Transylvania and the Liberal Experiment in Centralization

Within a few months, the conservatives' federalist attempt, embodied in the October Diploma, to save the empire had ended in failure. For the Austro–German bourgeoisie and the central bureaucracy, federalism and concessions to the provinces represented a fatal danger to the empire's unity as well as to their own power. The reform of the conservative political and administrative system aroused much resentment, but in Hungary the emerging structure turned out to be of the greatest use to the opposition. This was also evident in Transylvania, where the Hungarian liberals muted their criticism out of respect for Kemény and Mikó, who were moving closer to the unionists; as János Bethlen wrote at the time, 'we should not make it impossible for these gentlemen to reorganize the administration.'[38]38. Korunk, 18 December 1860. Eötvös put it even more clearly: 'Whoever may be chancellor, it is absolutely essential that we support him and stand by him until the principle of union is entrenched.' Eötvös's letter to Imre Mikó, 29 October 1860, in József Eötvös, Levelek, ed. by A. Oltványi (Budapest, 1976), p. 325. Even before the new system became operational, its authority was already being undermined by the nationalistic {3-412.} demonstrations of Hungarians and Romanians, by open tax evasion, and by social tensions that were most evident in the case of Romanian peasants, who frequently resorted to occupying woods and pastures.

On 14 December 1860, the emperor appointed a new minister of state, Anton von Schmerling. This liberal-minded representative of the Austrian upper bourgeoisie wanted to use the tools of absolutism to create a limited form of liberal parliamentarianism. He personified the next phase in the attempts to rescue the Habsburg empire, the era of constitutional centralism.

The February Patent, issued on 26 February 1861, was a centralist reinterpretation of the October Diploma. It granted the empire a 'constitution,' once again eternal and permanent. Declared the emperor by way of introduction: 'We hereby irrevocably commit our successors to observe and maintain' the constitution.[39]39. Okmánytár, pp. 129-30. Although this constitution, too, was imposed from above, there is no question but that it served as the foundation of liberal parliamentarianism in the purely Austrian part of the empire. Whereas the October Diploma had made concessions to regional autonomy, the new government program aimed at centralization. The Austro–German bourgeoisie was granted the right to participate in legislative activity, though less than what it had been promised in 1849 by the Olmütz Constitution. The modern-style, bicameral parliament consisted of a house of lords and a house of representatives, or Reichsrat. The members of the latter, 343 in number, were delegates from the parliaments of the constituent countries. Hungary was entitled to send 85 delegates, Transylvania 26, and Croatia, nine. The Reichsrat's sphere of authority encompassed taxation, conscription, financial and commercial affairs, and control of the budget. The letters patent made no reference to ministerial responsibility, electoral immunity, or ministerial concurrence with the ruler's decrees. The house could not even elect its own chairman or vice-chairman, and it could be dissolved or prorogued {3-413.} at will by the emperor. Anticipating Hungarian resistance, the emperor established a separate forum for the historic provinces, the 'restricted imperial council.'

Certain provisions of the letters patent reflect the pessimism of Austria's liberal statesmen regarding the chances of an accord with Hungarian liberals; as Schmerling observed a few days earlier, 'experience shows that whether Hungary is cajoled, or whether she is offended, the results will be the same.'[40]40. Gy. Szabad, Forradalom és kiegyezés válaszútján (1860-1861) (Budapest, 1967), p. 259. The typically 'rebellious provinces," that is, Venice, Hungary, and Transylvania, were under-represented in the Reichsrat in terms of their size and population, and they received disproportionately few places in the upper house as well. Hungary's constitutional autonomy was also seriously pre-judiced by the disposition that the sovereign could bypass the provincial diet and directly appoint delegates to the Reichsrat; should the necessity arise, he was free to govern — ostensibly according to liberal principles — without convoking the Hungarian diet. Thus the February Patent was of itself a cause of grievance. Previously, it was the dynasty that had ruled, with absolutistic methods; the February Patent inaugurated the quasi-constitutional rule of the emperor and the Austro–German bourgeoisie, with the Reichsrat as one of their principal instruments.

Understandably, this reform — which Francis Joseph and his ministers had agreed would be the final concession — was received in Hungary with great hostility. Deák initially saw no alternative to fierce opposition, observing that 'the only path left for our nation is that of revolution.'[41]41. Ibid, p. 263. The Romanians also showed little enthusiasm, although they were reassured by the confirmation of Transylvania's autonomy. On the other hand, the Saxon newspapers in Nagyszeben once again tantalized their readers with visions of a united 'Great Austria' and of a Sachsenland directly subordinated to the central government in Vienna.

