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‘Magyar Amerika’: Hungarians in the United States of America, 1831-67, Part One   Leave a comment

Early contacts between the United States of America and Hungary were sporadic and personal. Historian and poet István Parmenius of Buda accompanied Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s British expedition to Newfoundland in 1583. According to some accounts, Captain John Smith, one of America’s first settlers, travelled in Hungary in 1600-1602, and fought the Turks there before his excursions to the New World, where he met the native princess Pocahontas. An estimated 140 Hungarians fought in the American Revolutionary War. Colonel Commandant Michael de Kováts of the Pulaski Legion trained the first American cavalry unit in the tradition of the Hungarian Hussars. Kováts was killed in Charleston, South Carolina in 1779, fighting for American Independence. He therefore ranks among the first Hungarian freedom fighters and a revolutionary martyr pre-dating those of the Hungarian War of Independence by nearly seventy years.


By the 1820s, the Hungarian view of America was changing, due mainly to the influence of the Enlightenment on Hungary. Before, and even after the American War of Independence, the New World was primarily a geographical expression. János Ferenczy, in his Közönséges Geográphia, published in 1809, and Zsigmond Horváth, in Amerikának haszonnal mulattató Esmértetése (1813), went beyond providing basic information about towns such as Philadelphia and Boston, to emphasize the importance of public libraries, learned societies, hospitals and self-government. They also mentioned the problem of slavery and the treatment of the Amerindians. In the 1820s and 1830s in Hungary, there were more and more articles about the United States, translated from German and French, published in Hungarian periodicals. In these descriptions, there was an increasing emphasis on the political equality of the American people. These articles also projected a positive image of the Americans as skillful, hard-working people.

Bölöni Farkas Sándor (1795–1842) író, műfordít...

Bölöni Farkas Sándor (1795–1842) író, műfordító, utazó, művelődésszervező (Vasárnapi Újság, 1871. július 23.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Among these articles, written by other Europeans, Sándor Bölöni Farkas’ work was the first to give the first-hand impressions of a Hungarian author who deliberately presented these as part of a treasury of progressive ideas ideas for what he saw as a backward Hungary. These progressive views resulted in the book being banned a year after publication. His diary entries show that he knew exactly what he was trying to do; to awaken the spirit of independence in the Magyar nation.

In the mid-nineteenth century, in addition to those Hungarians arriving in the States with the intention of settling down and establishing a new life, there were many who chose it as a place of exile after the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 and the War of Independence which ended in defeat in the following summer of 1849. There were also many others who wished to see The New World with their own eyes, like many other European travellers, but set out intending to return home after an extended sojourn in the USA.

Sándor Márki’s Amerika s a magyarság was published in 1893, the first summary of the experiences of Hungarians who visited or settled in the USA. Several studies appeared afterwards, the last of these being Ödön Vasváry’s Magyar Amerika, published in Szeged in 1988.

Hungarians in the States, 1831-48

In 1831, Hungarian scholar Sándor Bölöni Farkas journeyed to the United States and wrote about his encounters with Americans and their new form of government. In his book, Utazás Észak-Amerikában (Journey in North America), published in 1832, Bölöni Farkas wrote of a land of unlimited opportunity, and presented a rosy picture of the American political system. He translated the Declaration of Independence into Hungarian, noting that it attributes all rights to the people and the people yields only some of them to the administration. During his visit he met President Andrew Jackson and saw the Philadelphia Mint. He commented on the commitment to public education, the US penal system, religious diversity and slavery – the one fly in the ointment, as far as he was concerned. His book became popular with Hungarian readers.

Bölöni started on his journey in 1830, but didn’t arrive in New York until 3rd September 1831. Besides touring all the major eastern cities, he also visited Canada, spending time in some of the towns there. He returned home on 23rd November 1832. We can therefore assume, allowing for the homeward journey, that he was in the States for no more than a year. His aim was to inspire his countrymen to establish independent institutions in their own country.

Photogravure of Charles Alexis Henri Clérel de...

Photogravure of Charles Alexis Henri Clérel de Tocqueville (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Besides Bölöni’s popular work, the Hungarian middle classes in the 1840s were also influenced by a translation of Alexis de Tocqueville’s study of the United States. It was published in two volumes between 1843 and 1845. He and his friend Gustave de Beaumont visited the states when they became disillusioned following the July Revolution of 1830 in Paris. Their official aim was to study the penal system, but their real goal was to write a book on the ’mechanics’ of the American way of life. For Tocqueville, the United States was of interest because the future could be studied in the present. He was impressed by the prospects for freedom and equality, and moved by the genuine concern shown by Americans for the liberty of others and the well-being of their communities. He observed that though the Americans were law-abiding, it was their religion which forbade them from committing injustices. He was interested in the details of the Americans’ lifestyle, especially their manners. However, he was somewhat prejudiced by his own aristocratic background, finding many of their ways dull and uncivilized  The picture of American society he drew was therefore more a reflection of his own class consciousness rather than a true image of a social system not based on class distinctions. He wrote that the Americans had no desire for the finer arts of life born of aristocratic leisure.

