The Lost War of Hungarian Independence, 1849 I

Austrian cavalry charge on Hungarian border outpost

In the spring of 1848 Vienna and Budapest were still in the grip of the same revolutionary fever. Eyewitnesses describe the enthusiastic reception given by Vienna to the noble gentlemen arriving by steamboat from Pressburg on 15 March. They were resplendent in their Hungarian dress uniforms, with richly decorated swords and egret feathers adorning their caps, and only Kossuth appeared as always in his simple black national dress. The delegation brought along the text of the pre-formulated Address to the Throne. The scene was described by an eyewitness as follows:

In this hour of jubilation the fiery Hungarians, with Kossuth and Batthyány in the lead, also arrived in Vienna… The jubilation that broke forth is almost indescribable. Endless shouts of “éljen!” [hurrah]. The national flag fluttered in the air, and while kerchiefs are waving, garlands and flowers flying from all the windows in the Jägerzeile and the city, the carriages slowly proceed along the streets… The next goal of the procession was the University, where a stirring speech by Kossuth, the brandishing of sabres and a chorus of acclaim celebrated the joyful avowal of friendship, and raised the hope that all barriers between Austria’s peoples had fallen and a firm moral alliance would unite them in the future.

On the morning of 17 March the Emperor-King Ferdinand assented to Count Lajos Batthyány forming a Hungarian government, as well as the appointment of Archduke Stefan as his plenipotentiary, and promised to approve every law passed by the Diet under the direction of the palatine. Apart from later complications and still open questions, the Hungarian reformers had achieved this success without bloodshed and, what is more, not through the Monarchy’s disintegration but in the spirit of independence already recognized in 1791. The King granted Hungary not only a constitution but also the right of unification with Transylvania, sovereignty over Croatia-Slavonia and the re-incorporation of the Military Border.

Within a few weeks the Hungarians had won a great victory. Even Széchenyi admitted in a confidential letter of 17 March: “Kossuth staked everything on one card, and has already won as much for the nation as my policy could have produced over perhaps twenty years.” According to the new constitution, Hungarian became the official language of the unified state; comprehensive liberal reforms were introduced and a constitutional government was appointed, answerable to a representative body that would soon be elected. After the electoral reform 7–9 per cent of the population received the franchise instead of the earlier 1.6–1.7 per cent. Considering that even after the 1832 Reform Bill only 4 per cent of the population of England had voting rights, the Hungarian achievement was remarkable.

Whether out of idealism or, as in Poland, fear of peasant uprisings or for a variety of other possible reasons, the nobility waived their rights of tax exemption, and agreed to the abolition of feudal dues and services. Thirty-one laws were worked out in feverish haste, which were supposed to transform the feudal Estate-based state into a Western-style parliamentary democracy. Hungary was also granted the right to an independent financial administration, a Foreign Ministry and its own Minister of War.

The new Prime Minister, Count Batthyány, one of the country’s greatest landowners, was an eminent statesman, even if too moderate for the Pest radicals and too progressive for Viennese court circles. Kossuth became Minister of Finance; Széchenyi Minister for Public Works and Transport (“They will hang me together with Kossuth”, he wrote in his diary); Baron József Eötvös, the writer and enlightened humanist, Minister for Culture and Education; Bertalan Szemere Minister of the Interior (later Prime Minister); and the respected liberal politician Ferenc Deák Minister of Justice. Hungary’s first constitutional government consisted of four aristocrats and five representatives of the lesser nobility—all of them rich apart from Kossuth. The Foreign Minister, the conservative Prince Esterházy, the richest man in the country, was seen as an extension of the Court; he wanted to neutralize Kossuth, “that deadly poison”.

Many questions regarding Hungary’s relationship to the Habsburg Monarchy remained open, such as agreement on the functions of the two Foreign Ministries and the military authorities. Nonetheless, Batthyány’s government prepared the way for an impressive surge of economic and cultural development, liberated the peasants, and at the same time guaranteed the nobility’s economic survival. The insurrectionist tendencies of workers and peasants were subdued, as was anti-Semitic rioting. Despite many and increasing tensions, a new and viable parliament was duly elected, in which the followers of the reform movement gained the majority. Kossuth proved his extraordinary abilities as a resolute and conscientious Minister for Finance: under adverse and confusing conditions he managed to conjure up an independent fiscal administration out of nothing. His political influence went far beyond his nominal position, not least because from July he had his own newspaper and from time to time acted as “leader of the Opposition within the government”.

