Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History. Lecture 7: Nationalism in Hungary, 1848-1867

Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History

Lecture 7: Nationalism in Hungary, 1848-1867


This lecture and the next look at two more Balkan revolutions: the Revolutions of 1848 in Hungary and Romania. The 1848 Revolutions “failed” in the short run but if we trace events through the following two decades, we find evidence of eventual success. At the same time, the limits of that success shed light on contradictory themes behind the events of 1848 themselves.

If the Serb and Greek Revolutions were wars of independence, the Revolutions of 1848 were driven far more by matters of internal domestic policy. In Western Europe, “1848” revolved around issues like national unification, civil liberties and economic privilege but as the revolutionary impulse spread to the East, issues of nationalism, nationality and ethnicity came to the fore.

1848 in Western Europe

Recall briefly the events of 1848 in France and Germany. In February, the restored French monarchy was overthrown. In France, the political revolution was a result of commercial change: it expressed demands for better political and economic conditions by an emerging, prosperous, urban middle class and to a lesser degree by urban factory workers. The Liberal agenda of the middle class soon clashed with the socialist agenda of the workers: bourgeois aspirations toward entrepreneurial freedom clashed with labor’s demands for an end to poverty and the exploitation of workers by capitalists. Some of the principles of the revolution were sacrificed to achieve a new stable social order. In France, the Liberal middle class allied with the nationalist right to reject socialism in favor of Liberal capitalist economics and patriotic French nationalism.

The Revolution spread in March to the German states, where the same class issues (Liberalism vs. socialism) were at work, but here the ideal of nationalism had more importance. There was no united Germany in 1848, only a collection of miniature states. Unification was an important goal for German Liberals, who were tired of political weakness and backward commercial laws. In Germany, the middle class abandoned goals like representative government and political freedom, and accepted national unification under the leadership of conservative Prussia. Once again, as in France, mass patriotic nationalism replaced mass civil rights and liberties as the goal.


While the revolutions in the Habsburg Monarchy (and Romania) were inspired by the same ideals, there was no large “middle class” in these places to sustain the Liberal focus. Ethnic nationalism became the paramount issue as Italians, Slavs and Hungarians resisted rule by the German-dominated Habsburg state. Except in Italy, nationalism did not just imply unification: it involved language laws and rules that favored one ethnic group over another.

News of the events in Paris reached Vienna in March 1848. Citizen committees petitioned the emperor for reforms. After soldiers fired on crowds in the street, the movement became more radical. To make the story short, the middle class and its own National Guard (created to curb lower-class elements) came to power in the city and forced the emperor to grant a constitution. The middle classes later rejected radicalism and became isolated from students, workers and socialists. In a similar way, the leaders of the German revolutionary party ignored the national needs of other ethnic groups. 1848 marked a key moment for Slavic nationalism when Bohemian Czechs decided not to attend the German National Assembly at Frankfurt: it had never occured to the Germans that any Bohemian would not wish to become German, instead of seeking to promote a Slavic identity.

The revolution then spread to Hungary. When we last looked at Hungary, Magyar resistance in 1790 had blocked Joseph II’s reform plans. The French Revolution subsequently made the idea of change suspect, and tensions between the need for social and economic reform and the fossilized political system increased. An agricultural depression after 1815 added poverty to political repression under the so-called “System,” the police state used by Prince Metternich to detect and suppress revolutionary ideas.

Ethnic Magyars still made up the “political nation.” This nobility was increasingly divided along class lines. A few thousand great aristocrats were immune to most trouble thanks to their wealth and power. They could sit in the Diet by right and had influence at court in Vienna. At a time when a professional like a teacher earned perhaps 350 florints in a year, the average great estate produced an income of 23,000 florints a year. The aristocrats’ chief rivals for power were the medium sized landowners known as “bene possessionati,” some 25,000 families with average incomes ranging from 500 to 3,000 florints a year. This class sustained local political life, filling local offices and running the county assemblies. This class regarded the great aristocrats as absentee landlords who had forgotten or even betrayed their national roots. Another 40,000 Magyar noble families were poor “sandal nobles” who tilled small farms or worked as lawyers, teachers, priests or minor officials. Some supported reforms. Others feared change, lest they lose their noble status and privileges. Two figures represent the competing ideologies that shaped the pre-conditions for the 1848 revolution in Hungary: Istvan (Stephen) Szechenyi and Lajos (Louis) Kossuth.


