History of Hungary


The Habsburgs ruled autocratically on almost all questions except taxation and relegated Hungary to the status of a colony, a factor that, together with other factors, stifled economic development. After more than a century of stagnation, the lesser nobles, under increasing economic pressure and prompted by nascent Hungarian nationalism, pressed for reform. The crescendo of discontent climaxed in the March 1948 revolution. Russian troops quashed the rebellion, enabling Austrian emperor Franz Joseph to impose absolute control for almost two decades.

Reign of Leopold II

As the Habsburgs gained control of the country, the ministers of Leopold I argued that he should rule Hungary as conquered territory. One even said Vienna should first make the Hungarians beggars, then Catholics, and then Germans. At the Diet of Pressburg in 1687, the emperor promised to observe all of Hungary's laws and privileges. Hereditary succession of the Habsburgs was recognized, however, and the nobles' right of resistance was abrogated. In 1690 Leopold began redistributing lands freed from the Turks. Protestant nobles and all other Hungarians thought disloyal by the Habsburgs lost their estates, which were given to foreigners. Vienna controlled Hungary's foreign affairs, defense, tariffs, and other functions, and it separated Tranyslvania from Hungary, treating it as a separate imperial territory.

The repression of Protestants and the land seizures embittered the Hungarians, and in 1703 a peasant uprising sparked an eight-year national rebellion aimed at casting off the Habsburg yoke. Disgruntled Protestants, peasants, and soldiers united under Ferenc Rakoczi, a Roman Catholic magnate who could hardly speak Hungarian. Most of Hungary soon supported Rakoczi, and the joint Hungarian-Transylvanian Diet voted to annul the Habsburgs' right to the throne. Fortunes turned against the rebels, however, when the Habsburgs made peace in the West and turned their full force against Hungary. The rebellion ended in 1711, when moderate rebel leaders concluded the Treaty of Szatmar, in which the Hungarians gained little except the emperor's agreement to reconvene the Diet and to grant an amnesty for the rebels.

Reign of Charles VI and Maria Theresa

Leopold's successor, Charles VI (1711-40), began building a workable relationship with Hungary after the Treaty of Szatmar. Charles needed the Hungarian Diet's approval for the Pragmatic Sanction, under which the Habsburg monarch was to rule Hungary not as emperor but as a king subject to the restraints of Hungary's constitution and laws. He hoped that the Pragmatic Sanction would keep the Habsburg Empire intact if his daughter, Maria Theresa, succeeded him. The Diet approved the Pragmatic Sanction in 1723, and Hungary thus agreed to became a hereditary monarchy under the Habsburgs for as long as their dynasty existed. In practice, however, Charles and his successors governed almost autocratically, controlling Hungary's foreign affairs, defense, and finance but lacking the power to tax the nobles without their approval. The Habsburgs also maintained Transylvania's separation from Hungary.

Charles organized Hungary's first modern, centralized administration and in 1715 established a standing army under his command, which was entirely funded and manned by the nonnoble population. This policy reduced the nobles' military obligation without abrogating their exemption from taxation. Charles also banned conversion to Protestantism, required civil servants to profess Catholicism, and forbade Protestant students to study abroad.

Maria Theresa (1740-80) faced an immediate challenge from Prussia's Frederick II when she became head of the House of Habsburg. In 1741 she appeared before the Hungarian Diet holding her newborn son and entreated Hungary's nobles to support her. They stood behind her and helped secure her rule. Maria Theresa later took measures to reinforce links with Hungary's magnates. She established special schools to attract Hungarian nobles to Vienna. During her reign, the members of the magnate class lost their Hungarian national identity, including their knowledge of the Hungarian language.

Under Charles and Maria Theresa, Hungary experienced further economic decline. Centuries of Ottoman occupation, rebellion, and war had reduced Hungary's population drastically, and large parts of the country's southern half were almost deserted. A labor shortage developed as landowners restored their estates. In response, the Habsburgs began to colonize Hungary with large numbers of peasants from all over Europe, especially Slovaks, Serbs, Croatians, and Germans. Many Jews also immigrated from Vienna and the empire's Polish lands near the end of the century. Hungary's population more than tripled to 8 million between 1720 and 1787. However, only 39 percent of its people were Magyars, who lived mainly in the center of the country.

