Bem's Campaign in Transylvania;
Revolutionary Consolidation and Its Contradictions

When the Austrians gained control of Transylvania, the Hungarian revolution was caught between two fires. In mid-December, in a move that was more defensive than offensive, Puchner deployed his forces toward Nagyvárad. Their advance was halted at the new defensive line established by the Hungarians, who proceeded to launch a counterattack. Kossuth, as chairman of the national defence committee, had appointed József Bem commander-in-chief of the Hungarian forces in Transylvania. General Bem may have looked older than his age, but he was only in his fifties and full of energy; he had earned his spurs in the Polish national uprising of 1831, and was known throughout Europe as the 'hero of Ostrolenka.' As an émigré, he became a professional 'freedom fighter,' ready to serve the cause of his country's independence by participating in Europe's other movements for national liberation. It was in this spirit that he undertook, in October, to lead the defence of revolutionary Vienna, and subsequently came to Hungary. On December 20, with 10,000 men and sixteen field guns, Bem launched an offensive in Transylvania. In early November, János Czetz, an accomplished military man, had estimated that it would take at least 50,000 soldiers to reconquer Transylvania; yet Bem's troops were so successful that they celebrated Christmas in liberated Kolozsvár. This was the Hungarians' first military success {3-302.} since late September, when they had routed Jellačić. The Hungarian leaders in Pest were already planning to withdraw the government and parliament to Debrecen, and to manage the war from that city in the Great Plain; now their hopes were rekindled by the news of victory in Transylvania.

By recapturing Kolozsvár, Bem split the Austrian forces in Transylvania and thus weakened the impact of their superiority in number. He liberated northern Transylvania, driving Urban's outnumbered forces to seek refuge in the Bukovina, before turning against the main enemy force, led by Puchner. Bem feinted to the south, then headed eastward to Marosvásárhely; from there, he planned to mobilize the Székelys. Puchner tried to interpose his forces but suffered defeat in the first major encounter, on January 17, at Szőkefalva, a village near Marosvásárhely. The Hungarians pressed on unopposed to Nagyszeben. There, the triumphant advance came to a sudden end; Bem's forces suffered heavy losses and had to pull back. For two weeks, the opposing armies took each other's measure. Bem had an army of no more than 6,000–7,000 men. By sending off his Székely soldiers to get reinforcements from their home region, and by dispatching sizeable forces in the direction of Déva to join up with reinforcements sent from Hungary, he reduced the main Hungarian force to some 2,500 men.

Meanwhile, with Vienna's assent, Puchner sought help from the Russian army of occupation in Wallachia. To salvage the pride of the imperial government, he forced the reluctant Romanian committee to transmit this request. At the end of December, some members of the committee charged Bishop Şaguna (long accused of harbouring pro-Hungarian sympathies) and a Saxon teacher, Gottfried Müller (who, earlier in the decade, had also professed pro-Hungarian views) with inviting Russian support for their two nations. Following the arrival in early February of a 7,000-strong Russian force, Puchner inflicted a heavy defeat on Bem's outnumbered army at Vizakna. Bem decided to pull back towards Hungary, and fought a series of battles against his pursuers until he reached {3-303.} Déva. There he joined up with the reinforcements from Hungary, which boosted his army's strength to 8,000 men.

Bem was now ready to resume the fight for Transylvania. The battle at Piski, on February 9, proved to be the bloodiest clash of the campaign; the strategic objective, a bridge over a swollen creek, changed hands several times. The encounter became the stuff of legend. Bem relentlessly urged his soldiers on with the rallying cry, 'if the bridge is lost, Transylvania is lost'; he struck down an Austrian soldier making for one of the Hungarians' field-guns; and the 11th national guard battalion, consisting mostly of students from Kolozsvár, lost between a third and a half of its men. The Austrians (according to the Hungarian version) or the Hungarians (in the Austrian version) deceptively raised a white flag, causing a melee in which the Hungarians prevailed thanks to their artillery and a charge by the Kossuth hussars. The battle ended when a shortage of ammunition forced the Austrians to pull back towards Nagyszeben. Instead of pursuing them, Bem effected a tactical surprise and slipped his army through a gap between the fortress of Gyulafehérvár and the main Austrian force. His aim remained to link up with forces in the Székelyföld, and this time he succeeded.

