Achievement of middle class status, reform and revolution 1790-1849

The dilemmas posed by independence and modernization - or in the phrase of the time "homeland and progress" - were raised by an era of general national awakening in Central Eastern Europe. The Hungarian people, like other people in the region, crossed the threshold of the 19th century with a structure relying on social and economic reforms. The stark differences apparent in the progress that started up within agrarian society and the conservative conduct of the administration drew attention to the principles of the market economy and liberal constitutionalism.

szechenyiJust as the Enlightenment first found a home in the castles and gentry mansions of Hungary, so the main basis of liberalism was constituted by the unusually large number of noblemen, who supplemented their income from civil occupations, who had a firm political consciousness and who looked back on great traditions. Count István Széchenyi (1791-1860), the greatest representative of Hungarian noble liberalism who followed English ideals, realized that the feudal system and not subordination to Vienna was the prime cause of Hungary's backwardness. With his highly influential theoretical works and modern practical activities he gained everlasting fame by reforming the then predominant view. He sacrificed much of his private property for public goals. Széchenyi's name is associated with the foundation of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (1825), river regulation, steam shipping and rail transport in Hungary, and initiating the first permanent bridge connecting Buda and Pest, the Chain bridge. Lajos Kossuth, his prime political debating partner, justly called him the greatest Hungarian.

Lajos Kossuth, another outstanding Hungarian politician of the era, represented a more radical line than Széchenyi, and appealed to the general public. From 1841 he edited one of the first modern political press products in the Habsburg Empire, the Pesti Hírlap. Kossuth stressed that the earliest possible liberation of the serfs was the only possible way of avoiding social explosion. Between 1832 and 1848 the opposition dominated by Kossuth wrested major achievements at "reform national assemblies", and in 1847 the now formally established Opposition Party openly set itself the goal of establishing a modern, responsible and representative government in Hungary rid of the tutelage of Vienna and of feudal bonds. It was in this heady intellectual and excited political atmosphere that the 1848 European wave of revolution washed over Hungary.

In the wake of news about the revolutions of Palermo and particularly in Paris, the opposition sitting at the Pozsony diet in March 1848 exerted ever more pressure on the royal court to get its reform proposals accepted. The exciting news of the revolution in Vienna then provoked the revolution in Pest on March 15, 1848. Sándor Petofi, one of the greatest Hungarian poets, and his associates, heading an enthusiastic crowd and ignoring censorship, had their Twelve Points containing the essence of the liberal reform programs printed. The royal court backed down and opened negotiations with a delegation representing the national assembly and headed by Kossuth on the constitutional process.

The results of the negotiations, the so-called "April acts", abolished the centuries old tax exemption of the nobility, while the liberation and equality of serfs before the law was declared, and civil rights were introduced. A joint and responsible government was appointed for Hungary and Transylvania which earlier had been treated as separate legislative units, with Pest and Buda as its headquarters, and under the leadership of Lajos Batthyány. Hungary was only linked to the Habsburg empire by the ruler, and it achieved the greatest possible independence within the framework of the empire.

aradi békeHowever, as soon as the Vienna administration could take breath after the revolution in Austria had lost its momentum in September 1848, it mobilized Croatian leader Jelasic and launched an armed attack against Hungary. Hungarians were compelled to defend their constitutional rights won legitimately and in a bloodless revolution by launching a freedom fight.

The heroic War of Independence continued with varying military fortune for nearly a year. Its fate was finally sealed by the alliance of Emperor Joseph Francis I with the Russian czar, in the wake of which a 200,000-strong Russian interventionist army crossed the Carpathian mountains to attack the Hungarians in June 1849. Hungarian forces were unable to resist the overwhelming strength of the combined Austrian and Russian forces. The last major Hungarian army laid down its arms on August 13, 1849.


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