As the United States expanded westward across North America, extending its new constitutional government, the Hungarian National Revival was emerging, with its emphasis on enlightened ideas of national identity and self-determination. During the 1820s the Hungarian Diet had begun to press for increased us of the Magyar language in schools and to discuss individual rights and economic development. In the early 1830s, a reformist group led by Ferenc Deák came to power in the Diet, or Parliament. Some of its members looked towards the United States as a model, in particular its jury trial system and traditions of religious tolerance. Contemporaneously, a group of Young Parliamentarians formed around Lajos Kossuth, a lawyer appointed as the delegate of an absent baron. In 1835, the Habsburg Government cracked down on Kossuth’s group, and Kossuth himself was arrested in 1837 and jailed until the opposition in the 1839-40 Diet forced a discussion of freedom of expression. The following year he began a new political journal, Pest Hírlap, which called for reforms based on the capitalism and political liberalism of western Europe and the United States.

Other Hungarian scholars who travelled to the United States before the 1848 Revolution included Károly Nagy, a mathematician and astronomer who met with President Jackson and established links between the Hungarian Academy and the American Philosophical Society founded by Benjamin Franklin.

Fig. 1: The Tour of…

007Ágoston Mokcsai Haraszthy published a book about his American travels in 1844, ten years after Bölöni’s work. While in the States he also founded a settlement (originally named after him, now known as Sauk City) and a humanist society in Wisconsin. He later travelled to California, where he imported vine cuttings for the state’s emerging wine industry. Haraszthy’s Utazás Éjszakamerikában was more of a study of economic progress than Bölöni’s book, which was more of a text book on American democracy than a travelogue. Haraszthy was impressed by the technical improvements he witnessed there and was constantly thinking of their application to Hungary. Passages detailing these improvements were interspersed among accounts of his hunting episodes and other adventures. He found other topics interesting, such as the public amusements


Nevertheless, as a practical person he was impressed by the enterprising spirit of the New World and obsessed by economic possibilities engendered by a democratic society. Although he listed the most popular religious sects existing in the States, he did not comment on the religious freedom exercised by the American people.

Haraszthy’s work was less comprehensive than the later works of the exiles Wass, Xántus or Árvay.

Hungarian Exiles and Emigrants, 1848-1862

In 1847, Kossuth and Deák created an opposition party. The April Laws passed by the Diet in 1848, following the Revolution, provided for a constitutional monarchy on the western European model. Power was to be centralised in bourgeois Budapest and limited to the Hungarians. It appeared to the minorities that the ideas of equality, liberty and national self-determination would not be extended to them. Although Croatia was part of the ancient crown lands of King Stephen, the Croatian leadership remained loyal to the Emperor, a major factor in the ultimate defeat of the Hungarians in the War of Independence.


Despite these failings, many Americans were sympathetic towards Hungary’s revolt against Austrian rule, especially since some Hungarian laws cited the American Revolution and War of Independence as their inspiration. Although the Hungarians lost their War of Independence at Temesvár in August 1849, following the Czar’s intervention in autocratic alliance with the Habsburgs, the theory and practice of an independent nation had been experienced, and would not easily be forgotten. Its leaders were either executed or exiled, but the Fillmore Administration succeeded in negotiating the release of Kossuth and his men from captivity in Turkey, smuggling them to Britain aboard the USS Mississippi, and from there to the United  States. Kossuth arrived in New York to begin a tumultuous tour of the country, following which streets, squares and even some towns and counties were named after him. His hundreds of speeches received wide press coverage on both coasts of the country. Though Kossuth was given a respectful, sympathetic and even enthusiastic hearing everywhere, he received no official support for an independent government in exile. He left for Britain in July 1852.


Conscious of growing domestic tensions over the status of slavery in the mid-western territories, American leaders were unable to intervene, against their own policy of non-interference and in the face of strong Austrian protests in support of defeated European freedom fighters who had little chance of restoring their independent government. However, in July 1853, Commander Duncan N Ingraham of the USS St Louis did succeed in rescuing Márton Koszta, one of Kossuth’s comrades, from the Austrian warship Huszár, anchored in the port of Smyrna. Koszta had been seized in the Ottoman city by the imperial navy, but after interviews with the US Consul, Ingraham learnt that Koszta had lived in the United States for nearly two years and had declared his intention of becoming a US citizen a year earlier. However, he had not yet received a reply to his application from the US Chargé in Constantinople (Istanbul).  Both ships prepared for battle before Koszta was transferred to the St Louis just before Ingraham’s ultimatum expired. Although the Austrians protested, the US Secretary of State declared that, though not yet a citizen, Koszta had a home in the States and was therefore being considered for citizenship, a position which gave him the right to the protection he had placed himself under, and to be extradited to the US by agreement with the Ottoman authorities. The US newspapers praised Ingraham for his brinkmanship in standing up to the imperial navy.

