Kossuth and the National Minorities Issue
In settling the national
minorities issue, Kossuth essentially adhered to the same views that were generally
held among his fellow liberals in
This was exactly how it
In 1848-1849 Kossuth tried to keep the increasingly acrimonious national conflicts within the realm of political negotiations. He envisaged to achieve this by an instrument of social organisation typical of Hungarian liberal thinking, arbitration, hoping to strike a peaceful accord between the interests of the groups effecting the bourgeois reforms, and to do likewise with regard to the various nationalities. The obstacles were enormous in both areas, and markedly so in the latter, as society was still too feudal and backward, as well as politically incoherent.
The liberal school of thinking
Kossuth adhered to gave priority to establishing the constitutional
framework first, and then turned to the task of determining the collective
rights of national minorities within that framework. Still, already the April
Laws of 1848 recognised the multicoloured nature of society, with the legislators
speaking of “home residents” regardless of social status, nationality or religion
in several places. Article VIII declares the principle of proportional taxation
“for every citizens”, “regardless of difference, equally and proportionally”.
The bill about the National Guards talks about the “citizens
of the country”, while the word “citoyen” is used in the national guards’ pledge of loyalty
to the country. In one of the most important bills, which deals with
voting rights, “electors” and “citizens” are mentioned “irrespective of religion”.
Finally, in the Pest government’s proclamation greeting the Union with
The negotiations with the political leaders of the nationalities gathered momentum after the appointment of the second responsible minister. According to the program submitted by the ministry in May 1849, the series of new laws were to start with the nationality act. This incidentally serves to prove that the government did not look upon the reconciliation with the nationalities as a tactical decision, and was searching for a peaceful solution even when it happened to hold the high ground over the nationality movements.
The act passed on July
28, 1849 (for an analysis, see László Szarka’s
essay—the ed.) was the first piece of legislation to guarantee the nationalities’
The bourgeois democratic
elements in Kossuth’s political thinking reached
full maturity in emigration. His ideological affinities are underlined by
the fact that he first expounded his budding constitutional concepts in a
letter written in 1850, addressed to the peoples of the
Nevertheless, it is widely
known that he gave a detailed account of his views in his constitutional plans.
With the help of the first one, born still in
In this, Kossuth again remained faithful to his earlier views, maintaining that the nature of the national minorities’ rights was correlated with the structure and character of the state concerned. Obviously, a liberal government would be more inclined to meet the demands of the nationalities than any other governments.
His draft constitution
of 1851 was based on the individual liberties and the political autonomy of
communities. It was within this system that he looked for a place for the
nationalities. Among the individual rights he listed freedom of thought (of
the Press), and freedom of religion and association. Provisions for the free
use of locally current languages would have been made in the framework of
village and county administration, as the language of administration would
have been decided by the locally elected representatives. All the received
languages could have been used in Parliament. However, he did not wish to
pay too much attention on the language question in his constitutional system
at the expense of the general political freedoms. As an example, he referred
The other major
exposition of Kossuth’s views on the nationalities
issue can be found in his plans for the Danubian federation. This federation would have united
Besides the principle of national sovereignty, Kossuth applied the idea of decentralisation in his draft proposal. The nationalities’ rights would have been realised in a system of autonomies constituted by villages and provinces, as the constitutional order of the planned federation, at the level of autonomies and states (without, of course, violating the historical borders!), would have been based on the free assent of the individual peoples.
Part of Kossuth’s ideas about the nationality issue remained unchanged throughout his life. All along he thought that the solution of the nationality problem “lied in these words: liberty, equality, fraternity, if such a solution existed at all.” The great powers might fling this bone of contention “among the peoples”, using the problem to “carve up the popular power that could have annihilated them, had it been able to unite in brotherly love and freedom.”
Furthermore, as he pointed out, the small nations did not stand to gain anything by accepting donations from the great powers, as “the progress of mankind ... could germinate only in freedom.”
However, his views did change somewhat on the point of political autonomy. He was moving ever closer to an acceptance of it. It was hardly a coincidence that he found the best solution of the nationalities question in the North-American system, where “the various peoples” existed in a “life of freedom”, and the state, too, functioned “in magnificent greatness, freedom”. As he put it: “This is highly educational. Aside from freedom there is no grace.”