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1849: Lajos Batthyány and the 13 Martyrs of Arad

October 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1849, the shining lights of Hungary’s 1848 revolution met the Austrian Empire’s firing squadsexecutioners. (Correction: Most were hanged, not shot. See comments.)

Probably no polity in Europe stood more fundamentally in danger from the wave of 1848 revolutions than the Habsburg Empire. While governments would be overthrown and power renegotiated across the continent, the Austrian state’s dynastically welded hodgepodge of mingled ethnicities appeared existentially at odds with the nationalist stirrings afoot.

And none of those ethnicities answering to Vienna stirred as vigorously as the Hungarians.

The Hungarian Diet established a national government under Lajos Batthyány (English Wikipedia page | Hungarian) (or Louis Batthyani) in the spring of 1848* and soon pushed for more self-determination than Austria was prepared to countenance.

When Austrian troops turned on Hungary, the aspiring nation issued an 1849 declaration of independence full of vituperation for the ancient noble line.

[T]he house of Hapsburg-Lorraine, as perjured in the sight of God and man, has forfeited its right to the Hungarian throne …

Three hundred years have passed since the Hungarian nation, by free election, placed the house of Austria upon its throne, in accordance with stipulations made on both sides, and ratified by treaty. These three hundred years have been, for the country, a period of uninterrupted suffering.

This dynasty … which can at no epoch point to a ruler who based his power on the freedom of the people, adopted a course toward this nation from father to son, which deserves the appellation of perjury.

The house of Austria has publicly used every effort to deprive the country of its legitimate independence and constitution, designing to reduce it to a level with the other provinces long since deprived of all freedom, and to unite all in a common link of slavery.

Guess how that turned out.

Lajos Batthyany portrait by Hungarian painter Miklos Barabas.

It wasn’t much of a contest in the field, leaving this day’s doings the shooting of Batthyany at Pest (the city later merged with Buda and Obuda to form Budapest) and 13 Hungarian generals — the so-called 13 martyrs of Arad — in a Translyvanian city that is today part of Romania.

This was not, however, the last the Habsburg dynasty would hear of Hungary’s frustrated national aspirations.

Three years later, a Hungarian nationalist attempted to assassinate the youthful Emperor Franz Joseph,** and the strength of the Magyar lands’ self-determination movements would eventually drive a formal ratification of Hungarian privileges that rechristened the state as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or simply Austria-Hungary.

All that stuff we said about you Habsburgs? Bygones.

While becoming half of a dual capital opposite Vienna meant a late 19th-century renaissance for Budapest, this cure by the Empire for its internal pressures proved almost as harmful as the disease. The pressures immediately discharged would pale in comparison to the conflicts Hungarians’ now-privileged status helped provoke with Slavs and other ethnic minorities (exacerbated by Hungarians’ ability to block Austrian foreign policy). In an early preview of a now-familiar pattern, the proto-nation-state of Hungary was a nastier piece of work for its ethnic minorities than the decadent old melting-pot ruled from Vienna … and the road from this day’s executions to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise ran straight on to 1914 Sarajevo and the graveyard of Habsburg history.

As for the executions this day, Batthyany was saluted by the great Hungarian composer Franz Liszt in his Funerailles:

More prosaically and much more pervasively, a legend that Austrians were jovially toasting the death of the 13 Martyrs as they were being executed translated into a still-active tradition against clinking beer glasses in Hungary.


The Martyrs of Arad (Sixth of October) by Janos Thorma

* Hungary’s March 15 National Day derives from this period.

** Franz Joseph was no mere abstract emblem of imperial absolutism: he had assumed the Austrian throne in December 1848 upon the abdication of his feebleminded uncle specifically to free the crown from the oaths his predecessor had taken to various reforms. From the Hungarian perspective — and the declaration excerpted above dwells at length on the perfidy of this maneuver — he was installed to crush the revolution.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Austria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Habsburg Realm,Heads of State,History,Hungary,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Romania,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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4 thoughts on “1849: Lajos Batthyány and the 13 Martyrs of Arad”

  1. Gyula says:

    The excution of 13 generals took place in Arad,4 generals were shot,the remaining 9 hanged.

  2. Headsman says:

    You’re right. That should be firing squad, singular — Batthyany was shot; the 13 Martyrs were hanged. Thanks for catching that.

    Edit: Gyula’s reply is correct. Among the 13 generals, Generals Kiss, Dessewffy, Schweidel, and Lazar were executed by shooting. Generals Aulich, Nagy-Sandor, Lahner, Poltenberg, Knezich, Leiningen, Vecsey, Damjanich, and Torok were hanged.

  3. Bill Crews says:

    Stumbled upon this article. Couldn’t help but note that you say the men were shot by firing squad. In fact, they were hanged and the illustration accompanying this shows the common means of hanging (single post, short drop) in Hungary/Austria such as in this photo http://bit.ly/TwSRqI

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