The news that Kolozsvár was once again in Hungarian hands came too late for the Székelyföld, where resistance collapsed in late December 1848. Facing overwhelming odds, the resistance leaders agreed with the Austrians on an armistice; the region's leaders and their officers swore allegiance to the emperor. However, the local population was inspired by Bem's successes to follow the lead of the radicals, who acclaimed the Polish general as a champion of universal freedom, and to believe that it was participating in a great crusade for liberty. The colonels stood aside; the lieutenants and corporals, who were always the core of the resistance movement, took charge of the reinvigorated struggle. Early in February, units led by Lieutenant Sándor Gál engaged a force of 2,500 Russians, and a more energetic counterattack might well have earned them victory.

{3-304.} The Székely soldiers whom Bem had sent home from the Nagyszeben area found ample reinforcements and managed to capture Medgyes; there they awaited the return of Bem, who had to repulse the offensive launched by Urban from the Bukovina before turning his attention back to Puchner. The latter inflicted a defeat on Bem at Medgyes, but he failed to capitalize on his success. As Bem pulled back towards Segesvár, Puchner's chief of staff anticipated that the Hungarians could be cut off from the Székelyföld and drawn into a trap. However, the plan backfired. The Austrians momentarily had to leave open the road from Medgyes to Nagyszeben, and they moved too slowly to outflank Bem. Puchner committed the mistake of the chess player who leaves his king undefended. Bem saw through the stratagem and performed one of boldest maneuvres of the war; turning away from his pursuers, he moved on Nagyszeben and captured the town on March 11. Within a few days, he had expelled the Russians, and Puchner as well. Czar Michael was so incensed that he wanted to dispatch 50,000 troops to Transylvania, but the 'peace party' at court managed to calm him down.[79]79. Report of Ferrière le Voyer, France's ambassador to St. Petersburg, 28 March 1849. Paris, Archives des Affaires Étrangères, Correspon-dance Politique, Russie, 203. 28. By mid-March, there were no imperial forces in Transylvania capable of launching an attack; only the fortresses of Gyulafehérvár and Déva remained in Austrian hands. Bem headed for the Banat, where, a month later, he repulsed an attack from Austrians who had regrouped in Wallachia.

Bem was generally regarded as the best of the military leaders picked by Kossuth, although some held him to be a foolhardy soldier of fortune. In fact, he never put his entire army at risk and always had an escape route planned in case of defeat. It was also said that Bem was only qualified to lead small forces, and, admittedly, he considered 4,000 to be the ideal size for an army. Given the limitations of contemporary logistics, it would have been scarcely possible to hold together a larger army for a longer period of time, and even the Austrians were reluctant to concentrate all of their forces. Even so, Puchner and Bem represented two opposing {3-305.} schools of warfare. Lázár Mészáros, the Hungarian defence minister, and a graduate of the imperial and royal military academy, noted with some surprise that 'Bem's tactics were focused on the enemy, and not on the lay of the land.'[80]80. L. Mészáros, Emlékiratai I (Budapest, 1967), p. 113. Bem professed and applied the Napoleonic principle that 'the enemy has to be defeated on foot'; he favoured mobility, while Puchner clung stubbornly to the two large Saxon towns that served as his operational bases.

Many considered Bem's successes to be purely fortuitous. They did depend on the available forces, and Bem had to adapt his tactics to their strengths, which lay more in offense than in defense. He welded his troops into a revolutionary army in which merit was the only criterion for promotion. Former professional officers and a few aristocrats with military experience were soon promoted to the rank of colonel. There were few aristocratic families of any note that did not have one or two members fighting in his army. Bem was criticized for surrounding himself with aristocrats, but his deputy was a commoner from Szamosújvár, János Czetz. One of his adjutants was the revolution's emblematic poet, Sándor Petőfi, who immortalized in verse the great moments of the Transylvanian campaign, its leader as well as its nameless heroes:

Why should we not win? We're led by Bem,
The old champion of freedom!
The bloody star of Ostrolenka
Leads us with its avenging brightness.
There he goes, the greying commander,
His beard waving like a white flag.
He is a symbol of the peace
That follows the hard-won victory.
[Mi ne győznénk? hisz Bem a vezérünk,
A szabadság régi bajnoka!
Bosszúálló fénnyel jár előttünk
Osztrolenka véres csillaga.
Ott megy ő, az ősz vezér; szakálla
Mint egy fehér zászló lengedez;
A kivívott diadal utáni
Békeségnek a jelképe ez.]