Istvan Szechenyi was born a count in 1791 to a typical family of wealthy aristocrats: they had estates near Vienna and a history of service to the Habsburgs. Szechenyi saw some of Western Europe in 1813 as a young officer during the Napoleonic Wars, then went to England in 1815. He was impressed by the order and stability of the British constitutional monarchy, the high level of education and the productivity of modern industrial manufacturing, and returned home converted to Liberalism in the nineteenth century sense (that is, an end to class economic privilege and traditional legal obstacles to capitalism). He was convinced that if individuals pursued economic wealth and political liberty, and were allowed to have responsible roles in society, the whole nation would benefit.

In Hungary this was impossible as long as the nobles lived as social parasites. To spread his ideas and engage his peers, Szechenyi used his connections to found clubs and associations promoting commerce, agrarian research, horse-racing (for the breeding of better stock), a Danube River steamboat company, a fire insurance company and a toll-bridge between Buda and Pest (the two halves of the present-day unified city). Because nobles were expected to pay the toll like everyone else, such a plan was radical and controversial: strict conservatives considered the toll to be a tax, and nobles were exempt from taxation. To break down class barriers, he founded the Casino club in Pest in 1825, open to anyone who could afford the dues, including non-nobles and Jews. In 1827 his efforts created the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which revived interest in Hungary’s language, literature and culture.

In 1830 he published “Credit,” a book which called for an end to the nobles’ monopoly on owning land. His reasoning was economic and Liberal, not directly political. Because only nobles could own land, its value for economic development was limited, even for the nobles themselves. Because commoners (through a bank) could not foreclose on land put up as collateral to secure a loan, land was useless for nobles trying to raise capital; nor could commoners buy the land and develop it themselves. These legalities deterred banks from backing investments that were needed to improve the national economy.

Szechenyi emphasized individual entrepreneurs but he also saw a role for the national government. Tax breaks and public money could boost industrial growth by promoting road-building, steam-powered mills (it was more efficient to export flour than grain), coal mines and machine shops, and a secular school system. In some of his plans, he said that the state should raise tariffs to protect local industries, and organize a separate Hungarian army. However, the bulk of Szechenyi’s ideas revolved around Liberal individualism.

Legally, Szechenyi’s plans required action by the Hungarian Diet, which began to debate them in 1831. By that time, his many projects had gained wide support. The nobles had also been shaken out of complacency in 1830, when a cholera epidemic brought on by primitive sanitation killed 250,000 (out of ten million) and was followed by peasant rioting because rural folk blamed the epidemic on poisoning by their landlords or Jews.

However, the backward nature of the Diet itself slowed reforms. Laws had to be approved by both chambers and the Palatine (the representative of the Habsburg monarch). The upper house was made up of 500 top aristocrats. In the lower house, members’ authority was limited by tradition to relaying the wishes of the county assemblies that the delegates represented. The system was not designed for action: there were no parliamentary procedures, not even the concept of decision by vote. In each chamber, the presiding officer heard all sides, then tried to state some middle position. If new laws were passed, they were hard to implement: there was no official record of their wording, let along a transcript of debates.


Parliamentary reform therefore had to precede social and economic reform in Hungary. In the process, the idea of change became more political as it passed to a new generation. Lajos Kossuth was their leader. He built on Szechenyi’s work but represented different social elements, and the two men did not get along personally. Kossuth (born in 1802) was not a great noble but the son of a lawyer who was a servant on the huge Andrassy estates in the backward northern districts. The family was part Slovak, but thoroughly Magyarized. While Kossuth’s thinking encompassed nationalism, it is worth noting that ethnic concepts of “blood” and race were not yet in vogue: neither Kossuth nor his critics regarded him as anything but Hungarian.

