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


Pertinaciously as Francis and Metternich had tried to seal off the Monarchy from the new world, the victories of Liberalism in western Europe had shown that despotism was not invincible. The stirrings which had begun in Austria in 1830 need no more explanation than this, but in Hungary, with its special tradition that saw the very existence of the nation as dependent on the preservation of the old institutions, more was necessary.

But this special impetus had been given, by two events. One was an outbreak of peasant unrest in the areas devasted by cholera in 1831 so serious as to convince the nation that the situation of the peasants could no longer be left where the legislation of '79' had settled it. Some, indeed, saw the remedy in more repression, but a considerable number believed that only real reform could avert further outbreaks. The other event was the publication of István Széchenyi's book Hitel ('Credit').

Count István Széchenyi was the scion of one of Hungary's great historic families, and heir to a tradition of national service; his father, Ferenc Széchenyi, had been the founder of the great national library which still bears his name. The young Széchenyi's own outlook was itself conditioned by his origins and his early experiences, which had included service in a hussar regiment; he saw the world through the eyes of an aristocrat, and one to whom loyalty to the dynasty was axiomatic. But his was a brooding and mystic spirit which became wholly possessed by a burning and compassionate love of his country and of the Magyar people. His whole outlook and inspiration were essentially religious. It was with the soul of Hungary that he was concerned, and subscribing to the view that 'the soul of a people resided in its language', he had electrified the Diet of 1825 by offering to contribute a year's income from his estates towards the foundation of a National Academy of Sciences for the improvement of the Magyar language. But his vision went beyond this. He had travelled in western Europe, especially England, and looking at his country, he was shocked by its backwardness, by the morally in defensible degradation in which the masses of its people lived, and by the selfishness of their exploiters. His originality, and his unique effectiveness, lay in the fact that although what he cared for most was the moral regeneration of Hungary, his approach to the problem was severely practical, even materialistic. His diagnosis, which was couched in unsparing terms, was that Hungary was not at all an Eden of successfully guarded freedom, but rather a 'great fallow-land', a place and a people deserving of infinite well-being, spiritual and material, and capable of achieving it, but at present, poor and neglected, a prey to political sterility, social oppression, economic backwardness. And with extraordinary hardihood he told his fellow-nobles that the blame for this lay, spiritually, with their own short-sightedness and egotism, and institutionally, with the sacrosanct Hungarian constitution itself, which was not, he declared, a bastion at all, but a prison in which they themselves were the most unfortunate inmates and their own pockets the worst sufferers. Their cherished exemption from taxation prevented the accumulation of funds to finance indispensable communications, and without these the produce of their estates was unsaleable; the aviticitas, by declaring their lands inalienable, prevented them from borrowing on the security of them for improvements; the landlord-peasant nexus made the peasants surly malcontents whose forced labour, unwillingly rendered, was, Széchenyi calculated, only one third as productive as a free man's hired labour.

The effect of Hitel and of the works with which Széchenyi followed it up - Világ ('Light') in 1831 and Stádium in 1833 - was like that of an explosive charge which breaks a river block and sends pent-up waters pouring suddenly and turbulently down. The orthodox were scandalised beyond measure. Copies of the books were publicly burnt in several county congregations, and their author savagely denounced for a traitor to his country and his class. But to the very considerable number of Hungarians who had felt obscurely that their country was ailing, without being able either to diagnose the disease or to prescribe the remedy, they came as a revelation, and it may fairly be said that with, and in large part thanks to, their appearance the period of Hungarian history known as 'the Reform Era', began.

The years which followed were extraordinarily stimulating ones, an intoxicating contrast to the sterile decades before, a time when it was indeed bliss to be alive, and very heaven to be young. Once Széchenyi had sounded the trumpet which sent the walls crumbling, reformers pullulated. Before the Diet, which did not rise till 1836, was over, the magnate and paternalist social reformer Széchenyi was himself a back number in the eyes of the angry young men hatching out in the aula of the University, and thronging the purlieus of the Diet itself - for it was the custom of deputies to bring with them, as secretaries and to give them experience, bands of young jurati, who formed an audience to the proceedings and often, in the absence of any fixed rules of procedure, a tumultuous chorus. Their learned apparatus, such as it was, came chiefly from the French and German liberal philosophers, whose works easily slipped past the slipshod censorship into Hungary. Their catchword and panacea was liberty, especially national liberty, and the rising sun of their allegiance was the man who soon became Széchenyi's great rival, Lajos (Louis) Kossuth.

