KOSSUTH, LAJOSjournalist and politician
from minister to dictator to constitutional governor-president
KOSSUTH, LAJOS (1802–1894), Hungarian politician and statesman.
Lajos (Louis) Kossuth is perhaps the most esteemed leader in Hungarian history and one of the least respected in the neighboring countries of Europe. This was because he attempted to combine a liberal, reformist program with activist nationalism.
Kossuth was born a Lutheran on 19 September 1802, at Monok, in Zemplén County, which lies in the northeastern corner of post-1918, diminished Hungary. His ancient but by no-means-wealthy noble family originated from Túróc County in modern northern Slovakia. Like all nobles, the Kossuths belonged to the exclusive Natio Hungarica, which denoted status and privilege more than nationality. Kossuth later found his life mission in elevating the rest of the country's inhabitants, some 90 percent of the total population, to the legal and political status of the Natio Hungarica. He also hoped to turn them into Hungarian patriots and, if possible, Hungarian speakers. Yet even his own mother was a German speaker from the neighboring Zipser German settlement.
A lawyer in the service of one of Hungary's great landowning families, Kossuth's father became impoverished and unemployed, yet Lajos received an education befitting a member of the nobility: Latin—then still the language of administration, politics, as well as education in Hungary—and law, which, among other things, qualified one for office in the fifty-odd noble-run county administrations. Kossuth assumed his first official role in 1827 in his native Zemplén County, efficiently fighting a cholera epidemic, among other things, but in 1832 he had to leave his position because of a scandal involving the misappropriation of funds. Ironically, it was this incident—in which he seems to have been guilty at least of negligence—that catapulted him into national politics, his liberal patrons having sent him to represent an absentee aristocrat in the National Diet. Once there, Kossuth defied censorship by writing his own dietal or parliamentary reports, which students copied by hand and which were widely distributed. He thus became one of the first noblemen to earn a living as a journalist, an endeavor made possible by his talent and the political ferment in the country.
Nominally, Hungary was a sovereign country at that time, to be governed according to its own laws by the king in concert with the nobility. The trouble was that the king was also emperor of Austria, with manifold interests in Europe, and that the Natio Hungarica preferred the politics of grievances to much-needed economic, social, and administrative reforms. The diet, meeting in Pozsony (Pressburg, Bratislava), close to Vienna, served mainly as an intermediary between the absolutist court and the restive county administrations that felt entitled not to execute laws and decrees that, in their opinion, violated the nation's ancient constitution. It was the stalemate between king and nobility that prompted members of the famous "reform generation" to devise diverse modernization programs, such as Count István Széchenyi's call for economic and technological progress; Baron Miklós Wesselényi's—and later Kossuth's—preference for creating first a sense of nationality in the population; Baron József Eötvös's advocacy of educational reform as well as administrative centralization; and Ferenc Deák's insistence on the overhauling of the country's archaic judicial practices.
Gentlemen,—In ascending the tribune to demand of you to save our country, the awful magnificence of the moment weighs oppressively on my bosom. I feel as if God had placed into my hands the trumpet to arouse the dead, that—if still sinners and weak—they may not relapse into eternal death, but that they may wake for eternity, if any vigor of life be yet in them. Thus, at this moment, stands the fate of the nation. …[Some six thousand words later] … Gentlemen, what I meant to say is, that this request on the part of the government ought not to be considered as a vote of confidence. No; we ask for your vote for the preservation of the country! And I would ask you, gentlemen, if anywhere in the country a breast sighs for liberation, or a wish waits for its fulfillment, let the breast suffer for a while, let that wish have a little patience, until we have saved the country. (Cheers.) This is my request! You all have risen to a man, and I bow before the nation's greatness! If your energy equals your patriotism, I will make bold to say, that even the gates of hell shall not prevail against Hungary!