Kossuth is a complex figure, more accessible than Szechenyi to modern understanding. It is possible to see in him some elements that remind us of a 1980s yuppie. Trained as an attorney, Kossuth held several local administrative offices. He made good money but ran up large debts by imitating the costly lifestyle of the young nobles, entertaining and gambling. He was accused of borrowing against funds for orphans left in his control, so aristrocratic friends got him safely out of town by sending him to the Diet of 1832 as one of the county representatives.

At the national assembly, Kossuth found his mission in life. From 1832-1836, he organized a group of young lawyers who wrote down and published the debates and proceedings. Because this scheme opened the workings of the Diet to public scrutiny, it was condemned as rabble rousing by Szechenyi and others. When Kossuth tried to do the same thing with county assembly transcripts, he was arrested for sedition and spent three years in jail. The publicity made him a national political figure.

In 1841 Kossuth founded the newspaper “Pesti Hirlap” (News of Pest) which was soon selling 10,000 copies. There he set out his views, in which political and civil rights eclipsed the economic Liberalism of Szechenyi:

  • the right for any man to hold any public office and
  • to own property,
  • the right of serfs to buy their freedom,
  • taxation of nobles,
  • an end to economic monopolies and special privileges,
  • votes for middle-class commoners in big cities,
  • creation of an independent judiciary,
  • universal education, and
  • an end to censorship.

While he supported a land bank to invest in rural development, Kossuth’s position moved in the direction of national strength over individual economic liberty. He stopped supporting “free trade” and proposed protective tariffs for Hungarian industries.

Hungarian politics in the 1840s increasingly revolved around issues of ethnic nationalism. In 1843 the Diet declared Hungarian (Magyar) to be the official language of administration, replacing Latin. Radicals like Ferencz (Francis) Deak called for the exclusive use of Magyar in education, despite (or because of) Hungary’s large Slavic and Romanian minorities.

The 1848 “April Laws”

In 1847 Kossuth, Deak and others privately circulated an “Oppositional Declaration” that stated their most extreme position:

  • the consent of the Diet to any royal decrees,
  • a separate Hungarian ministry (not merely branches of the central ministry in Vienna),
  • equality of nobles and non-nobles in matters of law, offices, representation, property and taxes,
  • the end of peasant servitude (with state compensation to landlords), and
  • freedom of the press.

In 1848, Kossuth saw an opportunity to ram this program through the Diet, thanks to the revolutionary excitement. When the Diet opened in March, he promptly demanded a new constitutional relationship between crown and Diet; it was easy to get the support of the lower chamber. When news came of the successful revolution in Vienna, the Palatine (who was himself a Hungarian aristocrat, Count Apponyi) joined the national cause, and secured the consent of the upper house for a responsible, separate Hungarian ministry. Menaced by revolution in Vienna, the Emperor Ferdinand was too weak to block the change. Having secured this kind of autonomous power, the Diet then passed the ten sweeping “April Laws”:

  • First, all males aged at least 20 who met certain property requirements and spoke Magyar would vote in elections to the lower chamber (this meant about 7 percent of the total population: the upper house remained a hereditary house of lords).
  • Second, a similar electoral franchise law went into effect for the county and municipal governments.
  • Third, toleration was extended to all Christian sects (but not Judaism): that is, all such believers became eligible for all the rights of a citizen.
  • Fourth, peasant dues and servitude were abolished but the 635,000 peasant families received no title to the land they worked. Landlords would receive compensation, to be worked out later.
  • Fifth, taxation was extended to all, noble or not. The Catholic Church gave up its state-collected tithe.
  • Sixth, patrimonial courts on estates were abolished. All citizens became subject to the same system of courts, with a right to trial by jury.
  • Seventh, a national land bank for investment was set up.
  • Eighth, freedom of the press and of instruction in schools was established.
  • Ninth, a National Guard was created as an autonomous Hungarian armed force. And
  • Tenth, administrative union with Transylvania was announced, pending confirmation by the separate Transylvanian Diet (which consented unanimously in May).