The fateful questions of the Hungarian Revolution were the tense relationships with Austria, Croatia and the most important non-Magyar ethnic groups, such as the Romanians, Serbs and Slovaks. The Hungarians had always fought against the centralizing efforts of the Court and the Austrian government, but their own centralizing steps now elicited similar resistance from the Slavs and Romanians. In contrast to the representatives of national romanticism. Hungarian historians of our time, such as Domokos Kosáry, emphasize that the radicalization of these nationalities was not the result of Vienna’s policies, Pan-Slavism or rabble-rousing foreign agents. These ethnic groups, in their own social and political development, had reached a similar level of national feeling and national assertion as the Hungarians, but Kossuth and most of the authoritative Hungarian politicians were unwilling to accept their demands. Their principal aim was to secure the territorial unity of the lands of the crown of St Stephen, not their disintegration; moreover, many Hungarians lived in the territories claimed by the nationalities, and if they relinquished them, they would come under foreign dominance. Even the most progressive and revolutionary Hungarians believed so strongly in the efficacy of social reforms and the attraction of newly-won freedom that they feared no serious complications.

The culpability of the Viennese government lay in its exploitation of the national disagreements to its own advantage, using the Serbs and Croats supported by Belgrade—then still the capital of an autonomous principality within the Ottoman Empire—to provoke an armed conflict with Budapest. The Court wanted from the first to reverse the Hungarian reforms, which they regarded as a threat to the Monarchy’s unity. It was totally unimportant to Vienna whether one ethnic group or another achieved what it wanted; all that mattered was to gain allies against the Hungarians. That is why the representatives of the nationalities were so disappointed after the defeat of the Revolution. A Croat allegedly remarked later to a Magyar: “What you are getting as punishment we are getting as a reward.”

One of the most conspicuous characteristics of the Revolution and the War of Independence was the confusion in the army, as well as among the aristocracy and lower strata of the nobility. It tends to be forgotten that the Hungary of the time had three times the area of today’s republic, and the Magyars were less than 40 per cent of the population. The ethnic groups were already demanding autonomy and self-administration in the spring of 1848, partly—as with the Croats—within Hungary, and partly within the framework of the House of Habsburg.

The Serbs in Southern Hungary, supported by the principality of Serbia, made territorial demands, and unleashed an open revolt against the Buda-Pest government with the help of 10,000 armed “irregulars” in the service of the Belgrade government, who attacked Hungarian, German and Romanian settlements indiscriminately. Two-thirds of the Hungarian infantry regiments were serving abroad, and of the twelve hussar regiments only half were stationed in Hungary. The Batthyány government requested support from Imperial-Royal regulars to supplement units of the newly-created Hungarian National Guard. It turned out later, however, that the Serb border guards were led by Habsburg officers, flying Imperial-Royal flags. Habsburg units were now fighting each other. In his much-quoted book on the Hungarian Revolution István Deák gave a few graphic examples of the problem of distinguishing between friendly and enemy soldiers and units, and of the moral dilemma facing the Imperial-Royal officers. The following befell Colonel Baron Friedrich von Blomberg:

In the summer of 1848 a Habsburg army colonel named Blomberg—a German national at the head of a regiment of Polish lancers—was stationed in the Banat, a rich territory in southern Hungary inhabited by Germans, Magyars, Orthodox and Catholic Serbs, Romanians and Bulgarians.

Confronted by the threat of an attack from Serbian rebels, Blomberg turned to his commanding general for further instructions. The commander, a Habsburg general of Croatian nationality though not very favourably disposed to the Budapest government, instructed the colonel to fight the Grenzer, and the foreign volunteers. The local Hungarian government commissioner, who happened to be a Serb, issued an identical order. Blomberg fought successfully, but when the leader of the Serbian rebels, a Habsburg army colonel of German-Austrian nationality, reminded Blomberg of his duty to the Emperor and not to the King (the two, of course were one and the same person), Blomberg ordered his Poles out of the region, leaving his German co-nationals, who happened to be loyal to the Hungarians, to the tender mercies of the Serbs. Totally uncertain, Blomberg now turned to the Austrian Minister of War, writing in a letter: “Have pity on us, Your Excellency, in our predicament; recall us from this place of uncertainty. We can no longer bear this terrible dilemma.” But Blomberg was not recalled because his regiment, so the Austrian Minister of War reminded him in his reply, was under Hungarian sovereignty. Blomberg was advised instead to “listen to his conscience”. The territory formerly under his protection was occupied by the Serbs, not without violence and plundering, yet it was twice liberated by Hungarians, first under the command of a Habsburg officer of Serb nationality and later by a Polish general.

Deák adds as a typical footnote that both Blomberg and his onetime opponent on the Serb side became generals in the Habsburg army, while the Hungarian government representative and the Polish General Józef Bem went into exile at the end of the war, and the Hungarian commander of Serb nationality, General János Damjanich, was hanged by the Austrians.

The strongest organized military resistance against the Hungarian Revolution came from the Croats. Their spokesman was Josip Jelačić—who had been promoted shortly before from colonel to general and appointed ban of Croatia—a Croat patriot, deeply loyal to the Emperor and a rabid hater of the Hungarians.

