A Counterfactual History of Hungary, 1914–1919*

Alternative or counterfactual history is not merely fiction or wishful thinking. According to E. H. Carr in his seminal What is History? (1961), the historian’s task is to ‘explain why one course was eventually chosen rather than another’. But while he—like so many other historians—dismissed the study of alternatives as a ‘parlour game’, others followed Hugh Trevor-Roper, who said in his valedictory lecture at Oxford in 1980: ‘At any given moment in history there are real alternatives. […] History is not merely what happened. It is what happened in the context of what might have happened. Therefore it must incorporate, as a necessary element, the alternatives, the might-have-beens.’1 And more recently Niall Ferguson reinforced that view: ‘By narrowing down the historical alternatives we consider to those which are plausible’, counterfactual scenarios are ‘simulations based on calculations about the relative probability of plausible outcomes …’2

Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria–Hungary (1863–1914), was a controversial person in many ways. The ‘foremost authority in the Western world on the history of the Danubian region’,3 C. A. Macartney, considered the archduke ‘an extreme Catholic’, ‘a black reactionary’ with ‘a real loathing of the Magyars, or at least, of their politicians’, but it is mistake to think that he had ‘any sympathy for any of the Slav peoples, except perhaps the Croats, whom he appreciated for their military qualities, their Catholicism, and, above all, their antagonism to the Magyars, which tended to endear the Roumanians to him’.4 What is certain is that Franz Ferdinand, upon succeeding his uncle, was determined to change the internal structure of the Monarchy, trying to make it a more centralized Grossösterreich, to the detriment of the Hungarians, relying on the German and Slavic element. It is intriguing to consider how he would have fared had he outlived Emperor-King Franz Joseph.

* The present essay is a sequel to my book, Lost Prestige. Hungary’s Changing Image in Britain 1894– 1918 (Reno, NV: Helena History Press, 2020). It is a shortened version of the 9th chapter in the 3rd Hungarian edition of the original Az elveszett presztízs (Budapest: Fekete Sas Kiadó, 2020).

The assassination of the heir on 28 June 1914 in the Bosnian capital is a perfect starting point for any appraisal of whether the First World War was really inevitable. The immediate cause, of course, was the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia, which was turned down on the advice of the Russian tsar, encouraged by France. Having won two wars, in 1912 and 1913 respectively, and having doubled its territory, the small Balkan kingdom was in a nationalistic fervour, and hoped to acquire the province of Bosnia–Herzegovina from Austria–Hungary. Parts of Hungary were also coveted by expansionist Serbs. A group of young radical Bosnian Serbs hoped to achieve that by killing a high personage, and thus provoking a military conflict, which, if sufficiently all-encompassing, might lead to the defeat of the Dual Monarchy.

Franz Ferdinand was attending military manoeuvres in Bosnia, which was meant to impress the South Slavs. Assassins, provided with weapons by the secret Serbian society called the ‘Black Hand’, were waiting for him in Sarajevo. The first attempt on the life of the archduke failed, and it was only due to a wrong turn later in the day that his open car did not follow the route planned. It stopped just in front of the café where Gavrilo Princip, one of the conspirators, was brooding over the ill luck of his friends, who had missed their target. If the heir to the throne had returned unharmed from his Balkan tour, there would have been no cause for a confrontation with Serbia. As such, an international diplomatic crisis would not have commenced in July, Germany would not have seen a good opportunity to teach France and Russia, the guarantors of Serbia, a lesson, no ultimatum would have been sent from Vienna to Belgrade, and the Great War would not have broken out, or at least not in 1914. Some historians, largely but not exclusively of a Marxist persuasion, believe that the rivalries between the imperialist powers of the early 1900s were bound to come to a breaking point, but that is not the case. No doubt, France had been dreaming about revanche since 1871 but did not dare start a war against a far stronger Germany, even after it had signed an alliance with Russia in 1893, and had resolved its colonial conflict with Britain in the entente cordiale of 1904. Instead, France financed the construction of strategic railways in Russia, in order to help speed up its mobilization potential in a war. The new lines were to be completed by 1917. That would have ruined Germany’s strategic plan to win two wars with one army: to defeat France in six weeks, before the tsar’s vast armies were ready to invade Germany, and then to turn against Russia with the entirety of its victorious army. The French scheme was bound to temper the warlike mood of the Kaiser and his generals. Of course, the increasing economic and military strength of Germany, especially the ambition of Emperor William II to make his navy as strong as that of his late grandmother, Queen Victoria, seriously worried the British. Even more alarming was Germany’s rapprochement with the Islamic world, and the plan to construct the Berlin–Baghdad railway. But in 1914 there was a thaw in British–German relations; they agreed to divide the colonies of Portugal between themselves if that country were to go bankrupt. King George V and Emperor William II were first cousins, and were in regular correspondence with one another (and with Tsar Nicolas II, whose wife, Alexandra was also their cousin) in English. These three rulers were really not eager to start a war against each other, thus risking their thrones.