Kossuth was a member of that dangerous class which possesses birth and brains, but no means. He was, moreover, a protestant. His family was noble, so that public service or politics were open to him, but his genius being his only fortune, he had entered active politics only comparatively late in life, and that through a curious side door. After qualifying as a lawyer, he had spent his early manhood managing the estates of a wealthy widow in his native north-eastern Hungary. The widows of magnates were, by tradition, entitled to send proxies to the Lower House, and in 1832 this lady sent Kossuth, then already thirty years of age, to Pozsony in this capacity, and here he became intoxicated with the new spirit, but proxies were not allowed to speak. He fell, however, on a brilliant idea: no official record was kept of the debates, and Kossuth had the thought of issuing an unofficial journal of them. This was less a transcript than a highly-coloured commentary, calculated to win sympathy for the causes which Kossuth had at heart. Most brilliantly written, for Kossuth proved himself a journalist of quite extraordinary capacity, they served their purpose admirably, and at the same time made their author, at one bound, the idol of the younger and more impatient reformers.

Like Széchenyi, Kossuth loved his country and his own people with a profound passion, saw in their existing condition many evils, and burned to remove them. But both his diagnosis and his remedy differed from Széchenyi's. Széchenyi was both, as we have said, instinctively loyal, as an ex-officer and a magnate, to the dynasty, and also intellectually convinced that Hungary's own interests demanded a considerable measure of integration into the Monarchy. Not only was he far too weak to challenge Vienna to a conflict, but the connection was necessary both for her security and also, given her paucity of capital, for her economic development.

Kossuth, a true child of his age, regarded liberty as the universal talisman - liberty of all kinds, and above all, national liberty, as the pre-requisite without which no social, economic or cultural advance was possible at all. Blind to the advantages which Széchenyi recognised in the connection with Vienna, he saw only the oppressive side of the de facto control which the central authorities had come to exercise over Hungary. The very first objective of the reform movement must be to emancipate her from this control; after this political battle had been won, all the rest would follow. His programme was, in fact, a repudiation of Széchenyi's advocacy of collaboration and a reversion to Hungary's traditional gravaminal policy, only now in the interests of national development, not of stabilisation.

Kossuth's social and political tenets constituted a curious and not altogether logical mixture. He was as axiomatic as any man in his instinctive identification of political Hungary with its noble class (of his own membership of which he was deeply proud), and in all his political thinking he assumed that the leadership in Hungary should and would remain in the hands of that class. Nevertheless, his burning national feeling itself came to generate in him, as he grew older, an increasingly pronounced social radicalism. Partly out of genuine love and compassion towards his fellow-men, partly with the political purpose of strengthening the Hungarian nation against Vienna, he came to wish, as he once put it, 'not to abolish our noble liberties, but to extend them to the whole people'. He came thus to accept the abolition of all ancestral restrictions which confined liberty to the noble class alone, and to advocate, not only the extention of taxation and the abolition of robot, but the complete emancipation of the peasants. An extended franchise, freedom of the Press and association, penal reform and an inexhaustible list of further innovations, from which little was missing that Hungary needed to modernise herself, found their places on his list.

Kossuth would probably in any case soon have over-shadowed Széchenyi, for his was obviously far the more popular appeal: how much more romantic (and more in the national tradition) to declaim against a foreign oppressor, than to follow an austere path of self-criticism, self-discipline, self-sacrifice! And while his position had automatically placed Széchenyi in front at the outset - no one but a magnate could even have published Hitel, still less have found readers for it - once the first step had been taken, he was at a heavy personal disadvantage. He spoke the Magyar language itself haltingly; not only was the argumentation of his books dry, but their language was difficult and contorted. Kossuth had a resonant and beautiful organ; he was equally magical as speaker and writer, inexhaustibly fluent, irresistibly convincing, never at a loss for a phrase or an argument.

