[Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [Bibliography] [HMK Home] Macartney: Hungary - A Short History


THE truce between dynasty and nation was broken when, on 29 November 1780, Maria Theresa died. Her elder son, Joseph, who now succeeded to the sole rule (he had been co-regent for some years, but his mother had kept him in fairly tight leading-strings) was a man of the younger generation. Steeped in the new French political philosophy of his day, and, moreover, profoundly impressed by the example of Frederick of Prussia, impatient of obstacles and blind to difficulties, he aimed at welding his dominions into a centralised polity, ruled by himself on the principles of enlightened absolutism through a single bureaucratic machine, working on uniform administrative principles and even with a uniform philosophy of life. So obvious was the incompatibility of his programme with the vested liberties of such of his dominions as had retained them, that he refused to commit himself to any oath to preserve them. As regards Hungary, in particular, he refused to submit himself to coronation, having, instead, the Holy Crown transported to Vienna, to be kept there as a museum piece, and thus earning the nickname of the 'hatted king'. He then set about enacting his reform programme by rescript.

Some of his earlier measures actually satisfied wishes which had long been expressed in Hungary. The Patent of Toleration, issued in 1781, remedied the chief grievances of the non-catholic Christians (protestants and Greek Orthodox alike) by allowing them full freedom of public worship and complete equality with catholics of civil and political rights, including admission to public office; the Jews, although not receiving full civic rights, were granted freedom of worship and made subject to the ordinary laws. Other of his edicts, if they could not expect to be generally popular, were certainly beneficial to much of the population: chief of these were the Livings Patent, which dissolved a number of religious Orders and applied their property to founding new parochial livings, each with an elementary school attached; and his Peasant Patent, which definitively assured the peasants liberty to leave their holdings, on payment of their dues, marry, and put their children to any trade.

But much even of these measures was unpopular, and not only among the classes obviously suffering under them: the catholics and the landlords were enraged, but the protestants and the peasants were not satisfied. There were two chapters of enactments which snapped the national patience. One related to the old question of noble taxation. When the nobles refused to renounce their exemption, Joseph applied extreme economic pressure. The high tariff duties round the Monarchy were replaced, in the case of many commodities, by complete prohibitions, and the importation into Hungary of manufactured articles from the Austrian provinces and Galicia became completely free, whereas Hungarian exports to Austria had to pay the full duty applicable to foreign goods. Joseph then announced his intention of imposing a general land tax, under all circumstances, and began a survey of the nobles' lands.

Even more spectacular were the administrative and educational changes. The distinctions between Inner Hungary, Croatia and Transylvania were expunged, and the whole country, except the Military Frontier, which was retained[20], brought under one gigantic Gubernium. This was divided into ten Districts (in delimiting which the old Croat-Hungarian frontier was ignored), each under a Commissioner. The counties lost their autonomy; the F ispáns disappeared, and the Alispáns and minor officials became Government employees. German replaced Latin as the language of administration, the changes entering into force immediately in the central offices, after one year in the counties and three in the lowest instances. Any official not mastering the language before expiration of the grace was to be dismissed. Knowledge of German was also made the condition of admission to the Diet, and education completely Germanised: by 1786 Joseph had got so far as to order that German was to be the sole language of instruction for all subjects in all schools. Only religion might be taught in the pupils' mother tongue in the primary schools, and intending priests might study Latin in the high schools.

Then, in 1787, Joseph embarked on an ill-advised Turkish war. A large army was quartered in south Hungary, and the country flooded with demands for recruits and with requisitioning orders. The whole nation, including the peasants, seethed with discontent. The proscribed counties, re~assuming their old powers, put themselves at the head of the resistance. A party made contact with Joseph's rival, the King of Prussia. Then Belgium revolted; the war went very badly, and Joseph himself fell mortally sick. On 28 January 1790 he yielded, and revoked all his rescripts relating to Hungary except the Toleration Patent, the Peasant Patent and the Livings Patent, then promised to convoke a Diet and ordered the Holy Crown to be brought back to Hungary. Three weeks later (20th February) he died.

