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


ON the night of 29 February - 1 March the news of the fall of Louis Philippe reached Vienna. The immediate reaction of the honest Viennese bourgeoisie was unromantic, but effectual; fearing that Metternich would organise a European crusade against the revolution, and would finance it by a new issue of uncovered paper money, it stampeded to the National Bank to change its notes into silver, and the Bank, whose reserves of silver were quite inadequate to meet a general run, had to close its doors. Kossuth's political genius rose to the occasion. Sensing in a flash the relevance to the situation of the centralists' demand (which he had previously not taken very seriously) for a responsible government for Hungary, he on 3 March submitted to the Lower House a draft Address to the Crown, which contained most of the Opposition's programme, but especially insisted on the need for a responsible government, as the only way to safeguard the nation against arbitrary misuse of its resources. The corollary, he added, was that Austria should receive similar institutions.

The Lower House accepted the Address with acclamation, but it could not even be submitted to the Magnates, for the government had called the Palatine and officers of the House to Vienna to consult on the possibility of dissolving the Diet and installing a dictatorial regime. But on the 13th revolution broke out in Vienna itself. Metternich resigned, as did Apponyi. The intimidated magnates in Pozsony now accepted the Address, which a deputation of both Houses, led by the Palatine, carried to Vienna. They were sped on their way by a mass demonstration of the youth of Pest. Threatened on all sides by revolution and fearing that refusal would result in Hungary's declaring itself independent, the Staatskonferenz yielded. Ferdinand declared himself 'prepared to fulfil the wishes of the nation'. Count Lajos Batthyány, a Liberal magnate, was appointed provisional Minister President, and in his turn formed a provisional ministry - a team of all the talents, which included Széchenyi, Kossuth, Deák, and Eötvös. It remained to give legal satisfaction to the nation's wishes, which the Diet now proceeded to formulate.

So far as the internal political and social structure of the country was concerned, this amounted to little more than translating into the form of draft laws the programme of the United Opposition. The form of state which emerged was that of a limited monarchy. The king, or in his absence, the Palatine, exercised his executive powers through a responsible ministry, resident in Budapest; no enactment by him was valid without the counter-signature of the competent minister. The 'responsibility' of the ministers was to a bi-cameral parliament, the composition of which was provisionally left unaltered, and a Lower House of deputies elected on a wide suffrage. The franchise for the counties and municipalities was extended similarly.

Taxation became universal. The tithe was abolished, as were all payments and services due from the holders of urbarial land of 'peasant' rank[25], who thus became the freehold proprietors of their holdings; the compensation for the landlords was left 'to the honour of the nation'. The Patrimonial Courts disappeared; the law was to be equal for all. The aviticitas was abolished. All 'received' religions were placed on a footing of complete equality. Freedom of the press and of assembly were guaranteed. A National Guard was established.

The 'national' postulates of the Opposition also received full satisfaction. The Partium were reincorporated unconditionally; the union with Transylvania was enacted, subject to the consent of the next Transylvanian Diet. The re-incorporation of the Military Frontier was tacitly assumed in the provisions of the franchise Law which provided for its representation in parliament. The laws did not touch overtly on the status of Croatia, but the validity of the Hungarian case on the points in dispute between Hungary and Croatia was similarly assumed by the provisions in the franchise Law which laid down the number of representatives to be sent to parliament by the Frontier, the Slavonian counties, the towns of Fiume and Eszék and 'the counties of K rös, Zagreb and Varasd', whose representatives, alone, were to attend the 'Provincial Diet' of Croatia. The laws did not touch on the language question, which remained as defined by previous legislation; only the language of parliament was declared to be Magyar.

