Hungarian Resistance

The Hungarians of Transylvania suffered the most acutely from their defeat in the war of independence and from the imposition of absolutism. The liberal notion that, thanks to union, the economy could be modernized, and social problems resolved in harmony with similar measures in Hungary proper, had foundered. The partisans of this idea went into exile, languished in prisons, or lay in hiding. The liberal reformers' camp had never been well organized, {3-362.} and it was further reduced by death; Dénes Kemény passed away in 1849, and in the spring of 1850 Miklós Wesselényi, one of the pillars of the reformist opposition group in the 'two sister countries,' died in Pest at the age of 54. Fearing political demonstrations, the government temporized until the beginning of the following year before giving permission for the removal of his remains to the family vault at Zsibó. The liberal tactician, János Bethlen, 'Transylvania's Ferenc Deák,' died in 1851, and the scientist and politician Károly Szász, in 1853. The departure of these leading lights of the Hungarian national movement left the Transylvanian liberal camp with few prominent figures and little of its former autonomy. Although the remaining liberals possessed much experience in provincial politics, they were now leaderless and tended to follow the political lead of their counterparts in Hungary. This would be of little consequence in the immediate future, for only the right wing of the aristocracy retained some freedom of political action. However, certain Transylvanian aristocrats, notably Samu Jósika, played an influential part in that 'ultraconservative' group.

At first, the majority of ultraconservatives strove for reestablishment of the status quo ante. They accepted the abolition of serfdom and the equality of civil rights, but rejected other achievements of the 1848 revolution, including responsible government and the union between Hungary and Transylvania. Their readiness to collaborate aroused little interest in Vienna, for it promised more to hinder than to help the policies of centralization and modernization; in any case, Vienna was aware that the ultraconservatives lacked significant local backing. Thus the conservative aristocrats suffered a rebuff, not least in the Viennese press, which with justification branded them reactionaries; they gradually withdrew into passivity, although a few continued to serve on various committees, such as the one charged with drafting a provincial statute for Transylvania.

At first, the liberal nobility of middle landowners did not rule out the option of cooperating with the new régime. The lodestar of {3-363.} their political orientation was Pest, the Hungarian capital. Shaken by the experience of the revolutions and war for independence, Zsigmond Kemény wrote in 1850 a pamphlet, Forradalom után (After the Revolution), in which he urged Hungarians to reconcile themselves to the loss of autonomy in a centralized empire and to 'return' to the notion of peaceful liberal progress. His approach, which was far removed from that of the unprincipled servants of absolutism, found no echo. It was Ferenc Deák who, in the 1850s, defined the attitude of the middle landowners in their opposition to absolutism. Through his exemplary behaviour, he inspired a passive resistance movement, committed to the laws of 1848 and emotionally attached to the independence struggle, but one that did not constitute a wholly cohesive political community. To be sure, many middle landowners were excluded from power by their new rulers; but they themselves were most reluctant to accept public office, tried to disregard official measures, and avoided social contact with the régime's officials. The tone of this prudent attitude of rejection was set by such men as Imre Mikó, József Kemény, and Elek Jakab. For example, the authorities needed to resort to forceful persuasion in order to fill the editorship of a newspaper, and even then they could only land a second-rate, or rather third-rate, intellectual. The posture adopted by nobles and intellectuals influenced the behaviour of classes that earned little consideration, the burghers and peasants; and as the countless prosecutions for treason attest, the latter tended to give a simpler but often more radical expression to the legacy of the 1848 movement.

