Thursday Top Ten: Leading Figures Of Hungary’s 1848-1849 Revolution And War For Independence
Tamás Székely 2017.03.16.
In Hungary Today’s weekly series “Thursday Top Ten” our readers can learn about the most interesting things one can find about Hungary in connection with a given topic. Since yesterday Hungarians commemorated the 169th anniversary of the 1848-1849 revolution and war for independence, we dedicate this week’s article to ten 19th-century national heroes who contributed crucially to the birth of today’s Hungary.
1. István Széchenyi (1791-1860)
Born into a wealthy aristocratic family, Count István Széchenyi was the forerunner of modern-day Hungary thought to be born in the revolution of 1848, consequently he was later honored with the epithet “the Greatest Hungarian”. As former traveler and military officer, he was impressed by the modernity of England and France. In order to modernize his homeland, he donated a fortune to establish the Hungarian National Academy of Sciences in 1825 and organized the National Casino, a Hungarian elite forum to discuss political affairs. He introduced steam shipping on the Danube and improved the navigability of the river. He also massively contributed to the construction of the Chain Bridge between Buda and Pest. Széchenyi published a number of books, arguing for political,economic and social progress but rejected the separatism from Austria. Despite his bitter disputes with fellow patriot Lajos Kossuth, he joined the revolutionary Hungarian government of 1848, in which he served as minister of public works and transfer.
2. Lajos Kossuth (1802-1894)
While István Széchenyi believed that national liberty would follow economic progress, Lajos Kossuth argued the very reverse, harshly criticizing the Habsburg administration. Kossuth, a son of a noble but not wealthy family, started his political career as a radical journalist, and in 1837, he was even arrested and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for his brilliantly written political pamphlets. In March 1848, however, he rose to power as minister of finance in the revolutionary government. Moreover, in September, when the cabinet resigned to avoid war with Austria, Kossuth went even further to become the leader of the Hungarian freedom-fighters. In April 1849, he was appointed Governor-President of Hungary and declared the country’s independence from Austria. Although that liberty was later suppressed by the Russian intervention, and Kossuth himself went to exile, he has been seen as the key figure of Hungarian patriotism ever since.
3. Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849)
“Liberty and love /These two I must have. / For my love I’ll sacrifice / My life. / For liberty I’ll sacrifice My love.” – wrote Sándor Petőfi in his famous poem and indeed he sacrificed his life for Hungary’s freedom. Having played a leading role in the literary life of the pre-revolution era, Petőfi greatest day in his painfully short life came on 15 March 1848. The talented poet, member of the so-called radical youth movement “Youths of March”, was co-author and author, respectively, of the two most important written documents of the revolution: the 12 points (political demands) and his revolutionary poem “Nemzeti Dal”. Both were presented by Petőfi himself on the front steps of the National Museum. After Petőfi was unable to secure a seat in the post-revolution National Assembly, he decided to join the Hungarian Revolutionary Army and fought under the Polish Liberal General Józef Bem, in the Transylvanian division. He was last seen alive in the Battle of Segesvár (Sighișoara, RO) on 31 July 1849.
4. Mihály Táncsics (1799-1884)
Despite sitting hopelessly in his cell in a prison located in the Buda castle on the morning of 15 March 1848, Mihály Táncsics still remembered in Hungary as one of the key figures of the revolution. He was arrested back in 1846 for his radical political convictions he propagated in his pamphlet “The Word of the People Is God’s Word.” In the eyes of the Youths of March, Táncsics’ imprisonment was the symbol of the Habsburg tyranny, therefore they marched to the prison and successfully demanded his release the very day when the revolution broke out. Although Táncsics’ political role has been over-emphasized in many Hungarian history books for a long time, he still deserves credit as as a teacher, author and journalist. After the revolution, he worked tirelessly to extend elementary education in Hungary, and he also published a popular textbook on Hungarian geography. Furthermore, he is the namesake of a Hungarian national award for journalism, the Táncsics Prize.
5. Lajos Battyány (1806-1849)
More enthusiastic than Széchenyi but not as radical as Kossuth, Count Lajos Battyhány was appointed the head of the first Hungarian government after the success of the March 15 revolution. As the member of the committee that presented Hungarian demands for parliamentary reform to the Austrian imperial court on 17th of March, he was legitimately appointed Prime Minister by Emperor-King Ferdinand. Batthyány proved to be a patriotic leader as well as a devoted monarchist, but he was stuck in the middle of a clash between the Habsburg dynasty and the Hungarian separatists. Following a series of progressive legislation, he tendered his resignation in September, however, the war between Austria and Hungary turned to be unavoidable. Battyhány was captured by the Austrian army in January 1849. As well as the thirteen martyr generals of Arad, he was executed on 6 October 1849 by the order of the infamous Austrian general Julius Jacob von Haynau. According to the sources, he knelt in front of the firing squad and shouted: “Long live my country! Come on, huntsmen!”
