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Happy Birthday Modern-Day Hungary! – Historical Background Of The March 15 National Holiday

Tamás Székely 2016.03.15.

Thanks to online services such as Wikipedia or Google Doodles half of the World probably knows today that 15th of March is a special day for Hungarians, no matter where they reside on the planet. However, only few could tell why the message of a complicated 19th-century series of events is so important still in the 21st century.


Hungary has a long but troublesome history indeed and most of the national holidays are linked to rather tragic memories, the ancestors’ heroic but failed attempts to reclaim the nation’s right for self-governance. Yes, the 1848-1849 war for independence was also one of them, yet the starting point – the revolutionary day of March 15 – was not a failure at all, at least not in the long run.

If historic Hungary’s birthday dates back to around 1000 when St. Stephen founded a medieval kingdom on the ruins of a nomadic era, then modern-day Hungary was born in 1848 beyond doubt. After 168 years most of us still believe in those values our 19th-century heroes were fighting for. If we are not to replace freedom, democracy, rule of law, sovereignty and national traditions with something else – and we are hopefully not – we won’t find any reason for not celebrating today.


Historians agree that the 1848-49 proved to be a major turning point in Hungary’s thousand-year history. The revolutionary events not only changed the country’s political establishment, but they had significant impact on the Hungarian economy and the society as well. As a result of the revolution, the post-feudal financial and economic structures of the country were slowly replaced by capitalism, which completely reshaped the everyday life of the Hungarian people in a few decades. Furthermore, the revolutionary events of 1848-1849 have also become the cornerstone of the modern Hungarian nationalism. And in this case we tend to use this highly controversial term in a positive sense. As Ernest Renan said, nations are based on the consciousness of having common memories in the past, common will in the present and common plans for the future. Well, 1848 has given this profane trinity to the Hungarians.

“May there be peace, freedom and accord”

The Kingdom of Hungary had been part of the Habsburg Empire since the 16th century. In the first half of the 19th century the enlightened noble elites were able to recognize the country’s economic backwardness and under the leadership of a highly-educated aristocrat, count István Széchenyi, they launched development programs without breaking up with the Habsburg dynasty. However, the efforts of the so-called reform decades brought only limited results. Everything changed at once in March 1848, when an unrest erupted in Vienna, forcing Austria’s Chancellor Klemens von Metternich to flee the imperial capital. On 15th of March a revolution broke out in the city of Pest, in Hungary as well, when radical students stormed the Buda fortress to release political prisoners. A day later, in Pozsony (Pressburg/Bratislava) the Hungarian National Assembly’s liberal-dominated lower house demanded establishment of a national government responsible to an elected parliament. The dynasty could not withstand the pressure and on March 22 a new national cabinet took power with count Lajos Batthyány as Hungary’s first prime minister, who invited both radical nationalist Lajos Kossuth and conservative-liberal István Széchenyi to his cabinet.


Under duress, the National Assembly’s upper house approved a sweeping reform package, signed by King Ferdinand V, that altered almost every aspect of Hungary’s economic, social, and political life. These so-called April Laws created independent Hungarian ministries of defense and finance, and the new government claimed the right to issue currency through its own central bank. Guilds lost their privileges; the nobles became subject to taxation, many peasants became freehold proprietors of the land they worked; freedom of the press and assembly were created; a Hungarian national guard was established. Moreover, Transylvania was reunited with Hungary. However, the non-Hungarian ethnic groups of the country, which constituted about half of the population, feared the nationalist policies of the new Hungarian government: Transylvanian Germans and Romanians, as well as Croats and Serbs of the South opposed the Hungarian efforts in particular.

By the end of the summer of 1848, the Vienna government were able to stabilize its positions in Austria and Italy. As for Hungary, Vienna enlisted the minorities in the first attempt to overthrow the legally appointed Hungarian government. Josip Jelacic, a fanatic anti-Hungarian military leader, became governor of Croatia on March 22 and severed relations with the Hungarian government a month later. By summer the revolution’s momentum began to wane. The Austrians ordered the Hungarian diet to dissolve, but the order went unheeded. In September Jelacic led an army into Hungary, but it suffered a heavy defeat at Pákozd. Prime Minister Lajos Batthyány wanted to avoid the civil war and resigned, but a mob lynched the imperial commander in Pest and the peaceful revolution of March ended up in a nationwide war for independence by the autumn. A committee of national defense under radical anti-Habsburg leader Lajos Kossuth took control, authorized the establishment of a Hungarian army, and issued paper money to fund it.


On October 30, 1848, imperial troops entered Vienna and suppressed the uprising of German liberals and nationalists, effectively ending the revolution everywhere in the empire except Hungary. In December Ferdinand abdicated in favor of Franz Joseph (1848-1916), who claimed more freedom of action because, unlike Ferdinand, he had given no pledge to respect the April Laws. The Hungarians, however, refused to accept him as their new king because he was never crowned with St. Stephen’s Holy Crown. The imperial army captured Pest early in 1849, but the revolutionary government remained entrenched in Debrecen, Eastern Hungary. In April 1849 the ruling Hungarian elites deposed the Habsburg dynasty in Hungary and proclaimed Hungary a republic, and named Kossuth governor with dictatorial powers. After the declaration, Austrian reinforcements were transferred to Hungary, and in June, at Franz Joseph’s request, Russian troops attacked from the east and overwhelmed the Hungarians.

The Hungarian army surrendered on 13 August 1849, and Lajos Kossuth escaped to the Ottoman Empire. A period of harsh repression followed. Former PM Lajos Batthyány and about 100 others, including 13 generals of the Hungarian army were executed. Several society women were publicly whipped, and the government outlawed public gatherings, theater performances, display of the national colors, and wearing of national costumes and Kossuth-style beards. After the revolution, the emperor revoked Hungary’s historic constitution and assumed absolute control. Franz Joseph divided the country into four distinct territories: Hungary, Transylvania, Croatia-Slavonia, and Vojvodina. German and Bohemian administrators managed the government, and German became the language of administration and higher education. The non-Magyar minorities of Hungary received little for their support of Austria during the war. A Croat reportedly told a Hungarian: “We received as a reward what the Hungarians got as a punishment.”


Hungarian public opinion split over the country’s relations with Austria. Dreaming about Kossuth’s return, some Hungarians held out hope for full separation from Austria; others wanted an accommodation with the Habsburgs, provided that they respected Hungary’s constitution and laws. Ferenc Deák, former justice minister of the 1848 government, became the main advocate for a compromise. Deák upheld the legality of the April Laws and argued that their amendment required the National Assembly’s consent. He also held that the dethronement of the Habsburgs was invalid. As long as Austria ruled absolutely, Ferenc Deák argued, Hungarians should do no more than passively resist illegal demands.

The first crack in Franz Joseph’s neo-absolutist rule developed in 1859, when the forces of Sardinia and France defeated Austria at Solferno. In 1866 the Prussians also defeated the Austrians at Königgrätz, further underscoring the weakness of the Habsburg Empire. After the humiliating defeats Franz Joseph gradually recognized the necessity of concessions toward Hungary, and Austria and Hungary thus moved toward a compromise. Negotiations between the emperor and the Hungarian leaders were intensified and finally resulted in the Compromise of 1867, which created the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. As a result of the so-called “Ausgleich” Hungary regained its political autonomy within the Empire and most of the achievements of 1848 could have been implemented during the following decades, opening a new and rather successful era of modernisation in Hungarian history.