(Sándor Petőfi: Az erdélyi hadsereg [The Transylvanian Army])

Meanwhile, within a six-week period, there were two decisions taken, one at Olmütz, the other at Debrecen, which touched on the future of Transylvania. In early March, the imperial government came to believe that the Hungarian revolution had been dealt a fatal blow, and this contributed to its decision to dissolve the imperial parliament and discard the constitution that the latter had drafted in acknowledgement of popular sovereignty. The government prepared to impose, in the name of the emperor, a new constitution on a unified empire. The unity of the empire required that Transylvania become once again a separate crown province. The new, Olmütz constitution claimed as its guiding principle 'the equality of nationalities,' but it made explicit reference only to the rights of the Saxons, and this largely because of the promise made by the emperor in an earlier declaration. The rights of Hungarians, Székelys, and Saxons would have to be taken into account when time came to harmonize the imperial and provincial constitutions, but there was no indication that Vienna proposed to extend the same rights to Romanians.

The Olmütz initiative made it clear that the emperor would not negotiate with the Hungarian national movement on the basis of the 1848 constitution. This only reinforced the Hungarians' determination to preserve their independence, particularly at a time when their well-planned counter-offensive was gradually freeing the {3-307.} country from the grip of the imperial forces. On 14 April, the parliament at Debrecen endorsed Kossuth's Declaration of Independence, in terms of which the Habsburgs were stripped of the Hungarian Crown and Hungary (together with Transylvania) became a sovereign constitutional state; Kossuth was elected governor-president of the new state. Most of the liberal deputies from Transylvania, along with members of the so-called Peace Party, would have preferred to avoid dethroning the Habsburgs and to seek a compromise that preserved Hungarian constitutionalism; but, even in Transylvania, the majority of Hungarians enthusiastically endorsed Kossuth's policies, which they believed served their security and other national interests.

Kossuth looked upon Transylvania as a 'tabula rasa,' a testing ground for reconciling local autonomy with responsible, constitutional government. Although he sought to abolish all institutions that symbolized provincial autonomy, he considered it essential to make allowance for local particularities: 'To the extent that the distinctive features of [previous administrative structures in Transylvania] were dictated by the essential characteristics of the different national societies living there,' they would have to be harmonized with the Hungarian system of government. Kossuth wanted to create a new, territorially-based administrative structure, preferably without regard for ethnic or religious factors, one that ensured the predominance of Hungarians by providing a framework for their national development; in Kossuth's words, 'those higher political principles which serve the common interest as well as the Hungarian nation's progress (but not its tyranny over others) must not be overshadowed by separate or sectarian interests.'[81]81. Kossuth's order to Csányi, Debrecen, 27 January 1849, quoted in Kossuth Lajos összes munkái XIV, ed. by I. Barta (Budapest, 1953), p. 248. In the event, these recommendations did not give rise to more concrete measures, and the laws of April–July 1848 remained in force in Transylvania.

The Hungarian government continued to be represented in Transylvania by plenipotentiary national commissioners. When difficulties {3-308.} arose, Kossuth dispatched one of his most loyal associates, László Csányi. The latter had fought in the Napoleonic wars, reaching the rank of first lieutenant, then became an opposition leader in Zala County, and, in 1848, played a major role in organizing the defence against Jellačić. In Transylvania, Csányi contributed to Bem's successes by reorganizing public administration, mobilizing the Székelys, and facilitating conscription.

