Minorities Research 1.

László Szarka

The Minority Politics of the Szemere Government

The last chapter in the history of the Hungarian Revolution’s struggle for survival—which began with the dethronement of the Habsburg dynasty on April 14, 1849 and ended with the surrender at Világos—was undoubtedly a crucial period in the establishment and formation of foreign and domestic policies of sovereign Hungary. As early as Spring 1848, the Hungarian revolution already found itself at odds with the linguistic, cultural and constitutional demands of the nationality movements; in responding to these, the Hungarian revolution’s major forces displayed—if not in the form of a united front but in most questions for a considerable duration—an essentially negative attitude. On the following pages we shall try to answer two questions in connection with the topic given in the title.

 What principal changes can be detected in the Szemere government’s minorities policies in comparison to the previous phases of the revolution? [i] And how much of the changes were reflected in the Nationalities Resolution passed by the Parliament in Szeged on July 28, 1849?

 Despite all the efforts made by the prime minister newly appointed by Governor Kossuth, the Szemere Government could not clear the situation regarding the separation of the governor’s authority and the executive powers, which could be explained partly by Kossuth’s prestige and, in close connection with that, partly by the conflict between Kossuth and Görgey and the possible introduction of a dictatorship. Regardless of all that, the Szemere government—of whose members the Foreign Minister Kázmér Batthyány in Bácska, the Minister of Justice Sebő Vukovics in Temesköz, and the Minister of Transportation László Csány in Transylvania proved as commissioners, along with the Prime Minister, their unconditional loyalty and organizational talent—from the start tried to effect positive moves in questions regarding the country’s domestic affairs, defense capabilities and the consolidation of the revolution, including the minorities problems.

 Naturally, it was not as if the new government had come forward with new proposals; instead, the tentative efforts of Autumn 1848 by the Romanians and the South Slavs took rather concrete forms by Spring 1849, so the Hungarian government tried to build direct connections with the neighbouring countries involved in the nationalities problems, above else with Romania and Serbia; in other words, in the new domestic and foreign political situation brought about by the Declaration of Independence, the Hungarian government tried to coordinate the attempts for national reconciliation.

 In Spring 1849 the nationality political experiences of the revolution and the war of self-defense were worded in the most radical tone by the radical newspaper Márczius 15, as well as by Count László Teleki, Kossuth’s envoy in Paris, insofar as they demanded the country’s federalization according to nationalities to be adopted as the strategic goal of Hungarian nationality politics. [ii]

 The Hungarian government’s efforts to regulate the nationality issue in Spring 1849 were quite clearly subordinated to the consolidation of the country and of the revolution. In this regard, therefore, the necessity of the country’s internal pacification, which could no longer be postponed on account of neither the deterioration of the military situation nor the threat of Russian invasion, brought a new element in the situation. This was truthfully reflected in the Parliamentary inauguration of the Szemere government on May 2, 1849, when Szemere named the “conclusion of the work of saving the country” as the heart and soul of the extremely brief program of his government. [iii]

 The government unquestionably made tremendous efforts to realize this objective, but the growing independence of the Home Guards Generals, and above else the ambiguous relationship between the government and Governor Kossuth, considerably hindered any concerted effort. [iv] All the authors discussing this problem more or less agree on the point that Kossuth’s opinion remained the crucial factor in the question of Hungarian nationality politics all along. It seems certain that the decision to resume talks with the Serbian and Romanian representatives, as well as the increasingly obvious determination to settle the nationality issue comprehensibly, can be traced back to Kossuth. At the same time, however, the Szemere government, the cabinet meetings of which were usually chaired by Kossuth, seems to have brought some systematic handling into the political treatment of the problem. At the cabinet meeting of May 19, for example, two resolutions were passed, one about a memorandum by the Foreign Minister and the other on the authorization of the Minister of the Interior, both being aimed at the successful completion of the negotiations with the nationalities. [v]

In addition to Szemere and his Foreign Minister, Batthyány, the Minister of Culture Mihály Horváth also made consistent and methodical attempts to reach agreement in the long-drawn-out issues (in the question of the nationality’s religious freedom, etc.), and, whenever possible, to pass legislation. [vi]