The rise of Hungarian nationalism

The April Laws were the culmination of a popular nationalist trend embraced by ethnic Hungarians, but one that ignored or offended the non-Magyar ethnic minorities. The extension of use of the Magyar language (generally supplanting Latin) was a gauge of national chauvinism in Hungary. In 1831 mastery of Hungarian became a requirement to pass the legal bar; in 1838 it became the official language of laws passed in the Diet; in 1839 it became the language of internal administrative memos, and was required of all priests; in 1844 it became the official language of secondary education; and now in 1848 it became a test for voters. Jews remained second-class citizens, barred from holding office. The language laws discriminated against Slovak, Romanian and South Slav minorities in the northern, eastern and southern regions. While Magyars pursued autonomy for themselves, they ignored the same desires among these groups.


Alone among the minorities, the South Slavic Croatians had legal, political and military resources with which to back up their complaints. Just as Hungary claimed a special constitutional position within the Habsburg monarchy on the basis of medieval laws, Croatia claimed a similar position within Hungary.

There had been a medieval Croatian kingdom and Croatian nobles claimed political rights, including election of their kings. When their own dynasty died out in 1102, the Croatian Diet or “Sabor” chose the Hungarian dynasty, trading away full independence for security, stability and internal autonomy. The “Triune Kingdom of Dalmatia, Croatia and Slavonia” remained a legally distinct constitutional entity. After Mohacs, the “Sabor” (assembly) separately selected the Habsburg candidate as Croatia’s king. Under the Habsburgs, this local diet of nobles made the laws and handled internal administration, with the consent of the king’s viceroy, the Ban.

However, Croatia constantly struggled to preserve its special rights in the face of Hungarian claims. There were frequent conflicts between Hungarian and Croatian law: the Hungarian Diet claimed its primacy in such cases, while Croatians claimed that the decisions of the Sabor should prevail within Croatia. Croatian rights were also under pressure from Vienna. In 1690, Serbian refugees were organized as the Military Border in special settlements under direct control of the state that fielded border regiments to guard against the Turks. In the period of Enlightened Despotism, the Sabor went long periods without being called, and German bureaucrats took over more administrative functions. To resist Joseph II (and later Metternich’s System) there was closer cooperation with Hungary, which eroded Croatian separateness. But two issues always separated the Croatian Sabor and the Hungarian Diet: legal supremacy and the tendency of the Diet to push the use of the Hungarian language.

Against this background, a modern Croatian national revival began. As we have seen before, a crucial element was linguistic revival. The key figure was Ljudevit Gaj, born in 1809 as the son of a lower-class apothecary of German descent: but like Kossuth, Gaj’s family had long ago taken on a new (Slav) ethnicity. Gaj attended universities in Austria and Hungary and became excited by the modern, Romantic notion of nationalism, which emphasized language, folk traditions and political liberalism instead of noble rights and medieval privileges. Gaj believed that Croats and Serbs shared a Southern Slav heritage (which he called “Illyrian”) and he promoted a common Serbo-Croatian language by publishing literary works in the “sto” dialect that was spoken by both Serbs and Croats. He was able to create a shared language, although Croats continued to use the Latin alphabet and Serbs the Cyrillic.

Gaj’s ideas attracted support from the leaders of Croatian society: nobles and Catholic priests. In 1832 a noble caused a sensation by addressing the Sabor in Croatian instead of Latin. Gaj also got permission to publish a newspaper in Croatian in 1835. Croatian nationalism soon took on an anti-Hungarian tone, a development outside Gaj’s purpose. In the 1840s the Sabor repeatedly asked the crown to separate Croatia from Hungarian administration. In 1847, the Sabor voted to adopt Croatian as the language of parliament. The Hungarian Diet responded by requiring the Sabor to use Latin, although the Diet itself had given up Latin for Hungarian. By 1848 there was a self-conscious Croatian national movement.

