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 no problem, at any rate until the twentieth century; the Irish often raised problems but were kept firmly under control also until the twentieth century. In Hungary the rival nationalities outnumbered the Magyars who claimed to be “the people of state.” Slovaks, Croats, Serbs, and Romanians were only on the threshold of national awakening. But the more alert Magyars were acutely aware that their supremacy was threatened unless they succeeded in asserting the exclusively Magyar character of the Hungarian state.

Kossuth was in his early years representative of the gentry outlook. He adopted the career of a traditional lawyer, making only a modest appearance at the Diet. Deak in his early pages moves from history to biography and traces Kossuth’s emergence from obscurity. Kossuth became a radical journalist, financed curiously enough by none other than Metternich, the figurehead of reaction. In time he became also an accomplished orator, irresistible in his rhetoric and at home not only in Magyar but almost equally so in German, French, and English. Kossuth developed two main themes. His first aim was to transform the supremacy of the Habsburg king-emperor into a purely personal link between Hungary and the Austrian empire. His second was to consolidate the Magyar monopoly within Hungary before the lesser nationalities swamped it. These were causes to which the ruling classes responded, the gentry eagerly, the great aristocrats with more hesitation.

Thanks largely to Kossuth, Hungary had gone far toward realizing these aims even before 1848. The powers of the king-emperor were increasingly challenged. The authority of Vienna dwindled. Magyar took the place of Latin as the language used in the Diet and in administration. Here was the assertion of Magyar monopoly on which all else turned. By 1847, when the traditional Diet met at Pressburg for the last time, Kossuth and his followers seemed within sight of their goal by legal means.

The situation was transformed by the revolutions of 1848 which, starting in Sicily, set an example to all Europe with the French revolution of February 24. The Austrian Empire soon took the same path. On March 13 a court intrigue, reinforced by demonstrations in the streets of Vienna, brought about the fall of Metternich. On March 18 revolutions in Italy expelled the Austrian forces from Milan and Venice. In Hungary the Diet, anxious to avert revolution, hurried on the work of reform. There followed a remarkable competition. Pressburg, meeting place of the Diet ever since the Turkish invasion of the sixteenth century, was a quiet little town, virtually on the frontier with Austria and remote from national feeling. Budapest, with over one hundred thousand inhabitants and already the administrative center, was the center for radicals more advanced than Kossuth. On March 15 the Diet sent a deputation to Vienna in order to secure the king-emperor’s approval of its reforms. On the same day there was something like a revolutionary uprising in Budapest which sought more radical solutions.


Here was the great dilemma which Kossuth never resolved. He had used radical phrases; he was the champion of Hungarian independence. At the same time he was determined to achieve his program by legal means. The radicals of Budapest were unwittingly his rivals. Instead of leading them, he stole the leadership from them. The radicals were taken prisoner by Kossuth. He duly accompanied the deputation to Vienna where the local revolutionaries warmly acclaimed him. Far more important for Kossuth was the consent to the Diet’s reforms which the mentally backward King-Emperor Ferdinand gave. The radicals of Budapest were ignored and never resorted to an uprising again. The Imperial court was in confusion as Deak shows and Kossuth was hailed almost as a deliverer. At this moment of triumph there was also a setback for Kossuth. Urged by Archduke Stephen, the palatine or viceroy of Hungary, Ferdinand agreed to appoint a constitutional ministry. Kossuth was not invited to lead it and, anxious to retain the support of the Diet, he acquiesced. Instead Count Batthyany, a great aristocrat, became prime minister. One little formality was overlooked. Archduke Stephen did not obtain Ferdinand’s agreement to the appointment in writing. The imperial authorities were thus able to claim later that Batthyany’s appointment was illegal and on these trumpery grounds he was condemned to death for high treason after the defeat of Hungary in 1849.