A complex patchwork of minority peoples emerged in the lands along Hungary's periphery. Droves of Romanians entered Transylvania during the same period. The Protestant and Catholic Hungarians and Germans who had been there for years had considered the Orthodox Romanians inferior and relegated them to serfdom. In the eighteenth century, leaders of the Orthodox Church began arguing that Romanians were descendants of the Roman Dacians and thus Transylvania's original inhabitants. The Orthodox leaders demanded, without success, that the Romanians be recognized as Transylvania's fourth "nation" and the Orthodox Church as its fifth "established" religion.

In the early to mid-eighteenth century, Hungary had a primitive agricultural economy that employed 90 percent of the population. The nobles failed to use fertilizers, roads were poor and rivers blocked, and crude storage methods caused huge losses of grain. Barter had replaced money transactions, and little trade existed between towns and the serfs. After 1760 a labor surplus developed. The serf population grew, pressure on the land increased, and the serfs' standard of living declined. Landowners began making greater demands on new tenants and began violating existing agreements. In response, Maria Theresa issued her Urbarium of 1767 to protect the serfs by restoring their freedom of movement and limiting the corvee. Despite her efforts and several periods of strong demand for grain, the situation worsened. Between 1767 and 1848, many serfs left their holdings. Most became landless farm workers because a lack of industrial development meant few opportunities for work in the towns.

Enlightened Absolutism

Joseph II (1780-90), a dynamic leader strongly influenced by the Enlightenment, shook Hungary from its malaise when he inherited the throne from his mother, Maria Theresa. Joseph sought to centralize control of the empire and to rule it by decree as an enlightened despot. He refused to take the Hungarian coronation oath to avoid being constrained by Hungary's constitution. In 1781 Joseph issued the Patent of Toleration, which granted Protestants and Orthodox Christians full civil rights and Jews freedom of worship. He decreed that German replace Latin as the empire's official language and granted the peasants the freedom to leave their holdings, to marry, and to place their children in trades. Hungary, Croatia, and Transylvania became a single imperial territory under one administration. When the Hungarian nobles again refused to waive their exemption from taxation, Joseph banned imports of Hungarian manufactured goods into Austria and began a survey to prepare for imposition of a general land tax.

Joseph's reforms outraged Hungary's nobles and clergy, and the country's peasants grew dissatisfied with taxes, conscription, and requisitions of supplies. Hungarians perceived Joseph's language reform as German cultural hegemony, and they reacted by insisting on the right to use their own tongue. As a result, Hungarian lesser nobles sparked a renaissance of the Magyar language and culture, and a cult of national dance and costume flourished. The lesser nobles questioned the loyalty of the magnates, of whom less than half were ethnic Magyars, and even those had become French- and German-speaking courtiers. The Magyar national reawakening subsequently triggered national revivals among the Slovak, Romanian, Serbian, and Croatian minorities within Hungary and Transylvania, who felt threatened by both German and Magyar cultural hegemony. These national revivals later blossomed into the nationalist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that contributed to the empire's ultimate collapse.

Late in his reign, Joseph led a costly, ill-fated campaign against the Turks that weakened his empire. On January 28, 1790, three weeks before his death, the emperor issued a decree canceling all of his reforms except the Patent of Toleration, peasant reforms, and abolition of the religious orders.

Joseph's successor, Leopold II (1790-92), recognized Hungary again as a separate country under a Habsburg king and reestablished Croatia and Transylvania as separate territorial entities. In 1791 the Diet passed Law X, which stressed Hungary's status as an independent kingdom ruled only by a king legally crowned according to Hungarian laws. Law X later became the basis for demands by Hungarian reformers for statehood in the period from 1825 to 1849. New laws again required approval of both the Habsburg king and the Diet, and Latin was restored as the official language. The peasant reforms remained in effect, however, and Protestants remained equal before the law. Leopold died in March 1792 just as the French Revolution was about to degenerate into the Reign of Terror and send shock waves through the royal houses of Europe.

Enlightened absolutism ended in Hungary under Leopold's successor, Francis I (1792-1835), who developed an almost abnormal aversion to change, bringing Hungary decades of political stagnation. In 1795 the Hungarian police arrested an abbot and several of the country's leading thinkers for plotting a Jacobin kind of revolution to install a radical democratic, egalitarian political system in Hungary. Thereafter, Francis resolved to extinguish any spark of reform that might ignite revolution. The execution of the alleged plotters silenced any reform advocates among the nobles, and for about three decades reform ideas remained confined to poetry and philosophy. The magnates, who also feared that the influx of revolutionary ideas might precipitate a popular uprising, became a tool of the crown and seized the chance to further burden the peasants.