General Hungarian immigration to the US increased throughout the 1850s. By the time of the outbreak Civil War an estimated four thousand Hungarians lived in the States. Some stayed for a while before returning to Hungary, while others made the US their new home. László Újházy, originally one of Kossuth’s associates, chose to stay and found a Hungarian settlement, New Buda, in Iowa. He later became American consul in Ancona, Italy. János Xantus belonged to the Kossuth Emigration, as did Samu Wass and László Árvay, arriving in America in 1851. Xantus’ first book on North America was published in 1857. He returned to Hungary in 1861 but then went back to the States in 1864. Árvay, also a political exile, remained in the states until 1855. Samu Wass’s travelogue was published in 1861. He spent ten years in America, having fled Hungary at the end of the War of Independence, not returning home until 1859. Xantus became a unique contributor to Hungarian-American relations. He conducted scientific research and worked for the US Government, serving in the Army as a geologist and explorer, as well as becoming a US consul in Mexico. His sometimes exaggerated accounts were published, accompanied by drawings of Native Americans and western landscapes. He once wrote:

I like riding in the prairies best. They very much resemble our own beautiful, unforgettable plains. Often I hum a folk song, but instead of our fata morgana, the roar of the buffalo is heard.

005However, even the roar of the buffalo could not compare with the mirages known as castles in the air seen on the Hungarian plains. Xántus’ Letters from America were originally written to his family and are therefore of a personal character. However, this did not prevent his works from being those of a political exile who had the chance not only to visit but also to live in the USA. His book therefore provides a closer look at the reality of the American way of life, giving examples of the problems facing someone who is forced to live as a stranger in a foreign land. He had to adjust himself to a far more practical way of life than the one he had left behind. According to his letters, he found his place in his new home, though he described his American life as much more interesting and exciting than it actually was. Hungarian critics have pointed out that the details of his expedition to Elk River in Kansas where he met the Witchita Indians must have been at least partly born of his imagination, and that these passages appear to have been translated from English.

Between 1855 and 1857, he had to stay in Fort Riley in Kansas, where he was a surgeon’s assistant,  and did not have the opportunity to take part in expeditions over the western territories in the manner of Irving and Cooper. Apart from his partly imaginary trips to the plains, of which Europeans can have little idea, he was the only one of our six travellers who visited some of the cities on the west coast, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. Anna Katona has remarked that:

János Xántus tried to explain life in the States to his immediate family, consequently most of his Hungarian-oriented remarks were of an everyday character. One of his main concerns was the mail. His remarks are certainly in praise of the efficiency of America.

Among his many adventures, he inserted true descriptions of the American way of life and means of transport and communication – he described travelling by train, including on top of a railway carriage, life on a steamboat, and even discussed the problem of servants with his relatives. Though he gave hints about the equality that he found among people and the opportunities that were open to all, he seems not to have been fascinated by the political system in the way in which other Hungarian writers were. However, he claimed to have paid his respects to President Buchanan, probably an invention. However his account of the life of the exiles in the Hungarian settlement of New Buda is considered to be reliable and is the only account we have of this.

Fig 2: The Tour of…

 008Nine Years in the Life of an Exile was the first volume of his planned memoirs. Although it contains a thorough chapter on New York, it’s likely that most of his North America material would have gone into the second volume which never saw publication. The chapter he devoted to New York is not merely descriptive but also summarised the development of the city based on his impressions and experiences gained during many visits.


László Árvay’s work remains in manuscript form, unpublished. He gives an account of his life in exile, having taken part in the Revolutionary War of Independence in 1848-49. He crossed the border at Fácset after his troops were defeated at Lugos in August, 1849. They fled to Turkey where they lay low for two years in Aleppo, before setting out for America. He travelled with János Fiala, a Colonel in the Revolutionary Army, arriving in New Orleans in March 1852. Árvay’s life there was reported to be strenuous, but his own accounts are about living in a hotel, visiting the theatre and having lunch at Puneky’s Hotel (Puneky was a Hungarian from Szeged who had been living in New Orleans for some time). They stayed in the city until Kossuth arrived there in March 1852, but did not accompany him to New York for the passage to Britain but went to St Louis to earn their living there. Although there were plenty of jobs available, at first Árvay found it humiliating to accept manual labour.  He tried his hand at farming, fencemaking, gardening and labouring on a farm. As well as living in St Louis, he also stayed in Davenport and spent some time on the farm of his fellow exile, Tivadar Rombauer. With the help of Börnstein, the chief editor of the local newspaper in St Louis and another early Hungarian immigrant, he managed to get a post as an engineer at the Pacific Railway Company. He worked in Jefferson City but still found it difficult to settle. Since he was given free train tickets he decided to visit the eastern cities; New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cincinatti, Buffalo, Chicago, Pittsburg, Washington and the Niagara Falls.

