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Crowd Politics in the Hungarian Revolution

Crowd Politics in the Hungarian Revolution 1848 is the year of crowds shaking nations. In Hun gary, where there was no urban tradition of bargaining by riot, the revolutionary crowd exploded with unusual force. A revolutionary dynamic swept central Europe: huge gatherings, often triggered by tiny circles, challenged bureaucratic authorities. Nowhere else did the crowd assume such an emblematic character as in Hungary. The Chartists crowds of London might have been larger, the fighting on the barricades of Paris, Prague, Vienna and Dresden more intense, but Budapest instigated the only total rev ol ution in 1848-1849, and Hungary's crowds were the last holdouts. It was an unusual case of a crowd making a city rather than the reverse. The mass march under a line of umbrellas from Pest to Buda led to the fusion of Buda, Obuda and Pest as the capital of a new constitutional state.

A small group of literati were impatient to act once revolution spread to Vienna, but they worried that Pest and Buda, an urban complex still in its infancy, might be an insufficient staging ground for mass pop ular action. Only during the semi-annual fairs did Pest swell to a size that could make the crowd a formidable political actor. On March 15 peasants were beginning to stream into the city for the fair. Sündor Petofi seized the moment, and led a handful of conspirators onto the sleet-filled streets. A throng of about seventy, half-following, half-removed, accompanied them on their way to the medical school. Petofi rallied students by reciting his incendiary poem, the National Song, with its call: "H ungari ans on your feet!" and to his own half-suppressed amazement kindled a revolutionary crowd. From the third floor window of the law school where the scene was repeated, it seemed a large assembly of black top hats. This elegant and privileged crowd chanted the refrain, "We swear we won't be slaves any longer."

The outbreak had all the pathos of light opera. Young Hungary caricatured the romantic vision of revolution. A crowd of about 2,000 marched to Pest's major print shop to force the printin g of their twelve-point program and the National Song. Leaflets were distributed and plastered on walls. Despite the rain, people streamed in from the outlying districts. A polyglot crowd, including plebeians and industrialists, nobles, overseers, and many peasants, numbering around ten thousand, gathered before the National Museum steps in the afternoon. The crowd proceeded to the Pest City Hall to have their actions ratified and affirmed. With some sixteen thousand people milling around i n the squa re below, the one-hundred man Pest city council hurriedly affixed the city seal to the Twelve Points. Cries of "To Buda!" "To the Citadel!" spurred the crowd down fashionable Vüci street--where merchants had hurriedly shut their elegant shops--toward the bridge crossing. The passionate desire to include all, women very much included, was characteristic of this crowd. About twenty thousand people crossed the boat-bridge to Buda. The seven thousand largely Italian defenders of the Buda citadel surrendere d with cries of "Evivia l'Ungheria!" "The umbrella revolution" freed the citadel's one political prisoner. No one was hurt. That night candles burnt in virtually every window. At the National Theater an excited audience turned the spotlight on itself, cheering their heroes in the audience.

What might Young Hungary do with a captive audience of tens of thousands of peasants? The memory of Galician peasants massacring over a thousand Polish nobles two years before gave credence to r umors of imminent jacquerie. Hurriedly the gentry of the Hungarian Diet in Bratislava dismantled the feudal order. On March 19 anti-Jewish rioting broke out in Bratislava, causing considerable property damage, but no loss of life. After two days, seventeen hundred guardsmen, and forty or fifty arrests, peace was restored. A month later a Pest crowd took to the streets to demand the expulsion of Jews from the city. There were injuries. Such riots "defile this decent and outstanding city " lamented the e ditor of the radical newspaper, March Fifteenth. The most violent of the April programs occurred in Bratislava, where ten Jews were killed and about forty wounded. The government took the expedient solution of ordering the Jews out of town. New regulations required notification prior to any mass gathering. The radical heroes of the crowd appeared paralyzed or demagogic in this new round of demonstrations. Anti-Semitic violence was fueled by apprentices, journeymen, and debtors attacking their creditors. The conspicuous role of the German-speaking population reflected a Pandora's box of ethnic tensions opened up in the revolutions of 1848.