When it was convened in April 1861, the Hungarian parliament took a stand for implementation of the 1848 laws, thus making {3-414.} clear its preference for the restoration — or creation — of a modern Hungarian state that was fully autonomous with regard to its domestic affairs. Accordingly, it insisted that the elected representatives of Transylvania and Croatia participate in its work. This wish was not fulfilled, and it made little difference that a Transylvanian liberal, László Tisza, was elected to represent a district in Hungary, or that Domokos Teleki and Bishop Lajos Haynald could speak in the upper house in support of union. There were four Romanians in the upper house, and the ethnically-mixed regions — the Banat, Arad, Bihar, Szatmár, and Máramaros — sent nineteen Romanians to the national assembly in Pest; they were scattered according to their political preferences among the major parliamentary parties, but at the same time formed a separate faction. They tried to advance the interests of the minorities primarily through agreement with the Hungarian political forces. The Romanian delegates denounced absolutism and believed that the formation of a coalition against Vienna's centralizing policies would be the most effective step toward a solution of the nationality problem (which one of the delegates, Vlad, called the 'Achilles heel'). These positions were not shared by their fellow politicians in Transylvania, who silently disapproved of their action.

All shades of liberals in the Pest Parliament agreed that the demand for application of the rights enacted in 1848 was fully justified; they knew that this was the way to neutralize one of the important weapons of the centralist circles. They refrained from making irresponsible promises. At the same time, their vague assurances, that nationality demands which did not threaten the country's integrity would be satisfied, lacked the guarantees that might have made them plausible. Coincidentally, one of the most ardent partisans of nationality rights disappeared from the political scene: László Teleki, recently returned from emigration, committed suicide. When Deák delivered his famous address on the fundamental principles of Hungarian liberalism, he included — in the interest of {3-415.} creating a united front — a reference to the urgency of the nationality problem. Eötvös, for his part, formed a parliamentary committee that was charged with drafting a bill on nationalities. The committee had twenty-seven members, drawn from Deák's and Tisza's parties, and including twelve non-Hungarians. The draft bill, reported by the committee in August 1861, reaffirmed a fundamental principle that politicians in Hungary had espoused before and would continue to profess: 'In political terms, Hungary's citizens, whatever their language, constitute one nation, united and indivisible in accordance with the historic concept of the Hungarian state.' At the same time, the bill made clear that Hungarians, Slovaks, Romanians, Serbs, Germans, and Ruthenes 'were to be regarded as nationalities with equal rights,' whose particular national interests could be promoted without hindrance, as guaranteed by individual rights and freedom of association.[42]42. Quoted in ibid, p. 553. The committee recommended that university chairs be established for minority languages and literatures, that the minorities be given free rein to organize their own schools, and that minority churches be allowed to preserve their self-governing autonomy. It proposed that Hungarian be the language of central state administration, but also that there be no restrictions on language in counties and municipalities, and that minority counties and municipalities be allowed to correspond with one another, and publish official documents, in their own language. The committee also made sure that the bill would formally invalidate the already dormant Transylvanian regulations detrimental to Romanians. In a separate motion, two Romanian members of the committee, Vlad and Popovici, endorsed the concept of a Hungarian political nation but qualified it by emphasizing each nationality's individuality and specific features; they also recommended that in each county and municipality, the mother tongue of the majority become the official language, and that local administration be modified on the same basis. Their proposal seemed to lead to a separate federation of national regions.

{3-416.} The proposal of the parliamentary committee might have been reasonable and fair, but it did not satisfy the minorities' leaders, whose political awareness was growing rapidly. Later on, the permanently exiled Kossuth reflected that these concessions had been catastrophically inadequate. In the event, the bill could not be enacted by the national assembly, for the session was cut short. Francis Joseph and Schmerling dissolved parliament on the grounds that it had rejected the centralist principles of the February Patent and thus refused to bow to the sovereign's will. The assembly insisted upon the validity of all the 1848 laws, adopting a tactic that Deák formulated as follows: 'The nation will endure in order to save for posterity the constitutional freedom it inherited from its ancestors ... for what force and power take away, time and good luck may bring back, but what a nation renounces out of fear of suffering, may not be recovered easily, or at all.'[43]43. Deák Ferencz beszédei III, ed. by M. Kónyi (Budapest, 1889), p. 198.

August 22, when the royal commissioner, Count Ferenc Haller, conveyed the dissolution order to the presidents of the Pest Parliament, it had become clear that in the context of Schmerling's centralist experiment, the focus of policy regarding Hungarians would shift to Transylvania.