"What do the Hungarian people want? Let peace, liberty, and harmony prevail!
1. We want freedom of the press, the abolition of censorship.
2. A responsible Ministry in Buda and Pest.
3. An annual parliamentary session in Pest.
4. Civil and religious equality before the law.
5. A National Guard.
6. A joint sharing of tax burdens.
7. The cessation of socage.
8. Juries and representation on an equal basis.
9. A national bank
10. The army to swear to support the constitution, our soldiers not be dispatched abroad, and foreign soldiers removed from our soil.
11.The freeing of political prisoners.
12. Reunion with Transylvania.
Equality, liberty, and fraternity!"
(The Twelve Points by Sándor Petőfi on March 15th 1848)
THE OUTBREAK OF THE 1848-9 REVOLUTION
Hungary since the end of the 17th century had been a Habsburg dominion, with a Habsburg on the royal Hungarian throne. In the first half of the 19th century, it was still an agricultural country. Farm work on the manorial estates was still performed by serfs, as a feudal due. The revolutionary changes in Britain, America and France, and the idea of a nation-state had exercised some influence, however. The nobility (some 5-6% of the population) made increasingly strident demands for economic, social and political change. It was becoming clear that Hungary could not pursue policies in its national interest unless it gained real self-determination.
This desire for change surfaced in the 1820s and 1830s, and the struggle was taken up by the ablest members of the nobility. The first to put forward an exhaustive programme in books and pamphlets was Count István Széchenyi (1791-1860), who came from one of the richest and most illustrious aristocratic families. He envisaged a transformation after the English pattern. He differed from most of his peers in believing that the advancement of the nobility through reforms from above could be accompanied by greater prosperity for the whole country, without altering the tie with the Habsburgs.
The aspirations of the untitled, petty nobility gained a spokesman in Lajos Kossuth (1802-1894), who began in 1841 to edit a newspaper, the Pesti Hírlap (Pest News), with leading articles on the most pressing problems in society and the economy. Kossuth took the ideas of reform a stage further, and likewise offered a programme. His priorities were economic and political autonomy within the Habsburg Empire, granting the serfs full property rights over their holdings, and establishing independent national manufacturing industry.
The ideas of the noble reform movement, however, largely foundered on the absolutist, autocratic opposition from the court in Vienna.
Revolution broke out in many large European cities during the early months of 1848, creating conditions under which Hungary's aspirations for reform might be realized by lawful means. Kossuth and a delegation from the Diet travelled to Vienna on March 15, 1848 to lay the legislature's demands before the monarch.
On the same day the March Youth, a small group of writers, poets and other intellectuals, took to the streets of Pest to read out their Twelve Points containing their main demands for the Hungarian nation. One of their leaders, the popular radical poet Sándor Petofi, recited a poem of his, "National Song". As bystanders joined them, they requisitioned a press to print the two pieces. Within hours there were tens of thousands processing through the streets. The Twelve Points summed up the main demands succinctly. They included press freedom, an independent Hungarian government, annual parliaments, equal religious and civil rights, a national army, general taxation (instead of the nobility being exempt), an end to serfdom, and reunion of Transylvania with Hungary.
The revolutions in Vienna on March 13 and Pest on March 15 forced the court to meet the demands of the Hungarian National Assembly, which were framed into law and received royal assent in April. The acts contained most of the Twelve Points, so that Hungary, as the first and only country to do so, underwent a peaceful transition. The first independent Hungarian government, responsible to the Hungarian National Assembly, was formed under the premiership of Count Lajos Batthyány (1806-1849). Most of his ministers were reforming politicians. They included Széchenyi and Kossuth. Once the revolution in Habsburg-ruled Northern Italy was quelled, however, the imperial authorities began to rescind the concessions made to Hungary. The old tactic of driving a wedge between Hungary and its non-Hungarian communities was employed. Baron Josip Jelacic, Ban of Croatia, invaded Hungary proper in September 1848, at the head of an imperial army. The emperor-king dissolved the National Assembly and dismissed the Batthyány ministry. This roused the resistance of the National Assembly, which chose a Committee of National Defence chaired by Kossuth to run the country and raise an army. Jelacic's attack was repulsed. Francis Joseph I, who assumed the imperial and royal throne in December 1848, was resolved to defeat the "rebel" Hungarians, and sent a vastly superior imperial army into the attack. This managed to occupy the capital in January 1849. Parliament and the government retreated to Debrecen to regroup its resistance. A counter-attack followed in the spring of 1849 under the gifted young commander Artur Görgey (1818-1914), who chased the imperial forces out of the country. Meanwhile Jozef Bem (1794-1850), a general of Polish extraction, cleaned up the imperial forces in Transylvania. Having failed to reach agreement with Francis Joseph, the Hungarian National Assembly declared the House of Habsburg dethroned in April 1849 and elected Kossuth as Governor. At this point, Francis Joseph managed to foment the anxiety of the Russian Tsar, who despatched a vast army to crush Hungary. Caught in a pincer movement and greatly outnumbered, the Hungarians capitulated on August 13, 1849.
Bitter reprisals ensued. Thirteen military commanders were executed at Arad on October 6, to go down in history as the Martyrs of Arad. Meanwhile the prime minister, Count Lajos Batthyány, was shot by firing squad in Pest. The prisons filled and Hungarian soldiers were forcibly conscripted into the imperial army, many people fleeing abroad. Hungary was treated as a vanquished province. Its autonomy was swamped by the centralized, absolutist Austrian empire.
The events of 1848-9 can be seen as the greatest deeds of the Hungarian people since the Conquest and foundation of the state. March 15, when the revolution began, came to symbolize defence of liberty gained and recovery of liberty lost. It has been celebrated as a national day since 1860, irrespective of how the powers that be may have viewed the matter. The post-war communist regime did not treat it as a national celebration, however. Demonstrations staged in the 1950s sought to link the ideas of 1848-9 with "socialist internationalism" and Leninite world revolution. The official student festivities of the 1960s coupled March 15 with two unrelated communist anniversaries as "days of revolutionary youth". Those who tried to mark the anniversary in more appropriate ways met with police repression. By the end of the 1980s, however, the police lines were confronting crowds of tens of thousands. Political forces of various kinds have often tried in Hungarian history to distort and commandeer the ideas of March 15 for their own political purposes. At other times, however, they have served as an inspiration. When revolution broke out on October 23, 1956, for instance, the crowds of young people demanding freedom and independence revived the spirit of March 15 and repeated many demands made by the March Youth. A 1991 resolution by the Hungarian Parliament declared March 15, as the outbreak of the 1848-9 revolution and war of independence, a day to mark the birth of modern parliamentary Hungary and the national festival of the Republic of Hungary.