Hungary Magazine

On this Day, in 1848: the Hungarian Revolution broke out against Habsburg absolutism

On March 15, 1848, inspired by the upheavals of 1848 in Paris and Vienna, the Hungarian Revolution broke out in Pest and Buda against the absolutist rule of the Habsburg Monarchy.

Seen by many Hungarians as the decisive downward turning point in their country’s history, Suleiman the Magnificent’s victory at the Battle of Mohács in 1526 marked the end of Hungary as a unified and independant entity and led to the partition of the medieval kingdom between the Habsburg Monarchy, the Ottoman Empire and the Principality of Transylvania for nearly two hundred years.

By the end of the 17th century, the Battle of Vienna and the second Battle of Mohács set the stage for the reconquest of Hungary, and in 1699, the Treaty of Karlowitz, which concluded the Great Turkish War, marked the end of Ottoman control in Central Europe and enabled Vienna to claim all of Hungary, effectively ending the trisection of the newly enlarged Habsburg dominion.

A newly enlarged dominion

But unlike other Habsburg ruled areas, the Kingdom of Hungary retained its old historic constitution, which limited the power of the Crown and greatly increased the authority of the parliament, the Diet of Hungary. Even after the foundation of the Austrian Empire in 1804, Hungary’s central government structures remained well separated from the imperial government.

By the start of the 19th century, Hungary had become a major grain and wool exporter, as urbanization in Austria and Bohemia, and the need for supplies for the Napoleonic wars boosted demand for foodstuffs and clothing. But following Napoleon’s final defeat, grain prices collapsed as demand dropped, and debt ensnared much of Hungary’s lesser nobility.

Economic hardship brought the lesser nobles’ discontent to a head in 1825, when the Emperor finally convoked the Diet after a fourteen-year hiatus. Grievances were voiced, and open calls for reform were made by a small group of prominent aristocrats who advocated for radical changes to overcome the industrial and political backwardness of the country. But those efforts were vehemently opposed by the government in Vienna, who wanted Hungary, with its rich agriculture and plentiful sources of raw materials, to remain the pantry of the empire and a market for Austrian and Bohemian industrial goods.

Beneath the surface, Hungarian society, affected by the ideas of the French Revolution and of nationalism, was preparing for emancipation, spearheaded by the talented orator, Lajos Kossuth.

The Hungarian revolution and the Spring of Nations

The Hungarian reformers’ opportunity came in the spring of 1848. Inspired by the Revolution of 1848 in Paris, a popular upheaval caused the breakdown of central authority in Vienna. And on March 15, a bloodless revolution in Pest, led by young intellectuals, including the poet Sándor Petőfi, formulated a series of demands, among them freedom of the press, and civil and religious equality.

Mass demonstrations in Buda and Pest forced the Emperor to sign the so-called April Laws, inspired by Lajos Kossuth, which abolished serfdom and made peasants the owners of the land they cultivated. The Hungarian kingdom became a constitutional monarchy, the Diet was replaced by a representative parliament, and Count Lajos Batthyány became the first Prime Minister of Hungary. After France in 1791 and Belgium in 1831, Hungary became the third country of Continental Europe to hold democratic elections.

But the new government had enemies: the conservatives resented the land reform, and the centralists regarded the independent ministry as dangerous to the integrity of the monarchy. They found allies among the disaffected nationalities, who soon started to demand autonomy for themselves, something which was not appreciated by the Hungarian politicians.

Taking advantage of the Hungarians’ unwillingness to afford their own minorities what they were demanding from Austria, the Imperial court in Vienna, who regarded the April Laws as mere temporary measures, began secretly supporting conspiracies to undermine the new government, inciting the various national movements to revolt.

War on all fronts

Tension between Vienna and Buda-Pest mounted steadily, and in September, on Vienna’s orders, the Viceroy of Croatia and Dalmatia, Josip Jelačić, attacked Hungary and started marching towards Pest. In serious military crisis due to the lack of soldiers and with war now raging on three fronts (Croatian troops to the South, Romanians in Banat and in Transylvania to the East, and Austria to the west), the Hungarian government roused the people to the defense of the country.

