Minorities Research   Minorities History

Ákos Egyed

Revolution and War of Independence in Transylvania

The outbreak of the European revolutions of 1848 found Transylvania in a peculiar situation, and the peculiarities in many respects determined, or at least greatly influenced, the events of 1848-1849. Forming a separate dominion within the Austrian Empire, Transylvania possessed a certain measure of autonomy: it had its own Diet, a government, a feudal charter of several-hundred-year standing, and a composite yet smoothly functioning public administration. It had many links to Hungary, the country whose bourgeois aspirations it tried to emulate, for which reason Vienna kept a watchful eye on it, from time to time employing measures, brute force if need be, to block the budding reforms. That such reforms were badly needed was clearly evident, however, as the tensions, both social and national, were on the increase; the peasants‚ situation remained unsolved; the boundaries between allodial and `urbarial‚ land undefined; and the appeal and demand of the Romanian element, which had been left out from the constitution of the estates at the time, to be incorporated in a fourth estate had been ignored since the end of the 18th century. At the same time, the feudal system itself was in a state of crisis, as bourgeois developments nibbled away at its institutions. The Saxons were firmly against the Hungarian national aspirations, while the Szekler community tolerated with growing impatience the burdens of the border service and the taxation forced upon them during the "Peril of Mádéfalva" in 1764. During the two decades preceding 1848, every social stratum and nationality eagerly awaited, as well as searched for, possible ways out of the existing predicament.

It was only natural then that the wave of European revolutions could not halt at the peaks of Királyhágó. And halt it did not: a few days after March 15 a list of demands by the Hungarian population of Transylvania was also put forward in Kolozsvár. The reason why this was possible was that in March 1848, in the early phase of the revolution, Hungarians in Transylvania were at an advantage compared to the Saxons and the Romanians. First of all, they were prepared for the changes. To some extent, the reform movement had prepared the way for the program of bourgeois transformation, and in Transylvania in the decades prior to 1848 only the Hungarian population was caught up in the reform movement. The preliminary developments in the reform age greatly contributed to the course events in Transylvania, which thus followed the pattern of the Hungarian revolution, culminating in wonderful achievements and at the same time exacting an inordinately heavy price. It all started on March 20 in the capital of historic Transylvania, Kolozsvár, when news of the events taking place on March 13 in Vienna, and on March 15 in Budapest, arrived by mail. In response to this, the leadership of the national liberal party immediately went into session, drawing up the list of demands that shortly became known all over Transylvania as the Kolozsvár program. The Hungarian population of Transylvania enthusiastically welcomed the Hungarian demands summed up in The Twelve Points, as it painted a promising picture of the future for the entire Hungarian people, and was promptly adopted as a blueprint for the course of action in Transylvania. Nevertheless, it was not taken over word for word, but was adjusted to the Transylvanian circumstances: for example, the 12th point of the Pest program was moved up to the first place in the Kolozsvár program, in this way indicating that the political opinion of Transylvanian Hungarians expected the national and bourgeois reforms out-lined both in The Twelve Points and in the laws proposed by the Pozsony Dit to be realised as a result of Transylvania‚s union with Hungary. In addition to the union, the Kolozsvár Program demanded universal taxation, equality before the law, emancipation of the peasants, and the settlement of the Szeklers‚ situation. All these were anticipated to come from the union. To illustrate that this was so, I would like to mention a lesser known event. As soon as the Kolozsvár Program was completed, the leader of Transylvania‚s Hungarian movement, János Bethlen Sr., immediately sent a messenger with a letter to Zsibó, where Transylvania‚s greatest politician, Miklós Wesselényi, lived in seclusion for a number of years, increasingly overcome by blindness yet seeing more clearly than anybody else; in the letter, Bethlen asked Wesselényi to represent the Transylvanian case in Pest and in Pozsony. The leaders of Transylvania‚s Hungarian population knew that they had to use lawful and constitutional means to accomplish their goals, and that was why they sent Baron Miklós Wesselényi, their "Ambassador", to Pozsony, where Hungary‚s national legislature resided. Wesselényi understood the importance of the historic moment, and readily undertook the task. On March 21 the messenger was already able to deliver his answer to Kolozsvár: "The cause, about which you have sent lines to me, is sacred, and I recognise my nation‚s plea in your entreaty. I take it as a command, and I leave at once."1 While in Pest and in Pozsony, Wesselény did everything he could: he was able to win over those politicians, who were still anxious lest Vienna take offence about Transylvania, that swift action was essential to success in the matter of the union. Nevertheless, Vienna decided the matter ultimately when it declared that the question had to be put to the Diet of Transylvania.2 However, unlike its Hungarian counterpart, the Transylvanian Diet was not in session at the time, and the Hungarian politicians of Transylvania had to wage a campaign to have it convened. By the time it was convoked more than two months had passed,which is a frightfully long period in times of revolution. The favourable moment can easily slip by, new problems can arise, and the situation can become more complicated. This was exactly what happened in Transylvania.

