "vices" in foreign capitals. He hoped that Buda-Pest would thus become a focal point where potential leaders of the nation could gather. In one letter he quipped: "Some of my friends would surely not like it if they found out that it was really them, and not the horses, that I endeavor to train...
The National Casino succeeded even beyond Buda-Pest, for it was copied in a hundred towns and
cities, where these casinos indeed became gathering points for Hungarian nobility and the burghers.
These were, however, but preliminary steps toward Széchenyi's grand entrance into Hungarian public life in 1825. He first attracted attention at the Diet of Pozsony by delivering his maiden speech to the Upper House in Hungarian. This act was an historic first, because until then the deliberations had been held exclusively in Latin. Széchenyi's example was soon followed by other magnates. At that time he was still an officer in the army but decided to resign from his position to devote himself entirely to public affairs. He wore his uniform for the last time on November 3rd, 1825, when with a single deed he wrote his name in golden letters onto the pages of Hungarian history.
The deed itself consisted of but five sentences, spoken in the Lower House where the subject on the agenda was how to raise funds for an institute for the cultivation of the Hungarian language and literature. The leader of the Opposition, Pál Nagy, had just strongly attacked the Hungarian magnates, accusing them of having dissociated themselves from the body of the nation.
Upon hearing Pál Nagy's speech, Széchenyi asked for permission to say a few words and then spoke five sentences, saying in part:
"Since I am not a delegate, I have no say in the discussions, but I am a landowner and should an institute for the cultivation of the Hungarian language be founded, I am ready to sacrifice one year's income (60,000 forints) from my estates for this purpose!"
Széchenyi's announcement came as a bombshell and inspired other aristocrats to follow his example. Their action secured the establishment of the Hungarian Academy of Science (Magyar Tudományos Akadémia) within one hour.
The next day, Miklós Wesselényi, bursting with enthusiasm, wrote a letter to a friend about Széchenyi's deed: "Yesterday was a glorious day in our history that will illuminate the centuries ahead... What you fiery apostles of our language have been yearning for in vain, became a reality through the magnificent decision of a Hussar Captain who speaks only broken Hungarian."
A Declaration of War on Mediaevalism
Széchenyi's first deed may have been the most famous during his career, but not necessarily the greatest one. More significant was a book he wrote in the following years under the simple title Hitel (Credit) but which was published only in 1830 due to censorship. It was an epoch-making declaration of war on the mediaevalism that had been suffocating Hungary for centuries.
The book dealt with Hungary's economic problems, attacking the nobles' exemption from taxation and the whole "antiquated and rusty system" which protected the rights of the nobility. (At that time there were about 700,000 nobles in the land holding power over about 9,000,000 serfs.) Széchenyi pointed out that although the soil of Hungary was rich, its proprietors were poor "It is our own fault and not that of the king if we are wasting our estates as poor farmers."
In Hungary neither land nor capital were of any value, because there was no confidence, no credit. The sale, and even the mortgaging of farms was virtually impossible because, by the law of family entail (siség, aviticitas), transfer of land was illegal as long as any scion of the original proprietor family survived. Széchenyi recommended that the provision in the constitution exempting the nobility from all taxation be amended. and the law of entail be abolished so their estates could be offered as security for the loans so badly needed to modernize farming. In this way "credit" would stimulate the circulation of new blood in the economy.
He pointed to his people's shortcomings, many of which had been summarized as early as the 17th century by Count Miklós Zrínyi: conceit, a tendency to daydream and an ephemeral enthusiasm that was of no value unless coupled with endurance. "It is not enough to merely love the homeland - we have to love her properly," he remarked. To counterbalance these shortcomings and eliminate them, Széchenyi offered a moral program. "The number of educated minds is the real power of a nation," he wrote. "It is not fertile valleys, mountains, ore and climate that make for strength, but the mind that uses natural resources intelligently"
Széchenyi concluded his first great work with these words:
"The past is out of our hands, but the future may still be ours. Let us discard useless memories and work for the great awakening of our homeland through consistent patriotism and loyal unity. Many people believe that Hungary belongs to the past, but I believe firmly that Hungary was not but will be." (Magyarország nem volt, hanem lesz.)