The above are the beginning and the end of Louis Kossuth's great speech in parliament on 11 July 1848, where he asked for forty thousand forints for the defense of the country. It is quoted as note 9 in the appendix of William H. Stiles's Austria in 1848–49 (2 vols. New York, 1852. Reprint, New York, 1971, vol. II, pp. 384 and 394). Stiles was the U.S. chargé in Vienna at that time and sympathetic to the cause of Kossuth. The text contains a few corrections by István Deák, based on the original Hungarian.
First a very junior partner among the greats, Kossuth gradually assumed more importance by controlling a part of public opinion. When the session of the diet ended in 1836, he turned to writing and editing the municipal reports, which dealt with the work of the county assemblies. In 1837 he was arrested and charged with disloyalty and sedition; he spent three years in jail, which not only allowed him to learn the basis of his later magnificent English but also made him a national martyr. Hoping to tame the fierce agitator, Chancellor Prince Clemens von Metternich (1773–1859) now allowed Kossuth to edit the newspaper Pesti Hírlap. Yet by 1844, when he was finally removed from his post, Kossuth had brought the country closer to revolution and had, incidentally, also done much for the rejuvenation of the Hungarian language.
In 1841, Kossuth married Teréz Meszlényi, a Catholic gentlewoman whom Kossuth's admirers tended to dislike but who remained loyal to her husband until her death in Italian exile in 1865. They had a daughter and two sons; of the two, Ferenc would become an influential politician, less because of his talent than because of his name. Of Kossuth's relations with his wife next to nothing is known, just as little is known of the friendships and private passions of this eminently political person.
As political life heated up and politicians chose between calling themselves liberals or conservatives, personal differences also came to the fore. The most famous of these differences was that between Széchenyi and Kossuth: the first a titled aristocrat, wealthy, well traveled, moody, and darkly pessimistic; the second without any land to his name, with no personal knowledge of the world, but supremely self-confident. Széchenyi wanted Hungary to be rich and its society cultured (he did much to improve banking, transportation, and culture) and only then truly sovereign, but still under the aegis of the beneficial Austrian connection; Kossuth recognized the importance of all this but felt that, without genuine sovereignty, nothing could be achieved. This, especially, because he felt the need to control and to convert the ethnic minorities: Germans, Slovaks, Ruthenes, Romanians, and Serbs, who together made up about 60 percent of the population.
No longer an editor, Kossuth sought success—and livelihood—in heading various voluntary associations, such as those concerning maritime development and the defense of trade and industry. Once a passionate free-trader, he now advocated tariff barriers even against Austria so as to enable Hungary to develop its own industry. In 1847 Kossuth became the leader of the lower house's main opposition party.
Early in 1848, the news of revolutionary agitation in Italy and Paris threatened to ruin the monarchy's shaky finances; this alerted Kossuth to the possibility of wresting concessions from the advisers in the court of Ferdinand I (r. 1835–1848), the retarded kingemperor. On March 3, Kossuth proposed in the diet the emancipation of the serfs and the appointment of a government responsible to the parliament. The speech inspired the Viennese to make their revolution on 13 March and young intellectuals in Budapest to proceed to their bloodless revolution on 15 March. Besieged by his own subjects, who all wanted change while professing loyalty to his person, and under attack by the king of Piedmont-Sardinia in northern Italy, Ferdinand was ready to surrender to all. On 7 April 1848, Hungary was granted its own government with Kossuth as finance minister and Széchenyi as minister of public works and transport. The new constitution transformed the country—at least in theory—into a modern, liberal state with even a degree of control over the monarchy's military and foreign affairs. In all this and more, Kossuth had been the driving force.
"I have just signed my death sentence! My head will certainly land on the block! … I shall be hanged with Kossuth."
Diary entry by Count István Széchenyion 23 March 1848, upon accepting the post of minister of public works and transport in the newly formed constitutional government of which Count Lajos Batthyányi was the head and Kossuth minister of finance. Even though Kossuth called Széchenyi "the greatest Hungarian," the two were bitter political opponents. Quoted in György Spira, A Hungarian Count in the Revolution of 1848. Translated by Thomas Land, translation revised by Richard E. Allen. Budapest, 1974, p. 67.