The last ten days of March must have been the most beautiful phase of the revolution in Transylvania. Following the Pest example, on March 21?this day is known in historiography as "Kolozsvár‚s March 15"?there was a municipal meeting followed by a mass demonstration enthusiastically led by the youth. The deputies of the town and the people demanded that the Governor, Count József Teleki, convoke the Diet, so that the laws necessary to initiate the reforms could be passed. Although the scholarly Governor did not take kindly to the idea of disturbing the Gubernium with demands, especially not when it had been put forward by a clamorous crowd on the street, he nevertheless promised to make the necessary steps to convene the Diet, as he himselfwas conscious of the need for change. A torch procession by the Kolozsvár youth concluded the glorious day. László Kôváry, a participant and also the faithful chronicler of these events, wrote the following in connection with the event: "This was how Kolozsvár celebrated the first morning of liberty, equality and fraternity. The demonstrations were directed against nobody. Only the torches were lowered when the procession reached the houses of the Conservative leaders. However, the King and Hungary‚s Palatine were continuously cheered by the crowd; it was still in blissful hope."3

The "blissful hope" of course referred to people‚s belief that the planned large-scale reforms could be carried through peacefully and constitutionally?without any bloodshed. Signs to that effect were received from Vienna, and there were also incidents justifying such illusions in Transyl-vania. The best known example of these was when, on March 25 and the following days in Marosvásárhely, the Hungarian and Romanian jurati welcomed the Hungarian revolution side by side, with the Romanian and Saxon newspapers hailing the events in unison.4 Nevertheless, these proved to be fleeting episodes, as the signs of a gathering storm were giving cause for concern. One such sign was the Romanian movement‚s chief ideologist, Simion Barnutiu‚s speech at the mass meeting of Balázsfalva, with passages such as this: "We must not sit at the table of Hungarian freedom, for all the dishes there are poisoned."5 Fomentation such as this could not fail to have an effect on the Romanians of Transylvania, the greater majority of which objected to the union. And so did the Saxon population. With some simplification, the slogan theatrically shrieked by a young man holding a yellow-and-black flag during a stage performance in Nagyszeben was in true reflection of the Saxon political aspirations: "Union with Austria, not with Hungary!"6 The Saxon-Romanian alliance against the Hungarian revolution thus followed, and was eventually turned into a triple alliance by General Puchner, the military commander of Transylvania‚s imperial forces, who reserved for himself the position of leadership. To add to the internal tensions, a peasant uprising broke out in the villages of the counties, further fuelled by the Romanian national committee elected in Balázsfalva. After the high hopes experienced in the early Spring, the Hungarian population‚s foreboding grew, conjuring reminiscences of the Horea nightmare in many people. The frequent calls for precautionary measures proved justified. The situation turned so grave that the same József Bethlen Sr., who n March 20 had still been full of hopes asking Wesselényi to rush to Hungary to represent the Transylvanian cause, on May 10 alarmed his friend, who had returned by that time: "We in Transylvania, and above else in Kolozsvár, are standing on a volcano which is about to erupt." We are convinced that this grave situation could develop, largely because the Diet promising constitutional reforms was convoked two months later, due to Vienna‚s delaying tactics. If the Hungarian revolution was "lucky" to have the Pozsony Diet in session at the time of the outbreak of the revolution, the Transylvanian revolution‚s bad luck was that the necessary laws could not be passed in the most favourable phase of the revolution due to the Diet‚s not being in session at the time. Because what happened in Transylvania was the usual fate of revolutions: the forces of counter-revolution had time to organise the resistance.

