Hungary and Maria Theresa I


András Hadik



The advantages of the compromise concluded by the House of Habsburg with the Estates of Hungary manifested themselves sooner than expected. After two unlucky wars on the side of Russia, Charles III left his daughter Maria Theresa (1740–80) a militarily, financially and morally shaken empire. When in April 1741 the Austrian army suffered a devastating defeat by the Prussians at Mollwitz near Breslau, France, Spain and Bavaria also fell upon the Habsburg Hereditary Lands. In the face of this military catastrophe, as Sir Thomas Robinson, the English ambassador in Vienna, noted, the twenty-three-year old Maria Theresa, “lacking money, lacking credit, lacking an army, lacking experience and knowledge, and lacking advice”, demonstrated perhaps the most important attribute of a ruler, namely courage in misfortune. Robinson depicts the reaction in the Council of State when the bad tidings of the Prussians’ and the united Bavarian-French army’s advance into Upper Austria reached Vienna: “The deathly pale ministers fell back in their chairs; only one heart remained steadfast: that of the Queen.”

Four months after her coronation as King of Hungary (the masculine form was used by design since she herself was the ruler and not the wife of a king) Maria Theresa decided, with her infallible sense for the feasible, to mobilize the Magyars—the last unused resource in her dramatically shrunken empire—by a personal call to arms; this in the teeth of advice from her father’s high officials, who warned her not to ask for money or soldiers since no one could foresee what the Hungarians would do with the weapons. An adviser is supposed to have said: “Your Majesty would do better to rely on the devil.”

Despite all the warnings and after thorough preparations by her Hungarian confidant palatine Count János Pálffy, who had fought as a general in the Turkish and Kuruc wars, and by Cardinal Imre Esterházy, Archbishop of Esztergom, Maria Theresa appeared on 11 September 1741 at eleven in the morning before the Diet in the castle of Pressburg. Several anecdotally embellished versions exist of how the ruler, dressed from top to toe in mourning, with a sword at her side, slowly passed along the rows of members of the two Houses, mounted the throne, and in a dramatic Latin speech, interrupted by weeping, appealed to “Hungarian courage and loyalty”. She was very beautiful and spoke with a firm voice—but she did not have the heir to the throne, her six-months-old son Joseph, in her arms, as has been conveyed to posterity in painted and poetic portraits; this scene was enacted ten days later when the ceremonial oath on the Hungarian constitution was taken by her co-regent Francis.

The speech given in a truly emotional fashion “by the poor Queen abandoned by all the world” was a great political and theatrical achievement:

“The very existence of the Kingdom of Hungary, of our own person, of our children and of our crown are now at stake. Now that we are forsaken by all, our sole resource is the fidelity, arms and long-tried valour of the Hungarians; exhorting you, the Estates and Orders to deliberate without delay in this extreme danger on the most efficacious measures for the security of our person, our children and our crown, and to carry them into immediate execution. In regard to ourself, the faithful Estates and Orders of Hungary will enjoy our hearty co-operation in all things which may promote the pristine happiness of this ancient kingdom and the honours of the people.”

The success of the appeal was overwhelming. The Hungarian nobles thundered with swords drawn: “Vitam et sanguinem pro rege nostro Maria Theresia!” (Blood and life for our King Maria Theresa!) However, there was one blemish on this superb scene, which most of the reference works fail to mention: it is said that a loud and clear voice was heard from the back rows, where the representatives of the Protestant counties of eastern Hungary stood, adding “sed non avenam!” (but no oats!)—in other words, no material obligations.