Although Serbia, the victor in the last two Balkan wars, was in a nationalistic frenzy and hoped to further increase its territory, its king, Petar, did not underrate the military strength of the Dual Monarchy, and knew that his patron, Russia, would not support an unprovoked attack on Austria–Hungary. Sazonov, Russia’s nationalist foreign minister, was indeed courting Romania, aware of its dreams of acquiring Transylvania from Hungary, but his tsar’s visit to Constanța in June 1914, and his own short visit to the coveted province, served as a warning to Berlin and Vienna that Romania no longer needed them as protectors against Russia. There were indeed many tensions in the bipolar Europe of 1914, and military spending continued to rise, but no country, not even Germany, was determined to start a war. Britain was a contented power, so its Liberal government was keen to preserve peace and the status quo. Russia’s deeply religious Nicholas II initiated the two conferences in The Hague (1899, 1907), where international agreements were concluded on the rules of warfare, so as to discourage war. The tsar, remembering the turmoil and revolt that followed the 1904–1905 war with Japan, which Russia had lost, felt that another armed conflict might cost him his throne. In sum, it can be safely stated that if Archduke Franz Ferdinand had returned safely from Sarajevo, the diplomatic crisis of July 1914 would not have taken place, therefore a general European war would not have broken out at that time, and was unlikely to happen within the next few years.

In Hungary, the political cards were in Prime Minister Tisza’s hand.5 With universal (manhood) suffrage having been introduced in the Austrian half of the Monarchy in 1905, the reform of the outdated Hungarian electoral law (which went back to 1848) was inevitable. In principle, Tisza was ready to move towards it, but argued that it would only be possible after advances in education, the spreading of responsibility for public affairs, and ‘the school of self-government’. During the 1910 electoral campaign, in the town of Arad, he warned: ‘The parliamentary form of government can serve the cause of progress, enlightenment, freedom, and national greatness, if power is in the hands of the intellectual elite of the nation. The right to vote is not a birthright, but a mandate from the state, given to those who are worthy of it.’6

Reconciliation with the non-Hungarian nationalities was more difficult. Many foreign observers, as well as a minority in the Hungarian political class, urged emancipation and real equality for that half of the population whose mother tongue and identity were different from the Magyars. In the liberal era following the 1867 settlement, the economic strength and national consciousness of the national minorities increased visibly; they demanded a greater voice both in local and in national politics, and parliamentary representation commensurate with their proportion in the population. Oszkár Jászi, the renowned writer on social and political questions,7 expressed what he called a minimum for all national groups: ‘good schools, good public administration and a fair judiciary for the people—in their own language’.8 (That is the aim of historical national minorities even today, all over the world.)

Tisza was well aware that Hungary was unable to confront the Habsburg dynasty, the German and Slavic peoples of the Monarchy, and the neighbouring states simultaneously. His opponents, particularly the Party of Independence (who were seeking not total separation, but a looser personal union with Austria) did not grasp this elementary consideration. The prime minister restored constitutional government in the autonomous province of Croatia in 1913, and this gesture was appreciated by the majority in the Sabor, the regional Parliament. It is a pity that the Hungarian political class did not endorse the idea of the ‘Triune Kingdom’, the unification of Croatia, Slavonia, and Dalmatia, eventually also with Istria, which was the desire of most Croats. That would have been a powerful antidote to the programme of Southern Slavic unity—a linguistic region in which history, religion, and culture showed profound differences. Tisza also made several attempts to placate the Romanians of Hungary, who constituted the largest and strongest national minority. Their leaders, however, expected to receive more from the heir to the throne when once he succeeded Franz Joseph, the 84-year-old monarch.

The death of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo was, as we have seen, a chance event which might easily not have happened. Based on real plans, hopes, tendencies, and events, knowing the thinking and using some of the documents of the main political players of the times, in the following I present a fictitious course of events in Hungary between 1914 and 1919: what could have happened if war had not intervened.9

* * *

The parliamentary opposition could not forgive Tisza for having his Army Bill passed in 1912 by infringing the standing orders of the Parliament, and having the more unruly parliamentarians evicted by force. Mihály Károlyi,10 who took over the leadership of the Party of Independence from the son of Lajos Kossuth,11 started to think of a new foreign political orientation, replacing exclusive reliance on Germany. Having visited St Petersburg, he sailed for the United States in the summer of 1914 to carry out political propaganda among the one million Hungarian immigrants, to whom the appeal of a mere personal union with Austria (‘the kingdoms and lands represented in the Reichsrat’) was strong. Tisza, the prime minister, made a new effort to come to an agreement with the leaders of the three-million-strong Romanian minority, who made up 56 per cent of the population in the eastern part of Hungary, including the historical province of Transylvania. He instructed the főispáns [an administrative office comparable to that of lord lieutenant in contemporary Britain] of the counties not to object to the use of the Romanian national colours (blue, yellow, and red), and the singing of the song ‘Wake up, Romanian!’ in public. He offered not to contest the Romanian candidates in about 50 constituencies inhabited principally by this minority. The revision of the controversial education law (the ‘lex Apponyi’) was also envisaged. The Romanians in turn requested a separate Romanian school system, a university with Romanian as the language of instruction, and also a Romanian portfolio in the government, on the model of the Croatian Minister.12 Tisza’s answer was that ‘the Hungarian stomach’ needed more time to digest all that, but his present offer may be expanded if the Romanians were ready to accept such an arrangement as final. Seton-Watson13 in the Spectator called it a step in the right direction, but warned that a similar agreement would be needed with the Slovaks and Serbs as well. The result should be, he added, a Hungary where the Magyars are primus inter pares, first among equals, and all the national minorities enjoy cultural autonomy, with extended rights for the use of their language and their own school system.