Separation from Austria and the deposing of the dynasty was not at all on the agenda until the autumn of 1848. Thus it was in the interest of the so-called “Camarilla”, the reactionary Court party and the high military in Vienna, with Jelačić as their most important and determined tool, to create an unholy confusion by their intrigues among the officer corps and the simple soldiers. Immediately after his appointment the new ban refused to comply with the orders of the Hungarian Prime Minister and the Minister of War. The latter, Colonel Lázár Mészáros, was not even in Buda-Pest at the time but fighting in Italy under Field-Marshal Radetzky in the Emperor’s service, and could not take up his post until May because Radetzky did not want him to leave Italy. In the mean time, with the agreement of the Emperor, the Hungarians declared Jelačić a rebel, and on the urging of the Buda-Pest government relieved him of all his posts. Barely three months later the Croat general was again on top—as the spearhead of the Austrian attack.

The course of that critical summer demonstrates how complex and confusing the Hungarian War of Independence was for the participants on both sides. The resolutions of the newly-elected parliament in Buda-Pest such as creating a separate (honvéd) army, a separate national budget and issuing banknotes were a provocation to the Imperial government.

On 11 July 1848 Lajos Kossuth, nominally “only” Minister of Finance, gave the most significant speech in Hungarian history. He was ill with fever and had to be supported as he mounted the dais in the Parliament at Buda-Pest; and when he left it around mid-day all the deputies jumped enthusiastically to their feet. In a voice which was at first a whisper but soon rose to its full strength, he spoke about Croatia, the Serbs, the Russian menace, and relations with Austria, England, France and the new German state. All his arguments were directed at just one end: that Parliament should vote a credit of 42 million gulden for the establishment of a 200,000-man national army. Kossuth pulled out all the stops, and witnesses regarded the speech as a masterpiece of rhetoric.

“Gentlemen! (Calls of ‘Sit down!’ to which he answered Only when I get tired.’) As I mount the rostrum to demand that you will save the country, the momentous nature [of this moment] weighs fearfully upon me. I feel as if God had handed me a trumpet to awaken the dead, so that those who are sinners and weaklings sink to eternal death, but those with any vital spark left in them may rise up for eternity! Thus at this moment the fate of the nation is in the balance. With your vote on the motion. I am placing before your God has confided to you the power to decide the life or death of the nation. You will decide. Because this moment is so awe-inspiring I shall not resort to weapons of rhetoric… Gentlemen, our Fatherland is in danger!”

In his oration Kossuth depicted the Serb and Croat danger and the dynasty’s underhand attitude (with ironic asides about the “collision” between the Austrian Emperor and Hungarian King combined in the same person), to heighten the impression of Hungary’s isolation in the Europe of the day. He spoke of England, which would support the Magyars only if it was in its interest. Kossuth then expressed his “deepest empathy” with the trailblazers of freedom, but he did not wish to see Hungary’s fate dependent on protection from France: “Poland too relied on French sympathy and that sympathy was probably real, yet Poland no longer exists!”

Finally Kossuth spoke of relations with the German Confederation. The Hungarians, still harbouring illusions, sent two politicians to the Frankfurt Assembly. They hoped that Austria would join the German Confederation, believing that in that case the Pragmatic Sanction of 1722–3 would become null and void, and Austria-Hungary could then settle its own fate. The King would reside in Buda and an independent Hungarian monarchy could be preserved. According to Hungarian sources, as late as May even the Austrians believed in a German-Austrian-Hungarian alliance against the Slavs. Be that as it may, Kossuth made no bones about the importance he attached to an alliance with Germany:

“I say openly that I feel this is a natural truth: that the Hungarian nation is destined to live in a close and friendly relationship with the free German nation, and the German nation is destined to do the same with the free Hungarian nation, united to watch over the civilization of the East… But because the Frankfurt Assembly was still experiencing birth-pangs, and nobody had yet developed the form in which negotiations could have been brought to a conclusion—and this could happen only with the ministry formed after the election of the Regent—one of our delegates is still there to seize the first moment when somebody is available with whom one can get into official contact to start negotiations about the amicable alliance which should exist between ourselves and Germany—but in a way that does not require us to deviate even by an inch from our independence and our national liberty.”

After the frenzied applause at the end of the speech, with which his request for the necessary funds was answered (“We shall give it!” the deputies shouted, rising to their feet), the weary Kossuth, moved to tears, concluded:

“This is my request! You have risen as one man, and I prostrate myself before the nation’s greatness. If your energy in execution equals the patriotism with which you have made this offer, I am bold enough to say that even the gates of hell shall not prevail against Hungary!”

