Monday, March 15, 2010

15th March 1848

Today is, as you may have noticed, March 15th. Not much special about that for most people, aside from that whole ides of March / et tu brute thing. But it is a big deal in the world of Hungarians, as it represents possibly the biggest day in the Hungarian calendar - the commemoration of the revolution of 1848.

Of late I've been reading a great history book called "The Hungarians: 1000 Years of Victory in Defeat" by Paul Lendvai. (The title is very apt since the history of Hungarians in Europe does seem to have been a litany of defeats - and in fact the two biggest holidays in the Hungarian calendar - today and the commemoration of the 1956 uprising both, ultimately celebrate and romanticise defeats).

The thing that really stands out about the history of Hungary prior to 1848 is that if Hungarians feel the need to hold any historical grudges, they ought to hold those grudges at two groups
(1) Their own ridiculously self-interested and anti-progressive nobility. With a few notable exceptions this group kept Hungary (and it's attendant bits) in a ridiculously backward state for centuries; and
(2) The Austrians/Habsburgs who seemingly never missed an opportunity to screw everyone over, and especially the Hungarians.

What's inspiring about the 1848 revolution which Hungarians celebrate today is that it is liberation from these very two groups that characterises the positive side of the uprising. The removal of serfdom, the emancipation of the Jews and the wresting of control from Vienna were some of the truly forward thinking things achieved by the revolution. On the negative side the leaders of the revolution, including it's most famous member Kossuth Lajos, wrapped everything up in a Magyar nationalism which ultimately led to its downfall. This was not only a political error - nothing good ever comes of nationalism, and to use nationalism as a tool or worse as a basis, always ends up badly- but it was a massive tactical error too. Rather than liberating peasants from serfdom, the sense was that it was about liberating Hungarian peasants - Romanians and Serbs and other ethnic groups within Hungary and Transylvania were not to be liberated, and so had no stake in the success of the revolution (and indeed could not have been faulted for being highly suspicious of it and fearful of its success). Austria got them to fight along with Vienna against the revolution (and promptly, when it was successfully put down, screwed them over too. The Habsburgs were equal opportunity dickheads it seems). Later in exile, Kossuth Lajos argued for a loose Danube confederation of peoples, which would have been a much better bet from the word go, but by then it was too late.

Eventually the revolution was finally put down with the support of Russia. One of the best things about Lendvai's book ( as well as it being a very even-handed and well-written history) is some little vignettes of interest - people who rose to minor prominence and/or infamy. One of these is Alexei Gusev. Alexei Gusev was a Csarist captain who realised how important the revolution was and ended up fighting alongside the Hungarians. Except that he didn't actually exist. During the time of Soviet domination of Hungary, the USSR wanted to present themselves as long time friends of Hungary - this was a problem because Hungary's most romantic historical moment (1848) was eventually put down with Russian support. In trying to form a clear revolutionary link between Kossuth and Stalin, a compliant Hungarian historian was recruited who then researched in archives and came up with the aforementioned Captain Gusev, who had rebelled against the Csar and joined Kossuth. Here was the link between the USSR and Kossuth. They even named streets after him in Budapest and other towns. Until of course it was discovered after 1989 that he had in fact been entirely made up.

But anyway, I digress. 1848. Kossuth. Petőfi. It's difficult to overstate the importance of this moment in Hungarian history, and in the Hungarian consciousness. As I look out the window today, I can see Hungarian flags all over the place. This is about the only day of the year when you see those flags here (except outside the Hungarian consulate). There will be a laying of wreaths on the statues of Petőfi and Nicolae Balcescu (who was a Romanian revolutionary leader in 1848 also, and who ought to have been listened to more by Kossuth, as much more could have been achieved)

I'll write more about the Lendvai book as I go through it. It's really worth reading for anyone vaguely interested in regional history and in particular the Hungarians' place in it.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Andy.
Please write some more about the book, I'm interested in.
Now I'm reading some of the Neagu Djuvara's books, they all are very intersting. Perhaps I should expand my lecture to other historians in region, the Balkans are very special. Gee, and I remembered I used to hate history lessons..


Anonymous said...

The Habsburgs/Austrians have also fundamentally shaped the Hungarian culture & civilization. Without them Budapest would be a much different city, for instance.

Andy H said...

Hi Anon 1. Yes, I definitely will. I'll post more as I go through it. I find I have a lot to comment on :-)

Hi Anon 2: Yes, obviously that is true (but Budapest would be a different place without the Ottomans too, though not quite as dramatically perhaps). But that doesn't mean the relationship was one of equals. India was fundamentally shaped by Britain, but that doesn't make it a healthy relationship of equals :-)

Gadjo Dilo said...

Very interesting. I'm always on the lookout for non-partisan versions of these events. In puts into perspective what I, being married to a Romanian - I would never get to hear about Kossuth et al. - hear about people like