The 1915 national elections were held according to the law passed in 1913. That doubled the number of voters, but maintained the requirement to hold property or have an educational qualification (secondary school certificate). Tisza’s National Party of Work (Nemzeti Munkapárt) held its absolute majority, with 58 per cent of the 435 seats. Károlyi’s reunited Party of Independence obtained 101 seats, the national minorities 24 (sixteen Romanians, six Slovaks and two Serbs), but six Romanians, five Transylvanian Saxon, three Slovaks and a Serb were elected on the government party’s ticket. The Catholic People’s Party went from 13 to 21 seats, and the rest went to parties who were entering parliament for the first time: Peasants, Christian Socialists, Social Democrats, and Oszkár Jászi’s Radical Party. Wickham Steed, now foreign editor of The Times, gave his customary unsolicited advice to Tisza to go back to his liberal programme of 1905, and to conclude an agreement with all the national minorities. With that accomplished, the Hungarians would have nothing to fear from introducing universal suffrage, and Hungary would be stronger than ever.

Franz Ferdinand was the hope of the Slavs and the Romanians of the Monarchy. It was rumoured that the archduke endorsed the Romanian Aurel Popovici’s plan for Die Vereinigte Staaten von Groß-Österreich (the United States of Greater Austria), to divide the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy into fifteen autonomous regions.

Others assumed that the future ruler would prefer to transform ‘Dualism’ into ‘Trialism’ by creating a Slav unit as well. What is certain is that in the ‘Workshop’ of the heir to the throne—his administration in waiting, located in the Belvedere Palace in Vienna—concrete plans were being drawn up for how to restore the Habsburg monarchy to genuine great power status through centralization when the aged monarch passed away. Remembering 1848 and the War for Hungarian Independence, and having watched the political crisis in Hungary in 1904–1906, Franz Ferdinand looked upon the Hungarians as a quarrelsome, rebellious nation, and a threat to the dynasty. He thought that Tisza, through his systematic efforts to increase the weight and influence of the Hungarians within the Monarchy, was an opponent, and one, moreover, capable of foiling the great project. The pro-Slav proclivities of the archduke were reinforced by his morganatic marriage to Countess Sophie Chotek, a Czech, though he agreed to exclude their offspring from all hereditary and dynastic rights. Although he was devoted to the alliance with Germany and had close personal relations with Emperor William II, he was critical of the confrontational line which Foreign Minister Aehrenthal and his successor Berchtold adopted towards Russia, ‘lest the Tsar and the Emperor topple each other from the throne and open the road to revolution’.14

With the death of Franz Joseph on 21 November 1916, his nephew’s hour came. Two days later he proclaimed: ‘We, Franz II, by the grace of God, have been called upon to succeed to the throne of all the kingdoms and lands united under the aegis of our house. We confess the same love towards all peoples, all social groups, and all those who fulfil their duties with honest work, whichever race or religious denomination they belong to. In front of our throne, all will be equal, whether of high or low rank, rich or poor.’ The equality of the peoples in his realm required that ‘the national development of each race be ensured within the framework of the common interests of the Monarchy through fair and just electoral laws’. Although the Hungarian version of the Manifesto started with the words ‘To the Peoples of my Hungarian Holy Crown!’, the text was an open declaration of war on Hungarian supremacy. Tisza hurried to Vienna to protest, but the monarch warned him that if the Hungarian government resisted he would not hesitate to have recourse to the armed forces. The Hungarian prime minister knew only too well that in the Common Army (Gemeinsame Armee) the strength of the units loyal to the Hungarian government was considerably weaker than of those that supported the emperor. At the same time, the king told Tisza that he was confident that a new Hungarian government appointed by him would submit a programme he agreed with, and that the Parliament would vote for it. ‘Does that mean universal and secret suffrage?’, asked Tisza. ‘That’s right’, was the royal answer, and he placed the prepared document of resignation in front of the strong man of the Monarchy. Tisza signed it without uttering a word, stood up, nodded, and left the room.