Economic and Social Developments

By the turn of the nineteenth century, the aim of Hungary's agricultural producers had shifted from subsistence farming and small-scale production for local trade to cash-generating, large-scale production for a wider market. Road and waterway improvements cut transportation costs, while urbanization in Austria, Bohemia, and Moravia and the need for supplies for the Napoleonic wars boosted demand for foodstuffs and clothing. Hungary became a major grain and wool exporter. New lands were cleared, and yields rose as farming methods improved. Hungary did not reap the full benefit of the boom, however, because most of the profits went to the magnates, who considered them not as capital for investment but as a means of adding luxury to their lives. As expectations rose, goods such as linen and silverware, once considered luxuries, became necessities. The wealthy magnates had little trouble balancing their earnings and expenditures, but many lesser nobles, fearful of losing their social standing, went into debt to finance their spending.

Napoleon's final defeat brought recession. Grain prices collapsed as demand dropped, and debt ensnared much of Hungary's lesser nobility. Poverty forced many lesser nobles to work to earn a livelihood, and their sons entered education institutions to train for civil service or professional careers. The decline of the lesser nobility continued despite the fact that by 1820 Hungary's exports had surpassed wartime levels. As more lesser nobles earned diplomas, the bureaucracy and professions became saturated, leaving a host of disgruntled graduates without jobs. Members of this new intelligentsia quickly became enamored of radical political ideologies emanating from Western Europe and organized themselves to effect changes in Hungary's political system.

Francis rarely called the Diet into session (usually only to request men and supplies for war) without hearing complaints. Economic hardship brought the lesser nobles' discontent to a head by 1825, when Francis finally convoked the Diet after a fourteen-year hiatus. Grievances were voiced, and open calls for reform were made, including demands for less royal interference in the nobles' affairs and for wider use of the Hungarian language.

The first great figure of the reform era came to the fore during the 1825 convocation of the Diet. Count Istvan Szechenyi, a magnate from one of Hungary's most powerful families, shocked the Diet when he delivered the first speech in Hungarian ever uttered in the upper chamber and backed a proposal for the creation of a Hungarian academy of arts and sciences by pledging a year's income to support it. In 1831 angry nobles burned Szechenyi's book Hitel (Credit), in which he argued that the nobles' privileges were both morally indefensible and economically detrimental to the nobles themselves. Szechenyi called for an economic revolution and argued that only the magnates were capable of implementing reforms. Szechenyi favored a strong link with the Habsburg Empire and called for abolition of entail and serfdom, taxation of landowners, financing of development with foreign capital, establishment of a national bank, and introduction of wage labor. He inspired such project as the construction of the suspension bridge linking Buda and Pest. Szechenyi's reform initiatives ultimately failed because they were targeted at the magnates, who were not inclined to support change, and because the pace of his program was too slow to attract disgruntled lesser nobles.

The most popular of Hungary's great reform leaders, Lajos Kossuth, addressed passionate calls for change to the lesser nobles. Kossuth was the son of a landless, lesser nobleman of Protestant background. He practiced law with his father before moving to Pest. There he published commentaries on the Diet's activities, which made him popular with young, reform-minded people. Kossuth was imprisoned in 1836 for treason. After his release in 1840, he gained quick notoriety as the editor of a liberal party newspaper. Kossuth argued that only political and economic separation from Austria would improve Hungary's plight. He called for broader parliamentary democracy, industrialization, general taxation, economic expansion through exports, and abolition of privileges and serfdom. But Kossuth was also a Magyar chauvinist whose rhetoric provoked the strong resentment of Hungary's minority ethnic groups. Kossuth gained support among liberal lesser nobles, who constituted an opposition minority in the Diet. They sought reforms with increasing success after Francis's death in 1835 and the succession of Ferdinand V (1835-48). In 1843 a law was enacted making Hungarian the country's official language over the strong objections of the Croats, Slovaks, Serbs, and Romanians.