Although Széchenyi followed up his Hitel with two similar works (Világ, Stádium), he was not a writer primarily, but a man of action. In his grand design for the regeneration of Hungary the Danube River occupied an important place as a magnificent natural highway whose potential thus far had been neglected. Until then, the river was considered a nuisance insofar that it had separated Transdanubia from the Great Plains in general, and Buda and Pest in particular A primitive boat-bridge which functioned only in the mild season had been the sole link between the two cities. In those days Buda on the right bank and
Pest on the left bank were two separate cities, the two being united only in 1873. Visualizing just such a unification, Széchenyi often stood on the banks of the Danube dreaming about building a bridge that would unite the two cities into one great one that would become the future capital of Hungary.
He was not a daydreamer as many of his compatriots were, but an achiever of dreams. While in England in 1832, he met the famous bridge builder, Adam Clark, and persuaded him to come to Hungary to build a suspension bridge over the Danube between Pest and Buda. This idea became the most cherished project of Széchenyi's life, With the bridge he also wanted to breach the nobility's tax exempt status, since his plans called for a toll bridge where everyone, including nobles, would pay. His plan caused quite an uproar among the nobility who considered the toll a kind of tax, and even prompted their leader, Count Cziráky, to denounce this new (plan) - to build a suspension bridge over the Danube between Pest and Buda.
The Taming of Two Rivers
In 1830 Széchenyi breathed life into the main transportation artery of the land by launching the Danubian Stream Navigation Company. Before it could function, however, the Danube had to be regulated by eliminating natural obstacles to navigation. The biggest obstacle to developing international traffic was a "blood-clot" caused by the Iron Gate (Vaskapu) where the river, squeezed into frothing narrows, breaks through the Carpathians on her course to Wallachia in the Balkans. In Széchenyi's time this "blood-clot" was caused by huge underwater rocks making navigation impossible. To study the problem first hand, Széchenyi organized a boating expedition from Buda-Pest on a makeshift boat he christened Desdemona. Accompanied by a few friends, he cruised down river to the Black Sea as far as Constantinople. His boat may have been primitive in design, but not in style; it was loaded with stores of food and there was a cook on board as well as three servants and four crew members.
During the following years Széchenyi made no fewer than eight more trips on the Lower Danube, persisting until the project was finished under the direction of the great Hungarian engineer, Pál Vásárhelyi.
Széchenyi also deserves credit for regulating Hungary's second largest river, the Tisza. In his time the incredible meandering of the river not only made navigation impractical but contributed to the yearly inundation of large territories. Széchenyi and his entourage experienced first hand just how crazy the Tisza's pattern of meanders was when after the death of Vásárhelyi, he invited the famous Venetian engineer, Peter Paleocapa, to accompany him on a tour of the river. The members of the expedition, after having a hearty breakfast in a csárda (inn) at riverside, boarded their boat to begin the trip downstream.
"What would you like to have for supper, gentlemen? the innkeeper inquired on seeing them out.
"Thank you, dear fellow, we are not coming back but will continue our trip down the river," Széchenyi replied.
"That is exactly why I've asked you," the innkeeper said with a grin, "because those who head downstream from here in the morning usually take their supper in my inn. The Tisza brings them back to just a stone's throw from here."
It was then when Paleocapa realized what a gigantic task regulating the meandering river would be.
"Though it might cost a lot of money, this task will still be easier than changing the unmanageable nature of the Magyars," quipped Count Széchenyi.
Actually, Paleocapa failed to grasp the problems caused by the Tisza. While Vásárhelyi, completely familiar with the terrain, had planned 101 cross-cuts to shorten the river's course by one third, Paleocapa erroneously applied the same pattern he had used to regulate the Po river in Italy, and made only 21 short cuts. A decade later his work had to be corrected according to Vásárhelyi's original plans.
Széchenyi was undeterred by obstacles, were they natural or political. He relentlessly continued his work of reform through a variety of projects: he introduced steamship traffic on Lake Balaton, founded banking houses and societies for the propagation of Hungarian wines, a society for stock breeding, and promoted the growing of silkworms. He also assisted in planning and erecting the first shipyard at Buda, and in the building of the first large flour mill. Eventually, the Hungarian capital became one of the world's largest milling centers, surpassed only by Minneapolis in the grain belt of the United States. Last but not least, it was Széchenyi who initiated the building of railroads in Hungary.