Nevertheless, with regard to the nationalities’ demands focusing on territorial sovereignty, the Szemere Government was all along in agreement with Kossuth, who argued against the possibility of national autonomies in connection with General Perczel’s attempted mediation with the South Serbs as follows: “... I believe that the nation would never succumb to the dismemberment of the country’s territory either by the nationalities or in any other way—as that would be equivalent to setting our seal to the termination of Hungary’s statehood. (...) Croatia can have a Ban, and she can have a provincial Diet, as there is such a thing as Croatian territory; but there can be no Serbian Voivodeship, and no Serbian provincial Diet, as there is no Serbia in Hungary; what we do have here, dispersed within the borders of this united and indivisible country, are islands of Serb-speaking citizens, who can rightly claim that they, too, be able to enjoy all the rights, laws and liberties of the country, but since they do not have a separate province, they cannot demand the dismemberment of the country for their sake and the establishment of a separate province for themselves, which then would have, at best, the same relation to the Hungarian government as Serbia has to Constantinople. (...) Therefore, all extreme nationalist theories are either illusions or political machinations aimed at the disintegration of the unitary state. And if they come under the first category, then they cannot materialize, while if they come under the second category, then we must not allow them to take place.” [vii]

This lengthy quote from Kossuth outlines a dilemma inherent in any concept, which is willing to share the political rights only to a limited extent and is conducting nationality politics exclusively through concessions extracted by force. This dilemma is present in every state which is unwilling to accept national or minority communities within its territory as collective entities; which makes references to historical rights and administrative integrity, supremacy and the privilege to constitute a state, unable to grasp that the loyalty of minorities is best guaranteed precisely by allowing them a share in political power and by establishing the conditions of self-government for them, thus offering to the groups formerly without a statehood the chance to gradually develop loyalty to the host country.

In the last, and increasingly critical, chapter of the Hungarian revolution’s self-defense the Szemere government could hardly have turned to a principal framework other than the linguistic and cultural emancipation of Hungary’s national minorities, and the strengthening of the ethnic and linguistic character of local and county autonomies. In a memorandum circulated among the Hungarian diplomatic envoys and the military commanders of the border regions on June 10, 1849, the Foreign Minister Kázmér Batthyány stipulated only three conditions for the reconciliation with the minorities, which he would, under no circumstances, relinquish: “These principles were: a) the unitary character of the state; b) the centuries-old territorial integrity of the state; c) the Magyar element’s supremacy, which it has attained in the past millennium; on the basis of which it was constituted to form a sovereign state; and which it has sustained, while granting every civil right to Hungary’s foreign-speaking peoples, by designating the Hungarian tongue as the language of diplomacy.” [viii] In his written order to Major Imre Raksányi, Bertalan Szemere broke up this statement of principles into detailed linguistic, religious and public educational rights to be offered to the Serbs in the talks for reconciliation. Among others, he also hinted at the possibility that “in villages the language of local administration will be that spoken by the majority of the populaiton”. [ix]

In the three most critical regions inhabited by national minorities, which mostly coincided with the most important zones of military operations, only a partial solution to Kossuth’s dilemma could have been envisaged under the given circumstances and conditions. In his peace terms given to the Rumanian representative Ioan Dragos in April 1849, Kossuth only offered that, provided the Romanian insurgents laid down their weapons, they would “partake in the shared rights and shared liberties in equal measure, along with all the inhabitants of Hungary, regardless of linguistic and religious considerations”. The talks of July 14 with Balcescu, but even more so the plan for Hungarian-Rumanian reconciliation drawn up in the shadow of the impending catastrophe, amounted to a significant shift, insofar as it guaranteed, on top of recognizing Romanian nationhood, the conduct of local administration in villages, where Romanians formed a majority, in Romanian, and in counties of Romanian majority in two languages; agreed to the institution of a national assembly to manage Romanian religious, cultural and educational affairs. Briefly, these concession could have formed realistic legal grounds for a kind of cultural autonomy, which could have been complemented with significant administrational and territorial elements in counties of Romanian majority. [x] The practice of nationality politics abounding in unfortunate incidents during the dualist period proved that a Hungarian politics of such grounding would probably have offered a better chance for the national development of non-Magyar minorities, for their struggle for emancipation, and finally for the clarification of the relations between Magyars and non-Magyars and for the natural emergence of internal nationality boundaries. Of course, one cannot exclude the possibility that such a politics would have been marred by permanent conflicts between the nationalities; yet even so, it would still have brought Hungary closer to a successful internal solution of the problem, then did the abandonment of this alternative, or the belated experimenting with it in an already hopeless situation during the winter of 1918-1919.