In a state of emergency, the military are naturally disposed to act autonomously, and thus civil-military relations became a major issue in the process of reorganization. Historians have often exaggerated the extent of disagreement between Bem and the government commissioners; in fact, their energies were not dissipated in sterile disputes, and the common interest was served even when, upon occasion, they issued instructions aimed at correcting each other's mistakes. There are no grounds for interpreting Bem's differences with the Hungarian commissioners as a conflict between the champion of national liberation and the defenders of parochial class interests. The Polish general reflected the view of the Hungarian leadership when he asserted that 'the Hungarian army is fighting for the freedom of all nations, as attested by the presence of all nationalities in our ranks, and this enshrines it as the advance-guard of national liberation in Europe.'[82]82. Bem's appeal to the inhabitants of Nagyszeben, 12 March 1849, quoted in L. Kőváry, Okmánytár, p. 158. He was confident that developments in Europe would provide him with new opportunities to fight for his own country's independence, but he did not advance a nationalities policy such as the one promoted by Czartoryski's group of Polish émigrés.

Bem refused to negotiate behind the government's back with Romanian émigrés in Wallachia, although the latter reportedly sought to obtain his support. Nor did he hew to the line set down by the Hungarian government. Bem frequently interfered in civil matters that would have required carefully concerted measures, and Csányi came to fear that the general, intoxicated by success and the devotion of his officers (who also tended to ignore civilian authorities), {3-309.} would try to impose military rule and assume dictatorial powers. In fact, Bem did whatever he deemed expedient to sustain morale and mobilize the masses. His most memorable policy initiative was an amnesty promulgated without the knowledge or consent of the Hungarian government. Bem did not take reprisals even when fleeing Romanian insurgents, acting 'out of sheer vengefulness,' put Nagyenyed to the torch, burning down its library and college, and massacred Hungarian townsfolk.[83]83. G. Bariţ, Părţi alese II (Sibiu, 1890), p. 416. He was confident that 'if we put clemency ahead of law, we shall win the respect and admiration of our most ferocious enemies and, by exercising moral suasion, turn them into friends.'[84]84. Quoted from Bem's letter to Kossuth, in Z. I. Tóth, 'Kossuth és a nemzetiségi kérdés 1848-1849-ben,' Emlékkönyv Kossuth Lajos születésének 150. évfordulójára II (Budapest, 1952), p. 322. However, if Bem felt that his generosity was repaid with ingratitude, he reacted more harshly than any law would allow. When, for instance, the Romanians in Naszód joined the offensive launched by Urban from the Bukovina, Bem irately proposed to expel them and repopulate their villages with Székelys. Csányi, who was confident of Kossuth's support, barely managed to avert this misguided and provocative reprisal. At the same time, he tried to limit the application of Bem's policy of amnesty among the Saxons; acting on behalf of the government and the national defence committee, he proclaimed a state of siege in the Szászföld.

Through the spring and summer of 1848, the Hungarian leaders had maintained an attitude of patient expectation with regard to the Saxons, but later they turned angry and hostile, blaming Saxons both for the Romanian insurgency and for the Russian intervention. 'Premature clemency is a dagger that we hand to the enemy so that he can stab us in the heart,' wrote Kossuth to Csányi, instructing the latter to set up martial courts.[85]85. Kossuth to Csányi, Debrecen, 23 April 1849, in Kossuth Lajos összes munkái XV, p. 93. The execution of Stephan Ludwig Roth was designed to serve as an exemplary deterrent. Trusting in the amnesty, the Saxon pastor had decided not to flee, and he stayed away from politics after the expulsion of Austrian troops, which effectively terminated his appoinment as Küküllő County's royal commissier for civil affairs. Moreover, he had no blood on his {3-310.} hands. The cases of those who pleaded not guilty to murder charges were referred to civilian courts, but Roth chose to plead guilty, and he thereby left the summary court no choice but to hand down a death sentence. By coincidence, a professor of law from Nagyenyed, Károly Szász, had spoken up in parliament against making martial law apply to acts committed before February 1849; parliament nevertheless endorsed the provision for retroactivity under which Roth came to be prosecuted. His execution was one of the more tragic consequences of the civil war.

