LAJOS KOSSUTH, (1802–1894)

Posted: Friday, June 5, 2009

Hungarian politician, statesman, reformer, finance minister the head of government during Hungarian uprising against the Habsburgs in 1848–49

His father, László, of Slovakian stock, was Lutheran, a lawyer by profession, representing landowners in his county of Zemplén. His mother, Karolina Weber, was German. An older sister died in childhood. Lajos had four younger sisters. In 1841 he married Terezia Meszlényi who bore him three sons and a daughter. He attended the Protestant academy Sárospatak and also studied law there, but it was only in 1824 that he obtained his law degree from University of Budapest. Unable to find a government position, he began to work for one of his father’s clients, Etelka Andrássy, with whom he was reported to have had a close relationship. He first attracted public attention with a major speech he made in the summer of 1831 on behalf of the Poles, who were then fighting a heroic battle against the Russians for their independent nationhood. In 1832 Mme. Andrássy arranged for him to serve as a deputy delegate in the national Diet at Pozsony, an assignment that somewhat relieved his narrow, confining existence. In Pozsony he established contact with various reform-minded politicians. Noting that no minutes were kept of the proceedings of the Diet, he began to write informal reports, in colorful, arresting prose. Some of his colleagues copied his reports and distributed them. His political philosophy had no clear focus, but he was oppositionist in temperament and found much to oppose in the Habsburg Empire, whose policies were still directed by the heavy-handed and stubbornly conservative KLEMENS VON METTERNICH. Kossuth’s term of service in Pozsony ended in 1836; by then his reports had attracted so much attention that the Pest County Assembly invited him to cover its proceedings as well. He published these accounts under the title Törvényhatósági Tudositások (Municipal board reports), but whereas in Pozsony he had been protected by his parliamentary immunity, in Pest he was a freelancer, responsible for what he wrote, and in 1837, after a long investigative detainment, he was sentenced to four years in prison. His “crime” was to attack feudal privilege and to speak in favor of Hungary’s constitutional independence and in defense of civil liberties. For all his liberal posturing, he was an elitist, firmly believing that his contemplated reforms could be accomplished only under the leadership of the nobility.

Amnestied in 1840, he already had a wide following. But his views also provoked criticism from conservatives and he became involved in a sharp exchange with them in articles and pamphlets. The owner of a biweekly publication Pesti Hirlap (Budapest courier) hired him as an editor. He remained a controversial figure. Apart from antagonizing the landed magnates whose prosperity depended on serf labor, he also angered Croats and other subject nationalities by advertising and defending the superiority of the Hungarian nation over them. His most notable debate was with another reformer of much more conservative bent, ISTVÁN SZÉCHENYI, who attacked Kossuth in a book, Kelet Népe (People of the East) and in articles, accusing him of carrying his people to the grave with his immoderate demands, especially for a complete break with the Habsburgs, who were too powerful to be challenged in their imperial rights. Although, as publicists and historians noted, Széchenyi spoke to the mind and Kossuth to the heart, it was the latter who commanded wider support. But as his language became more fiery, he was dismissed from the Pesti Hirlap for inciting too much controversy. He had an offer from VIENNA to put his journalistic gifts in the service of the government but that offer he refused. He became briefly fascinated with the possibilities of industrial development and sought to promote them in Hungary, with little success.

It was the revolution of 1848 that catapulted him to national, and eventually international, recognition. Elected to the national Diet in 1847, he was a leading figure in the so-called national opposition that sponsored a number of reforms, all with the ultimate goal of securing Hungary’s independence from the Habsburg Empire. The program, seemingly stillborn when it was first introduced, gained impetus when the news of the revolution in Paris reached BUDAPEST early in March 1848. Kossuth then demanded that his reform program be enacted without delay. Not only did he succeed, but he was chosen as a member of the delegation that carried the set of demands passed by the Diet to Vienna, where a terrified court fearing for its very survival accepted them. When LAJOS BATTHYÁNY formed a cabinet in April 1848 with the reformist program, he made Kossuth his finance minister. Used to controversy and glorying in it, Kossuth soon antagonized many of his fellow ministers who were not inclined to go as far as he and wanted to avoid a complete break with Vienna. However, such a break could no longer be avoided. The imperial government, facing an armed uprising in its Italian provinces, readied a force to defeat it and proposed to include Hungarians in it as well. Kossuth countenanced such inclusion only on condition that promises were made for the recognition of a measure of Hungarian independence. When the royal court refused to make such a promise, he prevailed on the Diet to reject the request for troops and at the same time to raise a national Hungarian force, on the argument, not without foundation, that the subject nationality of Croats were making ready to invade Hungary. He had a measure passed to call up 200,000 recruits and to provide for a defense fund of 2 million forints. In September 1848 he ordered the issue of Hungarian bank notes (Kossuth bankók). He also called for a national defense commission to organize the country’s defense. In that same month, during a highly successful recruitment campaign, he called the people of the Great Plains to arms to protect the achievements of the revolution. After the resignation of the Batthyány government following a Croat invasion, Kossuth was named head of the national defense commission and became the virtual dictator of the country. From this time on he devoted all his energies to the solution of the complicated political, economic, and social problems that beset his nation. Firmly opposed to the “peace party” that sought conciliation with the Habsburgs, he succeeded in rendering them ineffectual. Imperial armies were invading Hungary and the government moved to the east-central city of Debrecen. There Kossuth’s volcanic energies and his unbridled temperament determined the course taken by his government. When on December 2, 1848, the emperor “Benevolent Ferdinand” (so called because he was weak-minded and could be cited only for his good intentions) was removed and replaced by his nephew FRANCIS JOSEPH, Kossuth prevailed on the Diet to reject both the removal and the replacement. When Vienna defied him, the Diet, now called National Assembly, on April 14, 1849, announced the removal of the Hungarian crown from the House of Hapsburg. At the same time Kossuth was nominated governor president of Hungary. However, the rapid deterioration of the military situation, Russian intervention on behalf of the beleaguered Habsburgs, and conflicts within his own leadership, forced Kossuth on August 11 to resign. He transferred his powers to the military commander, Artur Görgey. Knowing that defeat was unavoidable and that the Vienna court would be unforgiving of his treason, Kossuth fled to Turkey. Both the Austrians and the Russians asked for his extradition, but the sultan, under western pressure, refused. Kossuth first lived in Vidin and Sumen, in European Turkey, but he was later exiled to Asia Minor. The American government invited him to visit and he responded, in 1851, stopping on the way in Britain. He was accorded an enthusiastic reception in both countries. From 1852 on he lived in London. He judged the conflicts among the great powers as the best way to restore Hungary’s independence. In emigration he worked out several plans toward that end. In 1859, as war between France and Austria loomed, French Emperor Napoleon III approached him with the commission to organize a Hungarian national uprising against the Habsburgs. This commission Kossuth accepted, but the plan failed when Napoleon III made a premature peace with Austria and lost interest in the Hungarian cause. From 1861 Kossuth lived in Italy and in his so-called Cassandra letter he sharply criticized the AUSGLEICH of 1867. He lived out his remaining years in Torino, Italy, in poverty, abandoned by friends and onetime supporters. When he died in 1894, at age 92, his body was returned to Hungary and interred amid national mourning.


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