The Estates’ emotional response was no empty gesture: the Hungarians at first wanted to provide altogether 100,000 men from the lands of St Stephen, but eventually an army of 60,000, consisting of over half of the nobility’s general levée and a force of conscripted peasants, took to the field in great haste.15 Directly and indirectly the Hungarians saved Maria Theresa and Austria in their time of greatest need—it was barely thirty years since they had been humbled by that same dynasty whose highest representative now appealed to them for their assistance, devotion and loyalty. Not only was the size of the military contingent important, but also the fact that an armed uprising, comparable to the one forty years earlier during the War of the Spanish Succession, would certainly have dethroned Maria Theresa. Furthermore, it would have been impossible to liberate Linz and Prague and even to occupy Munich without the psychologically vital military aid from Hungary. The success in Hungary and the intervention of the nobles’ mounted force and the infantry regiments set up by them surprised and bewildered Austria’s enemies and helped to turn the fortunes of war even before England’s intervention.

Maria Theresa had won this difficult game in Pressburg with charm, chivalry and skill, but also by means of explicit concessions strengthening and expanding the nobility’s privileges. Among other things she promised to maintain their tax exemption as part of the nobility’s “fundamental rights and freedoms”, non-intervention in local jurisdiction, and the organization of serfdom. “I have come not only to take but to give,” she declared, thus guaranteeing the majority of rights demanded by the Diet.

Henceforth, in writing as well as by word of mouth, Maria Theresa repeatedly declared her gratitude to the “Hungarian nation” whom she regarded as “fundamentally good people, with whom one can do anything if one takes them the right way”. During disturbances twenty years later she came out in favour of the serfs against their inhuman treatment by the aristocracy. “I am a good Hungarian,” she wrote to her brother-in-law, then governor of Hungary. “My heart is full of gratitude to this nation.”

During the Seven Years War (1756–63) two gifted Hungarian army commanders ensured that the bravery of the Hungarian regiments would make a great impression on Europe and arouse the Queen’s profound admiration. When on 17–18 June 1757 General Ferenc Nádasdy won a decisive victory in three successive cavalry charges against Frederick the Great of Prussia at the battle of Kolin, the Empress was overjoyed, calling it “the birthday of the Monarchy”, and established the Order of Maria Theresa for outstanding military achievement. Nádasdy was one of the first recipients of the Grand Cross. This most talented of Maria Theresa’s generals next to Laudon was the grandson of the Count Nádasdy executed in Vienna on the order of Leopold I for his participation in the Zrinyi-Wesselényi conspiracy in 1671.

However, the most daring manoeuvre was accomplished some months later by General András Hadik (born in 1711 at Esztergom), who had already won spectacular successes during the Silesian wars. By a brilliantly executed stratagem Hadik took the war right into the enemy’s heartland, advancing directly on Berlin behind the back of the Prussian army as it marched westwards against the French. His raiding party consisted of a mere 3,500 cavalry and infantry, the artillery being represented by four cannons. On 16 October 1757, after a short and bloody clash, he forced an entry through the Köpenick gate and blew up a bridge, penetrating the city with 1,700 of his men; another party took the Cottbus gate. The frightened and confused Berliners estimated the strength of the attackers at 15,000 men, and in the belief that this force was merely the vanguard of a large Austrian army, the city council was willing to pay 125,000 silver thalers as tribute, giving Hadik a promissory note for a similar amount and an additional 25,000 thalers as a gift to the soldiers. The threat of bombardment had served its purpose. The following day Hadik disappeared without interference from the city with his men and the six banners and 400 prisoners they had captured. The infantry marched 50 km. a day and the cavalry rode at least 80 km. A unit of 300 hussars commanded by Colonel Ujházy held up the pincer movement of the pursuing Prussian troops. During one skirmish Magyars once again fought Magyars since the vanguard of the Prussian infantry included hussars under Colonel Mihály Székely. The frightened Court returned to Berlin on 18 October, following the Prussian troops who had re-entered the capital only the night before. King Frederick himself set out with his army in pursuit of Hadik—his order of the day was “These men must be ours, dead or alive!” However, he did not succeed in catching up with Hadik’s little unit.

