Wed Mar 15th, 2006 at 03:07:48 AM EST
Europe has two things in plenty: proud nationalisms and a bloody history. Commemorating some, we have a lot of national holidays that are little-known beyond the circle of the initiated. But EuroTrib was always a good place for some cultural exchange. (Others are encouraged to pitch in, too!)
Today, March 15, is the most popular national holiday in Hungary. As it is the one that means something even to this apatriot, and I'm the local ET reporter anyway, I'd like to introduce you to a glorious bloodless revolution 158 years ago, during the People's Spring in Europe; tell about all its connections to other countries and nations, and tell about its less glorious aftermath.
|3 p.m., 15 March 1848: crowds assemble before and on the stairs of the National Museum in Pest (in reality, in pouring rain not sunshine)|
After the French Revolution and Napoleon, Europe was like under a pressure cooker.
The genie of the idea of "freedom, equality and fraternity" being out of the bottle, there were constant demands for reforms, and occasional attempts at revolution. The ruling monarchies in turn tried to push the genie back into the bottle by every means possible: censorship, spy networks, arrests, executions and armed clampdowns.
All the while, people were already of different minds about who the People to be freed and to be fraternising amongst are, as well as from whom freedom must be gained: blossoming nationalisms signalled what is to come in the next century.
In January 1848, there was a revolution in Palermo. From February, the pressure cooker blew over: starting from France, revolutions swept across Europe, breaking out in all big cities as the news of revolutions elsewhere reached them.
At this time, what once was the Kingdom of Hungary was now two provinces of the Habsburg Empire ("Royal Hungary" - which included Croatia - and "Transsylvania"), treated as quasi-colonies.
The nobility played an ambiguous role. On one hand, a majority insisted on privileges and the terrible exploitation of serfs.
At the same time, there was a reform movement of (usually Western-educated) liberal aristocrats, advancing all kinds of national projects - roads, canals, railroads, steamboats, industry; national museum, academy, theatre, language usage (defending it against German takeover - and at the same time to impose it upon minorities), education, and a step-by-step dismantlement of privileges. But for many, especially from among commoners, this went terribly slow and was not ambitious enough.
|The symbol of the so-called Reform Age of Hungary: the Chain Bridge connecting Buda and Pest. It was just about to be finished when revolution broke out. Later on, an Austrian general did not destroy it only after energetic protests by its Scottish builder (who would later settle in the city, marrying a Hungarian woman with whom he spoke no common language).|
The Bloodless Revolution
The core of the radicals in Pest (the merchant town on the flat Eastern bank of the Danube, which later united with the royal town of Buda on the hilly Western bank) were a bunch of young poets and writers regularly meeting in Café Pilvax. They were preparing for a big demonstration on the 19th, but hearing the news of revolution in Vienna, on the evening of 14th, they decided to bring it forward. A lucky decision: the secret service planned to arrest them all on the 18th...
The most influential of these Youths of March was firebrand poet Sándor Petőfi. Nationality was very much a matter of choice then: his mother spoke Slovakian, his father's ancestors were Serbs, and much of the masses he aroused on the 15th were German-speakers (Pest and Buda were majority-German at the time). But that goes with a firing-up poem whose refrain includes: we swear, we swear, that slaves we shall no longer be!
|Sándor Petőfi, revolutionary poet, on a mid-1840s photo(!).|
Storming from their café, the revolutionaries first gathered masses as they recited this poem and read their demands at universities and public squares. With enough people behind them, despite pouring rain, Petőfi led the march to a press, and took it over - defying the censors, they started printing out the text of the poem, and their 12-point demands.
It was midday. The Governor of Royal Hungary feared that the soldiers in the barracks, being Italians, would side with the revolutionaries of Pest, so he didn't order intervention - to his detriment. For the revolutionaries organised another gathering at the National Museum at 3 p.m., and the ever growing masses in the still pouring rain got ever bolder.
First they marched to the Major's office and got him to accept the 12 Points. Then the thousands marched across the pontoon bridge to Buda, and forced the Governor to sign it too, and to dissolve censorship immediately. Then they freed Mihály Táncsics, another poet whom censorship put to prison, and carried him to Pest in a triumph march.
The 12 Points with some commentary:
What are the demands of the Hungarian nation.
Let there be peace, freedom and agreement.
- We wish the freedom of press, the abolition of censorship.
- Responsible ministry in Buda-Pest. [e.g. local government; notice there's no outright demand for independence!]
- Annual national convention in Pest. [it was the Emperor's right to convene one, and not doing so was a reform-delaying tactic]
- Equality before law in civilian and religious matters.
- National guard-army.
- Universal suffrage. [e.g. no tax breaks for the rich]
- Abolition of feudal conditions.
