The Legal Revolutionary

The Lawful Revolution: Louis Kossuth and the Hungarians, 1848-1849

by Istvan Deak
Columbia University Press, 415 pp., $16.95

Louis Kossuth
Louis Kossuth; drawing by David Levine

Historic Hungary was an exception to all the rules and never more so than in 1848, the great revolutionary year. Hungary was the only state in central Europe that had preserved its traditional constitution, though not without some interruptions. In 1848 the liberal program was carried through by ostensibly legal means with the consent of the Habsburg king-emperor. National sentiment did not need to be aroused. The Magyars were already a fully conscious nation, oblivious of the fact that they were a minority in their own country.

Later in 1848, when there was a breach between Budapest and Vienna, the Hungarians resisted the Habsburg armies and defeated them. In 1849 Hungary became briefly an independent state with Kossuth as supreme governor, only to be subjugated after the intervention of Russian forces. Kossuth went into permanent exile. Hungary lost her liberties and her constitution. When these were restored in 1867 this was by compromise with the Habsburg monarchy, not against it. The compromise recreated Great Hungary, only to drag her into the war of 1914 and so involving her in the ruin of the monarchy in 1918.

The outstanding champion of Hungary in 1848 was Louis Kossuth, a member of the lesser nobility, who became for a time the most famous and successful revolutionary leader in Europe. Hungarian historians have wrangled ever since over his legacy. Was Kossuth the inspired national leader whose example later generations should follow? Or did he bring Hungary close to ruin by his extremism and arrogant self-confidence? Istvan Deak, a Hungarian who is now a professor at Columbia, has faced these problems in a book of great scholarly character and, what counts as much, a book that is uninterruptedly fascinating to read. Perhaps only a Hungarian who has spent much of his life outside his country could approach the bewildering subject with such detachment.

At first sight, old Hungary had much in common with old England—a local administration based firmly on the squirearchy, a representative assembly controlled by the territorial aristocracy and its dependents, above all an insistence on the legal rights inherited from many centuries. At first sight also, the Hungarian revolution of 1848 had much in common with the English Glorious Revolution of 1688—a revolution achieved almost without violence and carried through by legal means.

There were however two differences, as Istvan Deak points out, and these differences were crucial. Old England had also a flourishing capitalist class, at first mainly commercial and later industrial as well. Hungary was almost unaffected by capitalism: only a small bourgeoisie and no industrial magnates. In England liberal ideas and capitalism went hand in hand. In Hungary the liberals came from the lesser nobility, or gentry as we might call them, who cared little about the peasants and had no sympathy with democracy. In the second place, old England had an unshakably English character. The Scotch and Welsh presented…

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