The newly formed Hungarian Revolutionary Army (Honvéd) repulsed Jelačić’s forces near Pákozd on September 29 and crossed the border into Austria forcing an open confrontation with the Imperial army. But after a series of serious Austrian defeats and with the Austrian Empire coming close to the brink of collapse, the young emperor Franz Joseph I called for Russian help and Tsar Nicholas I answered, sending 200,000 soldiers to the rescue.

Realizing that a peaceful compromise with the Habsburgs could not be found, Batthyány resigned, leaving Kossuth in charge, and by April 1840, a rump Diet proclaimed the full independence of Hungary and the deposition of the Habsburg dynasty. Bitter fighting went on for weeks, led by György Klapka and other generals, but the odds were too heavy.

On August 12, Kossuth fled the country, transferring his authority to Görgey, who the next day surrendered at Világos to the Russian commander. Savage reprisals followed the fall of the Hungarian Revolution and the restoration of Habsburg power, as Hungary was placed under brutal martial law for nearly twenty years.

Aftermath of the Hungarian revolution of 1848

Kossuth went into exile after the Hungarian Revolution, initially gaining asylum in the Ottoman Empire, before being invited by the US Congress to come to the United States. He remained there until 1852, after which he moved to England and then Italy, with the hope of one day returning to Hungary. He never did.

Military dictatorship and absolutist rule over Hungary lasted until 1867, when the Austro-Hungarian Compromise established the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary and partially re-established the former sovereignty of the Kingdom of Hungary. The agreement also restored the country’s old historic constitution.

Today, the anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution is celebrated every year on March 15 as one of the country’s three national holidays.

Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.

Coordinated by Ábel Bede, Kafkadesk's Budapest office is made up of a growing team of freelance journalists, editors and fact-checkers passionate about Hungarian affairs and dedicated to bringing you all the latest news, events and insights from Hungary.

12 comments on “On this Day, in 1848: the Hungarian Revolution broke out against Habsburg absolutism

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  3. Sylvain

    I put here a short timeline of the Hungarian events from 1848-49, because in the description from above I saw inadvertences. So shortly what happened, and when?

    15 March 1848, the Hungarian young intellectuals, led by the poet Sándor Petőfi, started the revolution in Pest, and in the same day, the delegation of the Hungarian Diet, led by Lajos Kossuth went to Vienna, and convinced the emperor Ferdinand V., to give autonomy to Hungary, and the right to form a national government. The emperor was so “benevolent” to accept this, because he was forced by the revolution from Vienna, to seek a compromise with the Hungarians.
    March-May, the first modern Hungarian government led by Lajos Batthyány was formed, which issued a huge number of laws for the modernization of Hungary, for example ending the censorship, serfdom, the equal burdens for every citizens of the state, etc.
    31 May, Transylvania united with Hungary.
    12 June, the Serbians border guards from Southern Hungary, stirred up, and secretly supported by the Austrians, rose up against the Hungarians, carrying out many massacres against the Hungarian civilians. Now started the second period of the revolution, the military phase. Hungary had no army of its own, the Hungarian soldiers were forced to serve by the Habsburgs outside of the country, while in Hungary served foreign soldiers, led by foreign officers, who refused to fight against the Serbian revolt, which, because of this, spread very quickly. In order to defend itself, the Hungarian parliament decided to orgainze a national army, which infuriated the Habsburg government, seeing in this a Hungarian attempt to achieve totaly freedom from Austria.
    25 July, the Austrians defeated the Italians at Custozza, forcing them to armistice, now they could gather all their forces to deal with Hungary. This is why their apparent benevolent policy towards Hungary now suddenly changed to an agressive one.

    September, the emperor refused to recognize the Batthyány Government, which resingned after a month, and at the same time, the Croatian-Austrian army led by Jelacic crossed the Száva river and attacked Hungary to depose the Hungarian government and parliament, and to reinstaurate the absolute Habsburg rule.

    29 September, at Pákozd, the newly formed Hungarian army defeated the twice numerous Croatian-Austrian army. Jelacic fled in Austria.

    October in Vienna the 3. revolution started. The revolutionaries regarded the Hungarians as their allies. The Hungarian army was uncertain what to do (to enter in Austria to help the Viennese revolutionaries, or not), and with this gave time for Field Marshall Alfred zu Windischgratz to gather the imperial army, and unite with the troops of Lieutenant General Jelacic.

