Hungary 1848: a historical perspective

Darren Mikus, World News Editor

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Originally published 27 September 2018

In the modern world, we take certain things for granted — things that seem eternal and self-evident. An example of this is the “nation-state.” It may be surprising to people in the 21st century that, just 200 years ago, this idea was unheard of in most of Europe.

In this period, after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars disrupted the traditional order of European feudalism, most regimes settled back into the long-established order of medieval government. At the top was the king, who often did not speak your language or understand your culture, and below him were a legion of dukes, barons, earls, viscounts and lords, who kept peasants “in their place.”

This was the situation in Hungary in 1848. This vast country, which stretched from the Adriatic Sea to Transylvania, was governed by a foreign aristocracy in Austria. At the time, Hungary was not a separate state, but was just one of the Austrian Empire’s many ethnically diverse possessions in Eastern Europe.

It is easy to understand why the Hungarian people felt “disenfranchised” with their government (as we modern types are fond of saying). Austria’s feudal domination of Hungary, which nearly collapsed at the hands of Napoleon’s troops, was firmer than ever. Their language, customs and history were seen as vulgar and insignificant, especially when contrasted with the German culture of Austria. In this time, a culture was deemed important if it had an army and navy to back it up. The sword was mightier than the pen, and it was only a matter of time until the Hungarians organized against their Austrian lords.

The spark came in 1848. Revolutionary fervor consumed every major European capital, with barricades erected in the streets of Paris, Rome, Berlin and Vienna. Centuries of oppression at the hands of foreigners culminated with the citizens of Bucharest, the capital of Hungary, seizing control of the city and proclaiming Hungary’s independence. Austria’s ancient system of feudal control began to collapse, and it appeared imminent that a Hungary would be born as Europe’s newest state.

Hungary likely would have gained its freedom had it not been for foreign intervention. After the declaration of independence, Austrian Emperor Franz Josef called on his Russian counterpart to send soldiers to Hungary. Tsar Nicholas I sent nearly a quarter of a million troops to Hungary and, with the combined Austrian forces, defeated the burgeoning country. Hungary would remain under the domination of Austria for another 20 years, until an agreement was reached whereby Hungary would gain equal status with Austria in a quasi-federal system, albeit with the Austrian Emperor holding ultimate authority.

The revolutions of 1848, known to historians as the “Spring of Nations,” have left their indelible mark upon the continent. Hungary still celebrates this revolution as one of its three national holidays, as many other countries do. The foundations of the modern nation-state, which seems a given fact of our world, were laid only 170 years ago. Our ideas of national self-determination are not old or natural. They were achieved by struggle and sacrifice in places like Budapest, and we have no right to forget their fight for freedom.

This article was written to give historical context to the dance show “Spirit of Hungary-1848,” which is performed by the internationally renouned Hungarian National Dance Ensemble. If you are interested in tickets, show times and additional information, please visit their website at http://www.mnte.hu/en.