All would have been well had Croatia, a subordinate kingdom, not asked for the same rights that Hungary had achieved, and had the self-appointed leaders of the different ethnic minorities not demanded recognition of their national groups. While willing to grant Croatia complete autonomy on the basis of its historic privileges, Kossuth and his colleagues rejected the demands of the ethnic minorities by arguing that Hungary, which had just recently replaced corporate and territorial privilege with the rights of the individual, could not possibly grant new territorial and group autonomies.
In June, Serbs revolted in southern Hungary; in July, Kossuth as minister of finance announced in one of his most memorable speeches that Hungary would raise funds to finance its own army while denying funds to the king for the defense of his possessions in Italy. On 6 September, Kossuth issued the first—illegal—Hungarian banknotes. Five days later, the Vienna-appointed governor of Croatia invaded Hungary with his troops, whether or not at the orders of the court remains unclear. In order to avoid open confrontation with the king and the new, liberal Austrian cabinet, the government of Count Lajos Batthyány (1806–1849) resigned, but Kossuth and one other minister remained at their posts. A few days later, the recently constituted parliament appointed Kossuth head of the so-called National Defense Committee with extensive wartime rights.
Kossuth used his extraordinary oratorical abilities and his talent as an administrator to create an army, which was badly needed because, following the attack by Serbs and Croats, many Romanians also revolted and, in December, the imperial army itself invaded Hungary. At first, defeat after defeat plagued the motley Hungarian army of ex-regulars and unreliable volunteers, forcing Kossuth and the parliament to flee from Budapest to eastern Hungary. But then the Hungarians used their administrative experience to raise and equip an army of conscripts that, in the spring of 1849, beat back the Austrians. On 14 April 1849, a triumphant parliament in Debrecen proclaimed the dethronement of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine and elected Kossuth governor-president. The Declaration of Independence, drafted by Kossuth, dealt mainly with Hungary's historic grievances, proving again that he was no revolutionary.
Making Kossuth governor-president must be judged a mistake, in part because the virtual dictator thereby became a sort of a constitutional
monarch, and in part because the Declaration forced the European governments to take a stand. None recognized the new state, and the British especially made clear that a strong Habsburg monarchy was a European necessity. General Artúr Görgey (1818–1916), who was Kossuth's brilliant young military commander, had not even completed the reconquest of Budapest when Tsar Nicholas I (r. 1825–1855) announced his decision to rush to the aid of Emperor Francis Joseph I (r. 1848–1916) against what Nicholas insisted on seeing as a bunch of near-communist rebels.
The Hungarians proved powerless against a resurgent Austrian army, which was supported by most of the nationalities in the Habsburg monarchy, and against a huge Russian invasion force. No sooner had Kossuth made his triumphant entry to the Hungarian capital than he was forced to flee to southeastern Hungary where the last battles of the War of Independence were to be fought. As a final noble gesture, at the end of July parliament adopted a law giving more rights to the ethnic minorities and another guaranteeing the Jews complete legal equality.
Following a last devastating defeat, Kossuth resigned as governor-president and appointed Görgey dictator of Hungary; on 11 August, the general surrendered his troops to the Russians; a few days later Kossuth and his entourage fled to Turkish territory. As soon as he was abroad, however, he again began using the title of governor president and accused Görgey of treason.
The Ottoman government, no matter how sympathetic, was forced by Russian and Austrian pressure to assign Kossuth an involuntary residence in Kiutahia, Asia Minor. While most of the refugees returned to Hungary, Kossuth benefited from multiple invitations to visit the United Kingdom and the United States. He was feted as the champion of liberty and the great emancipator. His visit to the United States in 1851 and 1852 resembled a triumphant march, while orators, including the future president Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), called him the Hungarian George Washington. Everywhere he went, including an appearance at the joint session of the U.S. Congress, he delivered dazzling speeches in English that were to serve as teaching material in the field of rhetorics for many years to come, but he was unable either to raise funds for an army of liberation or to persuade the United States to intervene in the affairs of Europe.