In light of certain expectations and hopes on the part of Saxons, it can be concluded that the curtailment of Bem's amnesty policy was a mistake. On the other hand, the process of consolidation was facilitated by the Hungarian government's initiatives to reactivate public and judicial administration in the Saxon region and ensure a more democratic selection of deputies and officials. The election of Simon Schreiber — the Saxons' principal spokes-man in the diet during the Reform Era — as mayor of Nagyszeben helped to mitigate mistrust, as did the recognition of German as the Saxons' official language and the willingness of Mózes Berde, Csányi's deputy, to accept petitions drafted in German. The two government commissioners who were put in charge of Nagyszeben and Brassó, Berde and a professor of law from Marosvásárhely, Elek Dósa, tried to avoid taking reprisals and to compensate for the military's excesses by acting in a moderate and even-handed manner. Unfettered by censorship, the press, that important forum of Saxon public affairs, revived in both cities.

The habits acquired in the earlier years of the century also helped to stimulate a revival of public life in Brassó. Anonymous 'liberals' drew up a plan that agreed in several important respects with the bill that had been drafted the previous summer by the unification committee. Stressing that they had 'supported the Hungarian cause at a time when people like Széchenyi still entertained doubts about it,' the authors warned that Saxons would emigrate if the Szászföld's autonomous, 'liberal democratic' institutions were {3-311.} abolished.[86]86. Vorschlag zur harmonischen Einfügung der bürgerlich demokrati-schen Einrichtungen der Sachsen in die neue Staatsverfassung Ungarns. Vienna, Österreichisches Staatsarchiv, Haus-, Hof und Staatsarchiv, Nachlass Reicheinstein, Kn. 4. VI. Brassó's intelligentsia proclaimed the triumph of their ideas. The journalist Anton Kurz served as an aide-decamp to Bem. Leopold Max Moltke, the German newspaper's new editor, hailed Kossuth as 'the president of the first East-European republic.' Brassó's delegation may have been less than enthusiastic when it set off for Debrecen to deliver the pledge of allegiance of the town and its district in response to the Hungarian Declaration of Independence, but Moltke was moved by sincere revolutionary fervour when he greeted the April 14 proclamation as a major event in world history. He hoped for a new wave of revolutions that would lead to the creation of nation-states and looked forward to a Hungary where cohabiting nationalities would enjoy extensive language rights.

The Hungarian leaders were led by their historic experience and outlook and, above all, by their assessment of recent developments, to deal with the rebellious peasants in the counties in a manner different from that adopted with regard to the same problem in the Szászföld. Blaming the Austrian military and their allies for the previous autumn's counter-revolutionary initiatives, they pursued a dual policy, of reprisals against activists and amnesty for those who submitted peacefully. They wanted to restore order and property rights by applying the full force of the law against landowners and peasants alike. Labour rent, which evoked memories of socage, was proscribed by Csányi. In Hungary proper, payment in services for seigniorial lands in the possession of peasants was made illegal, but the decree concerning Transylvania took into consideration the heavy losses caused by the civil war and the unsettled situation; it allowed penurious landowners to negotiate interim arrangements with the peasants pending a final settlement of the matter by parliament. Csányi and his successors, first Károly Szentiványi, and then Dániel Boczkó (avowedly Hungarian, but held to be of Romanian origin), were determined to forestall arbitrary measures, but some landowners persisted in exploiting the ambiguous nature of the decree.

{3-312.} The process of post-revolutionary consolidation involved some measures that would prove counterproductive. One was the establishment of a large numer of summary tribunals. The other was the formation of auxiliary units to help the small standing army in the tasks of maintaining order, retrieving plundered goods, and tracking down insurgents; many of these irregular units resorted to vengeful reprisals as they moved from village to village. To be sure, there were also more edifying instances of Romanian and Hungarian peasants sheltering each other from collective punishment. Most of those who fled sought refuge in the Érc Mountains, where they lent new strength to the Romanian resistance movement. The summary courts had generated numerous abuses, and when, in summer 1849, Bem returned from the Banat, he suspended their activity. Several of Bem's battalions had a majority of Romanians and were topped up with new recruits, but, in general, he was content if the Romanians and the Saxons maintained a posture of neutrality. Alas, developments that might well have been prevented soon embittered the festering conflicts in Transylvania.