The Staatskonferenz accepted most of this without argument, declaring itself disinterested in any questions which were of internal Hungarian concern. It was, on the other hand, actively interested in the maintenance of the central services, which it regarded as essential to the preservation

of the unity of the Gesammtmonarchie. It began by objecting to the creation of a ministry of defence, or even one of finance, and yielded only when its attitude evoked such a storm as to reawaken the spectre of a declaration of independence. The resultant solution was in many respects ambiguous. The draft laid down the principle that the executive must 'respect the unity of the Crown and the intangibility of the link with the Monarchy', but did not define the nature of that link. The cabinet included a minister a latere, or liaison minister, resident in Vienna, whose duty it was to represent Hungary in all matters of common interest with the rest of the Monarchy, and whose counter-signature was required for all enactments issued by the king when acting in his wider capacity, but the fields of common interest were, again, not defined. They were tacitly assumed to include foreign affairs. In both defence and finance the Hungarians had their way: they got an independent minister of defence, under whose control (and thus that of parliament) the Hungarian Army now stood; the king reserved his rights only in respect of 'the employment of the Hungarian army outside the national frontiers, and appointments to military office'. The ministry of finance was entirely independent, and all revenues from the camera came under its jurisdiction. The Hungarians agreed that their country would have to contribute towards the expenses of the court, but the amount of the quota and the means of determining it were left unsettled, and no agreement was reached on the very crucial question whether Hungary was to take over a share of the accumulated national debt; so far, she had not consented to do so, but the Austrians had not accepted the position as definitive. The question of an independent Hungarian national bank had not been raised.

When this agreement, such as it was, had been reached, Ferdinand came to Pozsony and on 11 April gave his sanction to the corpus of legislation summarised above, and known to history as the 'April Laws'. The new government thereupon legally assumed office.

That April day was truly one of glory for Hungary; but how certain would its glory prove? Socially, the outlook seemed assured. The magnates were hostile, but unless supported from outside, they were too few to be dangerous. The young radicals' and students' demonstration in Pest on 15 March had helped frighten the magnates into quicker submission, but the students' 'twelve points' had contained little more than what the laws now gave. Further middle-class unrest showed itself only in the form of some anti-Jewish rioting; the burghers as a class were behind the new government. The ex-villein peasants were not interested in national politics, but in extending and consolidating their own gains. The cottars and agricultural labourers had, indeed, come out practically empty-handed, and remained so, for the question of partitioning the allodial land was hardly raised, and then only to be rejected (only the small vintners were ranked on the same footing as the villein peasants); but the mentality of most of this class was still pre-revolutionary. Thus the countryside, on the whole, remained quiet, although there were a few disturbances in the chronic storm-centre of the Tisza. The industrial workers could be disregarded, or repressed.

There were, however, two quarters from which danger threatened. One was 'Vienna', which had surrendered only reluctantly on the question of the central services, and would certainly endeavour to recover the lost ground if it was ever in a position to do so. The other was the camp of the discontented non-Magyars. Between these an alliance was quickly struck which in little over a year brought the whole work of the Hungarian reformers down in ruin.

By a piece of singular ill-fortune for Hungary, the office of Ban of Croatia happened to be vacant, and on 22 March, the day before his own resignation and just before the appointment of Batthyány was confirmed, Kolowrat secured the appointment to that post of one Colonel Josip Jella i , an enthusiastic 'Illyrian' and fanatical anti-Magyar. Three days later, Jella i was installed by acclamation at a mass meeting in Zagreb, amid shouts for the realisation of the Triune Kingdom. Jella i announced that he would not submit to 'the present Hungarian government', and when he went to Vienna to complete the formalities, refused to take the oath as Ban on the ground that this would prevent him 'from remaining a firm supporter of the Crown at the head of the Southern Slav Movement'. After many provocative gestures, he formally 'broke off relations' with the Hungarian government on 19 April.

On 10 May a gathering of Slovaks at Liptószentmiklós asked for national rights within Hungary. On 15 May a mass meeting of Roumanians at Balázsfalva (Blaj) protested against the Transylvanian Diet's voting the union with Hungary before the Roumanians were properly represented on it. The Saxons demonstrated in a similar sense. It is true that when, on 30 May, the Diet pronounced for the union, the Saxons voted with the majority, but this was a matter of tactics. They remained only partially reconciled, while the Roumanians were openly hostile.

