In memory of the 150th anniversary of the Compromise of 1867, which created the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, we would like to present our readers with an essay from the excellent literary journal The Hungarian Review.
In the essay below, author Norman Stone, a distinguished British historian, examines the historical antecedents to, and consequences of, an event that is arguably one of the most important moments in Hungarian history, through the lens of wider European historical trends.
We have just passed an important anniversary, the 150th, in Hungarian history. On 8 June 1867, the Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph, was crowned King of Hungary. It was a lavish ceremony, the great Hungarian aristocrats in their national finery, in Matthias Church, and Franz Liszt composed a mass for the occasion. After it, Franz Joseph mounted a horse, and galloped to a coronation mound put together with soil from all parts of the land; there, he waved a sword in all four points of the compass and swore to defend the land against one and all.
And that was the point: he would now act as constitutional King of Hungary. This was a novelty. Franz Joseph had been on the throne for almost twenty years, during which the country had been under Austrian military occupation. There had been an enormous Revolution in 1848, with an independent Hungarian Government, crushed with Russian help in 1849, and retribution had been severe: thirteen generals had been executed, and so was the Prime Minister, Count Batthyány, in a barracks at a spot close to today’s Parliament which has an eternal flame. Thousands of Hungarians including the leader of the War of Independence, Lajos Kossuth, took the road to exile, and there followed a decade of harsh rule. The entity of Hungary was abolished, divided into five districts, each with a military governor, and the administration was Germanised. Censorship was severe, and Verdi’s Masked Ball about the murder of a Swedish king could only be performed if the murder was omitted; the police chief in Vienna kept a remarkably alert eye, getting spies’ reports on quite remote places in the Slovakian mountains, and foreigners. Even a young English girl coming as governess to an aristocratic family, had to wait for five weeks for a visa. The Citadel, frowning from the heights of Buda over rebellious Pest, is the symbol of that time.
The point in all of this was that Vienna did not recognise that Hungary should have a special status. The Habsburgs ruled many peoples – Italians, Czechs, Poles as well as Germans and Hungarians – and Franz Joseph had over fifty titles, including five kingships. His Ministers in the 1850s aimed to treat these kingdoms on the same level, and Franz Joseph was not crowned as King of Hungary so that he would not be bound by any oath. The empire was to be centralised and run from Vienna; the Church was given vast powers, not least over education; and there was no elected Parliament.
But this suspension of centuries of Hungarian legality could not be interminably maintained, and in 1867 Franz Joseph came to terms with the Hungarians, restoring the old Constitution. Hungary got her Parliament again, which meant self-government in internal affairs, but her leaders agreed that foreign affairs and the armed forces would remain in the Emperor’s hands. This was the Compromise, a burying of Austrian and Hungarian hatchets, and it inaugurated a remarkable period in Hungarian history, an apparent fulfilment of the Reform Age of the 1830s that, for once, exuded hope and now excites nostalgia.
The initial models were British. Chain Bridge, linking Buda and Pest, was designed in 1839 by an Englishman, William Clark, who had also designed Hammersmith Bridge; it was finished ten years later by Scotsmen (there is still a Scottish Church in Budapest). The new city’s canalisation was planned by Joseph Bazalgette, chief engineer to the London Board of Works, and Lloyds Insurance put up the Gresham Palace on the Pest side of the bridge (today it is the Four Seasons Hotel). There was a final homage from Budapest to London in the Parliament, finally opened in 1904; built by Imre Steindl, it owes much to the Westminster model. At the time, much was made of the alleged similarity of the English and Hungarian constitutions: proper parliaments, with a tradition of liberty attached, did not survive the seventeenth century in most of Europe, including the non-Hungarian half of the Austrian Empire. In 1222 there was a Hungarian equivalent of Magna Carta which forced the ruler to respect baronial liberties. In 1867, as the new Parliament began its work, the English example was to the fore. It seemed the English had all the answers and there was even an Italian Prime Minister, Agostino Depretis, who dyed his beard white so as to acquire the authority of William Ewart Gladstone, who dominated British politics in the later nineteenth century.
