2. World War I to 1848-49

In June 1914 Gavrilo Princip -- a Serbian youth backed and provided with his weapon by officers of the Serbian army -- assassinated the heir to the thrones of Hungary and Austria, Archduke Francis-Ferdinand, who disliked Hungary as much as Hungary disliked him. The Austro-Hungarian military establishment then demanded a punitive war against Serbia and, despite the intial objections of the Hungarian Prime Minister Count Stephen Tisza, in July the fateful ultimatum that launched the First World War was despatched to Belgrade.

The Kingdom of Hungary -- which then consisted, as it had since the 11th century, of all of the area encircled by the Carpathians (including Slavonia south of the Drava and Croatia to the Adriatic in the west) and thus formed a well-balanced political and economic unit, with geographical borders as natural as the sea that surrounds Britain -- was at that time one half of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy, whose other half was the Austrian Empire (which included, besides today's Austria, the present-day Czech Republic, most of southern Poland and western Ukraine). The two component states of this composite "k.u.k." (kaiserlich und königlich: imperial and royal) Dual Monarchy (not Empire) had the same ruler, Francis Joseph (1848-1916), and currency, joint foreign and defence policies, and a customs union. All affairs of each half -- other than foreign policy and defence -- were managed by its own separate government.

Of the two, Hungary's Government had to depend upon majority support in its Parliament, whose roots went back to the 13th century. Like Britain's, it had two Chambers, but was even then dominated by the elected Lower Chamber (not least because hereditary members of the Upper had long been permitted to stand for election to the Lower, instead of taking their seat in the Upper, which most of those with serious political ambitions did throughout their careers). The physical arrangement was, as it still is, a hemicyle, and the government majority -- for decades the Liberal Party lead by Coloman Tisza* -- tended to occupy the centre, the opposition being split between those (politically and in seating) to its right and left. The Upper Chamber -- reformed in the 1880s, following several occasions when it had frustrated the Lower's will -- consisted of those who had inherited titles (and payed taxes above a set minimum amount), the bishops or equivalents of all of the country's historic Churches (Catholic, both Roman and Uniate, Calvinist, Lutheran, Orthodox), the judges of the Supreme Court, the holders of a small number of other offices, and up to 50 life members nominated by the Crown on the Prime Minister's advice (who, however, did not receive titles).
* Father of Count Stephen Tisza, who inherited his title from an uncle.

The Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy had resulted from an agreement generally referred to as the Compromise (Ausgleich), concluded in 1867 between Hungarian parliamentary leaders, notably Francis Deák, and Francis Joseph, Emperor of Austria and, at that time not yet crowned, King of Hungary. The immediate trigger for it had been Austria's defeat at the hands of the Prussians at Königgraetz (Sadowa) in 1866, preceded by a series of military defeats during the previous years in northern Italy, up to then also part of the Austrian Empire. The reason that made it necessary was the unconstitutional and oppressive direct rule that Austria had imposed on Hungary from 1849.

In August 1849 Austria had finally defeated Hungary, albeit only with massive Russian assistance, in a year-long struggle known as the War of Independence (Szabadságharc): thirteen Hungarian generals, and quite a few others, were executed on the orders of Field Marshal Haynau the Austrian C-in-C in Hungary, thousands were imprisoned, and thousands fled into emmigration (not a few of them later, after 1867, played prominent parts in Hungarian, even Austro-Hungarian like, for example, Count Julius Andrássy who became Foreign Minister, political life). Earlier that year Francis Joseph had 'abolished' Hungary by decree; the Hungarian Parliament had responded by depriving him, and the House of Habsburg as a whole, of the throne.

That war had started in the summer of 1848, when conservative elements at Court in Vienna (dominated by the Archduchess Sophie, mother of Francis Joseph) incited Hungary's ethnic minorities -- first the Croats, who had always enjoyed a degree of local autonomy, under Baron Josip Jelashich the Viceroy of Croatia (technically an office under the Hungarian Crown); then the Serbs in the south, and the Vlachs, or Romanians, in Transylvania; the Slovaks of the Highlands did not, on the whole, respond to Vienna's agitation -- to take up arms against the country's constitutional government. By the autumn they had forced Ferdinand V to abdicate in favour of his eighteen year old nephew Francis Joseph, unfettered by previous undertakings or a Coronation Oath; the Austrian army was then put in the field too, initially under the command of Field Marshal Prince Alfred Windischgrätz.