At this time the court was in a painful quandary. Its most urgent needs were to prevent revolution from breaking out where it had not yet done so, and to find reinforcements for its armies in Italy. Eternal hotbed of potential revolution as Hungary was, it had up to that stage behaved completely loyally; it was also the biggest potential source of reinforcements, especially since the court had conceded the claim of the Hungarian ministry of defence to authority over the Military Frontier regiments. Batthyány, who visited the court in Innsbruck early in June, promised to get the new Diet to vote 40,000 recruits for Italy if the court would disavow Jella i , and accordingly, Jella i , who in his turn set out for Innsbruck on 12 June, was icily received, and hardly had he left Innsbruck when a royal rescript rebuked him publicly for disobedience to orders and divested him of his honours and dignities.

He was, however, being secretly encouraged and used as mouthpiece by the Austrian centralists, led by the minister of war, Count Latour. Batthyány met him in Vienna, and offered him very wide concessions for Croatia, but his reply was that he could accept nothing less than the central control by Vienna of defence and finance, as well as Hungary's promise to take over part of the national debt. The negotiations, of course, broke down.

Meanwhile, the Serbs, encouraged from Vienna and also from Belgrade (which had sent some 10,000 armed irregulars to help), had held a congress which had demanded national and territorial autonomy, in alliance with Croatia, and had opened hostilities in south Hungary. Kossuth replied on 11 July by asking parliament to authorise the raising of 200,000 men 'to defend the endangered fatherland', and a credit of 42 million florins. Ten days later the request for reinforcements for the armies in Italy came before the House, and now the radicals, led by Kossuth, persuaded the House to refuse the men except on political conditions which were probably ultra vires and certainly absurd.

But the Austrian 'reaction' was now settling in the saddle. In mid-June Windischgrätz had put down the rising in Prague and converted the Czechs to loyalty. At the end of July Charles Albert capitulated to Radetzky in Italy. On 4 September Jella i was formally reinstated in all his dignities; on 11 September he led an army across the Drava. Batthyány resigned; pending the appointment of a new government, the authority, under the Palatine, passed to a Committee of National Defence under Kossuth, who, the royal sanction for the Army vote not having been received, authorised the conscription of the new force and the issue of paper money to cover the expenses. The last hope of compromise disappeared when Count Lamberg, whom the Palatine had appointed Royal plenipotentiary, with instructions to negotiate with Jella i , was lynched by a mob in Pest.

The successor to Batthyány's government was never installed, and in its default Kossuth was now the de facto dictator of Hungary. It was open war between Hungary and the court, and, at first, the Hungarians had the better of it. The Imperial authorities, their hands full with a renewed outbreak of revolution in Vienna, were unable to help Jella i , who proved a very incompetent leader in the field. Heavily defeated by the young Hungarian armies, who had thrown up a leader of genius in Arthur Görgey, a youthful ex-officer of the Imperial forces, he was driven back across the frontier. But Vienna capitulated on 28 October and on 2 December Ferdinand abdicated in favour of his nephew, Francis Joseph. Kossuth, rightly seeing that the measure was directed against Hungary - its whole purpose was to release the regime from Ferdinand's pledge to respect the April Laws - refused to recognise the abdication as legal for Hungary. A few days later, Windischgrätz and Jella i led two new armies into Hungary, with the avowed purpose of crushing the 'rebels'. Their first advance carried them into Pest in a fortnight. Windischgrätz proudly announced final victory, and on 4 March 1849 an Imperial manifesto announced the dissolution of the Austrian Constituent Assembly and the constitution of the entire Monarchy as 'an indivisible and indissoluble constitutional Austrian Empire'. This was to consist of a number of `crown lands', and Hungary was to be partitioned into no less than five such units: Hungary proper, Transylvania (to include the Partium), Croatia-Slavonia (with Dalmatia, and including Fiume), the Military Frontier and a new 'Serbian Voivody'. The Hungarian constitution, said the manifesto, remained in being so far as its provisions did not conflict with those of the new constitution, and subject to the introduction of institutions guaranteeing equal rights for all nationalities and 'locally current' languages.

