Hungarian Conservative

Kuruc or Labanc? Hungary’s Eternal Fault Line — Part III

The Battle of Pákozd by Franz Xaver Zalder.
The Battle of Pákozd by Franz Xaver Zalder.
Wikimedia Commons
The kuruc-labanc dichotomy did not disappear during the early nineteenth century: it only assumed a different form and became stronger. During the Era of Reform, the kuruc sentiment was wedded to classical liberalism and liberal nationalism.

The Dispute between Széchenyi and Kossuth

As noted in our previous article, István Széchenyi had a rather cautious approach toward reforms, which he sought to complete in agreement with the Habsburg Court. He focused on the economy, wishing to transform Hungary from a feudal to a capitalist country, by emancipating serfs, creating equality before the law, and enabling nobles to sell their land or take out mortgage loans against them.

The most prominent opponent of Széchenyi was Lajos Kossuth, a liberal politician, and editor of the Pesti Hírlap. In the latter capacity, Kossuth developed a new genre in Hungary, that of the editorial. In his passionate and well-written articles Kossuth expressed his opinion on important public matters and urged reforms and a civic transformation of the country, with a more radical outlook than Széchenyi and a political, rather than economic focus.

Széchenyi, however, was not impressed. He even wrote a pamphlet about the articles of Kossuth, arguing that the latter used an excessively sensational style in his writings on poverty and inequality. Széchenyi accused Kossuth of applying the ‘French method’, that is, spreading revolutionary fervour in Hungary. Kossuth in his response rebutted Széchenyi’s allegations, and pointed out that the two of them agreed on more things than on what they did not.

In a sense, he was right. Both Kossuth and Széchenyi were liberals, supporting serf-emancipation, civil and human rights, as well as a constitutional monarchy. However, Kossuth was indeed more radical. He was also an advocate of the full democratisation of the country and breaking with the Habsburgs. Instead of the aristocratic leadership, promoted by Széchenyi, he believed that the mid-level gentry should be the leading force of the reforms. As already mentioned, while Széchenyi had an economic focus, Kossuth was more interested in social and political reforms. And finally, but most importantly, Széchenyi wanted to cooperate with the Habsburgs, while

Kossuth instead sought to unite the serfs and the lords in a common front against the Court.

In this sense Széchenyi was closer to the labanc mentality, while Kossuth was more kuruc in his approach.

The Young Conservatives, the group led by Aurél Dessewffy, was even closer to the labanc mentality. The conservatives were interested in strong cooperation with the Habsburgs instead of trying to distance Hungary from them. Dessewffy sent a memorandum to Metternich in the early 1840s, urging the chancellor to accept the necessary changes. He argued that if the Court would spearhead the reforms, then the Crown and the aristocracy could preserve more of its positions, furthermore, a revolutionary upheaval would be avoidable. Therefore, Dessewffy and his supporters advocated for cautious reforms (e.g., ameliorating the status of the serfs, upgrading the prison system, levying taxes on the nobility, etc.), while also supported some of the harsher methods of the court, if it was seen necessary in order to suppress the radical liberals. Dessewffy saw Kossuth as the representative of the ‘unruly’ and ‘poor’ lower nobility, prone to radicalism, or even starting a revolution.

Dessewffy sought to unite the conservative aristocracy, the liberal middle gentry and the Court against the radicals.

When the conservatives formed their own political party in 1846, support for the ‘constitutional principle, nationhood, and the unity of the common realm’ was declared by them. Therefore, the Young Conservatives did not only accept, but indeed support Hungary being part of the Habsburg Empire. Members of the party openly positioned themselves as the party of the Court and sought to secure its majority in the Diet.

In response to the establishment of the Conservative Party, the liberals also formed their own faction in 1847, the Opposition Party. This faction sought to propose reforms, but also to serve as a continuous ‘check’ on the court, creating a counterbalance. This was made explicit in their programme, as well as in their name. Therefore, the liberals were closer to the kuruc or gravaminalist stance, looking at the Habsburg Court with inherent suspicion.

A special stance regarding the Hungarian relationship with Vienna during this era was that of the centralists. This small, liberal intellectual group was led by Baron József Eötvös. Their main aim was to replace the feudal, corporative system of autonomous counties and the Diet with a centralised government, which would have been accountable to a more democratically elected Parliament. This government then would have undertaken deep social and economic reforms. The centralists took over Pesti Hírlap, after Kossuth was forced to resign. It was Metternich who helped them be appointed to the editorial board, as in exchange of their support of the Court. As their main objective was the strengthening of the central government, in this sense, this small, intellectual group was similar to the josephinists.