Finally, overcoming Vienna‚s delaying tactics and submitting to the pressure of Transylvanian public opinion, Governor Teleki convened the Transylvanian Diet at Kolozsvár for May 29. And since on May 5 the Emperor sanctioned the Governor‚s decree, the preparations gathered momentum. Along with others, Miklós Wesselényi feverishly tried to find solution to the escalating problems, emphatically insisting on linking the all-decisive question of the union with the most important social issue of the day, the emancipation of the peasants. A few days before the opening of the Diet, on May 19, he wrote the following to his friend, Miklós Jósika: "Nothing can be more important than to demonstrate in a resounding voice that the union is necessary for emancipating the Vlach and the Hungarian peasant alike, and that the Vlach and the Hungarian peasant would share in the same rights that had previously been reserved for the noble class; and that from now on the nobles would carry the burden of taxation together with the peasants; and that the share carried by a person of one religion and one nationality would be the same as that carried by a person of any other religion and nationality." This was a clear program of individual civil rights and the principles of the emancipation of the peasants, for which Wesselényi and the Hungarian liberal opposition had fought earnestly and which led them to attend the Kolozsvár Diet. On May 29, 1848 a festive Kolozsvár awaited the opening of the Diet. The event commanded the attention of not only Transylvania, but also Hungary and even Vienna.

The Hungarian population of Transylvania could regard it as a victory that, after procuring the agreement of the Saxon deputies, the few Romanian nobles attending the Diet, and the Greek Catholic Bishop of Lemen, the article declaring the union of Trnasylvania and Hungary was passed unanimously on May 30, the first work day of the session. As the carefully drafted law played a great part in winning over the Saxon and the Romanian deputies, and since the union has still been the main bone of contention between Hungarian and Romanian historiography, we would like to quote a passage from the said law: "Receiving with loyal and kindred feelings Law VII of 1848 passed in the matter of national union by the legislature of Hungary; accepting Transylvania‚s union with Hungary with the preservation and full implementation of the monarchic link codified by the Pragmatic Sanction; and in view of the equality before the law being established in brotherly Hungary; the same principle as a perennial and incommutable law regardless of national, linguistic and religious differences has likewise been adopted in this country, with all the previous laws incompatible with the said principle declared null and void."7 With this law, the last feudal diet abolished the centuries-old system of estates in Transylvania, stamping out the old feudal laws and accepting the European bourgeois states‚ principles on individual liberties. Based on this, it rejected the plea of Transylvania‚s Romanian population to constitute it as the fourth national estate.

After this the Transylvania Diet, instead of dissolving itself, remained in session to formulate several more laws, of which the most important ones were definitely the bill emancipating the peasants, passed on June 6, and the articles declaring equality before law and general taxation.

From the perspective of 150 years it can safely be concluded about the legislation of the Diet that, even if it failed to meet all the expectations, and even though the Romanian nation was not constituted into the fourth estate, and even admitting that the franchise was determined slightly higher than in Hungary, the laws were undoubtedly conceived in the general spirit of bourgeois development. For this reason, they could have served as basis for the co-operation between Hungarian and other nationalities; with regard to the emancipation of peasants, the Hungarian law preceded its Romanian counterpart by two decades, and had a more favourable effect on the peasants in general. In Transylvania, the Romanian population stood to gain the most, while the Saxon population could have been the long-term beneficiaries of the bourgeois order, which offered better chances for individuals and communities alike than did the rigorous Saxon tradition of estates, which it was to replace (and which was in any case unsustainable). However, the process of arbitration, which had hardly began (and for which purpose the Union committee had been set up in the Hungarian legislature), was interrupted by the well-known September disavowal, which was started off by Jelacic‚s invasion and continued with a war against Hungary by Austria and her allies. In this enormous armed conflict Transylvania was from the start meant to be a card in the hands of the Viennese chancellery.

The imperial government wanted to crush the revolution in Hungary and Transylvania simultaneously, abolishing its accomplishments in both places. On October 3, Minister of War Count Latour ordered the commander of Transylvania‚s imperial forces, General Puchner, to defy the authority of the Hungarian Ministry; to disarm the Hungarian National Guards in Transylvania; and finally, to send an army against Hungary, marching on Nagyvárad.8 Although the runner carrying message was captured by the Szeklers, the commander learned his orders from other sources. Forming an alliance with the Romanian and Saxon insurgents and two Romanian border battalions, he set out to disarm the Hungarian forces. That was already the barefaced application of the policy of "divide and rule".

