History makers: Lajos Kossuth

As Hungarians mark Revolution Day, we look back at the man who became one of the most famous 1848ers in Europe.

‘A spectre is haunting Europe…’

So begin the famous opening lines of The Communist Manifesto. Marx and Engels were right. In 1848, the ‘spectre of communism’, indeed, the spectre of social revolution was certainly in the air. But this didn’t just apply to Western Europe, where the Chartists had been causing ructions in Britain and the uprising in Paris was shaking France to its foundations. In the East, too, there was considerable haunting going on, nowhere more so than in the Hungarian reaches of the Habsburg Empire.


Lajos Kossuth

Here, for a brief moment between March 1848 and August 1849, a revolution fired by radical ideas, and backed by a social mass comprising sections of the peasantry, the urban working class and a disenfranchised bourgeoisie, burned strongly. It was a moment when the people of this imperial territory sought to throw off the shackles of the Habsburg Empire, abolish serfdom, establish universal suffrage, and develop an ever-greater degree of self-determination. And to the fore of this movement was Lajos Kossuth (19 September 1802 – 20 March 1894), a lawyer, journalist and politico, who, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm put it, was one of those rare ‘charismatic popular leaders who mark the awakening of political consciousness in hitherto backward masses’.

Kossuth was not exactly an obvious man of the people. Raised as a strict Lutheran, with a lawyer for a father, Kossuth’s family had a notable noble lineage dating back to the thirteenth century. As a youngster, he was academically excellent, fluent in French, German, Latin, and later English, and when, following his studies at the University of Pest, he entered the legal profession, it looked as if his haute bourgeois course was set.

But in the 1820s and 1830s, a radical, dissenting side became apparent. As deputy to the Count Hunyadt at the national Diet, an assembly dominated by the Hungarian aristocracy, he began to write up proceedings. These proved popular and, during the 1930s, he came to edit what was effectively the parliamentary gazette. But such was his willingness to write up, and focus on the growing reformist movement in the various local assemblies, that the official state censor proscribed the gazette. Unperturbed, Kossuth continued in this agitating vein, becoming ever more enamoured with ideas of press freedom and freedom of speech - right up until he was arrested in 1837 and sentenced to four years in prison. Although Kossuth was released early in 1840, he had been afforded enough time in prison to hammer out his ideas on what needed to change (and start work on a new translation of Macbeth).

Upon his release, Kossuth proved himself unrepentant. As editor of the liberal newspaper Pesti Hirlap, he continued to call for political reform and attack the feudal privileges of the Austro-Hungarian gentry. Following pressure on Pesti Hirlap’s owner, Kossuth left the paper and moved towards establishing his own political party. In 1847, he was elected to the National Diet as a member for Pest.

But events were moving fast. News of the February Revolution in Paris had raised the political temperature. In early March, Kossuth made a speech demanding parliamentary government for Hungary and constitutional government for the rest of the Habsurg Empire. It had a quite an impact, especially when it was translated into German. On 13 March, revolution broke out in Vienna, partly inspired by Kossuth’s intervention, and the Austrian chancellor, Klemens Metternich (1773 -1859), was forced to resign.

With news of events in Vienna, Kossuth and his fellow radicals called for the Diet to be replaced by an entirely elected assembly, the abolition of serfdom, the equality of all before the law, and a free and unregulated press. It wasn’t communism, but in the context of the Habsburg Empire, where the gentry held sway over a disenfranchised social mass, it was revolutionary. And the objective, fringed with nationalism, was clear: self determination. The Habsurgs played for time, and told Kossuth they were willing to accept parts of the plan - at least until the time came when they would be in a position to suppress the uprising.

Which is what happened. Between March 1848 and August 1849, the Habsburgs began to try to put down the uprising. And here, Kossuth’s power as a leader really came into its own. As head of the Committee for National Defence, which had effectively become the executive power in Hungary at this point, Kossuth toured the region, recruiting people who would be willing to fight for their freedoms. And incredibly, it worked. From October 1848 until spring the following year, the Hungarian army pushed the imperial Austrian army back. Such was Kossuth’s determination to secure Hungary’s freedom that in April 1849, he felt confident enough to issue a Declaration of Independence: ‘The house of Habsburg-Lorraine, perjured in the sight of God and man’, he said, ‘had forfeited the Hungarian throne’.

But force was to tell. While the 150,000-strong Hungarian force might have been able to repel 200,000 imperial troops, the intervention of Tsarist Russia on the side of the Emperor was to make things a whole lot more difficult. That was May 1849. In the following few months, the tide turned, and Kossuth went into exile.

Despite talk of re-entering the fray, Kossuth’s exile was to last decades. During this period, he did enjoy the patronage of both Britain and the US. In Washington DC, for example, there is a statue of Kossuth, beneath which it reads ‘Father of Hungarian Democracy, Hungarian Statesman, Freedom Fighter, 1848–1849’. It is a telling memorial. Kossuth may have lived until the eve of the twentieth century, but it’s that brief moment 1848-49, when revolution haunted Europe, for which he will always be remembered. And for good reason. As Hobsbawm writes: ‘Alone among the revolutions of 1848, the Hungarian one did not fall or ever look like falling by internal weakness and conflict, but by overpowering military conquest.’

Tim Black is deputy editor of spiked.

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