{3-425.} Danubian Confederation and the Issue of Hegemony

Noting a growing disposition to reconcile differences, and the great powers' determination to preserve the European balance, Kossuth devised a new project — one that would be acceptable to both the nationalities concerned and the great powers, and thus demonstrate that the peoples of southeastern Europe were capable of solidarity. His plan for a Danubian confederation, developed in May 1862, was the sum of ideas that had been germinating for a decade. It envisaged a federation of the 'old historical states' lying between the Carpathians, the Danube, the Black Sea, and the Adriatic, which could come about after a victorious war of liberation. The basis of a new political order would be set by the various peoples' national assemblies or by a plebiscite. The common business of the member states — foreign relations, defence, customs and commerce — would be directed by a federal authority responsible to a federal parliament. If the latter was bicameral, the chamber of deputies would be constituted in proportion to the population of the several countries, whereas all countries would have equal representation in the upper chamber — an excellent guarantee, said Kossuth, for the smaller states. The federal government would operate alternately in Pest, Bucharest, Zagreb, and Belgrade, and it would be presided over by the host country's head of state. In other respects, the parliament, judiciary, and public administration of each member-state would remain autonomous. To forestall ethnic and religious conflicts in multi-ethnic regions, the project envisaged extensive decentralization, local self-government, freedom of language and of association on the basis of nationality, and the election of national leaders. 'Even if the nations of the lower Danube succeeded in drawing together all ethnic cousins who now belong to other states, they would create, at best, second-rate states whose independence would be forever in peril and which would inevitably be vulnerable to foreign influence. But if the Hungarians, the southern Slavs, and the {3-426.} Romanians embrace the above-mentioned plan, they will become, with their 30 million people, a first-class state, rich and powerful, and one that will weigh heavily in Europe's balance.'[49]49. Lajos Kossuth, Irataim az emigráczióból III, ed. by I. Helfy, (1859-1860) (Budapest, 1882), pp. 734 ff.

In the era of the emerging nation-state, Kossuth's project promised uninhibited national development as well as great power status to a region where ethnic groups were intermingled yet keenly desirous of national autonomy. In the event, details of the project leaked out before proper groundwork could be laid. It failed to elicit significant response from the neighbouring peoples, and most Hungarian politicians dismissed it or, like Ferenc Deák, simply ignored it. The Hungarians took it to be an alternative to the prospective compromise between Austria and Hungary, and they considered that the latter offered less uncertain benefits.

Imbued with the notion that Hungary was a major power, the liberal leaders of the ideologically-dominant landowning class aspired to create an autonomous, constitutional state that would play a leading role in the region. They believed that Hungary's history and state-building traditions, along with more practical considerations, predestined Hungarians to play a special role within and beyond the country's historical borders. They therefore placed Hungarians at the top of the region's ethnic hierarchy. However, the liberal leaders also took note of external threats and of a serious and enduring contradiction between the considerable might, economic and political, of the Hungarian landowning class, and the comparatively low proportion of ethnic Hungarians in the country's population; and these considerations led them to place the Hungarians at the top of a second hierarchy, one that was not defined by nationality. Their analysis led them to the conclusion that Hungary could preserve its domains only if it was part of a greater power. This is why the quest, to find a proper place for Hungary — united with Transylvania — within the empire, came to dominate political life over the next few years.

{3-427.} Although the liberals rejected the idea of confederation, some of them were willing to offer more to the nationalities than was envisaged in the bill of the Pest diet in 1861. Ferenc Deák raised the possibility of treating Transylvania more like Croatia, by allowing it to have a separate provincial diet, which could then send delegates to the Pest diet. The Romanian politicians in Transylvania were not ready to endorse this new recipe for unification, but they might have been prepared to try it as an experiment. Transylvania's Hungarian liberals, on the other hand, feared that the scheme implied a tactical concession to Vienna, for it could turn unification into the subject of perennial and acrimonious dispute. Deák accordingly modified his proposal, put it on paper, and won the Transylvanians' assent. The terms were as follows: a new Transylvanian diet would ratify the quasi-constitutional principle, proclaimed in 1848, that laws were valid only if they respected the equality of rights and did not impede union; with this matter settled, the Pest diet could even grant Transylvania a certain degree of territorial autonomy. Deák saw little point in acknowledging the Romanians as a 'fourth nation' at a time when the 'three political nations' of Transylvania no longer had special rights, but, in order to soothe the Romanians' sensibilities, he kept open the possibility of retaining the formula and making the Romanians a fourth 'political nation.' These were considered as concessions, to be granted only if the majority of Transylvania's Romanian and Saxon politicians accepted the principle of union, and if they gave up their quest for a separate way and for the support of the Reichsrat and the Viennese government.