The reign of Joseph II was perhaps the most dynamic in Hungarian history. No single aspect of the national life, political, social, economic, cultural or national in the modern sense of the term, was the same after it as before it. But many of its most important positive after-effects showed themselves only a generation later, when they appeared as manifestations of the Zeitgeist which Joseph's intemperate wizardry had helped conjure up. The immediate mood of the Diet which met soon after his death was one of unqualified reaction. Some of its speakers, indeed, voiced political doctrines on the social contract and the sovereignty of the people which could have come straight from the contemporary Paris, but without exception, they were talking strictly in terms of the historic Hungarian nation and its rights vis-à-vis its monarch; its right, that is, to preserve intact its ancient institutions.

Joseph's brother and successor, the shrewd and circumspect Leopold II, handled this dangerous situation with great skill. He gave the Diet a new and solemn pledge, which in substance simply repeated Charles' declarations of 1715 and 1723, but was now embodied in a Law[21], that Hungary was a wholly independent kingdom, not subject to any other land or people and to be ruled only by its own lawfully crowned kings and in accordance with its own laws and customs. He also consented to having the loopholes stopped which his predecessors had utilised to evade this obligation. The king had to submit himself to coronation within six months of his predecessor's decease. He must convoke the Diet triennially. He would rule by law only, and not by rescript or patent.

With Joseph's recantation, the administration had already reverted to the status quo ante his innovations, the old organs, central and local, simply taking over again with their former constitutions and competences. Leopold con-firmed this, with only two modifications, both on the highest level. Transylvania and Croatia recovered their separate status, and Leopold also set up a separate 'Illyrian Chancellery' for the Hungarian Serbs. He rejected, how-ever, a 'Supplex Libellus Valachorum' in which the Roumanians of Transylvania had asked for recognition as a 'nation', although, or perhaps because, some of them had perpetrated a terrible jacquerie seven years earlier.

For the rest, Leopold prevailed on the Diet to enact legislation in the sense of the three Patents which Joseph had not revoked, and in return, agreed to a law proscribing the use of 'a foreign language' (under which German was meant) as an official medium, but rejected a request (from which the Croats had dissented, and which was not pressed), that Latin should be replaced by Magyar as the official language of all public services, including the Army. All that he would concede here was that provision should be made for the teaching of the Magyar language at the university and in the gymnasia, with a view to the training up of a future supply of Magyar-speaking officials. 'For the time being', government was to be carried on in Latin. Several other postulata for immediate change fared no better. It was, however, agreed that the Diet should set up a number of committees which were to present to its successor proposals for reform in a great number of fields, including many in which Maria Theresa had not allowed the nation a voice.

Things might have developed either way from this beginning. On the one hand, documents recently discovered show that Leopold was secretly entertaining plans for imposing drastic changes in Hungary, not in the direction of Germanisation, but in that of a far-reaching democratisation of the entire political system. On the other hand, the committees took their work very seriously, and some of them worked out some extremely interesting and constructive proposals, especially in the economic field. But now there followed a series of events the combined effect of which was singularly detrimental to all ideas of social or political progress. The French Revolution degenerated into terrorism. Leopold died suddenly, on 1 March 1792, and was succeeded by his son Francis, a man of extreme mental timidity, in whose eyes the only hope of saving his own throne and humanity lay in freezing any situation which promised to avert revolution. The settlement which Leopold had reached in Hungary seemed to him to answer this description, and at his coronation Diet he confirmed it with few changes, the most important of which was the cancellation of the Illyrian Chancellery. The Hungarian Estates, for their part, found any settlement welcome which safeguarded them against the twin dangers of Josephinian revolution from above and Jacobin revolution from below.