6. József Bem
Interestingly enough, one of the most important generals who fought for Hungary’s independence against Austria in 1848 was not Hungarian at all. Remembered in Hungarian history, and by his revolutionary troops, as ‘Bem Apó’ (Father Bem), Józef Zachariasz Bem was born in Poland in 1794, and would go on to take prominent roles in two separate revolutions over the course of the 19th century. First, he served as an officer in Poland’s November uprising in 1831 against Tsarist Russia, then almost twenty years late reprised this role, volunteering his military skills to the Hungarian revolutionaries led by Lajos Kossuth in 1848. He fought skillfully and valiantly against Austrian forces, particularly in the defense of Transylvania, only to see the Hungarian Revolution crushed by the same Russian forces that had defeated Poland’s abortive revolt decades earlier. Following the revolution’s defeat, he fled to the Ottoman Empire, where, since two taking part in two separate rebellions clearly wasn’t enough adventure for one lifetime, he adopted Islam and became the Ottoman Governor of Aleppo, adopting the name Murad Pasha.
7. Richard Guyon
Another non-Hungarian who would come to fight for the cause of liberty, Richard Guyon was the son of an English family of French noble descent. After receiving his military education in Great Britain, Guyon would fight in Portugal’s Liberal Wars, before joining the Austrian military and becoming an officer of Hungarian Hussars in 1834, and eventually settling in Hungary. When the 1848 Revolution broke out, Guyon offered his services to the new national government and became a Major in the rebellious nation’s military. Over the course of a series of heroic military victories, most famously his defense of the Branyiszko Pass, he would be promoted repeatedly, ultimately becoming a general. According to an 1863 Chambers Encyclopaedia entry, Guyon was most known for “”Indomitable courage, and an incessant care for the comfort of the troops under his command.”
Like József Bem, Guyon would make his way to Turkey following the defeat of the 1848 Revolution; there, in 1852, Guyon would join the Turkish military, serving as a general and taking the name Hursid Pasha. He would fight for the Turks in the Crimean war, before dying in 1856, either from Cholera or food-poisoning. He is buried in Istanbul, and to this day his gravestone bears a Hungarian-language inscription.
8. György Klapka
The “Hero of Komárom” and close friend of Hungarian commander Artúr Görgey, György Klapka was one of the most important generals of the War for Hungarian Independence.
Born into a German-speaking military family. Klapka entered military school at age 18, and following his graduation in 1842 he would be commissioned into the Vienna Guard. In Vienna, he would meet and befriend Görgey; the two would remain fast friends throughout the most difficult moments of the War for Independence.
Like many others, he would leave the imperial army to offer his services to the new revolutionary government in 1848. He participated in numerous significant battles, including the first Battle of Komárom, rising to the rank of general. For a time, he would serve as Deputy Minister of War under his friend Görgey.
Klapka is remembered most for his heroic defense of Komárom with his army. Even as Hungarian forces faltered under the combined might of Austrian and Russian forces, Komárom held strong. Even after Görgey officially surrendered the Hungarian army at Világos, bringing the war to an end, Klapka held out. Forces loyal to Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph were unable to take the city, and Klapka was able to negotiate terms of surrender that guaranteed immunity for the troops under his command. He left Hungary for several years, returning following the Compromise of 1867 that would officially create Austria-Hungary. Upon his return, he became a Member of the Diet, and was elected President of the Honvéd Association (an organization of 1848 veterans) in 1868. He died in Budapest in 1892.
9. János Damjanich
Born in Sunja, Croatia to a family of Serbian origin, János Damjanich would come to be one of Hungary’s greatest heroes. A life-long military man, he would join a Honvéd battalion once the Revolution broke out, and successive victories would eventually lead to his promotion to general. Among his numerous military exploits, he is most famous for his crushing defeat of the Austrians at Szolnok in March of 1849. He was even elected by the people of Szolnok to be their Deputy in the Hungarian Diet (National Assembly), but he refused to take up the position.
Tragically, Damjanich is perhaps most famous for the circumstances of his death. Like Count Lajos Batthány, was sentenced to death following the defeat of the Revolution. One of the thirteen martyr generals of Arad, he was executed on 6 October 1849 by the order of the infamous Austrian general Julius Jacob von Haynau. He was the second-last of the 13 to be executed.
Supposedly, his last words were the following: “We have defeated death because we were always ready to face it.”
10. Artúr Görgey
Perhaps the most skilled Hungarian commander in the War of Independence, and undoubtedly the most controversial, Artúr Görgey was a member of an aristocratic family that could trace its roots back to the middle ages. After serving in the military, he studied chemistry, before joining the new Hungarian military to take part in the fight for independence.
During the war for independence, Görgey won battle after battle, saving the collective skins of Hungary’s young government on more than one occasion; eventually, he assumed command over the entire Hungarian military. Unable to gain control of the situation, Emperor Francis Joseph penned a letter to Russian Tsar Nicholas I seeking armed assistance in subduing the Hungarian freedom struggle. As a result, a Russian army numbering 200 000 men burst into Hungary in mid-June 1849. Outnumbering Hungarian troops several times, it easily crushed the Hungarian military, despite fierce resistance. The Hungarian army, led by Görgey, was forced to surrender to Russian general Theodor von Rüdiger’s troops at Világos (today: Şiria, Romania) on 13 August.
This surrender, to Russian rather than Austrian troops, led Kossuth to decry Görgey as a traitor to the Hungarian cause (it is worth noting that Kossuth was already safely in exile by this time, having left Görgey in charge of the country as military dictator). For decades, Görgey was hated and scorned by the Hungarian public, despite the best efforts of former comrades like Klapka to defend his honor. Only in the years leading up to his death in 1916, at the age of 98, did public opinion begin to reevaluate the place and contributions of the War for Independence’s greatest general.