Széchenyi and Kossuth are the two most picturesque and most publicised figures of the Reform Era, and it is fashionable to describe its course in the terms of a duel between the two men and their respective principles: evolution or revolution, with Austria or against it - the more tempting because a bitter personal antagonism developed between them. But this is to over-simplify the picture. Even among those who found themselves forced to accept the necessity of the political struggle, there were almost as many ideas on what Hungary needed as there were reformers. The parliamentary leadership, in so far as the phrase is applicable at all, for no parties existed before 1847, of the reform movement during the decade, lay not with Kossuth (who was not a deputy until 1847) but with Ferenc Deák, a quiet, unassuming medium land-owner from Zala, distinguished equally for his complete rectitude, his unfailing good sense, his encyclopaedic legal knowledge and his unequalled legal acumen. A very important intellectual leaven was provided by a little group headed by Baron József Eötvös and known in derision as the 'centralists', or 'doctrinaires'. Unlike Kossuth, who regarded the counties with mystical devotion, and still saw them as bulwarks against centralist oppression, the centralists held them to be strongholds of reaction and obscurantism, and argued for a central government, responsible to the electorate and thus not under the control of Vienna, but itself administering Hungary with modern efficiency. In spite of this, they did not share Kossuth's nebulous allergy to all things Austrian, and were genuinely concerned to preserve the unity of the Monarchy. Socially, they were more radical than Széchenyi, and even, in reality, than Kossuth himself. In the Reform period, and even after it, so far as their persons were concerned, they were heavily overshadowed by the far more spectacular and popular Kossuth; yet, as will be seen, it was the essentials of their programme, hurriedly adopted by Kossuth when he saw its relevance, which laid the foundations of the reform of 1848.

Outside the strictly political circles, too, new forces were stirring. The literary movement entered on a new phase: it no longer looked back, but forward. Pet fi, Arany and its other great figures were revolutionaries, like the young Shelley and Wordsworth.

But new ideas and new enthusiasms were now no longer the monopoly of the Magyars. Up to 1830 the Croat representatives in the central Diet had steadily followed their old path, opposing any suggestion to replace Latin as an official language anywhere, and for that matter, any proposal for social reform. But the re-incorporation of the ex-French districts had brought into Croatia a whole army of young men who, under the French regime and in the schools instituted by it, had imbibed a romantic nationalism of the most heady sort, flavoured (rather sporadically) with advanced social doctrines and, above all, belligerently impatient of any shadow of subordination of Croatia (which they conceived in the most extensive geographical terms) to Hungary. The Preporod, as the new nationalism called itself, swept over Croatia like a heath fire, setting students and young 'intellectuals' aflame, throwing out fiery streams of grammarians, lexicographers, poets and political journalists, and penetrating even the aristocracy. In 1832 a Croat magnate, Baron Rukovina, addressed the Sabor in Croat, a language which it had not heard for centuries. The next year Count Jankó Draskovi , an elderly man, a member of one of Croatia's leading families, a Court Chamberlain, a member of the House of Magnates and a colonel, published a pamphlet entitled Sollen wir Magyaren werden? This was less a protest against the threat of linguistic Magyarisation in Croatia, than a highly political programme for the constitution of Croatia, not only with Slavonia and Fiume, but also with the two 'Illyrian' governments of Austria (Dalmatia and the Slovene areas) and perhaps Bosnia, as a separate political constituent of the Habsburg Monarchy, with Croat as the language of administration and education.

At this point the Croat linguistic, and for a time also the political, movement were given a curious twist by a young man named Ljudevit Gaj, who for a time figured as their spiritus rector. Educated under Pan-Slav masters, Gaj held all Slavs to be brothers in the wider sense, but accepted the division of them into four main groups, one of which was the Southern Slav, or 'Illyrian', cornprising the Croats, Slovenes, Serbs and Bulgars. He hoped to see all of these merge in a single nation, and the pre-requisite for this was to get them all to speak and write a single language.