    12 October the commander of the Austrian troops from Transylvania, Lieutenant General Anton Puchner revolted against Hungary, allying with the Romanian and Saxon (German speaking) inhabitants of Transylvania. A cruel civil war started here, the Hungarian troops being forced to retreat from the province, and as a result of this, around 10 000 of the Hungarian civilians were massacred by Romanian peasants.
    30 October the Austrian army led by Windischgratz defeated the Hungarians at Schwechat, and in the next day, they put down the Viennese revolution.
    2 December, the Austrian emperor and Hungarian king, Ferdinand the V., abdicated and the new emperor became Franz Joseph, who refused to crown himself as Hungarian king, thus showing that for him Hungary was not an autonomous kingdom anymore, but a simple Austrian province.
    5 December, the main Austrian army of 55 000 troops led by Windischgratz attacked Hungary. From the North another Austrian army of 12 000 led by General Franz Schlik, while from south East 9000 led by Laval Nugent attacked Hungary. From the East came the 10 500 Austrian troops of Puchner, reinforced by several tens of thounsands of Romanian insurgents, while from the south 15 000 Serbain insurgents attacked Hungary. The Hungarians had like a half of the enemies number, their troops were inexperienced, and their weapons had a much lower quality than the Austrian army, one of Europe’s most powerful armoes. The Hungarian armies were defeated on all fronts, except in Transylvania, where General Józef Bem scored important victories against the enemy, liberating the Northern and Eastern part of the province. Despite of this, 2/3 of Hungary’s territory was occupied by the Habsburgs and their allies.
    5 January 1849, the Hungarian capitals Buda and Pest were occupied by the troops of Windischgratz. The Hungarian provisional government fled to the Eastern part of the country, choosing Debrecen as the new, provisional capital.
    25 January, the first Russian troops (12 000 soldiers) appeared in Transylvania in order to support the Austrian troops of Puchner against the successful Hungarians led by General Bem.
    26-27 February, the first Hungarian counter attack against the Austrians was defeated by Kápolna by Windischgratz.
    4 March the emperor issued the constitution from Olmütz, which terminated the last traces of the Hungarian autonomy, degrading the country as a simple Austrian province, taking away also important regions from it.
    5 March, the troops of General Bem defeated the Austrian-Russian army at Nagyszeben, liberating the whole province, chasing the Austrian and Russian troops in the Ottoman empire.
    20 March, the Hungarian troops led by General Mór Perczel started a campaign against the Serbian insurgents, taking back al most all the territories occupied by them before.
    1 April, the main Hungarian army led by General Artúr Görgei started the Spring Campaign against the main Austrian troops, defeating Windischgratz and the other Austrian generals in 6 consecutive battles, forcing the enemy to retreat to the austrian border.
    19 April, Hungary declared its total independence from Austria. The new, government led by Bertalan Szemere was formed. Lajos Kossuth was elected governor (a kind of president) of Hungary.
    21 May, the fortress of Buda was liberated after a long siege, with this Hungary’s both capitals are taken back. On the same day, emperor Franz Joseph met tzar Nicholas I of Russia and begged for Russian military help ( a great humiliation for the Habsburg empire), which is accepted.
    15 June, the 200 000 strong Russian army, led by Field Marshal Ivan Paskevich and the 170 000 strong Austrian army led by Field Marshal Julius Jakob von Haynau attacked Hungary from all fronts. The Hungarians had only 160 000 troops with old weapons and insufficient ammunition. The huge enemy armies forced the Hungarians to retreat. The Hungarians still fought very bravely, defeating the enemy in many battles (for example Komárom at 2 July, Kishegyes at 14 July or Komárom at 3 August, or the undecided battle of Vác from 16-17 July), but the superiority of the enemy finally decided the fate of the Hungarian freedom. In the same time also a Cholera epidemic ravaged the country, killing tens or hundreds of thousands of people.
    9 August, the Hungarian army led by General Bem, was decissively defeated by Haynau.
    10 August, the Hungarian government resigned, while Görgei was named dictator. Kossuth the Hungarian ministers and many generals fled to Turkey.
    13 August, the main Hungarian army led by General Artúr Görgei surrendered infront of the Russian troops led by General Rüdiger.
    2 October, Komárom, the last resisting fortress, surrendered to the Austrian army.
    6 October, 13 Hungarian Generals and the first Hungarian prime minister Lajos Batthyány, were executed by Julius von Haynau.

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