Thus a period of armed confrontation began. The Hungarian revolution changed into a war of independence in Transylvania, too. The Hungarians pinned their hopes on the National Assembly convened on October 16 at Agyagfalva of Udvarszék, the Szeklers‚ ancient place of council. It was convoked by László Berzenczey, the deputy of Marosszék who had been Kossuth‚s principal representative in Székelyföld since July. The excitable and over-zealous politician, otherwise a gifted speaker and adept in rallying large crowds, was able to gather approximately 60,000 Szeklers on the main square of Agyagfalva by Nagyküküllô. Nevertheless, it was Count Imre Mikó, the treasurer of Transylvania and deputy chairman of the Gubernium, known for his moderation and widely respected by the Szeklers, who was elected as president of the Assembly, rather than Berzenczey. Before anything else, Mikó hastened to assure Transylvania‚s fellow nationalities, the Romanians and the Saxons, of the Assembly‚s peaceful intentions.9 However, the Assembly also declared that the Szeklers would pledge alliance to the representatives of the Hungarian government, and remain loyal to the constitution; in other words, they placed themselves on the footing of the April Laws of 1848 and were ready to fight for the country. Meanwhile, news of a series of attacks on Transylvania‚s Hungarian populations reached the Szeklers, who also learned that Lieutenant Colonel Urban, the infamous commander of the 2nd Romanian Borderline Battalion and a brutal persecutor of Hungarians living in Northern Transylvania, occupied Szászrégen near Marosvásárhely, and that General Gedeon was leading regular army with orders to hem in Székelyföld. In reaction to these news, the radicals rallying around Berzenczey had no difficulty in taking control of the public mood at the Assembly, convincing the arm-bearing men present to transform into a military camp. As a result, within a few days of preparations a Szekler army of about 25,000 or 30,000 untrained and ill-equipped men set out to revent the military encircling threatening Székelyföld and to protect the Hungarians of the counties. However, after some initial successes, the Szekler army suffered a defeat at Marosvásárhely at the hands of General Gedeon?considerably helped by the subversive activities of Colonel Dorschner, who, although formally sworn in on the Hungarian constitution, remained loyal to the Imperial military command. Thus, the Szeklers‚ ambitious military plan was foiled. Maros-Udvarhelyszék became occupied by the enemy, while Csikszék was pacified by the earlier mentioned Colonel Dorschner.

The Szeklers felt that their military honour had been stained, which moved the even more remote Háromszék to declare a patriotic war against the Habsburgs. This resolution was supported by the military units of the other Szekler seats. Háromszéke was flooded by Hungarian refugees from all over Transylvania.

The internal organisation of self-defence is exemplary: under the presidency of Commissioner Mózes Berde, a lawyer from Háromszék, a defence government was formed, which enjoyed the support of the radical intelligentsia and the people constituting the so-called Little Committee. It rejected the Imperial military command‚s requests for unconditional surrender straight away. The villages voted for self-defence one by one. A more determined will to protect the homeland could hardly have ever existed. The old Szekler military virtues and institutions are revived within days. Under the command of Colonels Dobay and Sombori, as well as Captain Sándor Gál, the 12,000-strong army sets up a cordon at the borders of the Szekler seat, along the rivers Feketeügy and Olt, as well as by the foot of the Rika mountain, forcing Puchner to abandon for the time being all plans of invading Hungary. This military force, the morals and the efficiency of which was greatly enhanced by the emergence of the legendary gunner áron Gábor, withstood several enemy attacks during the Autumn and Winter of 1848, tying down considerable Imperial forces and thwarting the planned attach on Nagyvárad.10

Still, Háromszék was but a tiny speck on the map of Transylvania; its determined yet isolated resistance could not spread across the border. In most parts of Transylvania the disarmament of the Hungarian National Guards went ahead at full steam, while the Hungarian civil population was massacred by the thousands at the hands of the Romanian uprising at Abrudbánya, Zalatna, Felvinc and elsewhere, provoking the retaliations that came later. At the Romanian mass meeting in Balázsfalva, Transylvania was divided into prefectures and tribunates, in which the prefects and the tribunes were to exercise plenipotentiary power, completely disrupting the former Hungarian administration; the majority of the nobility‚s mansions and chateaux fell victims to the havoc, with those inhabitants who could not escape in time usually lynched. A full-scale civil war was raging, which knew no boundaries. This state of affairs was ended by General Bem‚s campaign launched in mid-December. A new, glorious phase of the Hungarian war of liberation began.

The events are well-known: in less than three months, Bem clears the whole of Transylvania of the enemy; during Christmas 1848, the Hungarian army marches into Kolozsvár, which it was forced to abandon a few weeks earlier; and by March 20, the last of the imperial forces are expelled from the Carpathians. Only Gyulafehérvár and the Érchegység (Erzgebirge) were left under the control of the imperial forces and the Romanian insurgents, but that, despite all the efforts and sacrifices, remained there permanently.

Kossuth‚s choice turned out to be a winner: General Bem proved to be an excellent commander. Within an amazingly short period, he organised an army that carried out its leader‚s orders at all costs. The battles of Beszterce, Pisk and Nagyszeben are among the brightest military successes of the Hungarian war of liberation. It should also be pointed out that, through his military policies and personal magnetism, Bem was able to enlist the full military force of the Szeklers, the key element in his victories, at the same time adding new colours to the historical palette of Hungarian-Polish friendship.