Széchenyi's workload was so heavy that in 1835 he declared to a group of young Hungarians that in the future, "I will rise one hour earlier and go to bed one hour later to devote even more time to the service of my country." Széchenyi kept his promise.
Two Stars in Collision
Széchenyi's plans, as elaborated on in his writings, envisaged many reforms for which the consent of the Estates and the Diet was needed, but the Diet showed little inclination to accede to them. Most of the older members clung to the ancient privileges of the nobility, while the younger men who concurred with his designs did so on grounds wholly alien to Széchenyi's thinking. While Széchenyi's reformism
did not extend to the legal and political relationship with Austria, these young men drew their inspiration from the principles of the French Revolution, seeking above all else, emancipation from the absolutism of Vienna.
Chief among them as a new star in Hungary's political firmament was Lajos (Louis) Kossuth, who became the flagbearer of these revolutionary ideas. In contrast to Széchenyi, who wished economic advancement to precede everything else, Kossuth favored national independence first. From this difference developed a tragic conflict between the two giants. (For illumination of this conflict a scene from Ferenc Herczeg's play The Bridge is included at the end of this chapter.)
General opinion did not side with Széchenyi and even Miklós Wesselényi drew closer to the orbit of the new star. Since Széchenyi was not a politician per so in a much politicized nation, the reins of leadership began to slip from his hands. Nevertheless, Kossuth always showed him reverence and in a speech delivered at a meeting of the Assembly of Pest he called Széchenyi "The greatest Hungarian," an epithet adopted by posterity. After the speech, Széchenyi walked up to him and asked: "Sir why did you elevate me to a height where I cannot possibly stay?" He never called Kossuth by his first name.
By this time Kossuth had spent three years in prison for political activities, and Wesselényi had also been condemned to a similar prison term, of which he only served a very short time. Széchenyi left no stone unturned to save his friend and even humbled himself by kissing the hand of the Palatine in gratitude when the latter promised to intervene on Wesselényi's behalf.'
Kossuth's imprisonment made him a martyr and increased his popularity tremendously. But Széchenyi, that man of moderation, knew how great and dangerous was Kossuth's influence on Hungary's future. He launched pamphlet after pamphlet denouncing Kossuth's policies and activities. In the bitter Kelet Népe (People of the East), published in 1841, he warned prophetically that the new policies would inevitably lead to revolution and bring the nation into conflict with the Habsburg dynasty before it had been strengthened by domestic reform. That, he felt, would mean its final annihilation. Széchenyi considered that Kossuth's fatal flaw was his appeal to the emotions rather than to reason. Quoting Benjamin Franklin, he maintained that "a full sack can stand on its own, while the empty one collapses."
But Kossuth, determined to go his own way with or without Széchenyi's support, challenged him with these famous words: "By you, with you. if possible, without you, against you, if need be."
To unite the nation, Kossuth demanded the immediate emancipation of the peasants, free ownership of land, and the abolition of privileges, particularly of the nobility's exemption from taxes. Széchenyi wanted the same reforms but at a slower pace. It was a struggle between liberalism and radicalism. Actually, despite their differences, the two men complemented each other. Both had the same goals but promoted the common ideal at a different pace. Széchenyi was the beginning of Kossuth; Kossuth the continuation of Széchenyi.
But even sane. moderate men like Ferenc Deák and Baron József Eötvös more or less sided with Kossuth, and in 1848 when revolutions swept Europe from Paris to Vienna, the Hungarian nation found her natural leader in Kossuth. Under his leadership the needed reforms were legally wrested from a terrified Viennese government. Thus, he seemed to have achieved Széchenyi's long term goals by a historic "shortcut". He was a daring man in politics while Széchenyi was not. On the other hand, Kossuth failed to see the shadows of Habsburg power that would darken the road toward progress. But the farsighted Széchenyi saw clearly that the greatest threats on this road were Austria and the different nationalities within Hungary, for nationalism, the idea of the age, was beginning to emerge.