The prime minister designated by King Francis was József Kristóffy.15 He had been minister of the interior in 1905, in the non-parliamentary Fejérváry government, to later become an adviser of Franz Ferdinand and a member of his ‘Workshop’. More recently, he had organized a party which advocated universal suffrage and land reform, which found considerable support among the better-educated peasants. He formed his government mainly with pro-1867 politicians, who no longer had confidence in Tisza’s policies. He gave the minister of justice portfolio to Vilmos Vázsonyi, a Jewish lawyer, who since 1901 had represented the urban middle class in Parliament.16 Kristóffy was not a traitor to his country, bought by the royal and imperial court, but a firm supporter of the ruling dynasty, who was convinced that the territorial integrity of Hungary could only be preserved by making a settlement with the non-Hungarian nationalities and carrying out all the provisions of Law 44, which guaranteed extended linguistic and administrative rights to them, in good faith. He intended to involve them in local government, and also in state administration. In a draft proposal he submitted to the then-heir in February 1914 he had written: ‘In Hungary all the races and nationalities must be accorded full equality. The only way to permanently counter the irredentism of the nationalities is to make them feel at home within the Monarchy. The first step towards that is the introduction of universal, equal, and secret suffrage.’17 Kristóffy accepted that the army would employ German as the language of command. The delegations which oversaw common affairs (foreign policy and defence) should sit together, forming the Council of the Empire. He proposed the unification of Dalmatia and Bosnia with Croatia, formally under the crown of Hungary but with full autonomy for this Southern Slav formation. With this ‘modified dualism’ the integrity of Hungary would be preserved, while with the elimination of the endless constitutional debates, the well-being and secure future of all eleven national groups within the Monarchy, Hungarians included, would be guaranteed. The core programme of the Kristóffy government was universal suffrage, but another important element was land reform: namely the expropriation of parts of some large estates, and their distribution among the land-hungry farming population.

The new prime minister submitted three bills to the Parliament: one for the establishment of an Imperial Council, a second introducing universal secret suffrage, and a third for a fairer distribution of land.18 The parties that stood on the platform of the 1867 compact were joined by Károlyi’s Independentists (who wanted a mere personal union with the Austrian half) in voting down these bills. The government then resigned (though remaining as a caretaker government) and the sovereign, invoking his prerogatives and the sovereignty of the people, called for a referendum on the bills rejected by Parliament. That was clearly unconstitutional, and was received with loud protests by most of the political elite and the upper classes, but in the towns and the industrial regions, a large number of pro-government and pro-king demonstrations and rallies took place.

In the other half of the Monarchy, the new ruler was received with hope and confidence. Even the Pan-Germans were pleased with the idea that Austria would again be powerful and a strong ally of Germany. The Slavs expected genuine autonomy. On a beautiful day in April 1917, the coronation took place in Vienna amid great pomp. It was attended by the German emperor, the British king, the Russian tsar, and almost all the rulers in Europe, including those of the Balkan states. Only the king of Italy was conspicuous by his absence. In the wake of the tensions of the previous years, Europe celebrated peace, and most of the articles in the leading papers emphasized this. In June, the crown of St Wenceslas was placed on Francis’ head in Prague, but with rather modest celebrations, indicating that the Emperor of Austria automatically became the king of Bohemia as well. Hungary did not share this happy mood; there demonstrations, often ending in violence, were the order of the day, in preparation for the referendum. The eloquence of Tisza and Apponyi19 did have an impact on the higher and middle classes, but they rang hollow with the workers and peasants, who attended the public meetings in large numbers. The poet Endre Ady (1877–1919), the darling of the ladies and the progressive intellectuals, supported the idea of universal suffrage and land reform in impassioned articles, welcoming what he called a peaceful revolution. The radicals, led by Oszkár Jászi, at first deplored what they considered dynastic absolutism, but on seeing the enthusiasm of the peasant masses for land reform they changed their minds, and supported the constitutional reform. Mihály Károlyi, on the other hand, following the anti-Habsburg traditions of his family, joined in the protests lead by Tisza and Apponyi. The referendum was held in September, and resulted in a resounding victory for the court and Kristóffy. More than six million men over the age of twenty-one were entitled to vote. Workers and poorer peasants (also from the non-Hungarian minorities) were able to cast a vote for the first time in their lives, and the 71 per cent for ‘yes’ came also from most of the Hungarian peasants and agricultural labourers. The government called for elections to be held in November, based on universal suffrage, which they considered to have been legitimized by the referendum, expecting the passions to subside by that time. The result was roughly an equal number of seats for the newly formed National Radical and Farmers’ Party of Kristóffy (which stood by the still-uncrowned king), Tisza’s National Labour Party, the Independence Party of Károlyi, and the bloc of the national minorities. In the eyes of many, the referendum followed by the elections legalized the result. Kristóffy, who had received many insults during the campaigns, thought that his mission had been successfully completed, and that now there was a need for a new, younger leader, who was not burdened by his past. To general surprise he proposed to the ruler the thirty-seven-year-old Elemér Jakabffy for the role of prime minister.20 Jakabffy was a member of Tisza’s party and, coming from a district inhabited mainly by Romanians, was known to advocate reconciliation with the largest minority. He was the author of several articles on the minority question, and only a few months earlier had published a book entitled The Romanians in Hungary and in the Kingdom of Romania. He accepted the task, and a dozen members of the National Party of Work joined him and the party founded by his predecessor, Kristóffy. He was also supported by the MPs of the non-Hungarian nationalities. A few weeks before Jakabffy’s appointment, the radical writer and politician Oszkár Jászi published a slim book on the future of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, arguing for a large Central European federation. Its preface gave a positive answer to the question of ‘whether it is possible to coordinate the rational life-interests of Hungary with the hoped-for development of European culture and the whole of mankind?’ The model was Lajos Kossuth’s 1862 plan for a Danubian Confederation. Jászi put forward rational and apparently convincing arguments as to why such a union would be in line with the interests of all the peoples living around Hungary. He would not have federalized Hungary itself, but instead advocated decentralization, and ensuring the widest linguistic and cultural rights for its minorities. Thus the hegemony of the Magyars would be at an end, but the economic and geographical unity of the kingdom would be preserved within a larger federation.21 While many welcomed the idea and the proposal, others were upset and denounced it. The prime minister invited Jászi to join his government as ‘minister without portfolio for the emancipation of the national minorities’.22 In the hope of calming tensions, the post ‘minister a latere’, i.e. the minister at the side of His Majesty (it was both a kind of deputy foreign minister as well as Hungary’s envoy to the court) was offered to the Transylvanian Count Miklós Bánffy, who had already shown his many talents.23 Jakabffy gave the Interior Ministry to Count Móric Esterházy, also a young man of thirty-seven.24 His government was sworn in in January 1918, having obtained a majority in Parliament and garnering a few votes even from liberals in the opposition.

