Editor’s note: this article, written by Ádám Paár, originally appeared in Hungarian on mandiner.hu, and has been translated into English by Hungary Today.
It is time to rethink and re-examine the actual context and circumstances of the Rákóczi War of Independence, especially the meaning of the words “Kuruc” and “Labanc”.
315 years ago, Ferenc II Rákoczi made public the declaration of Brezna that marked the symbolic beginning of the war for independence. Since then, historians, publicists, politicians, and social scientists have interpreted Hungarian history through the diametrically opposed terms kuruc and labanc.
The meanings of the words “kuruc” and “labanc” have changed greatly from their original early 18th century context. Kuruc can mean, independently of political context, the “constant revolutionary”, the “constant opposition”, the “true Hungarian”, or the “class warrior”, while the labanc has consistently received the short end of the stick as the “sly opportunist”, “German”, “German sympathizer”, “constant collaborator”, or “overseer”.
Before we are torn apart for criticizing something so quintessentially Hungarian, it must be clarified that
such historical opposites can be found in the histories of other countries as well.
Haven’t Scotland’s “highlander” or “Jacobite” evolved in a way that no longer match their strict 18th century definitions? These are now synonyms for the “constant agitator”, or “true Scotsman”, in contrast with the soft-souled, more malleable “lowlander”, or the pro-English Whigs!
A similarly stark comparison can be drawn between the “whites” and “blues” of the Vendee and Bretagne in France: the former were the followers of the king and the Church, while the latter represented parliamentary politics, independent of social, professional, and national lines. Even a hundred years later there was a clear polarity between these two groups.
During the American Civil War, the simple southern foot soldiers, called “Johnny Rebel” by the northerners, can be compared in two ways to the kuruc figure, provided we ignore the geographic and cultural differences as well as the social and political context. His fight was just as hopeless, but his innately human, soldierly mentality of “resist no matter what” compelled respect from his enemies.
Starting out from the above examples, we can most likely find similar historical pairs of opposites in every country, that have been altered from their original meanings to represent a certain mentality, way of thinking, and political stance. We are not talking about something specific to Hungary: in this case we are no different from the rest of Europe.
In truth, however,
when it comes to the Rákóczi war of independence, we as Hungarians tend toward a very narrow interpretation of events.
To this day, it is not mentioned enough in the school system and historical analyses that this conflict was, to an extent, one theatre among many in the context of the War of the Spanish Succession. This explains Rákóczi’s quick victories at the start of the war, when the best imperial troops were drawn out of the country and sent to the Rhine or to Italy, on the French front.
For Louis XIV, the armed uprising happened at the most opportune time, and right in the backyard of his strongest opponent, the Habsburg dynasty. It was not an accident that Rákóczi placed all his hopes on support from the Sun-king, and this monetary, as well as military support and advice, played a key role in the setup of the Hungarian military. In addition to Hungarian-born soldiers, many French, Bavarian, Swedish, and Tatar soldiers could be found in Rákóczi’s army, either as honest adherents to the Hungarian cause, or simply as cold-blooded mercenaries. The Hungarian peasants and simple kuruc did not favour the cap- and whig-wearing French and Bavarians, who dressed similarly to the Germans, or the Crimean tartars, who had recently operated as Turkish auxiliaries, over the enemy Austrian, Walloon, and Bohemian mercenaries.
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On the opposite side, the Austrian-allied Danish king, endearingly called “good” Frederick IV by his subjects, the abolisher of serfdom, also sent “volunteers” to the Hungarian theatre, including Swiss as well. Yet Denmark was protestant, just like the majority of the kuruc fighters were, and the Hungarians held the Swiss in high standing for their own successful war of independence against the Habsburgs centuries earlier. However, Denmark was afraid of Sweden and had put their trust in the Habsburgs, while Switzerland was the European mercenary capital at the time.
Thus, political considerations and economic reasons complicate natural alliances!
The blood of foreign soldiers also spilled in Hungary, but we only want to recognize Hungarian political and military concerns. It is true that [Rákóczi’s] allies – who at this point in time could do at least as much harm as an enemy army – rarely met on the field of battle without being accompanied by Hungarian soldiers.