A Savior Who Could Not Save Himself
When, in the spring of 1848 the first "independent Hungarian Ministry" was formed, as a result of the revolution, Széchenyi did not want to be a spoilsport. Therefore, he joined the cabinet as Minister of Transportation. He even wrote a tribute to the revolution in the form of an editorial in the Pesti Hírlap published on March 27, 1848:
"These men - more daring and courageous than we who have worked with ant-like diligence - and who seem to be in alliance with a Higher Power - have succeeded in establishing the kind of foundation for Hungary's future that the rest of us could perhaps never have accomplished, or only after the efforts of generations..."
This was the last editorial Széchenyi ever wrote. The clouds of war were gathering on Hungary's horizon, and his nervous system, damaged by continuous worry and overwork, began breaking down as these visions recorded in his diary in the summer of 1848 attest:
"I can read the stars: blood and blood everywhere. Brother kills brother, nationalities massacre each other implacably and insanely. They mark the houses they seek to burn down or destroy with the sign of the cross in blood. My life has gone up in smoke! Pest is gone. Roaming troops devastate everything we had built."
During sleepless nights of self-torment he blamed
himself for the impending catastrophe because it was he, who had conjured up all these disasters by starting the process of reform.
His hypersensitive mind finally gave way under the strain and on September 5th. 1848, he was forced to seek refuge in the mental hospital in Döbling, Austria.
A week later 40,000 Croatian troops, led by General Jellachich and encouraged by Vienna, assaulted Hungary, beginning the carnage in the aftermath of the revolution of March.
The treatment Széchenyi received in Döbling gradually restored his sanity but not his peace of mind. As we shall see in the next chapter, Széchenyi's spirit flared up again and again in the form of messages sent from his Döbling hermitage (which he never left) to the outside world. Széchenyi knew that he was not mad, and the prospect of being shut up for the rest of his life, and the awareness of the terrible ordeal his beloved Hungary was suffering after a lost War of Independence worked with such overwhelming force on his imagination that he refused to face it any longer. On April 7th, 1860, Easter Sunday, he put an end to his life with a pistol shot.
"I cannot save myself..." were the last words written in his diary.
But the man who could not save himself did save his beloved country. He stemmed the doom that was about to engulf his backward nation by shaking his people out of their deep slumber and transforming the immense fallow field that Hungary had been into a land reborn and ready to resume the march toward her first millennium.
SZÉCHENYI AND KOSSUTH
The following scene is from the play The Bridge, by the Hungarian novelist and playwright, Ferenc Herczeg. Its central figure is István Széchenyi, and the bridge of the title is the Chain Bridge which, built at his instigation and through his efforts, was the first to connect the twin cities, Buda and Pest. In the play it is treated as a symbol of Széchenyi's endeavor to lead his undeveloped, backward people towards Western progress and civilization.
The bridge spans more than the Danube - it becomes the connecting link between two worlds; and the new ideas of the Western world, fanned to flames by Kossuth's patriotic oratory, threaten to destroy the nation which has given them entry. Széchenyi sees the impending catastrophe, and is filled with horror at what he has done. He cannot rid himself of the conviction that it was he who, by rousing the nation from its slumber precipitated all the disasters that he sees coming. As one by one his prophecies are fulfilled, and his darkest fears take shape under his eyes, his hypersensitive organization breaks down under the strain and his mind becomes unhinged. His sense of guilt fastens on the bridge, his proudest achievement as the original cause of the tragedy of his people and in a poignant scene towards the end of the last act, he tries to persuade a casual caller to obtain for him two barrels of gunpowder with which to blow it up.
The scene below occurs in the second act, and takes place in the hills of Buda. Széchenyi, his wife and his friend Baron Miklós Wesselényi have gone for a picnic, and Wesselényi, unknown to Széchenyi, has arranged for Kossuth to meet them.
(The two men, left to themselves, observe each other with uncontrollable curiosity.)
KOSSUTH (in an endeavor to set the conversation going). You have been travelling, Count Széchenyi?
SZÉCHENYI (makes a gesture as though to rid himself of a painful memory) I have been on the Lower Danube.
KOSSUTH: Was it not pleasant?