Back in England, he was feted again and negotiated with heads of state but his only opportunity to return to Hungary, in 1859 on the coattails of the French army, ended abruptly when Napoleon III (1808–1873) concluded an armistice with the defeated Austrian emperor. What put a complete end to his dreams was, however, the compromise agreement of 1867 in which Hungarians decided to share power with the German Austrians in the multinational, so-called dual monarchy.
Kossuth had warned against an agreement that would tie Hungary to the fate of the Habsburg dynasty, but the Hungarians no longer listened to him, least of all the leaders of the Kossuth Party who became more and more expansionist and chauvinistic. While in exile, Kossuth devised various plans for a Central European federation, but such ideas could have no chance of success in an age of heightened nationalism. In old age, Kossuth spoke up repeatedly against illiberal politics and especially against anti-Semitism; his main occupation in Torino, Italy, was, however, to receive delegations of admirers, to write his voluminous memoirs, and to edit his invaluable papers, which fill dozens of volumes. He would not return to Hungary while his archenemy, Francis Joseph I, was king. He died in Torino on 20 March 1894 at the age of ninety-two and was buried in Budapest in the presence of millions. Today, there is no settlement in Hungary without a Kossuth Square or a Kossuth Street.
The Kossuth cult has never abated; his name is on the lips of every politician, although the left, especially the Communists, had tried to monopolize his historic heritage. No doubt, he gave hope to the poor, especially peasants, and he opened the way to the modernization of his country, but he also burdened the shoulders of his compatriots with the dilemma of unrealizable national ambitions.
Haraszti, Éva H. Kossuth as an English Journalist. Translated by Brian McLean. Boulder, Colo., 1990. Contains 110 articles and letters published by Kossuth in English in the year 1855.
Pulszky, Francis, and Theresa Pulszky. White, Red, Black. Kassel, 1853. Reprint, New York, 1970. Fascinating memoirs by one of Kossuth's main political associates and the latter's Austrian wife.
Deák, István. The Lawful Revolution: Louis Kossuth and the Hungarians, 1848–1849. New York, 1979. The only comprehensive, relatively recent publication on Hungary's greatest statesman and the revolution of which he was the leader.
Komlos, John H. Louis Kossuth in America, 1851–1852. Buffalo, N.Y., 1973.
Spencer, Donald S. Louis Kossuth and Young America: A Study of Sectionalism and Foreign Policy, 1848–1852. Columbia, Mo., 1977. How Kossuth's presence upset American party politics.
Szabad, György. Kossuth on the Political System of the United States of America. Budapest, 1975.
The Hungarian statesman and orator Louis, or Lajos, Kossuth (1802-1894) was the foremost leader of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-1849 and the symbol of Magyar nationalism.
The son of an impoverished Lutheran nobleman, Louis Kossuth was born at Monok in northern Hungary on Sept. 19, 1802. He attended the famed Protestant schools of Eperjes (now Prešov in Slovakia) and Sárospatak, known for their Magyar patriotic and anti-Hapsburg sentiments. This Kuruc spirit became part of his nature, remaining with him throughout his long life.
After practicing law in his native Zemplén county (1823-1832), Kossuth was sent to the national Diet at Pozsony (Pressburg, Bratislava). There, in the exciting atmosphere of the reform debates and under the over-powering influence of the great reformer Count István (Stephen) Széchenyi, he soon developed his own socio-political creed. This included a belief in the necessity of Hungary's thorough social, economic, and political transformation and the termination of its subordination to Vienna. He aired his views in the form of "dietary proceedings" (Országgyülési tudósìtások), which were not verbatim records but opinionated personal impressions so inflammatory in tone that they soon landed Kossuth in prison (1837-1840).