The Hungarian “April Laws” ignored Croatian autonomy. In response, Croatian leaders called for a distinct Triune Kingdom as a separate entity under the Habsburgs. The Habsburgs now sent a new royal Ban to Croatia, Josip Jellacic. He had been a colonel commanding Serbian troops in the military border and was a known “Illyrian” in sentiment: the Habsburgs correctly hoped that he would be an ally against Budapest. Jellacic refused to accept orders from the new Hungarian regime, set up his own ruling council and widened the franchise to elect a new Sabor in May, which endorsed his actions.

During the summer of 1848, the Habsburgs recovered most of the power they had lost to various revolutionaries. Italian separatists were beaten in battle. A Habsburg general dispersed a “Congress of Slavs” called in Prague and put down the revolution in Bohemia. These uses of force pointed to a military clash between the monarchy and the Hungarian regime.

In August 1848, Jellacic sent a Croatian army into Hungary that fought its way to the Austrian border near Vienna. In October, he prevented the Hungarians from aiding the revolutionary government in Vienna when the Habsburgs used force to end the German Liberal revolution there. Full scale war followed in 1849. Jellacic’s Croatian army backed Franz Joseph, the new emperor who replaced the mentally defective Ferdinand. In April 1849, the Diet voted to depose the Habsburg dynasty. To conquer Hungary, the Austrians had to ask for Russian help to attack the Magyars from behind. The war ended in August 1849: 114 captured officers were shot or hanged, others sent to prison, and the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 was defeated. Or was it?

After the revolution

The revolutions in Paris, Frankfurt and Vienna tended to be phenomena of the city and of narrow social groups like professionals, intellectuals and students. By contrast, the revolution in Hungary had wide support, including the county and state legislative and executive apparatus, and the armed forces . The revolutionary regimes in Paris, Prague, Vienna and Frankfurt were dispersed by a few troops: it took a year of warfare by the combined forces of Austria and Russia to end the Magyar experiment.

The divisions that hurt the Hungarian regime were based on ethnic differences, not class. The Magyarization program of the April Laws made it impossible for Croats, Serbs, Slovaks and Romanians to support those laws,and this made the minorities into handy allies for the Habsburgs. If anything, their stance strengthened the forces of Magyar national chauvinism, despite defeat in 1849.

Not every revolutionary measure could be retracted and the Habsburg regime supported some reforms to strengthen the state, as Joseph II had in the 1700s. These were:

1) To curry favor with the peasantry, the Habsburgs had already ended the remnants of serfdom by an 1848 act of the Austrian parliament. Just as in the Diet’s measure, peasants received title to some land, while landlords retained title to the remainder and received state-paid compensation for lost dues.

2) Tariffs were abolished within the empire, creating a Customs Union. This was an act of Liberal policy that ruined a few industries but helped far more. Nobles benefitted by investing the compensation received for lands lost to emancipation, and many became rich through manufactures.

3) The provincial Diets and separate regional bureaucracies were replaced by unified national institutions to curb separatism: this step also reduced the power of the nobility. The crown itself saw advantages in creating a single body that replaced the regional Diets with their special privileges, in a revival of centralism.

4) In place of historic, medieval constitutional laws, the empire embraced modern ideas of constitutional government, even if imposed from above.

Toward the Compromise of 1867

After the revolution, the Habsburg rulers experimented with four different constitutional systems. All of the schemes tried between 1849 and 1866 shared one key feature: they were efforts to rule the country without making concessions to the two groups of revolutionaries of 1848, that is, the Hungarians and the German Liberals.

After the defeat of 1849, Hungarian autonomy was abolished with the stroke of a pen. For purposes of taxation, commerce and administration, Austria and Hungary became a single centralized state. German replaced Latin or Hungarian as the language of official business. The crown sought allies among groups without revolutionary associations. These included the peasants, who emerged from 1848 grateful for their land; the “nouveau riche” made up of beneficiaries of the tariff reform, both enterprising aristocrats and urban capitalists; and harmless national minorities like the Polish nobility of Galicia, who preferred Austrian rule to that of Russia.