Despite Kossuth’s pessimistic assessment of the European situation and the ebbing of the revolutionary tide from France to Poland, the radical Left put the government under pressure. It should, first and foremost, refuse the King’s request to provide 40,000 recruits from Hungary to suppress the Italian war of independence. The cabinet was split, and the differences between the moderate Batthyány and the energetic and determined Kossuth became increasingly sharp and undisguised. Vacillation over the question of the recruits further fanned the flames of conflict with the dynasty—for which, meanwhile, the situation had vastly improved. In Prague Field-Marshal Windisch-Graetz had defeated a revolt by the Czechs. Hungarian politicians did not recognize—or, if they did, it was too late—the psychological and political significance of the ageing Field-Marshal Radetzky’s victory at Custozza over the Piedmontese army and the effect the re-conquest of Lombardy would have on Austrian morale.

The Lost War of Hungarian Independence, 1849 II

Battle at Tápióbicske (4 April 1849) by Mór Than

The die was cast on 11 September 1848, when 50,000 Croat soldiers, border guards and national guardsmen entered Hungary led by General Jelačić, whom the Emperor had reinstated the previous week. They crossed the river Dráva and advanced towards Budapest flying black and yellow flags, covertly encouraged by members of the court and the Viennese Minister of War. In this war Habsburg generals were leading troops against Habsburg generals, or—as the Hungarian aristocrat Count Majláth aptly described the confused situation in the summer of 1848—“the King of Hungary had declared war on the King of Croatia while the Emperor of Austria remained neutral, and these three monarchs were one and the same person.”

In these days Kossuth made a round-trip across the Great Hungarian Plain which had immense political and psychological importance. He addressed crowds in settlements and villages, and recruited thousands of volunteers for the honvéd army. This tour was a unique experience in the lives of the peasants, as is amply reflected in Hungarian literature and art. No one else for a century held such powerful appeal for the dour and suspicious people of the Puszta. Almost every community of any size named a street after Kossuth or erected a monument to him. He lives on in folksong to this day:

Lajos Kossuth—golden lamb,

Golden letters on his back;

Whoever is able to read them,

Can become his son.

Lajos Kossuth is a writer

Who needs no lamplight.

He can write his letter

In the soft glow of starlight.

During the September days Kossuth was already playing a leading role in every particular. He managed to obtain the House’s consent for the election of a small permanent committee to assist the Prime Minister; this soon became the National Defence Committee, which on 8 October took over the government under the leadership of Kossuth as its newly-elected President.

The court no longer regarded the government as Hungary’s legitimate representative, and appointed Field-Marshal Count Ferenc Lamberg, a moderate Hungarian magnate, as royal commissioner and commander-in-chief of all armed forces in Hungary. Simultaneously, a little-known politician was entrusted with forming a new government in place of Batthyány’s. Meanwhile the palatine as well as Batthyány resigned. Lamberg’s appointment, not endorsed by the acting Prime Minister, caused general indignation, and shortly after his arrival from Vienna, in broad daylight, the “traitor” was dragged from his carriage by an enraged mob and lynched.

King Ferdinand immediately dissolved the National Assembly, declared a state of siege, and appointed General Jelačić royal plenipotentiary and commander-in-chief. However, Jelačić could not assume the absolute powers conferred on him because on 29 September his army was beaten by a Hungarian unit at Pákozd near Pest, and his troops were now marching not towards Pest-Buda but in the opposite direction. Just over a week later the Second Croatian Army suffered a shattering defeat at Ozora south of Lake Balaton. Both victories, which temporarily saved the capital and the Revolution, were celebrated in poetry and drama.

Several days later, again on Kossuth’s recommendation, Parliament declared the royal manifesto null and void. Open war between Hungary and Austria was now inevitable. On that day Kossuth’s reign began: between September 1848 and April 1849, as president of the National Defence Committee, he became de facto “temporary dictator dependent on parliament”, i.e. for the duration of the crisis.

Kossuth was not only the political leader, but also the inspiration, the organizer and the chief propagandist of the fight. That the Revolution was carried through into a War of Independence and that the nation chose the road of armed resistance, was doubtless due in the first place to the charismatic aura of this veritable tribune of the people. Much has been written by historians and former associates about his negative traits: his jealousy and vanity, coldness and egotism, his inability to put himself in the place of opponents, and lack of understanding of the concerns of the nationalities. His illusions about foreign politics are perhaps best explained by the fact that until 1849 he had never set foot anywhere west of Vienna. Of his generals he encouraged incompetent ones and persecuted Artúr Görgey, the most gifted; he drove them into battle when all hope of winning the war has gone.

Why then did people forgive Kossuth everything? He was the liberator personified; he was the one who did away with the last vestiges of feudalism, freed the peasants, emancipated the Jews, promoted industry. But above all he embodied—not only for his compatriots—the concept of independence.

