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Széchenyi Versus Kossuth: The Battle Of Giants That Shaped Hungarian Modernity

Ferenc Sullivan 2016.03.14.

The 1848 Hungarian Revolution And Freedom Struggle Celebrates 168 Years


Széchenyi Versus Kossuth

The period that preceeded the Hungarian Revolution and Freedom Fight of 1848-49 was characterised by the division between two leading lines of political thought: liberalism – an umbrella term that encompassed several inter-conflicting intellectual streams – and the conservative, absolutistic viewpoint, which remained in vommand of strong positions. Perhaps the most defining dispute in the political battles of the Reform Age was the conflict between Count István Széchenyi and Lajos Kossuth. The two politicians shared a common objective: the creation of a liberal, constitutional, bourgeois nation-state. How can, then, the transpiring differences between the two towering Reform Age figures be described. Two patriots who placed the fate of their country ahead of their personal lives; however, there was profound difference in their approaches to a practically identical goal.

Count Széchenyi attacked Kossuth’s reform system publicly for the first time in 1841. Writing in that year, Széchenyi spoke of his deeply-rooted concern caused the increasingly dominant “opposition spirit”, which was heavily critical of Hungary’s relationship with Austria and refused to take the aristocracy into consideration. In additional to masses of noblemen, this sentiment had penetrated diverse layers of society. Széchenyi’s thinly-veiled worry was the possible annihilation of the reform movement due to the radicals’ provocative politics towards the Habsburg Empire; this lead him to rather place his trust in top-to-bottom reforms. As opposed to this, Lajos Kossuth believed that there is no argument for forcing society into a passive role during transformation. He argued that social movements cannot lastingly be excluded from politics; rather than believving in all-powerful elites or government, he relied solely upon democratic principles.

While Kossuth based his view of society upon a concept of freedom that emphasised the universal origin of rights, Széchenyi took differences in wealth and culture into account in his approach to exercising political rights. In order to reach their goal, the former suggested fast-paced changes and policies disregarding the sensitivities of the imperial court, while the latter called for tolerance to nationalities and slower negotations with secure positions. In the 1840s, both Hungarian public opinion and opposition politicians unreservedly took Kossuth’s side in the dispute. Long after, in 1885, Kossuth branded Széchenyi a liberal aristocrat and himself a democrat; however, in the absence of Széchenyi’s deep and complete social analysis and assessment of the situation, subsequent manifestations of the revolutionary programme could not have come into being. As a result, their combined views and dispute form a close binding to lay down the fundaments of Hungary’s path of modernisation.

The Revolution, the first independent Hungarian government and the April laws

The spring of 1848 shook up almost the entire Europe, a continent that remained heavily studded with countries with feudalistic elements in their political systems. This resulted in a revolutionary tide sweeping across even aristocrats’ estates. As proven by the Revolution, this convulsion reached Hungary not only through reports but also in effect. In Central Europe, three different locations – Pest, Pozsony (today: Bratislava) and Vienna – excercised influence upon each other.


Members of the first independent Hungarian government, 1848

Impacted by the Paris revolution that broke out in February 1848, Lajos Kossuth read out aloud his petition on the abolishment of serfdom, equality in the face of public burdens and an independent Hungarian government responsible to Parliament at the meeting of the National Assembly in Pozsony on 3 March. On 13 March, revolutionary masses were out on the streets voicing their opposition to feudalism in Vienna, resulting in the downfall of Metternich; by the next day, the unrest had spread to Pozsony, and Kossuth’s petition was adopted by the National Assembly. The people of Pozsony, then a Hungarian city, led a torch-lit march and only a day later, the bloodless revolution was victorious in Pest. That morning, the “March youths” set out from the Pilvax coffee house past the universities and held a rally in front of the National Museum.  Acting in the name of the people, the revolutionaries seized the “Landerer and Heckenast” printing house to print the 12 demands of the revolution, along with Sándor Petőfi’s “National Song”. Afterwards, they headed to the Town Hall in Pest, where first they persuades magistrates to approve the nation’s demands, that were then forwarded to Pozsony and Vienna in the form of an official petition.