According to the Habsburg historian Adam Wandruszka, Hadik’s exploit filled Maria Theresa with special pride, since she hated the Prussian King, whom she called the “thief of Silesia”. In a handwritten letter she told Hadik of her “most gracious satisfaction at the cleverly and successfully carried out enterprise against Berlin”, awarding him 3,000 ducats and the Grand Cross of the Military Order of Maria Theresa. Needless to say, Hadik’s bold venture furnished rich and colourful material for stories. According to one, he sent the Queen from Berlin a box of gloves of the finest leather—but because of the hurry it contained twenty-four for the left hand only.

Hadik was given the status of hereditary count, promoted Field-Marshal, appointed military governor of Transylvania and later of Galicia, and in 1774 chairman of the Supreme Military Council (Hofkriegsrat), a position he held until his death in 1790. The significance of this appointment, which marked the peak of his career, can be gauged by the fact that no Hungarian had ever before been permitted to appear even as an adviser to this authority. As the historian Julius Miskolczy put it: “Over the centuries not a single Hungarian statesman was honoured by participation in the government.[…] Even the country’s highest dignitaries, the palatine and the Chancellor, were kept away from the government of the Habsburg Monarchy. The reason for this was lack of trust.”

Maria Theresa was without doubt the outstanding figure in the history of the House of Austria. Frederick II himself paid homage to her in his Testament as “the wisest and politically most gifted” princess: “This woman, who could be regarded as a great man, has consolidated her father’s unstable monarchy.”

“Despite the fourteen years of war”, wrote Wandruszka, “despite the birth of sixteen children, despite the nobility’s and the clergy’s resistance, Maria Theresa was a great reformer blessed with benevolence, feminine charm and the talent of a virtuoso for choosing and treating her advisers.” He concludes:

No ruler before or after her in the long line of the old Habsburg and Habsburg-Lorraine dynasties, which had become merged within her person, knew how to place the right man at the right time in the right place: no one but she carried out, in the midst of critical wars, so many fundamental and revolutionary innovations which also stood the test of time. Whatever sphere of Austria’s modern history one deals with, be it administration, fiscal and trade policy, education, the armed forces, justice and health, one reaches the conclusion that the decisive reforms and beneficial institutions can be traced back to the reign of the great Empress.


Hungary and Maria Theresa II


Maria Theresa being crowned Queen of Hungary, St. Martin’s Cathedral, Pressburg.

With unfailing political instinct Maria Theresa tried always to take into consideration factors relating to tradition in her dealings with the Monarchy’s most difficult country, and from time to time at least partly to win over the suspicious and eccentric nobility to the central reforms. Distribution of offices, decorations and personal marks of favour were of great help in these efforts. The Hungarian policy of the court was doubtless moulded by the Queen’s humane disposition. A few weeks before her death she summoned the Chancellor of Hungary, Count József Esterházy, to an audience and said to him: “Tell the Hungarians again and again that I shall think of them with gratitude until my very last moment.”

This attitude and her various educational, scientific and religious initiatives had far-reaching and sometimes unforeseen consequences for Hungary’s future, and indirectly for the Monarchy. Maria Theresa succeeded first and foremost in enticing the high and well-to-do section of the middle-ranking nobility into Vienna’s sphere of interest. In 1746 she established the Theresianum, the élite academy for training young nobles, which up to 1772 already attracted 117 sons of Hungarian aristocratic families. Numerous Hungarians also graduated from the Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt, and officers who attracted attention for their bravery were decorated with the newly-established Order of St Stephen. While Protestants were restricted in practising their religion and Jews were mercilessly persecuted and even occasionally expelled from Bohemia and Moravia, the pious Empress strongly supported the Catholic Church, partly in the interest of the Empire’s standardization. The victorious Counter-Reformation created a pro-dynastic but also explicitly Hungarian patriotism of a Baroque-Catholic flavour, culminating in the notion of the Regnum Marianum, deliberately linking it with the medieval national kingdom’s cult of Mary.