In 1795 feeling on both sides was hardened by a queer event. The police came on the tracks of a fantastic Jacobin plot, the leading figure in which was a dubious and enigmatic character, the Abbé Martinovics, who had been an agent of Leopold's, and employed by him on preparations for an attack on the conservative opposition to a 'revolution from above'. But after Leopold's death the plans had lost shape, retaining their revolutionary character while losing their link with the Crown, which was no longer privy to them. They had, moreover, acquired new sympathisers, some quite hare-brained, but others serious and sensible, and, for that very reason, really dangerous. The revelations, true or invented, made by Martinovics under interrogation, increased Francis' determination to refuse any change which might conceivably lead to revolution, while the arrests (which were numerous) made in connection with the conspiracy, and the glimpses afforded by the trials of obscure forces stirring below the surface, finally cured the Estates of any taste for adventure.

The period which followed was much rather one of cold war, than of genuine and cordial peace. The respect which Francis paid to the Hungarian constitution was perfunctory enough. In the first years of his reign he duly convoked the Diet every three years, but only to ask it for subsidies and recruits for his wars. By constitutional tradition, the proceedings of a Diet opened with consideration of the royal as postulata; when agreement on these had been reached, the turn came of the Estates' gravamina. It was Francis' habit simply to dissolve each Diet as soon as he had extracted from it what satisfaction he could extract of his own demands. The nation's wishes were never formally discussed at all; the reports of the committees of the Leopoldinian Diet were simply laid ad acta, and if the later Diets got any concessions at all, they were extracted in the course of the bargaining over the postulata.

This meant that they were meagre to a degree. The two main wishes expressed by the Diets of these years were for wider use of the Magyar language in education and public life, and for revision of the inequitable economic relationship with the Austrian provinces. In the former field, Francis, under pressure, made one or two further concessions: in 1792 Magyar had been made a compulsory subject in higher and secondary schools in Inner Hungary[22], and after 1805 it became permissible to correspond with the chancellery and the Consilium in Magyar. The economic system was not altered in any material respect.

For twenty years, nevertheless, each party got enough out of the truce to make it worth keeping. Francis obtained considerable votes of men and money, while Hungary could reflect that her contribution was still light compared with that which Francis' other dominions had to pay, and except in 1809, when the insurrectio was called out (for the last time), did not fall on the nobles. If the Diets were almost always barren, yet the shadow of the censorship and the political police fell but lightly on Hungary, whose nobles could with justice regard themselves by their own standards the freest class on the Continent. The wars touched Hungarian territory only twice, and each time only for a few weeks, and in other respects brought the country actual gain, for the land-owners were able to make big profits out of the wheat for which there was an almost unlimited demand, at high prices.

Even so, tempers became frayed on both sides, and an open clash was again and again averted only by the tact and skill of the Palatine, the Archduke Joseph, who combined, in a quite remarkable degree, loyalty to his brother with sympathy for the Hungarians. But even he was worsted in the end, on the issue of the common finances. The one thing which Francis had been powerless to keep stable had been the value of his money. Since the beginning of the wars, the expenditure of the Monarchy had regularly, and largely, exceeded its revenue, and the government had met the deficit by issuing paper money, the value of which, in terms of prices, had sunk rapidly, and while the paper had in law to be taken at its face value, it was quoted in Augsburg at a discount of some 800 per cent. In 1811 the Austrian Finance Minister carried through a drastic operation, reducing the nominal value of the currency by 80 per cent, and the Diet was asked to take over the funding of 100 million of the 212 million gulden to which the national debt had thus been reduced, besides paying an extraordinary subsidy towards the amortisation of the remainder. It refused, and in 1812 Francis dissolved it and enacted the desired measures by rescript. For thirteen years Hungary was now again ruled without a Diet.

The discontent now became acute; so much so that when in 1825 a renewed threat of war compelled Francis to convoke the Diet again (after attempts to get what he needed direct from the counties, by unconstitutional means, had broken down on their ingenious resistance), its proceedings were so dangerously turbulent that he found it expedient to make a sort of apology and to promise not to repeat his offence.

Some Hungarians count this Diet as marking the end of the long period of torpor and the beginning of the exciting 'Reform Era' which followed it. This is only half true. A spirit of defiance was, indeed, apparent in the pertinacity and acerbity with which speakers voiced their grievances, but except on one point, the Diet's attitude was still the old one, unchanged in any particular; it was simply that the encroachments, financial and other, of the Crown's servants on Hungary's ancient liberties must cease, and those liberties be restored intact.