The famous book of 1992, Francis Fukuyama’s End of History said that democracy and the free market had taken over much of the world with the fall of Communism, and that every country would eventually turn into a sort of Denmark. This time round the model was of course American (though Margaret Thatcher, whose world-wide prestige was enormous, maintained a British presence). America led the way in the media, in computers and technology of all sorts, especially in the field of the military.
England had much the same rôle in the 1850s. She accounted for half of the world’s trade, the City of London dominated international finance, and the Royal Navy ruled the waves. From the WC to the underwater electric cable and the railway, the essential inventions were British. Why this should have been so is a good question, but most historians agree that politics had much to do with it. That Parliament at Westminster, put up in the 1840s to the designs of Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, is a piece of tremendous Victorian triumphalism, and intelligent continental Europeans wondered how it was all done. In Britain, there had been nothing like the French Revolution; there had not even been (outside Scotland) much of an Enlightenment (it is characteristic of England that it abolished the slave trade long before it abolished serfdom, which had become a harmless formality). Old institutions were preserved: an Established Church and a hereditary aristocracy entrenched in a House of Lords. Besides, this peculiar place had launched what really amounts to the first nation-state: with the Union, in 1707, of England and Scotland, with an invented flag and anthem. The English language was consciously enforced (in Edinburgh the great men of the Enlightenment had a society for the suppression of Scotticisms) much to the enrichment of publishers and journalists (where, again, the Victorians were world leaders). Count Széchenyi, recruiting British engineers for Chain Bridge, knew England quite well; one of the two main makers of the Compromise, Count Gyula Andrássy, had spent most of the 1850s in France and England where, being inquisitive and intelligent, he studied political economy; the intellectual giant of the time, Baron József Eötvös, knew Western Europe well and gave much thought to the problems that Liberalism would encounter.
English Liberalism acquired a dominant rôle in Hungarian political throught because the alternatives failed. The anciens régimes had not dispensed with parliaments because they could easily become theatres for selfish politicians who would bring anarchy – the example of Poland was not encouraging. Nor was the free market necessarily a good idea: why not control food prices and forbid usury? Manufacturing was discouraged by wienna, and the Church ran extensive charities, in return for which it had land and privileges. But that system broke down in 1848. It was replaced by rule-by-decree absolutism, and that was where the military occupation of Hungary came in. It was far from barren of achievement: concessions had to be given in the field of the economy and technology: banks and railways sprouted, and serfdom abolished by the Hungarian Revolution was not restored. But the money was lacking, and – as with Russia after the Crimean War – defeat in battle against France in 1859 caused shock. The Viennese Liberals would cooperate with taxes if there were a proper parliament, English-fashion, and in 1860 Franz Joseph’s ministers were wondering how this could be done. Hungary’s elite had been preparing for the historic moment of a compromise, but the important battles were fought in Vienna over a general overhaul of the Empire.
The run-up to the Compromise has been extensively written about, because it was a decisive moment in Central European history. Would Franz Joseph recognize a separate Hungarian Parliament, or would he try and centralise everything in Vienna? There were intelligent conservatives – the Hungarian Count Emil Dessewffy was one – who argued that local assemblies, dominated by clergymen and aristocrats, should have the authority, as these men knew their people and could organise matters informally. These assemblies would send delegates to a central parliament, but it would deal only with the central budget. In 1860 Franz Joseph accepted this with the October Diploma. One immediate consequence was that a Hungarian assembly had to be recalled.
But the Liberals of the German lands under Habsburg rule had other ideas. They were full of themselves, wrestling with problems of law, insurance, finance, trade, and they in particular resented the powers that had been given to the Catholic Church over education. The Church took a relaxed view of minority languages, and developed an alliance with the Czechs in particular; the Bohemian aristocracy, led by Clam-Martinitz and Thun-Hohenstein, joined that alliance.