Having seen so much of the States and being provided with a free ticket for a sailing ship to Britain he finally left America in February 1855. He later took part in the Crimean War in 1856, from where he returned home to his family in Szeged.

Although Árvay’s diary mostly contains the events of his own American life and an account of the political exiles after the War of Independence, it does contain passages on the manners of Americans and on transport and communications which are useful to the historian looking for evidence of the social and economic development of the USA at this time. His view of American life is quite critical, however, partly due to the difficulty he had in settling into the raw newness of life there and in making a living. There are no direct references in the diary to the political economy of the States at this time, and it seems probable that he was unimpressed by a country which many of his fellow countrymen had considered a model of democracy in the years before the 1848 Revolution.

In the conclusion to her essay on Hungarian travellers in the United States, Anna Katona has remarked, drawing on the contemporary sources,  that:

…amidst the awakening of the backward country in the 1830s and 40s, America figured as a model of material, spiritual and moral modernisation as well as material improvement.

She claims that, as before 1848, the vast majority of post-1849 Hungarian visitors were still attracted by American institutions and prosperity. This became the main focus for Haraszthy’s work, and for that of Károly Nendtvich, for which he was awarded a prize by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1864. A review in Budapesti Szemle praised the book for its scholarly approach, reflective method and truthful portrayal of public and private life, institutions, professions and classes of society.


Nendvitch was born in 1811, brought up in Pécs, studied Medicine in Pest and became an obstetrician. However, he preferred Chemistry and graduated in it, becoming a professor. As the discipline was not considered a natural science at that time, he had little chance of getting a salaried post at the Budapest University, so he resigned and taught introductory Chemistry to medical students to make a living. In the period before the 1848 Revolution, he wanted to become more actively involved in the reform movement. He was among the founders of the Association of Natural Sciences in 1841, whose aim was to popularise the natural sciences among the common people and to make them understand that without scientific knowledge there could be no progress for the nation. He also analysed the different types of coal found in Hungary, classifying them according to their value for industrial purposes. For this research he was awarded a prize by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He was asked by Kossuth to assist in the work of the Iparegyesület (Chamber of Trade), founded in 1841, and in 1848, following the Revolution, he was offered the post of Head of Chemistry at the University of Budapest.

However, he had hardly taken up this post when the War of Independence began, and when the Revolution was suppressed, he was court-martialed for his radical ideas and activities. These had included giving introductory lectures in Chemistry to the Army, since it was accepted that the soldiers could not use gunpowder properly without an elementary knowledge of Chemistry. He was removed from his post at the University, but allowed to continue his work at the Trade Institute which later became the University of Technology in Budapest.

Fig 3 :  The Tour of ….

010Nendtvich was desperate over the state of post-revolutionary Hungary and was also embittered about his own situation. The institute where he led the Department of Chemistry was not properly equipped, and not suitable for proper research. Therefore, the possibility of visiting the USA gave him new enthusiasm. So, in 1855, he spent two months in the States, from mid-July to mid-September, publishing his two-volume work three years later. During his visit, nothing seemed to escape his attention and he provided a thorough, scholarly description of the States. The two volumes of his work have the same topic but differing themes.

In 1857 the Trade Institute was granted the title of University of Technology, and he remained there until his retirement. He died in 1892.

The Magyar Martyrs of 6th October 1849: Mythology and Realism.   2 comments


The first government of Hungary

The first government of Hungary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The 15th March, the ‘Ides of March’ is, in Hungary, the day on which we all wear tricolour cockades on the streets, in commemoration of the 1848 Uprising against the Hapsburg Empire, which began in Pest on that day.  The 6th October, though not a national holiday, is equally as significant an event, as it was on this day in 1849, az aradi vértanúk napja, that thirteen generals were executed in the town of Arad in Transylvania (pictured above) on the orders of the Austrian Field-Marshal Haynau. I was once pulled up by a Hungarian history teacher for clinking a beer-glass, because that was what the Austrian officers were said to have done as they hung or shot the thirteen. Although the ‘thirteen’ are remembered as the symbolic martyrs of the War of Independence, there were a great many other civilians who lost their lives under Haynau’s reign of terror which had begun with the surrender of the Hungarian Revolutionary Army at Világos in August (see below). More than another hundred died and many thousands were imprisoned, while the ordinary Hungarian soldiers were enlisted in  the imperial army  and forced to serve in the far-flung corners of the empire.  Also on 6th October 1849, the Austrians executed Count Lajos Batthyány (below), the Prime Minister of the short-lived Republic, who had been a moderating influence on his revolutionary cabinet.

