Gateway to the Classics: Growth of the British Empire by M. B. Synge
Growth of the British Empire by  M. B. Synge

Louis Kossuth and Hungary

"I was the chosen trump where through

Our God sent forth awakening breath.

Came chains? Came death? The strain He blew

Sounds on, outliving chains and death."

— Lowell  (Kossuth)

T HE flight of Louis Philippe from France, was the "signal for long pent-up fires to break out all over Europe."

Already Belgium had revolted. She had never rested under her union with Holland, as decreed by the Congress of Vienna. William I., King of Holland, had treated Belgium, as a conquered country. And, inspired by the example of France, Belgium rebelled, until her independence was acknowledged by all the powers, and Leopold of Saxe-Coburg was made King of Belgium.

The next to awake was Hungary, the beautiful country between Russia and Italy, of which the great Hungarian poet sings—

"If the earth be God's crown,

Our country is its fairest jewel."

Austria had ruled Hungary for 300 years, not by right of conquest, but by the free choice of the Magyars, as the people called themselves. Emperors of Austria had been crowned kings of Hungary at the capital, Buda-Pesth, on the fast-flowing Danube. But a long line of kings had gradually swept away from the Hungarians, their share in the government: taxation bore heavily on the peasants, and the court of Vienna allowed no freedom to the press.

It was at this moment, that one man arose to be the voice of the people. The career of Louis Kossuth, the Hungarian patriot, is one of the most romantic in history. In the year 1837, when the cry for reform was first making itself heard, he started a little newspaper, which he sent round by special messengers to people in the outlying districts, of his large country. His name was already known to his own people, for the large part he had taken a few years before, when a terrible outburst of cholera spread terror through the land. Wherever the plague was most deadly, young Kossuth had appeared, allaying fear and calming excitement.

His newspaper and ideas of reform did not please the court of Vienna, and one evening, when he was walking alone in the capital, he was seized, blindfolded, and hurried off to the great fortress of Buda-Pesth, where he was thrown into a dungeon. He spent two years there in total solitude, without books and without friends.

"It was two years of my life lost," he used to say afterwards; "but it was all my life gained."

The popular agitation in Hungary was growing from strength to strength. The release of Kossuth was demanded, and granted by Austria. Pale, worn, and broken, the prisoner came forth to find himself a popular hero, escorted through the streets by a thousand torch-bearers. He now returned with fresh enthusiasm to his newspaper, which was the organ of the new movement. The storm grew. Louis Kossuth became more popular daily. The Hungarian Parliament met in 1847, and Kossuth made his famous speech on the liberties of Hungary. He demanded equal taxation for rich and poor alike, he called for a restoration of ancient rights and liberties.

The report of his speech reached Vienna, the same day with the news of the flight of Louis Philippe from Paris. A storm of excitement swept over Vienna, when Louis Kossuth arrived at the head of a Hungarian deputation to the Emperor. He was hailed with enthusiasm, and lifted high in strong arms above the crowds to the royal palace. At last he stood before his Emperor. At that moment the destiny of Austria was in his hands.

"Be just to my Fatherland, and I will give peace and tranquillity to Vienna," said Kossuth.

The Emperor was terror-stricken. With the news from Paris ringing like a knell in his ears, with the wild shouts of his subjects echoing round the palace, he granted every request, and formed a new ministry for Hungary.

But even while the new Government was planning reform for Hungary, the Emperor was breaking his promises at Vienna and intriguing against his people. In vain Kossuth tried to avert war. In vain deputations went to Vienna to pray the Emperor's mercy. The peril of the moment awoke Kossuth's power and eloquence. With the liberties of Hungary at stake, he assented to the inevitable call to arms. He was no soldier, but his country must be fought for.

"I demand 200,000 soldiers and the necessary money for the war," he cried at last, amid breathless silence, at the end of a long speech in Parliament.

Before these last words had echoed through the hall, four hundred men had risen to their feet, and, raising their right arms to heaven, cried in a voice of thunder—"We grant it—Liberty or Death!"

"You have all risen to a man," answered Kossuth with tears in his eyes. "I bow before the nation's greatness."

The nation was now fully aroused. Volunteers poured into the capital from the hills, valleys, and plains. Old men of sixty, lads of thirteen, flocked to the Hungarian standard. They came with knives, scythes, and hatchets—undrilled, untaught, unofficered. A force so ill-equipped seldom faced an enemy in the field before.

"Hungarians," cried Kossuth, now civil and military governor of Hungary, "there lies the road to your peaceful homes and firesides. Yonder is the path to death, but it is the path to duty. Which will you take? Every man shall choose for himself. We want none but willing soldiers."

As one man, the whole army shouted in answer, "Liberty or Death!"

It is impossible to follow the battles that now took place. Ten times the Hungarians defeated the Austrian army. Then the tide turned. Austria turned to Russia for help, and a great Russian army came slowly marching toward the frontiers of Hungary. Still Louis Kossuth never lost heart. He worked with ever-renewed energy. But it was all in vain. 200,000 Russians and 70,000 Austrians marched into Hungary, and there was nothing left but capitulation.

From this time Hungary is blotted out from the list of nations. Many of her leaders were shot; others, with Louis Kossuth, escaped across the frontier. It is said, before his unwilling departure from the desolate land of his birth, he knelt down and kissed the green grass. Then lifting his voice, he uttered his pathetic farewell to Hungary.

"Pardon me, my Fatherland, me who am condemned to wander about far from thee, because I strove for thy welfare. Oh, poor Fatherland, I see thee bent down with suffering: thy future is nothing but a great grief. Magyars, turn not your looks away from me; for even at this moment my tears flow only for you. Thou art fallen, truest of nations. Thou art no more a nation. Be faithful; pray for thy liberation. God be with thee, my beloved Fatherland. Believe, love, and hope."

Then, toil-worn and broken-hearted, the patriot passed into Turkey. Such was their admiration for his gallant fight for liberty, that the United States sent a steamer to convey him to America. On the way, he visited England, where he was received with great enthusiasm.

"England is great and glorious and free," he used to say.

Louis Kossuth lived on in Italy till 1894. He lived long enough to see Hungary a free country, though not independent of Austria. The Emperor-King, Francis Joseph, who had already ruled Austria for nineteen years, ascended the throne of the newly formed Austria-Hungary dominions in 1867, and from this time peace and prosperity have reigned in the land.

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