The German Liberals were not keen on jargon-languages and they could not understand why the Hungarians did not just abandon their language and use German. The classic French historian Louis Eisenmann wrote of the Deutschliberalen that they “had a fundamental contempt for the Slavs … the doctrinaire (Eduard) Herbst and (Carl) Giskra, were naturally even worse … they had too many professors in politics, hence the insufferable dogmatism, the eternally pedantic tone, so irritating and exasperating to interlocutors”. He adds, not wrongly, that “professors have done at least as much damage to the Austrian Parliament as they had done to the (German) one in Frankfurt (in 1848–49).”
But by now Jewish finance had become important, which meant emancipation; and the Liberals were closely associated. They anyway had an uneasy relationship with the Church (in this era there were a great many conversions, but generally in Austria to Lutheranism, as with the Wittgensteins, who found their own religion tiresome and obsolete, but Catholicism even more so; the philosopher Ludwig nonetheless ended up a Catholic). They represented Money, however, which the Habsburgs badly needed. The October Diploma was supplemented a few months later by the February Patent, which gave the German Liberals what they wanted – a central Parliament, elected on a system that greatly over-weighted the middleclass German element. Its leader, Anton von Schmerling, devised a constitution and invited the Hungarians to send delegates to the Vienna Parliament. They refused: they wanted the old constitution restored, and the Liberals – Andrássy, Deák, Eötvös and others of high intelligence – aimed to set up their own Liberal state, though Eötvös thought more positively about the Schmerling Parliament than did the others. Much later, in the era of the European Union, many people, Italians in particular, have seen in a wider European context the answer to their own native ungovernability.
The Schmerling Parliament was known as “the narrower Imperial Council”, the “Council” quite misleadingly referring to an earlier small appointed body, and “narrower” meaning “non-Hungarian”. It was dominated by Deutschliberalen who passed technical laws – insurance etc. – and did cut back the Church’s powers. The Austrian non-Catholics entered upon a golden era, or at least a silver one, as Franz Joseph paraded himself as the natural ruler of a united and part- Protestant Germany, with a Parliament and a constitution. But Hungarian noncooperation tied him down: the army was kept busy there, and finance was weak.
Eventually a section of the Deutschliberalen (under Max von Kaiserfeld) accepted the consequences and began talking to Deák: they would accept a separate Hungarian Parliament, provided that the Hungarians accepted that Schmerling’s Parliament would represent the non-Hungarian lands. In 1867, Franz Joseph allowed this to happen. He would control foreign affairs and the army; sensible Hungarians wanted to have the security that came with belonging to a Great Power, and accepted this; they would contribute money and recruits accordingly. It then came to the Emperor’s coronation as King of Hungary, and in 1867–68 the corresponding laws went through the Hungarian Parliament (to which Franz Joseph gave a building, in what is now the Italian Institute on Bródy Street, by the National Museum, which had to be used – not auspiciously – as a meeting place because the other building proved too small).
For Hungary, the system worked, though with the inevitable difficulties of a new nation-state: Italy was not very different. The real disaster was Austria’s. The Schmerling Parliament had been designed to give power to centralising German Liberals, who wanted to constrict Czechs and Catholics. In this, it failed, and the Austrian half of the Empire did not even have a proper name until 1915 (in fact the very term “Austria-Hungary” was an improvisation, from “Austro-Hungarian Monarchy”, in which “Austria” meant the entire Empire, with Hungary added to indicate her presence) but the central parliament became a theatre in which nationality disputes were fought out. In the end, the deputies obstructed proceedings; a professor of law blew a cavalry trumpet as a Ruthene deputy made a twelve-hour speech in Russian. Budgets could only be passed by decree, and the young Adolf Hitler acquired a contempt for the entire parliamentary system. There was more. The attempt to sort out nationality disputes by central decree meant the use of endless lawyers, which of course made the nationalities hate one another all the more. It would have been far more sensible to leave things as they were under the October Diploma, for the locals to sort out under the guidance of a trusted bigwig, and as informally as possible. Would that the European Union drew the lesson from all of this, and avoid excessive centralisation. With Empires, it always ends in tears.
By Norman Stone
Image via the Magyar Nemzeti Levéltár
Be sure to check out more articles from the Hungarian Review here.