To this the Hungarian parliament, meeting in the Calvinist church at Debrecen, replied on 14 April by proclaiming Hungary, within its historic frontiers, a fully independent sovereign state. The House of Habsburg was declared forfeit of the throne; Kossuth became provisional Head of the State with the title of Governor (Kormányzó).

For a little longer the issue still hung in the balance. Windichgrätz' assumption that Hungarian resistance was broken proved premature. Kossuth's eloquence and genius rallied his supporters to extraordinary efforts. Görgey, in a series of brilliantly conducted operations, drove the Imperial armies far back, and even recaptured Buda. A Polish volunteer, General Bem, carried through another most skillful campaign in Transylvania. But the odds were too heavy, especially since many of the Hungarian officers, including Görgey himself, were caught in a conflict of conscience over the dethronement of the Habsburgs. Mutual suspicion between Görgey and Kossuth hampered the conduct of the operations. The foreign Powers to which Kossuth appealed for help refused to move; on the other hand, the Czar Nicholas I, who was concerned lest the revolution spread to Poland, had already intimated his readiness to support Francis Joseph in the interest of monarchic solidarity. Now Francis Joseph asked his help. In June two Russian armies entered Hungary, bringing the forces of Austria and her allies up to some 370,000 men, with 1,200 guns, against the Hungarians' 152,000 men and 450 guns. The defenders were driven inexorably back into southeastern Hungary. On 11 August Kossuth handed over his powers to Görgey and fled to Turkey, with a few of his most obstinate supporters. On the 13th Görgey surrendered at Világos to the senior Russian commander, Marshal Paskievicz, who reported to the Czar: 'Hungary lies at the feet of Your Majesty.'

The capitulation of Világos was followed by another of the reigns of terror of which Hungarian history is so full. At first the country was placed under a military administration headed by Haynau, the notorious 'hyaena of Brescia', who boasted that 'he would see to it that there should be no more revolutions in Hungary for a hundred years'. Thirteen Imperial officers who had served as generals in the Hungarian army were hanged at Arad on 6 October and on the same day Batthyány, who had tried to cut his own throat, was shot. There were many more sentences of death, and about 100 executions; then an amnesty saved the lives of the remaining destined victims, but for a while, the fortress-prisons were full. The rank and file of the Honvéd were as a rule conscripted into the Imperial forces and sent to foreign stations.

In July 1850 the military regime was replaced by a civilian one, which was at first called 'provisional' but made 'definitive' in 1853. The treatment to which Hungary was now submitted was no longer brutal, but carefully calculated to eliminate all traces of the nation's independence. The division of the country into the five crown lands was confirmed, Inner Hungary being further subdivided, for administrative purposes, into five Districts, each under a commissioner, and Transylvania into five more. The autonomy of the counties and municipalities was abolished. The administration was purely absolutist and bureaucratic; it was conducted by a civil service drawn chiefly from the Czech and German districts of Bohemia, and reinforced by a newly instituted gendarmerie. The language of administration and of most secondary and all higher education was German; primary education was, in principle, in the pupil's mother-tongue. The tariff wall between Hungary and Austria was abolished and the tobacco monopoly introduced into Hungary.

The regime was not in every respect unbeneficial, especially to the poorer classes and the nationalities. The peasants benefitting by the 1848 reform, about 625,000 heads of families, were left in possession of their freeholds, the average size of which was estimated at about 12 hold. No compensation whatever was required of them. The more enterprising among them developed into solid yeoman farmers. The nationalities enjoyed more cultural freedom, on the lowest level, than before. 2,000 kilometres of railways were built, and a big network of roads. There was also some industrial development, and some credit institutions came into being.

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