The Revolution of 1848 and the April Laws

On 15 March 1848, similarly to cities all over Europe, a revolution broke out in Pest, too. Mass demonstrations took place, demanding—among other things—the freedom of the press, equality before the law, ending Austrian military presence in Hungary, and equal taxation. These demands manifested in the so called 12 Points. This manifesto focused on legal equality and political reform, but it avoided interfering much with the Austrian-Hungarian relationship. Thus, paradoxically, while a radical and revolutionary document, it cannot be classified as kuruc. Maybe due to this reason, it was easier for the liberals in the Diet to gain majority for a series of acts, which legislated these demands. Finally, King Ferdinand V assented to them in April, hence the of April Laws.

The April Laws transformed Hungary from a corporative feudal monarchy into a constitutional one. The laws restricted the power of the King, requiring ministerial assent for his resolutions to become binding. The Diet itself was partly democratised, expanding suffrage to property owners of non-noble origin,

creating the widest suffrage in Europe at the time.

A government responsible to the elected Diet was created. The laws abolished feudal privileges, as well as emancipated serfs, enabling them to own land and property. Thus, this series of laws created equality before the law in Hungary. The April Laws furthermore instituted equal taxation, abolished the church levy, established the National Guard, and enabled nobles to buy and sell their land freely.

The 1848 Revolution achieved many freedoms for Hungary; however, it did not settle the legal status of Hungary’s military, or its foreign relations. This opened the old debate again, giving the kuruc-labanc opposition yet another form. According to traditional, these areas were reserved for the King, as reaffirmed by the Pragmatica Sanctio, the argument being that since the thrones of Hungary and Austria were inherited together, the defence and foreign policies were to be common affairs.

While the conservatives accepted this status quo, the liberals tried to obtain independent diplomatic representation for Hungary, for instance the possibility to open embassies in foreign countries. Liberals also sought to recruit an independent army. This led to severe political conflicts with the Court. The absolutistic forces around the King instigated a rebellion against Hungary in Croatia and the Serbian-inhabited regions, while the liberal faction of the parliament declined to cooperate with the Court in matters of foreign and military policy. Eventually, the political fight resulted in an armed conflict. The ‘official’ Croatian forces, led by Governor Josip Jelačić crossed the border, and attacked Hungary. While these armies were swiftly repelled in the Battle of Pákozd in September of 1848, the confrontation signalled the start of the Austro-Hungarian war.

Open Conflict

As soon as the scheming of certain court personalities behind the open Croatian attack was revealed, a government crisis erupted both in Hungary and Austria. King Ferdinand was forced by some elements of the Court to unlawfully dissolve the parliament and declare Jelačić as the de facto governor of Hungary. In response to these events, Count Lajos Batthyány resigned, handing over the government to the more radical Lajos Kossuth. Kossuth, who at that point was already openly hostile toward the Habsburgs, was supported not only by the liberals, but especially by the radicals led by László Madarász.

By contrast, the more conservative and moderate elements opposed an open confrontation with the Court. Artúr Görgei, one of the most prominent generals of the revolutionary war, issued all his orders in the name of the King (King Ferdinand, not young Francis Joseph, who was installed in a palace coup in December 1848), and made it clear that he was fighting for preserving a constitutional monarchy under Habsburg leadership. During the autumn and winter of 1848, many Hungarian politicians resigned or fled, while a group of them formed the so-called Peace Party, seeking a truce with Austria. Eventually, after stunning Hungarian military successes during the Spring Campaign and the promulgation of the openly neo-absolutist March (also knowns as Imposed Constitution of Olmütz) by the Court in 1849, Kossuth and the radicals pushed for the formal declaration of independence. On 14 April 1849, Hungary was pronounced an independent state,

and the House of Habsburg was dethroned.

Once again, after the original kuruc deposition of 1708, the anti-Habsburg faction seemed to achieve its main goal.

However, soon the Habsburgs forged an alliance with the Russian Tsar, after which Russia invaded Hungary. The Hungarian army was forced to capitulate on 11 August, which effectively ended the revolution and the dreams of independence.   

After the capitulation, Hungary was placed under military occupation by Austria, and was governed by Baron Julius Jacob von Haynau, who orchestrated a brutal retaliation and had a large number of Hungarian army officers executed. The bloody revenge that the Austrians took on Hungary turned almost the entire society against the Habsburgs, making the kuruc sentiment dominant for decades.

The kuruc-labanc dichotomy did not disappear during the early nineteenth century: it only assumed a different form and became stronger. During the Era of Reform, the kuruc sentiment was wedded to classical liberalism and liberal nationalism.