At the time all seemed to go well. Hungary had secured her freedom and virtual independence. Magyar supremacy was secure. There was even a Hungarian foreign ministry with its own ambassadors, including one, Prince Esterhazy, to the Habsburg court. The Hungarian government accepted its foreign responsibilities to Ferdinand. It agreed that Hungarian troops should remain in Italy, though only on the strange condition that after the defeat of the Italian revolution Venetia and Lombardy should be granted full autonomy. The Hungarian government did not seek alliance with revolutionary France. Instead it hoped that national revolution would triumph in Germany. A new Germany would incorporate the German-speaking provinces of Austria, including Bohemia, and this greater Germany would become the ally of independent Hungary against the menace of the Slav nationalities.

This menace had already raised its head. Croatia, a kingdom subordinate to Hungary, asserted its independence under the leadership of its Ban Jelacic, and the court in Vienna was not slow to approve these activities. Serbs and Romanians followed the Croat example. This gave a new twist to Hungary’s problems. The old Austrian Empire left an unexpected legacy to the year of revolution. The Empire, despite its many weaknesses, had always maintained a great army, divided for practical reasons into national regiments. Hungarian and Czech troops served in Italy; Italian troops garrisoned Budapest; German troops crushed the revolution in Prague. Grillparzer, addressing Radetzky, the Austrian commander in Italy, wrote, “In your army is Austria.” This was true. But in 1848 it was also true that in the Austrian army were Hungary, Croatia, and even Serbia. When the lines of conflict were drawn, many of the soldiers and many of the officers remained loyal to the emperor; many went with their nation. Often families were divided with brother serving against brother.

Everywhere else in Europe the revolutionaries were helpless when faced with regular troops. The grudging support of the Piedmontese army made national Italy a partial exception, though this army was not strong enough to defeat Radetzky. National Germany had no army at all and relied on the army of the King of Prussia to its own ultimate undoing. Independent Hungary was able to raise a disciplined army of over 200,000 men. Croatia had some sixty thousand; the Serbs of the Military Frontier provided another sixty thousand for their national cause. Hungarian supremacy could not be sustained by constitutional devices. War between the rival forces was the only way. Once the imperial authorities in Vienna recovered their confidence with Radetzky’s victory in Italy, they turned against Hungary and welcomed alliance with the Croats and even with the Serbs against what they regarded as their principal danger. The military statistics assembled by Istvan Deak are staggering. Counting those who remained faithful to the monarchy as well as those who turned against it, at least half a million men must have been under arms at one moment or another.


There was an uneasy peace during the summer of 1848. In September Jelacic took the offensive with imperial approval. The Croats were defeated and withdrew. The veil of legality was broken. Hungary, though still ruled in the name of the emperor, was in fact at war with him. Archduke Stephen, the palatine, resigned and withdrew to permanent exile on his German estates. Batthyany soon resigned also though he remained in Hungary. The radicals called out for a second revolution. Kossuth preferred an appearance of legality, and the National Assembly, by appointing him president of the National Defense Committee, made him virtual dictator. At first prospects seemed hopeful. There was a second revolution in Vienna. But soon Vienna was conquered by imperial armies. Hungarian forces advanced too late and were too small to save Vienna. In December Ferdinand abdicated and was succeeded by Franz Joseph with the aggressive Prince Schwarzenberg as prime minister: the only imperial prime minister in Austrian history. A revived Austrian army invaded Hungary. Budapest fell. Kossuth and the National Assembly withdrew to Debrecen far to the east of Hungary.

This assembly was now no more than a rump from which the moderates had long withdrawn. Kossuth had things much his own way. He was reinforced by the unexpected counteroffensive of the Hungarian army. Budapest was liberated. Final victory seemed in the offing. Kossuth no longer concealed his aims. He used the excuse of Ferdinand’s abdication to argue that the new Austrian government was now illegal. He persuaded the assembly to issue a Declaration of Independence, and in April he became supreme governor until the peace. Kossuth was still willing to accept a constitutional monarchy, perhaps even with a Habsburg as monarch. But his sights were firmly set on the independence of Hungary and he believed that this could be achieved.

