Count István Széchenyi

Hungarian politician and statesman, the chief reformer in the years preceding the revolution of 1848

Son of Count Ferenc Széchenyi, founder of the Hungarian National Museum. As a young soldier Széchenyi had participated in the campaigns against Napoleon I, fought in the Battle of Nations at Leipzig in 1813 and participated in the social whirl of the CONGRESS OF VIENNA in 1815. After the war he traveled widely and returned with the impression that his homeland was far behind west European states in culture and social development. He decided to devote himself to uplifting Hungary to a worthy place among European nations. He made his first public political appearance in 1825, when Emperor FRANCIS I reconvened the Hungarian Diet after an 11-year absence. The initiative for a cultural revival did not come from him; the noble estates of the Diet, in order to strengthen Hungarian national feeling and consciousness, urged the establishment of a scientific association, or, preferably, a national academy. The financial means for such an undertaking were not readily available and Széchenyi volunteered to donate a year’s income from his estates toward that end. Many others offered financial support and the academy became a reality. Széchenyi intended much more, however, than merely a cultural upswing. In a series of books (Credit, World, Stadium) he explored the reasons for Hungary’s backward state.

He sent several reform proposals to the imperial chancellor KLEMENS VON METTERNICH, but the latter, in the grip of postrevolutionary conservatism, had little interest in reformist ideas. Széchenyi then launched his own initiatives, usually on the English model; he organized horse races, wrote a popular book about horses, established in Budapest a casino in which nobles of a progressive bent congregated, and soon casinos sprang up in many provincial cities.

The 1830 revolution in Paris and the Polish uprising against Russian rule of the same year deeply affected Széchenyi and gave impetus to his hitherto tentative ideas for the necessity for reform. He became ever more outspoken in his criticism of the feudal system, but his chief interest remained the promotion of native culture. He recognized that a national revival made the development of the Hungarian language, which had been losing ground to the Latin and the German, imperative, and he became a champion of neology, the Magyarization of foreign terms, the Hungarian version of which either did not exist or had fallen into disuse.

It was in 1830 that he published his book Credit, which attracted immediate attention. In 1828, he had applied for a bank loan to modernize his estate but was refused because of a hostile reaction from many conservative nobles to whom any measure curtailing feudal privilege, a measure Széchenyi advocated, was anathema. In his book he analyzed the adverse effects of the lack of investable capital for lack of credit. More progressive-minded landowners welcomed Széchenyi’s ideas and some, especially the young Wesselényi, even proposed going beyond them, advocating, for instance, the involvement of peasants in the legislative process. Széchenyi, who above all wanted to avoid a confrontation with the government in VIENNA, turned his attention to politically less explosive activities. He planned, after sailing down the Danube as far as he could, to make Hungary the eastern end of a continuous waterway, connecting it to the west. It was at his legislative initiative that the first bridge between the cities of Buda and Pest, the Chain Bridge, was built and in the process he breached the nobility’s freedom from all taxation by providing that nobles as well as commoners pay tolls when crossing the bridge. The Vienna government, honoring Széchenyi’s moderate reforming activities, appointed him to various prestigious positions in the fields of transportation and communication. In the 1840s his political star began to sink as a much more radical reform movement, spearheaded largely by the gentry, began to gain ground and to attract to itself large numbers of the middle nobility.

The latter movement gained an exceptionally gifted and eloquent champion in the person of LOUIS KOSSUTH and for several years, until the outbreak of the revolution of 1848, the two men engaged in a spirited and not always friendly press debate over constitutional and other questions. One point of lively contention was that Széchenyi still trusted the high nobility to spearhead a gradual but persistent reform movement, whereas Kossuth regarded the aristocracy as hidebound and reactionary and put his faith in the lower nobility with whom the preservation of the old order never became an article of faith. Although it was Kossuth who dubbed Széchenyi “the greatest Hungarian,” he also took issue with the latter’s readiness to envision Hungary’s future in close alliance with and under the aegis of the Habsburg monarchy. Kossuth mapped a far more independent course, and his bold visions culminated in Hungary’s armed challenge to the Habsburgs in 1848 and 1849.

Széchenyi’s role in the tumultuous March days of 1848 was an ambiguous one; although he championed a never clearly defined national independence, he was also ready to work together with Vienna and his vision of Hungary’s future was within the imperial structure; had it not been for the presence of Kossuth and the radical elements around him, he may have had a salutary restraining influence on the headlong rush toward confrontation with the Habsburgs. In the short-lived Batthyány government of March 1848 Széchenyi was minister of finance. In September of that year he experienced an apparent mental collapse and was taken to the medical facilities at Döbling in Austria, where he remained for the next decade. In 1857 the interior minister ALEXANDER BACH, confident that imperial authority had been firmly reestablished, issued a pamphlet titled Rückblick auf die jüngste Entwicklungsperiode Ungarns (A retrospective glance at the most recent developmental phase of Hungary) Széchenyi responded to the pamphlet the next year with a pamphlet of his own, titled, Ein Blick auf den Anonymen Rückblick (A glance at the anonymous retrospective glance), assailing not only Bach but the person of the emperor as well. The writing was published in London. When it became known in Vienna, the government ordered a search of Széchenyi’s house and, in the process, a good part of his papers were impounded. This action produced a new crisis in his mental and emotional condition. On April 8, 1860, he ended his life with a pistol shot in the head. The requiem for his salvation was attended by 80,000 people and was an occasion for new demonstrations against Habsburg rule. In death Széchenyi became a symbol of national independence.