SZÉCHENYI: No, very far from it. The travelling public in Hungary drives me to despair with its smoking and spitting.
KOSSUTH (laughs) What would you? It's a national habit.
SZÉCHENYI: They all shout as though they were addressing a popular meeting. And they are always picking quarrels. At Mohács an officer fell foul of the captain of the steamer because he would not stop for as long as would have suited this gentleman's convenience.
KOSSUTH: I am surprised that you, who have travelled so far and so wide, should stick at such trifles.
SZÉCHENYI: They are not trifles. They are proofs of the distressing fact that our people lack both self-respect and respect for their fellow men. Yet the sense of our human dignity is the only firm support to which we can cling if we wish to climb out of the morass of barbarism. In England...(he stops and glances at his companion).
KOSSUTH: Why do you not continue, Count?
SZÉCHENYI: I know what is on your mind. That I am an Anglomaniac. It is the current opinion of me.
KOSSUTH: It is not mine. I know that you have a great liking for the English, but there is nothing to be surprised at in that.
SZÉCHENYI: Their mode of life is the best yet invented.
KOSSUTH: Possibly. I do not know them well enough to judge. But I cannot help thinking of a reported saying of yours. The average Magyar, you said, is more intelligent136
than the average Englishman.
SZÉCHENYI: That is so. There is an unusually large proportion of quick-witted people among us. Their intelligence comes from their Eastern imagination. It is as though their minds had wings. But they derive little advantage from them, for like the plover, they keep flying round in circles over the self-same pool. The Englishman has no imagination; he walks on foot but he has managed to walk round the entire globe.
KOSSUTH: And what has enabled him to do that?
SZÉCHENYI: The knowledge that the best way of loving his country is to love his own countrymen. We poor, quarrelsome Magyars are like soldiers who under the enemy's fire stop to dispute whether their superior officers are honest enough and wise enough to be their leaders... But excuse me, I perceive I have sidetracked the conversation. I presume you have not climbed this hill for the sake of idle talk.
KOSSUTH: I felt that there was need of a meeting between us two. We have been at cross-purposes... that may have been my fault. I admit that I... But I am convinced that all such matters must dwindle to nothing by the side of the mighty events which loom, silent and menacing, on the horizon...
SZÉCHENYI: We must come to an understanding. And since we must we shall.
KOSSUTH: I have come up here to offer you my services, Count. I elect you as my leader and shall follow as your henchman wherever you lead. Who should be leader in this country if not István Széchenyi? It is you who have awakened the nation from its deadly lethargy.
SZÉCHENYI: (smiling). It was not a very great feat. It had more or less slept its fill.
KOSSUTH: Your project of the Chain Bridge was the morning clarion. Only the plan exists as yet, but already the nation has crossed it by the thousands - it is like a new migration of the peoples - and has set up its tents under new and happier stars. This new world vibrates with the magnetism of your will-power; it is tense with youth - I might say, tense with the things to come.
SZÉCHENYI: The trouble is that I was not born to be a leader of the mob.
KOSSUTH: The essential thing is that the mob wishes to follow you.
SZÉCHENYI: To follow me whither?
KOSSUTH: The ultimate goal is the same for us all - it is the welfare of the nation.
SZÉCHENYI: But by which path is that goal to be attained? By yours or by mine?
KOSSUTH: That is what we have to settle here and now.
SZÉCHENYI: I believe implicitly in the future of the Magyar people: it is a great future; but at the present moment the nation's life hangs by a thread. For that reason we who think and act in its name must weigh coolly and deliberately every step. The calculating brain must have the ascendant not the feeling heart. Deliberation, not passion, must inspire our actions. Let us harp less on the claims of justice and think more of what will benefit the people at large. You yourself have said it: the ultimate goal is the welfare of the nation.
KOSSUTH: Only a free nation can be happy.
SZÉCHENYI: True. But what is freedom? I do not think much of a freedom that has been extorted by politicians from a government at bay, and that has no better guarantee than that which laws supply. Laws are but paper after all. I dream of a healthier, more wide-spread freedom, whose roots stretch deep into the national soil.
KOSSUTH: And what kind of freedom is that?