English: Count Lajos Batthyány de Németújvár (...

English: Count Lajos Batthyány de Németújvár (1807–1849), Hungarian landowner, politician and the first prime minister between 1848–1849. Magyar: Németújvári gróf Batthyány Lajos (1807–1849), magyar földbirtokos, politikus és 1848–1849 között az első felelős magyar miniszterelnök. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since the end of the Hungarian People’s Republic in 1989 and the beginning of the (Third) Republic of Hungary in October of that year, the commemoration of the events of 1848-9 have played a significant role in the re-mythologising of Hungarian history, in which even the Ruritanian and pro-fascist Horthy Government can be rehabilitated. Apparently, Horthy did not co-operate in sending half a million Hungarian Jews to the gas-chambers, and did not stand by while the fascist Arrow Cross Party roamed the streets shooting those Jews who remained in the capital and could be found, dumping their bodies in the Danube. These were, according to recent public statements, actions committed purely by the tiny occupying forces of the German Army and SS, and are to be commemorated in the same way as the hundred thousand deaths under forty years of systematic Soviet rule and large-scale occupation by the Red Army.

In this context, it’s worth taking a little time to look at the historical reality of the events of 1848-9, and the broader European context for the Hungarian Revolution, so conveniently omitted from the leaders’ speeches in recent years. The Dictionary Definition of the 1848 Revolution, or forradalom  reads as follows:

‘The historical upheaval when the modern, unified Hungarian nation (magyar nemzet) was born, specifically, the war of Independence (szabadságharc) which erupted six months after the momentous day of March 15 (Március 15) and which, despite its defeat, remained in the national consciousness as something illustrious (which it was), and which Jokai (who participated personally) called “times that changed one’s soul”; it is such an unequivecocally uplifting and ceremonious occasion in the history of Hungary, that every government, regardless of persuasion, has tried to turn it to its advantage by interpreting it to meet its own ends.” (Bart, István: ‘Hungary and the Hungarians: The Keywords’: Budapest, 1999.)

To many of the ‘bourgeois’ Europeans in 1848 it seemed likely that Britain’s exceptionally liberal political system (one in five of men in England and Wales had the vote after 1832; one in eight in Scotland and Ireland) had something to do with its economic success, and that prosperity could come through reform. This was the argument put forward by many who wanted to liberalise the old, autocratic regimes of ‘the continental powers’. Nowhere was this ‘Victorian’ idea of progress better symbolised on the continent than in Budapest, whose very name became synonymous with the linking of the two banks of the Danube into the eventual capital by the building of the Chain Bridge under the direction of the opulent Count István Széchenyi (1791-1860), a brilliant and fanatical supporter of progress promoted from above who also founded the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and improved navigation conditions on Hungary’s two main rivers, the Danube and the Tisza. The Lánchíd was actually designed and constructed by two British engineers and inaugurated in 1848 (picture below). In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, there had also been a rise in the use of the Hungarian language among the social elites, which up to that point had used German, and this was accompanied by the broadening of the foundations of both nationalist ideology and bourgeois economic development. Kossuth symbolised the former route to freedom as a member of the lesser gentry and the chief speaker of the opposition progressive liberals in the ‘lower table’ of the Imperial Diet at Pozsony (Bratislava). The conservatives held power at ‘the upper table’ however, though here too there were powerful advocates of change, led by Count Lajos Batthyány, the chairman of the opposition party. Their chief economic demand, the liberation of the serfs, was to be the means by which they would win their power struggle, but until March 1848 this seemed a long way off and it was the the spilling over of the wave of revolutions from western Europe into the Hapsburg Empire which suddenly made all things possible to the liberal Hungarian politicians.

In 1989, another year of popular revolution throughout Europe, in which Viktor Orbán first came to prominence,  my visit to the Historical Exhibition of the National Museum of Hungary was accompanied by a commentary on the last gallery, referring to its contents as ‘the relics of the bourgeois revolution of 1848 and the struggle for freedom…the last wave of European revolutions‘. This ‘wave’ broke into one of anti-Vienna radicalisation among the Hungarian middle classes, forcing the Emperor, Ferdinand V, to give his sanction to the the acts of Parliament, ‘guaranteeing the basic conditions of national independence and bourgeois development’. In the first show-case, therefore, alongside the portraits of the leaders of the March 15th Uprising, including Sándor Petőfi, seen below, were various artefacts of the other European revolutions of that year.