Count Lajos Batthyány (1807-1849), first Prime Minister of Hungary, on a painting by Miklós Barabás

With the flow of events ganing impetus, Emperor Ferdinand appointed Count Lajos Batthyány as accountable Prime Minister of Hungary, who formed his cabinet on 7 April, most ministries of which were held by the Opposition Party. The government followed the rallying cry of “Order and Peace”. Preparations to draft legislation were begun without delay, with Emperor Ferdinand V giving his consent to the final versions of the newly-adopted laws on 11 April.

With the help of these, the conditions of social reform, including the abolishment of serfdom with state compensation, the obliteration of antiquity, the creation of equality in the face of public burdens and the abolishment of birthright in exercising political freedoms. The new legislative materials were also intended to serve as the basis of a reformed political structure; this was to be served by a National Assembly to exercise legislative power based on popular representation, extended suffrage, a bicameral Parliament with its seat in Pest and three-year mandates for elected Members of Parlament. Hungary’s first independent government was comprised of the following men: _Count Lajos Batthyány, Prime Minister; Bertalan Szemere, Minister of the Interior; Ferenc Deák, Minister of Justice; Lázár Mészáros, Minister of Defence; Gábor Klauzál, Minister of Agriculture, Industry and Trade; Count István Széchenyi, Minister of Labour, Infrastructure and Transport; Baron József Eötvös, Minister of Education, Science and Culture; and Prince Pál Antal Esterházy, Minister besides the King (roughly Foreign Minister).


The Accomplishments of the Hungarian Revolution and Freedom Struggle

As early as autumn 1848, due to the failure of the policy of negotiation, the Hungarian cabinet handed in its resignation. This marked the beginning of an armed freedom struggle against the Habsburgs that lasted almost a whole year. Fighting under the command of Lajos Kossuth and Artúr Görgey, the Hungarian army won several victories during the winter and spring campaigns. Both inapt and unable to gain control of the situation, Emperor Franz Joseph penned a letter to Russian tzar Nicholas I seeking armed assistance in subduing the Hungarian freedom struggle. As a result, a Russian army numbering 200 000 men burst into Hjungary in mid-June 1849. Outnumbering Hungarian troops several times, it easily crushed the persistently fighting Hungarian military. The Hungarian army, led by Görgey, was forced to resemble to Russian general Theodor von Rüdiger’s troops at Világos (today: Şiria, Romania) on 13 August. Following the grievous conclusion of the Hungarian freedom fight, imperial reprisals begun under Austrian general Julius Jacob von Haynau, who earned the name “Hyena of Brescia” because of his atrocities against Italian freedom fighters. On 6 April, 12 generals and one colonel – martyrs of the Hungarian Revolution – were executed at Arad. On the same day, Lajos Batthyány, the first Prime Minister of independent Hungary, was executed by firing squad, and Colonel Lajos Kazinczy – son of the renowned writer, poet and linguist Ferenc Kazinczy – suffered the same fate two days later. In the aftermath of the revolution, imperial circles failed to meet their promises made to national minorities, leading to their suffering at the hands of the authoritarian regime that ensued the defeat of the freedom fight.

The ensuing period of unvarnished absolutist autocracy was characterised by the so-called “Bach period”, named after the Austrian politician Alexander Bach (1813-1893). In this period, the Habsburgs aimed to fully assimilate Hungary into the empire, an objective promoted by the reorganisation of the public administration, the creation of the so-called dual system of civil service to enhance Austrian supervision, a swelling bureaucracy and the complete banishing of the bourgeoisie from public discourse – if one can, at all, talk of any form of meaningful dialogue in that age. From the 1850s onwards, two varieties of resistance – one more active and one more passive – developed in rejection of Hungary’s integration into the Habsburg Empire. The activity and perseverance of the latter group enabled the famously wise statesman Ferenc Deák – who today features on the highest-denomination forint banknote – to join Emperor Franz Joseph I, the head of the ruling Habsburg dynasty, at the negotiation table to settle ongoing political, legal and economic relations between the two countries. This took place in 1867. That year, the Kingdom of Hungary officially became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which ended its feat in history with the cataclysm that was the First World War.


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