- Jury. Representation on the basis of equality. [e.g. no extra weight of the word of a nobleman]
- National Bank. [for financial independence and financing infrastructure projects]
- The soldiers shall swear on the Constitution, our Hungarian soldiers shall not be brought abroad, the foreigners shall be brought away. [a measure to avert revolution was to station soldiers from 'trouble' regions in far-away parts of the Empire, see the Italians mentioned above]
- Political prisoners shall be freed.
- Union. [with Transsylvania - this shall be a main bone of contention: Transsylvania was majority-Romanian already for a century by 1848, with different ideas of a nation, not to mention the powerful Transsylvanian Saxons]
Equality, freedom, fraternity! [notice the changed order relative to the French original: the feudal order was seen as the top problem]
All downhill from here
Who instantly gained power in the wake of the revolution were the liberal aristocrats, whom the conservative ones had no choice but to support. As a consequence, many of the radicals' reform demands were sabotaged. Even press freedom - in fact, a few months later, Mihály Táncsics would find himself in prison again... Elections were held, but in a landownership-weighted fashion. (Even Petőfi couldn't get himself elected.) Meanwhile, the old mentally deficient Emperor was replaced by young Franz-Joseph I, and the Court was preparing to turn the tide.
|Ethnic majorities in the Habsburg Empire (to be more precise: some 50 years later in Austria-Hungary). Also look at a more detailed, thus more complex map.|
The number one strategic error was to alienate minorities. At this time, in the aftermath of the Austro-Ottoman wars and subsequent re-settlement projects, Hungarian-speakers were barely 45% of the population. To use the just won language freedom to crush that of the others was a sure recipe to get people up in arms against the new government, crushing which in bloody fashion is no way to win support either. And sure enough, there was first a Serb rebellion and bloody reprisal, later also Slovakian and Romanian ones and bloody reprisals against them.
Because Croatians and Transsylvanian Saxons also had an elite, there was potential for serious military challenge, and for divisions the Habsburg court could play on to regain full control. And indeed in September, Croatian Ban Josip Jelačić's army started rampaging though what is now Southwestern Hungary, going for Buda. An army that was largely organised on the spot stopped this attack, and pursued Jelačić's fleeing army towards Vienna, where revolution broke out a second time.
And here is the second big strategic error: the government wouldn't declare a Republic!... The pursuing army stopped at the Austrian border, and failed to help the Viennese revolutionaries. Why? Until 14 April next year, the government would battle various Habsburg-loyal armies and (after the secret anti-revolution pact of the absolutist monarchies was activated) Russian interventionists all the while recognising Franz-Joseph I as the head of state!...
The fighting drew a lot of freedom fighters from across Europe, soldiers of already crushed 1848 or earlier revolutions. The most important of them was "Uncle Bem", that is Polish colonel Józef Zachariasz Bem. He already fought in Napoleon's Russian campaign, and was a hero of the 1830/1 Polish uprising.
Bem took over the beaten Transsylvanian army towards the end of 1848 - and led a daring but successful campaign against four forces. (Petőfi joined him as common soldier.) He even had the sense to broker peace both with the Saxons and the strongest Romanian militia leader.
But that didn't last long because of ethnic-Hungarian free militias, organised by some aristocrats who lost family members when Romanian peasant rebels stormed palaces. These militias staged revenge bloodbaths regardless of Bem's agreements. Then even Bem couldn't withstand a second and bigger Russian intervention. (Petőfi is commonly thought to have been killed by a Kossack in one of the battles, but his exact whereabouts are a matter of controversy. Bem himself, like many, escaped to Turkey, where he converted to Islam, became governor of Aleppo, but died already in 1850.)
Caught between two superior armies, the rest of the rebel army surrendered. The Austrian general Haynau decided for a cleansing. On the one-year anniversary of the second Vienna revolution, 6 October 1849, the Hungarian PM was put before a firing squad in Pest, and 13 revolutionary generals ("The 13 Of Arad"), 5 of whom didn't spoke Hungarian, were executed in Arad (today in Romania). In the following months, hundreds more followed. In the following almost two decades, the Empire imposed direct rule that was essentially a strict military dictatorship.
|The execution of PM Lajos Battyhány|
In 1867, as no harsh measure could weed out resistance, and after the Habsburg Empire lost the 1866 war against Prussia that decided who shall unite Germany, came the so-called Compromise: the Habsburg Empire was converted into Austria-Hungary, a dual empire with strongly autonomous halfs, but a common army and Emperor. (Czech and Croatian nationalists vied for a similar status, but were denied it.)
And the new leaders of the Hungary half continued where they stopped in 1848: repressing the minorities. (All this while the onetime 1848 leader Lajos Kossuth [who is my distant relative BTW], a chief culprit of that policy, wisened up in exile and propagated a confederation of republics on the place of the Habsburg Empire). And the bill got paid dearly half a century later: when Europe's borders were re-drawn in the wake of WWI (setting up the stage for WWII and reciprocal ethnic cleansings).