We do not want to recognize that the Rákóczi War of Independence was not only between Hungarians and Austrians or pro-imperial Hungarian forces, but rather multi-ethnic regiments representing the country’s many diverse inhabitants. Thus, in the “labanc” (yet also patriotic Hungarian) Janos Pálffy’s famous blue-uniformed Jászkun regiments, there were just as many Hungarians as there were Slovaks, Rusyns, Romanians, and Roma under the great prince Rákóczi’s “Pro Patria” flag.
It is worth mentioning that Count Janos Pálffy – just like Rákóczi and Miklos Bercsényi – was at one point a refugee in Poland; he was forced into exile as a result of a duel. This story is important because it sheds light on how pro-imperial Hungarians were just as patriotic as those fighting against them.
John Frederick, Prince of Wurttemberg had insulted the Hungarian nation and, in response, Pálffy called the prince to a duel. After mortally wounding the Prince, Pálffy had to flee the country. Thus, Pálffy was just as much a defender of Hungarian honour as any true patriot, and chance could have easily had it such that he would have seen political advantage in becoming a rebel and could have joined the rebel cause. However, he remained loyal to his sovereign and returned home as soon as he was called, when the empire faced danger.
Pálffy’s fate shows that there was always an alternative.
Furthermore, it is extremely narrow-minded to equate the “labanc” with Germans. On one hand, very few of the foreign mercenaries remained in the country throughout the war, which meant that “kuruc” armies were often fighting face-to-face with entirely Hungarian units. The same Hungarian, German, Slovak, Romanian, or Roma soldier, and of course relatives, friends, and acquaintances, fought on both sides, just like in any civil war. On the other hand, one of the most popular kuruc field-officers, Orban Czelder, was German, more specifically a Zipser Saxon from Upper Hungary, and at the time he was more highly respected than many Hungarian-born field-officers. Orban Czelder was one of the few kuruc who refused to accept the situation after the Peace of Szatmár and began a new plot. They even unfurled the Pro Patria flag once more and paid for it with their lives. Interestingly enough, the German-speaking Czelder, a martyr of Hungarian freedom, cannot be found on the list of well-known kuruc officers today, despite clearly deserving to be. Of course, in the eyes of the kuruc the main enemy was the “German”: the song Csínom Palko, Csínom Jankó talks about “wretched Germanness”. However, it can be rightfully suspected that in this case the word “German” does not refer to a single people, and is instead a general term for all those the kuruc deemed to be the oppressors: the foreign mercenary independent of ethnicity, the tax and toll collector, and the foreign bureaucrat.
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Based on the devastation that the kuruc wrought when they pushed into Austria and Bohemia, they were clearly not just motivated by hatred toward the Germans (here referring to mercenaries and imperial officials), but first of all plunder, and the contemporary method of war that involved demoralizing the enemy by breaking them psychologically and preying on their wealth.
The kuruc were not angels, not at all.
In Bohemian and Austrian folklore, Hungarians have been embedded as “dog-headed”, the same way the Tatars are referred to in Hungarian stories. One Austrian village had its entire adult population massacred by the kuruc, with only the young children left alive. Kuruc Field Marshal Simon Forgách’s men committed this atrocity. According to Austrian legend, God’s punishment was not lacking: The Holy Mary appeared to Forgách, and his horse threw him off of the saddle in fright. In reality, the kuruc Marshal died peacefully in Rodostó. However, just like Haynau in the Hungarian national consciousness, he could not escape from the national consciousness descending on him and wishing him a merciless death.
What is Hungary doing today regarding the memory of the war for independence and the entrenched kuruc-labanc polarity?
It must be accepted as fact that both the kuruc and the labanc were equally patriotic Hungarians (or in certain cases non-Hungarians), and if there were dishonest men among them then it was not due to their labanc or kuruc identity. Second, it is time that public education placed a larger emphasis on the conflict’s European perspective. Finally, it would be nice if the kuruc-labanc polarity were not entangled with 21st century politics.
By Ádám Paár
Translated by András Vaski from an article that originally appeared on Mandiner.hu
Images via Wikimedia Commons