Released under an amnesty (May 1840), Kossuth agitated for civil liberties and national independence in his newly founded paper, the Pesti Hirlap (Pest Journal). His popular views and beguiling style immediately gained attention and support. But they also alarmed the government and the less radical reformers, among them Count Széchenyi, who disagreed with Kossuth on actual issues (for example, complete independence) and felt his tactless agitation would lead to more political oppression. Széchenyi was convinced that Kossuth's relative intolerance toward national minorities, although stemming from a conviction that Magyar nationalism was the only real liberal and cultural force in Hungary (a conviction shared by Karl Marx), could only end in catastrophe.
Kossuth, defending himself in the brilliant polemical pamphlet Reply to Count Stephen Széchenyi (1841), continued agitating in the Pesti Hirlap until July 1844, when, upon governmental pressure, he lost the editorship. Unable to establish another paper, he poured his energies into Védegylet, a society to protect Hungarian industry through boycotting Austrian goods.
In 1847 Kossuth was again sent to the Diet, where he soon assumed the leadership of the liberal opposition. His great moment came on March 3, 1848. At the news of the February revolution in France, he delivered a powerful speech in the Diet, demanding immediate implementation of the liberal program and calling for constitutionalism throughout the empire.
After Prince Metternich's regime collapsed, Kossuth became minister of finance in the new government of Count Lajos Batthyány in Hungary. His economic and political activities tended to increase the tension both between Hungary and the dynasty and in his relations to the South Slavs, who soon rebelled, joining with Viennese reaction. When growing radicalism and the dynasty's double-dealings led to the fall of the moderate government (September 28), Kossuth assumed full control, becoming chairman of the newly founded Committee of National Defense and the life and soul of the revolution.
The next few months brought out the most in the undoubtedly brilliant Kossuth. With elements of greatness (courage, magnetism, the ability to accomplish the impossible) weaknesses in his personality (intransigence, jealousy, lack of realism) also came to light. Particularly unfortunate were his inability to come to terms with the nationalities, his jealousy and suspicion of his best general (Arthur von Görgey), and his unrealistic dethronization act of April 14, 1849, which contributed much to Russian intervention.
Despite notable victories, Russia's intervention made Hungary's situation untenable. Kossuth fled Hungary (Aug. 11, 1849) and, after 2 years' internment in Turkey, made a brilliant but futile English and American campaign to gain support for Hungarian independence. His plan to create a "Danubian Confederation" (1861), while commendable, came too late and was too anti-Hapsburg to be realistic.
With the establishment of Austria-Hungary in 1867, Kossuth's hopes faded altogether. He died at 92 in Turin, Italy, on March 20, 1894. He was buried in Budapest, still an idol of the Magyar peasant masses.
The first edition of Kossuth's Complete Works (13 vols., 1880-1911) is neither complete nor sufficiently scholarly. A much better critical edition is now in progress (15 vols. to date, 1948-). The Select Speeches of Kossuth, edited by F. M. Newman (1854), and his Memoires of My Exile (2 vols., 1880), are also available in English.
Although works about Kossuth are numerous, his definitive biography has not yet been written; and reliable, scholarly works about him are scarce, even in Hungarian. The available English language books are neither scholarly nor critical. Otto Zarek, Kossuth (trans. 1937), is a popular, novelistic account by a Kossuth enthusiast; and Endre Sebestyén, Kossuth: A Magyar Apostle of World Democracy (1950), is a brief laudatory pamphlet, with an emphasis on Kossuth's American connections. For Kossuth's role in the revolutionary movement of 1848 the student can turn to Lewis Namier, 1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals (1946); Arnold Whitbridge, Man in Crisis: The Revolutions of 1848 (1949); and Priscilla Robertson, Revolutions of 1848 (1952). □