Unfortunately, these manipulations could not create a strong country. Because the German Liberals in the big cities were impeded, economic growth lagged behind the rest of Europe, especially growth in Germany (which was unified by force under Prussia in the 1860s). The army suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of Italian insurgents in 1859 and Prussia in 1866. The Hungarians refused to participate in the occupation and subjugation of their country: this made administration of Hungary a financial liability, and risked revolt. During the war with Prussia in 1866, plotters among the boldest Hungarian radicals tried (unsuccessfully) to negotiate with Bismarck and make an alliance against the Habsburgs.

Nor did the centralized state meet the demands of the minority Serbs, Croats, Romanians and Slovaks, who suffered the same indignities of police surveillance and autocratic rule. As a Hungarian wit remarked to a Croat: “What we received as a punishment, you received as a reward.” The Habsburg dictatorship was no better for the minorities than the Hungarian regime of the April Laws.

When Prussia defeated Austria in 1866, the crown at last came to terms with its two foes: the German Liberals and the Magyars. Both groups had altered their own goals since 1848, and this made negotiations possible. German-speaking Austrians now saw their minority neighbors as a greater enemy than the crown, especially the Bohemian Czechs who were challenging the tradition of German linguistic primacy in the courts, bureaucracy and schools. Most Germans were now ready to choose the nationalist element of the ideals of 1848, and to sacrifice the element of political Liberalism (economic Liberalism had already become a fact).

Hungarians made a similar choice, to seek Magyar national power over the ethnic minorities instead of full political independence. The Croats, Serbs, Slovaks and Romanians were minorities, but in combination they nearly equalled the number of ethnic Magyars. In return for a free hand with their ethnic minority population, Hungarian leaders agreed to leave defense and foreign policy to the Habsburgs, and also agreed to pay a proportional share of the imperial budget.

In 1867, Franz Joseph and a Hungarian delegation led by Ferenc Deak signed the “Ausgleich” or Compromise creating the dual state known as Austria-Hungary. The former revolutionaries — German and Magyar — became de facto “peoples of state”, each ruling half of a twin country united only at the top through the King-Emperor and two common Ministries for Foreign Affairs and War. Each half of the country had its own Prime Minister and parliament: in Hungary the Diet was restored to power. The special status of Transylvania and the Military Border ended. A new Nationalities Law was intended to preserve the rights of Romanians and Serbs, but was often violated in practice.

The fate of Croatia was more complicated. The Diet worked out a second compromise with the Croatian Diet. In theory this “Nagodba” of 1868 retained Croatia’s separate identity, language rights and the Sabor. In practice, the Nagodba left Croatia at the mercy of Hungary. Franz Joseph gave up the right to act in Croatian affairs: the Ban was henceforth appointed in Budapest. The most bitter point of disagreement was the status of the city of Rijeka (or Fiume) on the Adriatic, the best port for both Hungarian and Croatian exports, and claimed by both. When the Hungarian delegates brought the Nagodba to Franz Joseph for signature they adopted a simple solution to the stalemate: in place of a clause meant to explain the dispute, they pasted a scrap of paper with their own text which called for an end to Croatian rule. The Habsburgs chose never to remedy this trick.


By 1868, both the Hungarian and German programs of 1848 had been partially achieved, despite the original defeat. Residents of the Dual Monarchy enjoyed substantial civil rights and were represented by parliaments, even if those assemblies had limited power. Economic development along Liberal lines was under way. The idea of nationalism increasingly controlled Austro-Hungarian politics, not necessarily for the better. It remained to be seen how well the ambiguous legacy of 1848 would serve the empire and its future.


This lecture is a portion of a larger set of texts, Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). 

This page created 12 November 1996; last modified 11 January 2023.


Copyright 1996 by Steven W. Sowards

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