The Vienna October Revolution was a turning-point in Austrian history, with far-reaching consequences for Hungary’s future as well. The rising of workers and students broke out on 6 October. The spark that ignited the tinderbox of accumulated discontent was the mutiny of a Grenadier battalion of the Viennese garrison, which the Minister of War, Latour, wanted to send to the aid of Jelačić in Hungary. Latour himself was attacked and lynched in the Ministry building and his mangled corpse was strung up on a lamppost. The Emperor, the Court and the highest officials fled to Olmütz in Moravia.

The appeal by the revolutionary German poet Ferdinand Freiligrath in his poem “Wien” (Vienna) to the Germans to rise up was just as futile as the hope that the Hungarian revolutionary troops would succeed in relieving Vienna from the besieging Imperial troops. The Austrian-Croatian Imperial Army defeated the somewhat reluctantly advancing small Hungarian force at Schwechat. On 31 October Field-Marshal Windisch-Graetz marched into Vienna, drowned the uprising in a bloodbath, and set up a military dictatorship which lasted till 1853. The Polish revolutionary General Józef Bem managed to flee, but First Lieutenant Messenhauser who had refused to turn his guns against the people, was executed together with a number of radicals, among them Robert Blum, a deputy of the Frankfurt Assembly.

Both sides now armed for war. Austria had gained a new prime minister in the person of the diplomat and general Prince Felix Schwarzenberg, incidentally brother-in-law of the ambitious Windisch-Graetz: he was, in Robert A. Kann’s assessment, “an adventurer and political gambler”. Radetzky controlled Northern Italy and Windisch-Graetz became commander-in-chief of the impending campaign against the Hungarian rebels.

Schwarzenberg, together with Archduchess Sophie, succeeded in persuading Emperor Ferdinand to abdicate in favour of Archduke Franz, his eighteen-year-old nephew and the Archduchess’s son. The change of rulers took place on 2 December 1848. The arrogant and imperialistic Schwarzenberg (Széchenyi called him a “cold-blooded vampire”) was determined once and for all to downgrade Hungary to the level of a province. The new Emperor, who added to his name that of Joseph to signify his recognition of enlightened “Josephinismus”, relied on Schwarzenberg as he did on none of his subsequent advisers. The consequences of this reliance were more than questionable: thus, for example, the forcible dissolution of the Austrian Reichstag at Kremsier and the arrest of several deputies in March 1849.

Meanwhile the Magyars refused in mid-December to recognize the new Emperor as their king, because he had not been crowned with the Crown of St Stephen and did not feel bound by the royal oath of his predecessors. Kossuth had not intended this conclusive break, but probably welcomed it.

In December Austrian troops attacked Hungary from all sides. A peace mission to Vienna of moderate Hungarian politicians, among them the former Prime Minister Batthyány and the Minister of Justice Deák, failed; Windisch-Graetz refused even to receive them. The Hungarians were fenced in from all sides. Parts of the Austrian army under General Schlick attacked from Galicia in the north, and in the south-west the Romanians and Saxons joined the offensive. The Serbs advanced from the south, the Croats approached across the Dráva and the Danube, and Windisch-Graetz struck from the west. They occupied Buda-Pest in January 1849, and Kossuth fled with the deputies and officials—altogether about 2,000—to Debrecen, 220 km. to the east. The provisional capital was no more than a giant village, with only a single doctor in private practice, but as a centre of Calvinism it counted not only as the most distant town from the attacking Austrian army, but also as a symbol of resistance to the Catholic Habsburgs.

By the end of 1848 all appeared lost for the Magyars; the Austrians believed they had throttled the Hungarian Revolution “as in the coils of a boa-constrictor”, as Friedrich Engels wrote in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Yet the Hungarians fought on with ever-increasing ferocity, though with varying success. Windisch-Graetz proved a rather ineffective commander, and fell victim to his own vanity as well as to the tactical superiority of the Hungarian revolutionary generals. After a strategically unimportant victory at Kápolna, to the east of Buda-Pest, over troops led by the Polish General Henryk Dembinski, Windisch-Graetz believed that the Hungarians had been finally beaten, and in a report to the Court, which was still at Olmütz, announced his imminent entry into Debrecen. This ill-considered move led to the abovementioned imposed constitution of 4 March, which gave the resisting Hungarians an enormous psychological boost to their by now victorious military campaign against Austria.

On 14 April 1849 the Hungarians replied to the proclamation of the octroied (granted) constitution, which eliminated Hungary’s ancient rights and denied it Croatia-Slavonia, Dalmatia and Transylvania, with a psychologically understandable but politically unwise “Declaration of Independence”. In it the parliament in the great Calvinist church at Debrecen proclaimed the dethronement of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine, Kossuth was unanimously elected provisional Head of State with the title of “Governor-President” and Bertalan Szemere Minister of the Interior.