Two gestures in particular impressed the national-religious feelings of the Hungarians. After 1757 Maria Theresa again bore the title “Apostolic King of Hungary”, a new-old privilege, conferred by Pope Clement XIII in recognition of the Hungarian people’s sacrifice in the fight against the Turks. It harked back to the time of St Stephen, whose right hand was ceremonially repatriated from Ragusa (Dubrovnik) to the royal palace of Buda, to even greater effect.

As for national interests, although Transylvania continued to be separated from the mother country, Maria Theresa re-incorporated into Hungary the thirteen Zipser towns mortgaged to Poland 300 years earlier by King Sigismund, the port of Fiume and the Military Border districts of the Tisza-Maros region.

By far the most significant gesture for the future of the Hungarian language, literature and national identity—even if at the time it was not fully recognized—was the establishment in 1760 of a Hungarian noble regiment of the Queen’s Guards in Vienna. Two young nobles were sent to Vienna by each county to serve in it for five years, and to these were added twenty delegates from Transylvania. The Queen later raised the number of her Life Guard to 500. It is a paradox of Hungarian history that the renewal of the Hungarian language was not initiated in Hungary proper but in the capital of a foreign country, making Vienna the centre of the Hungarian literary movement.

It was an eighteen-year-old guardsman György Bessenyei (1747–1811) who, having mastered French and then German (he wrote poems in these languages), concluded that the ideas of the Enlightenment could only be spread through the mother tongue. That, however, required renewal of the language itself in order to adapt it to the higher intellectual demands. The second task was to motivate people to read, and the third was the creation of a literature to rouse their interest and lead them in the direction of reforms. It is not an exaggeration to regard Bessenyei the forerunner of the modern Hungarian language even though the style of his works, published from 1772 onwards, make them almost unreadable today. Nonetheless he and his friends gave the first impetus to language reform and the introduction of the language movement. The essayist Paul Ignotus, who wrote an English-language History of Hungary in emigration, may be correct in a deeper sense when saying that through his literary renaissance Bessenyei “had invented the Hungarian nation”. Previously only a handful of Hungarian writings, mostly religious, had been published. The first Hungarian newspaper, Magyar Hirmondó, printed in Pressburg, appeared first in Latin, then in German, and only from 1780 in Hungarian.

Through the philosophy and literature of the Enlightenment France exerted a strong cultural-linguistic influence on the Hungarian magnates, both directly and indirectly. Thousands of French books were housed in the libraries of the 200 castles built during Maria Theresa’s reign. One brilliant figure of the Hungarian Enlightenment was Count János Fekete, a general of half-French, half-Turkish background, who carried on a lively correspondence with Voltaire; he sent numerous French poems to the sage of Ferney, which the latter conscientiously corrected and praised, even asking his admirer to send new works. His interest in the versifying general may not have been purely literary, since Fekete always sent 100 bottles of Tokai with his poems.

Very few precursors of Romanticism took up the cudgels for Hungarian. Latin was the nobility’s second language—how else can one explain that the most revolutionary work of the period, Rousseau’s Le contrat social, was published in Hungary (and only there!) in Latin? John Paget wrote even years later: “Only the magnates. I suspect, have a better reason than mere courtesy for not speaking Hungarian—simply because they cannot do so. A large part of the higher nobility is denationalized to such an extent that they understand every European language better than their own national language.”

Maria Theresa was extraordinarily popular in Hungary, although the massive settlement (impopulatio) of foreigners decreed by her altered the ethnic composition to the Hungarians’ disadvantage. While the primary aim was to reconstruct the devastated and depopulated swamplands, the loyalty of the new settlers was not unimportant, in the words of Bishop Kollonics, “in order to tame the Hungarian blood, which is inclined to revolution and turmoil”. Since the end of the seventeenth century the Imperial Court regularly sent agents from Buda to Austria and Bavaria to recruit colonists with the promise of tax exemption for three to five years or immunity from the dreaded billeting. The mainstream of willing immigrants came from south-western Germany, particularly the neighbourhood of Lake Constance, central Rhenish villages and the Moselle region. Germans as such were preferred because of their diligence and loyalty to the Court. At first Catholics were favoured as settlers, but later Protestants were also accepted. Under Maria Theresa the Bánát and Bácska in southern Hungary were settled in this way; between 1763 and 1773 alone, the authorities dealt with 50,000 German families, and it is estimated that the number of settlers of German origin in 1787 was 900,000, i.e. a tenth of Hungary’s 9.2 million population.