Of all the nations of the empire, the Hungarians had gone the farthest in 1848–49 along the road to independence; after 1849, they continued to stand out by virtue of their exceptionally tough resistance. Being the least willing to reconcile themselves to the new conditions, and seeing no chance for peaceful change, the Hungarians were slow to give up hope of relaunching their struggle for independence; they entertained even greater hopes of a foreign intervention — by the English, the French, or perhaps even the {3-364.} Turks — and fantasized about Kossuth's return at the head of liberating armies. As for Bem's return, even some of the Romanians counted on it. There were some who expected a republican uprising in southeastern Europe. More superstitious people saw signs everywhere of the impending collapse of Habsburg rule; their expectations rose if the governor's carriage happened to tip over, if the imperial coat of arms on the facade of the Kolozsvár barracks fell to the ground, or if police headquarters were struck by lightning. Rumours of impending liberation bred an optimism that made more bearable the hard years of absolutism; the same rumours prompted the bolder émigrés and politically marginalized intellectuals, burghers, and landowners, to hatch plots.

By 1850, the Hungarian, Romanian, and Polish émigrés were convinced that Transylvania was ripe for another armed uprising. Colonel József Makk and a few of his fellow officers, who had been among the last defenders of the Komárom fortress in 1849, were the first to volunteer for the organization of a revolt. In 1851, after an adventurous journey marked by captures and escapes, they met with Kossuth in Turkey and secured his assent.

One of the Hungarian émigrés' secret centres was established by Makk in the summer of 1851, in Bucharest. With the support of Romanian émigrés, he dispatched his agents to Transylvania, where their attempts at organizing resistance was most successful in the Székelyföld. In the fashion of the time, the conspiratorial network was modeled on the 'seasonal system' of the Italian nationalist Mazzini. They divided the Hungarian crown's territories into twelve 'months' (Székelyföld stood for the twelfth month), each with a leader. The 'months' were made up of 'weeks' (counties and széks), which were divided into 'days' (municipalities); then came 'hours,' and even 'minutes' and 'seconds,' the last two indicating the foot-soldiers of the anticipated uprising. Members of this network knew only their immediate superior, and therefore felt secure. The Székelyföld organization, designed to serve as a bridgehead, {3-365.} was the work of János Török, a teacher at the Marosvásárhely Protestant college. This committed revolutionary put in charge of the four Székely széks the abbot Ignác Veres, the landowners Mihály Bíró and Károly Horváth, and the lawyer Mihály Gálfi. Similar initiatives were taken in Kolozsvár as well. The movement included women in its ranks, and, in keeping with contemporary attitudes, their separate version of the 'seasonal system' was called the 'flower organization,' encompassing a hierarchy of 'wreaths,' 'bunches,' 'flowers,' and 'petals.' The initial objective was to train, in the mountains, some 4,000–5,000 insurgents, who would then conduct guerrilla warfare to liquidate the local imperial authorities and disarm the garrison troops. In the next phase, civil servants who had survived the 1848 revolution would take over local administration while former national guard officers organized a popular army. In the autumn of 1851, when the underground movement already counted several hundred members, a group of trainees travelled to Balavásár, there to hold a conference under cover of the famous vine harvest festival; little did they suspect that they had been betrayed, and that the Austrian police was already hot on their tracks.

The organization's military leader was Sándor Gál. His strategy, developed in London, anticipated the continent-wide outbreak of revolution ('the European eruption') in 1852. At that moment, the Székelys (supplied with arms from Moldavia) would rise up, followed, it was hoped, by the Romanians; they were to seize Nagyszeben and Gyulafehérvár, thereby taking effective control of Transylvania. Since that region was 'created by nature in the shape of a fortress,' it could be defended for a longer period if necessary; but the plan was to proceed from Transylvania and liberate central Hungary. Another branch of the organization tried to win recruits among the Hungarian soldiers serving in the empire's western provinces. There, however, the conspirators ran into greater difficulties, and they suffered arrests and executions in late 1851 and {3-366.} early 1852. Then on New Year's Eve, 1852, at the request of the Austrian consul, the police raided Makk's hideout in Bucharest; Makk managed to escape, but his documents fell into Austrian hands. The imperial authorities launched the systematic liquidation of the conspiracy. On January 24, 1852, arrests began in Transylvania. More than sixty people, including some women, were imprisoned. After the interrogations and investigation, which spanned two years, Török, Gálfi, and Horváth were sentenced to death and executed at Marosvásárhely. A fifty-man guerrilla unit had been formed to liberate the condemned, but the Austrians captured its leader, the national guard lieutenant József Váradi, and twelve of his accomplices in Csík. They received the death sentence, which for eight of them was commuted to detention in a fortress. Sixty other members of the movement were similarly punished — five to ten years hard labour in Austrian prisons, 'a fate more appalling than that of galley-slaves, and one which, within a few weeks, turned Viennese students, who had been jailed for their political principles, into grey-faced, stooping, dim-sighted human wrecks.'[14]14. Világostól Josephstadtig. 1849-1856, ed. by I. Balassa from the fragments of János Földy's diary (Budapest, 1939), p. 182.