Now the coronation could no longer be delayed. It was set for 28 June, before the summer heat, overlooking the fact that the date of the unsuccessful assassination was a bad omen. King Francis wanted it to be a modest affair, without any foreign presence, demonstrating that receiving the Imperial Crown had been the decisive event. Bánffy, the minister to His Majesty, organized the solemn celebration. Besides the aristocracy, the high clergy, and the major politicians, he ensured that ordinary people, even a few workers and peasants, were invited to what promised to be a highly unusual and uncustomary coronation. A few days earlier the Hungarian government had announced that in Hungarian law there was no such concept as a ‘morganatic marriage’, and that therefore the spouse of the monarch, Sophia Chotek, Duchess of Hohenberg, would be crowned Queen of Hungary. Although Francis had sworn to accept that his wife and children would forego the privileges members of the Habsburg family were entitled to, he was immensely pleased at this gesture by the much-loathed Hungarians, and did not object. Although all members of the newly elected Parliament were invited to the coronation in Mathias Church, the leaders of the opposition, Tisza, Andrássy, Apponyi, and Károlyi, considered the referendum unconstitutional, and thus the coronation illegal, and boycotted the event. Those in attendance included Géza Polonyi, minister of justice in 1906–1907, since 1910 a pro-Independence representative of the district of Léva, and now without any party affiliation; a man known for his strong antipathy towards the Habsburgs. When János Csernoch, the Archbishop of Esztergom, and the prime minister, substituting for the now defunct high office of Palatinus, stepped forward to place the crown attributed to Saint Stephan on the head of the new sovereign, Polonyi jumped forward and with a cry ‘The usurper must not become king!’ shot the emperor of Austria before he could become king of Hungary. Francis collapsed dead in front of the altar. After a few moments of paralysis, the festive crowd awoke and fell on the assassin, in disregard of the loud warnings of the archbishop that a holy church should not be desecrated. Polonyi was dragged outside amid blows and the crowd, shouting ‘death to the killer of our king!’, beat the then unconscious man until he stopped breathing.

So Francis (Franz Ferdinand) did not live to become King of Hungary. The following day all the parties of the Parliament denounced the murder in the strongest terms, Tisza being the first. Mihály Károlyi, on behalf of his party, expressed his condolences to the widow princess, but generated consternation by saying that it was God’s will that the crown of St Stephen could not touch the head of a ruler who departed from the constitution and did not keep the laws of the land. In a statement to the press, István Tisza agreed.

