On September 29, 1848, the newly formed Hungarian Revolutionary Army, the Honvéd, repelled the invading Austro-Croatian forces at the pivotal Battle of Pákozd, which marked the first and one of the most important battles of the Hungarian Revolutionary war.
The underdeveloped Hungarian territories had been fighting for civil reforms for decades with a small group of prominent aristocrats advocating for radical changes to overcome the industrial and political backwardness of the country.
Economic hardship eventually brought the nobles’ discontent to a head in 1825, when the Habsburg 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.
The Hungarian Revolution
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 in March 1848, 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.
The Hungarian Revolution forced Emperor Ferdinand V to sign the so-called April Laws, 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.
But the Imperial court in Vienna regarded the April Laws as mere temporary measures and the ardent supporters of an absolute sovereign power, who feared losing Hungary’s resources and manpower, secretly supported conspiracies to undermine the new government. Meanwhile, the leaders of the Serbs, Croats, Romanians and Slovaks who lived in Hungary soon started to demand autonomy for themselves, but their ambitions were not appreciated by the Hungarian politicians.
The Imperial court took advantage of this situation, inciting the various national movements to revolt against the new Hungarian government, and on September 17, the Croatian governor, Colonel Josip Jelačić, attacked Hungary on Vienna’s orders and started marching towards Pest.
The Battle of Pákozd
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, known as the Honvéd (meaning the “defenders of the homeeland”), repulsed Jelačić’s forces at the Battle of 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. The joint Russian and Austrian army eventually defeated the Hungarian forces, and after the fall of the Hungarian Revolution and the restoration of Habsburg power, Hungary was placed under brutal martial law for nearly twenty years.
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.
The first and one of the most important battles of the Hungarian Revolution, the Battle of Pákozd became an iconic victory for Hungarians, and its anniversary was celebrated as “National Defence Day”, before it was changed in 1991 to May 21, the date of the recapture of Buda.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.