In June 1849 the Parliament moved first from Debrecen to Pest, and from there on to Szeged. The changes in the political balance in the Parliament did not follow Kossuth’s expectation: with the deterioration of the military situation the radicals’ influence waned, and, with the support of the Peace Party and the liberal majority trying to avoid the catastrophe, the Szemere Government was able to seize the initiative in the treatment of the nationalities problem. In consequence of the Russian invasion, the settlement of the Romanian situation became the most urgent after early July, and the importance of the Serbian problem decreased. Yet, the prime minister showed enormous tact, when he steered the preparations of the nationalities bill so that all the nationalities living in Hungary benefit from it. Joining forces with Batthyány, he was able to convince the clamorous radicals and the hesitant liberals of the necessity of the nationality bill, thus being able to present a draft proposal comprised of two parts and containing effective measures. In a letter addressed to Kossuth he described the conditions prevailing in the Parliament during the days of the debate as follows: “What horrific shortsightedness and political blindness we have in the House! The champions of the Radical Party make declarations, as if we were still back in 1832 when only the Hungarians were of importance, the Serbians and the Vlachs were but plebs. Batthyány made a nice statement, and I was forced to make a strong stance in my speech, which lasted nearly one full hour, declaring that all those general platitudes, and that old-fashioned aristocratic and Hungarian concept of other peoples’ demands in a democracy, would be the cause of the nation’s downfall; and that I was washing my hands of such politics. I hope my speech has made an impression, and I was able to turn around a few views. This House ought to be placed under guardianship.” [xi] With the military situation deteriorating by the hour, the Parliament finally passed unanimously the Nationality Resolution, the preliminaries of which included the Hungarian-Romanian initiatives of Autumn 1848, Teleki’s intentions, some of Szemere’s measures taken as Minister of the Interior, the negotiations between Kossuth and Balcescu and the Szemere government’s efforts both in foreign and in domestic politics, the same way as the activities of the national communities concerned, which tried to reach a solution within Hungary.

The Nationalities Resolution passed by the Parliament in Szeged sanctioned the propositions of the Romanian and the Serbian peace plans regarding the use of language, thus permitting in those villages, where such nationalities were in majority, the use of a non-Hungarian language in the administration, in the notary’s work and in the language of command of the local Home Guard units; it also allowed the local educational institutions to choose the language of tuition, gave the Greek Orthodox Churches autonomy and guaranteed selection for public offices without regard to the mother tongue and religion of the applicants. [xii]

Szemere attached great significance to the Nationalities Resolution: “In this Resolution I envisage a new policy not only in Hungary but also in the whole of Europe. Now is the time that the foundations of the nationality issue are, and will be, laid”, he wrote to the government commissioner Lipót Fülep; then, in a circular notice to all the commissioners, he described the Resolution as a political foundation, which “provides the full guarantee of reconciliation, of a political direction that Europe will adopt, yet no government has so far given an example for it.” [xiii]

The Resolution, which was obviously born too late to have any positive impact, has received a mixed assessment by historians. Falling short of the maximum demands of the nationalities, it has often been described as an admixture. However, from the perspective of nearly a hundred and fifty years, and with the bitter experiences of the twentieth century behind us, we are probably entitled to see the Szemere Government’s efforts and the Resolution passed by the Parliament in Szeged in a more positive light. In what could only described as extremely turbulent times, the House adopted, along with the bill announcing the emancipation of the Jews, a resolution that could have been the starting point of an exemplary development amongst peaceful conditions, assuming unwavering goodwill on the part of the Hungarian political leadership, similar benevolence by the nationalities’ leaders and a mutual desire for reconciliation.

By recognizing national minorities as individual communities, the Szeged resolution became one of the most spectacular self-corrections made by the Hungarian revolution, thus securing the basic linguistic, educational and religious conditions for “the free national development for all the nationalities living within the territory of Hungary”. More precisely, with the resolution a policy was adopted by the majority, which back in Spring 1848 had still been a minority view, and which the leading politicians of the revolution had severely criticized at that time.

The perseverance of the minority dilemmas at the end of the twentieth century, along with the power demonstrations of nation-state ambitions in open disregard of every historical experience, indicate in our region that we do not incline readily to appreciate the rare historical meetings of the minds between majority and minority nations, between national communities. This is sad, considering that the best way to assuage these seemingly hopeless conflicts, and to accomplish peace between the nationalities in our region, would be to let the partial achievements and the historical precedents to emerge, like tiny coral reefs, from the sea of Central-European nationalism, so as to give room to the small oases of pacification and arbitration.