In Vienna and in the Austrian crown lands, a large number of demonstrations protested against the Hungarian government, condemning the lack of security at the coronation. The Czech and Croatian press demanded the abolishment of Hungary’s alleged privileged status and the transformation of the whole Monarchy into a federation. In Austria and in the British newspapers (The Times conspicuously) the death of the emperor was blamed on irresponsible Hungarian behaviour, and on Tisza personally. ‘Hungary has sunk to the level of the regicide Servia’, was the title of a leader in The Spectator.25

Franz Ferdinand was succeeded by his nephew, Archduke Charles (Karl in German, Károly in Hungarian). His manifesto ‘To My Peoples!’ called for calm and for the upholding of the law, and promised to continue the policies of his uncle. The Hungarian parliamentary opposition, in contrast, demanded with renewed energy the repeal of universal suffrage, and called for new elections based on the law passed in 1913. The government, however, paid no attention to the political protests, prepared the land reform bill, and carried out substantial changes in the structures of the state administration. Romanian, Slovak, and Serb főispáns were appointed to counties with a non-Hungarian  majority. Tisza, Andrássy, and Apponyi denounced these replacements as treachery, the termination of the Hungarian state idea, and the last two joined Tisza’s party. To general astonishment, however, Károlyi considered the gestures made towards the nationalities to be in harmony with Kossuth’s heritage. The urban radicals and the Social Democrats sided with the government, and held endless demonstrations in front of Tisza’s home in Hermina Road. The National Party of Work called for a mass rally in front of the Parliament, in protest at what was considered an unlawful piece of legislation. The date was set for 31 October, with Tisza as the main speaker. As the former prime minister stepped out of his house, accompanied by two policemen, a shot was heard, and the bullet did not miss its target. Tisza, a staunch Calvinist believer in the doctrine of predetermination, collapsed with the words, ‘This was bound to happen!’ Was that an admission of his mistaken policies?

The assassin was arrested on the spot. She was Ilona Duczyńska, a young half- Polish radical socialist.26 Hungary was shaken by the death of the man who was admired by many as a great patriot and statesman, and hated at least by as many. Speaking on behalf of the government at his burial, Jakabffy, who was a former follower of Tisza, said in an eloquent speech that the deep love the murdered statesman felt towards his country led him down an erroneous path; he thought that the territorial integrity of the country could be maintained only through the hegemony of the Magyars. In reality, the path to be taken was its opposite, by following the spirit of 1848 in order to harmonize and unify the interests of all the social and ethnic groups, to establish the genuine equality of all the nationalities of Hungary by recognizing them as partners. In this way, common economic and political interests could preserve the unity of the historical kingdom. The following day the prime minister spoke in the legislature. Recalling the stature and great achievements of the fallen leader, he pointed out that in 1848 Hungary had introduced the most democratic electoral law in Europe, but since then, instead of expanding it, those in power had only narrowed it, going against the spirit of the times and the spread of democracy. He reminded the House of Kossuth’s policies in exile, the proposal of a Danubian Confederation, the intentions of Deák and Eötvös with the 1868 Law on Nationalities, adding that the law could have been even better had an alternative bill submitted by Alexander Mocsonyi, a Romanian MP representing Temes county, been accepted. It proposed ‘to recognize the Romanians, Serbs, Slovaks, Rusyns, and Germans, besides the Magyars, as equal nations of the country, entitled to fly their own national colours on the public buildings of their region beside the flag of the Hungarian state. The counties, districts, and constituencies should be formed so as to reflect linguistic composition, by making them, as far as possible, ethnically compact, or at least having an absolute or relative majority for one national group.

In each administrative unit, the language of the majority would be the official language, but where there was a substantial national minority, its language could be a second official language. The Hungarian language would, however, be the common diplomatic language throughout the kingdom.’27 If the Hungarian parliament had accepted this wording, the prime minister argued, an agreement between the peoples of Hungary, the regnum Hungariae, could have been reached fifty years earlier. That was indeed the direction taken by the Parliament in a law passed in July 1849, and that was the position of Kossuth and László Teleki28 during their exile.

With the dramatic death of Tisza, passions unexpectedly subsided. Andrássy Jr, Tisza’s friend in youth and later political rival, made an abrupt about-face, calling for reconciliation within the Hungarian body politic and with the non-Hungarian nationalities. He assured the new king, Charles IV, of his loyalty, and proposed his early coronation. Károlyi and his party followed suit. The ceremony took place in the Buda Castle on 30 December 1918, before the imperial coronation in Vienna in the spring. The celebrations were solemn and calm, with strong security, organized again by Minister Bánffy. In the spirit of general reconciliation, the young ruler appointed Andrássy, who was a foreign policy expert, foreign minister of Austria–Hungary, placing him in the seat of his father, Gyula Andrássy Sr.