When the sovereign retracted his conciliatory gestures of March 17, stormy demonstrations resumed. Széchenyi warned that the French Revolution could well come to look "like an innocent comedy, an insignificant joke, compared to what is about to unfold here." On March 30 some twenty thousand assembled waving red flags and demanding weapons while Petofi proclaimed the coming of world revolution. Barricades appeared in the streets; against whom or for what purpose was not clear. Vienna backed down, recognizing the revolutionary Batthyány government. The revolutionary crowd had unleashed the revolution, and then had rallied to its defense. Victory celebrations continued. After a month of illuminations and processions celebrating the origin of revolution rather than its direction, Petofi sighed: "How ma ny holidays in one mon th! Take care that dark days do not follow the bright nights."

On May 10, fearing a foreign threat, two thousand Pest demonstrators gathered at the home of the commander of the Buda garrison to denounce him for withholding arms from the Batthyány government. Without warning, a military detachment fired upon the demonstrators, killing a Jewish medical student. A revolutionary crowd might inaugurate revolution, but it seemed unable to sustain that revolution on its own. With the hostile C roatian army approaching the capital, a crowd lynched the imperial emissary, General Lamberg, on the bridge connecting Buda and Pest. The assassination marked a point of no return. But what would be remembered as the epitome of violent crowd behavior proved to be the finale of the urban revolutionary crowd in the Hungarian revolution.

When imperial troops invaded in September, Kossuth undertook his soon-to-be-legendary recruiting tour of the provinces. It was the firs t time that a direct appea l was made to the peasantry, hitherto lethargic and apolitical. Their response ensured the revolution another year of life. The fear of being overtaken by enemies from without and infiltrated by hostile ethnic minorities within produced its own version of crowd theater: the public hanging of traitors. The first hanging in Timisçoara drew about fifty thousand people. While one victim was still dangling above, the other accused, a businessman, started cursing the Magyar s and the government, and sh outed defiantly that he was not going to die, because thousands of supporters were on their way to rescue him. They strung him up quickly, but people panicked and confused soldiers on horseback rode into into the crowd brandishing their swords, causing numerous casualties. The execution of collaborationists became a common event. The war for independence turned cities and towns into military objectives. As towns changed hands again and again, the home front became a comm andeered crowd. Conquests wer e accompanied by demonstrations of enthusiasm--rarely completely sincere. The intimidation pressed even on one's sympathizers, as when Hungarian forces arrived in Veszprém. Whitewash was distributed and the order given to paint 'Long Live Kossuth' that day or else. "Hurry and light a candle and put it in the window," a barber's wife called out nervously in the night, "because otherwise they will break our windows right away." As new candles were lit, the trashing of his neighbor's windows could be heard.

When Kossuth made his triumphal entry into the recaptured capital on June 5, 1849, Budapest was a wounded giant. During the official illumination, lights flickered over the damage from the recent bombardment, and a ragged crowd lingered in the streets after the festivities to smash windows of suspected collaborationists. Defeat banished the revolutionary crowd. Yet, in the unquiet wait that followed, a myth of the crowd in 1848 grew, becoming a touchstone of Hungarian politica l identity evoked again in 1989.

Alice Freifeld


Istvan Deak. The Lawful Revolution, Louis Kossuth and the Hungarians, 1848-1849. New York, 1979.

Laszlo Deme. The Radical Left in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. New York, 1976.

P. C. Headley. The Life of Louis Kossuth, Governor of Hungary. Including Notices of the Men and Scenes of the Hungarian Revolution. Ap pendix: His Principal Speeches. Auburn, N.Y., 1852.

György Spira. A Hungarian Count in the Revolution of 1848. Budapest, 1974.

Edsel Walter Stroup. Hungary in Early 1848: The Constitutional Struggle Against Absolutism in Contemporary Eyes. Buffalo, 1977.

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