Minorities Research 1.

János Veliky

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 Europe. He was of the opinion that in this area, too, progress had to be based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. In the pre-revolution phase of his political career, during the early 1840s, his proposals for a solution followed more closely from the French concept of nation, as he wished to preserve Hungarian supremacy in a relatively broad area. Later on, however, he discovered—exhibiting a liberal political sensitivity characteristic of his personality—the theoretical contradictions and political pitfalls inherent in his approach. His thinking in this regard was deeply influenced by the political and social lessons of the 1848 revolution and war of liberation: he came to realise that the liberal ideas tended to elicit a feeling of solidarity among peoples and politicians, while the stirrings of national consciousness that accompanied them tended to separate, a fact that could readily be exploited by the enemy to both: absolutism with its policies aimed at dividing people.

 This was exactly how it happened in Hungary in 1848-1849. The leading members of the Hungarian cabinet of a liberal majority (including Kossuth) tried to push through the bourgeois reforms within the framework of historical Hungary; this was staunchly resisted by the imperial government of the Habsburg monarchy, as the latter could accept neither the complete changeover to constitutionalism, nor the introduction of a national and bourgeois establishment. Therefore, in addition to the use of military force, it also tried to exploit the emerging national conflicts.

 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 Transylvania, issued on June 14, 1848, the ministers announced that in the area of nationalities politics the government would “forever confess to, believe in, and apply the sacred principles of liberty, equality and fraternity with regard to peoples of all languages and religions.”

 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’ rights in Central Europe. It was born in a European situation, when, in the age of revolutions, the more powerful nations strove to achieve full sovereignty, often accompanied by the subjugation of the alien elements in them. In a true liberal spirit, this act acknowledged the national and linguistic diversity within Hungary, and was willing to go all the way up to the point where it was still reconcilable with the principle of historical Hungary’s statehood. It abandoned its former position based on the French notion of a national state, and made an attempt to regulate the peaceful co-existence of several nationalities within a single state.

 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 United States. In this he declared that the relationship between a majority nation and the national minorities can best be regulated within the framework of a confederation.

 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 1851 in Kutahya, Turkey, Kossuth wished to integrate the Hungarian emigration into the political process, in the course of which several emigrant groups (Polish, Romanian) pushed for a federal re-organization of Central Europe. By contrast, his proposal entitled the Dunai Szövetség (Danubian Federation, 1862)—drawn up more or less in the same spirit—tried to offer an anti-Habsburg political alternative to the nations of Central Europe.

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 to the U. S. A., where freedom united various peoples, yet the state as a whole also progressed.

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 Hungary, Transylvania, Croatia, the Romanian and the Serbian principalities and possibly the other South Slavic territories. In this way, within a single state (of loosely associated parts), almost all the factors interested in solving the region’s ethnic and national conflicts would have been co-operating. Without questioning the difficulties inherent in such a construction, this would have had undoubted advantages.

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.”