Along with the creation of “loyal islets” of diligent Germans there was also an inconspicuous immigration of Slovaks and Ruthenes from the north, Romanians from the east and southeast (they were already in an absolute majority in Transylvania) and Croats and Serbs from the south. As a result of the catastrophes at the end of the Middle Ages and the Turkish occupation, Magyars in 1787 amounted to only 35–39 per cent of the population.

These statistics explain the shock which the partly organized and partly illegal influx caused to the distrustful middle-ranking and lesser nobility. Although Maria Theresa was masterly at manipulating the Hungarian aristocracy’s need for admiration and pride to her own advantage, she kept a watchful eye on a possible flare-up of rebellious ideas or nostalgia for Kuruc leaders:

One day Count Aspremont drove to his estate at Onod. The heavy coach sank into the mud, and the horses could not pull it out. While this was happening, peasants were dashing by in their light vehicles on their way from holy mass at Onod. None of them stopped. They only laughed at the predicament of the loudly cursing Germans stuck in the mud. Finally the Count climbed on to the coach-box, angrily shouting at the laughing peasants: “So you let Rákóczi’s grandson roll in the mud?” When they heard the name, they immediately hastened to the coach, pulled it out and, cheering, accompanied the Count to Onod. News of this adventure soon reached Vienna, and when the Count appeared at Court, Maria Theresa shouted at him, red with anger: “Listen, Aspremont! We don’t expect you to remain stuck in the slime, but you’d better forget about this Rákóczi farce, or we’ll have you but in prison!”

The massive settlement programme supported by the ruler was less a deliberate striving at Germanization than part of an attempt to centralize Hungary’s and the Habsburg Empire’s absolutist administration. In this context the Diet of 1764, the last during the Queen’s lifetime, signalled a momentous turning point. The Estates stubbornly and in the event successfully resisted the Queen’s determination to raise war taxes, tax the nobles’ private property and reduce the burdens of the peasantry. Maria Theresa nonetheless enacted by royal decree the “Urbarial Patent” rejected by the Diet, fixing the normative legal size for a peasant holding and the maximum services which the landlord could exact (in the Middle Ages the urbarium was the land and mortgage register). Although the Queen did not act overtly against the constitution and the nobility’s selfish and shortsighted opposition, from that time onwards she allowed a discriminatory economic policy to take its course against Hungary.

The underdevelopment resulting from the country’s colonial status enforced by Austria, as expounded by many Hungarian historians in the past, is seen differently and in a more sophisticated way today. Thus Kosáry points out that it was not the Austrian customs and trade regulations that made Hungary into a backward agrarian country and a buyer of Western industrial products; it merely exploited this situation. The Diet was never again called into session after 1764, and Hungary sank increasingly to the position of supplier of food and commodities to other crown lands. Although slow economic development did take place, the nobility’s insistence on tax exemption gave the Viennese bureaucracy welcome excuses for separating Hungary from Austria by an internal customs barrier and deliberately making Hungary’s already adverse position worse, with detrimental long-term effects on the other Habsburg lands as well. This continued till 1848.

In spite of her immigration and economic policies, Maria Theresa was and remained a generally admired and beloved ruler. On the other hand, the drastic reforms decreed by her son Joseph without any knowledge of human nature and a disregard for Hungarian sensibilities had far-reaching consequences, including loss of the old mutual trust. On the contrary, the imperial innovations dictated totally in the spirit of the Enlightenment gave an enormous stimulus to Hungarian nationalism, which in 1848 was to change the political map of Central Europe dramatically.


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