The ire of conservatives at Court, shaken by revolutionary events in Vienna that had forced Metternich to resign and flee abroad, was directed against Hungary because in April 1848 its Parliament (Diet, as it was until then called) had passed a raft of progressive Acts, usually referred to as the April Laws.* These -- which inter alia extended the franchise, made the Ministry answerable to Parliament only, abolished all legal distinctions between citizens (and consequent special privileges, notably tax exemption, the sole right to own land, the entitlement to peasant services), removed censorship, gave new powers to elected city corporations, and re-united Transylvania with the rest of Hungary -- made of Hungary a fully fledged 19th century constitutional monarchy, the powers of the Crown severely curtailed; they failed, however, to regulate the country's relationship to Austria, still an absolute monarchy, adequately. After some vacillation Ferdinand V (1835-48), also Emperor of Austria, had given his Royal Assent; elections were held on the new franchise and the new Government of all talents, headed by Count Louis Batthány (to be among those executed in 1849), moved its seat from Pressburg to Pest, only to be embroiled in war within a few months.
* Populist and popular accounts tend to concentrate on events at Pest and Buda on the 15th of March 1848 but these, although colourful in their own way, had only a marginal effect on the course of events.

The April Laws, inspired by the revolutionary spirit that was then sweeping across Europe, completed a process of reform that had been fermenting for decades, driven in particular by Count Stephen Széchenyi, Louis Kossuth, Baron Nicholas Wesselényi and Francis Kölcsey. Despite government attempts, inspired by Vienna, to influence elections -- some five per cent of adult males had the franchise, which was tied to 'noble' status, not property: at election time the poorer of these were feasted on a lavish scale -- the Lower Chamber of Parliament was becoming increasingly progressive, and even in the Upper Chamber younger hereditary members were increasingly speaking and voting for progressive measures. The Parliamentary Reports edited and published by Kossuth -- at times in the form of 'letters' to bypass press censorship -- spread awareness of this new attitude. From the 1830s industry and commerce were also modernising, rivers were regulated and the first railways built, new methods were introduced in agriculture; a new building for the National Museum and Library was completed, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (akin to the Académie Française) was founded.

This ferment, whose intellectual foundations had been laid in the closing decades of the 18th century, was going on at a time when Austria was governed by the arch-conservative Prince Clement Metternich, creator and principal sustainer of the Holy Alliance. 1848 merely brought matters to a head between Hungary and the Habsburgs, the reigning dynasty of both countries, of Hungary since the 16th century.

The Habsburgs considered the various lands whose sovereigns they were their personal property, their Hereditary Lands, even after these had been renamed the Austrian Empire in 1804, when Francis I (1792-1835) wished to have a title comparable to Napoleon's new one (only in 1807 did he finally relinquish the, by then totally meaningless, title Holy Roman Emperor). And they firmly believed that it was their divine right to govern these by decree, as they saw fit -- maintaining that it was only the person of the ruler that conferred unity, a common identity and legal standing on his lands (which, given the heterogeneity of these possessions, made some sense).

Hungary saw it differently. It held that the Kingdom, symbolised by the Holy Crown of St Stephen, existed as a distinct and coherent state irrespective of the King's person, who was merely the incumbent of the highest office, bound by his Coronation Oath to rule the country in accordance with its Constitution -- evolved by precedent and legislation over the centuries -- with and through Parliament that represented the nation.

Seen through Habsburg eyes Hungary, with its constitutional pretensions, was an anomaly that undermined the bland unity of the Habsburg Gesamtmonarchie; seen from Hungary the Court at Vienna, with its absolutist tendencies, was an attempt at tyranny. This divergence of views had resulted in three centuries of, on occasion armed, struggle between Nation and Crown over how, by whom and - crucially - from where Hungary should be governed. For not only were the Habsburg Kings foreigners (Francis Joseph was the first who spoke Hungarian), but they also continued to reside in Vienna. Not one of their number ever spent more than a few days, let alone took up residence, in Hungary, despite a law that required the monarch to reside in the country (Act VII of 1741), which had received the Royal Assent of Maria Theresia (1740-80).

Last updated: December 1997

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