The only demand which could not have come straight out of the Middle Ages was still the request, which had become regular since 1790, for wider use of the Magyar language in the administration, the Courts and education, and this did indeed reflect a modern spirit, which had begun to stir even before Joseph's day (the first signs of it go back to the last years of Maria Theresa's reign), but had been greatly stimulated by the violence offered to it by Joseph II, and since his death had grown more vigorous with every year: a spirit of pride in the national language as the embodiment and vital necessity of the national spirit.

The last decade of the eighteenth century and the first quarter of the nineteenth had been a time of inspiring activity. Lexicographers had set themselves to the heavy task of re-fashioning and enriching the Magyar tongue, developing it into an instrument in which modern thought could be expressed and modern literature written. As the lexicographers cleared the way, the poets, romantic novelists and playwrights followed on their heels. Many of their achievements were crude and tentative, but in some, real genius - in a few cases, some of the greatest that Hungary has ever known - shone through what were still imperfect forms, and good and bad alike were hailed with enormous enthusiasm. The cult of the language was accompanied by a similar fashion for the national costume, dances, and whatever else was specifically Magyar.

Yet even this was still modern only in a peculiar and restricted sense. As the Hungarian noble class embraced most educated Magyars, it followed that nearly all their writers and intelligentsia were nobles born, and they instinctively saw the picture of the nation through the spectacles of their class. Where any writer was of non-noble origin, the chances were that he was a quasi-noble by adoption, for the attainment of certain academic qualifications conferred the status of honoratior, which brought with it some of the privileges of nobility, and with them, almost

invariably, the 'noble' outlook on the world. Thus practically every figure of this first phase of the literary renaissance, whatever his own economic circumstances, identified Hungary with its noble class, drew his inspiration from he wells of the national tradition, and heartened the present with the memories of a past which had grown glorious by defending its immemorial freedom. The new spirit in no way diminished the social and political exclusiveness of Hungarian nationalism.

The new Magyar nationalism agreed with, and in its turn helped to reinforce the assumption that the Hungarian polity must be the preserve, as it had been the creation, of the Magyar element in the country. It was on this assumption that the repeated requests were made to the Crown to substitute Magyar for Latin as the language of the state, and the non-Magyars of Inner Hungary would not have been very much affected had the change been made, so long as representation in the Diet and the county Congregations, and employment in the public services, was confined to nobles, and so long as the de facto situation prevailed that the politically active noble class, except for a the denationalised magnates at the top, already spoke and felt Magyar. As for education, although extreme proposals were bruited at two of the Diets, the Crown's refusal to make any substantial concessions in this field was enough to prevent complications from arising.

The only conflict (except that with Vienna) which the new movement had so far evoked had been with the Croats. Here the position was really different, since the language of the ordinary Croat nobles was Croat, and when, at the Leopoldinian Diet, the Hungarians first proposed the abolition of Latin, they tried to allow for this by offering that the Croat language should enjoy in Croatia any position gained by Magyar in Inner Hungary. The substitution of Magyar for Latin in the central Diet and services would still have left the Croat deputies or employees in the Consilium at a disadvantage compared with the Magyars, but the latter did not feel it reasonable that they should continue to renounce what they regarded as their natural right to transact their national affairs in their own language (besides imposing on themselves the continued burden of acquiring a second language) for the benefit of so small a minority. There were less than 20,000 noble persons in Croatia, compared with over 300,000 in Inner Hungary[23], and the 20,000 included not only the magnates, lay and ecclesiastical, most of whom either spoke both languages equally well, or neither of them, but also the 'sandalled nobles' of Turopolje (Turmez ), near Zagreb, a separate community living under their own count, who aspired to no office and were, incidentally, solid for the Hungarian connection. Croatia had only two virilist members of the Upper Table, the Ban and the Bishop of Zagreb, and only three delegates to the Lower Table -two representing the Zagreb Diet, and the Count of Turopolje.