SZÉCHENYI: The Magyars are on the threshold of a new life. You might say that they are reborn. Whatever they learn now will be deeply graven in their hearts and their brains, perhaps for centuries to come. If we wish to make their future safe, let us transform them into a nation of workers.
KOSSUTH: Do you really think that possible?
SZÉCHENYI: I do. All that is needed is for us to learn, and to teach our countrymen, that brilliant improvisations, illusive dreams and ornamental theories will never get us anywhere - that we can only attain what we want by dogged, steadfast effort. (with animation.) Do you know that while we make speeches - and more speeches, and still more speeches - thousands of square kilometers of Hungarian soil are bog and swamp. A whole kingdom, filled with immemorial treasures - ours to conquer not with speeches but with the labor of our hands and brains.
KOSSUTH (after a pause): Pray continue,
SZÉCHENYI: For the moment I am interested in two lines of action - on the one hand to foster social intercourse among our people and stimulate a salutary friction of minds - hence the Casino, the theatre, the Academy of Sciences, the horse-races - on the other to initiate public works calculated to restore the circulation in the torpid body of the nation - roads, railroads, bridges, steamboat traffic, regulation of the rivers... (after a pause). You smile?
KOSSUTH: Forgive me. I am smiling, somewhat bitterly, not at your words but at our miserable situation. As things stand today, creating prosperity in this country means fattening Austria's milk-cow. Before all else, we must eradicate from Austria's mind the sinister notion that the life-blood and the gold of the Magyar people are her own property. That is, we must begin by freeing our nation from its bonds in order that it may find it worth while to work. There will be time enough, after that, to make it prosperous and cultivated. (Széchenyi listens in somber silence.) I hold with you that our people must be educated to new purposes. They must be taught in the schools, through the press, at public meeting - wherever we can reach them; an immense campaign of propaganda must sweep through the length and breadth of the land, teaching the people to love and to demand liberty. For freedom is the portion, not of the cultured but of the strong.
SZÉCHENYI: And you really believe, Mr. Kossuth, that you can make a people strong by propaganda, that is, by newspaper articles and public orations?
KOSSUTH: Not in the sense in which you imagine. Count Széchenyi. Agitation can make a nation united; and in union lies strength. On the day when the entire Hungarian nation will demand its freedom as avidly, as passionately, as a man dying of thirst demands a drink of water, Austria will not have bayonets enough to keep it away from the wells. I will frankly admit, at the risk of
being misunderstood, that I have no wish as yet to see the Hungarian people prosperous. It is better for them to abide in their poverty and bitter discontent until they have achieved their freedom . It is not well-fed men we need. but the lean and hungry kind whom Julius Caesar feared.
SZÉCHENYI: But this is nothing less than revolution! I know very well that you are not aiming at a revolution - but you will make it nevertheless. The spark which rides the wind has no thought of wreaking havoc - yet it may lay waste a world.
KOSSUTH: I am only a simple bourgeois, Count Széchenyi, who has no other wish than to fight with legal weapons for the justice of his country. I hold that there is nothing more salutary for a nation than to have its sons kindled with enthusiasm for the cause of justice, to have them fight for that cause and, if necessary, die for it. For the destinies of a nation depend not on fine roads or steamships; they depend on the force with witch it clings to its ideals.
SZÉCHENYI: Mr. Kossuth, if these ideals succeed in transforming the Magyar people to their image, then this nation will be doomed to the existence of a perpetually discontented, contumacious, barbarian people, forever expending its strength in petty quarrels, incapable of self-help yet arrogantly intolerant of others' assistance.
KOSSUTH: (rises dejectedly): I am afraid there is no point in continuing this conversation.
SZÉCHENYI: One moment. I am firmly convinced that the path you pursue will lead our nation into a desert strewn with ruins and corpses. I shall therefore be obliged to attack, expose and if possible annihilate the influence you exercise on my countrymen.
KOSSUTH: You will do what your conscience dictates, Count Széchenyi. You will never prevent me from thinking of you with homage and devotion. For me you will always remain the greatest Magyar that ever lived (he straightens himself and adds firmly). But there is one greater than you - the nation (he goes off hat in hand).
|Stephen Sisa : The Spirit of Hungary|