[i] The main sources discussing the Szemere government’s minority politics: I. Tóth, Zoltán: A Szemere-kormány nemzetiségi politikája. A Magyar Tudományos Akadémia Társadalmi-Történeti Tudományok Osztályának Közleményei. II. 1952. pp. 69-91. Spira, György: A nemzetiségi kérdés a negyvennyolcas forradalom Magyarországán, Budapest, 1980. Kovács, Endre: Szemben a történelemmel. A nemzetiségi kérdés a régi Magyarországon. Budapest, 1977. Arató, Endre: Az 1849. évi júliusi nemzetiségi törvény és helye Európában, Kortárs, 1975. Both, Ödön: Szemere Bertalan belügyminiszter nemzetiségi politikája 1848 nyarán)  Acta Universitatis Szegediensis. Acta  Juridica et Politica. Tom V. Fasc. 2.) Szeged, 1958. In addition to the more familiar earlier sources publications, we relied on Bertalan Szemere’s recently published work, compiled by Róbert Herman and István Pelyach, Politikai jellemrajzok a magyar szabadságharcból. Gróf Batthyány Lajos, Görgei Artúr, Kossuth Lajos . Okmánytár  (Budapest, 1990), and on Bertalan Szemere’s memoirs written in 1854: Szemere Bertalan, miniszterelnök emlékiratai az 1848-1849-i magyar kormányzat nemzetiségi politikájáról (arranged for publication by Iván Szüts) Budapest, 1941.

[ii] 1848-1849. évi iratok a nemzetiségi megbékélésrõl.   Budapest, 1948. Teleki’s frequently quoted letter of May 14, 1849 to Kossuth explains the alternative to political integrity rigidly insisting on the rejection of the nationalities’ demands: “Our other option is to surrender some of the corpus juris, and not only regarding Croatia but also vis-a-vis the Serbians and the Vlachs, and to accept the idea of the Voivodeship, granting it with all the constituent assemblies, along with internal administration, statutory rights and broadly interpreted municipal guaranties to the Vlachs, always making sure that the Hungarian and the German race should not, as far as possible, be subjected to Vlachian or Serbian jurisdiction, and on the condition that they remain in union with Hungary at the highest level of government and in the Parliament, and that the language used in the Parliament will be Hungarian. Even in the government there could be separate departments for Serbs and Vlachs. And if on top of everything else we were to declare the principle of perfect nationality with regard to public education, communal system, religion, justice and all those tongues that are allowed in counties of Slavic race, then I believe that we have laid, with regard to Hungary, the foundations of the brightest possible future...” Cf. Spira, Gy.:A nemzetiségi kérdés... pp. 93-94, 97-100. For the passage quoted, see ibid. pp. 216-217.

[iii] Szemere Bertalan Összegyüjtött Munkái. vol. VI. Szépirodalmi dolgozatok és szónoklatok. (A forradalom elõtt és után) Pest, 1870. pp. 288-290.

[iv] The conflicts between the governor and the government are well documented by Szemere’s memorandum of July 21, 1849, addressed to Kossuth: “It is you who disregard the formal rules, in practice governing with ministers, as a result of which conflicting orders are issued everyday, and ministers start to feel that if they are dispensable then they are superfluous.” Szemere Bertalan Összegyüjtött Munkái. vol. V. Levelek (1849-1862), Pest, 1870. p. 23.

[v] F. Kiss, Erzsébet (ed.) Az 1848-49. évi minisztertanácsi jegyzõkönyvek. Budapest, 1989. pp. 72-78.

[vi] In trying to hammer out an agreement, the government primarily negotiated with the nationalities’ religious leaders and, in the case of the Romanians, with MPs of Romanian nationality in the Parliament. However, Zoltán I. Tóth describes the initial moves of the government as a “superficial treatment of the nationality issue”, juxtaposing it with the preparation of the federal policies suggested by the radicals. I. Tóth, Zoltán: A Szemere kormány ... pp. 80-81.

[vii] Kossuth’s letter is quoted in: Kovács, E. Szemben a történelemmel ... ibid. p. 329. For Perczel’s initiative see: Spira, György: Történelmi Szemle. 1981.

[viii] Batthyány’s circular letter was published in Spira, Gy.: A nemzetiségi kérdés... ibid. pp. 218-221.

[ix] Szemere, Bertalan: Politikai jellemrajzok, ibid. p. 515.

[x] The Hungarian text of the peace plan was published by Spira, Gy.: A nemzetiségi kérdés... ibid. pp. 225-226.

[xi] Szemere, Bertalan: Politikai jellemrajzok... ibid. p. 173.

[xii] The text of the Nationalities Resolution was published in Spira, Gy.: A nemzetiségi kérdés... ibid. p.

[xiii] Szemere, Bertalan: Politikai jellemrajzok..., ibid. pp. 573-574.