1849: Lajos Batthyány and the 13 Martyrs of Arad

8 comments 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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1958: Imre Nagy, former Prime Minister of Hungary

5 comments June 16th, 2008 Headsman

Fifty years ago today, the onetime Hungarian Prime Minister and three others associated with the country’s shattered 1956 revolution were hanged in Budapest for treason by the Soviet-backed Hungarian government.

A moderate Communist, Imre Nagy assumed leadership of Hungary from 1953 to 1955, a period of ideological thawing after the death of Joseph Stalin.

Nagy charted a “new course” towards Austrian-style neutrality or Yugoslavian-style “national Communism” not yoked to Moscow, opposed domestically by his predecessor and rival Matyas Rakosi, who eventually ousted the reform-minded minister.

But Nagy’s anti-Soviet credentials saw him elevated back to the office by popular acclamation during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution — an interval of the nation’s history still deeply cherished in Hungary today. Here’s a recollection by newsreel montage to the strains of Beethoven’s salute to the national martyrs of another time and place.

Nagy held the office for only ten days before Soviet intervention crushed the revolution. He issued this radio appeal to the world (in Hungarian, followed by the English version at about 0:34) on November 4, 1956:


It was an appeal against all geopolitical realities; Hungary was the Soviet Union’s sphere, and western counter-intervention could have precipitated World War III. Verbal outrage abounded, of course:

But Khrushchev gibed that the United States had “supported” the revolution “in the nature of the support that the rope gives to a hanged man.”

For all that, the abortive revolution has won the benediction of history: still venerated in Hungary, and arguably a turning point in the postwar world when the Soviet Union set itself unmistakably and, eventually, fatally against the legitimate aspirations of its subjects.

Nagy’s statue in Budapest’s Martyrs’ Square. Creative Commons photo by Martin Ujlaki.

Less the leader of this stirring movement than carried along by it, Nagy nevertheless embraced the revolution fully.

His government hardly had the opportunity to implement any sort of programme, but it gestured towards multiparty parliamentary democracy. Nagy attempted to withdraw Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. And to the fame of his memory, he refused Soviet blandishments after his capture to recant and accede publicly to the new Hungarian government.

For these principles, Nagy, his defense minister Pal Maleter, and revolutionary officials Miklos Gimes and Jozsef Szilagyi underwent a weeklong trial June 9 to 15, culminating in execution on this date — all strictly hush-hush, and not announced until the bodies were cold.

Though secret, the trial was tape-recorded in its entirety. This past week, to coincide with the anniversary of the affair, the full 52 hours of audio were publicly aired for the first time — over the same June 9-15 span, and at the location of the original trial. The recordings are held by the Open Society Archives, which maintains a wealth of information on the 1956 revolution (such as, topically, this ‘death circular’ issued by anti-Soviet Hungarians). Formerly held under lock and key, the audio files are not yet published for public distribution at this point, but one would expect that it’s only a matter of time.

Nagy and his companions were officially rehabilitated and, on this date in 1989, reburied with honors; tens of thousands turned out to pay respects that had been officially prohibited for 33 years. In this chaotic period as Soviet domination of eastern Europe crumbled, their fellow-traveler Bela Kiraly (who gives a fascinating account from the inside of the Revolution in this 1996 interview) returned from exile for the reinternment ceremony and found that he was technically still under the sentence of death he had received in absentia at Nagy’s trial.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Hungary,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Revolutionaries,Ripped from the Headlines,Russia,Treason,USSR,Wrongful Executions

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