The results of his linguistic endeavours were rather peculiar. He persuaded the Croats, and up to a point, the Slovenes, to adopt a new orthography, modelled on that of the West Slavs, but the Serbs and Bulgars rejected this, and continued to use the Cyrillic alphabet. Orthographically, therefore, the Southern Slavs continued to divide on religious lines, the catholics using Gaj's Latin script, and the Orthodox, the Cyrillic. Linguistically, on the other hand, Gaj and the Serbian linguistic maestro of the day, Vuk Karad i , agreed on a common language, the `[sinvcircumflex]to' dialect, generally spoken in the Serb lands, although not the Croat. Gaj persuaded the Croats to adopt this, but the Slovenes refused. Gaj had thus assassinated his own language, replacing it by one which was Serbian in content and Czech in orthography.

Politically, few disciples, and they almost all Croats, fully adopted Gaj's Illyrian doctrine. The Serbs, in particular, rejected it as a devilish machination of Rome's, and most of the Croats also disliked and distrusted the Serbs.

There were, of course, even some who were genuinely attached to Hungary and wanted no change in the Hungaro-Croat relationship, but this group, although politically important by virtue of the official positions held by some of its members, notably the Count of Turopolje, was numerically small. The great majority, to whom the name of 'Illyrian party' was applied, although inaccurately, really subscribed to the particularist Croat programme set out in Draskovi ' pamphlet. Meanwhile the larger Illyrianism, or at least the idea of Serbo-Croat brotherhood, was there to be trotted out as an additional stimulus to anti-Hungarian feeling.

Vienna, indeed, after first encouraging Gaj's Illyrianism, ended by taking fright at its Pan-Slav and pro-Russian implications; the Pasha of Bosnia, too, complained that the movement was spreading sedition among his peasants. The movement was forbidden, but not so the Croat particularist movement, which appeared to Vienna a useful counterweight against Hungary. It was given its head; and it may be said that the unbridled licence of the Croat national Press, and the venom of its attacks on the Hungarian state and the Magyar people, exceeded even what the Magyars allowed themselves in their counter-utterances, although these were vicious enough.

The new nationalism was now spreading also to the non-Magyars of Hungary, and analogous antagonisms were developing. Each side blamed the other lavishly for this, but the truth was that here, too, two views were confronting one another which were at least equally intelligible, but mutually incompatible, while the development of the conflict was a hen and egg story if ever there was one. The Magyars' profound conviction that the Hungarian polity was essentially theirs was certainly understandable, in view of its history; and in wanting its official language to correspond with what they regarded as its national character they asking no more than what every independent European nation regarded as its axiomatic right. When they now began to press actively their demand for the increased use and diffusion of their language to a point which involved imposing it, in greater or less degree, on the non-Magyars, this was in the first instance largely the reflection of the widening and democratisation of their own conception of the nation, the recognition of the existence as a political factor of other elements in the population, besides the nobility. If their view of the nature of the polity was accepted as justified even under modern conditions, it was even a liberal move to provide non-Magyars with sufficient schooling in Magyar to enable them to enter the national political community. It is fair to point out that there have been cases enough in history where national minorities have asked for no more than this, and that even now, some of the non~Magyars asked for no more. But others felt -no less in accordance with the spirit of the age - that they had the same natural right as the Magyars themselves to use their own language, cultivate their own national attributes, take pride in their own national pasts, and that to force another language on them was an unnatural tyranny. Their view was that the multinational country which Hungary was, when its total population was taken into account, ought to be organised as a multinational polity, and that the languages of administration and education should adapt themselves accordingly.

What prevented either side from yielding, or even seeking a compromise, exacerbated the conflict and made collision ultimately inevitable, was the presence of outside factors: above all, Vienna, with its age-long hostility to Hungarian nationalism and its historic policy of allying itself with the non~Magyars; but to this was added in the 1830's the spectre, which then loomed very large, of Pan-Slav agitation, subverting the loyalty of Hungary's Slavs. In the eyes of many Magyars, the only complete safeguard against these dangers would have lain in Magyarising the entire population, and while only a few extremists (although there were such) ever dreamed of carrying so enormous an operation to completion, there were many who felt that a large measure of Magyarisation, something far beyond the provision of schools for a few aspiring civil servants, was a simple and legitimate matter of self-defence. Conversely, the more Magyars there were, the larger would be the number of champions of Hungarian nationality against the tyranny of Vienna. Ardent spirits added: the larger the army championing and enjoying the blessings of freedom and progress (which they proposed to bestow on Hungary) instead of reaction and obscurantism.

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