In reality, it was in France where the revolutionary movement first took hold and was strongest, establishing Louis-Philippe as ‘the Citizen King’ in 1830. The Belgians followed suit and also established a constitutional monarchy: Meanwhile, writing from a Britain which was, in Disraeli’s phrase, in danger of becoming ‘Two Nations’, Marx and Engels had begun to write ‘The Communist Manifesto’, arguing for international revolution led by the urban proletariat, which would take over from the bourgeoisie in the developed industrial economies. One of Marx’s arguments was that the proletariat would get poorer, and this became convincing during the ‘slump’ of 1846. As factories closed, the number of unemployed workers in the industrial centres of Europe rose rapidly, so that in Paris alone, 120,000 were without jobs by the end of 1847.

From the start of 1848, it was clear that it was going to be a busy year. In January, the Sicilians set up their own government, independent from Naples, and there was unrest in Schleswig-Holstein on the death of the King of Denmark. However, it was the events of February in France which really lit the fuse of revolution in Europe. Louis-Philippe’s ‘public order’ clamp-downs on the opposition led to serious riots, and on the second day (23rd February), nervous troops opened fire, killing twenty. The next morning there were 100,000 angry citizens on the streets, barricades went up with the tricoluer rising above them and a new generation of French citizens found themselves singing ‘the Marseillaise’. Louis-Philippe ‘gracefully lowered himself into the dustbin of history’, to be replaced by a mixed bag of opposition deputies, left-wing journalists and socialist theoreticians, who proclaimed the Second Republic. Paris cheered and the autocrats of Europe trembled, suddenly finding virtues in liberal politicians they had previously tried to ignore. In March 1848, the Kings of Prussia, Holland and Piedmont-Sardinia, the Austrian Emperor and the Pope all agreed to liberal constitutions. The German princes also agreed to the calling of a national parliament, which came into existence in Frankfurt at the end of the month. From the Pyrenees to Poland, liberalism had triumphed. South of the Alps, Italian patriotism had scored successes in Venice and Milan, and King Charles Albert had declared war on Austria on March 24th, the same day that Schleswig-Holstein declared independence from Denmark.

So it was that on 13th March, Vienna had become the scene of fervent revolutionary activity, as had Pest, Milan and Venice a few days later. This sudden turn of international events created an opportunity for the Hungarian liberals to make an immediate bid for domestic political power, even without first ensuring the support of the peasant masses. Kossuth, to his credit, seized the moment and, with his colleagues, issued a twelve-point programme including the abolition of serfdom. When news of the Vienna disturbances had reached Pest, the poet Petőfi had rallied a group of revolutionary intellectuals around him, who in turn mobilised the people of the city. Without waiting for the censors, they printed and published The Twelve Points as well as Petőfi’s Nemzeti dal (‘National Song’), thereby establishing the freedom of the press in a single day. They then forced the Municipal Council of Pest (see the picture below) to grant their demands and freed Mihály Táncsics, the radical peasant leader, from prison. On the 18th March the Diet, meeting at Pozsony, enacted legislation to put itself on a representative basis, created an autonomous government for Hungary, as a step towards total independence within the Empire, established equality before the law for nobles and non-nobles alike, abolished censorship, set up a National Guard, introduced general taxation, abolished church tithes and reunited Hungary with Transylvania. By enacting this legislation, the Diet made it possible for Hungarians of various classes to embark upon a path of prosperity despite their different interests, through the creation of a liberal, bourgeois society.

Széchenyi epitomised the other path to bourgeois freedom, which ran in parallel to Kossuth’s political route. The two men had never disagreed about major goals, only about the paths leading to them. Széchenyi was afraid that Kossuth’s route would lead to all his progressive projects burning in a sea of flames. He believed that the obstacles to progress could be removed by patient argument. While he could argue, Kossuth could inspire, and inspiration became indispensable ammunition in the heady days of March 1848. However, as István Lázár has pointed out, ‘it is not certain that all this vindicates the inspirer against the arguer…’ 

The twin of the Twelve Points, Sándor Petőfi’s ‘National Song’, written in the course of the night of March 15th, 1848, opens on this high-sounding note:

Artist Mihály Zichy's rendition of Sándor Pető...

Artist Mihály Zichy’s rendition of Sándor Petőfi reciting the Nemzeti dal to the crowd on March 15, 1848. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Rise Hungarians, your country calls!

The time is now, now or never!

Shall we be slaves or free?

This is the question, choose!

To the God of the Hungarians

We swear,

We swear we shall slaves

No longer be!”

