1848: Revolution and The War of Independence


Jenő Katona, Jr.


The year of 1848 was a turning point in the political history of Europe in general and that of the Hungarian nation in particular. Revolution after revolution swept through the continent, upheaval beginning in Paris in February, continuing in Italy, then followed by revolution in Vienna in the month of March.

Lajos Kossuth (a key figure in the war of independence who spearheaded the movement toward reform), known to the Magyar people as "Kossuth apánk" (our father, Kossuth), delivered a speech to the Diet (Congress) in Pozsony on the 3rd of March in which he proclaimed the following sweeping reforms in 12 points:

1.      Freedom of the press and abolition of censorship

2.      Appointment of a Hungarian Ministry

3.      An annual Diet elected by universal suffrage

4.      Equality of all in the eyes of the law

5.      Formation of a National Guard

6.      Taxation of the clergy and nobles

7.      Eliminate feudal rights

8.      Elected juries for criminal cases

9.      Creation of a National Bank

10.  Creation of a National Army

11.  Liberation of political prisoners

12.  Unification of Hungary and Transylvania

On March 15th, on the steps of the National Museum in Budapest, the young poet Sándor Petőfi recited his Nemzeti Dal (National Song) to a patriotic crowd of 10,000. The words echoed here, calling for the rebirth of the nation, were to become the overture to the revolution. With the approval of Emperor-King Ferdinand V from Vienna, the Diet in Pozsony (Bratislava) put the revolutionary reforms into effect within 3 short weeks, thereby laying the foundation of a new Hungary as a result of a bloodless, peaceful, and lawful revolution.

For the people of the Carpathian Basin, this promising new and happier era that seemed to appear on the horizon was followed by a dark cloud in the form of a clique in the Emperor's Court; they had already begun their intrigues to undermine the reform work of the new Hungarian Ministry. Its main weapon was the idea of the age: nationalism, and as tools they used the nationalities. The fever of reform and equality that swept through the Carpathian Basin also aroused the various ethnic groups who were eager to carve out for themselves a piece of Hungary itself! Here I would like to make a significant note to the earlier thought, that it was never, ever the "thousand year long dream" of these "oppressed nationalities" to secede from Hungary, thereby dismembering a thousand year old Hungarian Kingdom. These nationalities had through the ages lived side-by-side with their Magyar brothers and had shared the fate of the country - in prosperity and famine, in peace and occupation.

The sinister plan of inciting the nationalities against Hungary worked. With the backing of the government of Vienna, armed Croatian, Serbian and Rumanian peasants went on a rampage in the mainly Magyar inhabited areas, looting, burning, and claiming thousands of innocent Hungarian lives. While the Slovaks generally supported the Magyars, following Vienna's call, that number dwindled to only a handful; the German and Ruthenian nationalities did not take up arms against their Hungarian brothers.

Exhibit 39: Honvéd (Army) Flag of 1848-49


On September 11th, the Croats, with an army of 40,000 troops under Ban (viceroy) Jossio Jellaschich, crossed the Hungarian frontier and spearheaded an armed intrusion into Hungary, marching against Buda-Pest from the south. The Serbs under their nationalist leader Statimirovitch also invaded from the South, while the Wallachians (Rumanians) rebelled and created havoc in Transylvania. The following months saw a well trained Imperial Austrian Army, helped by the nationalities' movements, defeat and outmaneuver any resistance by the honvéds (Hungarian Army) and the National Guard, who were still ill-equipped and lacked battle experience. It was here again that Lajos Kossuth came and saved the day. He became the heart and soul of the movement to accelerate the formation of the Honvéd Army and his oratorical magic inspired an unprecedented patriotic fever, which prompted students and teachers, factory workers and peasants by the tens of thousands to march under his banner and report for the defense of the country.