With the liquidation of the Székely plot, the Habsburg empire's most important resistance movement, the great era of conspiracies came to an end, although this type of opposition did not disappear entirely in Hungary. Henceforth, the struggle against absolutism could only be conducted on a higher level, that of politics. This was a step in the right direction, but it incurred heavy costs. Leadership of the resistance slipped from the hands of the plebeian democratic elements, who had played a central role in the conspiracies, and into those of the liberal landowners. It was the latter who controlled communications with the Hungarian émigrés, and especially with their leader, Kossuth; it was they who reached a tenuous understanding with the conservatives and reverted to traditional methods of resistance, using cultural, economic, and other associations as the framework for their political activity.

{3-367.} In the first great period of national awakening, cultural and economic initiatives served to accelerate the process of nation-building that culminated in the Reform Era. The resulting institutions became an integral part of political life, and the activities that had produced them acquired an explicitly political dimension. When, after 1848, political life was paralysed, economic activities and cultural institutions once again served a tacit and covert political function, by providing an organizational framework for opposition activities. After serving at the turn of the century as the progenitors of a national liberation movement, they became the vehicles of a rear-guard action.

Count Imre Mikó, commonly regarded as 'Transylvania's Széchenyi,' took the lead in these cultural and economic endeavours. A moderate, liberal aristocrat, he was the last distinguished representative of this tendency, and by 1852 he had managed to allay the government's suspicions. After being Germanized for a year, the Kolozsvár national theatre once again put on plays in Hungarian; donations from aristocrats, who had been mobilized by Mikó, and from burghers who followed their lead, saved the theatre from bankruptcy and financed the award of prizes. It was Imre Mikó who, in 1855, revived the ten-year-old project for a Transylvanian Museum. His prestige persuaded landowners and burghers to support the establishment of the Museum Society, which eventually grew into a major cultural force. He donated money, supplies, and his summer residence and park in Kolozsvár to the Museum Society. His example was followed: donations came from all over the province, in the form of money, documents, and exhibition material, including the Kemény collection, which was to form the core of the museum. Mikó, László Tisza, and Sándor Huszár were the moving spirits behind the Transylvanian Economic Society. This new institution tried to invigorate economic activity and the modernization of agriculture and industry through field research, exhibitions, and the dissemination of new techniques, as well as by {3-368.} publicizing individual achievements and joint efforts. One measure of the Economic Society's success was the growth in its annual budget, from 500 forints in 1854 to 38,000 in 1860.

The times were marked by a variety of political and cultural events. One was the Transylvanian tour in 1853 of Mór Jókai, who basked everywhere in the affection due to a great author and one of the March Youth. Other events that contemporaries considered noteworthy included a horse race, the nationwide commemorations of Kazinczy in 1859 (which set a good example of Hungarian–Romanian–Saxon friendship), the visit to Kolozsvár of a delegation from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and the performances of the touring violin virtuoso Ede Reményi. Such festive occasions were interwoven with the then fashionable social evenings and banquets of the moneyed classes, and particularly of the middle land-owners. Politically silenced, and condemned to a certain immobility, they found compensation in such activities. For the latter served other, important functions: to link older and younger generations of patriots and sustain their readiness for political action, and thereby to assure the social reproduction of the Hungarian political elite in Transylvania. These glittering social events reminded the government that although the political opposition was prevented from playing an organized role, it continued to exist.