Hungary was isolated, yet its army fought on with such success that many people spoke of a “springtime miracle”. One of the revolutionaries’ principal demands was the creation of a national army with Hungarian as the language of command. Commands, however, still had to be drafted and conveyed in German, because many of the key officers did not understand a word of Hungarian. One of Kossuth’s most devoted associates was the Englishman General Richard Guyon, who had been a first lieutenant in a Hungarian hussar regiment before the Revolution and who, having a Hungarian wife, had become an ardent Magyar patriot. Another of the numerous foreign professional officers was General Count Karl Leiningen-Westerburg, a member of the Hessian ruling house and related to the Coburgs and hence the English royal house; through marriage and predilection he also became Hungarian.

In the autumn of 1849 close on 50,000 members of the Imperial-Royal army were fighting on the Hungarian side, including about 1,500 professional officers. These regular units were not integrated into the new honvéd army; the soldiers kept their uniforms, leading to tragicomic misunderstandings, since it was often impossible to differentiate between friend and foe. The bugle and drum signals, the drill and, as already mentioned, the language of command remained the same. At least 1,000 officers or approximately 10 per cent of the Habsburg officer corps decided in favour of the Hungarian cause.

The military historian Gábor Bona estimates that of the honvéd army’s 830 generals and staff officers 15.5 per cent were Germans, 4.2 per cent Poles and 3.6 per cent Serbs and Croats. The cosmopolitan character of the revolutionary force was maintained from the hopeful beginning to the bitter end of the War of Independence. Hungarians of German origin (excluding the Transylvanian Saxons) generally stood by the Magyars, as did many Slovaks and, without exception, the Jews who hoped for emancipation. About 3,000 Poles, many of them officers, fought for the Magyars.

But it was first and foremost Kossuth who, with his dynamism and incorrigible optimism, supplied the motley army with tens of thousands of recruits, with arms and munitions from abroad, and eventually created a war industry out of nothing. By June 1849 Kossuth succeeded in mustering a honvéd army of 170,000.

At a time when the tide of revolution was receding and reaction was being consolidated, the Hungarians’ dazzling victories in the spring of 1849, culminating in May in the reconquest of the capital, moved all of Europe. In Germany Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Heinrich Heine and Ferdinand Freiligrath, among many others, took a deep interest. The first edition of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung for the year opened with Freiligrath’s poem “Ungarn”, extolling the Hungarians’ fighting spirit. The unconditional support of Marx and Engels for the Magyars was connected with their admiration for the last active revolutionary movement. Engels wrote in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung: “For the first time in a very long time there is a truly revolutionary personality, a man, who dares to take up the gauntlet of the desperate fight for his people, who is a Danton and a Carnot combined for his nation—Lajos Kossuth.”

The Lost War of Hungarian Independence, 1849 III

Capitulation of Hungarian Army at Világos 1849

While the Hungarians were still retreating in the autumn of 1848, Engels wanted to mobilize the public in his newspaper in order to protect “the greatest man of the year 1848”. In April 1849 he already praised the Magyars’ “well organized and superbly led army”, calling Generals Görgey and Bem “the most gifted commanders of our time”. At the same time Engels (as well as Marx) expressed his contempt for the Czechs and above all the South Slavs—the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, who were “nations lacking history”. The Austrian South Slavs were nothing more than the “ethnic rubbish” of a complicated “thousand-year evolution”. Since the eleventh century they had lost “any semblance” of national independence, and were “torn tatters” dragged along by the Germans and Magyars.

During that spring, despite the splendid victories achieved by the Hungarian troops led by Görgey, Bem, Klapka and other talented officers, and the liberation of all of Transylvania and most of Hungary, the inevitable catastrophe—the intervention of Russia—was fast approaching. By March that intervention had already been agreed upon as the Austrian government proved unable to master the situation on its own. This was the natural consequence of the cooperation between the Habsburgs and the Romanovs, which had become even closer since the defeat of the Polish Revolution of 1830–1. It was thus not Kossuth’s Declaration of Independence that had prompted the invasion.

After repeated calls for help Emperor Franz Joseph was finally obliged to appeal to Tsar Nicholas I in an official letter—printed in the Wiener Zeitung on 1 May 1849—for armed assistance in “the sacred struggle against anarchy”. The Tsar replied by return, advising that he had ordered the Viceroy of Poland, Field-Marshal Prince Ivan Paskevich, to hasten to the aid of their Austrian comrades-in-arms. Austrian humiliation culminated in Franz Joseph’s arrival in Warsaw, where on 21 May 1849, with a genuflection, he kissed the hand of the Ruler of all the Russias. The young Emperor enthusiastically reported the event to his mother:

He received me exceptionally graciously and cordially, and at 4 o’clock I dined with him tête-à-tête. We travelled very fast, and the Russian railways are especially outstanding for their good organization and smooth ride. Altogether everything is so pleasantly orderly and calm here.