The Croat delegates had nevertheless objected to the proposal on principle, maintaining that the Diet had been acting ultra vires in trying to pass it into law; for the use of the neutral Latin was founded on immemorial pacta conventa between the two associated kingdoms of Hungary and Croatia, and no change could be made without the assent of both parties. This attitude of theirs had shown a rift between Hungary and Croatia which was destined afterwards to widen into a great gulf, the more impossible to bridge because of the fundamental nature of the central question, whether Croatia was indeed an 'associated kingdom' or only an 'adjunct of Hungary' - a question on which neither party was ever able to convince the other, just as they could not on the second great disputed point, the appurtenance of the Slavonian counties. During the period of torpor, however, the cloud remained on the horizon, and did not even bulk very large on it, for Francis' summary Diets afforded no opportunity for the raising of constitutional issues, or even for detailed discussion of the language question, while from 1811 to 1825, the years of neo-absolutism, no discussion was possible at all. It was also important that during the latter period the Croats who could have argued their case were fewer than ever, for between 1809 and 1815 a substantial part of Croatia was out of the Monarchy altogether, as part of Napoleon's Kingdom of Illyria, and when this was liquidated, Vienna kept the civilian portions of the areas so detached under its own administration until 1824.

Furthermore, Croatia during this period was even more untouched by any true spirit of modernity than Hungary itself. Political Croatia, like political Hungary, consisted of its nobles; and the Croat nobles were not only fewer on the ground than their Hungarian colleagues (2.9 per cent of the total population, against 4.8 per cent) but even more divorced from their people. Towns were rarer, the peasants even more oppressed, the exclusive predominance of the catholics more absolute, for the Croat delegates had invoked the same argument of pacta conventa to prevent the extension to Croatia of the alleviations which Hungary introduced for its Protestants in 1790. The Croat nobles had hitherto shown no interest whatever in the Croat language, steadily insisting on Latin, not only in the central services, but locally; when, in 1805, Francis had made the concession mentioned above, the Congregation of Varasd had solemnly resolved that the suppression of Latin would mean 'the end of culture and of the nation, which would no longer understand its own laws'. This arch-conservatism did not, indeed, render the Croats' opposition to Hungary any less determined, and perhaps made it in some respects even more dangerous, since it struck an answering note in Vienna.

The spirit of the Diet which was convoked in 1830, to strengthen the government's arm in view of the July revolution in Paris and the unrest in the Netherlands, Italy and Poland, was hardly different from that of 1825. Its members were as anxious as Metternich himself that the revolution should not spread. They used the government's embarrassment, indeed, to extract another linguistic concession, the most important which they had yet gained: it was enacted that thereafter no person not conversant with the Magyar language should be admitted to the public services in Inner Hungary, and the same requirement was to be made, after four years' grace, for admission to the Bar. The chancellery and Curia were instructed to answer in Magyar communications addressed to them in that language by the counties, and Magyar might also be used in the Courts. But for this price, they cheerfully voted 48,000 soldiers for the safeguarding of the existing order. But Francis had taken the opportunity to have his son and prospective successor, Ferdinand, crowned proleptically, and for reward had consented to listen, at a new meeting, to the nation's long-postponed gravamina. A terrible outbreak of cholera in 1831 was made the excuse for leaving the Diet unconvoked that year, but in 1832 it met; and the atmosphere in which it did so was magically transformed.

It is easy, and up to a point true, to say that this change was simply the natural reflection of altered world conditions. The great deflationary crisis which had followed the boom of the war years was passing in its turn. England was in the full swing of its industrial expansion, and even in the Habsburg Monarchy the winds of modern capitalism were setting the withered leaves rustling and wafting messages of a new world in which fortunes were to be made by those who understood its language. The bourgeoisie was stirring, even the peasants were not the unquestioning, unresisting clods that their grandfathers had been.

 [Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [Bibliography] [HMK Home] Macartney: Hungary - A Short History