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.