Hungarian and foreign historians, and in particular contemporaries have long debated whether Russia’s intervention, so detrimental to Austria’s prestige, was really necessary for the defeat of the Revolution. In a report on the campaign Captain Ramming von Riedkirchen, chief of staff to the Austrian commander, Haynau, appointed at the end of May, stated:

The question is often raised whether the Austrian state in that situation, without Russian aid, would have been able to defeat the Hungarian uprising, which, after its unexpected successes in the spring of 1849, grew so rapidly and became so immense. […] In order to attain a decisive military superiority, which was also assured in all aspects of foreign relations, the Russian armed intervention was indispensable in Hungary and Transylvania. The mighty and imposing aid of a Russian army would inevitably lead to success, and result in the establishment of peace in Austria and the whole of Europe, even if Austria’s performance were less energetic and successful.

The Austrian historian Zöllner is also of the opinion that “the victory of the monarchical conservative forces would not have been possible without foreign help.” Deák, on the other hand, believes that the Austrians could have achieved victory by themselves, even though it might have taken them longer. A breakdown of war casualties cited by him, appears to confirm his thesis:

The Austrians kept inadequate records, the Hungarians kept almost none. It seems that about 50,000 Hungarians died and about the same number of Austrians. The Russian expeditionary forces lost only 543 killed in battle and 1,670 wounded. On the other hand. Paskevichs army buried 11,028 cholera victims.

In the event Russia’s intervention sealed the fate of Hungary. Against 194,000 Russians and 176,000 Austrians with a total of 1,200 artillery pieces, the 152,000 honvéds (according to some estimates 170,000) with 450 field-guns did not stand a chance. Yet the fighting lasted until August.

The Hungarians were totally isolated. Kossuth and his Prime Minister Szemere addressed a desperate appeal to the peoples of Europe: “Europe’s freedom will be decided on Hungarian soil. With it world freedom loses a great country, with this nation a loyal hero.” Even Kossuth’s emissaries in London and Paris, Count László Teleki and Ferenc Pulszky, both with excellent social connections, could achieve nothing. As so often before and after in Hungarian history (from 1241 to 1956), no European power lifted a finger in the interests of the Magyars. Lord Palmerston, for example, never wavered from his belief in the necessity of preserving the Monarchy’s integrity. Even though in Parliament he publicly declared himself disturbed by the Russian intervention, in a personal conversation with the Russian ambassador in London he expressed the hope that the Tsar’s army would act swiftly.

Paskevich, Haynau and Jelačić attacked the Hungarian units from all sides, forcing them back into the far south-eastern corner of the country. Until that time the deputies still held their meetings in the National Assembly in the southern city of Szeged, and on 28 July they crowned their work with two significant and symbolic enactments on the equality of nationalities and the emancipation of the Jews.

The Nationalities Law was passed after Kossuth had negotiated in July with the Romanian liberal intellectual Nicolae Balcescu, and Serbian representatives over the possibility of reconciliation and co-operation. Although Law VIII of 1849 reinforced Hungarian as the official language, it also envisaged the free development of all ethnic groups: every citizen had the right to use his own language in his dealings with the authorities; the majority would determine the language to be used in local administration; and primary schools would use the local language.

The bill for the emancipation of the Jews provoked no debate. The government and deputies recognized the community as equal; it had stood by the nation with 10,000–20,000 volunteers and numerous officers in the honvéd army and made donations for weapons as loyally as the Christian Hungarians. After the war the Jews paid a high price for the public avowal of their Hungarianness; some of their leaders were arrested, and some communities had to pay colossal fines.

In retrospect the optimism at Szeged is incomprehensible. The government was in flight; many of the weary and depleted units were surrounded, and some were actually in retreat. Hundreds of deputies had already left; mighty armies were inexorably moving across the country—and yet hope still persisted in this second temporary capital. The Prime Minister, Szemere, spoke optimistically of the British and French governments’ “awakening”. Kossuth declared to the assembled peasants: “The freedom of Europe will radiate out from this city.”

Barely a fortnight later the dream was over. After defeats at Szeged and Temesvár Kossuth abdicated and fled, disguised as the butler of a Polish nobleman. He shaved off his distinguishing beard, changed his hairstyle and, armed with two passports, one in the name of a Hungarian (“Tamás Udvardi”) and an English one in the name of “James Bloomfield”, took off for Turkey. On August 11 he had already transfered full military and civilian authority to Görgey, the Minister of War, who—as Head of State for a day—surrendered to the Russians at Világos near Arad with his shrunken army of eleven generals, 1,426 officers and 32,569 other ranks, with 144 field-guns and sixty battle flags.

