We begin our survey of February in Hungarian history with one of those truly watershed events; the Compromise or Ausgleich that heralded a new era in Austro-Hungarian relations came into being in February 1867. Under this rather complicated constitutional arrangement Austria and Hungary agreed to share, albeit unequally, the running of what was to be known as Austro-Hungarian Empire. Credit for this unique achievement must go to such great Hungarians as Count Andrássy, whose relationship with the Empress Sisi, played a decisive role in influencing the Emperor Franz Joseph, and Ferenc Deák, the so-called “Sage of the Nation”.Debate over the merits or otherwise of the Compromise has long existed. Kossuth remained steadfastly opposed to it and many in Austria regarded Hungary with intense suspicion. Like all compromises both sides could consider they gave up more than they gained. In Hungary, for example, there was continued resentment at the existence of a united Imperial army with German as the language of command. Yet, it can be argued, that many of the aims of 1848 were meet with the Compromise, such as unity with Transylvania and that Hungary prospered as a result of the increased economic development that occurred after 1867. For the next 45 years Hungary would develop as never before reaching its zenith in economic, political and artistic spheres as the nineteenth century closed and the twentieth century began. However the fundamental issue of nationalism could not be dealt with within the dualism established by the Compromise and the bitter fruits that followed the defeat in World War I were sown at this time.
The life of Mór Jókai, who was born on 19 February 1825, illustrates the duality and complexity of the events of 1867 and their relationship with the Hungary’s efforts for national determination. Although known primarily as a novelist publishing some 100 novels and short stories, he was in the vanguard of the 1848 Revolution. Along with Petőfi he was a member of the “Society of Ten”, and was intimately involved in the events of March 15th. He suffered as all of Hungary did, from the aftermath of the revolution. But time marched on and he would become a staunch supporter of the Dual Monarchy being a Member of Parliament between 1861 and 1897. He was one of the few, if only Hungarian writer whose works were published widely abroad during the nineteenth century.
One of the names most associated with art during the first half of the Dual Monarchy was Mihaly Munkacsy who, like Jókai, also shares a birthday in February. Munkacsy was born in February 1844 and is regarded by many as the greatest Hungarian painter to have ever lived. He painted his first great work, The Condemned Cell in 1872, the year he moved to Paris where he spent the rest of his life. His style, which has been called “compassionate realism” can be seen in such paintings as Woman with Brush-wood and Churning Woman, works that show a powerful insight into the lives of ordinary people.His greatest artistic triumph was his trilogy, “Christ Before Pilate”, “Golgotha” and “Ecce Homo” which I once had the privilege of seeing these great works displayed together in the Déri museum in Debrecen. The sight of these massive works (they must measure at least 3 metres by 3 metres) was truly inspiring. You can see his works today not only in art galleries but also in parliament where his “Conquest” is on display and even at the famous Gundel’s restaurant in Budapest.
Some other Hungarians of note who also share a birthday in February include Baron József Eötvös, the foremost Liberal political thinker and writer of the middle of the nineteenth century, who was born in 1813 on the 2nd of February; the poet Károly Kisfaludy was born on February 5, 1788; one of the pioneers of the atomic age, Leó Szilárd, was born in Budapest on 11 February;As usual February also marks the passing of many Hungarians of note. A special place in our remembrance of this month in Hungarian history should be made for Ilona Zrinyi. She was the daughter of Peter Zrinyi, executed by the Hapsburgs for high treason, and would become the husband of Ference Rákóczi I and then, of Imre Thököly, the leader of the so-called kuruc rebellion in the 1680s. After Thököly was forced to flee following the failure of his revolt against the Hapsburgs, Ilona remained in the family castle at Munkacs defending it against the Austrians for some three years, ironically with the help of the Turks, whom she must have hated marginally less than the Hapsburgs. Eventually she would be reunited with her husband in his exile in Asia Minor and would die in February 1703. Her son, from her first marriage, was none other than the great freedom fighter, Ferenc Rákóczi II who has been described as one of Hungary’s “most flawless and far-sighted figures”. He too, like Thököly whom he bitterly resented, also died in exile in Turkey. He would be re-united in death with his mother when their remains were bought back to Kassa (Košice in what is now Slovakia) in 1906. Ilona Zrinyi spent her life fighting for Hungarian freedom and suffered much in the process. The irony of her final resting place, still in exile, is not lost on many.
February also marks the passing of perhaps the most hated and despised Hungarian leader of all time, Mátyás Rákosi, the infamous Communist leader who did so much to darken the history of Hungary after the end of World War II. He died on February 5, 1971 in the Soviet Union, unloved and unlamented.
Let us end this essay by focussing on one more prominent Hungarian with a connection to February. One of the most pivotal figures of 1848, Count Lajos Batthyány was born on 14 February in 1806. He led a government that contained the likes of Kossuth, Széchenyi, Eötvös, mentioned above, Deák and Prince Esterházy. Surely no Hungarian Prime Minister has had such an array of talent in his Cabinet. And yet Batthyány would pay the ultimate price and was executed on the 6th of October 1849, the same day as the thirteen generals were executed at Arad. According to one source, the Emperor Franz Jozsef kept a painting of Batthyány execution’s in his apartments so that he could look at it every day. We don’t know why he did this, but perhaps it had an unintended affect on his wife, the Empress Sisi. Her support for Hungary is well known. Perhaps this was stirred in part by being reminded of the events of 1848-1849 and the sufferings of Hungary, by the seeing that painting every day. She once wrote in a letter, “Believe me, if it were in our power, my husband and I would be the first to bring Lajos Batthyány and the martyrs of Arad back to life.” At least the Compromise of 1867 meant that much of what was fought for could be achieved and some sort of victory claimed from the defeat of 1848-49.