On 15 March, the day of the 1848 liberal revolution, Oszkár Jászi, the Minister for the National Minorities, submitted three bills on self-government (partly territorial, partly cultural) for the Slovaks, Rusyns, and Germans. The model was the cantonal system of Switzerland. A separate bill changed the borders of the counties (and the constituencies) so as to make them correspond, as far as possible, to the national composition of the population. In the overwhelmingly Romanian, Saxon, and Serb counties, cultural autonomy ensured the use of the language of the majority in the schools and in local government, naturally without restricting the use of Hungarian. After often heated debates, the House passed the new laws with overwhelming majorities. King Charles deliberately chose to endorse these laws on 11 April, the day when his predecessor approved the famous April Laws in 1848, the foundation of modern constitutional Hungary. The world press was full of praise for the Hungarians who had voluntarily given up their privileges for the second time since 1848. A leading article in The Times congratulated both the Hungarians and their minorities. It said that by recognizing the European mission of the Monarchy and their basic common interests, they had overcome the policy of national egotism, and with that, they called upon the peoples living in the other half of the realm of the Habsburgs to follow this example. According to the archives of The Times, the author of the article was the foreign editor, H. W. Steed.29 The National Széchényi Library holds his letter to Mrs Ferenc Hampel, née Polyxena Pulszky, dated 12 April 1918. ‘Dear Poly, I’ll never forget the warm welcome you gave me and Rose in your home seventeen years ago. I know that a few years later you were pained reading my critical reports of the Hungarian Coalition, because you felt they were attacks on your nation. The dramatic events of the last two years—I am confident—justified both of us: among the Hungarians the political acumen and responsibility which marked Deák, Eötvös, and the young István Tisza, have come to prevail. You, my dear Poly, your late father, your husband and sons were such outstanding representatives of that tradition. Fifty years after the Ausgleich, the wisest Hungarian leaders concluded with the dynasty and its Austro-German people, a new generation of gifted Hungarians have brought about an even more difficult compact with their own national minorities. That is what your respected father, Ferenc, and his friend, Lajos Kossuth, wished for in the years of their exile. It is now that the vision of the great István Széchenyi can be realized, so that the multinational Kingdom of Hungary’s future may be even brighter than its glory was in its best former periods.’30

The official name, ‘Austro-Hungarian Monarchy’ was maintained, but in the press of Europe (also in Hungary) and in public speech, the customary term was simply ‘the Monarchy’, or abroad often ‘the Central European Monarchy’. On the fifth anniversary of the coronation of Charles IV as King of Hungary, the Parliament— with a small majority—decided that the official name of their country would be Hungária Magyarországi Királyság. In German it would remain Königreich Ungarn, in French Royaume de Hongrie, in English the Kingdom of Hungary.

1  Hugh Trevor-Roper, ‘History and Imagination: A Valedictory Lecture Delivered before the University of Oxford on 20 May 1980’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).

2 Niall Ferguson, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (New York: Basic Books, 2001).

3 László Péter, ‘Carlile Aylmer Macartney, 1895–1978’, Slavic Review (June 1980), 362–363.

4 C. A. Macartney, The Habsburg Empire, 1790–1918 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1968), 750–753.

5 Count István Tisza (1861–1918): Hungarian statesman, prime minister between 1903 and 1904, and between 1913 and 1917. Erroneously blamed by many for the war and all the suffering, he was assassinated on 31 October 1918. His assassination triggered a revolution.

6  István Tisza, ‘A választójogi reform küszöbén’ (On the Threshold of Electoral Reform), in Választójogi tanulmányok (Studies on Electoral Law) (Budapest, 1913).

7 Oszkár Jászi (1875–1957): Hungarian social scientist and politician. Minister for the Emancipation of the Nationalities in 1918. Opposed to both the Hungarian Soviet Republic and the succeeding counter-revolutionary governments, he died in exile in the United States.

8  Oszkár Jászi, ‘A nemzetiségek eljövetele’ (The Coming of the Nationalities), Szabadgondolat, 2 (1914), 36–40.

9 For those who want to know what really happened in Hungary before and during the Great War, I recommend chapter 12 in Bryan Cartledge, The Will to Survive. A History of Hungary (London: Hurst & Company, 2011).

10 Count Mihály Károlyi (1875–1955): Hungarian politician, President of the Republic between 1918 and 1919. Following his resignation, he went into exile and was a bitter opponent of Regent Horthy and the conservative governments. He returned to Hungary after the war, only to become an exile again in 1949, this time from communism.

11  Lajos (Louis) Kossuth (1802–1894): the leader of the 1848–1849 Revolution and War of Independence against the Habsburg dynasty. In exile, he was received with much enthusiasm in Britain, the United States, and Italy. He rejected the 1867 settlement with the dynasty and became a symbol of Hungarian independence for generations to come.

12 This offer really was made by Tisza in 1915. See Zoltán Szász, ‘Az utolsó dualista kísérlet: Tisza István román tárgyalásai’ (The Last Attempt to Save Dualism: The Negotiations of Tisza with the Romanians], in Erdély története III, 1830-tól napjainkig (The History of Transylvania, III, From 1830 to our Time) (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1986), 1678–1687.

13  R. W. Seton-Watson (1879–1951): British historian with Scottish roots, hence his pen-name Scotus Viator. From an enthusiastic friend of the Hungarians, he turned into a bitter critic of Hungarian nationalism and an advocate of the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy during the First World War. His Racial Problems in Hungary (London, 1908), an exaggerated criticism of the treatment of the non-Hungarians by the government, influenced many readers, including the makers of the Trianon Peace Treaty. His relationship to Hungary is described in detail in my monograph, Lost Prestige. Hungary’s Changing Image in Britain 1894–1918 (Reno, NV: Helena History Press, 2020).