Whether Görgey’s preference for laying down his arms before the Russians and not the Austrians goaded the Austrians to even more appalling retribution against the revolutionaries is a moot question. The surrender at Világos marked the end of revolution in the Habsburg empire, which had run its course several weeks earlier when the last German republicans capitulated to Prussia. Heinrich Heine in Paris saw the collapse of Hungary as the final act in the drama of the Europe-wide Revolution: “Thus fell the last bastion of freedom….” Prince Paskevich reported to the Tsar: “Hungary lies at the feet of Your Majesty.” The Tsar exhorted the Austrians to show clemency to the defeated rebels.

The young Emperor celebrated his nineteenth birthday at Bad Ischl. His mother, as always, had arranged everything beautifully: there was a large birthday cake with nineteen candles, a Tyrolean choir sang the Austrian national anthem, and the happy young man bagged six chamois bucks. Afterwards, however, Franz Joseph committed a grave error: as always, he needed the advice of his implacable Prime Minister Schwarzenberg, and on 20 August the Council of Ministers, presided over by the Emperor, determined that all the Hungarian ringleaders, from staff officers upwards, should be court-martialled.

The retribution was entrusted to the infamous German General Baron Ludwig von Haynau, illegitimate son of the Elector Wilhelm I of Hesse-Kassel. He had earned himself the sobriquet “the hyena of Brescia” for his gory deeds in Italy where, after occupying the Lombard city, he ordered the public flogging of local insurgents, among them women, and the arrest and execution of a priest who was dragged from the altar. In the words of the old Field-Marshal Radetzky, “He is my best general, but he is like a razor that should be put back into its case after use.” Feldzeugmeister Haynau worked fast, without mercy and delighting in his assignment. “I am the man who will restore order, I shall have hundreds shot with a clear conscience,” he wrote to Radetzky. Originally no death penalty was to be carried out without approval from Vienna, but the Emperor and the government finally gave in to Haynau’s urging; it would suffice to announce the executions retrospectively.

On 6 October 1849, the anniversary of Minister of War Latour’s murder, thirteen generals of the Hungarian revolutionary army were executed in the fortress of Arad. A fourteenth former officer of the Imperial army was also condemned to death as a Hungarian general, but at the last moment his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The thirteen heroes of the Revolution, whose anniversary is annually commemorated in Hungary, included a German of Austrian origin, a German-Austrian, two Hungarian-Germans, a Croat, a Serb from the Bánát and two Hungarians of Armenian origin. Not all the five “pure” Hungarians were familiar with the Hungarian language. Six civilians were executed in Pest, among them the moderate former Prime Minister of Hungary, Count Lajos Batthyány. He had stabbed himself in the neck with a dagger smuggled into the military prison by his sister-in-law and, although army doctors saved his life, it was impossible to hang him and he had to be shot despite the terms of the original sentence.

On Haynau’s orders 2,000 officers and civilian patriots were imprisoned, and 500 former Habsburg officers, including 24 Imperial-Royal generals, were court-martialled, and about forty officers (though no more generals) were executed, while most of the others were condemned to years of imprisonment in chains. The total number of executions has been estimated at 120.

In his History of the Habsburg Empire, 1526–1918 the American historian of Austrian origin, Robert A. Kann, assessed the reprisals thus:

To the enduring shame of the Schwarzenberg government even the intervention of the czar for the brave Hungarian commanders was rejected… The action of the Schwarzenberg government and its henchmen stands in contrast to Grant’s generous attitude toward the officers of the South after the surrender at Appomattox in the American Civil War. Schwarzenberg managed to unite English, French, German, and even Russian feelings in common revulsion against him and Haynau, who was publicly insulted during his subsequent “goodwill” visits to Brussels and London.

Haynau soon became intolerable to the Court as well, and was pensioned off in 1850. Strangely he bought an estate in Hungary and was even outraged that the “New Landowner” (as he was caricatured in one of Jókai’s novels) was shunned by the other landowners. He died, supposedly insane, in 1853.

The other principal character on the Imperial side, Ban Jelačić, lived on for a few more years, but also mentally deranged. As a disappointed Croat patriot he had given up on his cause; the Austrian government kept only very few of the promises made to the Croats. Each historical turning-point influenced the Jelačić myth. Thus in 1866, before the settlement between Hungary and Croatia, an equestrian statue was erected to him in the main square of Zagreb, pointing his index finger towards the north in the direction of Hungary. Eighty years later, in 1947, the statue was dismantled and the place renamed “Square of the Republic”. After the rebirth of Croatia in 1990, the government restored the statue, this time with the index finger pointing south, i.e. towards neither the long-forgotten Hungarian enemy nor the new arch-enemy Serbia. The place is once again called “Ban Josipa Jelačić square”.