At the time, it could only partially fill a role as the Hungarian “Marseillaise” in the 1848-9 War of Independence, because it had no memorable music composed for it, perhaps because it was written and published in such a hurry. So, when it was performed by actors, singers and zealous patriots, it was recited rather than sung, with the crowd shouting the refrain aloud, but not singing it.  In 1848, the rapid publication and distribution of revolutionary documents were essential to prove the connection between word and deed. If the abolition of censorship was the first of The Twelve Points, demonstrators proved there was no time lag by seizing the best-known press in Pest and immediately printing the prose and poetic proclamations, flooding the streets with leaflets.

Against the backdrop of pan-European revolution, prospects for the Austrian Empire looked grim, and the hopes for Hungarian freedom were high. The Czechs were calling for a pan-Slav conference and those who had forced Metternich into exile were still on the streets of Vienna. The Italian states were in open revolt against Hapsburg rule, and Ferdinand V was forced to retire to Innsbruck, to be replaced by his young nephew, Franz Joseph. The Austrian armies regained control over their Italian states and in Prague, so that their forces could be redirected against the Hungarians.

However, the invasion of Hungary ended in humiliating defeat and by early 1849 virtually the whole country was under the control of the patriot leader Kossuth. Franz Joseph made a successful appeal to his fellow-autocrat, the Tsar, and Russian contingents swelled the ranks of the Austrian forces on Hungary’s borders. Then the tide of affairs began to turn against the revolutionaries across the continent. Garibaldi’s forces were defeated at San Marino, and with the defeat of the Neopolitans in May, Hungary was recovered for the Hapsburgs by the combined forces of Austria and Russia in August. Only the Venetian Republic, which had successfully withstood Radetzky’s bombardment, held out longer, finally being starved into surrender.

Near the central wall in the National Museum were the armchairs of the first autonomous government of Hungary, upholstered with velvet. Above them hung the portraits of the cabinet members with the Premier, Lajos Batthyány, in the centre. This has now been replicated in statue form in the Cathedral city of Kalocsa, on the Danube (see my picture below). On a little stand in the centre one could read the most significant document of the fight for freedom, the Declaration of Independence issued on 14th April, 1849. This effectively deposed the Hapsburgs from the Hungarian throne in perpetuity and elected Lajos Kossuth as the Governer-President, or ‘Regent’ of the Republic. Next to it were documents chronicling the country’s struggle for survival in the face of counter-revolutionary attacks, Kossúth’s activities in organising the Army and governing the state. There were also the arms and equipment belonging to Kosuth and the commander-in-chief Artúr Görgey. Two banners hoisted above the show-cases were flanked by a map showing the glorious campaign of the Spring of 1849 which had resulted in the liberation of almost the whole territory of Hungary from Austrian occupation, an area including the mountainous region of Transylvania, as well as the whole of the Carpathian basin. Only by enlisting the support of the Romanovs could the Austrian autocrats reverse such losses. Further displays recalled the great battles fought by legendary generals such as János Damjanich and József Bem, as well as the heroism of territorials who successfully organised independent guerilla bands in support of the regular army.

The exhibition also dealt with the nationalities issue within the Hungarian territories, since some of the non-Magyar peoples sided with the Emperor and attacked the Magyars. They had good reason to do so, since their their towns and villages had been plundered by the Magyar revolutionaries, with thousands of civilians being ruthlessly killed. Belated attempts were made to make peace with the nationalities, including the left wing of the Romanian National Movement, and the leaders of the Croatian and Serbian liberals. Their leaders’ portraits were also on display in the National Museum. However, the liberal leaders of the Hungarian Revolution completely disregarded the opinion of its own left-wing, that, if they were to prevent a victory by the forces of reaction, they would have to recognise the separate nationhood of the non-Magyar peoples by granting them territorial autonomy in a confederated republic. Thus, the narrow nationalism of the political elite, and their failure to meet the radical demands of the peasants, put forward by Táncsics, were factors in the Fall of the Revolution. In today’s Magyarorszag, not much emphasis is given to  the way the revolution achieved the freedom of the press, including the abolition of censorship. When I visited the Gallery, the nineteenth century printing press stood at the centre of the exhibition as a reminder of this revolutionary gain.