Kossuth erred, deceived by the temporary victory of the Hungarian army. The generals knew better. This was particularly true of General Görgey, who now became commander-in-chief. Görgey, to judge from his performance in the campaigns of 1849, was a general of the first rank. He was also a realist. Where Kossuth was set on complete independence, Görgey aimed more modestly at enough victories to make compromise with the emperor possible. The running conflict between Kossuth and Görgey dominated the last months of independent Hungary. Istvan Deak has given a finely balanced view of their rivalry. Perhaps there might have been some chance for Kossuth’s policy if the Austrian army alone had been in question. But in April 1849 Tsar Nicholas, disturbed by the disturbances in Transylvania and the presence of Polish generals in the Hungarian army, resolved to intervene. Schwarzenberg reluctantly accepted the Russian aid, though saying privately, “We shall astonish Europe by the extent of our ingratitude”—as proved to be the case.

On June 5 Kossuth reentered Budapest in regal style. As late as July 28 he told the National Assembly, now at Szeged, “From this city the freedom of Europe will radiate.” It was all in vain. Within a few days the Hungarian armies were defeated. On August 11 Kossuth transferred his powers to Görgey and six days later crossed into Turkey, dressed as befitted his status. Görgey wasted no time. On August 13 he capitulated to the Russians at Világos, securing immunity for himself though not for his soldiers. Austrian retribution was fierce by the standards of that age. Batthyany and thirteen generals were executed, as were forty officers and some 120 others. Fifteen hundred were given long terms of imprisonment. Hungary was subordinated to absolute rule of Vienna for nearly twenty years.

Kossuth was interned in Turkey for over three years. There was a brief alarm later in 1849 when the Russian and Austrian governments demanded his extradition and that of his followers. British and French warships moved to Constantinople. The tsar shrank from reopening the Eastern Question and dropped his demands. In 1851 Kossuth at last left internment after an official invitation from the American government. In America he was hailed as the Hungarian Washington and “the greatest man on earth since Jesus Christ.” Soon the enthusiasm flagged and in July 1852 Kossuth and his wife left for England as “Mr. A. Smith and Lady.” In England too he had a great reception, second only to that which Garibaldi received in 1864. Some revolutionaries regarded him with disapproval. Marx and Engels dismissed him as “a swindler” who “like the apostle Paul is all things to all men,” “a tightrope walker who does not dance on a rope but on his tongue.”

Kossuth still believed that a fresh Hungarian revolution was imminent and was active in promoting it. In 1859 he projected with Napoleon III a Hungarian legion with which to invade Hungary. In 1866 he projected with Bismarck a similar legion which actually spent a few hours on Hungarian soil. The following year constitutional Hungarian leaders reached an agreement with Franz Joseph which gave Hungary practically everything except a separate army and foreign policy. Thereafter Kossuth was elected time and again to the Hungarian parliament. He could have returned to Hungary if he had been prepared to acknowledge Franz Joseph as King. This he refused to do. Kossuth died in Turin on March 20, 1894 at the age of ninety-two. His remains were brought back to Budapest where his burial aroused perhaps the greatest popular demonstration the city has known.

Kossuth has been extolled even by Marxists. He has also been condemned for betraying the radicals or for refusing to raise a Jacquerie among the peasants. On a more modest level we can say that of all the revolutionary leaders in 1848 he came nearest to success. Against this we must set the charge that he did more than any other single man to make the problem of relations between the Magyars and the other nationalities of Hungary insoluble. Professor Deak passes a wise verdict:

…he burdened the shoulders of his compatriots with more problems than he was able to solve. He was a charismatic leader who reinforced the Hungarians’ suicidal notion that theirs was a particularly exalted destiny, and that the Hungarian contribution to all mankind was crucial. Yet there was in Kossuth no trace of the cynicism, callousness, and furious brutality of Napoleon I or of the twentieth-century dictators.

Outside the Parliament building in Budapest there are two great statues, both far more than life size: the first of Rákóczi, who led an unsuccessful rebellion for independence early in the eighteenth century; the second of Kossuth, who also failed to win independence for Hungary in 1848-1849. They have now been joined by a modest statue of Michael Károlyi, who finally dissolved the constitutional link with the Habsburgs in November 1918 and established a democratic republic, offering also equality to the nationalities. Károlyi, too, failed in his lifetime, but it is his legacy that is more likely to endure.

This Issue

September 27, 1979