14 For the personality and attitudes of the archduke, see Olivér Eöttevényi, Ferenc Ferdinánd (Budapest, 1942, reprinted by Akadémiai Kiadó, 1991). On the archduke’s plans for the future, see József Kristóffy, Magyarország kálváriája. Az összeomlás útja: politikai emlékek 1890–1926 (The Calvary of Hungary. On the Road to the Collapse. Political Memories 1890–1926) (Budapest: Wodianer, 1927). The quotations on Francis II’s post-1914 conduct are authentic, and can be found in Kristóffy’s memoirs. An entirely different, negative picture of the steps envisaged by the heir to the throne was drawn by Győző Bruckner, in Ferenc Ferdinánd trónörökös magyarországi politikai tervei (The Political Plans of Francis Ferdinand, Heir to the Throne, Concerning Hungary) (Miskolc, 1929).

15 József Kristóffy (1857–1928): Hungarian politician, minister of the interior in 1905.

16 Vilmos Vázsonyi (1868–1926): Hungarian lawyer and politician, minister of justice in 1917.

17 Kristóffy, Magyarország kálváriája, 710.

18 Kristóffy, Magyarország kálváriája, 714.

19 Count Albert Apponyi (1846–1933): Hungarian conservative politician, twice minister for religion and public education, head of the Hungarian delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919–1920.

20  Elemér Jakabffy (1881–1963): Hungarian politician, MP in 1910–1918. After the transfer of Transylvania to Romania, he was vice-president of the Hungarian National Party of Romania, editor of the journal Magyar Kisebbség and its versions: Glasul Minoritătilor, Die Stimme der Minderheiten, La Voix des Minorités.

21 Oszkár Jászi, A Monarchia jövője: A dualizmus bukása és a dunai egyesült államok (The Future of the Monarchy. The End of Dualism and the United States of the Danube) (Budapest, 1918; new edition by Maecenas, Budapest, 1988).

22 In reality, Jászi held the post in late 1918.

23 Count Miklós Bánffy (1873–1950): Hungarian author and politician, manager and artistic director of the Hungarian Opera House and the National Theatre in the 1910s. Foreign minister between 1921 and 1922. His most important novel is The Transylvanian Trilogy (London: Everyman, 2013). See excerpts from his memoirs in the 2019 issues of Hungarian Review.

24 Count Móric Esterházy (1881–1960): Hungarian politician, prime minister in 1917, from June to August.

25 The Serbian King Alexander Obrenović and his consort Queen Draga were assassinated in Belgrade in 1903 during the so-called May Coup.

26 In May 1917, Ilona Duczyńska (1897–1978), as a pacifist, was indeed preparing to kill Tisza with a stolen pistol, whom she thought—erroneously—to be the spiritus rector of the war, but when the prime minister resigned, she abandoned the idea. In 1924, she married Charles (Károly) Polányi, the renowned social scientist in Vienna.

27 The text of Mocsonyi’s bill was first published in Magyar Kisebbség, 1–2 (1940). It is more easily accessible in Gábor Kemény G., A magyar nemzetiségi kérdés története I. A nemzetiségi kérdés a törvények és tervezetek tükrében 1790–1918 (History of the Nationality Question in Hungary as Reflected by the Laws and Projects) (Budapest, 1947), 96–97.

28 Count László Teleki (1811–1861) was a Hungarian writer and statesman, the envoy of Kossuth in Paris in 1849 and in exile.

29 Henry Wickham Steed (1871–1956): British journalist, correspondent of The Times in Vienna, 1903–1913. First a sympathizer, then—after 1905—a powerful critic of Hungary’s policies. Under the new proprietor, Lord Northcliffe, he became foreign editor, and in 1918, editor of the paper. Cf. André Liebich, Wickham Steed: Greatest Journalist of His Times (Bern: Peter Lang, 2018).

30 Of course, no such letter was written. But there is a letter from Steed to Ferenc Hampel, the son of Polyxéna Pulszky, dated 22 May 1921. It shows that my imagination was not too wide off the mark. ‘As regards Hungary, I have long been and still am convinced that the Magyars forsook the path of wisdom and of safety when in 1875 they allowed Koloman Tisza to lead them into a chauvinistic policy towards their non-Hungarian fellow countrymen and forgot the teachings of experienced patriots like Deák and Eötvös. I am still convinced that the only way for the Magyars to retrieve their fortunes is for them to revert to the principles of toleration and co-operation that inspired these great men. […] While in Austria–Hungary I did my best to warn both your fellow-countrymen and the Austrians of the inevitable consequences of the policy they were pursuing. In particular I warned Count Tisza that the result of persistence in the course begun by the annexation of Bosnia–Herzegovina would be, sooner or later, a European war and the enslavement if not the dismemberment of the Monarchy.’ The letter is deposited in the Manuscript Division of the National Széchényi Library, Fond VIII/2346 and 2698.

Most recent

Newsletter signup

Like it ? Share it !

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pocket
Share on email