Following the first chaotic months of the War of Independence, Kossuth succeeded in creating a formidable Honvéd force. He appointed Josef Bem (a legendary exiled Polish general) as commander in chief of military operations in Transylvania. In a series of battles, Bem defeated the Imperial Army and the Wallachian insurgents, and drove the Austrian troops across the Carpathians and out of Transylvania. To the south, János Damjanich (a Serb by birth, but whose love for Hungary made him the most ardent defender of the country) defeated the Imperial Army's Cavalry troops in a surprise attack, forcing them to retreat back to the Hungarian frontier. With three powerful army corps (under generals Görgy Klapka, János Damjanich and Lajos Aulich), Arthur Görgey, who was to become one of the war’s greatest generals, gave the order to begin what is now known as the Magyar Spring Offensive. Kossuth fueled the fighting man's spirit with the famous "Kossuth Song" sung by the Honvéds as they marched into battle. Victory upon glorious victory followed with the dashing "Hungarian Hussar" cavalrymen serving as the cutting edge of the Magyar Army. The Magyar women also contributed to the war effort offering their gold and jewelry so that the Magyar soldiers could be provisioned with uniforms and guns.

On April 14th in the city of Debrecen, the Diet dethroned the Habsburg Dynasty and elected Kossuth as governing "President of Hungary". The country's newly won freedom was to be short-lived, however. The Emperor could not stand to be humiliated any longer, so he sent Czar Nicholas an urgent request for an armed intervention against Hungary. The Czar did not hesitate and in a few short weeks, the Russian attack began, coming from the north and the east with 200,000 troops following almost the same route the Mongols had used six centuries earlier. In June of 1849, a combined Austrian-Russian offensive threw 370,000 men and 1,200 guns against Hungary's 152,000 Honvéds with only 450 guns. The rest of the War of Independence was a hopeless fight, being fought by tens of thousands of patriotic, battle weary and freedom loving people against the tyranny and subjugation-driven beliefs of the Emperor and the Czar. Flashes of Magyar valor and unseen heroism were commonplace all over the battlefield.

In the end, with the number of wounded and dying quickly rising and to further spare his country and his troops from anymore senseless bloodshed, Arthur Görgey announced his decision to surrender. On August 13th, his forces laid down their arms before the Russians at Világos. Many who could not believe and could not accept such a disastrous end to the war that they had so vigorously and valiantly fought, simply shot themselves in the head, while others with tears in their eyes looked on and followed. Others went into hiding, but were soon hunted down and made to stand trial for their part in the revolution. Still others sought refuge in foreign lands and continued to fight on with their brilliant speeches and patriotic writings, the most famous of these exiled leaders being Lajos Kossuth. Through his magnificent gift of oratory, he obtained an enormous sympathy for the Hungarian cause.

With the surrender at Világos, the age of dashing Hussar cavalrymen and glorious battles came to an end, but a more sinister and darker era was just looming over the horizon. The Viennese government unleashed the sadist General Haynau to exact retribution. His desire to wreak vengeance on the Magyars was best demonstrated on October 6, 1849 in the city of Arad, by the abominable act of executing 13 of the ablest generals of the Honvéd Army, some by firing squad but most by the hangman's rope. This served as a warning and preceded the mass of imprisonments and executions that followed.

To this day, historians still ponder the question: Could the Hungarians have prevailed as the victors of the War of Independence? According to the famous historian, István Nemeskürthy, militarily the Hungarian Army of 1849 was well equipped and drilled enough to secure itself a victory on the battlefield. The mere fact of mustering such an impressive army in such short notice (200,000 Honvéds) clearly showed the willingness and sacrifice the nation was ready to make for the defense of the country. In addition, the secret to the swift and sweeping successes on the battlefield lay in the hands of the brilliant and experienced military generals (Damjanich, Klapka, Görgey) and their knowledge of modern military tactics. The tactics used during the war were to be fully understood and imitated only well after the second half of the century. The Emperor knew very well that without some sort of outside military intervention, Austria would have to suspend its military campaign and suffer a humiliating defeat, thereby recognizing Hungary's independence. As we now know, the arrival of the well rested Russian troops with their heavy guns proved to be too much for any of the generals to handle. The further continuation of the war would have meant more bloodshed and destruction to a country that had already suffered enough. Today, the people of our nation are now beginning to understand General Görgey's controversial decision to surrender and not continue the inevitable bloodletting.