Hungary Magazine

On this Day, in 1849: the “Thirteen Martyrs of Arad” were executed by Habsburg forces

On October 6, 1849, known as the “Thirteen Martyrs of Arad”, thirteen Hungarian rebel generals were executed by Austrian forces as savage reprisals followed the fall of the Hungarian Revolution and the restoration of Habsburg power.

Inspired by the uprisings in Paris and Vienna, the Hungarian Revolution broke in March 1848, when mass demonstrations in Buda and Pest forced Emperor Ferdinand V to sign the so-called April Laws, which abolished serfdom, transformed Hungary into a constitutional monarchy, and gave Hungarians the right to form a national government.

Led by Lajos Batthyány and Lajos Kossuth, the new government had many enemies and the most ardent supporters of an absolute sovereign power in Vienna, who feared losing Hungary’s resources and manpower, secretly began supporting conspiracies to undermine the Hungarian Revolution.

The Hungarian Revolution

Stirred up by the Habsburgs, 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 and in September 1848, the Croatian governor, Colonel Josip Jelačić, secretly supported by Vienna, 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, 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 homeland”), repulsed Jelačić’s forces at the Battle of Pákozd and crossed the border into Austria.

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 could not be found, Batthyány resigned, and in April 1849, Lajos Kossuth proclaimed the full independence of Hungary and the deposition of the Habsburg dynasty.

But the odds were too heavy, and after all appeals to other European states failed, Kossuth abdicated in August 1849, in favor of Artúr Görgei, who in turn surrendered to the Russian commander. Savage reprisals followed the fall of the Hungarian Revolution, and although Görgei was spared, the remaining Honvéd generals were handed over to the Austrians.

The “Thirteen Martyrs of Arad”

Known as the “Thirteen Martyrs of Arad”, the thirteen Hungarian generals were executed by hanging at Arad on October 6, with the exception of Arisztid Dessewffy and two others, who were executed by firing squad. On the same day, Lajos Batthyány was executed in Pest at an Austrian military garrison.

Lajos 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.

Although the majority of the generals executed in Arad were not of ethnic Hungarian origin, Hungarians have come to regard them as martyrs for defending the cause of freedom and independence for their people. The anniversary of their execution is remembered as a day of mourning for Hungary.

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