It is also undeniable, however, that the Transylvanian campaign could not have succeeded without consolidating Transylvania‚s internal situation. In carrying out Kossuth‚s Transylvanian policies (always making sure that the local conditions be taken into account), Commissioner Csány did away with the hesitancy characterising the political dealings of the previous year, thus preventing the reorganisation of the internal forces, and their union with the enemy poised to attack from across the Carpathians. Historiography has not yet been able to determine to what extent and in what ways Bem‚s amnesty policies could have been exploited more efficiently, and how the irregular troops and their commanders, who searched for, and revenged, the Hungarian victims of the civil war, could have been kept under closer control. The fact remains, however, that by June 1849 the internal order and the jurisdiction of civil courts had been restored, but just as the work of large-scale reconstruction could have started, the united imperial armies of the Houses of the Habsburgs and the Romanovs showed up on Carpathian passes, raiding into Transylvania on June 18 across the Tömös Pass.

Thus came the finale in the history of the Hungarian war of liberation: against the superior forces of the two great powers‚ combined armies the war of liberation could not stand a chance. The Battle of Kökös, where áron Gábor fell, and the Battle of Segesvár, where Petôfi along with so many other Hungarian freedom fighters perished, were but a couples of stations on the road to Világos: the remnants of the Transylvanian forces surrendered their arms at Zsibó and Déva. Despite the dramatic conclusion, the revolution and war of independence of 1848-49, when viewed from a distance of nearly 150 years, appears to us as a magnificent moment marking the birth of the modern bourgeois state of Hungary, which became a decisive factor in our history for a long time to come, leaving inerasable traces in the historical consciousness of the Hungarian people, wherever they happen to live in the world. We cannot relinquish this historical heritage without mutilating our own historical past, regardless of the fact that historians in some of our neighbouring countries are unwilling to recognise, or even fervently dispute, the far-reaching achievements of the Hungarian revolution: achievements that secured the personal freedom of peasant not only of Hungarian origin but also of any nationality; that abolished the historical system based on feudal estates both in Hungary and in Transylvania, thus removing the major constitutional and social obstacles standing in the way of progress. It also seems certain that, focusing on these achievements, we must look for possible ways of reconciling the controversial views as long as they are based on historical truth and facts, in the course of which we shall hardly be able to avoid facing up to, and frankly admitting, any mistakes committed, while expecting the other parties to do likewise. We can receive encouragement in this endeavour from the example of the peace proposals put forward by Balcescu and Kossuth; from the Nationalities Law of the Szeged Parliament, prepared with the active inolvement of the Romanian representatives, known to be the first such law in Europe, which guaranteed communal rights for nationalities. (SeeLászló Szarka‚s essay?the ed.)

The precious and far-reaching heritage of 1848-49 is an all-Hungarian asset. It is the common task of us, Hungarians, to protect and to preserve it for future generations. The memory of March 15 and of the Hungarian war of independence should form a common bond in the minds and feelings of Hungarians world-wide.

1 Miklós Wesselényi‚s letter to János Bethlen Sn, March 21, 1848.

2 Egyed, Ákos: Wesselényi Miklós feladatvállalása 1848 tavaszán (March-May, 1848), Elôadások és tanulmányok Wesselényi Miklósról. Debrecen 1997. pp. 80-85. ed. Péter Takács

3 Kôváry, László: Erdély története 1848-49-ben. Pest, 1861. p. 9.

4 Bözödi, György: 1848 márciusa Marosvásárhelyen. Budapest, 1990. pp. 179-195.

5 Jancsó, Benedek: A román nemzeti törekvések története és jelenlegi állapota. Budapest, 1899. p. 481.

6 Jakab, Elek: Szabadságharcunk történetéhez. Visszaemlékezések 1848-49-re. Budapest, 1880. pp. 29-30.

7 Corpus Juris Hungarici, Erdélyi törvények. Budapest, 1990, p. 668.

8 Kôváry, László: Okmánytár az 1848-49-i erdélyi eseményekhez. Kolozsvár, 1861. pp. 79-80.

9 A Székely Nemzeti Gyûlés Jegyzôkönyve. Facsimile edition, Székelyudvarhely, no year, p. 1.

10 Háromszék 1848-1849. Bukarest, 1979. Katona, Tamás: Csány László erdélyi kormánybiztos (1849 január - május) = Kossuth kormánybiztosa Csány László. Zalai gyüjtemény. 30. Zalaegerszeg, 1990. pp. 221-254.

back to the index