Finally, the exhibition featured an inkstand from the manor-house in Világos, where Görgey signed the unconditional surrender on 11th August 1849. The surrender is depicted in the pictures below, as is the execution of the thirteen valiant ‘Honved’ generals executed at Arad and the execution of Lajos Battyány, the same day, the 6th October, another day commemorated in Hungary as marking the end of Hungary’s short-lived freedom, which nevertheless lasted far longer than the revolutions elsewhere, almost twenty months in all. Neither were these the last of the executions. The retaliation of the Hapsburgs surpassed all former reactions and dungeons were filled by people who were literally left to rot. The final exhibits were the carvings made by the men and the embroidery done by women prisoners. On leaving the exhibition, the visitor can read the words of Lajos Kossuth, etched above the door: “It is my wish that if everything will be lost in Hungary, at least one thing should remain: the liberation of the people from the burden of villeinage…” Kossuth managed to escape to the United States, where he was hailed as a hero of liberty, with statues of him being erected.


A daguerreotype of Sándor Petőfi, one of the first of its kind in Hungary, from 1847. It can be considered a faithful representation of the poet’s features, which were over-romanticised in later portraits, such as the one above. He fell on the battlefield at Segesvár.



The capture of Buda Castle, May 21st, 1849. During the seesawing battles that took place in the War of Independence from Vienna to Transylvania, Buda, Pest and Óbuda fell to the Austrians without direct combat, and the Hungarian government fled to Debrecen. However, the rebel army laid siege to it at the beginning of May, 1848, and captured it on 21st, without real casualties. It was retaken in July. Although the inhabitants of the capital played a major role in the events of March, 1848, they seem to have endured the subsequent events with little involvement, other than providing soldiers.


The surrender at Világos, painted 1851. In mid-August 1849, after the collapse of political confidence in Kossuth, Görgey, commander-in-chief, surrendered not only his own forces, but aklso the remaining scattered forces, to the Russian armies near Arad in Transylvania. He was given a personal amnesty, but the Austrian general, Haynau, camped nearby, carried out mass reprisals on the Hungarian troops.


Today, we live in an age of argument in Europe, not an age of revolutions, so that the ability, quietly and diplomatically, to ‘stay at the table’ is needed and valued more than the ability to make oratorical declarations, recite songs and make grand gestures in public. The route taken by the two counts, Széchenyi and Batthány, may be more useful to Hungary today than that of Kossuth and Petőfi, just as patriotic, but perhaps more productive of progress. There’s a season for songs, poems and speeches, for ardent rhetoric and oratory, but there’s also a season for bridge-building, peace-making and wise compromises. Perhaps, in the Autumn of 2013, the time for the latter has arrived again.

I keep asking, if Hungary is no longer a Republic, since the new constitution was passed in 2011, what is it? I thought the point of the 1989 Constitution was to show, not only that it wanted to disassociate itself from its recent past as a ‘Soviet satellite’ but also with the past of Hapsburg imperialism and autocracy, as well as the authoritarian rule of Admiral Horthy. Yet, having abandoned its status as a ‘Republic’, it now lacks a defining adjective. It is simply a ‘land’.  A land of myths and fairy-tales? Ireland may be voting to abolish its Senate, but I cannot imagine it abandoning its constitution as a Republic and I doubt if I could find an Irish person who could. Neither, however, in the present international climate, do they pretend that they can do without the help of their trading partners in Britain and Europe.

Hungary’s history is different, of course, but not so different that lessons cannot be drawn from the attitude of other countries towards the European Union. I have been a friend of Hungary since 1987/88, and entered one country and left another in the Autumn of 1989, when the new Republic was declared. Those were ‘interesting times’, perhaps too interesting for many ordinary Hungarian families. As a member of a Hungarian family for the past 24 years, one which chose to return in hard times in Hungary two years ago, I understand why Hungarian pride is hurting again. However,  will a new ‘Magyarok’  mythology help heal the wounds and seal the scars left by the past century, or merely serve to reopen them?

I have to admit that Mrs Thatcher showed herself to be a good friend of the ‘bourgeois revolutionaries’ of Hungary in 1989, even if she didn’t much care for Walesa and his proletarian Poles. Many of my Magyar friends visited Britain at this time, or shortly before, when travel restrictions were eased by the last ‘Communist’ government.  They were struck by the ease with which a once strong leader, the ‘iron lady’, could be so easily toppled from power when she became too dictatorial in the new atmosphere which was emerging in Europe and further afield at that time. It seems to me that In the current ‘austere’ atmosphere of retrenchment, all European countries need all the ‘friends’ they can get and none of them, quite literally, can afford to make enemies. Bi-lateral relationships are no longer enough. Take car manufacture. British jobs depend on Japanese and Chinese companies assembling parts produced elsewhere in Europe in Britain, where there is a highly-skilled workforce. Hungarian jobs depend on German companies manufacturing parts in Hungary, where semi-skilled labour is cheaper and production costs are lower. Is that ‘slavery’? Or is it a sign that twenty-first century Hungary is becoming ‘the manufacturing centre of central Europe’ in an inter-dependent single market? Integration and independence need not be polar opposites, after all.


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