The Revolution of March 1848

In March 1848, revolution erupted in Vienna, forcing Austria's Chancellor Klemens von Metternich to flee the capital. Unrest broke out in Hungary on March 15, when radicals and students stormed the Buda fortress to release political prisoners. A day later, the Diet's liberal-dominated lower house demanded establishment of a national government responsible to an elected parliament, and on March 22 a new national cabinet took power with Count Louis Batthyany as chairman, Kossuth as minister of finance, and Szechenyi as minister of public works. Under duress, the Diet's upper house approved a sweeping reform package, signed by Ferdinand, that altered almost every aspect of Hungary's economic, social, and political life. These so-called April Laws created independent Hungarian ministries of defense and finance, and the new government claimed the right to issue currency through its own central bank. Guilds lost their privileges; the nobles became subject to taxation; entail, tithes, and the corvee were abolished; some peasants became freehold proprietors of the land they worked; freedom of the press and assembly were created; a Hungarian national guard was established; and Transylvania was brought under Hungarian rule.

The non-Magyar ethnic groups in Hungary feared the nationalism of the new Hungarian government, and Transylvanian Germans and Romanians opposed the incorporation of Transylvania into Hungary. The Vienna government enlisted the minorities in the first attempt to overthrow the Hungarian government. Josip Jelacic--a fanatic anti-Hungarian--became governor of Croatia on March 22 and severed relations with the Hungarian government a month later. By summer the revolution's momentum began to wane. The Austrians ordered the Hungarian diet to dissolve, but the order went unheeded. In September Jelacic led an army into Hungary. Batthyany resigned, and a mob lynched the imperial commander in Pest. A committee of national defense under Kossuth took control, authorized the establishment of a Hungarian army, and issued paper money to fund it. On October 30, 1848, imperial troops entered Vienna and suppressed a workers' uprising, effectively ending the revolution everywhere in the empire except Hungary, where Kossuth's army had overcome Jelacic's forces. In December Ferdinand abdicated in favor of Franz Joseph (1848-1916), who claimed more freedom of action because, unlike Ferdinand, he had given no pledge to respect the April Laws. The Magyars, however, refused to recognize him as their king because he was never crowned.

The imperial army captured Pest early in 1849, but the revolutionary government remained entrenched in Debrecen. In April a "rump" Diet deposed the Habsburg Dynasty in Hungary, proclaimed Hungary a republic, and named Kossuth governor with dictatorial powers. After the declaration, Austrian reinforcements were transferred to Hungary, and in June, at Franz Joseph's request, Russian troops attacked from the east and overwhelmed the Hungarians. The Hungarian army surrendered on August 13, and Kossuth escaped to the Ottoman Empire. A period of harsh repression followed. Batthyany and about 100 others were shot, several society women were publicly whipped, and the government outlawed public gatherings, theater performances, display of the national colors, and wearing of national costumes and Kossuth-style beards.

Aftermath of the Revolution

After the revolution, the emperor revoked Hungary's constitution and assumed absolute control. Franz Joseph divided the country into four distinct territories: Hungary, Transylvania, Croatia-Slavonia, and Vojvodina. German and Bohemian administrators managed the government, and German became the language of administration and higher education. The non-Magyar minorities of Hungary received little for their support of Austria during the turmoil. A Croat reportedly told a Hungarian: "We received as a reward what the Magyars got as a punishment."

Hungarian public opinion split over the country's relations with Austria. Some Hungarians held out hope for full separation from Austria; others wanted an accommodation with the Habsburgs, provided that they respected Hungary's constitution and laws. Ferencz Deak became the main advocate for accommodation. Deak upheld the legality of the April Laws and argued that their amendment required the Hungarian Diet's consent. He also held that the dethronement of the Habsburgs was invalid. As long as Austria ruled absolutely, Deak argued, Hungarians should do no more than passively resist illegal demands.

The first crack in Franz Joseph's neo-absolutist rule developed in 1859, when the forces of Sardinia and France defeated Austria at Solferno. The defeat convinced Franz Joseph that national and social opposition to his government was too strong to be managed by decree from Vienna. Gradually he recognized the necessity of concessions toward Hungary, and Austria and Hungary thus moved toward a compromise. In 1866 the Prussians defeated the Austrians, further underscoring the weakness of the Habsburg Empire. Negotiations between the emperor and the Hungarian leaders were intensified and finally resulted in the Compromise of 1867, which created the Dual Monarchy of Austra-Hungary, also known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Hungary History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress