March in Hungarian History

March is a special month for all Hungarians: one of the three National Days is celebrated on 15th March, commemorating the beginning the 1848-49 War if Independence.  Readers of the Magyar Szó need no introduction, or description of that day; nor of the events that followed. The forces unleashed in March 1848 are pivotal in the development of Hungarian identity and sense of nationhood.  They remain very much alive today and will be celebrated as always; with a sense of pride, self-esteem and, it must be said, sorrow.

As we survey other notable events and people associated with March in Hungarian history, we inevitably stumble across references to epoch making events that began in March 1848, straddling as it does both halves of the nineteenth century.

János Arany

Portrait of János Arany by Miklós Barabás, 1894

We should start first, as befits this land of poetry, with a poet.  One of Hungary’s greatest poet and according the some, the most influential literary figure in nineteenth century Hungary, Arany János, was born on 2nd March in 1817 in Nagysalonta (now Salonta in Romania).  He would spend most of his life here but his work echoed, and continues to do so, throughout Hungary. He was a great and close friend of Petőfi and their letters are still used as texts in Hungarian schools today. Although elected to the National Assembly in 1848 he refused any political office – he had no desire to play the role of a leader.  He never quite forgave himself for surviving his dear friend Petőfi but went on have a lasting influence on Hungarian life; his poetry is often referred to as a second Hungarian Bible.  Fluent in English, French, German and Latin, he was able to translate Shakespeare’s plays into Hungarian that endure to this day, especially Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He is the only poet to have held the position of Secretary General of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

The events of 1848 echoed again on the 20th of March 1894. As the century drew to a close the great Hungarian Lajos Kossuth passed away in exile in Turin, Italy.  After the events of 1848-49 he sought refugee abroad and remained an implacable foe of the regime, including refusing to support the Compromise of 1867.  After death, his body was returned to Budapest and his funeral attracted hundreds of thousands.

For Hungarians the events of March 1944 are not ones that fondly recalled.  The Germans finally lost patience and trust with Horthy and his attempts to sue for a separate peace with the Allies.  Having lured Horthy into a trap during talks in Germany, the German military took over effective control of Hungary on the 19th of March; pro-Western politicians and officials were arrested and deported to concentration camps.

Statue of Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky  in Budapest

Statue of Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky in Budapest

Resistance was virtually non-existent: one person, parliamentary deputy Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky did not go quietly; when the Gestapo went to arrest him on the first day of their takeover, shots were fired and he was dragged wounded into a waiting car.  He was heard to shout at the silent crowd who watched, “Long live independent Hungary”. It was a cry his compatriots of nearly 100 years earlier would understand all too well.

The 12th of March holds a special place in the history of Szeged.  On that day, in 1879, the Tisza River flooded resulting in the destruction of the city: it claimed some 160 lives, destroyed 6,000 homes and left 60,000 inhabitants homeless. It was, and remains, Hungary’s worst natural disaster As a result, flood control measures were put in place and the city rebuild along modern lines.  The disaster attracted international attention and many European cities contributed to the rebuilding of the city.  These efforts are commemorated in the name of some of the main roads in Szeged: Londoni, Párizsi, Berlini and Romai korút, for example.

One of Hungary’s greatest ever kings, Louis I, was born on the 5th of March 1342.  During his rein, Hungary reached its greatest territorial extension, with power extending into Dalmatia, the Balkans, and, into Poland where in 1370 he crowned King.  Hungary prospered during his time as king and he established one of Europe earliest University in Pécs in 1367 – albeit it was short lived.  Such were his triumphs that earned the title “great”, (“Nagy Lajos”), the only Hungarian king to do so.

Other notable birthdays in March include: Bem József, the Polish born general who played a leading role in 1848-49, on 14 March 1794; the popular Hungarian singer, Koncz Zsuzsa turns sixty this year being born on the 7th of March 1946; another popular singer, Szécsi Pál, also has a birthday in March, on the 19th – he will be 62 this year -; and two other well known Hungarian poets were born in March, Kosztolányi Dezső on the 29th of March, 1885 and Szabó Lőrinc on 31st of March, 1900. And the greatest Hungarian composer, Béla Bartók, was born on the 25th of March, 1881.

Forest Path (Erdei út) by László Paál, 1876

Forest Path (Erdei út) by László Paál, 1876

March marks the death of the painter László Paál who died in France on the 4th of March.  A friend of Munkácsy, he painted nothing but landscapes which he did portraying a mixture of realism and lyrical, almost romantic feelings.  Other notable Hungarians to pass away in March include architect József Hild, on 6th March 1867; his works include St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest (along with Miklós Ybl and József Kauser), the Basilica in Esztergom and the Lukács baths in Budapest; Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian born British novelist, journalist, and critic, died on the 3rd of March 1983; Zoltán Kodály on the 6th of March 1967; and lastly Count Mihály Karolyi, Hungary’s first Prime Minister after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918,  died on March 20th 1955, in France.

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